Epistemic Pelagianism (or, What’s Wrong With Apologetics) image

Epistemic Pelagianism (or, What’s Wrong With Apologetics)

There are many wonderful terms and phrases coined in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, and a number of them - "haunted by transcendence," "the immanent frame," "the buffered self," "the enchanted imaginary", and so on - have quickly become part of the discussion around secularisation and what to do about it. But one phrase that caught my eye in particular, while reading Jamie Smith's exposition of Taylor in his excellent How (Not) To Be Secular, was "epistemic Pelagianism": the notion that we can work everything out ourselves. In brief, it's what Taylor (and Smith) think is wrong with "Christian" apologetics. Here's how Smith explains it:

This mode of “Christian” apologetics bought into the spectatorish “world picture” of the new modern order. Rather than seeing ourselves positioned within a hierarchy of forms (in which case we wouldn’t be surprised if “higher levels” are mysterious and inscrutable), we now adopt a God-like, dispassionate “gaze” that deigns to survey the whole ... And it is precisely in this context, when we adopt a “disengaged stance,” that the project of theodicy ramps up; thinking we’re positioned to see everything, we now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us, including the problem of evil. Nothing should be inscrutable.

But this apologetic project - particularly with respect to the “problem” of evil - is taken in a way that is completely consistent with the “buffered self”; while earlier the terros and burdens of evil and disaster would have cast us upon the help of a Savior, “now that we think we see how it all works, the argument gets displaced. People in coffee-houses and salons [and philosophy classes?] begin to express their disaffection in reflections on divine justice, and the theologians begin to feel that this is the challenge they must meet to fight back the coming wave of unbelief. The burning concern with theodicy is enframed by the new imagined epistemic predicament.

Or, as Smith puts it later with reference to the Lisbon earthquake and Leibniz’s response, “prior to this stance, the conditions would have yielded lament, not theodicy.”

In practical and pastoral terms, this approach to the question of suffering and evil cashes out in Tim Keller’s excellent Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, especially the first major section. For me, sitting several steps down Schaeffer’s staircase from Taylor, it simply involves admitting that the answer to the question “why?” is, and should always be, “we don’t know.”

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