Earlier, I suggested that Christian professors in the humanities have been trained into their disciplines’ conceptual frameworks. Often, this includes social constructivism, on which many think we cannot be unbiased or objective and know what is true. But, we cannot achieve that position; so, interpretation goes all the way down. But, I suggested this idea is mistaken. For instance, if discrimination is just a social construct, we lose any moral basis for civil rights protests.
Now, I do not know any social constructivists who want to dismiss altogether an objective reality, which exists independently of our interpretations. Otherwise, what are we interpreting? But, that’s different than our being objective, in terms of how we know things. Here, I think we should not blithely ignore the shaping influences on our lives and how we interpret reality.
Some shaping factors on American evangelicals came from the Enlightenment.¹ One factor was “common sense” philosophy. It influenced Christians to think it was common sense to believe what the Bible says is true. Now, I think there are many good reasons to believe that Scripture is God’s authoritative, infallible, and even inerrant word. Yet, for evangelicals in the 1700-1800s, they did not see any real need to integrate Scripture with science. At the end of the day, it was “common sense” that their teachings would harmonize. But, they left science to develop autonomously. Without good integrative thought, eventually scientists embraced views that, on a more mechanistic, atomistic paradigm, seemed like “common sense” to them.
Other factors included the strong Enlightenment confidence in human reason, and the high value placed upon empirical (i.e., scientific) knowledge. It made sense to many evangelicals then that they should wed Bacon’s scientific method with theology, stressing what is empirically observable – Scripture. Via this synthesis, they thought they could know objectively (maybe even with certainty) reality.
It is little wonder, then, that many 20th century pastors, having been trained in the holdovers of these mindsets, would preach with tones of invincible certainty.² And, when the scientific “rug” was pulled out from under evangelicals as a result of the Scopes trial, they were put on the defensive. Having been shaped by that, many older evangelicals still evince a defensive, anti-science attitude.
These are a few broad, cultural factors. But, individually we are shaped, too, which affects how we interpret life. As but a few examples, a woman who has been molested by her father likely will have great difficulty trusting God as Father. White males could have very difficult times appreciating the experiences of African American males who’ve been racially profiled by police. Evangelicals can have stereotypes of homosexuals that they are universally atheistic. Democrats can think Republicans are deeply uncaring for the poor (and vice versa).
Though we have been shaped by many factors, are we “locked into” those interpretive lenses? No; otherwise, why bother to protest injustices, teach about diverse perspectives, or even dialogue? Indeed, while it may be challenging, we can work at “walking a mile in another’s shoes.”
Our “situating” factors contribute to habits we form. In turn, they influence our attentiveness. These habits can be very useful – e.g., we don’t have to think consciously about every detail when making a left turn. Over time, though, we can fall into ruts and not notice many things. But, if we need to, we can pay attention to a detail.
Something similar happens when getting to know someone from a very different background, or considering new ideas. Social science and humanities’ professors can call our attention to things that we might not otherwise notice, due to our habituation. And, we can pay attention to those things, if we so choose, though that may be difficult.
Yet, we can notice we are not “locked into” our perspectives. We can consider other ideas. So, we can notice we are not dealing merely with our interpretations thereof, but those ideas themselves. Our “situatedness” shapes us, but does not preclude our being able to know what is objectively real and true.
¹E.g., see George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (OUP, 2006).
²E.g., see Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2001), xiii.