During this last week, I did a lot of reading. It was the most I’ve done for my Dmin yet. Cosmopolis, by Stephen Toulmin, was the longest and densest book I’ve read in a while. It was only 209 pages long, but it was a book about historical philosophy. And I wasn’t excited to read it.
As I slogged through it, though, I found that it challenged a ton of my core assumptions about Christianity.
I will try to distill what Toulmin asserts in the next few hundred words. Then I’ll explain how he challenged me.
An alternative view of Modernity
Many historians and philosophers describe the last roughly 400 years as the Modern period. Although people debate about it’s beginning and ending, many people believe Modernity began around the beginning of the 17th century. Many believe that what French philosopher, Rene Descartes, espoused a new way of thinking that became known as Rationalism, that was one of the primary beginnings of the Modern era.
In its essence, Rationalism is a movement toward universal, abstract, timeless truths. Descartes and those who followed would claim that a truth should be logical in any context. Everybody is therefore born with a clean slate, and is able to create rational beliefs using reason.
This has been the prevailing mode of thinking up until about the 1960’s. Since that time, people have started to focus their thoughts more about their particular context. People have recognized that our circumstances greatly influence our beliefs. It’s nearly impossible to assert timeless truths that anybody can figure out in any context during any time in history.
Toulmin, the author, though, argues that even Descartes’ ideas of Rationalism are heavily based on their particular context. Thus, Modernity was not a constant progression of increasingly enlightened thought that developed in a vacuum. Modernity was not the golden age that many have considered it to be.
Toulmin points to various events that transpired in the 17th century that influence the thinking of philosophers like Descartes. Europe was racked with violence over issues concerning Catholics and Protestants from the Thirty Years War. In addition, Henri the 4th, of France, was assassinated in 1610. He was viewed by many as the best hope of moderation and tolerance in the midst of the growing religious polarities.
So these tumultuous events, Toulmin suggests, motivated people like Descartes to develop a system of thinking that depended on stable, timeless, and universal truths. It was a way to provide stability against a backdrop of violence and upheaval.
The reason this distinction is so important is that it demonstrates that the Rationalism of Modernity isn’t necessary the best thing for humanity. In fact, the mindset of the late 16th century was much more tolerant and humble than that of the 17th century. Also, many of the worldviews people have today are similar to what people felt in the late 16th century before the onset of Rationalistic Modernity.
A challenge to my worldview
As an Evangelical Christian, I’ve struggled over recent years as I watched my denomination (PCUSA) wrestle with various theological issues. I’ve witnessed many people seemingly abandon Christian truths that I’ve considered to be essential.
One of the hallmarks of Evangelicalism is a solid commitment to timeless, Biblical truths. There are certain beliefs, like the divinity of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, humanity’s need for a Savior, that are non-negotiable. And I’ve prided myself on maintaining these beliefs, and helping to make sure that others do as well.
If Toulmin’s argument is to be taken at face value, much of what I believe as a Christian is based on a particular historical context. Meaning, Christians throughout various times in history have not always believed what I do. Before the onset of Modernity and Rationalism, Christians during the late 16th century were more tolerant of various beliefs and never claimed to have an authoritative understanding of their faith.
In essence, Toulmin’s book argues that many of the beliefs I’ve maintained as essentials to the Christian faith are simply products of Modernity, and have their roots in Rationalism. Further, there’s quite a long legacy of Christians through the centuries who’ve believed differently than me.
Granted, this is one philosopher/historian’s viewpoint, but he was rather compelling in his presentation of it. He laid out his case well, using historical examples with eloquence.
I suppose I’ve always understood that our beliefs are influenced by our context. However, seeing that God is bigger than particular movements within history, I’ve always assumed that various aspects of the Christian faith must inherently be timeless if they are about God.
I also don’t know anything about the faith of the author. Using his own argument, his own context must also impact his beliefs, as well.
So where do we go from here?
One logical extension of this idea is that nothing is absolute since it’s all based on our experience. Yet, even Toulmin argues that we shouldn’t abandon all that Modernity contributed to us. The challenge for us is discerning what is timeless truth, and what is simply a product of its context.
So I leave leave it up to you. How do we discover which truths are timeless (if there are any) and which beliefs are rooted in our own experience? Is it even possible to discern the difference?