by Elizabeth Newman

    Both modernism's disinterested spectator and postmodernism's deconstructed self lead to the gnostic belief that we are in bondage to the world. Biblically informed myth offers an escape.

    ELIZABETH NEWMAN, assistant professor of theology and ethics at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, has published essays on teaching religion and science, theological knowing, and the Eucharist. She is currently at work on a project entitled Remembering How We Know: Theology without Dualism. The present essay, a revision of a paper she presented at the 1996 Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in New Orleans, is reprinted with permission from the Winter 1997 (vol. 17, no. 1) issue of the CTNS Bulletin, Richard O. Randolph, editor, copyright 1977, The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, California.

That theology and science have been haunted by epistemological dualisms is an unremarkable claim. Current postmodern efforts to think beyond such dualisms as objectivism versus relativism include recent attention to knowledge as socially constructed, communitarian, and nonfoundational.(1) Such efforts share the assumption that knowing and doing are internally related. Thus theology and science, like all knowledge, emerge from the practices of concrete, historical communities rather than from abstract principles or universal experience.

Yet, despite these efforts, various dualisms continue to haunt the epistemological landscape, dualisms seldom explicitly stated or endorsed but nonetheless pervading the atmosphere "like chronic depression."(2) Does having no epistemological "foundation" mean that relativism is our only alternative? If all knowing, as some argue, is not only "tainted by interest; [but] is interest,"(3) does this mean that knowledge as "social construction" not only reflects the relativities of time and place but also is inevitably a mode of domination? Given that science and theology are nonfoundational, isn't it still the case that scientific language is more direct and descriptive than theological language? Such queries often rest on the suspicion that knowledge, if nonfoundational, is ultimately unreliable. In this essay, I will argue that we can have reliable knowledge that does not conform to an objectivist model, but that also does not regard a chaos of interpretation, in which all knowledge is inevitably domination, as the only alternative.(4) The aim of my essay will be to give a nondualistic account of knowing more radical than both objectivism, and its after-image, relativism.

To give such an account, I wish to describe an alternative epistemological landscape, one where "the problem of dualism" does not arise. My essay will not engage theology and science primarily as separate disciplines. In other words, I will not place a scientific view alongside a theological view in order to see how they match up -- where they are in conflict, in dialogue, independent or integrated, as for example, Ian Barbour does. I do not wish to deny all that is gained by examining the *variety of ways theology and science as disciplines can engage in conversation. My focus, however, is to describe a framework in which knowledge, both scientific and theological, moves beyond dualism.

My investigation is as much ethical as it is epistemological; I argue that these two cannot be separated. This may sound like a startling claim. However, as many in our postmodern context have argued, knowing is neither a disembodied activity, nor an activity resting on universal foundations accessible by autonomous reason. Rather, knowing always grows out of certain contexts and develops within specific traditions. It involves particular commitments and convictions: what could be called a sense of place or orientation. Thus, a central question is, "Where does one place herself in her efforts to come to know?" One much criticized response to this question has been to assume a "godlike" position in which all knowledge is regarded as an accomplished fact. As philosopher William H. Poteat notes about this decontextualized knower, however, "to be deprived of place is to become disincarnated, to be driven mad, to become an alien -- to have no home or not to be at home?."(5) While I will return later to how disincarnate images of knowing continue to sustain inadequate epistemologies, suffice it to say at this point that our description of how we come to know, and who we are as knowers, is an ethical task. That is, one's apprehension of the world, and one's place in the world, is inherently evaluative. If one understands "ethics" according to its Greek root "ethos" -- an accustomed place or habitation -- when we do ethics "we ask where we belong; we try to place ourselves in our proper location."(6) The challenge of epistemology, then, is also an ethical venture because both have to do with how we locate or place ourselves in the world. If it is true that we are not godlike, disincarnate knowers, then how are we to understand or locate ourselves as knowers? What mythos or imaginative resources can we draw upon to give us a truthful account of scientific and theological knowing?

In this essay, I ask where one belongs if knowing, whether scientific or theological, is not to become objectivistic, relativistic, or hegemonic. First, I will show how, despite efforts to the contrary, the dualism of objectivism versus relativism continues to haunt both modern and postmodern imaginations. Then I will describe more fully a knowing place, biblically informed, that moves beyond objectivism and relativism.

Haunting Dualisms

Professor Loyal Rue, in his essay "Redefining Myth and Religion: Introduction to a Conversation," sets out to integrate science and myth, which he adequately defines as "a story of comprehensive scope that concerns. . . . the origins, nature or destiny of life."(7) Rue warns, however, that "in the face of static myth, if science is allowed any license at all, it will begin to drift away from myth and religion until it is perceived to be their enemy."(8) Such polarity, Rue states, results in "those who reject the advancement of science, those who reject tradition-binding stories (religion) and those who desperately engage in the futile activity of reinterpreting the old stories to make them appear compatible with the new knowledge. This is obviously a caricature, but not one that we fail to recognize."(9) What is Rue's alternative? Since religion lacks the universal epistemic authority provided by scientific knowledge, Rue hopes science, and science alone, will provide a new and universal myth that will unify the globe. Rue continues, "So whence comes the story that can unify the globe? Not from Islam, not from Judaism, not from Christianity. . . These traditions tell somebody's story. We are asking, 'whence come the elements for everybody's story?' "(10)

Rue's proposal rightly acknowledges the pervasiveness of story or myth. Most interesting for my purposes, however, is his assumption that he himself has left behind "static myth." In his hopes of finding a new myth that is not "somebody's" but could be "everybody's," Rue is in fact reenacting the mythos of modernity. As has been extensively documented, this mythos positions rationalistic science against irrationalistic religion, posits a universal standpoint, and regards the particularity of tradition as something to be overcome. Yet, Rue fails to see how his own imagination is not dependent upon science and science alone but relies upon the mythos of modernity to give his proposal coherence. In other words, he places or locates himself squarely within the modern mythos; this is the locus of his "ethos," the accustomed place from which he judges that science can give us a universal myth.

Philip Hefner describes a similar failure of the imagination in his analysis of the PBS series on science entitled The Human Quest. As Hefner describes it, while the documentary shows a long distance runner moving through the extinct civilization of the Anasazi (Southwestern Chaco canyon), a narrator comments: "It's easy to assume that evolution has peaked with the creation of humans. . . . but evolution is an ongoing process, the race is never won. We're always being judged by the forces of natural selection and we have no. . . . guarantees." In the face of this unending proem, The Human Quest urges its viewers to search for "moral resources that will help us confront the threat to human survival." Where, the documentary asks, do we turn for such moral resources? The narrator assumes, like Rue, that "Myth may have produced stories of yore, but science can give us new and. . . . presumably better stories."(11) As Hefner recounts, this "better story" includes the following: "Big Bang cosmology writes the scientific story of creation, chemistry writes the story of origins, biology writes the evolutionary epic, neuroscience provides the tales of the mind, and complexity sciences are producing still newer stories that cross traditional disciplinary lines."(12) This scientific story, above all, describes the ultimate human quest as a search for order and harmony. But as Hefner importantly notes, this noble story is reminiscent of ancient Stoicism and of Buddhism; "it calls to mind Aristotle as well."(13) The point is that The Human Quest "slips" in the same way that Rue does: both assume that science gives us a better and different story while failing to see in what ways earlier "myths of yore" nourish the "new" scientific story. Such failure again indicates how thoroughly the authors' imaginations have been captured by the myth of modernity, which tells us, "the story of the emergence of a story which transcends story, which indeed puts an end. . . . to the cultural primacy of mythos."(14) Philosopher and chemist Michael Polanyi refers to such slippage as moral inversion: the "coupling of moral passions denied according to scientific skepticism yet active in the assertion of ideologies and principles as scientific facts."(15) In other words, both Rue and The Human Quest assert as scientific fact that which in reality is derived from a larger mythos. They fail to understand that their own projects are not fueled by "science alone" but are sustained by the mythos of modernity, and, in the PBS series, the ancient mythos of Stoicism. Thus both Rue and the authors of The Human Quest fail to acknowledge the sources (deep in culture, history, and time) of their own moral passions, sources which extend well beyond the modern scientific story as they describe it. Yet it is precisely their moral passions that lead them to interpret science as the universal story, or to describe the ultimate human quest as one for order and harmony. As Polanyi also notes, however, any moral objection to these accounts "can be brushed aside by pointing to [the] 'scientific' correctness" of such accounts.(16)

The overwhelming postmodern response to the modern myth the above authors endorse has been to claim the impossibility of achieving a truly universal story that provides "right answers."(17) Political theorist Murray Jardine succinctly describes the postmodern response to modern foundationalism:

    In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, what is now called "religious belief" conflicted with the model of exact, impersonal knowledge and was relegated to the realm of mere opinion; by the late nineteenth century, morality, which the Enlightenment philosophers had thought could be placed on a firm, secular footing by skeptical rationalism, was well on its way to becoming a matter of subjective value; and by the mid-twentieth century it had become an open question whether even the hardest sciences could meaningfully be described as objective.(18)

In some strains of postmodernism, not only are theology and science equally socially constructed and "tainted by interest" but knowing itself is interest. Thus knowledge not only reflects the relativities of time and place but is inevitably a mode of domination,(19) a far cry from Rue's hope that scientific knowledge will provide a common story that will be everybody's. Furthermore, according to this postmodernist response, language that is embedded in hegemonic social practices so structures the self that even the individual is eclipsed. It is not the scientific story that replaces religious myth, as Rue and the makers of The Human Quest hope, but rather incredulity toward any metanarrative. The solution lies not in creating new metanarratives, scientific or otherwise, since all are would-be structures of domination, but in recognizing the "relativity of truth and thus the inevitability of domination."(20) The postmodern challenge, as John Milbank notes, "turns out not to be the challenge of knowledge that mirrors, but of a knowledge that is power. . . [I]s there, anything but power? Is violence the master of us all?"(21) The pathos of postmodernism, so understood, is a lingering nihilistic relativism. If all knowledge is social construction, how are we to discern if one social location is better than any other? Yet even to ask this question, for some, is seen as an assertion of hegemonic power.

As others have noted, however, postmodernism,(22) though apparently a radical criticism of modernity, shares some ground with it. First, the postmodern effort to show that science too is nonfoundational and hegemonic often revolves around the same axis as Rue's modernist effort to create a new myth on the basis of science alone. Nicholas Lash aptly describes this affinity between modernism and postmodernism: "it is as if the ideals of seventeenth century [have] been reversed. . . [W]e find ourselves enmeshed in endless labours of interpretation, all discourse seemingly unstable, pregnant with possibility and unforeseen disaster, heavy with allusions, dreams, and nightmares."(23) Second, modern and postmodern views of language often share common ground. The postmodern arguments against stability of meaning, as Nancey Murphy among others has noted, "all trade on modern assumptions about the nature of language. . . . if reference is the basis of all meaning then texts have no fixed meaning."(24) In other words, both modern and postmodern deconstructionist views of language derive meaning from reference to a kind of static, fixed text; if reference is not in place, all becomes destabilized. Finally, modern and postmodern views of the self are often continuous in that both reflect an alienation from the self and the world, whether the "disinterested spectator" of modernity, or the "deconstructed self" of postmodernity. In the latter view, the existentialist "I" ceases even to exist since authors become mouthpieces of hegemonic ideologies. Michel Foucault provides an example of this alienation: "It is not man who takes the place of God, but anonymous thinking, thinking without a subject."(25) Such anonymity and alienation, intensified in modernity, "ends with its consummation in the humanus absconditus; the writer has disappeared; the reader disappeared; even the critic who tells us this and its telling have disappeared."(26)

Rue's primary question was, "How can we move beyond particularistic (and interest-laden) religion or myth to a universal scientific story?" The postmodern answer has often been, "Isn't science also contingent, relativistic, and interest-laden?" Both of these responses, however, remain trapped in the "haunting dualism" of objectivism or relativism. I wish to address more fully how we might loosen our imaginations from this modern/postmodern hold. As I will argue below, the central mythos that supports this modern/postmodern framework misconstrues the nature of language, gives us a distorted picture of the knowing self, and thus easily leads us to misdescribe our knowing practices.

Gnosticism as a Central Mythos

To develop a genuine alternative, I wish first to consider more fully the mythos that informs this modern/postmodern framework. In asking this question, I am assuming that the knowing self is always "storied." If it is true that the self is "historical through and through," and that "we make sense -- or fail to make sense -- of our lives by the kind of story we can tell,"(27) then what myth or story has enabled the modern/postmodern dualism of objectivism or relativism to capture the contemporary imagination? I believe the modern/postmodern axis described above owes a profound debt to Gnosticism. If I am correct in this, then an alternative to these haunting dualisms can be found in an alternative to Gnosticism: an alternative that affirms the goodness of the created world, and by implication the faithfulness of God the Creator.

Let us first, however, recall briefly the shape of the gnostic narrative, and what "models of thinking" are available within this story. While Gnosticism is a diverse phenomenon, flowing into "vast streams of mythical narration, thence to mingle and intertwine," the gnostic myths share certain beliefs in common: "the fate of the divine spark present in humanity and its fall into a hostile world of shadows, where it forgets its true home, while unconsciously longing to return there; its wanderings and hopes, and the eventual arrival of a Saviour who will reveal its true origin and thus enable it to regain consciousness of its essential alienation from this world of shadows."(28) The Gnostic seeks to overcome his or her basic alienation from the world by means of escape through a special gnosis. This salvific knowledge liberates the Gnostic from the created world, a world that includes both history and nature. The gnosis reveals that the creator-God has no power over the spiritual self and thus removes from the God beyond the creator-God, the stigma of creation. A radical dualism governs the relation between God and the world, and analogously, between humans and the world. Gnosticism thus sees human bondedness to the world as bondage, and understands our particular places in the world in terms of negative limitation.(29)

The modern/postmodern axis, described earlier, shows striking similarities to some aspects of the gnostic drama: (1) the belief that our world -- in all its rich particularity and concreteness -- cannot be trusted, (2) the desire to abandon our world, and (3) the belief, then, that salvific knowledge lies in escape from the world. For modernists such as Rue, the limits of our particular worlds are divisive and therefore need to be overcome through the "disinterested spectator" of science. For the postmodern deconstructionist, such limits represent hegemonic control, and therefore must be unmasked through the "deconstructed self." Both the disinterested spectator of modernism and the "deconstructed self" of postmodernism reflect an alienation of self from the world, and salvific knowledge is found either in moving to a place which is "everybody's," or by denying that the self has a place.

Modern/postmodern beliefs that fail to accept the created world and our bondedness to this world as essentially good thus reenact, at least in part, the gnostic mythos. John Milbank, in his analysis of "ontological violence," observes how Derrida's grammatology relies upon an ancient myth: "And here one has to insist that it is not that the myth of Thoth concerning the supreme god and the treacherous scribe anticipated the positive truth of grammatology, but rather that grammatology just repeats (identically) the myth of Thoth."(30) In a similar vein, the mythos that gives us "objectivism/relativism" repeats the myth of Gnosticism, "a falling into a worldly prison from which we can alone be saved by the gnosis of our in principle ecumenic doubt."(31) Both objectivism, the belief that we can create a universal story, and relativism, the belief that knowledge is nothing more than a reflection of our interests or desires, fail to affirm that we live in a world created (and thus given) by a good God, in whose image we are made. Because of this belief in the world as essentially a place of negative limitation, a "prison," both display affinities to Gnosticism.

An Alternative

As my analysis indicates, a genuine alternative to the dualism of objectivism/relativism lies in an alternative myth: one that provides different conceptual resources for what it means to live and speak in the world. I wish now to turn more fully to a theological account of creation and covenant as an alternative to gnostic dualism. Creation and covenant, as displayed in the fullness of the biblical narrative, give us alternative understandings of speaking and knowing, and can thus enable us to understand theology and science beyond objectivism and relativism.

As indicated earlier, such an alternative, like the objectivistic/relativistic dualism itself, is both ethical and epistemological because it locates the knower in a particular place (ethos), a place that shapes how and what one comes to know. As Rowan Williams elaborates, "Certain models of thinking (epistemology) come to be available because of the presence of certain narratives about God and God's people."(32)

For the purposes of my essay, it is significant that in the Genesis account of creation, God creates the world through speech. God's word, which creates the world, is simultaneously God's deed. As some have interpreted the opening lines of John's Gospel, "in the beginning was the deed."(33) Most theologians have interpreted this story to mean that God speaks and creates the world out of nothing. The biblical account does not portray the world as eternally present, but rather describes the world as radically contingent upon God's word. Here we see displayed a conception of speech that is not driven by correspondence or noncorrespondence to an external reality. In other words, as noted earlier about modern/postmodern views, "reference" is not the basis of meaning. Rather words are deeds, modes of acting. The meaning of the word (deed) lies not in its reference (or lack of) to an external reality, but is derived from the faithfulness of the one who speaks/acts; in this case, God. The Psalmist captures this close alliance between God's words and deeds when he writes, "For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded and it stood forth" (Ps. 33:9). This notion of the faithfulness between God and God's words and deeds grounds the biblical understanding of covenant as well. God's covenant with Abraham and subsequent generations is contingent in that God does not have to establish such a covenant; it is something radically new. This act, however, reveals the nature of God to be one of utter faithfulness. That is, fulfillment of God's word is not measured in terms of something external to God, but rather by God's faithfulness to God's own word/deed.

The ancient Hebrews, oriented around such a notion of speech, thus located reality primarily in the spoken word. Yet, within this understanding, words are not primarily entities that mirror reality, nor are they simply entities that mask difference. Thorlief Boman notes that an Israelite would not have been able to "burst out contemptuously like Hamlet, 'Words, words, words!' for 'word' is in itself not only sound and breath but a reality."(34) For the ancient Israelite, the opposite of a faithful word, understood as deed, is not simply a mere word (might we say "relative"?) but "a counterfeit word, an empty word, or a lying word which did not possess the inner strength and truth for accomplishment or accomplished something evil."(35) Such negation or evil is conceptually parasitic on creatures who can speak and act faithfully as God does: who are created in the image of a God who created "on account of the love of His own goodness."(36) In contrast to Gnosticism in which evil rests in "the state of being in the world, the misfortune of existing,"(37) this biblical understanding claims that the evil which humans confess is more the act of speaking and doing evil. Míguez-Bonino describes this as follows: "The faith of Israel is consistently portrayed, not as a gnosis, but as a way, a particular way of acting, of relating inside and outside the nation, of ordering life at every conceivable level, which corresponds to God's own way with Israel."(38)

Such a perspective does not deny the violence, domination, and conflict present in the world. Postmodernism rightly notes how our words easily become oppressive, deceptive, and hegemonic. No external and static "text" can rescue us from the radical contingency and instability of our words. What saves us from the woes of our failed speech/deeds, however, is not a flight to some universal foundation. Neither is it simply the acceptance of the instability of all discourse. Both of these responses underwrite gnostic alienation from the created world.

Yet, if we acknowledge that our words often miss their mark, that our language may be oppressive to others even though we are unaware of it, what saves us from this predicament? Hannah Arendt provides interesting insights into this dilemma in her discussion of the irreversibility (and thus the instability) of speech and of the chaotic uncertainty of our existence, all of which the postmodernist rightly observes. How can one reverse or recover from the negative consequences, whether intended or not, of one's words? And given the unpredictability and contingency of the world in which we live, what prevents the systematic domination of the powerful? Arendt notes:

    The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility -- of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing -- is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose "sins" hang like Damocles' sword over every new generation; and the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships between men.(39)

Arendt observes that both of these practices, asking or giving forgiveness and making promises, depend upon a plurality, the presence and action of others. In Arendt's view, our words are not bound by that to which they eternally correspond, but this does not mean they are completely "unhinged." Rather, our words are bound or "stabilized" by our promises, and unbound or "destabilized" by our acts of forgiveness before others. At this point, Arendt herself is drawing from the Hebraic conception of speech outlined above: words are deeds, or modes of acting.

Even more significantly, however, in her analysis of words as modes of acting in the face of the seeming irreversibility of the past and instability of the future, Arendt turns to the Hebraic biblical understanding of covenant. Though Arendt does not develop this, she acknowledges her conceptual debt to the discoverer of covenant, Abraham, the man from Ur, "whose whole story, as the Bible tells it, shows such a passionate drive toward making covenants that it is as though he departed from his country for no other reason than to try out the power of mutual promise in the wilderness of the world."(40) Rather than alienation from the world, "covenant" places Abraham even more fully in the historical world. No longer is Abraham's existence defined primarily by tribal life rooted, as it was, in cyclical nature. Rather his life becomes defined most ultimately by the promise God makes to him in time. Such a promise does not entail escape from the world -- the gnostic hope -- but rather affirms Abraham's existence within the world. God wants to bless the world through Abraham and thus validates Abraham's existence by making a covenant with Abraham. Yet Abraham, for his part, is called to imitate the faithfulness of God. What saves Abraham from his failed deeds/words (i.e., passing his wife off as his sister) is God's faithfulness and Abraham's ability to renew his promise with God.

This story of the man who leaves Ur of the Chaldeans and sets out for the land of promise may sound far afield from the problems inherent in the modern/postmodern framework outlined above. However, central to the biblical concept of covenant, reflected not only in the story of Abraham but throughout the Bible, is the notion that who we are and how we come to know rests in our bondedness with others through our words and deeds. Nicholas Lash makes this point quite eloquently when he writes, "Whether in physics or in politics, in psychology or prayer, to grow in knowledge is to grow through trust: trust given, trust betrayed, trust risked, misplaced, sustained, received, and suffered."(41) Certainly Michael Polanyi's persistent claim that knowing is always "fiduciary" points to the essential role of trust in our feats of knowing. Polanyi describes knowing as "a fiduciary act which cannot be analyzed in noncommittal terms."(42) In other words, in all our knowing efforts we strive under the guidance of antecedent beliefs conveyed to us by other persons. Thus knowing proceeds by trust, a fact that neither objectivism nor relativism fully acknowledges. Rather, since both objectivism and relativism fail to reveal fully the stories that fuel their epistemologies, the result is that both ultimately relieve the knower of responsibility for the holding of his or her beliefs, and blind her to the necessity of shared beliefs in our heuristic epistemological efforts.

An understanding of knowledge as rooted in trust, however, is consistent with an affirmation of the goodness of the created world. Thus, the picture of the self that emerges is neither the unencumbered self of modernity, nor the eclipsed self of postmodernity. As suggested above, such disincarnate and ultimately gnostic images of the self give us distorted epistemologies that remain trapped in the objectivistic/relativistic dichotomies. From a covenantal epistemological perspective, however, we have no uncreated self that is alienated from the world of time, history, and community. Rather "covenant" places us as speakers and actors before others within time and history, and not only before others, but also ultimately before God. A biblical understanding indicates, in fact, that the speaker/actor par excellence is Yahweh, whose words and deeds are always faithful.

An emphasis on the goodness of the created world, on the trustworthiness of our created humanity, does not deny division, violence, and evil present in the world, all of which the Gnostic rightly perceives. But the solution is neither escape from the world to a universal foundation nor an acceptance of the world's fundamental instability and domination. Rather, within the biblical narrative, the violence and evil present in the world are ultimately overcome by hope in the faithfulness of God, who has acted and acts in creation and human history.(43) William Poteat contrasts this Hebraic notion with early Greek thought: "For the Greeks the particularity and transiency of our particular truths are overcome in the eternal logos; for the Hebrews they are comprehended and affirmed in the dynamic but ever faithful will of Yahweh."(44)


In this essay, I have tried to move beyond the haunting dualisms of objectivism (associated with modernism) and relativism (associated with postmodernism). To do this, I have argued that both modernity and postmodernity have been informed by a gnostic mythos that alienates the self from the world. From the perspective of modernism, this takes the form of the "disinterested spectator." From the perspective of postmodernism, it becomes the "deconstructed self" To overcome these dualisms, I have proposed the biblical concepts of creation and covenant as an alternative central mythos.

In both theology and science alike, an understanding of the self as covenantal, of words as deeds, and of knowing as involving acts of trust, provides a way beyond the dualisms that have haunted the modern and postmodern landscape. Such conceptions of selfhood, language, and knowledge are themselves grounded in a myth that is biblically informed; a story which centers on a God whose words are deeds, a story in which the central characters derive their identity from a binding covenant, and finally, a story in which the goodness of the world is affirmed, and therefore found trustworthy.(45)


1. [Back to text]  See among others, Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2d ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1984) and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy and Tradition (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame, 1990); Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1981) and The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1983); James McClendon, Systematic Theology, Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986) and Systematic Theology, Doctrine, vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).

2. [Back to text]  William H. Poteat, A Philosophical Daybook, Post-Critical Investigations (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1990), 5.

3. [Back to text]  Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Changing the Subject: Discourses and Feminist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 25.

4. [Back to text]  For an example of a political theorist arguing this alternative, see Murray Jardine Speech and Political Practice (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY, forthcoming).

5. [Back to text]  William H. Poteat, The Primacy of Persons and the Language of Culture, ed. James M. Nickell and James W. Stines (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1993), 37.

6. [Back to text]  Joseph Incandela, "Playing God: Divine Activity, Human Activity, and Christian Ethics," Cross Currents 46 (1996):60. Incandela notes that, going further back than Greek culture, "the Indo-European roots of 'ethics' underscore the sense of one's own place or habitation." He adds that W. W. Skeat's Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Oxford: Oxford University, 1924) makes clear that "the Sanskrit form is easily resolved into. . . . 'a placing of one's self' " (as quoted, n.4, 74).

7. [Back to text]  Loyal Rue, "Redefining Myth and Religion: Introduction to a Conversation," Zygon 20 (September 1994): 316.

8. [Back to text]  Ibid., 317.

9. [Back to text]  Ibid., 318.

10. [Back to text]  Ibid., 319.

11. [Back to text]   Philip Hefner, "Stories Science Tells: Defining the Human Quest," The Christian Century 112 (May 10, 1995): 510.

12. [Back to text]  Ibid., 511. Thomas Nagel and others describe such a view as a form of "scientism," which Nagel defines as follows: "At its most myopic, [scientism] assumes that everything there is must be understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have developed to date -- physics and evolutionary biology are the current paradigms," in The View from Nowhere, 9.

13. [Back to text]  Hefner, "Stories Science Tells," 512.

14. [Back to text]  John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 344. This story that transcends story all too often accepts the following plot: "in the Middle Ages everyone relied on authority, and that was arbitrary, non-objective and bad, and then along came Copernicus, Galileo and Newton and everything was scientific, objective and good. Or, in reaction to this: do your own thing," in Greene, "The Personal and the Subjective," Tradition and Discovery, The Polanyi Society Periodical 22 (1995-96): 7.

15. [Back to text]  Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958) 233.

16. [Back to text]  Ibid., 231.

17. [Back to text]  Hefner quotes philosopher Philip Kitchner from the documentary: while welcoming cultural diversity, Kitchner states that Western culture represents the world accurately in a way no other culture has been able to do. "Sometimes there are 'right answers, and sometimes certain groups of people in the world achieve those right answers.' " Hefner rightly questions Kitchner's assumption that what Western culture does better than any other is define the ultimate human quest ("Stories Science Tells," 511).

18. [Back to text]  Jardine, Speech and Political Practice, 4

19. [Back to text]  Thus the cultural winners have determined the hegemonic boundaries of knowledge, excluding and silencing those who are oppressed. That is, "pervasive social practices. . . . exercise systematic power or domination over those who are caught up in them," in Joseph Dunne, "Beyond Sovereignty and Deconstruction: The Storied Self," Philosophy and Social Criticism 21 (1995): 143.

20. [Back to text]  Jardine, Speech and Political Practice, 11.

21. [Back to text]  Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 276.

22. [Back to text]  The kind of postmodernism I am describing is often called deconstructive or eliminative postmodernism. Douglas Sloan, for one, contrasts eliminative or putative postmodernism with constructive or revisionary postmodernism. "The aim of eliminative or deconstructive postmodernism. . . . is to overcome the modern worldview by eliminating the possibility of any worldviews at all," in Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 222.

23. [Back to text]  Nicholas Lash, "Contemplation, Metaphor, and Real Knowledge," unpublished paper, delivered at "Knowing God, Christ and Nature in the Post-Positivistic Era," Symposium, University of Notre Dame (April 14-17, 1993): 17, my emphasis.

24. [Back to text]  Nancey Murphy, "Textual Relativism, Philosophy of Language, and the Baptist Vision," in Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy and Mark Nation, Theology without Foundations: Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 258.

25. [Back to text]  As quoted, in Murphy, "Textual Relativism, Philosophy of Language, and the Baptist Vision," 253.

26. [Back to text]  William H. Poteat, Recovering the Ground: Critical Exercises in Recollection (New York: State University of New York, 1994), 79.

27. [Back to text]  Dunne, "Beyond Sovereignty and Deconstruction," 144 and 146.

28. [Back to text]  Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 38.

29. [Back to text]  In addition to Filoramo, the following books were resources for my description of Gnosticism: Philip Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (New York: Oxford, 1987), and Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958).

30. [Back to text]  Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 309.

31. [Back to text]  Poteat, Recovering the Ground, 210.

32. [Back to text]  Rowan Williams in Rethinking Metaphysics ed. L. Gregory Jones and Stephen E. Fowl (Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), 20.

33. [Back to text]  Goethe in Faust, as quoted by Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 31 e.

34. [Back to text]  Thorlief Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 66.

35. [Back to text]  Ibid.

36. [Back to text]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Hannah Arendt makes a similar point about such conceptual dependence when discussing Augustine: "With the creation of man the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before," in The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958), 177. That is, our ability to act (meaning to begin), to usher in a reality through our words and deeds, is conceptually dependent upon God's action of creating.

37. [Back to text]  Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics, quoting Paul Tillich, 51.

38. [Back to text]  As quoted in Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reasons within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), 161.

39. [Back to text]  Arendt, The Human Condition, 237, my emphasis.

40. [Back to text]  Arendt, 243.

41. [Back to text]  Lash, "Contemplation, Metaphor, and Real Knowledge," 4.

42. [Back to text]  Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 294.

43. [Back to text]  It is important to state that from a Christian perspective, incarnation illuminates creation, and vice versa. David Burrell notes that Aquinas, for example, states that "knowledge of God's trinity helps immensely in clarifying one's understanding of creation." God does not create out of some necessary emanation scheme. Describing God as a procession of love (Trinity) makes clear that God creates "through love of His own goodness." Burrell elaborates: "the doctrine of the trinity of God allows Christians to take the teaching they share with Jews and Muslims -- that creation is God's free gift and incorporate it into their doctrine of God, so bringing that teaching from the realm of insistent assertion to that of theological coherence," in "Incarnation and Creation: The Hidden Dimension," Modern Theology 12:2 (April 1996): 215-16. In a similar vein, John McDade, S.J., states that, in the language of Christian theology, salvation "takes place within the context of the Creator's sustaining presence to the creation, as the moment of intensity which focuses the Creator's love," in The Month (November 1990): 436.

44. [Back to text]  Poteat, A Philosophical Daybook, 66.

45. [Back to text]  One question that has arisen in response to my essay is, "Does the covenant theme as displayed in the biblical narrative offer resources for overcoming the objective/relative dualism to people who do not place themselves within the three Abrahamic religious traditions? Does it offer resources to Buddhists, or atheists or others?" To respond briefly, I think inasmuch as my essay emphasizes the unavoidability of mythos and imagination in forming our epistemological efforts, it hopefully enables us to reflect and articulate more fully which myths shape our epistemological assumptions. Only when such myths are more fully acknowledged can we have genuine dialogue about possible points of convergence, of learning from each other, and deeper clarity about crucial differences. In addition, while I do not develop this point here, I also agree with Polanyi's understanding (itself biblically informed) about the heuristic power of truthful knowledge. Genuine knowledge has anticipatory powers that reveal clues to future problems, to yet unthinkable further discoveries, an approach certainly fruitful, I think, for interreligious dialogue.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 1.