The world needs a new epistemology, and we have it.
In her article, “Postliberal Epistemology,” Tara Isabella Burton outlines a Christian response to the failed rationalism of the Enlightenment and the floundering subjectivism of our postmodern era (Comment, Summer 2020).
What she calls “postliberal epistemology” has not discovered answers to the pressing issues of our day: “This epistemology’s core idea is that human experience is so subjective, so rooted in a combination of our biological truth and our social, racial, and gendered reality, that claims to universality are not merely meaningless but actively harmful: reducing the complexity of human situated expression to anodyne shorthand.” The rationalism of the Enlightenment has failed to answer the deep questions of human experience; but the postliberal epistemology that is in the process of succeeding it seems to be faring no better.
The resulting tribalism is getting worse, and it is becoming increasingly marked by anger, destruction, and violence. Dr. Butron insists, there-fore, “It is not only possible but necessary to forge a distinctly Christian epistemology and anthropology that preserves both the necessary truths of rootedness and the irreproducibility postliberals seek and the truth of human equality that has been liberalism’s greatest legacy.”
She offers three primary aspects of such an epistemology: (1) A robust vision of human equality: “liberalism’s vision of equality was taken from Christianity. Perhaps it’s time to steal it back.” (2) A vision of human creative freedom and a sense of the uniqueness of each individual and their potential. Finally (3) a “faith in imperfect, but nevertheless useful, human communication: language as a site where something real, albeit never something total or complete, can be meaningfully conveyed.” She adds, “in the light of a theology predicated on the Word made flesh, we are called to understand, however humbly, conversation and dialogue as meaningful sites of operation.”
Such an epistemology requires two foundational commitments: First, that all people are to be regarded image-bearers of God, with real souls and real potential to know God; and second, that Christ as God incarnate must be the touchstone for all our deliberations and ends. She explains, “We must think of knowledge not merely as a system of information out there, for us to master from a position of disengagement, but a s relationship between facts and our own, contingent capacity to experience them as embodied truths – a capacity we can in turn cultivate. We must wed our understanding of knowledge to that of the incarnate Logos through whom we must understand all else”.
This is an epistemology that leads to “dignity, beyond description, that should govern not just our sense of what we know, but how we live.”
These are some valuable insights for Christians to rediscover and own as we seek to regain a role of influence in our postliberal society, and work to restore the reconciled world for the glory of God.