In the October issue of The Outlook, we promised a fine by line disclosure and rebuttle of “Understanding Opinions Metaphor” foisted upon delegates to Synod 1993 (CRC) by the Synodical Interim Committee. Dr. Cornelis Venema graciously agreed to do the project. Once again we urge readers to read and refer to “The Understanding Opinions Metaphor” observations which were distributed to synodical delegates and are reprinted exactly on p. 12 of this magazine.
In the late 1980’s, Allan Bloom caused quite a stir among academics and self-appointed leaders in American culture with his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind.1 What disturbed many of Bloom’s critics was the penetrating and incisive way in which he exposed the relativism pervading American culture and its educational institutions. Many of the “sacred cows” of these educational institutions-politically correct language, tolerance of all perspectives and viewpoints, hostility toward those who claim to know the truth, the championing of “multiculturalism,” the rejection of all forms of “ethnocentricity”—were subjected by Bloom to careful analysis and found wanting.
Remarkably, Bloom was able to demonstrate that the new ideology of relativism inevitably leads to the closing of the mind. If every viewpoint is equally valid, then of course no viewpoint is true, at least not in the strict sense of the term. If the highest and only absolute is expressed in the adage, “there are no absolutes,” then anyone who claims to know the truth, in any area of human reflection, must be regarded as an intolerant absolutist. If the highest values are tolerance of and openness to the viewpoints of others, then virtue belongs to those who refuse to acknowledge the truth of any viewpoint.
Thus, by a strange and ironic twist, this new relativism gives birth to a new form of absolutism. This absolutism declares on its own authority that there is no truth-period! Furthermore, this new absolutism gives birth to a new form of intolerance, far less friendly than the older forms. Whereas the older forms of intolerance refused some viewpoints in the name of truth, the new form of intolerance refuses any claim to truth in the name of relativism. Because there is no truth that can be known, anyone who makes a truth claim, excluding other viewpoints, may not be tolerated! Thus, the new tolerance produces intolerance toward those w ho claim to know the truth.
The result of this relativism, Bloom rightly concluded, is the closing of the American mind. Once a people becomes convinced that there is no truth to be known, the pursuit of truth becomes a proverbial chaSing after the wind. Who is to say who is right and who is wrong? When everyone’s opinion is equally valid, no one’s opinion counts for very much. Why pursue knowledge, when there is not much to be known, at least nothing that deserves to be called “true”? Why study carefully the views and positions of others, when they only reflect their particular prejudices and biases? Thus, Bloom argued that relativism spells the death of education in pursuit of the truth or the knowledge of what is right and true and good. Relativism also spells the introduction of a new tyranny, the tyranny of majority opinion. For, when there is no possible way of determining the truth, “might makes right,” the opinion with the most adherents is the best we can do.
Bloom’s expose of the relativism which is ruining the educational enterprise in America, closing the American mind to any rigorous pursuit of the truth, should also serve as a wake-up call to the Christian community, to be on its guard and to exercise discernment in our day, lest it fall prey to a similar relativism. It also provides an interesting context within which to examine a recent incident in the Christian Reformed Church, in which the assumptions and tenets of the new relativism appear to have been at work.
THE UNDERSTANDING OPINIONS METAPHOR
In an earlier issue of The Outlook, readers were introduced to an exercise which the Synodical Interim Committee foisted upon the delegates to Synod 1993.2 This exercise, entitled “The Understanding Opinions Metaphor,” utilized, among other things, a piece of modern art constructed of rusty pipes. The delegates were asked to go to the Calvin College Chapel and view this art piece. After having viewed the art work, the delegates were then invited to discuss its meaning and their response to what they saw, using the “initial observations” or guidelines provided the delegates to guide their discussion (see p.12). What is remarkable about this exercise, particularly the guidelines provided the delegates, is how it echoes the new relativism prevalent in American culture. But in this instance the relativism represented was imported directly into the opening discussion of the delegates to the broadest assembly of the Christian Reformed Church!
Due to the seriousness of this incident and the implications it has for the well-being of the church, I would like in the following to cite the guidelines distributed to the delegates and subject them to further analysis.
Guideline One: “The Vantage Point: I am inescapably rooted to a unique vantage point from which I view all things.”
The starting point or first observation in these guidelines stresses what is called “the vantage point” of the person who perceives or apprehends the object. No one can occupy all vantage points at once and therefore what I see of an object depends upon my point of view or perspective, as much as it does upon the nature of the object itself. This is an inescapable component of all observation and knowledge of something, no matter what it is, whether it be a piece of art (as in the synodical exercise), a doctrine of the faith, the text of Scripture, and so on. There is no direct access to or apprehension of any object; there is only the object as I see or experience it. This means that whatever may be the nature or truth of the object as such, I can only know its truth for me or from my vantage point.
lnitially, this first observation seems unassailable and to make eminently good sense. Surely, no one would contest the obvious fact that, for me to know something, I have to have contact with it first or perceive it in some way. The act of knowing something requires that I know it or see it. Knowing always involves one who knows and the matter that is known.
However, though this may seem initially to be a self-evident point, the question that remains has to do with what has priority in the act of knowing. Is priority to be given to my perception of the object, or to the object itself? Subjectivism says that all knowledge is relative to my experience of an object; it gives priority to the knower. Objectivism says that all knowledge is relative to the object known; it gives priority to the object. Most of us know that the way you pose a question has a lot to do with the answer to which you come. Already, in this first observation, the priority and emphasis is given to the knower, rather than to the thing known. The emphasis falls upon the way I perceive the object, rather than upon the nature of the object perceived.
Guideline Two: “The sum of all vantage points approximates all there is to see of the object.” The subjective emphasis already present in the first guideline becomes more obvious in this second guideline. Not only are we told that everyone occupies a unique vantage point, but we are also told that what others see of the same object from their vantage point must be added to my perception of it. Since everyone tends to make the object suit their own perception of it, the sum of all perceptions of the object is superior to the unique perception of each individual.
Though this guideline is accompanied by a statement that affirms that “the object is what it is; it is not affected by my perception of it,” it nonetheless emphasizes that the best we can do, when we add up our various perspectives upon the object, is only approximate the truth of the object. Whatever the object is can only be approximated after we have pooled the collective wisdom and insight of as many knowers as possible.
Another way of restating this guideline would be to say that the best we can ever do, in seeking to know the truth of an object, is to collect the diversity of perspectives upon the object that are available to us. We cannot know the truth of the object (the real referent or the object as it is); we can only know ourcollective experience of the truth of the object (the available referent or the object as we experience it).
Guideline Three: “I perceive the object on four different levels: factual (objective), emotional (subjective), interpretive (meaning or value), decisional (what to do with it).”
If I cannot escape the limits of my own vantage point whenever I perceive the object before me, and if the sum of all vantage points is preferable to any individual vantage point and only approximates the truth, then it is important to recognize the levels of perception that affect my knowing an object. Here the guidelines speak of four different levels of perception: the factual, the emotional, the interpretive and the decisional.
The problem we often face is that we are inclined to mistake our emotional, interpretive, or decisional level of perception of an object with the factual level of perception. What something is is then mistakenly identified with my interpretation of it. Or my emotional response to an object is confused with the actual state of affairs. In so doing, I fail to recognize the different levels of subjective influence upon my perception of the object before me. I think I am in touch with the object itself, when I may only be living in a world created by my own imagination and experience. Here too, I have to distinguish carefully between the thing in itself and the thing as I experience it. We never see the object directly; we always see it through the particular lens or spectacles of our own experience. And, since those lenses are as many as there are individual perceptions, the object itself remains somewhat inaccessible. All is yellow to the jaundiced eye!
Guideline Four: “The collective vision of a community is always greater than that of a single member.”
Consistent with the preceding three guidelines, the fourth guideline in the exercise insists that we must let go of our private perceptions and convictions of the object and embrace the “collective vision of a community.” Recognizing that my perception of an object is uniquely my own, determined by my individual vantage point and shaped by my emotional, interpretive and decisional response to the object, I must cultivate an attitude of openness to the differing perceptions of others.
To approximate the truth regarding any object, I must learn to listen to others when they report what they have seen in the object. Only in so doing will I be able to enter into a vision that is broader than my own, and be enriched by perspectives that emerge within a larger community. Indeed, community only results when I am prepared to acknowledge the limits of my own range of vision, and begin to appreciate the insights of others as valid and Significant. The approximate truth regarding the object is not to be identified with my personal insight, but with the collective insight of the larger community to which I belong. To achieve this collective insight, however, requires the cultivation of an attitude of tolerance and acceptance of the perceptions of others.
Guideline Five: “Different perceptions often lead to conflicts which in turn undermine community.”
Building upon the fourth guideline, this guideline notes that conflict and disagreement develop within a community when some regard their perceptions as “true” or “right,” and others as “false” or “wrong.” Community is only possible where there is a readiness to “accept the validity of another’s perspective,” while refusing to “absolutize my own (limited) perception.”
When I regard, for example, my opinion to be “right,” I become entrenched and absolutistic. The conviction that I am right and another member of the community is wrong always blocks dialogue and destroys community, because it prevents me from seeing the validity of the other’s perspective. I become entrenched in an absolute position which only allows me to see the walls of the trench in which I am entrapped. The resolution of conflict, accordingly, requires that I relinquish the claim that my perspective or point of view is correct, while the perspective or point of view of others is wrong. Tolerance of multiple perspectives builds community; intolerance of other perspectives creates barriers to community.
THE CLOSING OF THE CHRISTIAN MIND?
Having briefly summarized and expounded the guidelines and observations which accompanied this exercise at the outset of the 1993 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, what are we to make of them? I would maintain that they express the same relativism so pervasive and destructive in its working within American culture and its educational institutions, now operative within the church. These guidelines or principles, were they to be taken seriously and implemented by the Christian community, would spell the closing of the Christian mind.
There are several fundamental aspects of the historic Christian view of truth and our knowledge of the truth that these guidelines threaten.
First, the Christian church, and in particular the Reformed church, has always believed that the written and inspired Word of God is an objective standard or measure of truth. The Scriptural texts are God-breathed or divinely authored texts (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). We do not have in the biblical texts the record of the experiences or the summary of the opinions of the prophets and apostles. The truth ofScripture is not the truth as the biblical authors experienced it. It is the divinely authorized standard and measure of all truth (John 17:17). This truth is an objective given, a sovereignly imparted Word from the Lord to the church. In our knowledge of the truth, therefore, priority and supremacy always belongs to the Scriptures. The objective standard of the Word of God is the only antidote to subjectivism and the tyranny of majority opinion.
Furthermore, the Christian church, and in particular the Reformed church, has been convinced that the truth of God in Scripture can be known and confessed by the church as truth. One of the reasons the Reformers were so adamant about the clarity and efficacy of the Word of God in Scripture was to insist that the truth available to the believer in the Scriptural text can be known. Believers whose hearts have been made receptive and whose minds have been illumined by the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word are competent to understand and receive the things of the Spirit in the Scriptural text (1 Cor. 2:12,13). Believers are not left with their individual experiences of the truth, with a diversity of perceptions and perspectives upon the truth; believers can know and confess the truth before others. They can know what is true and valid. Conversely, they can know what is false and invalid. Truths can be confessed as truths; errors can be rejected as errors.
For this reason, the Reformed confessions have served the Reformed churches histOrically as faithful summaries of the truth of Scripture. Within the community of the church, the Word of truth in Scripture is able to be heard and confessed before the world. The Reformed churches have understood the church’s confession as a repetitio Sacrae Scripturae (“a repetition of Holy Scripture”), a faithful echoing of the teaching of the Word of God. When office-bearers in the Reformed churches give expression to their subscription to the confessions of the church, they typically speak of these confessions as “fully agreeing with the Word of God.” The truths of the Word of God in Scripture, summarized in the confessions, are truths to which Reformed believers are wholeheartedly committed, truths which they are prepared to teach and defend.
Interestingly, this historic insistence upon the objective truth of God’s Word, as it is summarized in the confessions of the church, also served as a platform for unity. In the common confession of the truths of God’s Word, the church finds her true unity. Thus, the confessions are often termed the “Forms of Unity” and the unity of the church is regarded firstly as a unity in the true faith. Far from being an enemy of community, the confessions were regarded as tile truest friend of real community. The confessions do not prevent dialogue and community in the church; they are the pre-condition and occasion for true dialogue and genuine community. Fragmentation and disintegration occur within the community of the church precisely when the confession is denied and error permitted.
This means, for example, that the church’s confession of the Triune God is a confession of the truth regarding God who is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Whatever the particular aspect or part of the Scriptural truth being confessed, the truths of the confessions are truths of Scripture which believers hold for truth. They are not regarded simply as our perspectives or perceptions of the truth. They are not regarded simply as one vantage point, among many others, which even when combined can only approximate the truth. Nor are they regarded simply as particular interpretations or opinions which never invalidate alternative interpretations or opinions. Not at all—they are regarded as the truth of the matter! Indeed, so certain is the church of the truth of its confession, her members are willing to die (and often have!) rather than deny or forsake this truth.3
Why do I mention these things, when to many Reformed readers they may seem too obvious to require mention? I mention them because the spirit of relativism breathed by the guidelines used in this synodical exercise is incompatible with this Historic Christian and Reformed view of the truth.
Were the Reformed churches and believers to succumb to the relativism of these guidelines, it is difficult to see how they could lay claim any longer to being true sons and daughters of the Reformation. Can anyone imagine Luther, for example, declaring at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that his teaching was merely a matter of his own perception? Can anyone imagine Luther relativizing his convictions by acknowledging that they were merely one perspective among many, even a minority perspective at that? Did Calvin contribute to the Reformation in Geneva by setting forth the truths of the gospel as merely his “opinions,” not necessarily invalidating the differing opinions of others? Did the Reformers regard their confession as only one perspective among many, one which was open to different perspectives equally valid and true?
To ask these questions is to answer them—certainly not. The Reformers, like believers before them and after them, were convinced that the truth of God was over all and that this truth was objectively given us in the text of Scripture. They believed, moreover, that this truth could be known and confessed before the world. So certain were they of the authoritative and clear teaching of truth given in the Scriptures that they were willing to die for the truth, rather than to accommodate to error. It seems obvious that no Reformation could ever have occurred, nor will further reformation ever occur, in the church where the spirit of relativism prevails.
The only context in which the Christian mind can thrive and flourish is one which begins with the sure and unchanging Word of God in Scripture. Only where the Word of truth in Scripture is the objective norm, founding and confirming our knowledge of the truth and keeping us from error, is there any prospect that the Christian mind will be transformed, proving what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Relativism in the Christian church will only serve to close the Christian mind and to close the Bible to the people of God. Rather than being a humble admission of our limited perception of the truth, it amounts to a proud and ungrateful closing of our minds to the clear and knowable truth given in the biblical texts.4
1 Foreword by Saul Bellow. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
2 I am not interested in this article in addressing the propriety of this item on the synodical agenda. However, it should be noted that this was a highly irregular intrusion Into the agenda of synod by the SIC. Though it may have been in keeping with the recent history of Irregularities at brooder assemblies of the Christian Reformed Church, it conflicts with the historic Reformed view that brooder assemblies are to address ecclesiastical matters in on ecclesiastical fashion, and that these matters should come before the assembly through the process of appeal and overture, etc.
3 My readers could substitute for the Scriptural teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity, any number of teachings of the Word of God. Relativism has on insatiable appetite and knows no limits. Once you permit the tenets of relativism to enter the church, no doctrine of the church, no moral obligation. no distinction between true and false, etc., win remain secure for long. Everything reduces itself to “my opinion, your opinion,” and who’s to say who is right! This is a for cry from the conclusion of the Athanasian Creed which declares, “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be solved.” Nor is it worthy of those who are heirs of the Belgic Confession, whose original confessors declared when they presented it to Philip ll, that they would “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire,” rather than deny their confession.
4 This is one of the ironies of relativism. Though it pretends to be born out of a humble admission that my perspective and viewpoint is no more right than anyone else’s, It compels me to regard all viewpoints as merely subjective. This means that I am left free to hold my opinions, without submitting my every thought to the perfect standard of God’s Word. A word of truth that cannot be known is, of course, conveniently able to be discorded. Certainly, no one would dare quote from it, as though its truth could be clearly known!