About six years ago while teaching in a Christian high school I began to experience a strange problem: some of my students were apologizing for disagreeing with me. Some would do so when simply challenging me with good questions. These were not fake apologies, and were not coming from overly sensitive students. I had taught and coached teenagers for nearly twenty years. I had seen overly sensitive students. They weren’t that.
At first I was quite perplexed, even thought it was a bit bizarre, especially because I tried to make a point of always commending students for their questions. I certainly had not communicated that I was taking the slightest personal offense at being questioned. I loved questions; they were great for classes and they forced me to think through issues and articulate helpful answers. I love that stuff. And I had tried to make a habit of first responding to their questions with, “That’s a good question.” Some students, of course, were not really personally engaged with the material, but many were. In fact some of them also loved to “hash it out” and enjoyed the back and forth with me, and did so demonstrating the fruit of God’s Spirit. I had good students, many who were smart, excellent thinkers (those two do not always go together, by the way), and demonstrated clear evidence of Christian faith. So, generally speaking my classes were marked by a good spirit and an openness to discuss. In my first few years of teaching at the school this propensity to apologize was not present.
Why would students with whom I had a good healthy relationship feel the need to give a heart-felt apology for raising a question, or disagreeing? At first, I thought it might be the age difference. I certainly was not getting younger. Perhaps I was increasingly perceived as a “parent,” and perhaps the more dutiful students simply were not used to voicing disagreements with their parents—a genuine possibility. Recognizing, though, how many differences hold for each individual person, I abandoned the pursuit of trying to figure out exactly why these apologies were cropping up. Rather than seek an explanation for their origin I decided to assure students that I did not take personal offense at all to them ever disagreeing with me. After all, we were discussing an issue, a topic, an idea, not me. And, then, it hit me. Oh, my. Some were not distinguishing between the two at all.
It should not have surprised me that this phenomenon of apologies was cropping up. It is, after all, the legitimate response when people are acting consistently with the belief that knowledge claims are only the expression of a person’s private experience that is primarily, if not exclusively, about things taking place internal to them. It should not have surprised me because I knew that this was and still is the predominant view of knowledge in Western culture in general and in American culture in particular. It was exactly this way of thinking and its historical origins, most recently in Immanuel Kant’s theory of knowledge and its 19th century (neo-Kantian) adaptations, along with its effects upon people’s view of the Christian faith, that I had been helping my students understand.
One really did not need a Ph.D. in philosophy, theology or history in order to understand it. To make this point I would sing a few lines to some contemporary hits, you know, like “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from the 1940 Walt Disney movie Pinocchio and the 1968 pop song “I’m Hooked on a Feeling,” written by Mark James and sung by B. J. Thomas. This way of thinking and its demonstration within American culture is not new to history. In fact, back the truck up. You can find it in every generation of the human race. Protagoras, the 5th century b. c. Greek philosopher beat us all to it when he stated, “Man is the measure of all things.” So much for the “post” in putative “Postmodern” thought. This way of thinking and living is not the sole possession of a particular historical era; it’s not the sole result of some unavoidable chain of historical events and ideas; this is the condition of sinful human souls. It simply demonstrates itself in “new and exciting” ways every so often in human civilizations.
Another way of viewing and explaining it is that it is a particular expression of our interpretations of the realities we encounter. When we interpret anything we are expressing what we believe is the significance or meaning that a particular reality or realities have. Setting aside the question as to whether there can be “right” or “wrong” interpretations, let’s be clear about this: When we interpret we are expressing beliefs about at least some of what we think is true regarding the relationships between two or more realities. When my son steals second base in his baseball game and starts clapping his hands after he slides in safely, I connect his clapping with his successful steal, and I interpret the clapping as a sign of his emotional pleasure at having stolen the base. We constantly make such interpretations every day.
It may seem too obvious to mention but in our interpretations we unavoidably have to deal with realities that are in some sense both external and internal to us. We also are expressing in our knowledge claims some of what we believe is true about the union between distinct, and therefore diverse realities. My son is not the base. He stole the base. He is related to the base, but he is not the base. I realize this is perhaps a bit too obvious for some. But if you are one of those who is in this category, let me assure you, people’s thinking on these matters is getting so muddled that walking through the basics here is very necessary. For centuries, people have been analyzing this process by which we receive information regarding distinct pieces of data and then draw conclusions about their union. It is likely safe to say that the vast majority of people who have ever lived have been quite content to learn, and make claims to knowledge, without dissecting every little part of the process by which they do so. The dark cloud of confusion (a new “Dark Age”) that seems to have settled on Western culture makes it necessary that we walk through the basics.
The Christian doctrine of humans and of sin reveals that all this has to do with our relationship to the Holy Triune God who created, interprets (judges) and redeems his creation. So we are not dealing here with merely an intellectual curiosity; we are dealing with God and the purpose of life, because he created all things for himself and he is revealed in what he created (Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 19:1-2; John 1:1-4; Romans 1:18-23; Colossians 1:15-20). Unity and diversity exist simultaneously in creation and in our knowledge claims because of who God is as Triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—united and diverse, simultaneously. Objectivity and subjectivity exist simultaneously as well, and in fact are united in the Triune God who is (“Yahweh”—I AM); he is the absolute personal God; he is the personal absolute. Our knowledge claims always express something of what we believe is true about the unity and diversity regarding the realities we claim to know, and how we as personal beings, the knowing subject, are related to these objects of our knowledge. This is the stuff of systematic theology, of human living.
Scripture teaches us that we are not morally neutral in anything we do either in our physical actions, mental processes or emotional responses. As one biblically faithful pastor in the history of the church stated, “We have business to do with God.” After all, we are his creatures, living in his creation. His creation is what it is because of what he made it to be or has allowed it to become. Ultimately, our interpretations of it or any aspect of it, including our emotional responses and physical actions are always either directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly about God. We do not have to believe this for it to be so; “wishing WON’T make it so” and won’t will it away, no matter how many stars you wish upon!). We do not have to be aware of this for it to be so. Our knowledge claims are unavoidably related or united to God’s creation and therefore God, but they can be distinguished from creation, and that means from other people, and from God, as well. Put another way: We are not our knowledge claims, we are not our beliefs. We obviously are unavoidably related to our own knowledge claims and beliefs, but these, by themselves are not us. I know. Seems absurdly obvious to some of you. Trust me, some people don’t get this. Some are unable and unwilling to distinguish the two for a variety of reasons and a number of very good books have been written explaining some of these reasons (perhaps start with David F. Wells, No Place for Truth, Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? and God in the Wasteland). Thus, we have people who cannot distinguish their beliefs about homosexuality from themselves or others. We have people who cannot distinguish their beliefs about economic policies from themselves or others. We have people who cannot distinguish between their beliefs about race, and themselves or others. It is all known as “identity politics.” I am my beliefs—about everything. This has both “conservative” and “liberal” manifestations.
Of course, some swing the pendulum too hard the other direction in order to compensate for this dissolving of our beliefs into our being. Rather than recognize and give proper weight or significance to the unbreakable union between us and our beliefs, they over-react to the dissolving of the two. They may acknowledge a distinction between the person and their beliefs but they function as if the two are disconnected. It looks like this—they harp about “objective” truth and fail to recognize truth’s personal or subjective character (Jesus, the God-Man said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”) The greatest manifestation of truth is a person, the divine person. Objectivity and subjectivity are forever united, but they can be distinguished from one another.
Ironically, what we have in this problem of over personalizing knowledge is something that we might not recognize on first glance. It is this: those who over-personalize knowledge or truth claims, and say everything is subjective, actually function like the fiercest dogmatic objectivists; they are unyielding, emphatic, they have no room for compromise, they are hyper-sensitive to any criticism—you know, they think that if it’s that way for them then it’s that way for others. Everything is personal. So they apologize when they disagree with others! Or they expect you to apologize to them for holding views other than theirs! (If you see a contradiction in all this, then good, but this is because all sin is ultimately irrational, see Romans 1.) And they are personally offended—by virtually everything. Those who over-emphasize objectivity in knowledge claims, and say truth is the same for everyone actually end up acting like the most idiosyncratic subjectivists, because they confuse their own particular slant on reality with reality itself.
To say that there is a subjective or qualified uniqueness to everyone’s experience with God’s truth does not mean that truth is whatever the individual wants or feels it to be. But this truth seems to bypass the objectivist. Those who operate this way in the church seek to purify the church by getting everyone to agree with them on every minute detail of Christian doctrine, and on every minute detail of how the church should function. In the process truth is sucked dry of its personal majesty and power and reduced to simply impersonal propositional law. Of course, truth is propositional, but it is simultaneously personal. The two do not contradict; they mutually define and condition each other.
In part, what all this reveals is that there really are objective and subjective elements to human knowledge that cannot be disconnected from or dissolved into each other. It also reveals that if we are to act with biblical wisdom we must seek to understand these things, recognize Jesus’ Lordship over us and others, and that Jesus saves from sin. Years ago another great theologian in the history of the church put it this way: While some may affirm that they are saved by faith in Jesus, it is more accurate and better to say that we are saved by Jesus through faith in him. The difference on the surface may seem subtle, if not inconsequential. There is a crucial lesson within their difference. Our understanding of Jesus, our beliefs about Jesus aren’t Jesus, and they therefore do not, strictly speaking, have his power. This certainly does not make our beliefs about Jesus unimportant; it simply helps us get at understanding their actual function and importance.
Jesus does, by the power of his Spirit, work at changing the beliefs of his children. This is a life-long process that takes many turns. It can be and should be a joyous journey. It is about Jesus creating his life within his children so that they mature and take on his character and live obediently to him. But our understanding of the infinite and eternal Triune God will always be a work in progress in this life and even in the next, but not in the same way as it is in this life (this is another topic altogether). We can, should and will progress in knowing Jesus, if indeed we are saved by the Lord Jesus. After all, he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. And for this none of his children should say that they are sorry, but neither should they be personally offended when others dissent from their understanding of the faith, because the faith and their faith should never be fully identified as exactly the same. United? Yes. Dissolved into each other? No. Understanding and acting in accord with the difference is crucial not only for Christian living, but also helping others who are demonstrating confusion on these matters.