Monday, December 10, 2007

Phil Johnson: Certainly Clueless

Phil Johnson from this post over at Pyromaniacs a couple days ago:

Any assertion not so qualified risks being labeled "excessive confidence," which according to Brian McLaren is a "cancer" responsible for practically everything that's wrong in the world.

Except for one thing. When you start seeing what a noxious malignancy certainty is, then it's OK to be really, really confident about uncertainty itself. In McLaren's words, "Thinking along these lines, I became convinced that, yes, many of our world's worst atrocities were indeed the result of overconfidence" (Everything Must Change, p. 39).

You won't hear postmodernists or their Emerging-church cousins saying many things with that kind of settled conviction! But their doubts about certainty per se are unwaveringly emphatic.
You don't have to read very much of Phil's stuff to understand his penchant for projecting his own problems onto his opponents. Here, he's annoyed because Emergent types somehow maintain some certainty in their uncertainty about various theological issues.

You see, certainty for Phil is some thing you do, like mowing your lawn. It's not the result of a process of weighing and evaluation evidences with reason and logic, it's the means to an end, not the end itself, of an inquiry or anything else. A good pyromaniac is certain because being certain is good, so long its about the things a Pyro should be certain about (other things not sanctioned by Johnson demand solipsistic skepticism, but that's for another post).

We're dealing two different objects of scrutiny here, and this is a either a subtlety Phil just can't grasp, or Phil's hard in "spin mode" here. Uncertainty about theological propositions is the natural, rational, default position, if only because for so many theological claims there is no "feedback loop" to provide any objective verification about the basic soundness of the claim. Certainty about doubts themselves is trvial to justify, on the other hand. The doubts may be unfounded, but certainty about the fact that one has doubts needs nothing more than a little introspection to establish. In the case of historical abuses and tragic moral transgressions by Christians, there's little controversy in being certain there either. Can we be certain that murderous abuses of ecclesiastical power by, say, Torquemada or Calvin were, in fact, cases of extreme overconfidence in one's theological views?

Think about what uncertainty in that regard means from Phil's standpoint: Maybe Torquemada was right after all, or the nice folks who put Michael Servetus to death were as right as rain, and entitled to their confidence in it.

Here's a paragraph from a little further on in the post:

Ironically, the canonization of doubt as a virtue is also a clear echo of the very worst tendency of modernism (see the Ronald Nash quote above)—which means, really, that the "postmodern" skepticism of our Emerging friends isn't technically postmodern at all. Their modernist ancestors were fine with so-called scientific certainties; but they despised spiritual certainties—especially certainties grounded in the conviction that the Bible is truly God's Word. Emergent Christianity has expanded (not rejected) the modernist mindset by insisting on uncertainty about everything—except, of course, the infallible dogma of uncertainty.
Setting aside Phil's hyperbole here ("canonization of doubt" -- sheesh, point me to that canon, I'd like to see that!), what we have is Phil's objection to confidence in modernist empirical claims not being extended automatically to similar confidence in pre-modern spiritual claims. This may be news to Phil, but it shouldn't be news to anyone else -- these are claims with completely different epistemic foundations. They have different levels of trust to the reasoning mind because they deserve different levels of trust. Spiritual claims do not and cannot perform and be tested or falsified the way empirical claims can. We trust empirical claims because they are performative, and we reserve confidence in spiritual claims because they are speculative, and afford no validation or verification -- even in Phil's best case -- until after the inquirer is dead.

It's a hall of mirrors, looking through the "Phil Johnson" lens - an inchoate epistemology if there ever was one. That's bad enough, but read the whole post (or any of his posts), and note the supreme confidence Phil has in his perverted certainty.

1 comment:

KBC said...

I was sent the link to Phil Johnson's page and was glad he at least included a link to yours.

Thanks for a mature, reasoned response to this "new breed" of hyper-Calvinists.

Although I poke fun at many faces and facets of the PM movement there is much I am in agreement with..especially its criticisms of Enlightenment conceptions of rationality and certainty.

Thanks again for a good response!