Thursday, September 28, 2006

On Griswold's Reflections

It may be worth pausing a moment over a sentence or two from Presiding Bishop Griswold's recent reflections on the September "Global South" and Camp Allen meetings. Griswold wrote

As much as we draw comfort from those who share our own point of view, it is important for us on all sides to realize that truth in its fullness cannot be contained in any one perspective.

So far as I can tell, Griswold is serious about the limited capacity of any merely human perspective "to realize truth in its fullness", and has voiced similar opinions throughout his tenure as Presiding Bishop. Indeed, his opinion here could hold as a kind of litmus test dividing Episcopalian separatist conservatives and pro-GC2003 progressives.

There is, of course, only one Truth, and that is God's self-understanding in the divine Word, which became incarnate and human in Jesus. Nothing else can be true, except by extension, for example as signifying a symbol for or an effect of or a participation in the one absolute Truth. It follows that whatever else is true is true only in a secondary and qualified way; viewed without qualification, anything other than the one Truth is absolutely false--indeed, absolutely nothing. That is quite a radical doctrine with a decidedly Platonic flavor, though nothing much more than the platonism already operative in Aquinas' metaphysics. It is difficult for me to imagine criticizing Griswold as liberal, much less a pluralist, for holding it.

The doctrine's implications are rather severe I think; among them: no merely human statement of Christian dogma can be final, immune to correction. That's not especially an epistemic point, to be prefaced with an operator like "so far as we can know here below." It is rather primarily an ontological point, pointing up an incapacity necessarily following on our being created, other than God. Take the Nicene Creed any which way you wish--you know ahead of time that however you take it, your understanding will not be true in the absolute sense. It may participate in truth, and may be better or worse than other understandings, but however far it goes, it cannot be final. To pretend otherwise is sheer foolishness, a pathetic attempt to usurp the Being of God. For any understanding finally true would imply an identity with God impossible to creatures. Hence the import of epistemic humility in matters theological, even matters touching the core of Christian belief. It is not especially a pagan virtue, as it rests on the assumption of creation ex nihilo which I do not imagine can be demonstrated by natural reason alone. Epistemic humility is an especially theological virtue, one following on being Christian in a full sense, i.e. not trying to usurp God's place even--lo--even in professing the Faith.


At 5:51 PM, Blogger Tobias said...

Thank you for these further comments. While not a philosopher by trade, I find it helpful to hear you speak in these terms. In one sense, isn't it the case that "full" knowledge must be to some degree impossible as long as there are separate entities? And that this is why full knowledge comes (per St Paul) only at the realization of the eschaton when unity prevails, and "all things are put under" and we "know as we are known"? From what I know of communication theory, even the simplest apprehension of another's thoughts suffers from the limits that communication imposes -- a sort of asymptotic convergence can be acheived in dialogue, but even that is provisional at best.

After all, if I don't understand myself in all the fullness of who and what I am, how can I presume to understand the Truth? Surely this is the proper attitude of epistemic humility.

Well done, sir.



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