*First read my first three posts in this series. This essay continues a series of essays answering why I am an “evangelical Arminian Christian.”
4) My Fourth Principle: There Is No “View from Nowhere” (or “View from Everywhere”) (By Roger E. Olson)
As I move on in this series of “my principles,” what I say will increasingly assume readers’ knowledge of the previous essays. Unlike many television shows, I will not “summarize” the main points after each “commercial break.” I will simply depend on readers, and especially commenters, to have read through the series so far.
Up to this point in my exposition of my guiding principles, my “life philosophy,” a person might be justified in thinking I am a modernist—a person heavily influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, even perhaps a rationalist. I am not that, even though I cannot deny finding some value in some Enlightenment impulses. What I write here, now, might incline a reader to think I am a postmodernist—a person heavily influenced by the ideals of “postmodernism.” I am not a postmodernist even though I admit to finding some value in postmodern thought.
So far I have emphasized the importance of objective truth—recognition that reality is “out there” waiting to be discovered and known. I have emphasized reason andexperience as tools and criteria for knowledge. I have advocated thinking for oneselfrather than allowing one’s thoughts to be controlled by another. All of that might be considered very modern. I don’t think it is exclusively modern; I think ancient wise men and women thought this way.
Here, now, I want to sound a somewhat different “note.” In spite of everything I have said so far, in spite of my first three principles, I also believe, assume, operate on the principle that, in human life, among human beings, there is no pure objectivity, no neutral viewpoint, no “direct seeing” without bias, no “transcendental ego,” no thinking or knowing without location, no pure insight or understanding without prejudice, no unconditioned knowledge. In other words, all “seeing” is “seeing as.” Put another way, all knowing, all understanding, involves some element ofperspective.
I am persuaded of the truth, and admittedly this is my perspective, based on experience and reason (coherence among beliefs), of the so-called “sociology of knowledge.” This is sometimes called belief in the “social construction of reality”—after the title of a famous book by sociologist of religion Peter Berger. I prefer to describe the point, this principle, as “the social construal of reality” because reality itself is not humanly constructed; it is humanly construed.
I am what is called a “critical realist” which means I believe reality itself is what it is apart from anyone’s knowing it and all knowing of reality is socially influenced but not totally determined. By “socially influenced” I mean that the knower’s “social location”—including advantages and disadvantages—inevitably “color” how reality “looks” to him or her.
This is why my search for truth, my thinking for myself, must include a serious attempt to learn about and “try on” others’ perspectives. Listening to others, especially those who are differently advantaged or disadvantaged, is for me part of the thinking process. Ultimately, only I decide what is true, but that can be informed and enlarged by knowing about and partially understanding others’ perspectives on reality. “No man is an island….”
This does not mean, though, that I must consider all perspectives to be equally true. Relativism is defeatism in the search for truth. Rather, it means that I must be opento learning something about truth from a variety of perspectives. I must take themseriously into account insofar as they seem possibly reasonable and experientially fruitful.
Recognition of the role of perspective in all knowing causes me to be suspicious of my own beliefs about truth. I am finite and fallen; my existence is not my essence. It certainly does not sum up within itself all possibly true knowledge of reality. I, like everyone, see reality as something or other in part because of my social location, my vested interests, my experiences, my desires. To me that means I, like everyone else, am fallible. It does not mean I am automatically wrong. It only means I must be humble in my truth claims and never seek to impose them on others.
According to legend, English “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell placed a sign above the door to his office. Every visitor had to pass under it as he or she entered to have conversation with Cromwell. The sign said “Brethren, I beg you by the mercies of God to consider the possibility that you may be wrong.” Of course, there was another side to Cromwell; he rarely considered the possibility that he could be wrong. According to another legend, his secretary took all visitors aside as they waited their turn with Cromwell and told them that there is one thing they must understand about the Lord Protector and that if they understood it all would go well: “When Cromwell says ‘God’ he means himself.”
Some years ago I had a boss who introduced himself to us, his underlings, with two pronouncements. First, he said, his door was always open to us and we were free to question him about anything. Second, he said, we ought never to question his motives. How ironic, I thought to myself, since one’s motives are the very things that ought to be open to being questioned.
Knowing truth, insofar as that is possible at all, necessarily requires self-knowledge, knowledge that one is not God, not infallible, not pure in heart, not possessed of perfectly objective viewpoint. We all “see through a glass darkly” and others, with differing standpoints and perspectives, can help clear the glass to some extent. In this life, however, it will never be perfectly crystal clear.
Only God, if God exists (and I believe he does), possesses the “view from nowhere” or “view from everywhere at once” that would permit unconditioned knowing of truth itself without bias, prejudice or limited (and limiting) perspective.
[Link to original post and comments at Roger Olson’s blog]