Christians & Diversity – Part 1: A Big Assumption

When I was in my Religion PhD program at USC, I had two vivid impressions. First, there’s the assumption that no one knows truth in religion or ethics. Instead, we have our opinions, stories, or interpretations. I also noticed this was not limited to just ethics or religion. Often, there were mindsets like the “death of the author” – there is no meaning in a text that the author had in mind (or, at least we could know). History too had such ideas. E.g., there is no such thing as history; there are only histories, and as many as there are people who tell them. Sociologists also seem to assume that we cannot know reality as it truly is, but only in light of our interpretive grid, which we cannot set aside.

The assumption I picked up was that everything is interpretation; we cannot access reality without it. And, there are numerous perspectives, or interpretive grids; there is no universal one that all can attain and use. So, there will be a great diversity of interpretations. To seek for universal truths or qualities actually might be a tool of oppression from the modern or earlier periods.

The other impression was that, by and large, the natural sciences give us knowledge of the facts of reality, and not just interpretations.

This is not some uniqueness to USC. It is a mindset that is deeply entrenched in western societies, and often it is called the “fact-value split.” Indeed, I think it runs so deep that it is taken by most as axiomatic.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I think that (for the most part) the humanities tend to operate under this assumption that everything is interpretation. So, Christians who hold to the authority of Scripture and have been educated in such disciplines will have been trained in this and related assumptions. Those assumptions readily would produce some cognitive dissonance in them. How then should they integrate their academic training with Scripture?

How they answer this question might vary; e.g., perhaps (1) they may embrace this assumption and interpret Scripture in light of it. If so, they may well tend to distrust claims to universal truth given by Christians, perhaps even as being imperialist and colonial. Or, (2), they might bifurcate their Christian lives into a separate compartment, such that they understand Christianity’s teachings to be their personal convictions, but not items of knowledge. On the other hand, (3) someone might dogmatically adhere to traditional teachings of Scripture over what one’s discipline maintains, and yet have no good reasons why the discipline is mistaken. Or, (4) perhaps the person could identify and test the discipline’s assumptions in light of Scripture, and also have good reasons for knowing it to be God’s revealed word.  

Now, most of our humanities professors in Christian universities received their PhDs at secular schools, where it is very likely they were trained with the assumption that we cannot take off our “interpretive lenses” and get a direct gaze into reality itself. Depending on the extent to which they have embraced that view, we will see them tend to avoid appeals to universal truths and qualities we all have in common. Instead, they will tend to focus on diversity of race, class, gender, and more. Now, these are important issues today, but this assumption can be a key motivation to focus on them. In other words, we will see them focus on particulars and particularity, rather than universals. And that seems to be what is happening in many Christian universities in the west.

Now, if their assumption is right, we cannot possibly have a God’s-eye view that is blind-to-nothing and know reality as it truly is for all people. This has big implications for how we understand Scripture and issues like: can other followers of other religions be in heaven too? Are there universal, moral truths about our nature? And more.

But, in my next post, I will assess everything is interpretation. After that, I will explore more factors that we seldom, if ever, notice that have shaped us to think everything is particular, without universal qualities.  Should we accept them too?