IV. Regaining a Theological Perspective on Objectivity and Knowledge
A critical point is being reached in constructing a theological response to the challenge of science. We have noted that science is considerably more limited and less intimidating than the standard evangelical approaches have often thought. Science, like theology is a particular, situated discipline embodied in a community, bound by a common faith and worldview. Thus, as has been stated above, dialogue between theology and science when seen in this light is analogous to inter-religious dialogue.
However, prior to explicating this claim in its fullness, I will articulate the theological rationale for so doing. I will engage with three different strands of the Christian theological discipline as represented by three important areas of theological study, biblical theology, missiology and theology of culture. First I will examine the biblical theology of noted Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggemann whose numerous works in biblical studies engage significantly with issues of ideology, objectivity and epistemology. Following this, I will examine the thought of missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin who in many ways provides a theological exposition of Polanyi in attempting to rework the question of theology and science. Finally, I will breifly engage with the work of postconservative evangelical theologian, Stanley Grenz, who has sought to engage the questions of epistemology and theological method in the postmodern context.
1. Walter Brueggemann: Prophetic Criticism and Objective Ideology
Walter Brueggemann is almost unquestionably the most influential Old Testament theologian in the United States today. His many works hit on countless Old Testament themes, always with a vigorous application to contemporary living. One of the key features that pervades all of Brueggemann’s thought is the confrontation between the world (view) articulated in the biblical narrative and the ideological forms of dominant rationality that it speaks against and deconstructs. Given what we have seen thus far through the work of Polanyi and Kuhn, science is not an objective, disinterested discipline, but is in fact particular, sectarian, and ideologically driven. When modern science is seen in this light, Brueggemann’s work can be seen as a very helpful commentary against the accommodation of theology to science. When theology and science encounter one another, we witness not simply a conflict of abstract disciplines, but a collision of communities, each with distinct ideological-theological commitments.
As Brueggemann makes clear, following key postmodern thinkers, scientifically ‘objective’ facts that purport to describe the world as it ‘really is’ are in fact acts of imaginative construal, that is of the imaginative application of a particular, partisan paradigm (read: worldview) for viewing reality on the basis of a particular political-ideological agenda. “Thus all knowing,” Brueggemann argues, “is imaginative construal, even if disguised as something else. The world we take as ‘given’ is a long established act of imagination that appears to be and claims assent as the only legitimate occupant of the field. It follows, then, that long-imagined ‘givens’ can indeed be challenged and a ‘countergiven’ is entertainable.” Brueggemann goes on to argue that
the long-established ‘givens’ will prevail because they are accepted as beyond
criticism. They will prevail until a counter-‘as’ is imagined and
voiced. It is astonishing how a long-established ‘as’ can keep people in
their social place, how a daring an alternative ‘as’ can be in changing social
relationships and the power that keeps them unchanged.
Brueggemann explicates this notion of the ‘as’ and the counter-‘as’ through the exhortation of 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 where Christians are enjoined to live “as free persons.” Brueggemann notes that on one level this injunction to live ‘as’ on the basis of faith is precisely contrary to “facts.” However, this is only so because “facts” have been co-opted by the dominant rationality which seeks to taut itself as objectively true. The Christian injunction to live as free persons then, is not simply a fiction, but is a counter-‘as’ which gives way to a new reality. “It accepts an alternative construal of reality as a legitimate and valid one, thereby displacing another ‘as’ that is the imposed work some other act of imagination.” Thus for Brueggemann, “the Christian gospel is a counter-‘as’ to the long accepted ‘as’ that is widely and uncritically accepted as objectively real.”
Ultimately, this perspective must be seen as deriving from an alternative epistemology that is particular to the Christian narrative and community. The Christian community – to the extent that it is faithful – operates not on the basis of the dominate ideology that masquerades as objective truth but on the basis of a prophetic epistemology that is grounded in the reality of the work of God that the community has witnessed in its common life. Put another way, there is nothing ‘objective’ about the Exodus. The Exodus is a reality to which there is no objective access apart from how it is seen on the basis of the reigning paradigm (worldview) of the observer. The higher critic imaginatively construes this event to be a myth-shrouded story of a small group of slaves escaping from Egypt on a well-placed sandbar. This imaginative, poetic, ideological interpretation of the Exodus is one that has obtained dominance and thus presents itself as ‘objective historical fact.’ However, when it is recognizes that this assertion is nothing more than the commitment of a community to a particular form of life and interpretation in the world, it becomes apparent that it is possible to articulate a “counterworld” which offers new and imaginative possibilities that the previous ideology sought to suppress.
This can be further illustrated through Brueggemann’s expositional work on the historical Psalms (Ps. 78, 105, 106, 136). Here Brueggemann points out that these Psalms “articulate a counter-world, offered as a subversive alternative to the dominant, easily available worlds that are ever present in and tempting for Israel.” In contrast to the ‘objective’ views of higher critics, the Psalms do not articulate a primitive worldview, which needs to be superceded by a scientific one. Rather, “’salvation history’ is in fact a counter-history, a recital ‘from below’ the royal, established account of social reality.”
All of this culminates in Brueggemann’s vision of a prophetic epistemology that should undergird Christian theology. Over-against the dominant, ‘objective,’ ‘scientific,’ royal rationality, “‘a more excellent way’ had been given to us in narrative mode, the only mode available outside royal rationality. O
nly stories lie beyond royal reason.”
Moreover, as Brueggemann points out, the biblical presentation of an alternative epistemology grounded in the prophetic paradigm does not oppress and suppress the other as the royal rationality does. Rather, the world seen through the eyes of prophetic epistemology ultimately seeks to reconcile the enemy, rather than to overcome and dominate him either through ideological or technological manipulation. This is portrayed most clearly in Brueggeman’s reading of the narrative of 2 Kings 6:8-23. In this situation, the people of Israel are under the oppression of Syria, who seemingly raids Israel at will. However, Elisha the prophet is constantly thwarting Syria’s raids by foretelling when and where they will attack (6:8-10). Thus, the Syrian king dispatches his army to apprehend Elisha. However, when the army surrounds Elisha, the eyes of his terrified servant are opened to see that the armies of God far outnumber the power of the dominating, hegemonic enforcers of Syria (6:17). Then, as blind eyes are opened, the eyes of the Syrian army are struck blind (6:18). Elisha then proceeds to lead the entire army to Jerusalem. Once there, the king asks Elisha if he should put them to the sword (6:21). Elisha, however, denies the king any such opportunity to meet the Syrian threat with violence. Instead food is set before the former invaders and what was meant to be violent conflict erupts into a joyous feast. The narrative goes on to note that after this event, Syria stops raiding Israel (6:23).
This narrative shows forth that the biblical vision is one in which the reality of the prophetic counter-epistemology does not lead to the violent overthrow of the dominant rationality, but rather to a communal feast which brings forth a peace that the rationality of kings cannot understand. As Brueggemann points out,
the prophetic narrative embedded in these royal recitals of certitude is a
strange idiom. It protests against and undermines royal certitude with its
power for life. Royal power could only lead to death and endless
hostility. The narrative proposes another way that breaks the vicious
cycle of death and hostility.
This alternative epistemology that breaks the vicious cycle of the dominant rationality is grounded in radically new way of seeing the world, namely through the eyes of the prophet who recognizes that “those who are with us are more that those who are with them” (6:16).
To be drawn into this new and different way of knowing the real world around us involves a radical reeducation that teaches us
- The cruciality of prayers of petition which resubmit life the One with
life-giving power, to be weaned from the promise of kings;
- To perceive and experience the world differently, apart from the royal
ideology and slogan;
- To watch, expect and participate in the shift of power which the gospel
works in the world…
- To be present, as we are able, with the communities from below who treasure
subversive narratives, who know differently…
- To participate in the transformation to a more excellent way in which our
wars may turn to feasts, our killing becomes feeding
What then are the implications of Brueggemann’s work for understanding the relationship between theology and science? Brueggemann proposes that “our evangelical infrastructure…will in the first instance not seek to accommodate scientific learning, but will make its own statement about the character and quality of the world.” This could be taken as an essential summary of the thesis of this essay. For anyone who takes the radically counter-ideological thrust of the biblical metanarrative seriously, it seems difficult to hold that there will ever be a comfortable relationship between theology and science. As Brueggemann states concisely, “Israel’s elemental suspicion regularly notices that what appears to be rational is in fact interested, that what appears to be objective is in fact self-serving.” The counter-world articulated through the prophetic epistemology can never be easily amenable to the dominant rationality of kings and empires. “Israel’s alternative memory notices that what passes for public discourse is in fact a new sectarian proposal of an ideological kind.” As such I submit that theology must not approach science in an attempt to show that it has ‘scientific’ validity. Such an approach ignores the ideological roots of science that are decidedly anthropocentric and commissioned by the powers of the dominant empire.
Some will doubtless object that such a view is nothing more than fideism and sectarianism. This objection is self-refuting however in that it fails to recognize the inherent fideistic and sectarian characteristics of the scientific tradition itself. Descartes’ proclamation of cogito ergo sum is not a statement of objective fact, but of fideism. So also were the canons of Baconian science, Newtonian physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity (which is not to say that all of these are false or equally false, only that they came about through creativity and faith, not disinterested rational analysis). As Polanyi and Khun have shown, all acts of knowing, scientific or otherwise depend on the fiduciary structure, or paradigm through which the knower sees and reasons. To the extent that theology fails to recognize the inherently fideistic and particular dimensions of science, it will simply be giving a foreign and often incommensurate system of belief a monopoly over what counts as admissible truths in the public arena. This argument has been made at length by noted missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin whose substantial work on pluralism had achieved much attention. It is to his work that I turn now.
 This idea is prevalent throughout Brueggemann’s writings. See for example Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living (Minneapolis: Fortress 1991), 35-39, 54-56; Texts that Linger, Words that Explode: Listening to Prophetic Voices (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 41-44.
 Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, 13.
 Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, 15.
 Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, 14.
 Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, 15.
 In discussing the Exodus, or any other event depicted in the Bible a distinction must be made between the event itself (to which there is no access) and the imaginative, theological-ideological interpretation of that event. The biblical text itself is one such interpretation and the investigations of higher critics is simply another. On this point see Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 102-105, 726-729; see also John H. Sailhamer, Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 36-85.
 It should be noted that these same criticisms of higher criticism could also be made against the evangelical doctrine of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. Both attempt to get ‘behind the text’ to the ‘actual event’ so as to support a particular ideological-theological perspective that is not that of the biblical text itself. On this point, see Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, 64-67; see also Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 87-129.
 See Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, 26-56 for a description of the idea of a “counterworld.”
 Brueggemann, Abiding Astonishment: Psalms, Modernity and the Making of History (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 28; see also Texts that Linger, 73-87 for an excellent account of the different imperial “worlds” (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia) with which Israel had to contend throughout its narrative history.
 Brueggemann, Abiding Astonishment, 43.
 Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, 35.
 On this point see Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Random House, 1973); The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1964); see also Middleton and Walsh, Truth is Stranger, 20-22.
 Perhaps one of the archetypal paradigm shifts.
 Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, 31.
 Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, 38-39.
 Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, 33.
 On this point see Middleton and Walsh, Truth is Stranger, 87-107.
 Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, 54.
 Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, 54.
 On the issue of sectarianism, see Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, 41-65.