The Cantankerous Critic: “Epistemology, Now That’s a Fun Word”

 By Scott Keith


When I was an undergrad, being the theological nerd that I was (and probably still am) I always looked forward to the weekly radio program The White Horse Inn, co-starring my favorite professor Dr. Rod Rosenbladt. The tagline for the show, “know what you believe and why you believe it,” still rings in my head every time I teach. The program is still running, though it has lost the benefit of live call in questions from the audience and is now a podcast. The particular program that haunts me to this day is one where the hosts sent a man on the street reporter to the annual conference for professionals in Christian radio. The man on the street reporter roamed around the conference asking everyone he encountered to define the Gospel. Sadly, very few people could define it, and those who made an attempt somehow missed referring to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ on their behalf. It was one of the first times I recall specifically realizing the deplorable state that we are in culturally when it comes to knowing why we believe what we do.

Further, the situation is no better when it comes to those holding to strictly secular world views either, even for those who seem to be thoroughgoing naturalists. Often those who hold dearly to a naturalistic evolutionary worldview do so because of a set of facts they presumably were fed and wholeheartedly consumed sometime in high school. These same people often can’t reproduce the basic algebra they learned at the same time, or recall when Columbus made his epic voyage, but they somehow know for sure that evolution is a “fact” not a theory, though they don’t know exactly why.


Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m open to the debate over these issues. In fact, I welcome the debate concerning the epistemology of scientific naturalism and other secular world views over and against the epistemology of Christianity. Nor am I attacking evolution as a theory. Rather I’m attacking naturalism as a presupposition to any theory, especially one that claims to be inductive in nature. And yes, I understand that the The Hypothetico-deductive model, or method, has the word “deductive” in it and at its end uses deduction, strictly speaking, to attain its conclusions. But, the method is supposedly founded on the premise that inductive observations will lead to a hypothesis that that could conceivably be falsified by a test based on observable data. Thus, inductive methodology is part and parcel to the scientific method, especially in the natural sciences. The problem is that naturalism, the idea that the natural world is a closed system and cannot be influenced from the outside, i.e. by God, is the basis of this method. How can it be said that all of the data is being tested if an enormous data set is being eliminated a priori? And let us not forget, Darwin was a scientist. Do we really believe that his intent was to put forward a worldview that was to be unquestioningly held to like the worst form of charismatic Christianity? But really, the problem is that it is difficult to find those who hold this worldview who know its epistemology, or could even explain as much about as I just did to all of you.


Now epistemology is a fun word, but what does it mean? Epistemology is a branch of study within philosophy which seeks to answer the question of how we attain knowledge, if indeed it is possible to do so. In other words, it is the practice of knowing what we believe and why we believe it. The reality is that we all believe something about the world, the origin of things, what will happen after we die, issues of right and wrong, and pastor Koch’s favorite whipping boy of late, issues of quality. The problem is that very few people, and to my chagrin, especially Christians, rarely ask why they believe what they do. Furthermore, they fail to ask what sources or authorities have influenced them to believe what they do. Sources of authority always effect our epistemology as very few people (really none) are born into the world having already set in place firmly held together ideas regarding these worldview issues, or issues of quality and deeply held beliefs. So, the question is, what authorities have influenced us and furthermore, are they good or bad authorities? These questions need to be asked. Why are we content to go through our lives never asking why we think a particular thing is right or wrong? Why are we content to be Christians without ever asking ourselves did Christ really rise from the dead and how do we know that to be the case? (Paul has something to say about this in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, you should check it out.) We need to ask ourselves what we believe and why we believe it. We need to ask ourselves this question regarding our worldview, our political views, our religious views, our moral and ethical views, our philosophical views, and even our views concerning marriage, parenting and the like.


At the risk of sounding cliché, it seems appropriate to quote Socrates, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Or if Socrates is not your cup of tea, maybe listen to the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:15, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Finally, at the risk of being accused of using this medium for the sake of a shameless plug, I will be at Grace Lutheran Church, in Ventura California tonight starting at 6:30pm teaching a class on the Epistemology of Theology. Pastor Koch has been kind enough to invite me to get into the mix of the conversation with other brothers and sisters in Christ as we learn, talk, and maybe even argue about what we believe and why we believe it. If you around Ventura California tonight, I hope to see you there.

Caravaggio DoubtingThomas 1602-3