Epistemology is absolutely crucial when understanding religion. Why theism instead of deism? Why Christianity instead of Islam? Why Orthodoxy instead of Protestantism? To be frank, we need to have an epistemology.
The following is going to read like the ramblings of a college junior who has incomplete learning and an imprecise grasp on logic. For that I apologize, this is the best I can communicate my understanding of epistemology.
Ultimately, I believe truth as we know it as humans is nothing more than a subjective experience. Even methodological exactitude in empirical, dialectical, or other means of determining what is true or not is ultimately subjective. It is experiential, no matter how much we claim it is not, due to the fact it’s always contingent upon our sense perception.
For example, if I read a book, my sense of sight has come into play. Hence, what I read comes through a filter, that filter being my sense perception. Even my thoughts which perceive the data inputs of my five senses, i.e. extrapolating logic and data from that aforementioned book, are limited by the organic, neurochemical processes in my own mind.
As another example, we are well aware of the visible spectrum, because those of us who are not color-blind see the whole of it. Yet, thanks to scientific instrumentation, we are now aware of infrared and ultraviolet. Without such instrumentation, these invisible “colors” do not exist. But, more than this, it is not a matter of instrumentation, but as I alluded to before, a constitutional limitation we as men have in contemplating what we sense, through scientific instruments or otherwise. Our view of reality is always limited and always an interpretation.
Everything is reduced to subjectivity. Anyone who says otherwise has an anthropology disconnected from reality. As I perceive logic and deliberate upon its ramifications, my own perception plays a role. Ultimately my senses are sending me what is akin to data inputs and my imperfect mind gives me an imperfect and subjective view of what all these things mean.
None of this is terribly new. Solomon in Ecclesiastes, Al Ghazali in Deliverance From Error, Descartes in The Discourse on the Method, and even the movie The Matrix pretty much all observe that we in fact really do not know what is real due to human limitations. While The Matrix posits a sort of new-agey solution to the problem, Solomon and Ghazali ultimately conclude that the “truth is what you do,” instead of what one contemplates. Descartes, on the other hand, works from a more abstract principle (his thoughts even existing convey reality) and then puts forward a methodology that in effect gave birth to empiricism. But empiricism, after all, holds as its logical premise that truth is verifiable and repeatable…i.e. experienced!
As a matter of full disclosure, I have read all of the preceding men (and watched The Matrix trilogy for that matter), and aside from any brain damage resulting from watching The Matrix, it is pretty clear that my own epistemology is obviously derived from them. Ultimately, I came to a juncture in my own life when I was posed with what sounded like superior philosophy and my own experience. Ultimately, it was my experience that won out, a misology that took over my mind, and here I am today.
There are Christians that still try to hold onto the former and not justify their beliefs with the latter. These are Christians who think there are dinosaurs in the Bible, that evolutionary science is completely bunk, believe that Exodus is literal historical fact, and make beyond-tenuous arguments that the Resurrection can be proven historically. Though such people are brothers in Christ, they are seriously mistaken, and ultimately defend the Truth with lies.
Applying this to Biblical matters allows us to evaluate debates between Christians. Most Protestants, being that they have no interpretative authority (on paper) other than the Scriptures themselves, are forced to argue that the only way to know what the Scriptures are is by subjectively listening to what sounds like Scripture and what doesn’t. The Scriptures say, “The sheep hear my voice.” Obviously, this is rank subjectivism.
Orthodox will criticize this and will point to history: Anyone may look into history and see what people have always considered Scripture. Hence, the Canon of the Scripture is something that is not purely subjective, but verifiable.
But think about that for a moment. The fact of the matter is that each individual is looking into history through their own subjective lens. Further, if there appears to be a historical “consensus,” this consensus is made up of fallible men evaluating matters the only way they can–subjectively.
So, what is the difference between the Orthodox and the Protestant when it comes to epistemology in this regard? I would say in the end result there’s only one, and that, is the subjectivity of the Protestant is ultimately individualistic. Even when a Protestant employs history in coming to his judgments (i.e. “the 66 Book Bible was the Bible of the Hebrews,”) he does not submit to any authoritative view of history.
In Orthodoxy, subjectivity is communal, but this communal experience in effect is an authority which is viewed as infallible. This is why Orthodox point to more than the Scriptures, but also to Bishops, church fathers, hymns, prayers, and common practices. The experience of a community over time is in effect more compelling than that of an individual, no matter how important (i.e. Pope) or knowledgeable (i.e. a famous theologian) an individual may be.
To counter this, the Protestant asserts that he leans upon the grace of the Holy Spirit in enlightening his subjective views. Yet, the Orthodox also leans upon the Holy Spirit in the same exact way.
The difference is that the experience of the Holy Spirit and how it is subjectively perceived is verifiable within an Orthodox community that transcends a single time, culture, or area. While the Protestant can only point to his own subjective experience, the Orthodox is part of a consciousness that exists over the ages.
Ultimately, the Orthodox asserts that this historical consciousness carries with it an epistemological authority. Abstract things that are immeasurable, like beauty, are known to exist as much as laws of physics because it is a shared human experience. In the same way, the shared experience of Christians, is to the Christian, as sure as the laws of physics.
To the Orthodox, the shared experience of Christians throughout the ages is proof of the Holy Spirit’s work and therefore immense confidence is placed upon the experience of the community. Ultimately, the Protestant cannot point to this as there is no consistent strain or community within Protestantism that may be historically delineated. The work of the Spirit, in effect, appears invisible and unknown in many areas and times. So, the Protestant must place all of his confidence in the work of the Spirit in his own life and cast doubt upon other people’s experience.
To understand religious experience in isolation is spiritually hazardous. It leads to every kind of extreme and heresy. It inflates pride and creates hatred of others. It idolizes the individual which in effect replaces the true God as one’s Savior. It is this we must repent of, as every day of our lives we battle our own hearts, the idol-making factories that they are.
In closing, it is my view that our epistemology is always limited by our limited sense-perception and fallen minds. What should give us greater confidence is if we could find that our experience is both repeatable and consistent–similar to the empirical method that Descartes extrapolated during his own epistemological crisis. The experience of God’s goodness is consistent between people throughout the ages and this consistency gives us much more confidence in our own experience than understanding our religious experience in isolation.