Rut Etheridge on the Crisis in Epistemology

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

Over the past year I have spent a lot of time reading books on the very broad topic of reformed theology in education. As I promised you last time, I hope to soon provide some conclusions. Before I do so, I have one more book to touch upon; it is God Breathed: Connecting through Scripture to God, Others, the Natural World, and Yourself by Rut Etheridge III (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2019).

Etheridge’s purpose is to speak to a generation disillusioned by the Church. Along the way, he addresses the underlying philosophy of the modern mindset which in turn raises the issue of epistemology — what we know and how we know it. Though Etheridge does not touch on education as such, the question of epistemology is at the heart of our discussion.

Our Epistemological Problem and How We Got Here

In a world of “alternative facts,” it should be no surprise that young people in particular have no belief in absolute truth. Etheridge coins a phrase, “the ceiling of self,” to describe the current state of things. What this phrase embodies is the idea that we cannot get beyond our own experience. We cannot know beyond ourselves.

“Beneath the ceiling of self, we can never get beyond ourselves in our knowledge of reality. All we have is perception” (p. 5).

This is a very sad place to be. Though Etheridge primarily wants to reach young adults trapped under this “ceiling,” my purpose today is simply to talk about how we got here.

After the rise of an increasingly authoritarian Church in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation swept in like a refreshing wind, bringing a return to both Revelation and Reason. Our reformed confessions speak of two sources of divine revelation — God’s written Word and His Creation work together. Our God-given Reason allows us to access both. [1]

As with so many issues in life, the problem comes when we humans over-emphasize one side at the expense of the other. Rene Descartes believed God could be proven by Reason alone. He famously said: “I think therefore I am.” By this he meant that “human reason, by itself, could teach us everything we needed to know about God” (p. 3).  As Etheridge explains, he went wrong right from the start, making his own Reason the first principle by which all else, even God, is judged.

A century or so later, Immanuel Kant drove another nail in the coffin. He perhaps had good motives, seeking to preserve God’s dignity, when he argued that we cannot know God. This is really where Etheridge’s “ceiling of self” begins. Kant said that we cannot get beyond our own perceptions (p.5). Perception thus becomes our reality. If my senses tell me something different than what your senses tell you, we very quickly get to the point of saying that we each live in our own unique realities. What is true for me need not necessarily be true for you (and vice-versa).

In the wake of Kant we enter fully into the Enlightenment. In the Enlightenment, human Reason would be elevated as the supreme standard to the exclusion of Revelation and with little acknowledgment of the effects of human fallenness. Deism, the religion of the day, says that though God may exist, He is distant and unknowable. We live our lives largely without His direct influence and action. [2] With God safely tucked away, the Enlightenment thinkers elevated Reason as the only means to know truth. This again makes truth individualistic. I know truth by looking inward, to my own Reason. You may look inward and not find the same truth. My inward Reason becomes the judge of all that is external. The Enlightenment assumed the infallibility of Reason. It was a very optimistic time, sure of human progress. The disillusionment was to come later.

For all their flaws, Descartes and Kant still held on to some belief that there was a God, however unknowable. The Enlightenment thinkers placed God at a distance. Friedrich Nietzsche took their beliefs to their logical conclusion and got God out of the equation altogether. Using Etheridge’s analogy, “Nietzsche didn’t believe in the ceiling because he didn’t believe in anything above it” (p. 65). Kant said we could not know the absolute; Nietzsche denied there was an absolute.

Where We Are and Where We Need to Be

Thus the philosophical underpinnings of our current epistemological crisis. Of course, most people aren’t thinking about Descartes or Nietzsche. At best they have a vague sense either that there is no absolute truth or that, if it is out there somewhere, that we can’t know it.

The philosophical situation we have inherited from Kant, Nietzsche, and others is unsustainable. It breeds conflict as my truth quickly runs up against your truth. There is an internal struggle as well. Despite our best efforts to suppress it, we all have some inborn sense of right and wrong, but with no absolute, external standard we are hard-pressed to convince others or to explain our own beliefs and actions. Trying to live in the world relying only on our fallen human Reason as a guide is a bit like running around with bent, broken sticks trying to measure things. We all have different standards and none of them is accurate anyway.

Even if we can’t put it into words, we sense that this situation is deficient and unsustainable. Disillusioned with Reason, some have turned to Feeling to replace it. If thinking is suspect, how about emotion and intuition as substitutes? Of course, this is just another internal, fallible standard.

Etheridge provides an alternative: “God never meant human reason to try to function apart from his revelation of his own character” (p. 92). Reason must be acknowledged as fallible and it must be subordinated to a higher, infallible standard. When we do so, when we submit Reason to Revelation, everything else begins to make sense

“The humility that accepts the Bible’s first ten words as true simply admits that we are not in ultimate control — of anything . . . Everything besides God . . . finds its true worth and meaning in  relationship to God.” (p.43)

Implications for Education

In the beginning of this post, I used the words “epistemological crisis.” I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that we as a society are in crisis mode. While I am not young, I have two children in high school and two in college and their reports are that their friends simply do not believe in absolute truth. They are a generation adrift with nothing to hold on to because they do not believe there is an absolute and, even if there were, they do not believe they can know it.

I have been arguing in this series that we need a Reformed Christian approach to education and, as a part of that, a biblical epistemology. If we do not have a biblically-based theory of knowing, we end up, well, there we are. The essentials of this biblical epistemology are simple: There is an absolute Truth which exists apart of us humans. We are able to know because God has chosen to reveal this Truth to us through His two books: Revelation and Creation. There we access through our God-given, albeit fallen, Reason. As promised, I am working on my summary of all we have read about education and reformed theology, but this is the foundation. It is about what is to be known and how we can know it.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] For a more complete discussion see this earlier post on Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics. A fairly accessible book on the ideas behind the Reformation is Benjamin Wiker’s The Reformation 500 Years Later (though it should be taken with some reservation as Wiker himself is Roman Catholic; see my review here).

[2] Kant, Etheridge tells us, would not have been a fan of Deism (p. 54). Nonetheless, it is a logical conclusion of his philosophy.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] on some aspects of this book with regard to my main topic which is education; you can find that here.) Etheridge is a (former?) chaplin at a Christian college who writes to college-age students […]

    Reply

  2. […] be our sole means of knowing.  It is a tool and was not meant to function apart from Revelation. (Crisis in Epistemology; Fesko on Natural Law and […]

    Reply

  3. […] God-Breathed by Rut Etheridge — This volume is written to teens and young adults who were raised in Christian homes but have become disillusioned or never really gotten what true Christian faith is. I was not crazy about this book but there are some good bits, particularly those in which Etheridge discusses philosophy. My full review is here. […]

    Reply

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