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Saturday, December 29, 2012

A reasonable epistemology

Last night my wife and I were privileged to attend a delightful wedding reception.  I must admit, I'm a little skeptical about wedding receptions being "delightful."  I'm a bit jaded to young love -- I've seen too many marriages which, a year or two later, are deadly to the participants and in the last throes of convulsing their way toward divorce court.  As the officiant at some of these marriages, I'm always a little wary.

Last night, however, bride and groom both seemed to be entering into marital bliss with open eyes, and more important, with some excellent role models and support structures.  So I wish them all the best, and hope and pray for it.

Before I step up onto my soapbox and wax eloquent about marriage and its importance, which many of you know I've done before in this blog, let me get onto the rabbit trail that started this whole post.

At the reception I got to talk with Dan, a relative of the bride who happens to teach history and philosophy at the high school level.  He's a strong, well-informed Christian as well.  We talked about a great many things including the philosophy of studying world religions, emotionalism vs. rationalism and the pitfalls of each, and much more.  Dan made a comment that stuck in my mind, simply for the elegance of his phrase.  He said something like, "I believe what we need in this country is a reasonable epistemology."

How often do you get to enjoy a conversation in which someone uses a term like "a reasonable epistemology"?  Usually if you ARE in a conversation involving the word "epistemology" your eyes have been glazed over for at least twenty minutes.

For myself (recently returned from and others who need a refresher, "epistemology" is the study of knowledge -- how we gain it and what makes it valid or not.  So for example, in Christian terms, epistemology might have to do with questions like whether the good news about Jesus is true, why we should believe it, and how it is communicated to us.

A reasonable epistemology.  Basically, Dan was saying that as a culture, we need to know

a) what we believe;
b) why we believe it, and
c) how we have received these beliefs.

I want to confidently assert that if we had a "reasonable epistemology" in this culture, we would all be far better off.  At present my suspicion is that we tend to believe in much the same way that overpopulated lemmings navigate in the Arctic -- we look where the crowd is going, and follow.  So currently as a culture we are angsting about gun control or not, about mental illness care or not, about fiscal cliffs or not.  We have not engaged in responsible thought about these things; instead, we listen to a lot of other opinions and base our opinions on what sounds reasonable to us.  Sadly, we fail to realize that there is very little "reason" to our reasonable opinions.

To take this train of thought farther down the tracks, we don't even think about the social, cultural, and historical factors that shape our opinions about what we believe.  We are the unwitting victims of the Enlightenment (so-called) and Rationalism (so-called) and Humanism.  But most of us are marginally aware of these movements as categories in a despised textbook, at best.  We could not articulate the truth-claims of these isms, primarily because that feels a lot like work.

So we continue to parrot the opinions of others who have articulated them largely based on emotion and worry rather than careful thought or plain reason, or to make things totally radical, an authoritative and time-tested document like the U.S. Constitution or (deeper yet) the Bible.

It makes me sad.

And, as someone pointed out to me the last time I ranted about this particular topic, I fully understand the irony of using a blog as a platform to criticize our culture's over-emphasis on opinion.

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