Culture, Pluralistic Knowing, and Mutual Understanding

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A guest post from Richard Vytniorgu.

‘Culture’ is a notoriously difficult word. For some it refers to art galleries and piano concerts; for others it refers to something faintly bacterial; while for others still it refers to the entire realm of human activity and life. Broadly speaking, in the arts and humanities, culture seems to refer to specific elements of human existence: processes of personal and social development and transformation; aesthetic experience; and basically, the institutional outworkings of everything that concerns the ‘growth’ (or lack thereof) of the individual in his or her society.

Culture, then, has an intimate relationship to knowledge, to an understanding of social codes and conventions, lively engagement with the arts, and the development of critical abilities. The twentieth century witnessed a sea-change in the way philosophers understood knowing. No longer was the individual a separate, impartial entity interacting with the stimulus of the world, after the manner of Descartes. Instead, she became a ‘personal knower’ (Polanyi), whose observational activity profoundly affected the nature of what was observed (Einstein). The knower and the known were inter-fused (Dewey and Bentley).

Not only is this a more honest description of how human beings know, it is also extremely liberating. There are certain implications if we understand that knowing is an embodied, partial, and transformational experience.

Firstly, as researchers, we must be very careful about how we present our own activity to others, as professional ‘knowers’. Are we affirming a personal, incarnate model of knowledge, or do we hold ourselves aloof from the interface between ourselves and our subject? The revised notion of knowing is not initially intuitive, and many will continue assuming that their understanding of a given issue is unaffected by themselves as human agents in the world. Their prejudices, blind spots, and vested interests may remain veiled to them, and such talk may threaten what they wish to do with this so-called knowledge after they have lodged it safely in their minds. We want to help as best we can those who are not professional knowers.

Secondly, an exploration of personal modes of knowing eventually brings us to a gap, an absence which can only be filled by listening in humility to others, and revising our own understanding of things in light of their experiences, insights, opinions, recognising of course that other people are also limited in their apprehension of life. We all see through a glass darkly.

I have recently been travelling in the corner of the world I originally came from, and sitting in Orthodox and Greek-Catholic churches in Eastern Europe, I feel touched by witnessing an expression of Christian faith alien to my now Western, Protestantised eyes. Office men in L’viv come into church at lunchtime and sign themselves with the cross, bowing on the ground, kissing icons. Having read more about Orthodoxy – my baptised expression of faith – for these Ukrainians faith is a physical, habitual performance that helps to make them daily aware of God’s merciful, immanent, and passionate yearning in their lives.

The logical path from personal knowing to cultural growth runs via the defence and architecture of a pluralistic society. Pluralism (Kallen) is the way in which individuals of difference create a society together in which everyone can reach forth most fully toward life. Orthodox theology would frame this as the drive toward life in God and with others rather than death, mastery, alienation, and deconstruction (Louth). Christ has brought life in the medium of the Kingdom of God (Wright). Unless I reckon with the full force of the epistemological shift: from Descartes to Einstein and Dewey, I will be locked in a redundant model of knowing that excuses me from having to listen to and learn from others.

At a time when Britain seems to be verging on the hysterical regarding European immigrants, it seems crucial that as Christian thinkers we ponder again our epistemologies, conscious that much English Christian thought is built upon historic epistemological foundations long discredited outside the (especially Evangelical) church – discredited not least because they tempt us toward isolationism, oppression, and exclusion. What will it mean for us to entertain a pluralistic way of knowing for building up an exhilarating culture, bejewelled with virtues of humility, love, and attachment? We may see through a glass darkly, but new light from others, wherever they are from, will help to patch our knowing into an exquisite, creational mosaic.

Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com .

Comments

Excellent post, Richard. I’m keen to read your next contribution.

One question: in the “sea-change’ you describe in 20th C philosophy – isn’t the “personal knower” the one who has realised the deception and idolatry attached to Reason? If that is so, then Evangelical churches too have need to participate in epistemological soul-search.

Hello David,

Yes, I hope I was hinting at that, albeit in a gentle way! I felt that, as Christian thinkers working in universities, it was our responsibility to model an approach to knowledge which recognises its limitations. I think it’s there in paragraph 4, although in the edits its explicit nature was lost! :).

Thanks for your thoughts, though.

I echo David’s comment – excellent post, Richard.

I’m commenting on your final paragraph, which is particularly poignant since Jo Cox was murdered last week.

She said, in her Commons’ maiden speech that ‘different ethnic groups had “more in common” than divided them’.

Taking this with your para 5, in other words, don’t we listen to others both to understand their take on the world – which fills our incomplete perspective – and to learn more about ourselves because we have such a thin grasp on the life we already experience. Our epistemology is weak – partly because we think it’s so strong. It’s our pride which keeps Christ away, not the absence of his welcome. And the same with a stranger.

I think that Alvin Plantinga has done an excellent job at this i.e., he’s modeled an approach to knowlege which recognises its limitations. For some reason he’s not taken very seriously by his Christian brothers and sisters.

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