I neither style myself a philosopher nor theologian, so I am not going to put forward some overarching theory of knowledge which is profound. Instead, I am going to concern myself strictly with the Christian religion and presume that despite the logically compelling nature of the Christian religion, it is not self-evidently the only belief system which is compelling nor is it so compelling in its own right that something like agnosticism as it pertains to which brand of theism one ascribes to, is not an easier and more compelling default in its own right. After all, by default if theism is logical and eminently true, the claim that one simply does not know which sectarian claims about theism is true is impossible to refute, because one cannot refute a non-claim. While a militant agnosticism about anything (“I don’t know so neither can you”) would in effect be a claim that can be scrutinized, simply saying “I don’t know and maybe others do, but I don’t” really cannot be.
Leaving that aside, the issue that elicits this article was someone taking issue with my specific claim that “Roman Catholic epistemology is bankrupt” in my conversation with Timothy Flanders from The Meaning of Catholic. When I am communicating this statement, I am making a very specific claim, one that I did not fail to explain in that same conversation.
I find there to be a major problem when the Christian seeks to have epistemic certainty in a faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction [lit. “persuasion”] of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) Faith is being sure of something based on personal hope, a conviction of something one cannot verify. And so, to seek a methodology for epistemic certainty in a faith-based system which presumes that faith is assurance in some unverifiable ultimately is a fool’s errand.
This does not mean there is no true philosophy or practice of theology. One can verify, within the confines of a faith-based system, claims that are internally consistent with that system. Now, due to sin, a Christian ought to believe that most will fail and fail miserably in this enterprise. I think anyone who has converted to any religion more than once, if they do not happily admit this about oneself, is in danger of damnation their pride is so blinding. This state of affairs does not discount the existence of logic, philosophy, and theology—but it points to difficulty in employing these things effectively. Most should be confessing creeds—not devising them. Affirming dogmas—not formulating them.
How is Roman Catholic epistemology bankrupt, specifically? Well, it hinges upon the same error that Protestants and some Orthodox make. They will appeal to an authority, say the authority settles it, and because that authority settles things then one can actually have epistemic certainty due to the issue being settled.
It looks like this: The Protestant affirms the Scriptures alone as settling matters. Of course, the Scriptures require interpretation, but if one were to perchance actually understand them rightly using consistent hermeneutics the matter is settled. Not surprisingly, Protestants endlessly argue and quibble over words due to the fact that simply having an infallible authority cannot provide to the individual epistemic certainty, as the interpreter is fallible.
The Orthodox and perhaps High-Church Protestant types (Anglicans, “Sola versus Solo Scriptura” types, conservative Lutherans, etcetera) allegedly “fix” this by appealing to an external interpretative authority outside of the Scriptures. One can say, “I know the Scriptures teach X, because ‘the fathers’ [or whomever] all teach X.” In effect, the tradition is a way of validating personal interpretation in order to make sure one has not gone too far off the rails. As long as the “authority” agrees with oneself, one can allegedly have “epistemic certainty.” However, the “authority” itself is subject to interpretation and people disagree whether the authority teaches X or Y, and some (specifically liberals amongst the Apostolic communions) will question whether the authority can even accurately be said to be teaching either X or Y, but BOTH X and Y. This being the case, the appeal to authority does not fix the epistemic issue the Protestants cannot fix.
Perceiving this, the more “conservative” leaning Christians may seek after an infallible interpreter of the infallible authority which gives the correct teaching of the infallible Scriptures. One can have epistemic certainty, they reason, if one can have infallibly determined what the authority really teaches the Scriptures say. Presto! Only with the Pope of Rome can one have epistemic certainty.
However, this infallible authority is also open to interpretation. What do his “infallible” statements mean? Did he actually make an infallible statement in this or that situation? What are the criteria for potential infallibility? What do those criteria mean? Everyone disagrees! Just like that, we are no better than the Protestant alone in the woods interpreting his Bible and have no more epistemic certainty in what the dogmas of the Christian faith are than he does.
The weak link in all of the preceding, as laid out, is the sinful interpreter—fallen man. The addition of an authority on top of another authority is not, in of itself, an effective means of fixing the problem of interpretation. The addition of authorities merely kicks the proverbial can down the road so as to avoid the inevitable problem that man’s fallen interpretation will cause.
So, how does the individual Christian have epistemic certainty? The issue of sin must be dealt with.
Gnomic willing, the process of deliberation due to uncertainty, is an inescapable consequence of the Fall. Methodology cannot fix a problem that is, ultimately, not methodological in nature. Even if the Protestant or Papal approach was right, if one has a fallen intellect and his mind is mired in sin, the correct methodological approach is merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic of faith that is experiencing shipwreck (if you don’t know the Biblical reference, you should stop reading this article and actually read the Scriptures).
Therefore, the first step to more epistemic certainty, as the chances of attaining a sinless mode of living by God’s grace are practically zero and only sinlessness can provide actual epistemic certainty, is repentance. A radical reorientation away from oneself and towards God is spiritually necessary. This includes obediences (i.e. doing another’s will, not one’s own—go that extra mile), daily Scripture reading, prayer rules, giving alms, making peace, showing kindness, etcetera. It is by doing things that we actually understand things.
A methodology of understanding, no matter how convoluted, always falls short of hands-on experience. One assimilates more about Christianity by living like Christ and becoming Him, than trying figuring Him out.
I know this from the real world. When I owned an auto repair facility, I preferred to hire supposed “dimwits” who had experience versus the “educated.” Experience IS the best education.
When I studied pedagogy, I learned that all educational scholarship concurred. Students learn best by doing, not by memorization or any other specific methodology to assimilate information. Before I taught my first history classes, I was told by a professor of mine, “You will learn more history by teaching it to others, than you ever learned by reading and researching it.” This is despite the fact I have done archival
research by that point in time and since then I have been published. I can confirm, teaching is the best form of education because doing is the best form of education. It is the main selfish reason I write and do Youtubes to begin with and precisely why I do not do topics that I think are basic or below my own level of learning.
I think we have sufficiently addressed the individual issue of epistemic certainty. Ironically, one can begin in the “wrong” communion and I believe, if one follows the spiritual disciplines, the Holy Spirit will correct this without any conscious assimilation of methodology.
This is more the reason to evangelize, because unless people hear the Gospel and repent, how else will they come to know God? This is also why all converts made merely by rhetoric and convincing arguments, without any call of repentance, are pyrrhic. Without doing there is no faith, hope, and persuasion of things unseen. Proving the existence of God by the teleological argument and the historicity of the resurrection does not, in of itself, saves souls.
This experiential approach to truth is not some subjective hocus pocus to shroud Orthodoxy in mystery in order to shield it from scrutiny. It is empirical fact well known to pedagogues and cognitive psychologists—and auto shop owners for that matter.
The preceding being said, I think one can seriously posit that religion is not blind faith, but it actually contains an empirical, “laboratory” component. The experiment, which must be performed to validate a thesis in which to gain growing degrees of certainty in one’s faith, begins with the individual pursuing spiritual disciplines. Any good student, with humility, will realize one cannot teach himself. He needs good teachers. And so, are good teachers particularly those who are brilliant in the eyes of this world? Absolutely not. God shames the wise with alleged fools. He chooses the weak to shame the strong. The best teachers will not be the best by worldly standards, but by other-worldly standards.
Let’s cut to the chase. The teachers for Christians are the saints. The saints, specifically because they have attained to personal holiness, are recognized by those who are holy (Christians, in the Church, and specifically the recent saints among them). Therefore, the consensus of saints is meaningful (though it can only be rightly perceived by someone who is holier as a result of spiritual disciplines) specifically because they are, by correct standards, the right teachers. If these saints did, in fact, teach a doctrine such as Vatican-I Papacy, then it would be evidently true—not because it appears methodologically superior than any other methodology, but because those with the ability to rightly perceive methodology identified that through this means epistemic certainty can perhaps not be fully derived, but approached.
However, there is more than this. One does not need to be an Athonite super-elder to discern truth nor find such an elder—though that helps, obviously. Rather, every Christian who repents and in so doing has an experience of God’s grace is perceiving a theological reality, the energy-essence distinction. By personal experience, one can validate a teaching of the fathers derived from the Scriptures.
Another example, though there are countless, would be the Filioque. Every faithful Christian attending a Liturgy should know by merely communing the actual Eucharist (there is no Eucharist among the schismatics), they actually experience correct Pneumatology.
How so? The epiclesis is prayed during the Liturgy and that prayer (that the Holy Spirit make the consecration occur) is absolutely necessary because of its incarnational (Christ was incarnate of the Holy Spirit) and eternal (the Son was begotten as a result of the Spirit’s procession meeting its end in the Son’s generation) ramifications. The Post-Schism Filioque, which dogmatically affirmed by the Council of Florence asserts that the Father and Son are together the cause of the Spirit’s eternal procession, would
render the incarnation and the consecration as typologically and symbolically (though they are not mere types and symbols) useless.
Before the schism, “Most modern scholars agree that there had been an epiclesis in the original Eucharist of the early church of Rome.” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/epiclesis) Saint Augustine almost certainly referred to the epiclesis in making the following comment about the consecration of mere “fruits of the earth” into the actual “body and blood of Christ:”
[W]e do not call either the tongue of the apostle, or the parchments, or the ink, or the significant sounds which his tongue uttered, or the alphabetical signs written on skins, the body and blood of Christ; but that only which we take of the fruits of the earth and consecrate by mystic prayer, and then receive duly to our spiritual health in memory of the passion of our Lord for us: and this, although it is brought by the hands of men to that visible form, yet is not sanctified to become so great a sacrament, except by the Spirit of God working invisibly. (On the Trinity, Book III, Par 10)
Other sacraments which impart Christ to the believer, such as baptism, work the same way. All those who have been baptized into Christ and have put on Christ were first “baptize[d]…in the Holy Spirit.” (cf Matt 3:11, 16) These things are not coincidences. To assert the Filioque in contradiction to the sacramental realities in the Church, despite allegedly fine reasoning, is evidently incorrect and is something every baptized and communing Christian knows implicitly, even if explicit knowledge is lacking due to lack of book learning.
Of course, the Orthodox Church has its sinners. There all sorts of seriously wrong Orthodox Christians, myself can be chief among them. What I lay out here ultimately is not meant to be an air-tight argument and it will certainly not satisfy the wannabe philosophers of this age. However, I merely put forward that Orthodoxy has a viable epistemology that is not a bare methodological approach to the truth, but it is sacramental and experiential. According to empirical science, experience is the best form of both discerning truth and understanding it. Not coincidentally, the Church has always chiefly taught its faithful through its liturgical forms, vestments, iconography, hymnography, and etcetera. Of course, homiletics plays an important function, but the methodology to listening or conveying information in a homily is not the chief means to attain to Christian knowledge. For this reason, one cannot dismiss the epistemology of the Orthodox lightly.