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Sunday, September 15, 2013

An Example of My Classwork for Grad School

So I'm finally pursuing my Master of Theological Studies, with an emphasis on Christianity and the Contemporary Culture and Educational Foundations for Teens and Young Adults. I'm now in my second class. The first was Calling, Vocation, and Work, which I took on-site in St. Louis this summer, and this current one is Covenant Theology I, which I am taking through the distance learning program.

So far in CTI, we are talking about epistemology: how we know. It's been very philosophical so far, trying to grasp the ideas of objectivity and subjectivity, and whether one negates the other. We have moved into "critical realism," which embraces our subjectivity as not only inevitable but necessary and good.

Here's one example of the type of question and answer homework we are producing now. This is my response, which is posted on a class forum. I must say that I have the most respectful classmates I could ever have imagined. The dialogue that follows a posting, even if it is in disagreement or points out an outright error, has been filled with graceful, kind, supportive words.

What does N.T. Wright mean that critical realism is "essentially a relational epistemology" that offers a narrative account of reality?

My response:

The question of how we know that what we know is really true has been asked for millennia. Long abandoned by most philosophers is the idea that there can be any completely objective knowledge about anything, since we who are seeking such knowledge are subjects, bringing our own perceptions and limitations to the object. While some, for a time, might have held that certain things could be tested empirically and therefore known objectively, they had to admit that a vast realm of knowledge then had to be labeled as unknowable because of the inability to test and measure it. The result of this was relativism, which denies that anything can be verifiably known, since all is subjective and nothing, therefore, is certain.

But that leaves us with no ground to stand on where knowledge is concerned. We cannot throw out all knowledge as if it is nonsense. Phenomenalism tried again to approach the collection of knowledge through data perceived by the senses, but modified its expression of that sense-date-perception with a sort of humility, being careful not to make too substantial a claim about the knowledge being gained, and leaving the door open for debate. But the result is that knowledge becomes not about the world itself; it can simply be about what I perceive the world to be. It’s really all about me, then.

Mr. Wright proposes a way of approaching knowledge which he calls critical realism. He says we first must acknowledge “the reality of the thing known as something other than the knower.” It exists, and it is separate from me. Additionally, he acknowledges that the only way I can know something about the thing is to be in relationship to it. Therefore, we accept that there is an inevitable subjectivity to the knowledge I can have, but that subjectivity does not invalidate the reality of the object. While the object is “independent of the knower,” the knowledge about the object is “never itself independent of the knower.” In this sense, it is a relational epistemology. It is through my relationship with the object, and my critique of that object, that I will gain knowledge about the object.

This relational epistemology is narrative in nature because we humans, as image bearers of a God who reveals himself in the stories of scripture, has set us into a reality of a moving history. All that we have experienced is woven together into a fabric of stories which form our own worldviews—the framework through which we enter into relationships with the objects of our knowledge. And those objects—whether they are inanimate, animate, or fellow humans—each carry with them their own stories. Stories shape our current worldviews. They may confirm them by offering overlapping stories that illustrate or elaborate the same knowledge we have come to hold. Or they may challenge or contradict our own stories. In either case, we relate to the new stories and respond and adapt our knowledge accordingly, as we are presented with additional relationship that allows those stories to be told.

I particularly appreciated this sentence from page 40 regarding stories as metaphors to change understanding: “Metaphor consists in bringing two sets of ideas close together, close enough for a spark to jump, but not too close, so that the spark, in jumping, illuminates for a moment the whole area around, changing perceptions as it does so.” My world overlaps in relationship with many others, so all our stories are constantly serving to shape by close proximity and response, the knowledge each other is developing as we seek to make sense of the reality we are placed in and are a part of. We are not detached observers of our world, but we are designed by God to be actively involved in (in relationship to) other people and the physical creation itself, and in terms of our epistemology, we are always building on the knowledge we have already acquired.


Jane Whitman said...

Really like that illustration of metaphor and stories connecting us.

Jane Whitman said...

And you and I have in our head and heart so much about each other that connects us to our present reality and how we make sense of that reality. I think I know your story more than you know mine but that's ok. But my story that I have lived enables me to identify with yours. (Reading your blogs takes me into a deeper place with you .

--Rebecca said...

Yes, we do, don't we Jane?
Thank you for so faithfully reading. And I would love to know more of your story.