Saturday, May 22, 2004

Objective and Subjective Truth

The 'mappers have been discussing Pagels:

One of the yin - yang struggles that has been addressed in the pomoChristian thoughtspace has been the tension between subjective and objective. In the Witherington article I referenced earlier today he writes of Pagels:

The New Gnostic Faith Some 20 years after she wrote The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels penned the beautifully written Beyond Belief. In a particularly candid and confessional part of the book, Pagels talks about how she had been alienated from Christian faith while in high school: She was part of an evangelical church when a Jewish friend died, and her fellow Christians told her that since the friend was not born again, she was going to hell.

Though this turned her off from the church, she maintained a lively interest in New Testament studies and the early church. While doing doctoral work at Harvard, she had an epiphany. She was reading the Gospel of Thomas when she came across this saying of Jesus: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you."

She comments: "The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves; and with a shock of recognition, I realized that this perspective seemed to me self evidently true."

Her comparison of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John reveals how far down this road she has traveled. In John, there is an "I-and-Thou" relationship, a vine and branches relationship, that involves an integral connection between the divine and human without identification of the "I" with the "Thou." But in Thomas, it is a matter of "I am Thou." The self is deified and is seen as the finish line of faith.

Here we find the appeal to personal impressions or experience as the final authority. The believer is not asked to believe specific things that come from without (by revelation), nor to submit to any authority but the self. Instead, we are to be the measure of ourselves and to find our own truths within us.

In this book, we see Pagels's story of suffering and feeling betrayed, and her long spiritual journey to a reconfigured form of Christianity—reconfigured as self-actualization. And it is evident that the gnostic texts have helped lead her in that direction.

Pagels is not a disinterested scholar when she writes about Gnosticism. Her spiritual journey entices her to look at the gnostic texts in a particular way, and to postulate an early and widespread authority for them—and then to suggest that the process of New Testament canonization was arbitrary. Orthodox scholars are similarly tempted in their own direction. I know I am. So we are wise to recognize this potential bias in evaluating any argument. But in the end, we still have to make arguments based on history, not on silence.


Apart from legitimate criticisms of Pagel's revisionist adventures, I think that this subjective/objective discussion is extremely healthy for Christ's church. As - and I paint with broad brush - the evangelical church as been addicted to the objective - the 'mappers usually say "the propositional" - I see movement toward the subjective (the "the transpropositional") as being healthy.

There are scylla and charybdis to be avoided here, of course. We've written reams of emails to one another in the 'mapper community about the problem with hyperobjectivism. But we also have to be wary of absolutizing the subjective. Error is possible on either extreme.

And there is a larger issue beyond the philosophical. We are the created and He is the Creator. We are ontologically relative to Him. We are epistemologically dependent on Him. We are neither the final criterion, nor the final arbiter of truth. He is Truth. His Truth is intensely objective in its solidity (clearly I'm lapsing into metaphor here) and rigorously subjective in the response it demands. We cannot apprehend it if we arbitrarily truncate it to the merely two-dimensional propositional. Truth - in its most holistic form - melds the subjective and the objective in sometimes indistinquishable ways.

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