Friday, March 29, 2019

Great Awakenings, Spiritual Epistemology, and Empiricism

“ … [W]hen I teach about the Early Modern period in European and Transatlantic thought, I usually juxtapose thediscoveryof the Americas and the flurry of speculative work following that alongside the Protestant reformation, noting that both of these phenomena reflect a broadempiricist turn’ in Western thoughtthat is, a turn away from an epistemology grounded in received authority, toward an epistemology grounded in experience and observation. 

In this framing (which is not particularly controversial, I would like to think!), Scottish Common Sense philosophy is an expression of the empiricist turnbut so is, I would argue, the Second Great Awakening, where wondering where one was being sent for eternity based on the inscrutable mystery of predestination gave some ground to knowing that one had become a child of God because one had experienced an inner transformation (sometimes accompanied, to be sure, with fainting fits, cries of anguish, and the occasional rolling in aisles). However it manifested, that conversion experience allowed one to claim, from the authority of his or her own interior observation, ‘I know I am a child of God.’ [….]

I define[] empiricism as a matter of judging what is true based on observation/experience rather than received authority/syllogism.”L.D. Burnett at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog*

I wrote two comments in response to the central claims embodied in this U.S. Intellectual History Blog post, and while I don’t think my reply was sufficiently rebutted, at the time I left it to the author, L.D. Burnett, to have “the last word.” I will now further fill out the argument I made at the blog (of which Burnett is the Editor). In brief, and to repeat, I don’t think the kind of transformative religious experience within this species of Christianity in America exemplified in the first two “Great Awakenings” in U.S. history, “reflect[s] a broad ‘empiricist turn’ in Western thought: that is, a turn away from an epistemology grounded in received authority, toward an epistemology grounded in experience and observation.” 

First, the “received authority” in this case remains what it has always been within Protestant (and evangelical) Christianity going back to Martin Luther’s theology: belief in “justification by faith alone,” aided by the study of the Bible (and keeping in mind that faith itself, for Luther, is the work of God in man). The “truth” (of conviction) for Christians undergoing this kind of conversion experience may (in one sense) come in the first instance, experientially or intentionally speaking, from ones’ “own interior observation, [namely,] ‘I know I am a child of God.’” But that claim cannot make sense, or is utterly bereft of significant meaning outside of the intellectual backdrop or the sectarian religious history and theology that provide its justification or warrant, in other words, its (spiritually) epistemic authority. The belief and confidence expressed in the utterance, “I know I am a child of God” is buttressed by a background of religious presuppositions, assumptions, and other theological tenets, without which one might reasonably infer the person uttering a remark such as this is “unhinged” or at least mentally unstable. Be that as it may, let’s briefly introduce some of the relevant theological and historical material that at once contextualizes and provides, for Christians (at least one sort of same), authoritative religious epistemic justification or warrant.

While Luther is infamous for describing reason as “the Devil’s Whore,” matters are a bit more complex. Reason does set man apart from other animals and is one of God’s greatest gifts (as evidenced in the arts, medicine, law, etc.), but this uninhibited reason is applicable only to man’s “earthly affairs.” In “spiritual affairs” it is shorn of its power and virtue, for here man can only rely on the Word of God (the Scriptures). In other words, with respect to God’s rule over man in the Kingdom of Heaven (which is outside the realm of economics and politics), reason is comparatively impotent. God’s work and word utterly transcend reason, and are to be apprehended by faith alone. Reason in this realm becomes subservient to, or the handmaid of, faith. All told, Luther distinguishes between three kinds of reason: (i) natural reason, operative in the Earthly Kingdom or the political realm, (ii) presumptuous reason, which attempts to encroach upon matters that properly belong to faith, and thus cannot illuminate the way of salvation, and (iii) regenerate reason, that is, reason humbled and illumined by faith, thus regenerated or born anew. Were it not for this last kind, it would hardly make sense to speak of Lutheran theology. Thus empirical reason, or the kind of reason common to empiricists, has to do from this perspective with (i) and (ii), not (iii), for “regenerate reason” is the privilege or prerogative of the (would-be) Christian alone, not someone situated outside a religious tradition that claims “justification [is] by faith alone” which, we should recall, entails first and foremost the work of God in man, an idea captured quite eloquently in the tradition’s conception of God’s grace. Man is naturally but wrongly predisposed to let natural reason carry over into the Kingdom of Christ, where grace, not law, should reign supreme. The principal tenets of Luther’s theology are as follows: (a) an emphasis on personal faith and a personal, direct (i.e., unmediated) relation with God and with the teachings of the Gospels (Sola Scriptura, or ‘scripture alone’ is the source of doctrine and practice); (b) acceptance of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds; (c) recognition of baptism and holy communion as the two (and only) Holy Sacraments; (d) justification by faith (Sola Fide); (e) salvation as a gift—through grace—of God (Sola Gratia); and (f) belief in consubstantiation. Thus on several articles of faith, for instance, the Trinity and atonement, Luther adhered to the creedal tradition. Through faith alone a sinful person receives all that Christ has done for the world (notably, through the Passion and Crucifixion by way of substitutionary atonement). 

So it strikes me as fairly clear that the inner transformative spiritual experience or conversion experiences common to the first and second Great Awakenings are not in any way indicative of the kind of evidence one could sight (in Burnett’s words to another interlocutor) as

“manifestation of a long/broad empiricist turn in Transatlantic thought ….  And again, it’s about by whose authority and on what basis something can be said to be known ’My heart was strangely warmed’ carries evidentiary weight, and the hearer of the word — not the church, the synod, the preacher, etc. — is the one who must evaluate that evidence. Indeed, the whole business of evaluating evidence as the route to arriving at knowledge — in this case, knowledge about the state of one’s soul, or the work of God in one’s life — is a calling card of the long empiricist turn.”

Evaluating the “evidentiary weight” in question here would be the task of neither the Protestant Christian nor the typical empiricist (then or now), because no true evaluative process takes place here, the experience and the conviction are, as it were of one piece, it is holistic in nature and self-validating in the manner of justification by faith (Sola Fide) alone (which of course would simultaneously entail the working of saving grace or Sola Gratia), and thus, in the beginning and the end, its T/truth is a matter between the Christian having this particular sort of conversion experience and her God (for there are others kinds of conversion or transformative experience in religious and philosophical traditions, and many of these are rather different from the sort cited here insofar as they require ‘spiritual exercises’ as part of a greater program in the ‘art of living,’ from Stoicism and Buddhism to St. Ignatius Loyola, for example).

I close with a quote from Wilfrid Sellars’ book, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (Harvard University Press, 1997; first published by the University of Minnesota Press, 1956): “Empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension science, is rational, not because it has a foundation, but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim into jeopardy, though not all at once.” The religious experience of the Christians here is not in any way part of a “self-correcting enterprise,” as such a thing would not make sense to the devotee who, according to Burnett, claims for herself a spiritual experience with an intrinsic “self-validating” and authoritative epistemic character, and thus it is not a claim susceptible to jeopardy!

* Please see: “What Can ‘Empiricist’ Mean?”  


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