A Book that Hit Me in the Gut

September 11, 2012 — 7 Comments


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.

Stephen Toulmin, professor of Philosophy

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?



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  • Clayton M

    We Christians must recognize that for revelation to exist there must be one who reveals and one to whom it is revealed. There is no abstracted, idealized revelation–only the intimate and contextual. For revelation to be realized, it must be revealed again and again in each generation and each life. As Christians, we believe that it is Christ and Christ’s Spirit who do this.

    It is terrifying–especially for those of us raised in a post-Enlightenment world–but it is also beautiful. Revelation is the incarnation come again.

  • Clayton M

    We Christians must recognize that for revelation to exist there must be one who reveals and one to whom it is revealed. There is no abstracted, idealized revelation–only the intimate and contextual. For revelation to be realized, it must be revealed again and again in each generation and each life. As Christians, we believe that it is Christ and Christ’s Spirit who do this.

    It is terrifying–especially for those of us raised in a post-Enlightenment world–but it is also beautiful. Revelation is the incarnation come again.

    • Very well put, Clayton! It is terrifying, yet beautiful at the same time. It is precisely in the particular – first century Roman occupied Jerusalem – where God became one of us as the Son of a carpenter’s fiance, and changed the course of human history. Through the particular, God reveals His very self to us.

  • Ben Craig

    Hi Austin. This is a great blog, and I have really enjoyed reading it. I felt a desire to respond because this topic interests me greatly. I have been teaching and talking about this for the past couple years, and I am always surprised at how much resistance I get inside the church. I am also relishing the opportunity to avoid writing the test that I should be writing. There are a lot of more radical stances in this movement that strike me more as wishful thinking, but I like a lot of what it has to offer. (The bad versions are the relativistic readings akin to Lebowski’s “Well that’s just, like, your opinion man.”)

    I think it is important to remember two very closely related points concerning how Toulmin’s book relates back to our Christian faith. One, this doesn’t mean that we cannot have truths. Even though we derive our truths from a context, we can both agree that when there is a train coming, we should get off the tracks. This places more weight of the inward and outward experience of Christ. From my understanding of Toulmin’s work, he certainly does not want to tell us that we cannot have rationality. We just wants to reform our view of rationality.

    Two, Stephen Toulmin also wrote a really important logic book, “The Uses of Arguments.” He championed a new way of looking at logic. It’s a book that I have used when teaching logic. Instead of trying to teach students abstract principles and then forcing the student to shove them into experience–which always feels like forcing square pegs in round holes–he flips it. He talks about when we experience the need for logic and rationality and how we develop tools for these experiences. The important part, again, is that experience comes first. It is a movement of priority, not of “either, or.” Experience of Christ is more important that abstract, timeless, knowledge of Him. Again, we can have doctrines and dogmas, but only if we recognize that they come from experience. Two plus two still equals four but not because my math teacher told me so. It’s because in my experience every time I place two things next to two other things, I keep getting four. We humans have a habit of deriving rules and laws from experience and then forgetting where they came from

    This vein of Christianity has had a really long and prosperous linage until recently, albeit it is making a comeback. Thomas a Kempis wrote, “I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.” Augustine’s “Confessions” is inundated with this mentality. There are others too: Origen, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi (favorite of mine), St. Theresa of Avila, St. Bonaventure,Thomas Merton, heck, even St. Thomas’s Summa Contra Gentiles starts with our experiences of motion, and causality by way of pushing rocks and lighting fires. It was also the argument of the first Christians. “How do we know Christ rose? We experienced him with our eyes and with our hearts, and you can too.”

    There has also been a couple of Christian Apologists that have suggested that this shift removes the possibility of evangelism. I’m not sure about that either. It just allows God to do the work of showing Himself to whoever in experience.

    If you want to read more of this kind of thing from a biblical perspective, Merold Westphal and James K. A. Smith write fantastic books. Merold Westphal is always likely to point out that this view point just humbly states that we do know things timelessly. That’s God’s job, cause he the one that is timeless.

    What are your thoughts?

    All the best,

    PS. Also, I have a good exchange between Merold Westphal, who I just mentioned, and Douglas Groothius, a Christian apologist that has spent a lot of time trying to make this vein of Christianity look like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a quick read. I just went looking for it to post the link here. It use to be free on the internet but for some reason you have to have a subscription to the magazine now. If you email me, I can send it over.

    *sorry if this was too long for this forum*

    • I am a Toulmin fan and have read Return to Reason and Cosmopolis. I liked your explanation of his argument that principles come from experience and that when they become detached from that experience we run the risk of becoming dogmatic, espousing context-free principles that do not apply to practice.

      My field is management and the teaching of context-free principles, which students are then expected to “apply” in practice, is endemic (and doesn’t work).

      As far as Christianity is concerned, among the leading exponents of this approach were the Quakers of the 17th and 18th centuries. They really set out to get rid of a lot of principles not tied to experience because, in their view, they interfered with their direct experience of the spirit. As is well known, they rejected all of the Old Testament and most of the New, accepting only John and Matthew’s sermon on the Mount a.k.a. “The Quaker Text”.

      Only John wrote of a Christ in the present that could be experienced by anyone. This undogmatic openness to experience and their refusal to separate religion from business made them hugely successful entrepreneurs. Over time, however, this success undermined their plain values, reminding one of Wesley’s concern that:

      “I fear, wherever riches have increased, (exceeding few are the exceptions,) the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality; and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, and anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”

      it’s a parable for our times too!

  • sheldon dance

    What about tackling not only cultural values from our own day and time that we have mistaken as essential to the Gospel, but also the cultural values informing the biblical texts themselves? Acknowledging this makes a lot of evangelicals nervous, but they seem to act as though this were true: Aren’t women allowed to speak in church, not waiting patiently for the service to end so that they can ask their husband a question in private? Isn’t okay for a woman to have a uncovered head in a service? And this is where evangelicals (most) want to draw the line: Aren’t Paul’s views of homosexuality the product of his culture and not reflective of God’s inclusive love?

    I am not a Presbyterian, so am not sure of where they stand, but haven’t they recently agreed to ordain open homosexuals? Are they acknowledging the cultural influence of Paul’s writing?

  • scrhill

    Wow. Even this post was a little bit over my head… I can’t imagine swallowing te whole book! Kudos!