Presuppositional Ethics. Monday Monologues, March 25, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will offer a Confession of Hidden Sin and talk about the Presuppositional Ethics.

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Presuppositional Ethics. Monday Monologues, March 25, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

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Presuppositional Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Much of our ethical training is unconsciously absorbed from our surroundings at home, in church, and in society. Even when we are given formal ethics training in our offices, it typically focuses on the minimum legal requirement for the office to escape legal liability under specific rules, regulations, or laws. The real business of ethical behavior is seldom discussed, taught, or even codified. Even the Christian faith itself is more caught than taught, as an old saw goes. In philosophy, this implicit knowledge is referred to as a presupposition.

Most of the time in philosophy and theology, we assume a cognitive approach to learning. The presumption is that human being are essentially rational and that faith itself is a rational undertaking. The Bible suggests, however, that this cognitive approach has two important limitations when we discuss ethics and faith.

Creation Influences Thought

The first limitation arises because we are created, male and female, in the image of a triune God. Being created to live and reproduce in families implies that we experience the world in community. Much as we want our independence, our thoughts, feelings, and language are not entirely our own.

Being created in the image of a triune God reinforces a focus on community. The Bible portrays God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a complete community in the godhead, as Jesus references after the Last Super: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26) In imaging a triune God, we image a community, something we can neither fully embody nor understand. By contrast, a unitary god is fixed, stable, and offers mostly an opportunity for self-projection, where a triune God is dynamic, engaging, and alive.

In particular, the language we speak shapes our perceptions of reality in fundamental ways, not the least of which is that it reflects the culture we live and worship in. Our attitudes about gender, work, faith, and many other things are embedded in the words that we use and do not use. We are not alone in this world even in our own thoughts and feelings—we carry our community with us wherever we go.

The Hebrew Heart

The second limitation of the cognitive approach arises out of who we are. The Hebrew mindset assumed in the New Testament saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) while the Greeks distinguished mind and body as separate. Confusion arises when we assume incorrectly that the New Testament sees the heart as a body part and we treat heart and mind as separated, like the Greeks and most secular people.

This confusion implies that the cognitive approach cannot fully inform our faith because it is based on faulty Greek anthropology. As theologian James K.A. Smith (2016, 2) writes:

Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His teaching doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit; he judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12)

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith (2016, 7) to observe: “what if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire? [the heart]” If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient, but vital, discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek.

Clearly, we cannot talk about thinking independent of feelings and we cannot think entirely independent of the communities that we reside and worship in. We need to proceed to treat them as interdependent, complicated as that might be. Still, as best we can, we need to understand better how we know what we know before we can even talk about our faith.

Ethical Teaching in the Psalms

An important example of ethics being taught through osmosis is found in the liturgical use of the psalms. Wenham (2012, 1-2) writes:

“It is the ethic taught by the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter, that is the focus of this book. The psalms were sung in the first and second temples, and in the subsequent two millennia they have been reused in the prayers of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. As we will see, the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.”

Wenham (2012, 7) goes on to explain:

“This book, then, is an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking. I have called it Psalms as Torah out of my conviction that the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction, which is the fundamental meaning of Torah, otherwise rendered ‘law’. From the very first psalm, the Psalter presents itself as a second Torah, divided into five books like the Pentateuch, and it invited its readers to meditate on them day and night, just as Joshua was told to meditate on the law of Moses (Ps 1.2; Josh 1:8).”

A key insight that Wenham offers is the effect of memorization and putting the Psalms to music on ethical teaching. In my own case, I can remember memorizing Psalm 23 and Psalm 100 many times through the years, even in different languages, and I prayed Psalm 8 daily as a centering prayer for about 10 years. I used to joke, be careful what songs you sing because once you get Alzheimer’s, they are the last thing that you forget—you don’t want to leave this world singing the Oscar Mayer Wiener jiggle!

Wenham notes that many Psalms are written in the first person. Repeating such psalms in prayer or song accordingly is like repeating a vow before God, yourself, and others. He writes:

“If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.” (Wenham 2012, 57)

Because many of us grew up singing hymns and liturgy inspired by Psalms, this tradition helped insulate us from less reflective and negative influences that seem so pervasive today—it’s not just the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials.

References

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Presuppositional Ethics

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

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Learning from Experience

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

From the fourth century before Christ, philosophers have distinguished experience (Aristotle) from theory (Plato). Experience has the characteristic of being concrete and personal while theory transcends individual experience to distinguish relationships and general trends.

Personality Types

In developing a classification of personality types, psychologist Carl J. Jung (1955) further refined the distinctions made in the process of reflection. Jung (1955, 90-92) distinguished introvert from extrovert, sensation from intuition, thinking from feeling, judging from perceiving. Using these distinctions to classify an individual’s preferred reflective tendencies, sixteen different personality types can be identified.

One can develop hypotheses about how that each of these types would learn and respond to particular challenges. For example, Myers and Myers (1995, 149) write:

“The five types that favored the stable and secure future were all sensing types. The warmest of the sensing types, ESFJ, characteristically favored service to others. Seven of the eight intuitive types favored either the opportunity to use their special abilities or the change to be creative…”

Personality types are not predictive in a deterministic sense because people do change their classification over time, but they indicate tendency or probability.

While individuals often prefer one or the other yielding classified personality traits, our experiences are shaped by the theories that we hold and these theories may even permeate our language. An Eskimo language may, for example, distinguish many kinds of ice and snow while an African language might make no such distinctions having relatively few opportunities to experience ice and snow.

Presuppositions Matter

Plato took interest in this influence of theory on language and asked the question: how do we perceive the idea of a horse? If you had never seen a horse, how would you describe one? In the Bible, one of the first things that God did with Adam was to create new creatures and show them to Adam to see what he would name them (Gen 2:19). Naming is often interpreted in the Bible to indicate authority or sovereignty over the items being named[1]; naming also provides form—the idea of a horse or the prior experiences with horses—to our experiences. In a broader sense, culture shapes our language and thinking the same way, providing form to outline and bear our experiences.

Example of Police Shootings

Philosophers call this idea of culture providing form to our language and thoughts a presupposition. Presuppositions can take the form of cultural assumptions, even racial stereo-types. In recent months, presuppositions have been controversial in the context of police shootings where in ambiguous and threatening situations police are more likely to shoot suspects from one racial group than another, even when they themselves come from the same racial group.

The presumption that a person from one racial group may be more dangerous than another is discriminatory because information about a group is being substituted for information about the individual. But the source of this presupposition is unclear—does it reflect experiential knowledge (the group is objectively more dangerous) or theoretical (discrimination). If this presupposition is experiential, then no amount of police training will make it go away, because police officers would have to place themselves in greater danger to comply with their training. But if it is theoretical, then training will presumably change future police behavior because the presupposition is unconscious discrimination. Obviously, we care a lot about the source of this presupposition, but to date the public discussion has simply assumed a theoretical source.

Presuppositions in Church Attendance and Biblical Interpretation

Presuppositions influence our attitude about church attendance and how we read our Bibles.

For most Americans in the 1950s, American culture presumed that women worked primarily in the home and families attended church on Sundays. The “blue laws” mandated that most retail stores were not open on Sunday. In my grandfather’s home town, a farmer combining his corn on Sunday would likely have received a pastoral visit the following week. Today, the stores are legally open seven days a week because the culture presumes that women and men both work during the week away from the home and church attendance is no longer assumed.

Biblical interpretation is also informed by our cultural presuppositions. Today, for example, many people read their Bibles without believing the miraculous events that are recorded. Behind this skepticism is the metaphysical presupposition that the physical world is the only world and science has not been able to reproduce many of the miracles recorded in the Bible.

Luke 10, for example, reports that Jesus restores the sight to a blind Bartimaeus (Luke 10:46-52). Was the miracle the restoration of sight or something else, like a restoration of faith? If Jesus restored Bartimaeus’ sight, then Jesus’ status as the Son of God is validated. If he merely restored his faith, Jesus may be nothing more than a great teacher or prophet, as many have claimed.

Christians who have experienced God’s hand on their lives have no problem believing that Bartimaeus had his sight restored, a counter-cultural presupposition. How do you interpret the miracles recorded in the Bible?

References

Jung, Carl J. 1955. Modern Many in Search of a Soul (Orig. Pub. 1933). New York: Harcourt Inc.

Myers, Isabel Briggs and Peter B. Myers. 1995. Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type (Orig. Pub. 1980). Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing.


[1] The power of words is again emphasized in a biblical context when we see how serious blessings and curses are taken. For example, after Jacob is caught stealing his brother, Esau’s, blessing from his father, Isaac refuses to take back the blessing—much like God creates the heavens and the earth with spoken words, blessings—once conferred—cannot be retracted.

Learning from Experience

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2BKihbl

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