Friday, January 04, 2008

Obscurantism and Meaninglessness

If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.
1 Corinthians 14:11, NIV

I thought it was worth doing a post on one of the great landmark papers in the history of science and philosophy - the well-named Transgressing the Boundaries - Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. It was written by Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University. Sokal comments on it here.

The paper is especially notable, because it was deliberately written as a load of rubbish and was submitted to and accepted by a peer-reviewed journal. Sokal himself wrote of it:

Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.

And it was accepted by a peer-reviewed academic journal. My point is this:

Rule 1 - If someone is not clear in what they are saying, it is quite possible that what they are saying is actually a load of rubbish.

Rule 2 - If we are not clear in what we are saying, there is a high chance of everyone else writing it off as a load of rubbish.

But then again, they might think it's really clever. But it's better to be understood and disagreed with than to have people think you're clever. If Rule 1 was more widely appreciated, it would help clarity of communication greatly.


Gerry Hatrić said...

I'm not clear on what you are saying... ;-)

Anonymous said...


Why do you think it is, that after 2000 years of christianity, christians are still unclear among themselves about what the Bible means in many different areas?

I think I am clear in my own mind about what the Bible says about many things - the problem is that I know a lot of people who would disagree with me... !

Could God have made it any clearer?

John said...

I honestly think that the Bible is clear on a lot of stuff, and that the things it is clear on are more important than the things it is not clear on.

Why do I think the Bible isn't clear in everything? Because humility is good, as is learning to love people who disagree, as is being forced to use our minds to understand stuff.

Anonymous said...

OK. I think you are right on the humility bit. The division between Christians often seem to be along the liberal-orthodox fault line.

Liberal and Orthodox Anglicans use many of the same words but attach entirely different meanings to them (e.g the TEC divide in the US). The RCs seem to have a much clearer idea about what they believe. Even if you do not agree with them you are generally clear about what they believe and they maintain church discipline among their clerics more effectively.

I am not an Anglican, but liberalism in the CofE has led to a heterodox understanding of scripture in which obscurantism and meaningless flourishes. In the Methodist church it is even worse. I have lost count of the number of sermons I have listened to by Methodist ministers and come away trying to figure out what on earth they have said (I am not a Methodist BTW, but I do admire John Wesley).

To give one example of obscurantism I once read an account of a Bishop who was asked what he thought of the claims of Christ as opposed to the many Islamic and other religious faiths represented in his diocese. His reply was: 'We worship together'. Can't imagine the Apostle Paul saying something like that with respect to Mithras can you?

Wonder what would have happened if instead, the Bishop had said:
"They are all false gods and we should all worship the one true God Christ Jesus" That sounds a bit clearer even if you don't agree with it.

Then how can Christians collectively preach a gospel if they understand it to mean different things? How can we get the message of Jesus across to the world if we cannot agree what it means? Is one solution a heavy dose of persecution perhaps?

Should their be an annual competition to find the most obscurantist and meaningless 'Christian' message preached from the pulpits?

Sounds like a job for the "Ship of Fools".

John said...

iconoclast - Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, has said some great stuff in terms of being clear. He attended the general convention of ECUSA as an observer at one stage, and concluded that reconciliation wasn't possible because there were two different religions involved.

Anonymous said...

Why are Christians still unclear after 2000 years? Thanks to Custard's previous post, I can't resist chucking in a Bonhoeffer quote,

"Has it not become terrifyingly clear again and again, in everything that we have said here to one another, that we are no longer obedient to the Bible? We are more fond of our own thoughts than the thoughts of the Bible. We no longer read the Bible seriously, we no longer read it against ourselves, but for ourselves."

So this could give us the conservatives who stick to the truth and the liberals who have sold out to their own sinful desires. I don't think it's that simple, though. Christianity is about God taking over the whole of our lives, and each of us is less comfortable with some areas of those than others. So in our own, personalised areas where we don't want him to intrude, we bluster and find reasons why God's actually not saying anything particularly relevant to us. Due to our sinful nature, none of usis totally happy about changing to be like God, and will grasp at straws to get out of situations, whether that be consciously or subconsicously.

Also, Christianity has been hijacked by virtually every regime over its history to pursue the regime's own causes. This leaves us with a whole load of baggage to dump. Interpreting a 2-3000 year old book can be pretty hard when you're up against all that baggage.

Finally, we only see one bit of the picture. It's hard to believe that God will punish sin so seriously, unless you've seen the extent of human sin. It's hard to believe that God is overly concerned for the poor if you've been insulated from real poverty and only ever see a few starving Sudanis on telly. Without a God's-eye-view of the world, we're like blindfolded people feeling round an elephant. That's why we need revelation. But that can go against the best logical sense that we've already made of our situation. And due to our sinful nature, we're also stubborn and don't like revelation anyway.

John said...

true, true. And a helpful corrective...