Thursday, July 23, 2009

Neutrality is Nowhere

Up at John Piper's D.G. blog there's a post on the so-called 'myth of neutrality.' This prompts me for several reasons, not least of which is the relevance of the topic for Augustinian studies. Also, I recently gave a paper at the University of Aberdeen on ethics and technology, the opening of which placed the problematic nature of 'neutrality' front and centre. I said the following:
'The aim of my paper is to investigate where the intersection of ethics and technology occurs in modern societies. I am speaking as a Christian theologian. Because of this, I do not pretend to participate on neutral turf; in fact, it is fundamental to my critique of technology-in-modernity that neutrality be exposed for the dangerous pretension that I think it is. My opposition to neutrality is thus coextensive with my expectation that those who do not share my convictions will have a difficult time agreeing with me.'
I include this not to bore you with my own writing, but to address what I think it critically important to any substantive discussion held anywhere at any time. In some sense it is a relief for me to attend academic conferences under the title of theologian: the cat's out of the bag from the start, and the only question my peers really have to ask is how much I take what I study seriously, i.e. how much I believe. But this is still not to excuse me from locating myself in the grips and throes of the catholic Christian tradition. What is therefore essential for conversation is that no veil is thrown over the most determinative truth on which I base my criticism or scholarship or whatever; which is, invariably (hopefully), the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But my above (imperfect) introduction wants to do more than this. It is not simply to claim no neutrality on my part, but to ask that others excuse themselves from such pretension as well. Thus the question I want to elicit is exactly the one I received, namely whether I believe there is a so-called 'neutral perspective' from which humanity may discuss and determine truth, etc. The reply is very simply, no. But this, too, is not a claim divorced from Christian theological convictions. Since Christians believe in a Creator, they believe we are creatures. Therefore our creaturely status implicates us in the creation within which we participate but over which we cannot preside as some 'neutral observer' or even transcendent being. We participate in a world that is created. Moreover the doctrine of the fall stipulates that this participation is in some sense fatally flawed, in which case the redemption we experience is a redemption that converts our hearts, minds and wills from one place and to another, rather than from no place to something. That is why it is rebirth, not first birth. The creatio ex nihilo has already occurred; we do not repeat it, but get transformed following it.

There is much more to say, but I conclude with this thought. The struggle of the non-believer rests in her inability to identify or unwillingness to acknowledge (or both) what separates her from God: namely, her sin. Augustine spoke of the primordial sin as pride: it is pride that betrays our vision, that gives us the sense of superior reason, of a 'neutral' vantage point. Yet the claim to neutrality is the claim from nowhere, which is in a certain sense the claim not to exist. Perhaps then the task of any Christian apologetic or (perhaps more properly, following Barth) Christian polemic is first to refuse any pretense to neutrality at all. For this is how we should begin to make sense of what faith, hope and especially love is. It is love, expressed through worship - and not pride, expressed through reason - that speaks of Christ and orders and explores reality through Christ. The use of reason operates within the wisdom we possess in the Trinity, revealed to us in the face of the Son of God to whom we belong - having formerly belonged to something else. Giving away our false purchase on neutrality is therefore to acknowledge ourselves as creatures, as slaves to righteousness rather than slaves to sin; and it is to keep us from transcending the heights of scholarly 'wisdom' only to find that in this false transcendence, we have abandoned the very truth that rendered the joy of the Lord our strength: namely, that apart from Him we can do nothing.

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