Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Specter of Antithesis

Presuppositional apologists often frame the conflict between their “worldview” and all other worldviews in terms of a fundamental antithesis between Christianity on the one hand, and “unbelieving thought” on the other. The intention behind this notion of “antithesis” seems to be the self-serving portrayal of Christianity as the lone champion of truth contending against every other conceivable worldview as if they were mutually exclusive. This is certainly one of the take-aways of the biblical narrative, which is explicitly tribal in character.

However, in philosophical terms, Christianity is in fact just one among many forms of mysticism. Presuppositionalism’s claim to exclusivity actually underscores a profound lack of philosophical awareness on the part of its defenders. The apologist’s job is to give what is in essence a tribalistic feature of his religion the air of philosophical respectability. I’ll leave it to readers to judge how successful they are at this.

Apologist Greg Bahnsen opens his essay At War With the Word: The Necessity of Biblical Antitesis with the following announcement:
The antithesis between followers of God and followers of Satan is sovereignly inflicted as God’s judicial curse. This enmity is not only social but also intellectual in nature, and, therefore, to ignore it in our apologetic is to compromise the gospel. Without the ingredient of antithesis, Christianity is not simply anemic, it has altogether forfeited its challenge to all other worldviews. Anyone who is familiar with the corpus of Van Til’s publications and writings will recognize that the subject of antithesis is one fitting hallmark of his scholarly contribution to twentieth century apologetical theory.
Characteristic of religious divisiveness is this statement’s unmistakable “us-versus-them” mentality which informs the view expressed here. This is not mere theatrics on Bahnsen’s part; he wants his readers to accept such division as a matter of eternal life and death. This antithesis is a result of a divine curse, something no one has any control over, so the influence of determinism here is hard to miss. Of course, to assert such a view and for its divisiveness to have universal applicability, it must be assumed that it is inherent in all human beings to be “followers” in the first place. No doubt, Bahnsen would claim that we all are followers whether we realize it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, an argument which in fact makes use of a principle – namely the primacy of existence – in defense of a worldview which overtly rejects the primacy of existence (see here, here and here for starters). But in spite of posturing as being so concerned about fundamentals, this internal tension always seems to escape apologists’ attention for some reason.

Regardless of such oversights, Bahnsen holds that accepting this notion of antithesis is vital to Christianity as such, for without it Christianity is essentially defanged and emasculated. Far from a philosophically valid concept, this notion of antithesis does serve a psychological purpose for the believer in that it allows him to sustain the pretense that he is a “new creature in Christ” (cf. II Cor. 5:17) in the context of defending Christianity among non-believers, even though he is no less or no more human than he was before coming under the influence of Christian machinations.

From my observation, admittedly anecdotal, the divisiveness emphasized especially in the New Testament tends not to play much of an outward role among most “casual” or “Sunday” Christians. They may attend church functions even on a regular basis, believing that they’re somehow nourishing their souls, but then leave the evangelizing to specialists as they go on with their day, working, shopping, feasting, watching Netflix, playing on their phones, and the such. While generally I see this as (barely) a net positive (peace among all men, right?), Bahnsen & co. would no doubt view such complacency as evidence that the world’s ungodly influence is prevailing among the faithful. These “new creatures” don’t seem very special after all.

This concerns Bahnsen. He writes:
The entire Biblical message of redemption and the historical establishing of God’s kingdom both presuppose “the antithesis”… between the people of God and the culture of unbelief, between the regenerate and the unregenerate. Therefore, throughout history Satan has tempted God’s people to compromise “the antithesis” — whether by intermingling in ungodly marriages (Gen. 5:2), or by showing unwarranted tolerance toward the enemies of God (Joshua 23:11-13; Judges 1:21,27-36; Ps 106:34-35), or by departing from the authority of God’s word so that “every man does what is right in his own eyes,” (Judges 21:25), by committing spiritual adultery with other gods (e.g. Ps. 106:36,39; Hosea 2:2-13, 4:12; Exek. 16:15-25), by trusting in some power other than God (e.g. Kings 18:21; Chron. 16: 7-9; Isa 30:7, 31:1; Ezek 16:26-29), or by repudiating the Messiah along with the world (John 1:10-11), or by bowing the knee both to Christ and to Caesar (cf. Acts 17:7; Rev 13:8,11-17).
In essence, Bahnsen and likely many other thought leaders [sic] in the Christian community are concerned that the lay people just aren’t taking this notion of antithesis seriously enough. Not only should believers devour all of the citations Bahnsen includes in the above paragraph, the concept of antithesis as presuppositionalism informs it must perform a starring role in apologetics.

But the primitive tribalism at the root of the biblical notion of antithesis can be rather off-putting in today’s post-Enlightenment culture. Thus apologists have sought to underwrite this notion of antithesis with philosophical jargon in order to bestow it with an sense of intellectual dignity. “It was in the interest of antithesis,” states Bahnsen, “that Van Til wrote his first major classroom syllabus, now entitled A Survey of Christian Epistemology, stating that, ‘It is necessary to become clearly aware of the deep antithesis between the two main types of epistemology’, Christian and non-Christian,” which would in my mind raise questions such as: What exactly is ‘Christian epistemology’? and What does a distinctly Christian theory of concepts look like? After all, if Christianity has a unique science of knowing which is compatible to the nature of man’s consciousness, how does it work? Moreover, if one’s worldview has no theory of concepts, how can it be said to have any epistemology to begin with? “Just believe” is not a recipe for discovering and validating knowledge.

But in fact, the biblical basis of Christianity’s antithesis is far more visceral in nature, sourcing its origin in a most base form of hatred, even for one’s own family members, even for oneself. Lest we forget, Luke 14:26 puts the following words in Jesus’ mouth:
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
Accordingly, these are Jesus’ own terms for discipleship. Why would anyone accept them? If one needs an effective riposte for rebuffing the efforts of a persistent Christian proselytizer, just quote this verse and point that you can’t be a Christian because in fact you don’t hate your family members or your own life. If the would-be proselytizer confesses that he does not hate his own family members or his own life, then perhaps he does not qualify as a wholesome representative of the Christian faith. Then again, maybe it is because he hates so much that he has embraced Christianity.

Of course, we might expect the apologist to channel his inner C. Dennis McKinsey and retort something to the effect of “that’s what it says, but that’s not what it means.” But deep down, isn’t the believer supposed to think of non-believers as ambassadors of Satan? What could be more deserving of holy hatred than that? The squirming you observe in the apologist is a result of his own doing.

Ignoring the bible’s own prescription of hatred as a source of the divisiveness behind the antithesis he wants to push, Bahnsen opts for a less candid approach to apologetics:
My own proposal, therefore, for a consistently Christian methodology of apologetics is this… That we no longer make an appeal to “common notions” which the Christian and non-Christian agree on, but to the “common ground” which they actually have because man and his world are what Scripture says they are. That we… set the non-Christian principle of the rational autonomy of man against the Christian principle of the dependence of man’s knowledge on God’s knowledge as revealed in the person and by the Spirit of Christ. That we claim, therefore, that Christianity alone is reasonable for men to hold…That we argue, therefore, by “presupposition.”
If the aim here is to prove the Christian worldview as one that is in fact true, the approach Bahnsen describes here strikes me as one that is inescapably circular, for it insists on assuming the truth of what is in question, namely what Christianity teaches, as the point of commonality between believer and non-believer. Even the non-believer’s side is characterized in Bahnsen’s apologetical system’s terms: the notion of “rational autonomy of man” which he attributes to non-believers, we will find, is defined in terms of Christian presuppositions – i.e., in terms which assume the truth of what is in fact in question. So-called “autonomous reasoning” is, for Bahnsen, any instance of reasoning which does not begin by presupposing Christian teachings as true. The assumption that everything which Christianity teaches is true is so baked into the methodology which Bahnsen proposes that one rightly wonders: How does one draw the very conclusion that Christianity itself is true in the first place?

If “autonomous reasoning” is to be rejected, then what alternative is there to accepting what Christianity teaches as true apart from any form of independent reasoning? To ask the question is to answer it: what Christianity teaches is to be accepted as true apart from any form of independent reasoning. And this is observable. In the years that I spent in a church, newcomers were never asked why they accepted Christianity. It did not matter! There was no inquiry into how newcomers came to the conclusion that Christianity was true, because it’s not a conclusion to begin with!

While it’s true that Christianity is as anti-intellectual as any other form of mysticism, to focus on the carnival distraction of apologetic claims to having an “argument” which once and for all vindicates Christianity on philosophical terms risks our ignoring the nature of the basic mindset which a religious view of the world demands of its adherents: rationality is to be rejected in preference for uncritical acceptance of a set of mystical doctrines on someone’s say-so. At root it is just another cheap form of authoritarianism; Bahnsen’s characterization of human beings as one of two types of “followers” confirms precisely this. The believer became a believer because he turned off his critical faculties and accepted as truth what he was told. And in the case of many believers, they were indoctrinated into the faith long before they had a chance to develop any critical faculties to begin with. As one pastor I used to know would frequently put it, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Some might even go further and just cut the self-referential part out entirely: “God said it, that settles it.” Thus, as a system of defending Christianity, presuppositionalism’s true aim is to disarm the human mind by goading thinkers into rejecting rationality as a standard for discovering and validating worldview fundamentals. Keeping your mind intact, then, is really all the protection one needs from such devious influences.

Here the apologist would claim that the very notion of rationality as a standard for discovering and validating worldview fundamentals is itself circular, for it implies acceptance of a position which subsequently comes back around to declare itself as true. How convenient, the apologist might say, ignoring the deep family resemblance between what he calls circular and the very method he himself employs to vindicate Christianity’s presuppositions.

But such an objection ignores the very nature of rationality. Whether either believer or non-believer acknowledges it, it is a fact that human beings possess the capacity for sense perception and the ability to form concepts from perceptual input. It is part of our biological nature. We perceive and identify objects well before we develop a “network of presuppositions” informing a worldview. Awareness of the world around us is not a worldview-dependent phenomenon; regardless of whichever worldview one holds in his adulthood, whether it’s Christianity, Hinduism or Objectivism, he’s been enjoying awareness of objects all along, well before he even understood what these labels denote. Moreover, rejecting a worldview, even after having adopted it previously, does not suddenly shut off one’s capacity for awareness of objects. The importance of the axiom of consciousness cannot be overestimated, and yet the objection against rationality as a standard referenced above depends precisely on ignoring the axiom of consciousness altogether.

The assembly of premises into a comprehensive view of the world, of life, of man, etc., is only possible because we have (a) awareness of objects and (b) the ability to identify them in conceptual form. It’s not the other way around: we do not first accept a worldview and then, as if by magic, have awareness of objects. We would need to have awareness of the worldview, in some form or another, as an object to begin with in order for it to be available to our minds to accept in the first place. Rationality in the sense intended here is essentially the consistent application of one’s capacity for awareness and his ability to identify the objects of his awareness in conceptual form as a precondition to forming, evaluating, validating, or adopting a worldview. The axiom of consciousness encompasses the nature of man’s consciousness, including his achievement of the conceptual level of awareness. Fixing rationality, then, as one’s standard for discovering and validating worldview fundamentals, is not a symptom of self-refuting fallacy, but an indispensable ally in one’s quest for a comprehensive outlook on the world and life that is true. In short, contrary to what the apologist essentially contends, using one’s own mind to assess and validate is not a species of fallacy, informal or otherwise. Thinking as such is not a fallacy.

The objection also ignores the fact that the human mind can and sometimes does (if we’re not careful) confuse the imaginary for the real. Presumably even Christians would acknowledge man’s capacity to imagine things. A tremendous liability for the apologist is his inability to explain to non-believers how they can reliably distinguish between what the believer calls “God” and what the believer may in fact simply be imagining. But adopting rationality as our standard helps us avoid confusing the imaginary for the real, especially when it comes to fundamentals. If we do not fix rationality as our standard in evaluating and validating what eventually becomes our worldview, we open ourselves up to the potential of accepting something that is not true as though it were true in the place of truth. If we fail to distinguish between the real and the imaginary on life’s most critical questions, the potential for compromising truth with non-truth is inestimable. And if rationality is not our guide, how do we guard against confusing the real with the imaginary and accepting non-truth in the place of truth? On this question the apologist remains silent.

But the believer, given his emotional investment in his religious confession, lacks the escape velocity necessary to resist framing fundamental matters in terms of a false dichotomy. This is where the presuppositionalist notion of antithesis comes into play. As one valiant defender of the Christian faith once characterized it to me, this antithesis can be expressed by means of the two following propositions:
I. One can make sense of experience without the truth of the Christian worldview 
II. One cannot make sense of experience without the truth of the Christian worldview
“This antithesis,” I was told, “is the heart of TAG.”

Naturally the Christian believer is going to affirm the second proposition, holding that it is not possible to “make sense of experience without the truth of the Christian worldview,” and presumably all non-Christians performatively affirm the first proposition. However, is not the first alternative deliberately phrased so as to goad one into affirming the ability to make sense of experience without the truth of something?

When I asked why the issue should not instead be framed in the following two alternatives:
Ia. One can make sense of experience without the truth of the Objectivist worldview 
IIa. One cannot make sense of experience without the truth of the Objectivist worldview
I was told that this version of antithesis begged the question because both alternatives imply that Objectivism is true, and of course the believer will have none of that. But proposing this alternative did help convey why non-believers might find the presuppositionalist’s characterization of antithesis objectionable. The believer is wholly committed to the assumption that truth is inherently wedded to Christianity, and yet the Christian worldview provides no objective basis for reliably distinguishing between the real and the imaginary. So on what basis could Christianity be confidently accepted as true?

Only false dichotomies and other fallacies will be able to rescue the believer, and the rescue he pursues is psychological, not intellectual. He wants to feel as though his commitment to his religious worldview has somehow been vindicated, when in fact such a feeling is ill-gotten. And even this feeling is itself defended on appeals to the imaginary. As Vern Poythress puts it:
A sharp contrast or antithesis exists between believers and unbelievers in their understanding. Believers have come to understand, because they have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Unbelievers do not understand, because they do not have the Holy Spirit. (Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God, p. 404)
Notice the pattern here: the believer retreats to the imaginary to defend a worldview premised on the imaginary. Non-believers “do not understand,” not because the apologist has failed to articulate a coherent inference from what is self-evidently true to some conclusion which is soundly drawn by means of objectively applied epistemologically standards, but because the non-believer does not have an invisible magic being residing in him and manipulating his mind. By this clumsy artifice, the believer thinks he’s painting the non-believer as somehow defective. But ironically he’s inadvertently implicating his own object of worship: the apologist is spinning his wheels trying to proselytize the non-believer, and yet since the believer’s own divine being has withheld its coercive presence from the non-believer (that’s in effect what Poythress is saying), the non-believer cannot understand. If the apologist is flustered by the non-believer’s “stubbornness,” his ire should not be directed at the non-believer!

Characterizing the opposition between Christianity and other worldviews in such terms of this alleged antithesis is essentially a smokescreen blotting out issues of much more fundamental nature. In fact, the Christian worldview shares the same fundamental opposition to rationality which distinguishes other forms of mysticism, and the construal of Christianity as one contender against everything else ignores this essential attribute. It also serves as a distraction from the fundamental question: What is your ultimate starting point? Clearly one cannot begin with “the Christian worldview” as one’s starting point, for it is neither self-evidently true nor is it conceptually irreducible. In fact, none of the essential tenets of the Christian worldview could qualify as a starting point: even to state “God exists” one assumes the fact that existence exists, that one is conscious, that the notion “God” has identity, etc. And thus it also ignores the question of how one knows what he claims to know: does he know it by means of looking outward (if so, what does “God” look like?), or by looking inward (in which case, how does he determine that the word “God” denotes something that exists independent of his own psychological projections?)?

Given that truth as such presupposes the primacy of existence exclusively (does not the believer concede the fact that wishing doesn’t make it so?), then contesting the inherent alignment between Objectivism and truth can only undermine one’s credibility as a thinker. Essentially, to reject the truth of Objectivism is to reject the view that truth has an objective basis, in which case one would be at a loss as to how one can contest anything for being untrue for he rejects the objective standard of truth to begin with.

If the apologist insists on the opposition in question being contrived as one pitting Christianity against all everything else, perhaps the following antithetical pairing is an improvement:
Ib. One can make sense of experience without the falsehoods of Christianity 
IIb. One cannot make sense of experience without the falsehoods of Christianity
To this proposal one might expect the apologist to object on the grounds that such a construal attributes falsehoods to Christianity, and he most likely will not accept that, where earlier he was all too happy with a rendition which attributes truth to Christianity. But even here I would think that even the apologist should agree that one can make sense of experience without the falsehoods of any particular worldview. And for the record, I have no issues affirming Ib.

But if I affirm, as I have in the past, that the only alternative to Objectivism is some form of subjectivism, am I not also guilty of proffering a false dichotomy, like the believer? I would say no. For one, I do not need to appeal to some invisible magic being which has allegedly taken up residency in my psyche in order to defend such an opposition. More fundamentally, the human mind has the ability to imagine, and it also has the ability to confuse what is imaginary with what is real and consequently pollute one’s understanding of the truth. Only cognitive self-regulation guided by objectivity will reliably prevent this. Thus, to the degree that this is a concern (and I would argue that it is a concern of fundamental importance), a worldview which explicitly holds objectivity as its guiding standard is the only kind which will allow thinkers to avoid the cognitive tragedy of blurring the distinction between the real and the imaginary. Objectivism is the worldview which holds objectivity as its guiding standard, while in fact there are many various forms of subjectivism, and by their nature such worldviews reject objectivity as their guiding standard in preference for some narrative informed by the imagination. The issue is whether objectivity serves as one’s guiding standard or not. Adherence to objectivity cannot be compromised and still qualify as adherence to objectivity, just as food cannot be compromised with poison and still be healthy.

So I would agree that there is an antithesis to be reckoned with, but it’s not what the apologist claims it to be.

One of the more dubious consequences of pushing the antithesis as presuppositionalism informs it, is that it cedes far too much to “unbelieving thought” than I would think apologists would be willing to surrender. For it can only mean that in declaring such an antithesis in such mutually exclusive terms, the apologist is committed to denying any position which the non-believer affirms, no matter what it might be. This risks turning apologetics into a most predictable form of rote contrarianism: if I affirm existence exists as my starting point, the apologist is obliged to deny that existence exists in order to counter my position and deny my side of the debate any claim to truth. Indeed, I have seen this in action – see for example here and here. Thus presuppositionalism tends to invite its practitioners to inflict on themselves a willful blindness not only to any truths on an opposing side but also to the absurdities to which they commit themselves by denying those truths.

I’m sure glad these aren’t my problems!

by Dawson Bethrick

1 comment:

Ydemoc said...

Thanks again, Dawson!