Posted by: gcarkner | June 24, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 4.

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon, Part 4.

Discerning the Imago Dei: God’s Icon

Many people today sense God calling them to be something more than they presently experience, calling them upwards out of their self-pity, obsessive compulsive narcissism, consumerism and sullenness. Perhaps they are even called to launch a journey, innovate a solution to a problem, or follow a life-changing quest to improve the world. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (2005, 96) asks insightfully, “What makes human life significant, more than animal? Not clothing, not acquisition of coverings for the naked ego, but the conscious participation in an order of compassion.” In his thoughtful work, The Truce of God, Williams wants people who have become fearful, disengaged and alienated to take responsibility for their world as constructive peacemakers, community builders and servant leaders with integrity.

Innovative ideas emerge when we break free from our intense self-absorption, become vulnerable and engaged in good faith with others. Late Modern Writer Andy Crouch discusses this search for wisdom, “Making sense of the wonder and the terror of the world is the original human preoccupation. And it is the deepest sense of culture that most clearly distinguishes us from all the rest of creation” (A. Crouch, 2008, 24). At our best, we are meaning makers, stewards, purpose-oriented contributors. Terrorism, fear, violence and murder are not the last word. Long-term battles are won by the right ideas of fresh alternative strategies, the right art, new ways of seeing and perceiving.

The wonder of the incarnation presents humanity with the possibility of full, but finite, personal embodiment of Logos, the will and wisdom of the divine. As a fleshly, personal wisdom, it sets out an alternative paradigm from self-mastery, self-invention and self-promotion. Jesus is the image (icon) of God that we long for in our honest moments, the most excellent representative of God on earth. He makes sense of us and our world of struggling humanity. He is fully God and fully human. In this way, he provides an exemplar of life lived in the presence of God, offering us an archetype of human goodness that is inspired by heaven itself. Brilliant Duke University theologian D. Stephen Long (2001) appeals to the moral normativity of the life of Jesus, revealing that we are hard wired for such a transcendent-immanent, I-Thou relationship.

In Christian theology, Jesus reveals to us not only who God is but also what it means to be truly human. This true humanity is not something we achieve on our own; it comes to us as a gift …. The reception of this gift contains an ineliminable element of mystery that will always require faith. Jesus in his life, teaching, death and resurrection and ongoing presence in the church and through the Holy Spirit … orders us towards God. He directs our passions and desires towards that which can finally fulfill them and bring us happiness. (D.S. Long, 2001, 106-7)

Over against Gnosticism, transcendent goodness is made present and accessible in the human sphere, our embodied existence, through the incarnation. It offers us a transcendent turn to a new kind of humanism centered in agape love. Transcendence of the strong variety (Calvin Schrag, 1997) does not mean apathy, aloofness or indifference. Nor is it a burdensome or unreachable abstract standard of perfectionism. Rather, it is a creative, palpable engagement with the world: individuals, society and public institutions. Jesus shows that this goodness can be lived out in the human theatre; it is no mere Kantian ideal. The final litmus test of a good moral philosophy is its applicability, its praxis.

Jesus provides such an interpretive lens for the human imagination. Although this claim is challenging, Paul in Colossians 1: 15-20 speaks of Jesus as the source and ‘glue’ of creation and the purpose or end (telos) of creation, both its creative alpha and omega, beginning and final trajectory. He is above all things in creation and at the same time the creative basis, the very ground of being. He is that without which nothing would exist, without which this very text would be meaningless. All the fullness of God dwells in him. He is God incarnate, in the flesh, fully God and fully man, as the Athanasian tradition states. In him, God’s eternity connects with creation’s temporality. Paul writes it large: “Jesus is the Yes and Amen to it all” (II Corinthians 1: 18-21). He affirms the human condition while transforming it and setting out new vision for moral capacity, for spiritual hope, both in one’s individual and social identity.

In his thoughtful book, J. Richard Middleton (The Liberating Image, 2005) claims that Jesus accomplishes all that was anticipated in humans to become a proper regent of God on earth. He faithfully fulfilled this vocation as that strategic representative. Jesus is the complete human, a fullness of humanity, the true icon of God. He is the presence of God in the world, the nexus of the eternal and the temporal. He is a powerful exemplar of divine goodness, to direct our passions and show us the way to live robustly, honestly, humbly and justly. We don’t want to retreat from or fear our desires, but rather redirect them for the good inspired by the accessible goodness of God in Christ. One implication of the incarnation is that Christianity, at its best, is the participation in the life of God and in his presence, a presence as defined by Christ as true and ideal human image bearer. 

He came to take us higher morally and spiritually, in terms of justice and mercy: out of the murky shadows of our lies, lust for power, addictions and deceptions, and into the light that is God. In the popular television program Scandal, Olivia Pope, the fixer, is hired to save people’s reputation in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. She sees so much darkness that at times, she longs to leave it all, quit her job, and step out into the light. Jesus is the reason for this human longing for a noble character, moral clarity and true virtue. He is the reason for doing the right thing even if it not the easy thing, for remaining faithful to one’s highest convictions and principles. This will entail a whole new spiritual diet. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Christian humanist during the Second World War, part of the resistance to fascism as well as a theologian. He rightly regarded full humanity as the ultimate goal of God’s work in Christ and he learned the cost and joy of this outlook.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, Author, Blogger.

Williams, R. (2005). The Truce of God: peacemaking in troubled times. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Middleton, J.R. (2005). The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Crouch, A. (2008). Culture Making: recovering our creative calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Long, D.S. (2001). The Goodness of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Schrag, C. (1997). The Self After Postmodernity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Posted by: gcarkner | June 22, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 3.

Incarnational Spirituality, Part 3.

The Grand Invitation to Dialogue

Why are we here? What is our calling or purpose? Where are we going? Who are we really working for? What do we love? These are some of the key existential questions that humans continue to ask, generation after generation. How do we make sense of justice, freedom, power, relationships? Why do we suffer? Where do we find hope and joy? –Religion at its heart attempts to answer questions of meaning, identity, longing (Sehnsucht), guilt, suffering and death.

Science has not replaced religion in late modernity, explains eminent Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age (2007). In fact, we are quite haunted by transcendence these days. Abraham Joshua Heschel claims that God has not given up on mankind; he continues to show an interest in our wellbeing, to take initiative. Humans are addressed by God himself, in the call of Abraham, the burning bush of Moses, the entreaties of Hebrew prophets for moral and spiritual reform, in the call of teenage Mary. There is a draw upward into a stretching dialogue with our divine interlocutor. We are strongly encouraged and attracted to reason and commune with our Creator. Individuals are identified as loved, valued, nurtured, embraced and included.

These perlocutionary events act as a speech act (John Searle), one that produces an unavoidable impact on those addressed. He is the one who knows us in our true self, calling us into our fullness, our highest purpose. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (R. Gawronski, 1995, Word and Silence) sees the Word of God revealed in three rich and powerful ways, three forms of articulation: in Creation, in Scriptural Narrative, and most robustly in the Incarnation. While all three are different types of speech, each is laden with meaning, engaging the big questions of our existence. Each offers a powerful language usage that complements and is entwined with the others. By their light, we can make sense of the world: theos, cosmos, anthropos.

Thus, the incarnation has phenomenal explanatory range for late moderns who take time to listen, reflect and respond. It reads backwards into history and forwards into our future. The journey offers an epiphany for those who will attend to transcendent speech. As the pinnacle of God’s engagement with humanity, the incarnation’s call to dialogue is profound indeed. Alister McFadyen illuminates some important nuances concerning its character. In the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, one sees God communicating and relating, not as a tyrannical, coercive, absolute sovereign, but as a vulnerable human individual, a humble suffering servant, as someone who was one of us and knows our pain. He radically identifies with our situation.

[By] incarnation in the body of the crucified one implies that God’s freedom does not, after all, entail a transcendent aloofness from the world, but a form of involvement with it in which the divine being and freedom are staked. God subjects Godself to the risks, vulnerabilities and ambiguities of historical existence, including the risk of rejection, suffering and death, as well as of misinterpretation. God’s freedom and sovereignty must be of a radical kind: the freedom to give oneself in relation; to be with and in creation in ways that are costly to God, but which do not abrogate God’s sovereignty, freedom and transcendence. (A. McFadyen, 1995, 42)

This move unites the divine freedom of self-giving agape love with the life-world and individual freedom of human beings. Divine love is the most completely free love. In the Christ event, one is confronted with a divine power that is deeply and thoroughly personal and grace-filled, a strength in weakness. It is hospitality writ large that consequently has impact through forms of interpersonal communication and personal presence. It is not a divine monologue of commands or sayings, but a hospitable dialogue in which humans are attended to, and respected as subjects with their limited but highly valued freedom of choice. They are allowed to ask questions, discern and wrestle with divine speech in creation, scripture and above all in the incarnation, Jesus himself.

The problems of secularism actually beckon us to learn from the incarnation. Modernity has hit a wall in many ways, as religion and culture scholar Jens Zimmermann notes (Incarnational Humanism, 2012a). He argues that a proper Christian focus on the incarnation heads off a host of early and late modern philosophical dead ends, all while stimulating a vision of a robust, recovered humanism and enlightened spirituality. 

UK top thinker John Milbank argues that science was never meant to become a dogma or a worldview (exclusive humanism). It is, rather, a self-limited methodology, a tool for discovering certain things about the physical dimensions of the world (secondary causes). It always needs a larger context and other layers of meaning in order to function as it should. We have argued in a YouTube video that science needs faith to survive and flourish. Unfortunately, contemporary science has been hacked by the ideology of scientism in the minds of many intelligent people. This deception leads them straight into nihilism, the loss of meaning, unhappiness and ultimately into a deprivation of being–a reduction of their full potential.

Even while consciously living in the immanent frame of late modernity, we often long for transcendence (if we have not settled for a Closed World System: Charles Taylor). Oxford literary scholar C.S. Lewis at one point in his journey came to the end of modernity’s game in his mind, and mourned that it did not give him the life for which he longed. Rationalism left him feeling dead inside. Materialism left him deflated and bored, showing that this kind of narrow reasoning was insufficient and incomplete, didn’t’t meet his spiritual longings (Sehnsucht). Reason needs faith and love to complete it. Lewis’ imaginative explorations in ancient myths helped to revive his mind and his creative imagination. The CBC Ideas presentation on the Inklings illustrates this transition in the life and thinking of Lewis, this experience of being surprised by joy, by the something more.

The resulting Narnia Chronicles and Space Trilogies, which refused the coldness of nihilism, materialistic naturalism and despair, is now some of the most celebrated literature of all time. Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkein refused to be blind-sided or stifled by scientism, or broken by cynicism from two horrendous world wars. Eventually Lewis found what he was looking for in a robust Christian faith with its commitment to compassion and a complex and fruitful humanism. He began to see where religion meets culture and animates it, illuminates it, where reason embraces the imagination to spark a more resilient identity, meaning and purpose. Joseph Loconte captures this story in his book (2015) A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18.

This dialogue with God awakens us from our nihilistic, foggy slumber. It captivates us. We are in awe, strangely moved by divine whisperings as well as great beatific announcements and revelations, by miracles that break the ideology of scientism. By addressing us in person, God calls us to become beings with different kinds of calling: culture makers, covenant keepers, gardeners and artisans as well as scientists, technologists and business persons (Andy Crouch, 2008). Many a top scholar has broken their mind on the anvil of the incarnation and its radical implications for humanity. Jurgen Moltmann, for example, notes (The Spirit of Life, 90) that “this kind of spirituality will be the restoration of a love for life, a resounding yes to life, drawing from the well of life. Vitality and liberty are linked.” It is grounded in social bonds which it shares with the Other. It is social in its very nature.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, author of The Great Escape from Nihilism; Mapping the Future; Ten Myths about Christianity.

Gawronski, R. (1995). Word and Silence: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West. New York, NY: T & T Clarke.

Loconte, J. (2015). A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

McFadyen, A.I. (1995). “Sins of Praise: the Assault on God’s Freedom.” In C. Gunton (Ed.). God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (36-56). Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zimmermann, J. (2012a). Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church in the world. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic.

Heschel, A. J. The Wisdom of Heschel.

Crouch, A. (2008). Culture Making: recovering our creative calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Moltmann, J. (1992). The Spirit of Life. A Universal Affirmation. London: SCM.

Milbank, J. (1993). Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thiselton, A. C. (1993). Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: on meaning, manipulation and promise. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke.

Posted by: gcarkner | June 18, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 2.

A Comparison of Gnosticism and the Incarnation Worldview

Ancient GnosticismContemporary Gnosticism Incarnational Spirituality
Physical world is inferior.Your world is inferior and your body is inferior, blocking your fulfilment. It must be fixed or changed.Creation is good, although many broken relationships have resulted from the rebellious fall of humans. Christ has won, but all creation still groans towards its full redemption (Romans 8). It is a world in process of redemption, containing both good and evil.
Matter is the problem. We must fear our lower bestial nature.The mundane is the problem. Boredom is bad for you and must be resisted.Sin, disobedience and rebellion are the problem, creating a bad relationship with the loving Creator, with oneself and with creation.
Solution: escape the body to perfect the spirit, reach the heights of self. Ascend towards the Light.Turn your body into a perfection (get a make-over). Take it to the edge of thrills and adventure.Jesus’ gift of grace has freed us from sin, guilt and shame. His life is incarnate Son of Man, a fully free life of servanthood. There should be no fear of one’s body—it is God’s temple. Humans are soulish/spiritual bodies, embodied beings, embedded in social networks and relationships. There is healing for the whole person and for culture in Christ.
Look inward to find the truth and the god within (that fragment of a divine spark remnant in you at creation). Look inside to find the real you and your full potential. You can be all that you desire to become with the right advice and modifications.God opens our eyes to fullness of being, wisdom, virtue and reality/the true nature of things. Salvation is this-worldly, including all things: matter, bodies, relationships, morality, institutions, education, society and culture.
Escape this inadequate world to a perfect spiritual place or plane of existence.Escape the mundane for the most amazing. You can have it all, now! Avoid commitments that restrict your freedom or choices.There is joy, fullness, deep meaning and purpose found in worship and service to God and his kingdom purposes in this time-space frame. Our spirituality is embodied, our worship of God (not the world) corporate. Incarnation brings together transcendent/heaven and immanent/earth in the God-man and in the Body of Christ (the church).
Move towards perfection through finding special hidden knowledge (gnosis) from a guru or special spirit guide.Move towards perfect body, life, marriage, career through tips, tweaks, hacks, self-help secrets of success. Self-create, or re-invent yourself as you like, as an original.Pursue righteousness, justice, wholeness, authenticity, Christ-likeness via full social and communal redemption (within your relational networks). Find forgiveness and reconciliation here, now. Look forward to the new heaven and new earth, resurrected, glorified bodies when the world’s redemption will reach it final apex.
You are a seeker, pursuing higher spiritual truth and hidden knowledge through special techniques (magic). You try to avoid imploding into the bestial.You are a seeker pursuing fulfilment through incredible experiences and pleasures (travel, sex, fun, adventure, extreme sports, internet, social media, artificial intelligence).You are the recipient of profound common and special grace, pursued and deeply loved by God. Heal that relationship and re-engage his covenant love to flourish in this world. You will never be a god, but can become a redeemed, flourishing human being and mediate your relationship with God through Christ, your advocate. The Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth in this embodied, socially embedded life. Let God be God! Practise Jesus’ Lordship and humble obedience.
Move past the inferior god (demiurge) to find the real god—you yourself. Lose your individual self in the infinite One or AbsoluteMove past organized religion, moral codes, and traditional codes of behaviour/thought and find the type of spirituality that suits you. Doctrine or religious sources are not important. Mix a variety to see what works for you. The Creator God seeks to partner with you in his mission through the church, the incarnation of Christ on earth. Model the character of humility, fruits and gifts of the Spirit within a healthy church body, a healing and witnessing community that impacts society for the common good. Become a moral light, a godly citizen and a loving neighbour. Live into a new story rooted in God’s great drama of salvation.
Break past all boundaries left in you by the inferior creator and become fully divine.Move past barriers of tradition, religion, authorities. Through innovation, seek your own unique spiritual path.Gain wisdom and self-giving skill through a community of believers writing a new story of kingdom values: integrity, joy and hope. Find your calling and use your gifts to promote shalom and the common goodPractice faithful presence, love your enemies and live humility.
When you finally arrive at this higher spiritual plane, you will discover that you are the god you have been seeking. Nothing can stop you now.It is all about you, your passion, your subjective feelings and sensibilities, what you desire, need and are entitled to. Be all that you can be.It is all about God and his story of loving, wise redemption for you and for the planet. Only he is God, you are properly human with limits and yet a high calling under his leadership. Jesus is the God-man at the right hand of the Father and he will return to bring the final fulfilment to all human seeking and spiritual aspirations. His death on the cross is the climax of God’s redemptive story and a model of humble servanthood.
Gordon E. Carkner PhD, Meta-Educator UBC Postgraduate Students

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Posted by: gcarkner | June 14, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 1.

Incarnational Spirituality Series: Part 1.

Figuratively speaking, we ascending a great mountain. We are dissatisfied with a mediocre life (mere getting and spending, paying taxes) and long for something more: more adventure, more hope, more truth, beauty, goodness, more reason for living. Our trajectory involves a transcendent philosophical turn towards incarnational spiritual wholeness. We want to see better, think better, live better. This series builds on our previous discussion of agape love in the Qualities of the Will series. This present quest (similar to The Medieval Quest for the Holy Grail) we believe offers an interpretive key to recover a thick, resilient identity, and wins through to a whole new social imaginary: ability to see, interpret and experience reality with fresh eyes.

As we ascend, we can perhaps escape the trap of damaging and restrictive ideologies and cultural Gnosticism. This kind of incarnational humanism has a scholarly reach all the way back to Saint Augustine, it is sourced in the biblical religions, and it is very much alive today. The integrative hermeneutic at hand concurrently provides both a challenge that pushes us to our limits, and an inspiration to pull us forward as towards a magnet. We are feeling very alive, our imagination is on fire.

The journey begins with a conversation, an I-Thou dialogue. We are addressed by the transcendent. There is a high degree of resonance with the Creator’s dialogue with his creation, despite the contemporary cacophony of conflicting voices. We are addressed, invited to open our hearts and minds to fresh wisdom and self-understanding, to new levels of attentiveness to our divine interlocutor. Such communication is writ large in the incarnation. In fact, the incarnation of Jesus the Christ is a great gift to humans, God’s grand masterpiece, the apogee of his revelational speech acts. It draws us upwards into a new dimension of life, a new caliber of thinking and living, opens us up to reality in fresh ways.

The increased awareness is similar to the way that the Hubble space telescope expands human sight out into 13.8 billion light years of universe with its billions of galaxies and stars. Perseverance and patience are in order if we wish to discover what we came for–the fulfilment of our deepest spiritual longings. We dare not rest until we have captured a full perspective on our new home, one where our hearts can rest with a thrilling sense of peace and ongoing adventure. Thank you for travelling with us. We believe that your endurance will be rewarded. Like in the Camino de Santiago reflective pilgrimage, we must name our fears and hesitations, and then set them aside in the name of powerful discovery and tangible personal growth. It may involve suffering and struggle to get to truth, but we will not remain the same at the end.

In Christ, we have both immanence and transcendence, physical and spiritual, earth and heaven. Brilliant UK hermeneutics scholar Anthony Thiselton says that the mystery of the incarnation is too profound for human discovery by reason alone, it requires divine revelation. It is beyond our limited imagination to capture. But open-minded reasoning engages, and is engaged by, such an epiphany. The right posture and intellectual virtues can help us fathom the profound implications. It can change our perception like a paradigm shift in science from an earth-centred to sun-centred solar system.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, YouTube Webinar Leader, Author, Blogger.

Posted by: gcarkner | June 9, 2021

Summer Reads 2021

Summer Reads: Inspiring, Informative Authors from the Desk of Gord Carkner

Munther Isaac, The Other Side of the Wall: a Palestinian Christian Narrative of Lament and Hope. (recommended by a Christian PhD student from Egypt)

Niall Ferguson, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

Katie Kresser, Bezalel’s Body: The Death of God and the Birth of Art.

C. Kavin Rowe, Christianity’s Surprise: A Sure & Certain Hope.

Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief. (a top Christian philosopher)

Michael Cassidy, The Church Jesus Prayed For: A Personal Journey into John 17. (a man with a vision for Africa)

E. Stanley Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: a Theological Analysis.

Ronan Farrow, Catch and Kill. (investigative journalism of powerful, corrupt men)

Richard B. Hays, Reading with the Grain of Scripture.  (reputable biblical scholar)

Latasha Morrison, Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation.

Julia and Kevin Garratt, Two Tears on the Window. (a Canadian story about grace amidst Chinese imprisonment—Ute’s Pic)

David A. Sinclair, Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have to. (a medical paradigm shift?)

Andrew LePeau, Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art and Spirituality. (long time editor of IVP)

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. (reckoning with the future—implications of the biotech and infotech revolutions)

Posted by: gcarkner | May 27, 2021

What is Truth and Why does it Matter?

What is Truth and Why Does it Matter?

The Truth About Truth Revisited

What is truth? (Quo est Veritas?) asks the skeptical undergraduate at the dorm bull session. They join famous judges like Pontius Pilate (from the Greco-Roman world) in this inquiry. We all have opinions, viewpoints, biases. But nowadays, it is easy to fall into the trap that the media sets us up for, and this can result in a cynical bias forming and consuming our everyday lives. The internet provides us with a plethora of opinions on almost any subject, plus many extreme and overwhelming conspiracy theories. We can all accept that there is your truth and my truth, your perspective and mine. But can we come together critically to possibly realize the truth, or does that seem like a fantasy? Some will know of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who talks about relativistic truth-games and power relations (power/knowledge), the weaponization of truth-claims. This investigation matters because certain perspectives are loaded, political, and even divisive. Many people today do not see truth as an objective description of reality. For example, postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty (a disciple of Foucault), is an anti-realist. He astounded a large audience at UBC in the nineties with his proclamations that there is no truth, no objective moral reality. He even went as far as to say that objective moral ideals are the enemy of the people, that they are bad for us. But is truth, at the end of the day, nothing more than whatever you can get away with? In this blog, we want to challenge some current assumptions concerning truth with wisdom and sensitivity.

Wittgenstein speaks of important language games that shape our culture, but the ideology of perspectivalism is the view that no one has the truth. It means that we are all destined to fight for our viewpoint (Hobbes) in a pluralistic environment, complicated by globalization and cultural diversity. Best of luck everyone. Undoubtedly, almost everyone has a perspective on what they personally  believe to be the truth. The primary lens through which many individuals interpret the world today is relativistic, subjective (anti-realist). In this view, there is no truly real world, only a compilation of several constructions. In this context, how will we ever definitely know something to be true or sound and something else to be definitely false or wrong? This can make people a bit wary about any truth claim, including scientific ones, besides their own. This could make a person feel isolated, which can lead them to buy into cultural relativism and historicism. Dialogue on this important issue is at a critical stage, therefore we want to approach the topic responsibly and optimistically. 

Rodin’s Thinker Reflects Earnestly

Truth is a Treasure Not to be Squandered

Perspectives can of course be biased, prejudiced, ignorant or misinformed. But this does not mean truth itself is relative. That position leads us into a self-contradictory stance which is unliveable. Furthermore, are we completely mad to claim that there is actually something we can call truth for all people in all places at all times—aka timeless truthWe want to defend the thesis that there is such a thing as truth, and that it matters a lot to all of us, despite its complexity. Truth is more than, but not less than, rational. It is existential, personal, moral, dynamic and life-changing. It matters immensely for our very orientation in the world, our identity and our personal flourishing. It is essential to the health of Democracy, our institutions and sound business practice, our primary relationships.

We need truth like we need air, water and food. For example, a young woman wants to know that the man she is dating is not already married. A young man wants to know that his new employer is not involved in organized crime. There is a fullness and depth to truth that is worthy of being fathomed. This is one reason that I began my academic career in the life sciences at Queen’s University in Ontario. I wanted to do bottom-up thinking about our world and my own body, a key aspect of creation. Human Physiology was my major. For three years, it made me feel more secure intellectually, gave me confidence that I could study and come to know truth about things that count–personal health and wellbeing. Later on in graduate school, I became curious about philosophy, social science and the humanities where there was more disagreement about any particular perspective on human culture, history or the world. I learned how to evaluate the veracity of viewpoints in those fields as well.

Metaphysical Objectivity (Realism) is Compatible with Epistemological Subjectivity.

There are currently a number of tests for truth: Coherence, Liveability/Existential Value, Historical Reliability, Scientific Verifiability among them. But a good place to start this discussion is with one of the oldest and most established, the Correspondence Theory of Truth. It offers a fundamental building block. Language philosopher John Searle believes that it is quite viable, since correspondence is the background presupposition of all human language and propositions. The idea of correspondence goes way back to Greek philosopher Aristotle. Correspondence Theory recognizes the bias of my subjective perspective (the knower), but does not buy into the reductionism of perspectivalism. Realism is the background presupposition of much discourse, not just science, and an important assumption for correspondence. There is a common sense appeal here. When most people speak of the truth, they are most often referring to ‘what is the case’ as in ‘the cat is on the mat’. A perspective is always a perspective on or about something or someone independent or outside the perceiver’s viewpoint. Even our moral perspectives relate to an objective good, ideal or virtue outside of us (Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self). Perspectives represent various degrees of success at capturing reality and we can respect that complexity. In the end, we cannot flourish on lies, confusion, distortions, illusions, bad scholarship or fraud. This is not the rationalist undoubtable certainty of French philosopher René Descartes, but a fallible certainty with high probability or strong plausibility. We call it competent, robust rationality, reason appropriately applied.

Deflationary Nihilism is Highly Problematic for the Quest for Truth

Critical Realism (CR), within correspondence theory, lies mid-way between naive realism (I know reality exactly as it is) and epistemological skepticism (I could never know anything objectively or with certainty). CR is always trying to get a more accurate perspective about the matter, to get us closer to the truth—credible verisimilitude. It allows for progress in knowledge and the toughening of theories over time as scholarship and science grows. We are dealing in degrees of objectivity, probability and fitness. Obviously, not all beliefs can be held with equal merit–veracity. We know this in historical knowledge or theories about causes of an event like World War I. Some are worth keeping; others must be jettisoned as inadequately rigorous, lacking good evidence or revealing incoherence. We must indeed apply critical evaluation to truth claims. In our knowledge, at our best, we try to move towards the best explanation as judged by criteria such as parsimony, elegance or explanatory power. Mathematics offers a high degree of certainty about natural laws and cosmology. It has high verisimilitude and as a result is very useful in many areas of society.

Some Important Distinctions: Truth itself must be distinguished from how one arrives at the truth, the effects truth has on persons or laws, and our limitations as knowers.

a. The Nature of Ontology (metaphysical reality): absolute, universal, objective, exclusive, eternally engaging, one.

b. Tests/Ways to Discover Truth: Our knowledge of the truth (epistemology/methodology) is influenced by culture, biology, political environment, upbringing. It involves a hermeneutical frame of reference that can help us better understand truth within our fullest context. So we need to be self-critical in our quest for truth, in order to better recognize the truth when we encounter it, and weed out bad data, weak assumptions and outdated theories.

c. Degrees of Conviction about a Matter or Situation: logical certainty, mathematical certainty, moral certainty, virtual certainty, relevance, robustness, plausibility. 

d. Our Limits as Knowing Agents: This involves the variables such as level of intelligence, background beliefs, education, gender (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), motivation, personal interest or bias, upbringing, genetics, mentoring experience (school of thought) in our education, the influence of ideologies such as neo-Marxism. But this should not deter us from making truth claims, defending what we know to be true, and in turn, testing or scrutinizing the claims of others. But we should never, never, never give up on truth per se. For example, one female author recently shared that her life was totally turned upside down when she decided to stop lying to herself and others for one year and live by true speech, by what she believed to be true and cogent. She made a serious decision to rebuild her own integrity and live responsibly.

Honest Speech Moves us Towards a Truthful Stance in Life

The Truths of Religious Faith

In this light, what constitutes responsible, thoughtful Christian faith? The truths of the faith, non-trivial truths about God, should never be seen as mere stepping stones built on top of the conclusions of reason. This is a mistake made by some of our predecessors who fell under the thrall of rationalism. On the other hand, the faith flourishes in a healthy engagement with reason, as we have demonstrated in the YouTube video seminar Can We Make Peace Between Faith and Reason? The grounds of our faith are founded in God’s creation and revelation to humanity: his great speech acts. Epiphanies are key moments of breakthrough insight in the Christian story. Revelation offers an enrichment of reason, not a spurning or constriction of it. It is important to emphasize that having faith does not stretch the shape of truth in a direction that is unnatural to it, but strengthens and clarifies what persons naturally desire to know about themselves and the world. It offers insight and clarity. And of course, there is the interpretive or hermeneutical aspect of such belief. Reason helps us understand the assumptions and identity conditions of the faith, helping to make it more resilient and relevant. We use sweet reason to interpret the tradition handed down to us through Scripture and the church together with our own personal experience of God. Much scholarship supports it. We look for resonance. Interpretation in search of truth and meaning is a powerful tool. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life…. I came into the world to bear witness to the truth.” What did he mean by this staggering claim? Faith involves both top down (revelation) and bottom up (scientific reason, historical verifiability, philosophical soundness) thinking and inquiry. For an example of this balance between truth, faith and reason in the arena of science and theology, see Alister McGrath’s excellent 2009 book A Fine-Tuned Universe. For a good example of thinking towards certainty in science and the arts and humanities, see Tom McLeish’s brilliant work: The Poetry and Music of Science.

Aristotle believed in Correspondence Theory of Truth

God works through the intellect of an individual to lend credibility and depth to the decisions of faith: to follow Jesus and build a life on the foundation of agape love. Christian faith is neither fideistic nor irrational. Faith is not a blind leap in the dark without any evidence. It must be believable, coherent, make sense of life, society and the world. Philosophy calls this knowledgeable belief, conviction with a high degree of certainty (Alvin Plantinga). At its core, the Christian faith is based on the redemptive life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. There is public truth (Lesslie Newbigin) in the well-recorded and documented life of Jesus. Phenomenal levels of scholarship has worked to establish the robustness of the story of the New Testament and the Bible as a whole. We can and should marshal the best evidence in science, history and philosophy for the Christian apologia. Christian teaching, from another angle, can be seen as an explanatory hypothesis that accounts for a wide range of features including history, the cosmos and the nature of humanity. It offers explanatory power. It is a holistic, comprehensive world and life view of both God and the many-splendored world in which we live, a hermeneutical big picture (Jens Zimmermann, A Short History of Hermeneutics).

Transcendent truth shows the limits of our thinking. We sense there is something more, more than meets the eye or ear, but yet still important. Imagination is key–to see with our mind’s eye, capture a vision of the meaning of life (Charles Taylor, The Language Animal). It is the juncture between the factual and the meaningful. The world addresses us and asks us tough questions. We must respond and give account of our identity, hope and purpose. Narrative or story can be a portal for us to find this bigger picture of life, the interpersonal dimensions.

Credible Verisimilitude

Worldviews: Sir John Polkinghorne, deceased eminent Cambridge physicist and theologian favours Critical Realism. He holds that believers can retain their presuppositions when comparing and contrasting their views with competing claims. This is a truth-game that works well for everyone–a good reflective baseline. Even the best reasons for faith will impress some and not others, but good evidence can offer a sign to the seeker and point them in a helpful direction. It is now quite clear that there is no such thing as a view from nowhere. Context matters. People of every persuasion have to stand behind their worldview, critically reflect on their assumptions and answer tough questions. This is why worldview understanding is so vital to dialogue and debate concerning the truth about truth, your truth and my truth. We can freely ask whose worldview makes best sense of the evidence or problem in front of us (for example, human suffering and tragedy). Worldview dialogue offers a great space for increasing understanding between people of different convictions or religious persuasions. This has been extremely valuable and intellectually pleasant for me over the years. I wish I had known about worldviews during my late night dorm discussions in freshman undergrad. They are essential to living a good life, an examined life (Plato). It is also valid to ask about the plausibility of a truth position: gathering the best evidence and reason available without dogmatically claiming that this is the final truth. This is a commitment to honesty and openness when comprehensive certainty is not available.

Unexamined Assumptions are not Secure and may be Dangerous.

Scientists are familiar with evaluating their theories through multiple lines of criteria. So do Christians. For example, eminent South African mathematician George Ellis uses four standards for scientific theories: simplicity, beauty, accuracy in prediction and verifiability, and explanatory power (a capacity for giving the most adequate account of problematic data). Cambridge University philosopher of science Ernan McMullin, also a champion of Critical Realism, uses: predictive accuracy, internal coherence, external consistency, unifying power, fertility and simplicity. Fruitfulness is another angle on truth. There may well be other criteria such as resonance or mental health (Psychology) in a particular discipline that graduate students employ. Worldviews offer a very helpful map of the whole, answering such questions as what is ultimate, what is a human, what is the character of the natural world, what is the basis for morality, where is this world headed (James Sire, The Universe Next Door). Such a map situates the visible world within a larger invisible, transcendent whole and helps us think ontologically, not just epistemologically. This is often a major gap in people’s understanding of truth. The irony is that everyone has a metaphysical perspective, even atheist Richard Dawkins who denies the possibility of transcendence and the legitimacy of religious faith. Such immanent frame perspectives also involve faith, which in turn can be tested for its veracity.

Five Questions Concerning Truth to Ponder and Discuss

  1. To know specific things are true, do we have to have a general concept or theory of truth?
  2. Must truth be anchored by reasons? Is there supra-rational or intuitive truth where we resonate emotionally?
  3. Must we rely on a deep mechanism by which things are made true?
  4. Are there absolute truths accessible to rational inquiry?
  5. How did the human capacity for knowing truth arise/evolve?
  6. Are there non-secular truths beyond the natural, time-space-energy-matter world (transcendent truths)?

Faith is a Rational Step into the Light. It is not a Credulous Leap into the Dark or based on Anti-scientific Superstition.

Church Truth Claims: Truth is an invitational absolute (applies to all people, at all times, everywhere); objective (true regardless of who believes or doesn’t believe it); eternally engaging (never exhausted); unified and systematic (not self-contradictory); an end in itself, never a mere means to an end. This is why John Dewey’s pragmatism poses a problem for clear understanding, because it settles for the default of what works. What works often lacks veracity and moral substance and reduces truth to power and sometimes violence (Foucault). Truth for the Christian is the tradition and narrative (grounded in love and grace) faithfully preserved and handed down through the ages and generations. We can unashamedly and quite firmly believe Christianity as truth and still engage in argument and evidence both for and against. Religion, in the end, is not reducible to reason, but we can use reason to defend the faith to our friendly interlocutors of other viewpoints, especially if they are sincere seekers after truth. We can ask them tough, intriguing questions as well, employing good reason. No truth of reason is expected to contradict the truths of faith (for example, the three laws of logic: non-contradiction and excluded middle, and the principle of identity). In this sense, philosophy is compatible with biblical truth. Currently, there is a virtual Renaissance in Christian philosophy scholarship in the Anglo-American world claims Alvin Plantinga.

So we are now assured that faith is neither irrational nor antirational. We can inquire into other religions and beliefs, examining presuppositions, coherence, unity, relevance and correspondence. I personally have enjoyed doing just that. Trying to understand the Christian faith will always involve ongoing vigorous intellectual work (George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship). It doesn’t mean that we are totally without error in our understanding at this moment, but the heart that earnestly seeks the truth is in the right place and ought to make healthy progress. This process is all part of the exciting, growing edge of one’s faith and the development in one’s individual theological knowledge. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga (Knowledge and Christian Belief) shows how truth plus warrant (very firm belief) are the key to real knowledge.

To Act on Truth is to Believe it Existentially, at a New Depth

Launching a Life from the Truth Platform: For language philosopher Donald Davidson, any theory of truth is also a theory of meaning. There is an intimate connection between meaning and truth. Christian truth is eminently liveable, morally constructive, very practical and fruitful in everyday life. It changes our outlook and our lives. Upon conversion, the truth of Christianity carves out space for development of individual gifts, virtues, creativity, callings and personality types (Romans 12; I Corinthians 12). There is a lot to discover. Accepting Christian teaching and Jesus’ Lordship invokes the high stakes of discipleship. We don’t have to second guess every act of discipleship once we are convinced that obedience is the correct stance for spiritual flourishing, personal freedom and intimacy with God. Christian faith is intentional about responsible thinking and common sense action or praxis: humility, caring for the poor, hospitality, going the extra mile, redirecting someone who is stuck or lost. To execute and deepen your truth is to believe it existentially. God is evidentially very interested in the lives of human beings as we see from: Abraham, Moses, Paul, Augustine and onwards. The Old Testament prophets and the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth are key aspects of God’s communication and invitation into communion and community. Having a faith rooted in truth about God stimulates both personal inquiry and increased self-understanding. I remember a time in my last year of undergrad when it set my mind on fire. It heals broken relationships and it is full of surprises as C. Kavin Rowe writes in Christianity’s Surprise: A Sure & Certain Hope. Truth opens up the world and provides solid ground on which to stand, live, love and heal. Proverbs 8: 1-36 speaks of the wise, truthful life.

In the Ethos of the Incarnation, Christians Make Truth Present in the World.

Incarnational Thinking involves a commitment to the highest value on truth livedLately, we have heard much about the post-truth age. The Oxford Dictionary claimed that 2016 was the year of “post-truth” (the year the term was coined). The CBC Radio Ideas program hosted a very insightful series (Fall 2016) on the topic “The Truth about Post-Truth” with Paul Kennedy. In this discussion, top Canadian and American political scientists and philosophers were interviewed. It was pointed out that many influential people today are devaluing truth and settling for propaganda. They are caught up in tribal, divisive, combative thinking. One neuroscience writer is a bit more direct, calling the phenomenon weaponized lies (Daniel J. Levitin, 2016). Fake news is essentially lies dressed up to confuse, obfuscate, deceive, manipulate public opinion, to get away with fraud or a power grab. Tyrants, greedy bankers and oligarchs want us to believe whatever makes them look like heroes and saviours. Thus, it is vital in a day of half-truths, slick sales pitches, deception, and raw prejudice to call people back to the importance of speaking, measuring the truth, and living with integrity (Henry Cloud, Integrity: the courage to meet the demands of reality). Christians carry a high value on truthfulness as a key aspect of incarnational spirituality. One of the godfathers of twentieth century church leadership, John Stott from All Souls Anglican London, often spoke of having the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. He believed in a robust engagement between faith and culture, not a posture of fear and flight, but finding the truth wherever it resided. I have spent my whole career among students and faculty wrestling with the relationship of faith and reason, Christian belief and academic scholarship.

Noted University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter opines on the lived concept of Incarnation:

If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with whom we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate. When the Word of all flourishing—defined by the love of Christ—becomes flesh in us, in our relations with others, within the tasks we are given, and within our spheres of influence—absence gives way to presence, and the word we speak to each other and to the world becomes authentic and trustworthy. (J.D. Hunter, 2010, 252)

See my 12-Part Series on Incarnational Spirituality:

Jesus stood for the whole truth, sincerity and realism as well as goodness: “If you obey my precepts, you will be my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8: 32). From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture speaks the language of realism: truth about the God who is there, the wonders of our world and honest appreciation of human beings with their checkered track record. The Judeo-Christian story is a narrative of fundamental commitment to live and pursue multi-dimensional truth (Psalm 119): with the purpose to see better, think better, live better. In our day, we need wisdom, discernment and courage to push back against hyperbole, lies, prejudice and half-truths. The Apostle John is honest with us in his letters: if we claim perfection, we are liars, not truth-tellers. We do not incarnate truth. 

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Graduate Students, PhD University of Wales/Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Author of The Great Escape from Nihilism, and Mapping the Future.


Sarah McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.

Alister McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths: Building Bridges to Faith through Apologetics.

James Emory White, A Mind for God.

Jerry Wallis and Trent Dougherty (eds.), The Plantinga Project: Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God.

David Adams Richards, God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular Age.

Dallas Willard (ed.), A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions.

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.

Paul M. Anderson (ed.), Professors Who Believe: the Spiritual Journey of Christian Faculty.

Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: the Gospel as Public Truth.

Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. 

James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue.

James Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All?

Raymond Gawronski, S.J., Word and Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

Alister McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology.

Arthur Holmes, All Truth is God’s Truth.

Professor Questions the Liveability of Relativism
Philosopher Roger Scrutin on Moral Relativism
Posted by: gcarkner | May 13, 2021

Freedom, Identity and the Good continued

Freedom, Identity and the Good, Conclusion 3: Redeemed freedom flourishes within a trinitarian horizon. Trinitarian divine goodness proves to be a fruitful plausibility structure within which to think about freedom and the moral self. Trinitarian goodness-freedom takes us to one more dimension of the self. It reveals new possibilities for identity, discovery, and personal transformation. It also adds sophistication to some of Taylor’s categories of the horizon of the good. It is in the life of the God-man Jesus that one can visualize this goodness-freedom dynamic.

What is full liberation? Michel Foucault, the philosopher of freedom, claimed that, “Ethics is the deliberate form assumed by freedom.” So what form will endure as a stable, longterm identity? What is the possibility of a transcendent paradigm shift in this conversation? The language of strong transcendence implies some dynamic that resides outside the economies of human experience, and human culture spheres: science, art, religion and ethics. It plays a key role in the drama of moral self-constitution and personal freedom through the validation of the self from a larger horizon of significance. We achieve more not less human meaning.

Here we propose a further recovery of ethics in partnership with trinitarian relationality. Jesus of Nazareth offers an exemplum of redeemed human freedom. In this dissertation, we have shown that the human good could be linked through a transcendent turn to trinitarian goodness. Jesus’ life constitutes reconciliation, rather than enmity between goodness and freedom. In the philosophical turn towards transcendent goodness, Foucault’s ontology of liberty is subverted by the ontology of agape love without losing anything. We move from the aesthetic to the ethical and now the religious plane of existence (Kierkegaard).

How does Jesus’ life interpret freedom uniquely in light of this suggested turn to transcendent goodness? The interpretation starts as trinitarian theonomous goodness-freedom, a God-related freedom, that is qualified by transcendent divine goodness. It begins with the living God of the Christian story, who is constituted by a form of relation, mutuality and reciprocity, in which freedom is given to that which is Other. In this case, it is other Persons within the Trinity. The Christian Trinity is a tri-unity of Persons with a history of self-giving freedom that defines God’s being as agape love. It is the constitutive good, the moral source and inspiration for human, finite goodness.

The position we are taking is clarified by British theologian, Alistair McFadyen, who reflects on the hermeneutic of freedom and self-giving within the Trinity. Human freedom, he claims, is grounded in, and defined by, God’s freedom.

God’s inmost being is constituted by the radical mutuality of the three divine Persons, in which they both give and receive their individuality from one another. In their intersubjectivity, there is the creative intention and recognition of subjectivity, and therefore transcendence in form of the integrity of personal identity, in the giving of space to one another. This giving of space is an interpersonal event, and must not be thought of as analogous to the evacuation of physical space. It is not a form of absence, but a way of being present with others in creative recognition of their autonomy within the relationship. It is a letting- be, rather than a letting-go: a structuring of the relationship so that it includes space and time for personal discreteness and autonomous response. Thus, the trinitarian life involves a circulation of the divine potentialities of being through the processes of self-giving, in the unity of which the three Persons receive their distinct personal identities. (A. McFadyen, 1995, 46-7)

This is the same gift of benevolent divine freedom that is expressed through the presence in the world of God the Son and God the Spirit, the second and third Persons of the Trinity. God is a community of Persons in movement towards and present within creation, stimulating and opening up a future possibilities for robust human freedomBecause God is free, loving and relational, humans should be confident that they are not victims of fate, domination and materialistic determinism. The character of redeemed freedom is creative and dynamic in its existential engagement with human sociality. Human freedom takes its cue from God, and flourishes within God’s freedom. In fact, the dependence of human freedom on God secures its integrity. God creates the larger horizon for freedom, affirms and validates it. Thus, the relationship between divine and human freedom is a profound gift.

God’s gift of freedom also entails God’s willingness to take the consequences of human freedom, even human assertions of autonomy and disbelief in God.

Knowledge of this goodness-freedom is not invented sui generis. It is offered through relationship with God as Trinity. God’s creation opens the latitude that affords space for human response in a non-coercive environment. It even includes the possibilities of human misunderstanding, rejection, disobedience towards and even disbelief in God. McFadyen, (1995,44) writes: “We find God subjecting Godself, first of all to the limitation of the incarnation in a human person; secondly, allowing Godself to be subject to human freedom—even to the extent of death— to bear the consequences of the human refusal of freedom.”

Human freedom is enhanced and empowered when there is a grateful response to the God who built into creation the very possibility and parameters of human freedom. The created, ordered ecology of relations is respectful of both divine sovereignty and a large degree of finite human choice and autonomy. Space is given for growth in individual integrity, uniqueness and particularity. This matches Foucault’s strong emphasis on the creativity in the self, without sacrificing many other positive infrastructural dimensions. At the end of the day, Foucault resists this limited but rich definition of freedom as a gift from God. He wants instead unlimited, unrestricted freedom for the self–radical autonomy–which falls into nihilism and obsession with oneself.

Jesus, on the other hand, is the free and loyal Son of the Father, exemplifying the positive marriage between goodness, freedom and obedience, revealing its existential world impact. The irony of our discovery is that freedom as radical autonomy leads to a loss of self, crisis of identity and alienation from the Other. Jesus is completely free within a communion of love. In the practice of redeemed freedom, the human freedom of Christ vividly discloses God’s creative freedom–an important epiphany or revelation of strong transcendence.

[It is in the] Image of Christ, where freedom is exercised as rooted in the will of the Father and mediated in the power of the Spirit that the true character of the image of God is disclosed to us, both as the divine freedom for grace and as the human freedom of obedience …. Christ is … both the revelation of the divine freedom of grace and the disclosure of the human freedom of obedience, where obedience to the will of God the father is not the abrogation of human freedom but the form of its exercise. (Christoph Schwöbel, 1995, 80)

For Foucault, obedience to the Christian religion is negative and repressive, but in Jesus, it is never a contest between God the father’s freedom and his own. It entails an intimate cooperation rooted in this loving communion. Jesus reveals that modern freedom can be liberated from the weighty obligation to live self-reflexively out of one’s own power and resources. It also reveals a divine-human relationship rife with grace. This is carried on even in the midst of many attempts to oppress Jesus and repress his voice.

McFadyen illuminates some nuances of the divine-human interface of freedom, revealed through the incarnation.

[By] incarnation in the body of the crucified one implies that God’s freedom does not, after all, entail a transcendent aloofness from the world, but a form of involvement with it in which the divine being and freedom are staked. God subjects Godself to the risks, vulnerabilities and ambiguities of historical existence, including the risk of rejection, suffering and death, as well as of misinterpretation. God’s freedom and sovereignty must be of a radical kind: the freedom to give oneself in relation; to be with and in creation in ways that are costly to God, but which do not abrogate God’s sovereignty, freedom and transcendence. (A. McFadyen, 1995, 42)

In the incarnation, one sees God communicating and relating, not as a tyrannical, coercive, absolute sovereign, but vulnerably in and through the form of human individual, by uniting the divine freedom of self-giving agape love with that of a human being. In the Christ event, one is confronted with a divine power that is highly personal, and which consequently has impact through forms of interpersonal communication and personal presence. This God posture makes creative appeal to human freedom. Divine freedom and will is the proper context of human freedom. It is not a divine monologue of commands, but a dialogue in which humans are intended and respected as subjects with free choice and freedom of speech. Abraham Joshua Heschel often says in his understated way, “God continues to be interested in human beings.”

Freedom and the moral self, its content and definition, has been a central concern in this PhD dissertation. The upshot of this dialogue is that not all definitions of freedom are deemed equal. When freedom embraces goodness, it transforms freedom from an end in itself, to freedom as a benevolence toward the Other (agape love). Within the plausibility structure of trinitarian transcendent goodness, love becomes the content of freedom as well as freedom’s trajectory or raison d’être. The exercise of redeemed freedom takes seriously the human and divine Other, especially the weaker, more vulnerable. Schwöbel captures it succinctly.

The true measure of freedom is love as the relationship which makes the flourishing of the other the condition of self-fulfilment. Human freedom becomes the icon of divine freedom where the freedom of divine grace constitutes the grace of human freedom … That most poignant image of hope, the Kingdom of God, expresses the relation of free divine love and loving human freedom together in depicting the ultimate purpose of God’s action as the perfected community of love with his creation. The fulfilment of God’s reign and the salvation of creation are actualized together in the community of the love of God. (C. Schwöbel, 1995, 80-81)

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Graduate Students.

McFadyen, A.I. (1995). Sins of Praise: the Assault on God’s Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.). God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 36-56). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Schwöbel, C. (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Posted by: gcarkner | May 9, 2021

Freedom, Identity and the Good continued

Conclusion 2. on Freedom, Identity and the Good from my PhD dissertation at University of Wales/OCMS in Oxford

 Redeemed freedom takes on a distinctively communal character. It is contextualized within a discussion and relationships between fellow interlocutors, and against the backdrop of a larger narrative which makes sense of the moral self. Individual freedom opens space for community, makes space for the Other, promotes mutuality. This helps the individual avoid some of the pitfalls of radical autonomy. It provides for a richer, more secure and resilient identity.

Caution: Too much choice can be harmful to one’s psychological and sociological wellbeing.

The transformation of Foucault’s thin, aesthetic self is called forth. To use Kierkegaard’s language, this is to transcend the aesthetic/hedonistic in order to participate in the ethical level of existence. We must move towards a deeper, more complex communal character of self, a layered identity, a thick self. Foucault unfortunately articulates freedom as flight from community and institutional responsibility. He is far too worried about domination by the Other. His aesthetic self is part fugitive, part manipulator, perhaps even sociopathic: the individual’s context is reduced to a life of contestation with the Other, negotiating wily power relations and truth games ad infinitum. This is a skewed and broken view of self and can easily lead to an identity crisis and much social pain and suffering, divorce, even death. The point of life is to grow up into maturity. To stall this process in adolescence is counterproductive not progressive or cool.

From the perspective of our brilliant Canadian interlocutor Charles Taylor, his comments on philosophical anthropology and the recovery of the moral good from ancient to modern times, the aesthetic self lacks vision for relationships that are other than manipulative and fraudulent. That further step we must travel is to pursue those relationships that are informed by love, compassion and cooperation. We must rethink Foucault’s ‘radical freedom as ontology’ via a reconciliation between self and the Other, self and society, to put it metaphorically, self and one’s neighbour. The reformulation involves the recovery of a social horizon, including a stronger concept of the social body and the powerful concept of the common good. One needs the courage and wisdom to face the neighbour as a good in themselves, rife with potential.

A radical pursuit of private self-interest, to the exclusion of the presence and needs of the Other, is a far less tenable option after this critical dialogue in my PhD work: “A Critical Examination of Michel Foucault’s constitution of the moral self in dialogue with Charles Taylor.” Foucault holds to a faulty assumption of chronic distrust: that the Other will always try to control and manipulate my behaviour for their own purposes, or try to impose their agenda on me, or outright oppress me. Although such manipulation occurs, we take this to be a jaded and cynical perspective on human society to suggest that it is always or even most likely the case. The ‘autonomy that modernity cannot do without’ in balance needs a dialectical relationship with community. Foucault weakens the self by rejecting this option.

One’s self-reflexive relationship, one’s care of self, is only part of the picture. The nature of autonomy cannot be confined to radical self-determination. Rather it must involve the possibility of recognition by and dependence upon other people within a larger horizon of significance. Healthy identity involves community. Flight and agonisme is the easier, the least complex default option. We wish to call it out as escapism. It is far more challenging to take other people seriously as having inherent worth, and to discover the value that they can offer. Building trust is a tentative but necessary exercise for one’s moral, spiritual and psychological health. Redeemed, robust freedom emerges through a discernment of the communal dimensions of subjectivity: freedom to cooperate with and serve one another.

This newly discovered type of freedom is destined to find its fulfilment, not in a self-protective control, alone in self-sufficiency, but in seeking out a communion of love, a healthy vulnerability (Brené Brown), inter-dependence. It is key that one listen to the Other and authenticate their voice.

The dislocated self is relocated within a new narrative (Paul Ricoeur), a new drama which involves us, within the relational order of creation. Human experience is in fact intensely relational from birth. One weakness in Foucault is that, by contrast, he assumes a denial of the social body when it comes to ethical relations. We protest that this far too narrow. Our conclusion suggests that there is a positive outlook for the future of the self that will involve a creative, imaginative communal experiment. The word discernment above speaks of exploring the potential of these relationships as they relate to a communal horizon of the good, the good that can be carried in community and within its narrative as Taylor articulates in Sources of the Self. Others do help us discern our character, purpose, calling and meaning. They help combine space for freedom of individuality with responsibility (Emmanuel Lévinas). They can offer us new language of moral horizons not yet experienced.

It is good that Foucault highly values individual creativity, but he lacks appreciation for how this relates to communal creativity of interdependence. Fulfilment in community prevents the self from extreme forms of self-interest, narcissism, loneliness and solipsism (R. Wolin, 1986). McFadyen (1995, 35) offers a helpful reflection on this point concerning the deceptions and distortions of radical freedom:

The free pursuit of private self-interest has a naturally conflicting form, since the otherness of the individual means their interests must be opposed. One needs freedom from what is other in order to be oneself. Personal centeredness is essential, for autonomy is a private place that has to be protected by fencing it off from the sphere of relation and therefore from the otherness of God and one’s neighbours … Autonomy is something one has in self-possession, apart from relation to God and others in an exclusive and private orientation on an asocial personal centre …. Freedom and autonomy are had apart from relationship: they inhere within oneself.

Foucault’s language of radical freedom has a mythological flavour to it, one that offers a mask for a disguised self-interest, the freedom to be and do whatever I want. It doesn’t matter how it affects others. Redeemed freedom reveals this outlook as a distorted reality-construction. Miraslov Volf in his exceptional book Exclusion and Embrace (1996) shows how redemption of sociality through forgiveness can occur even amidst the most abusive, tribal and oppressive situations of the former Yugoslavia.

In this anatomy of community, we conclude that the good can be mediated and carried more fruitfully and robustly. One’s individual relationship to the good and identity can be strongly enhanced by involvement with a group that allows the good to shape its identity and ethos. Ideals and virtues can be constructive, inspiring, motivating, freeing. In another blog post, we have suggested agape love as such a good. We mean that a noble community environment can offer the young and old alike a positive school of the good. Mirrored through others, the good can offer both accountability and personal empowerment and enrichment. Group covenant produces trust and commitment to one another’s flourishing, it also deepens the self in its agency. Younger people especially are released from the burden to invent their whole moral universe–an absurd ideal of the modern project. Moral self-constitution of this thicker, weightier, and more complex sort exceeds the capacity of the individual self. It requires a community for maximum fruitfulness.

German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in response to Foucault, argues that the preoccupation with the autonomy or self-mastery is simply a moment in the process of social interaction, which has been artificially isolated or privileged:

Both cognitive-instrumental mastery of an objective nature (and society) and a narcissistically overinflated autonomy (in the sense of purposively rational self-assertion) are derivative moments that have been rendered independent from the communicative structures of the lifeworld, that is, from the intersubjectivity of relationships of mutual understanding and relationships of reciprocal recognition. (Habermas, 1987, 315)

~Dr Gordon E. Carkner PhD Philosophical Theology, Meta-educator with postgraduate students at UBC.

Habermas, J. (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

McFadyen, A.I. (1995). Sins of Praise: the Assault on God’s Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.). God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 36-56). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion and Embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness and reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Wolin, R. (1986). Foucault’s Aesthetic Decisionism. Telos, 67, 71-86. [also In B. Smart (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Critical Assessments. Volume 3 (pp. 251-265). 1994].

See also 12 part series of posts on Qualities of the Will: an exposition of Charles Taylor’s Ethical Framework or Moral Ontology; my YouTube video on moral relativism.

Posted by: gcarkner | May 8, 2021

Freedom, Identity and the Good

Freedom, Identity and the Good: some conclusions from my doctoral research

Proposition One: Redeemed freedom means that one refuses freedom as an ontological ground of ethics, and embraces a new definition of freedom within an ontology/frame of the moral good. Charles Taylor’s moral horizon of the good is offered as a lively and robust alternative to Foucault’s horizon of aesthetic-freedom.

Foucault’s idea of autonomous freedom as self-invention, self-interpretation, self- expression, self-legislation and self-justification is radical indeed. Schwöbel sums it up:

In deciding for policies of action which incorporate choices concerning the interpretation of our possibilities of action, of our goals of action and of the norms of action we attempt to observe, we decide the fundamental orientation of our lives. Such decisions are examples of self-determination. Self-determination is contrasted to determination by external authorities. (C. Schwöbel, 1995, pp. 62-3)

Aesthetic-freedom certainly has its appeal; it comes with a creative, youthful energy, to launch human subjectivity, overcoming the inertia and restrictions of governmentality and power relations. This is often attractive to young people with an edge of rebellion against authority. Foucault does not apologize for its élitist outlook. But this view of freedom has revealed a failure to offer sufficient direction for subjectivity, for a sophisticated use of the will. It lacks a platform for critical appraisal of our actions or choices. Thus, it shows a major deficit in equipping the individual for serious moral reflection, debate and action. It short circuits moral discourse by moving too quickly to praxis or action, without sufficient reflection on the reasons for such action, or the virtues or moral goods endemic to ethics. It can lead to moral autism (Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, 183-93) with the loss of moral language needed to distinguish oneself, or worse nihilism.

During the conversation with Foucault in previous posts, cracks and contradictions in his ideology of the aesthetic (Terry Eagleton) have emerged along with its potential dangers of overindulgence–of Dionysian proportions. The great philosopher Charles Taylor illuminates the darker side of Foucault’s artful freedom. The absolute sovereignty that Foucault gives to the individual for self-expression raises concerns: it may indulge in a fantasy of the human will. Foucault propounds a very optimistic philosophical anthropology of the aesthetic self (artistic work is worthy in and of itself) with great faith in the creativity and imagination of the individual. At the same time, there is great cynicism about society and its institutions. He understands that domination can occur in corporate regimes of knowledge (making evil and oppression visible), but he is less open to acknowledge the potential evil in individual self-shaping and self-expression, self-control. This is a major oversight which is not acceptable for such a notable scholar.

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Posted by: gcarkner | May 8, 2021

Paul Davies on Science and Faith

Reprint from PAUL DAVIES (thought provocative article on the nature of science and the laws of physics)

The New York Times, 
November 24, 2007

Tempe, Arizona.

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue. 
The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

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