Bewildered by “seeing as”

Bewildered by “seeing as” November 27, 2011

I admit to being a soft perspectivalist, but I also admit to being uncomfortable with it. My mind is wired to think rationally, to look at other people who radically disagree with what I see clearly as either ignorant (even if only in the sense of not seeing some evidence I see) or irrational (even if only in the sense of embracing paradox comfortably). And yet, I am convinced by experience that there is such a phenomenon as perspective–two people seeing the exact same evidence and “seeing” different things. It bothers me because it throws a monkey wrench into the works of trying to reason together toward agreement which is important for public truth.

I once had one of those “Aha!” moments about this.  I was arguing with a colleague about necessary criteria for being Christian (something I still think we cannot escape). He was one of those cultural relativists I wrote about earlier. I said to him “If someone draws a giraffe it MUST have a long neck.” My point was that there must be essential marks or characteristics of Christianity or else Christianity becomes meaningless, just as there must be essential marks or characteristics of (for example) animals for us to recognize them (for example in a drawing). His reply was “Not if it’s seen from above.” Indeed.

“Seeing as” is illustrated by Wittgenstein (or perhaps it was one of his disciples) with the famous “duck/rabbit” picture–a simple drawing that can be either a duck or a rabbit depending on how one sees it. There are other similar pictures (e.g., the old lady or the peacock). Sometimes a person looks at the drawing and can ONLY see a duck while another person looking at the same drawing can ONLY see a rabbit. Of course, that’s mundane; the point is that we all tend to see the world as something. One person looks at a plot of ground and sees a garden that needs tending; another person looks at the same plot of ground and sees wilderness that coincidentally has some apparent order to it (playing on Flew’s famous example).

Philosopher R. M. Hare called this phenomenon of seemingly incorrigible perspective as a “blik.” Two people look at exactly the same evidence and see very different things and are often radically committed to their own perspective and tempted to think that others looking at the same datum while seeing something else must be either crazy or stupid or blind.

The Enlightenment attempted to do away with bliks–at least in important matters of public truth. The idea was that reason (in either its rationalist or empiricist forms) can settle such disputes and bring all reasonable people to agreement about reality. Of course, even the choice to be either a rationalist (a priori deductive approach) or an empiricist (a posteriori inductive approach) seems to be a matter of blik. Can anyone prove Descartes and his followers right and Locke and his followers wrong? Well, both seem to be wrong about the role of perspective; it seems to be irreducible in some cases.  All one can do is appeal to the other person who sees the same evidence radically differently to try looking at it one’s own way rather than their way–to see it “as” something other than how they do see it.

I have written before here about Calvinism and Arminianism as bliks–perspectives on God and scripture. When I wrote Against Calvinism I didn’t think that I was showing Calvinists some evidence they hadn’t noticed (although that is probably true for some not-so-dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist readers). I was attempting to explain why I see the same evidence Calvinists see and “see” something different. I know some Calvinists believe the same about our disagreement.  I routinely invite a group of educated Calvinists to speak to my class on Reformation and post-Reformation theology.  At some point in the discussion they usually appeal to some kind of conversion-like experience that gave them a new perspective on God and the meaning of scripture and salvation.

This is what John Wesley meant when he said about Romans 9 (as if both sides don’t read it!) that whatever it proves it cannot prove “that”–the Calvinist interpretation.  Why? Because IF that’s what it means God is a monster. (Wesley didn’t use that word, but he meant the same thing I mean by it.) He knew very well that he and Whitefield and others saw the same chapter and book and canon.  What he thought was that they, his Calvinist friends (and some enemies like Toplady!), were simply seeing it “as” the wrong thing while he was seeing it “as” the right thing (or at least more closely to right). Of course, Wesley did not think these perspectives were incorrigible or he wouldn’t have written his anti-Calvinist rants.

I tend to think that in some cases, at least, our perspectives so seem to be incorrigible bliks. And I’m bewildered by that AND by the fact that at least most of my Calvinist conversation partners DON’T see our disagreement that way.  In other words, my perspective on our disagreement and theirs is itself a matter of bliks. From where I sit, I have trouble fathoming that they think our disagreement is a simple matter of one side honoring scripture and the other side not honoring scripture. (Of course, some Calvinists do seem to have the same blik I have on this–as in the example I gave above of my Calvinist friends who appeal to a conversion-like experience that drew them to Calvinism.)

It seems to me that MOST evangelicals who write about hermeneutics do not take bliks into account.  Bultmann did, of course, but most evangelicals shy away from his approach.  One of his basic axioms was that there is no such thing as presuppositionless hermeneutics. Most evangelicals who write about hermeneutics seem to think there are objective rules that, if practiced rightly, will always lead reasonable people to the same interpretation of scripture. In that case, of course, either Calvinists or Arminians are simply not practicing sound hermeneutics.

This pops up every time a Calvinist points the finger at me and cries “Where’s your exegesis?” as if exegesis is the solution to everything.  If only it were. And I agree it is the solution to some things.  In other words, there are cases where people are simply practicing bad exegesis and hermeneutics and arriving at blatantly wrong interpretations of scripture. But I suspect many of our disagreements about scripture have more to do with blik than objective exegesis. I know that no exegesis could convince me that God is a monster.  If I thought it possible that God is a monster there would be no point in doing exegesis because a monster cannot be trusted.

And that brings me to a deeper level of blik involved in this disagreement (and no doubt many others). It seems to me that SOME Christians view the Bible as divine. That is, they regard it so highly that they put it on the same level with God himself in terms of authority. This is what Brunner meant when he accused fundamentalists and evangelicals of treating the Bible as a “paper pope.” But I would go further and say that some Christians treat it as if it were God himself or somehow participated in the divine essence. This appears when people say they would believe whatever the Bible said EVEN IF it said God is a monster. Then I know they are investing too much faith in scripture and not enough in the God who inspired scripture. In my opinion, they are flirting with bibliolatry. From my perspective, anyway, scripture is the divinely inspired, infallible witness to God; it identifies God for us. But I only believe that because through it I “hear my Master’s voice” (to use another metaphor from Brunner). My experience of WHO GOD IS is not limited to scripture; I have unmediated experience of God as good that convinces me that scripture is God’s Word–the oracle of God.

I am convinced this is a watershed difference between contemporary evangelicals. There are those of us rooted in Pietism and there are those rooted in Protestant Scholasticism (e.g., Turretin and Hodge and Warfield). I claim Calvin on my side even if it would be wrong to call him a Pietist.  He appealed to the Holy Spirit and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit as the only ground of Scripture’s truth and authority. Post-Calvin Calvinists largely forgot that.

When I look at scripture I see it “as” the testimony to the God who I experience also outside of it. The experience I have of God outside of scripture does not communicate doctrines, but it does “speak” to me of God through my personal relationship with Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit within me. But that experience always points me back TO scripture as God’s written self-communication for understanding him more fully. Nothing in my experience of God contradicts scripture; that’s not even possible. But neither is God the prisoner of scripture.

So what is the blik difference I’m talking about here?  Some evangelicals seem to see experience of God as always mediated through scripture which, from my perspective, seems to incline them toward bibliolatry. This is why they say they would believe God is a monster (or the author of evil or whatever) IF scripture said so. Other evangelicals (like I) seem to see experience of God as BOTH mediated by scripture AND as unmediated with the latter as primary in terms of knowing God’s character as good.

When I got saved I was not converted to the Bible; I was converted to the God of Jesus Christ.  THEN I found more about God through the Bible and believed in it BECAUSE it told me about the God of Jesus Christ I encountered in conversion and in my pesonal relationship with him. My experience of God is both unmediated and mediated and the two are inseparable. But when I open the Bible to read and study it I NEVER do so as a tabula rasa–prepared to believe whatever it might say EVEN IF it says (in some passage I had henceforth never noticed) that God is a monster who might hate me and want the worst for me or who loves his own glory more than he loves me (and all of us). If I am tempted to believe that, I go to God and rediscover him in unmediated experience of him through Jesus Christ or at least remember those times when my heart was strangely warmed and I KNEW without any ability to doubt that God loves me and wants the best for me and does not hate me or love his glory at the expense of my (or anyone else’s) well being in its most profound sense (wholeness).

This is my perspective on experiencing God. People experienced God before there was a Bible and have experiences of God apart from the Bible.  But the Bible fills experience of God with cognitive content. But it cannot contradict the God I know as good through my unmediated experience of Jesus Christ because the only reason I believe the Bible is because it is THAT GOD’s WORD. In and through it I hear my Master’s voice in a unique way–as communicating himself to me in a cognitive way, filling my unmediated experience of God with information.  But that information cannot contradict the very pre-cognitive experience of God as unqualifiedly good that I had in my conversion and have in my post-conversion relationship with Jesus Christ.

Luther’s “tower experience” is what I’m talking about. And that’s what led him to doubt the spiritual value of the Epistle of James and the Revelation of John. Later, unfortunately, in his dispute with die Schwarmer, Luther backed away from this epistemology. But I think some conservative evangelicals forget or conveniently ignore the fact that Luther always held to the Bible’s authority as rooted in the Holy Spirit and not in some self-authenticating quality.  His sola scriptura was not bibliolatry or even close to it. He was just afraid of certain fanatics who wanted to abandon scripture.

It seems to me that this is a fundamental watershed between evangelicals. Those of us in the Pietist tradition claim unmediated experience of God that authenticates scripture to us but makes it impossible to see scripture as proving that God is evil or the author of sin and evil or loves his own glory more than he loves people created in his own image and likeness. Those evangelicals in the Protestant scholastic tradition at least claim to experience God only through scripture and at least say they would believe the Bible even if it said God is a monster, the author of sin and evil, who loves his own glory to the extent that it causes him to hate some of the creatures created in his own image and likeness.

No amount of arguing or crying “exegesis!” is going to solve this blik dilemma, this continental divide among evangelicals. To be perfectly blunt, I shudder when I encounter people who seem to me to be worshiping scripture to that extent–that there is no unmediated experience of God outside of scripture. I shake my head and wonder about their spirituality even as I continue to embrace them as fellow evangelicals (even if they reject me as one to them).

Browse Our Archives