I’m working my way through William J. “Billy” Abraham’s Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation. The most recent of his books promoting what he calls “Canonical Theism,” Abraham continues the work of Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism. While it is a work in the epistemology of theology, it rejects the common assumption that theology must be adequately grounded in some public data or method before it can proceed. Foundationalism, coherentism, pragmatism, and other models that seek to simplify the knowing process all fall short of what the church needs – and of what we actually have in the canonical resources of the church.
Commonly “theism” is a minimalistic approach to God. God is the supreme being, all powerful, all knowing, present everywhere, all good, and the origin of all. This God gives commands – variously summarized as 10 Commandments, the Golden Rule, “Don’t Judge,” or ‘be nice.” All you need to get to theism, some think, is an awareness of the universe (Psalm 19:1) and a sense of mystery.
This kind of theism falls far short of Christianity, however. While the platitudes of theism might be found in the bible, Christian tradition, or hovering nearby, theism lacks an interest in a God who acts in history and interacts with people. Canonical theism is an attempt to articulate a basic form of Christianity, the basics shared by a variety of Christian traditions (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant). These basics include the Incarnation and the Trinity – often some of the first doctrines to go as a weak Christian theism evaporates into Unitarianism.
Consider this comment from chapter 5:
Action predicates are constitutive of the divine reality encountered and worshiped in the canonical life of the church. This has immediate bearings on how we are to think of knowledge of God, for there are characteristic ways in which personal agents are made known and in the manner in which claims about them are adjudicated.
Agents are fundamentally made known by what they do. Thus we come to kow personal agents by encountering themin our experience and becoming acquainted with their actions.
The church worships a God who has done more than create the world, impose a moral scheme, and then go on vacation. That’s deism. And theism doesn’t add much to that. (Historically the words deism and theism meant just about the same thing. It’s only as the influence of foundationalist epistemology has grown that theologians and Christian philosophers of religion have thought there to be a need to find a basic and universal concept of a divine being before they could move on to the particularities of the Christian tradition.) The key thing was demonstrating the existence of God.
Back in the 18th century G.E. Lessing crystalized a belief percolating among Enlightened folks, perhaps since the Cambridge Platonists a hundred and fifty years before. He said there is a “broad and ugly ditch” between the “necessary truths of reason” and the “accidental truths of history.” Religion – true religion, not just the gross superstitions of ordinary believers – is concerned with universal and necessary truth of the kind that can be demonstrated with certainty. The modern epistemological project was all about certainty – so Lessing was operating within that tradition.
Unfortunately, the quest for certainty didn’t pan out very well. While Descartes thought he had a nice structure built on the foundation indubitable existence of the thinking self, it wasn’t too long before those looking for certainty had cast aside his assurance that there was a god, and an external world. Then along cam Hume and the certainty of the thinking self was reduced the certainty that I seem to be thinking right this second. Not much to go on. Surely not much to get any theology out of.
Fortunately for us, most of the resources of the Christian tradition are located on the other side of Lessing’s ditch. While we may lack the (false) certainty of “necessary truths of reason,” we have many accounts of a God who acts in history, climaxing in the Incarnation. Abraham demonstrates they though Christians operating on this (the historical) side of the ditch may lack a complete theory of how we know what we know, and may fall short of absolute certainty (not to say Christians aren’t still captivated by the Enlightenment dream), we do just fine.
I’ve just finished chapter seven (out of 11). In that chapter Abraham examines the life of an individual who has come to faith. He explores the epistemological resources and habits the convert calls on at each stage of the process. One can see very clearly that for Abraham (and Canonical Theism) that resources taken to be epistemological (scripture, tradition, truth, evidence, etc.) are better understood in the context of soteriology (salvation). God is out to accomplish much more than producing the knowledge (even certain knowledge) of true propositions in our minds.
Epistemology on this side – the “accidental truths of history” – takes place in time, not a realm of timeless abstract truth and method. Abraham likens our entering into God’s revelation (a process in time) to entering a house. Once we cross the treshold, a new world is opened up to us. The newness of this world (the house) is not just in terms of content (i.e., the new things we can see in the house), but in terms of new stances we take toward the processes we find ourselves involved in – including epistemological processes.
I could say much more, but that’s enough to give you a taste. Get the book. Read it. Give thanks that we have a Billy Abraham teaching at a United Methodist seminary.