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Volume 14, Issue 6: Incarnatus

Knowing is Falling

Douglas Jones

Watch the metaphors. Especially among those who try to deny them most. Descartes began his famous meditations by picturing his beliefs in terms of building blocks: "How doubtful were all those [opinions] that I had subsequently built upon them. And thus I realized that once in my life I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from original foundations, if I wanted to establish anything firm and lasting." This turns out to be not just an innocuous figure of speech; he goes on to philosophize as if ideas had brick-like qualities: they depend upon one another, push one another causally, and even have a mental sort of extension, shape, position, and motion "that are contained in me eminently."

This brickish image of beliefs strengthens the whole foundationalist tradition in philosophy whose goal is to build internal pyramids of belief in our heads so that we won't have to walk by faith. The idea is that if we've got a firm bedrock of ideas or perceptions, then we won't fall; we can walk with certainty through any issue.
What makes this doubly odd is that Christians have often been at the center pushing alongside Enlightenment types for an indubitable foundation for belief. Christian foundationalists don't talk about it as a substitute for faith, but that's what it is. They want us to stand on the foundation and see its blocks ever so clearly and distinctly such that, in a Christian twist, faith is a present substance, the evidence of things internally clear and indubitable. We are apparently supposed to walk by certainty and sight.
Beating up on foundationalism is a popular sport in postmodern circles. In a broader sense of the term, though, they're just as foundationalist as their alleged opponents (analytic coherentists are foundationalists in this sense, too). Sure, postmodernists wrinkle their noses at Descartes and modern philosophy, not liking clarity and objectivity, but they naively continue the foundationalist tradition. When Richard Rorty imperiously asserts that "truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there," we can ask, who says? Question authority. How do you know? And his answer is an appeal to much the same authority as Descartes invoked—the individual human throne. Rorty can't invoke revelation or the Church. Sure, much of the structure of mind and indubitability is gone. It's been replaced by Heraclitean linguistic forces, but the same judge is still on the throne. Descartes and Rorty are making universal claims about the nature of reality on the basis of their private human judgments. When Rorty is ready to allow, say, the Triune God to sit on the seat of judgment, then I'll believe he's not a foundationalist.
From an Incarnational angle, foundationalism is quite out of the question. It's inherently autonomous. It would be as if Christ came on His own strength, dependent only upon His own psyche, an Ubermessiah walking according to the dictates of some private rationality. In the Incarnation, the Son spoke of His dependence on the Father: "I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things" (Jn. 8:28); The Son didn't live within Cartesian solitude: "The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me" (Jn. 14:10,11). The Son suggests that trusting in oneself is "like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation" (Lk. 6:48). He Himself walked by dependence, walked by resting upon the Father and the Spirit, trusting. He cast Himself away from Himself. He walked by falling forward into others. He walked by faith, not by foundationalism.
In like manner, we too know by falling outward into creation and each other. Cartesian certainty is for simpletons who can't stomach the puzzles of life. Christians are called to something higher. We're called to know amid a world of mystery.
We're even built to walk by faith. Why is it that we have the sort of bodily senses that we do? Our individual senses don't give us the whole story. They are interdependent, supporting and confirming one another to make a whole that is yet a part. The Lord could have made us much more foundationalist friendly. He could have given us hearing like dogs or bats. That would have provided us with many more building blocks. He could have given us more eyes all around our heads and just a little ESP; He could have given us foresight for just a few days into the future. Instead, he made us to "see in a mirror, dimly." Now we know in part (1 Cor. 13:12).
Our bodies gives us only partial stories. We have to fall forward, depending upon creation and others in order to fill out our knowing. We have to hang upon a community to know. We're built to lean outwards. Foundationalism should be alien and unnatural to us.

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