When it Comes to Denying Truth, Forget Foucault and Rorty but Remember Falwell

When it Comes to Denying Truth, Forget Foucault and Rorty but Remember Falwell April 18, 2017

Molly Worthen heaps scorn on the evangelicals who voted for Trump by blaming our post-truth moment on the Protestants who insist on a world-and-life view.

Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right. This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.

That innocuous phrase — “biblical worldview” or “Christian worldview” — is everywhere in the evangelical world. The radio show founded by Chuck Colson, “BreakPoint,” helps listeners “get informed and equipped to live out the Christian worldview.” Focus on the Family devotes a webpage to the implications of a worldview “based on the infallible Word of God.” Betsy DeVos’s supporters praised her as a “committed Christian living out a biblical worldview.”

The phrase is not as straightforward as it seems. Ever since the scientific revolution, two compulsions have guided conservative Protestant intellectual life: the impulse to defend the Bible as a reliable scientific authority and the impulse to place the Bible beyond the claims of science entirely.

The first impulse blossomed into the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Scripture became the irrefutable guide to everything from the meaning of fossils to the interpretation of archaeological findings in the Middle East, a “storehouse of facts,” as the 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge put it.

The second impulse, the one that rejects scientists’ standing to challenge the Bible, evolved by the early 20th century into a school of thought called presuppositionalism. The term is a mouthful, but the idea is simple: We all have presuppositions that frame our understanding of the world. Cornelius Van Til, a theologian who promoted this idea, rejected the premise that all humans have access to objective reality. “We really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly,” he wrote in a pamphlet aimed at non-Christians.

In my own estimate, Worthen’s observations about the limits of such “Christian” thinking are on point. The idea that Christian faith or regeneration allows Christians to see the world differently from non-Christians — likely true about the resurrection but not so powerful when it comes to plumbing or historical scholarship — has lots of problems.

But why let the intellectuals responsible for pragmatism, deconstructionism, and identity politics off the hook, as if the current crisis of confidence in truth was the work of those odd, sectarian evangelicals. Worthen seems to acknowledge that other versions of epistemological skepticism have hung around American public and intellectual life, but she is soft on them:

If this sounds like a forerunner of modern cultural relativism, in a way it is — with the caveat that one worldview, the one based on faith in an inerrant Bible, does have a claim on universal truth, and everyone else is a myopic relativist.

Williams James is okay since he voted for Grover Cleveland?

. . . the worldview that has propelled mainstream Western intellectual life and made modern civilization possible is a kind of pragmatism. It is an empirical outlook that continually — if imperfectly — revises its conclusions based on evidence available to everyone, regardless of their beliefs about the supernatural. This worldview clashes with the conservative evangelical war on facts, but it is not necessarily incompatible with Christian faith.

Richard Rorty is not very upsetting because I can keep my stock options?

Not so long ago, readers could see even in the pages of the New Yorker critiques of the academy’s critics of the Enlightenment:

If relativism needed a bumper-sticker slogan, it would be Nietzsche’s dictum “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Nietzsche was inclined to write as if truth were manufactured rather than discovered, a matter of manipulating others into sharing our beliefs rather than getting those beliefs to “agree with reality.” In another of his formulations, “Truths are illusions that we have forgotten are illusions.” If that’s the case, then it is hard to regard the bullshitter, who does not care about truth, as all that villainous. Perhaps, to paraphrase Nietzsche, truth is merely bullshit that has lost its stench. . . . One of Nietzsche’s more notorious doctrines is perspectivism-the idea that we are condemned to see the world from a partial and distorted perspective, one defined by our interests and values. Whether this doctrine led Nietzsche to a denial of truth is debatable: in his mature writings, at least, his scorn is directed at the idea of metaphysical truth, not at the scientific and historical varieties. Nevertheless, Blackburn accuses Nietzsche of sloppy thinking. There is no reason, he says, to assume that we are forever trapped in a single perspective, or that different perspectives cannot be ranked according to accuracy. And, if we can move from one perspective to another, what is to prevent us from conjoining our partial views into a reasonably objective picture of the world?

Today, Richard Rorty is probably the most prominent “truth-denier” in the academy. What makes him so formidable is the clarity and eloquence of his case against truth and, by implication, against the Western philosophical tradition. Our minds do not “mirror” the world, he says. The idea that we could somehow stand outside our own skins and survey the relationship between our thoughts and reality is a delusion. Language is an adaptation, and the words we use are tools. There are many competing vocabularies for talking about the world, some more useful than others, given human needs and interests. None of them, however, correspond to the Way Things Really Are. Inquiry is a process of reaching a consensus on the best way of coping with the world, and “truth” is just a compliment we pay to the result. Rorty is fond of quoting the American pragmatist John Dewey to the effect that the search for truth is merely part of the search for happiness. He also likes to cite Nietzsche’s observation that truth is a surrogate for God. Asking of someone, “Does he love the truth?,” Rorty thinks, is like asking, “Is he saved?” In our moral reasoning, he says, we no longer worry about whether our conclusions correspond to the divine will; so in the rest of our inquiry we ought to stop worrying about whether our conclusions correspond to a mind-independent reality.

The question Worthen’s column raises is whether readers of the New York Times, now that they find themselves on the wrong side of history (as if history has a right side), want to blame someone for undermining reason. Is the “Christian thinking” of evangelicals really a plausible option? Did they have more influence on the political and scientific mainstream than the universities that hired Rorty and assigned Foucault? Were Donald Trump and Kelly Conway really reading Francis Schaeffer?

Evangelicalism will, of course, need to answer for many woes, both religious and political. But blaming them for our post-truth moment without noting all those forerunners to the denial of “objective truth” looks a tad self-serving for POTUS 45-deniers.

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