“They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them.”
— St. Augustine
“There is in everyone a quest for truth and also a rebellion against its demands, and a doubting of the truth when it is discovered….there are many partial truths. Jesus is the truth, the whole truth.”
— Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the Voice of the Martyrs
Just last week, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made news by talking about how religious views, when it comes to the matter of abortion, need to be changed. Further, laws opposed to people’s religious beliefs would “have to be backed up with resources and political will.” (for more, here is a matter of fact take and here is a more feisty and entertaining take). And as it takes a village to raise the children that actually are “wanted”, I’m guessing she’d be on board with this kind of advocacy as well.
In one of the online classes that I teach, I think a student of mine hinted at the reasons for Mrs. Clinton’s confidence:
“One of the biggest areas of struggle [between faith and politics is that] I see is that many governments are moving forward and developing and growing, examining their rules and regulations and adjusting them to reflect what they know today instead of relying on rules based on information from over 2,000 years ago. Religions and churches have not been as quick to develop and reexamine their stance on social issues that affect everyone. So this “living in two different times” means discord.” (italics mine, quoted with permission)
I’d say Mrs. Clinton and my student are simply reflecting the Zeitgeist (spirit of the age or spirit of the time) that prevails today among the vast majority of our elites. I work as a university librarian, and one of the more interesting things I have come across recently in my profession is the new “Information Literacy Framework”, constructed with college and university libraries in mind. It features six key points, one of which dovetails with our discussion here: “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”.
Is this a helpful way of introducing and discussing authority?
Explained more fully in terms of sources and resources of information, the Framework goes on to say:
“Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required.” (bold italics mine)
There is more explanation provided, and I bold and italicize the parts that are most important for the focus of our inquiry:
“Experts understand that authority is a type of influence recognized or exerted within a community. Experts view authority with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought. Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations. An understanding of this concept enables novice learners to critically examine all evidence—be it a short blog post or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding—and to ask relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the current information need. Thus, novice learners come to respect the expertise that authority represents while remaining skeptical of the systems that have elevated that authority and the information created by it. Experts know how to seek authoritative voices but also recognize that unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on need. Novice learners may need to rely on basic indicators of authority, such as type of publication or author credentials, where experts recognize schools of thought or discipline-specific paradigms.”
Of course, looking at this more full explanation, there are some things here that Christians can agree with along with these “experts” the Framework speaks of (even as much of this explanation is vague and creates more questions than it answers). For example, of course there are always contextual elements to questions of authority (but more discussion is needed here). I also really appreciate the point that “unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on the need”. In addition, I think that the “Framers” of this Framework and all of us could agree that authority is, at least in part, “power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience”, as one definition states.
That said, what is missing here in the Framework, is just that: the important idea that the concept of knowledge – and along with this truth – are basic components to any understanding of authority. As John Somerville has noted, “Even Nietzsche and Foucalt, who sought to reduce the human to power and desire, couldn’t help pressing the truth of their views.” (The Decline of the Secular University [Oxford U. Press, 2006], 37)
And of course, when it comes to these matters of knowledge and truth, Christians have always insisted, on the basis of the Scriptures, not only that “[the] divine nature… [has] been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1), but that “all authority is established by God” (see Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-17). Further, this means that we should, as far as we are able to do so, obey and respect human authorities. Whatever “constructed” might mean, it would clearly seem to undermine this important truth.
That one might continue to believe such a thing in this day and age might seem remarkable to many – I didn’t even qualify, saying “for the Christian, this is true…”! – but it does us well to exercise critical thinking about the advice of this new Information Literacy Framework as well (that even non-believers can track with).
Here are just a few questions to get started:
- Just what might be involved in the process of “determin[ing] the validity of the information created by different authorities”?
- And, more importantly, how can we even start to do that if – rightly acknowledging that we all have biases – our “worldviews” and “privilege” inevitably blind all of us (or is it only some of us?)?
- After all, if this is the case, how, exactly, could the “novice learner[‘s]” seeking out evidence be helpful?
- Primarily so they can ask “relevant questions” that might undermine unjust power structures? (that is all the Framework seems to allow for)
Again, what is the problem here? As I said above, I submit that it comes down to the question of what knowledge is – and what truth is. The Framework mentions neither of these in this section (“true” and “truth” are not in the whole Framework*), much less gives definitions. Of course, these are questions that have given heady philosophers headaches for thousands of years. That said, can we at least still agree that it does not all come down to power – i.e. that our words are not primarily “power tools” we use to manipulate our environment or others, but are something far more deeply significant? Further can we agree that not all facts and concepts are hopelessly in dispute – due to their being “impregnated by culturally constricting conceptual schemata” born of rivalry and power?** And can we agree that it is not necessarily true that religious persons necessarily make “uncivil conflict resolution strategies” necessary? – even if the idea seems to be growing in popularity?
Or is this now unreasonable? I steadfastly maintain that there are ways for intelligent persons of good will to discover “common ground” in these areas, even if many valuable resources that might assist here are no longer known to many of us. Unfortunately, the Framework itself does not provide any sort of framework (that is intellectual argument for) for recognizing common ground that might potentially be realized due to assumptions that most all human beings might share. Rightly or wrongly, the careful reader is left with the impression that everything really must come down to using information to exercise power, and importantly – everything comes down to who holds the power. In sum, “knowledge”, whatever it is, is strictly related to what it does for us – or, more accurately, what we do with it in our “knowledge practices”. As Mr. Francis Bacon insisted “Knowledge is power” – and now, it appears, it is only power (in short, all “knowledge” essentially deals with bodies in motion, and is purely heuristic).***
Ergo (therefore), “what works” is true and what is true is what “works”, and the rightful fury many of those who support the Framework undoubtedly felt – and rightly felt – over Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s desire to remove the following words from the UW-Madison mission statement:
- “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus….
- serve and stimulate society…
- Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” (see here)
…ring hollow. Very hollow. Do you see what I am talking about?
I would submit that persons like Mrs. Clinton, my student, and those who composed the new Information Literacy Framework go back to the drawing board – and try to exercise more critical thinking in the matter. I am not just trying to be condescending (I know it sounds like this) by saying this but think that there is serious philosophical reflection that needs to occur here. With all of us being children of the modern scientific and technological mindset – with method and technique being everything – this is the water in which we swim… even as we might subconsciously and/or consciously be looking for ways to “re-enchantment”… trying to escape what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame”! For instance, I think that very few of us ultimately want to adopt the view of philosophical naturalism (at least insofar as this intellectual foundation convinces us, as I believe it inevitably does, of the need of some kind of “social Darwinism”, right-wing [might – physical, social, financial, or “rational” – makes right] or left-wing [fighting all forms of social privilege and hierarchy makes right]), which can, in truth, be reduced to “believing that we have believed things only so that the beliefs are spread” (as the point of beliefs is only to be useful to survival, the passing on of genes, etc. – for this is the core Truth). For if we do this, “we have”, as Stephen R.L. Clark says, “already stopped believing” (see here). And with this traditional notions of truth leave the building. In any case, all of these folks have my assurance that I will, thankful for my undeserved educational blessings (“privilege”, indeed), continue to exercise “informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought” (particularly toward their viewpoints!).
…just like I once did with my Christian faith – which I am thankful to God that I ended up keeping (especially in these days, where Yeat’s “Center [that does not] hold” seems to be accelerating with each passing day), having found nothing to earn my distrust… As I like to say, thank God it is Jesus who is God!
…and before you write me off as unreasonable for saying this, note that, for example, David Hume essentially argued that practically every belief we have about the universe comes from the eyewitness testimony of others and yet excluded, a priori, taking seriously what the Creator purportedly considers proof, through His servants Luke and Paul (see Acts 17, particularly v. 30 and 31). How is that reasonable? How is that not a faith of its own?
In sum, I give thanks to God for this historical knowledge – and am not aware of any “new knowledge” that requires me to change my belief that I am, really and truly, Jesus’ little lamb – and that my Shepherd is Lord of Heaven and Earth. As Robert McHenry, a former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica has put it “What I know is what I have yet to be shown is false”.
[Note: when I initially posted this article, I had misinterpreted part of the Framework and had implied something about it that was not true. I have fixed that mistake, which does not affect my core argument. I also adjusted a sentence, added a sentence above, and added the 1st footnote below]
*I note that in the “Knowledge Practices” part of the “Frame” about authority, it does says persons “developing their own authoritative voices” should “recognize the responsibilities this entails, including seeking accuracy and reliability.” The question however, is “why”? Is it simply about consequences, i.e. one should do this not to discredit one’s self and those one associates with? Or is it because it is important to be true and to seek truth and the truth? Given the whole context of the Framework, I do not get the impression that the latter option is what is meant. It’s difficult to imagine that “knowledge is constructed” could have a meaning that is compatible with traditional notions of truth when gender, the identity of the unborn, marriage, and parenthood for example are now all commonly seen as “constructions” – that is, “social constructions” historically imposed by an intolerant Western majority.
** Even if it is true that “power operates through knowledge production”, “knowledge production is…historically situated and embedded in power relations” and it’s production “never occurs outside power relations” (Seale) – whatever might be meant here by knowledge – is there not more to what knowledge is… to what it entails?
*** “..to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe…depends wholly on the arts and sciences… For we cannot command nature except by obeying her… Truth, therefore, and utility are here perfectly identical.” – Francis Bacon (might that not help explain the confusion this N.Y. Times editorial pinpoints?)
P.S. – by the way, here is my own attempt to introduce persons into this difficult question about the nature of authority. It is a video I produced at Concordia St. Paul for the library here called “How do I decide which sources are good to cite?”