The Futility of Non Christian Thought
Biblical Christianity, properly defined in terms of classical Protestantism, offers a radical philosophical critique of non-Christian thought. This Christian critique is radical in the sense that it challenges the very core of non-Christian pretensions and demonstrates that non-Christian thought, whether atheistic, agnostic, or religious, ultimately destroys rationality, science, ethics, and every other aspect of human experience.
Moreover, since a properly Biblical critique ought to attack the heart of non-Christian thinking, it may not assume the very standards it demonstrates as futile (a lá Aquinas, Swinburne, etc.) or capitulate to relativism or fideism (a lá Plantinga; Kierkegaard, etc.) or subserviently argue that the Christian worldview is merely “probable” (a lá Clark, Montgomery, Geisler, Moreland, etc.). A properly Biblical critique will not only demonstrate the utter futility of non-Christian thought, it will positively demonstrate that the Christian view of reality is intellectually inescapable. As Cornelius Van Til has argued, “Christianity can be shown to be, not `just as good as’ or even `better than’ the non-Christian position, but the only position that does not make nonsense of human experience.”
I will begin with a brief elaboration of a Christian critique of non-Christianthought and then turn to summarize the positive argument for the Christian view of reality. Though I focus on “secular” non-Christian outlooks in the history of philosophy, the same types of problems arise in “religious” non-Christian outlooks (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), but that discussion is the topic of a different essay.
Sketch of the Christian Critique of Non-Christian Thought
The Apostle Paul famously challenged: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Cor. 1:20). The Biblical outlook rejects non-Christian claims to knowledge as “knowledge falsely so-called” (I Tim. 6:20) and “vain deceit” (Col. 2:8), since such claims are allegedly justified autonomously rather than by the standard of God’s knowledge (Prov. 1:7; Rom. 1: 18-25; Col. 2:8). In this perspective, then, the chief traits of non-Christian thought are rebellion and its concomitant, epistemological autonomy (self rule).
Epistemological autonomy is the view that the human mind is the final criterion of knowledge. According to this view, common to non-Christian thinkers from Thales to Derrida, the Christian God has to be either non-existent or irrelevant to epistemological concerns. Human categories alone are necessary to determine modality, truth, and value. From a Christian perspective, autonomy is a rebellious attempt to deify human categories or some aspect of creation by attempting to usurp the Creator’s functions — i.e. replacing the Creator with the creature (Rom. 1:25). Nevertheless, the result of this attempt to be epistemologically independent of the Christian God is epistemological futility.
The basis for the foregoing conclusion may be sketched as follows:
(I) Non-Christian autonomy may exemplify itself in three primary ways — epistemological competence, incompetence, or a mixture of competence and incompetence.
(A) Non-Christians thinkers who emphasize the first of these three options arethose who maintain that the human mind is competent to interpret, evaluate, and describe reality (e.g., Parmenides, Aristotle, the Rationalists, the Empiricists, etc.).
(B) Non-Christian thinkers who emphasize the second of these three options arethose who maintain that the human mind is incompetent to be determinative for reality since humans are finite and reality is characterized by chance eventuation (e.g., the Sophists, various subjectivist traditions, Nietzche, the Existentialists, the later Wittgenstein, Derrida).
(C) Finally, non-Christian thinkers who consciously aim to synthesize the first two options are those who admit that the human mind is partly competent and partly incompetent (e.g., Plato: the realms of Being vs. Becoming; Kant: the realms of the Phenomena vs. the Noumena).
(II) Each of these three non-Christian emphases ultimately destroys knowledge and leaves the non-Christian with radical ignorance about the world, truth, and values.
(A) Those thinkers who maintain that the human mind is competent to serve as its own criterion of truth ultimately encounter their own finitude; their particular rational scheme cannot account for everything since the autonomous theorist does not have God’s abilities. Instead of the proposed exhaustive scheme of reality, the non-Christian will either deny or ignore whatever doesn’t fit his rational scheme, thus compromising the proposed scheme (e.g., Parmenides’ “illusion” of change; Aristotle’s unformed matter; the Logical Positivists’ “rejection of metaphysics”) and radically limit knowledge to trivial and/or unsubstantive claims that will apparently fit within the scheme (e.g., Descartes’ “cogito”; the Empiricists’ vacuous sense perceptions).
But whatever the particular tack, the presumed autonomous competence finally reduces to epistemological incompetence — the rational scheme fails leaving subjectivism and skepticism.
(B) Those thinkers who maintain that the human mind is incompetent to serve as its own criterion of truth do not fare any better. Though apparently more humble in their refusal to make the human mind schematize reality, they nonetheless determine to play the autonomous God in their own subjective reality. Nevertheless, they cannot defend their claim to autonomous incompetence without invoking some of the objective standards of their “opponents,” the autonomous competents. In other words, autonomous incompetents must turn to objective, rational schemes in order to defend their opposition to objective knowledge (e.g., Protagoras’ defense of “better” views in the midst of a radical relativism; the later Wittgenstein’s “proper use” of language; Derrida’s use of logocentrism to urge us to abandon logocentrism). Similarly, autonomous incompetents evidence the weakness of their subjectivism by their practical inconsistencies (e.g., Marx’s opposition to injustice; Derrida’s support for Nelson Mandela).
In a direct reversal of the first non-Christian option, the presumed autonomous incompetence finally reduces to epistemological competence — subjectivism needs objective schemes. Non-Christian incompetence fails and starts the circle all over again.
(C) Perhaps the way out of this non-Christian futility is a conscious synthesis of the first two options along the lines of a Plato or Kant. But futility plus futility will not rescue the non-Christian thinker. The same problems raised against the first two options will arise again. For example, Plato’s attempt to exhaustively explain reality in terms of a synthesis of Forms (unchanging; immaterial; human competence) with the realm of Becoming (constant change; material; human incompetence) must have, but cannot have, an unchanging Form of change. His whole synthesis collapses.
Similarly, Kant’s synthesis of competence and incompetence demands that we can say something rational about the noumenal realm (knowledge of the unknowable) and denies that we can ultimately know the “things-in-themselves” of the phenomenal realm (no-knowledge of the knowable). Autonomous syntheses such as these merely compound the epistemological futilities of non-Christian thought.
Van Til noted that “all the antinomies of antitheistic reasoning are due to a false separation of man from God.” Such a separation inevitably leads to the destruction of knowledge. I turn now to briefly examine a particular, contemporary example of non-Christian thought.
Case in Point: Paul Kurtz
Paul Kurtz (The Transcendental Temptation) is well known for his strident philosophical defenses of humanism and atheism, so he is a prime candidate for a Christian critique. If, in general, non-Christian worldviews destroy knowledge, then we should expect to find the same epistemological futility in Kurtz’ worldview; he doesn’t let us down.
Kurtz’ text noted above is replete with examples of how the commitment to autonomous competence gives way to autonomous incompetence and the destruction of knowledge. Consider his comments regarding the knower and the standards of knowledge:
The Knower: On the one hand, we as supposedly autonomous beings have knowledge because “experience and reason are drawn upon in ordinary life and in the sophisticated sciences to establish reliable knowledge” (p. 23); “There is a well-established body of knowledge” (p. 37). Moreover, Kurtz advocates an epistemology of “the act” which rescues us from the “traps of earlier theories of experience” (e.g. the ego-centric predicament) in that the “external world is a precondition for internal awareness” (p. 32). Autonomous, competent knowledge is so reliable that Kurtz can unhesitatingly describe religious opponents as mystics living in “a world of fantasy” and “romantic superstition” (p. xi).
Yet on the other hand, this competent, robust account of knowledge encounters its finite limits and admits its incompetence: “many things in the universe remain beyond our present understanding, transcending the present boundaries of knowledge” (p. 316). In fact, human knowledge “is not an absolute picture of reality” (p. 34), nevertheless, the skeptic’s more heroic stance is to deny that transcendental “forms of reality are knowable or meaningful” (p. 26).
Obviously Kurtz is embroiled in a vitiating tension. His commitment to the competence of human categories is undermined by their finitude. If autonomous categories are so limited as to leave, now or forever, much of reality “unknowable” then Kurtz cannot speak with any boldness whatsoever about our present knowledge since there might be some factor in this unknown realm which makes our robust claim to knowledge false. Kurtz simply can’t justify the claim of epistemological competence. On his own terms, then, we can have no knowledge.
Even if we ignore this tension, how does Kurtz’ epistemology of “the act” giveus any non-trivial knowledge? Though he claims to get beyond the ego-centric predicament, he doesn’t get anywhere important. In generous terms, the most his view provides us with is the bare knowledge that there are external objects. But there are light-years between this trivial claim and a “body of well-established knowledge.”
The Standards of Knowledge: Knowledge requires objective standards, and, on the side of epistemological competence, Kurtz speaks of “deductive necessity” (p. 38), “logical consistency” (p. 46), “canons of induction” (p. 55), “the rule of contradiction” (p.28), “simple and beautiful mathematical and causal laws” (p. 292), “the magnificent splendor of nature and the order and regularities we discover in it” (p. 316), and the cosmos appearing “to behave in terms of immutable and universal laws” (p. 288).
Yet with equal vigor, on the side of epistemological incompetence, he must defend the view that “there are no firm and unchanging, absolute binding principles involved in scientific inquiry” (p. 44). “There are failures in nature and there are fluke occurrences…..Chance factors intervene” (p. 291). Moreover, evolution is a “key principle in interpreting the universe” (p. 288) and most notably, “Change is not a human invention, but a cosmic fact, applying to all forms of life” (p. 289).
Such horrendous epistemological conflicts within a non-Christian worldview are common; they are results of epistemological autonomy. First, we can challenge the non-Christian to justify the standards of rationality he appeals to. Kurtz ultimately justifies the standards of inductive and deductive logic as “simply convenient rules of inquiry, vindicated by their consequences” (p. 88). Aside from Kurtz’ question-begging appeal to pragmatic “vindication,” if the standards of rationality are merely convenient rules, then we need not take anything Kurtz says seriously, including his objections to Christianity.
But even more damaging on this score is the metaphysical conflict between logical laws which are supposedly necessary and unchanging that magically appear in a non-Christian cosmos of “no unchanging principles,” where change applies to all of life. Which is it? Whichever path Kurtz follows will lead to the destruction of rationality, science, ethics, etc.
None of the above criticisms and challenges are unique to Paul Kurtz. You will find the same problems in atheists such as Nielsen, Flew, Parsons, Martin, and throughout non-Christian philosophies and religions. Non-Christians need to justify these elementary concerns about their worldview before they attempt to foist their secular myths upon Christians. To reverse a line from Kurtz, “[Christian] skeptics ought to refuse to be lured by the [autonomous] myths of the day.”
The Inescapability of Christianity
In brief, Biblical Christianity avoids the futilities of non-Christian philosophies by rejecting epistemological autonomy. In contrast to a futile epistemological competence, the Christian acknowledges that the universe is fully knowable to the Christian God and to us as far as He reveals his knowledge to us. Hence, Christian philosophy does not destroy knowledge by means of the self-vitiating finite criteria or impotent knowledge claims. Moreover, in contrast to a futile epistemological incompetence, the Christian acknowledges that the human mind must look to the objective standard of God and His revelation, thus not falling prey to subjectivistic dilemmas which vex non-Christian thought.
Hence, instead of hopelessly attempting to determine truth by means of finite products of chance, a Christian view of reality acknowledges the Christian God as the inescapable precondition of all thought. Thus we offer a transcendental argument to establish the truth of Christianity: If the Christian view of reality is not true, then knowledge is impossible. Only the Christian view of reality provides the conditions necessary for logic, induction, scientific progress, ethics, history, and the arts. As Van Til says, “Science, philosophy, and theology find their intelligible contact only on the presupposition of the self-revelation of God in Christ.” Hence, a consistent Christian philosophy takes most seriously Christ’s claim that “without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Though non-Christians will strenuously object to such claims, their objections against Christianity will all the while presuppose the truth of Christianity.