You may’ve expected my next post to continue with Augustine, and I certainly would like to get back to Augustine, but since I currently am attending seminary to sort out the tangle of thoughts in my head about theology, I may blog about several different Christian classics first, before getting back to dear Augustine.
Now consider theology–would you consider it crazy, or maybe presumptuous, to argue there are basic underlying principles of the subject that naturally appear if you investigate it enough?
It’s utterly outdated to talk like that in the modern world. After all, are there not thousands of denominations, each with their own strongly held beliefs that they argue are deeply rooted in the Bible? How can anyone argue for any principles of theology at all? Are we not all groping in the dark, all equally as likely to be correct about some things and wrong about others, and all equally without hope of putting our beliefs into any kind of concrete order?
Ah, this is why it is so refreshing to read a book that says no, no, no. There is not chaos, only order, and it is the mission of humanity to seek it out. This is what Abraham Kuyper argues in his classic Principles of Sacred Theology, written in 1898.*
Now, the date gives a strong clue about the reason for his confidence. He belonged to the modernist era, when academics in general believed they could categorize all of human knowledge, and one day we’d achieve a full knowledge of our world. As the world revealed itself to be more and more complex, more and more people fell away from this idea. And as the disputes about the fundamental nature of reality multiplied, many people came to the conclusion that we cannot really ever know… And thus postmodernism entered the picture.
However, back to Kuyper, who was writing with confidence before postmodernism was born. He is the very exemplar of C.S. Lewis’s charge to read old books, because where can you find such confidence in humanity’s ability to gather knowledge, except in someone untainted by our atmosphere of postmodernist thought? There’s no explanations for why relativism doesn’t work. He doesn’t even consider anyone would argue for relativism. He just gets right to the point.
And his point is–humans should assume order is present in creation. If you accept a theology that states all creation is created by an orderly God, it naturally follows that we can find our way through the chaos of knowledge that lies before us. More than that, it is part of our goal as humans to bring order to chaos. Anything which first presents itself to us as chaos will possess an underlying order upon inspection.
Now, this still sounds kind of crazy, so I’ll let him expand on this thought:
“Here we merely state that in our bringing about of Encyclopedic order in the chaotic treasure of our knowledge, we are governed in two respects by a compulsory order which is separable from our thinking. First, because the treasure of knowledge which we obtain by our thinking does not originate first by our thinking, but exists before we think; and, on the other hand, because the knowledge to be arranged in order stands in relation to a world of phenomena which is independent of our thought…. Thus our human spirit is not to invent a certain order for our knowledge, but to seek out and to indicate the order which is already there.”
Astounding. As someone deeply bathed in postmodern thinking (which I truly do not regret, by the way), this is mind-blowing to hear. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. It turns my brain around down an avenue of thinking I could have never entered otherwise. What if I did accept that we can bring a system to our knowledge? How would it change everything?
Because I have to admit, order does arises from nature, consistently. Not always the order we expect–when science discovers the planets rotating around the sun, for instance, or the crazy calculations involved in the theory of relativity (yet it can be described with equations, for some reason). Having our own previous fixed ideas about the order we should find does interfere with our ability to see what is already there, but even the craziness of what we discover fits into a framework. We can categorize knowledge of creation. We can quibbled about the interference of our subjectivity, our human bias, and its effect on categorization of knowledge, but to dismiss any scrap of information humans have ever arranged as a pretense of order is to give up on attaining knowledge entirely.
In other words, while postmodernism is incredibly useful to critique systems of knowledge, it is really only useful for tearing down, and not offering any solutions to replace what it has destroyed.
Then it occurred to me how chaotic our modern knowledge is–how Wikipedia is a maze compared to the encyclopedias of old, and how the internet (perhaps our greatest repository of human knowledge) is a sprawling mass of contradictory streams of information. Our guide through this mess is usually Google, but Google cannot be conceived as bringing true order to our chaos. We’ve allowed our enthusiasm for gathering knowledge to result in a sprawl we know how to wade into, but not how to organize it.
I’m not arguing we should return to the days of printed encyclopedias, which were out-of-date the day they hit the store shelves. However, as humanity, we should start the discussion about the nature of knowledge. We should consider bringing order to it. We reinvented how we stored knowledge, so maybe we can reinvent a new way to lay it all out. We might draw out connections between different disciplines that we gloss over right now. We might have ideas about what should be done, and start acting instead of just reacting the first search result on our screen.
Anyway. Just a thought.
*Note: In case you’ve never heard of Abraham Kuyper, or Principles of Sacred Theology, and do not believe it to be a classic–as far as I know, it is more well-known in European systematic theology studies, rather than North American ones, and originally was written in Dutch. Hope that helps! It’s fully available online here.