Thinking with the Fingers

It is misleading then to talk of thinking as of a ‘mental activity.’ We may say that thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs. This activity is performed by the hand, when we think by writing; by the mouth and larynx, when we think by speaking; and if we think by imagining signs or pictures, I can give you no agent that thinks.

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, p. 6

I found this passage interesting because it ties into Polanyi’s idea of ‘indwelling.’

There is an odd dualism that runs through much of the modern ‘scientific’ thought I’ve encountered that portrays the brain and body as strangely at odds. For example, the idea that one must have a ‘fully functioning’ brain in order to have a meaningful existence. The oddness of such a view is particularly striking because this viewpoint is held by the very same people who would maintain that thinking itself is really only a physical process. I will go no farther with that line of thought.

I do not see how anyone can dispute the fact that we think with more than the brain. Philosophers will continue their debates over the nature of the mind as an entity, wholly the same as, or different from, the brain; but at least this much is clear: we think with our fingers and mouths as much as we silently contemplate conundrums in the ‘pure mind.’

Just this past Lord’s Day, as I was preaching on Judges 9, I found myself learning new things about the text as I preached. I was not deliberately engaged in a silent chain of reasoning. I was thinking with my mouth. As I spoke, so I learned. This happens fairly regularly. And now, as I type, it is debatable whether the words form in my mind or in my fingertips, as I do not consciously decide to write before the words appear before me and I become a spectator of them.

Perhaps the modern thinkers do not emphasize the physicality of the mind too much; Perhaps they emphasize it to little. The Word becoming flesh matters.

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Meaning and Application 2: Timeless Truth?

I ended my previous post with these words:

In summary, sharp distinctions between meaning and application are difficult to make at best. I fear that the making of such distinctions comes out of a desire to seek ‘scientific objectivity’ in interpretation. Such objectivity is impossible. And even if it is possible (and I don’t think it is), it is still undesirable. My argument is that objective detachment in biblical interpretation is impossible and/or undesirable for at least two reasons: 1)Interpretation (even in determining the original context of portions of Scripture) necessarily involves asking questions of the text, and questions cannot be neutral and 2) the best biblical interpretation is also the most applicable and vice versa (the worst is the least applicable).

I will now pursue those two points.

First, interpretation necessarily involves asking questions of the text of Scripture, and questions cannot be neutral. Back when I was blogging through Technopoly, by Neil Postman, I wrote a post entitled Questions Cannot Be Neutral. I referenced this quote by Postman:

A question, even of the simplest kind, is not and can never be unbiased…My purpose is to say that the structure of any question is as devoid of neutrality as its content. The form of a question may ease our way or pose obstacles. Or, when even slightly altered, it may generate antithetical answers, as in the case of the two priests who, being unsure if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest phrased the question ‘Is it permissible to smoke while praying?’ and was told it is not, since prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention; the other priest asked if it is permissible to pray while smoking and was told that it is, since it is always appropriate to pray (pp. 125-126).

From there, I made this observation:

First, in my thinking, I applied this quote to the study of the Scriptures. As a student of the Bible, and as a preacher, I think this is sound wisdom for dealing with the Scriptures. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes the point in Preaching and Preachers that a student of the Scriptures must constantly be asking questions of the text if he is to find answers; and the kind of questions we ask will largely determine the answers that we receive. John Frame makes much the same point in  The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (and in his general points about Perspectivalism; if you don’t know what it is then by all means click the link). He argues, and he is absolutely right, that we cannot come to the Scriptures, or any book for that matter, as blank slates. We come with all sorts of baggage, which leads us to ask certain kinds of questions and seek certain kinds of answers. What this means practically is that we have to train ourselves to ask the right sorts of questions.

Someone may contend that our goal is to make our questions as ‘objective’ as possible. This would lead back to the road of interpreter as historical exegete looking primarily for the illusive ‘original meaning’ of the text. But there’s a problem with this. Perfect objectivity is a myth of Scientism. As long as we are personal beings with personal histories, personal presuppositions, and personal beliefs, we will never achieve the gnostic idea of setting those things aside for detached objectivity. Michael Polanyi dealt with this question at great length in more than one book. For instance, in Personal Knowledge, he writes,

When we accept a certain set of pre-suppositions and use them as our interpretative framework, we may be said to dwell in them as we do in our body…They are not asserted and cannot be asserted, for assertion can be made only within a framework with which we have identified ourselves for the time being; as they are themselves our ultimate framework, they are essentially inarticulable (p. 60).

Postman says that questions cannot be neutral. Polanyi says that the reason questions cannot be neutral is that the people who ask them cannot be neutral – they have inarticulate presuppositions that they are likely not aware of, not to mention overt presuppositions that they are aware of. This means, for our discussion, that the idea of biblical interpreter as detached exegete is a myth. And that’s a good thing.

Let me share an anecdote. A few years ago I took several classes on homiletics (preaching). During a discussion on the subject of ‘application,’ one of the students made this point to our professor: ‘What if there is no application of the passage? I just don’t see any application in the passage I’ve been working on, so why should I worry about it?’ I raised my hand an responded, ‘But you are a person, and you are preaching to people! You are not preaching in a vacuum!’ What followed was the chirping of crickets for about 20 seconds. It seems obvious enough. We should not be afraid to ask our ‘modern’ questions of the sacred text. How does this affect me? How does it affect my church? How does it affect my society?

‘Rabbi’ John Duncan once wrote of Jonathan Edwards that his ‘doctrine is all application, and his application is all doctrine.’ This is an interesting quote for a couple of reasons. First, Edwards is famous for the habitual structure of his sermons. He nearly always follows the same pattern: exegesis, statement of the main doctrine, application. He studied a text to find a primary teaching. After demonstrating that teaching in the text, he would go on to apply it to his congregation. Thus his sermons were divided into two main parts: doctrine and application. But, says Duncan, his ‘doctrine is all application, and his application is all doctrine.’ If you’ve read much of Edwards, you likely understand what Duncan means. He was never interested in detached exegesis, exposition, or theology. He was always aiming the truth right at you.

Doctrine cannot be expounded in a vacuum. The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate proof that doctrine must touch the ground and get dirty. This is what separates theology from so much philosophy. Christians are not primarily concerned with theoretical questions. When we ask questions, we are looking for answers that apply to actual lives lived in this actual world. This is why a Puritan father like William Perkins defined theology as “the science of living blessedly forever,” and why his disciple Williams Ames called theology “the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” This is why, during the Reformation, John Calvin claimed, as the central thesis of Book I of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man are inseparable if we are to properly live the Christian life. He writes,

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

And this is why, centuries before, Francis of Assisi (and Thomas Aquinas) were so concerned with the things of this world:

St. Francis was becoming more like Christ, and not merely more like Buddha, when he considered the lilies of the field or the fowls of the air; and St. Thomas was becoming more of a Christian, and not merely more of an Aristotelian, when he insisted that God and the image of God had come in contact through matter with a material world. These saints were, in the most exact sense of the term, Humanists; because they were insisting on the immense importance of the human being in the theological scheme of things. But they were not Humanists marching along a path of progress that leads to Modernism and general scepticism; for in their very Humanism they were affirming a dogma now often regarded as the most superstitious Superhumanism. They were strengthening that staggering doctrine of Incarnation, which sceptics find it hardest to believe (G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, pp. 16-17).

All of these men (though Edwards was on the edge) lived before the days of the popularization of so-called Scientific-detachment. And all of these men, in many ways, were better exegetes and theologians than what the church is producing today.

Let me return for a moment to Calvin’s words (quoted above). What he says of knowledge in general is true of knowledge in particular. If we take his argument that knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately related, to the point that we can’t tell where one stops and the other starts, and apply it to the study of individual passages of the Bible, what we might get is this: I cannot try to take off my own skin as I study the Bible. I cannot be detached. To detach myself from me is to detach myself from God. This does not mean that I am God. But it does mean that I am a Christian, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, living in a particular place at a particular time. And this means that, not only can I not know God as though he or I were in a vacuum, I cannot know him as someone living in a different place or different time. True theology and exegesis is personal and timely.

I have a pet peeve about using the word ‘timeless.’ God’s truths are not timeless. They transcend time; they are for all time; but they are not timeless. Rather, they are always timely. The incarnation is always true, no matter the age. But that truth is timely. It has ramifications for us (in the Muddle Ages) that may not be the same as the ramifications for someone who lived in the Middle Ages. This does not mean that the truth has changed. It simply means that the truth reaches out and fills up the corners of whatever time it finds itself.

Let me lay out a few ramifications of this line of thought. First, if what we have said is true, then you must not be afraid to bring your whole self to your reading of the Scripture. You do not need to ‘get out of the way.’ I’ve heard this said of preachers: they need to get out of the way and let the Bible speak. If God wanted to get us out of the way he has means of accomplishing that. He calls particular men, with particular personalities, and particular strengths and weaknesses to speak to particular generations. Let them be faithful to the Scriptures, but let them speak. Bring your baggage to your Bible study. Don’t be afraid to let God’s Word speak to you as a particular person in a particular time. Do not be content to read Scripture as a textbook, or history book. Come to it expecting every word to shake up your world. Second, do not sit in authority over the Scriptures, but do allow the Scriptures to sit in authority over you. Let the Bible have its way with you – with you, in your present context. Don’t be so concerned with the context of a given book of the Bible that you do not allow it to speak to your context.

That is the great takeaway from this subject. If your Bible study does not touch down into your world, then you are not only missing applications, you are actually missing the very meaning of Scripture. And if your study is leading you to miss how the Scriptures apply to your given situation, then you are liable, in the future, to be asked, “Have you not read?…” Of course your read it, but you didn’t live it. Of course you knew the truth, but you didn’t allow it to touch down and get dirty, as it was always meant to be.

I will conclude this series with a post about the application of Law and Gospel.

The Inward Compulsion to Stand

In [commitment] a person asserts his rational independence by obeying the dictates of his own conscience, that is, of obligations laid down for himself by himself. Luther defined the situation by declaring, ‘Here I stand and cannot otherwise.’ These words could have been uttered by a Galileo, a Harvey or an Elliotson, and they are equally implied in the stand made by any pioneer of art, thought, action or faith. Any devotion entails an act of self-compulsion’…

…The freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to do as he must.

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp. 308, 309

It is not merely objective, detached reasoning that produces beliefs or convictions. The point is that it is inward compulsion, not external pressure, that causes people to take stands.

 

Subverting Technological Imperatives (Technopoly)

…Technology creates its own imperatives and, at the same time, creates a wide-ranging social system to reinforce its imperatives.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 105

Michael Polanyi makes a similar point in Personal Knowlege:

All technology is equivalent to a conditional command, for it is not possible to define a technology without acknowledging, at least at second hand, the advantages which technical operations might reasonably pursue…A technology must…declare itself in favour of a definite set of advantages, and tell people what to do in order to secure them (p. 176).

When Postman and Polanyi come together, I listen intently.

We need to be asking ourselves what our technologies are asking of us. By ‘asking of us,’ I mean what are they compelling us to do and what are they asking us to give up? The next logical question is, What are the benefits of obedience? In summary, then, every device is telling me to do something, asking me to give up something, and offering me something in return for obedience.

If we want to subvert the imperatives of technology, if we want to throw off its sovereignty, a good starting point may be to ask what we will gain if we disobey, and if that disobedience may lead to better results than simply yielding to what is offered to us. Another starting point, and a distinctly Christian one, is to ask how we can submit technological imperatives, or technological sovereignty, to the imperatives and sovereignty of God. That is, rather than being a tool of our tools, can we use those tools to follow a different sovereign. Can we see them as His tools?

One sure way of knowing who’s sovereignty we are under, and whose commands we are obeying, is whether our use of those tools look just the same as someone who has no love for Jesus Christ. Do you surf the internet the same as the godless? Do you text the same? Do you take the same kinds of pictures? Do you post the same status updates and photos?

This is all stream-of-consciousness. I have not worked out a definite position here. I only want to provoke thought. But the main point I think I want to make as I post about technology (and Technopoly) is that my idea is that we must be aiming at a loving subversion against the spirit of the age. Subversion is not necessarily rebellion. But it always asks questions and it always proposes possible alternatives.

Selfism in Technology and Religion (Personal Knowledge)

Only as we become divided from the world, can we achieve a personhood capable of committing itself consciously to beliefs concerning the world…

We may see two people facing each other on either side of a picture, or alternatively, a vase standing in the middle of the picture. The eye may be able to switch at will from one way of seeing such a picture to the other, but cannot keep its interpretation suspended between the two. The only way to avoid being committed in either way, is to close one’s eyes. This corresponds to the conclusion reached before in my critique of doubt; to avoid believing one must stop thinking.

-Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp. 313, 314

I’ll write more on this below, but I want to be absolutely clear that nothing, zero, zilch of what I write here has anything to do with the modern condition which is called ‘autism.’ I am using the words of Michael Polanyi relating to the context in which he used them; his words, and this post, have very little bearing on any specific psychological condition. I have replaced ‘autism’ with ‘selfism’ wherever possible (out of sensitivity), though I think that actually hinders the point I am trying to make. With that said, let’s go:

The above quotes come from a section on ‘commitment.’ Polanyi is at pains to emphasize that science cannot exist apart from the personal commitment of the scientist. The scientist is not a computer; he is committed to looking at his subject from some vantage point whether he admits it or not.

Interestingly, Polanyi uses the word ‘autism’ here to describe an infant-like way of looking at the world that cannot deduce where its own part ends and its surroundings begin. He used the term ‘autism’ without reference to our modern notion of it as a disorder. The idea is that in the earliest parts of life, an infant is not able to distinguish itself from its environment. This is ‘autism’ – literally, ‘selfism.’ Everything becomes a part of my world, and I become a part of everything, without being able to make the distinction between myself and everything.

I think this idea of autism, as self-ism, divorced from its psychological-specific meaning, is helpful on a couple of fronts. First, it is helpful for thinking about technology. If we cannot divide ourselves from our technology, we will never have a true knowledge of it. It is easy for us to see our phones, tablets, laptops, etc. as extensions of ourselves rather than as distinct from us. The same is the case for specific applications of those technologies: my Twitter is indistinguishable from me, my Facebook profile is actually me in some sense.

The PBS Frontline documentary Digital Nation points to evidence that children (and adults in some cases) can hardly distinguish virtual reality from real reality. You make a virtual video of a kid swimming with Killer Whales at SeaWorld, and show it to the child, they’ll think they actually did it. My daughter has a Sesame Street book we had made in which she is one of the characters. And so, at one point, reading this book made her think she actually took a trip to Sesame Street. They, and she, could not distinguish themselves from the technology. Virtual reality has become blurred reality, or no reality at all. That’s my applying of Polanyi’s principle of autism to technology. Until you can step back and think about things as distinct from you, you will never have any type of depth in understanding about them (or you).

This also applies along religious lines. A while back I had a moment with our children’s Sunday School class. We were talking about the Apostles’ Creed and I began by having them repeat, ‘There is a God and I am not Him.’ I told them that was the first thing they must get straight. I tell my own children the same regularly. So long as we cannot distinguish ourselves from God we will never be able to understand anything of God. The problem is that we are all, by nature, idolators that are prone to make ourselves into gods. Once we’ve made that fatal jump, we will never be able to know the true God.

Many of the great objections against Christianity are derived from precisely this point. The Atheist says, ‘I cannot believe in a God who would send people to hell.’ In reality, this person cannot distinguish himself from God; and since he would never send anyone to hell personally (even though that’s probably a lie), then God must not be God. That is, in Polanyi’s sense, spiritual autism (self-ism).

The great irony here for the Christian is that we are called to be ‘selfless’ and Polanyi demands that we be able to distinguish ourselves from our surroundings and willfully commit to whatever it is we believe in. It is only by recognizing the self, in contrast to other things, that we can actually fight against self-ism. This corresponds to John Calvin’s structuring of the Institutes concerning the knowledge of self and the knowledge of the Creator. He says that we cannot know God without knowing ourselves and that we cannot know ourselves without knowing God. Polanyi’s idea makes perfect sense of this: by knowledge we mean being able to distinguish one from another: I am me; I am not God; God is God; God is not me. If you want to become selfless, you must figure out who you are in distinction from everything else.

The mind that blurs the lines between itself and other things, whether it be technology or God, is infantile. The adult mind always begins by making distinctions. If it is not making distinctions, it has stopped thinking.

Worldly Orthodoxy (Personal Knowledge)

Polanyi on cultural systems:

Moreover, such sharing [of values] constitutes an orthodoxy upholding certain intellectual and artistic standards, and an undertaking to engage in the pursuits guided by them which amounts in effect to a recognition of cultural obligations…

…The framework of cultural and ritual fellowship reveals primordially the four coefficients of societal organization which jointly compose all specific systems of fixed social relations…the first is the sharing of convictions, the second the sharing of a fellowship. The third coefficient is co-operation; the fourth the exercise of authority or coercion.

-Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 212

Polanyi points out that each culture has its own orthodoxy. It starts with doctrine, which leads to fellowship and cooperation, and anoints bishops to expose and excommunicate the heretics. It is not the church alone that attempts to hold up a standard of orthodoxy. And, when it comes to the world, the most fearful aspect of this system is that it has no greater authority over it than man. It begins with man and ends with man judging man.

People are sometimes fond of saying that they don’t believe in “organized religion.” The fact of the matter is that everyone is a part of organized religion whether they know it or not. The media and schools set the doctrine. Movie theaters, political rallies, social media, etc are after some sort of koinonia. And Hollywood stars, celebrities, and politicians can actually be little popes pronouncing their cultural anathemas. Behold the modern orthodoxy. Let us hope we are weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Personal Knowledge: Submitting to Authority and Tradition

To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 53

What follows are some random thoughts that may make zero sense to anyone other than myself.

The Apostle Paul put it this way: ‘Imitate me, as I imitate Christ’ (1 Cor. 11:1); and this way: ‘What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you’ (Phil 4:9). The author of the epistle to the Hebrews put it this way: ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith’ (13:7).  Discipleship is still relevant, and it is relevant for every area in which you seek knowledge.

I actually think that Polanyi’s principle is implied in the 5th Commandment: ‘Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God is giving to you’ (Ex. 20:12). If we are to thrive, we must not buck off authority, culture, and tradition. Chaos does not lead to progress. Progress comes as we advance by building upon the foundation that has already been given to us. This is why the early Reformers were intent to build upon the Church Fathers rather than start from scratch.

The danger here is that authority might become dictatorial authority. But the pre-Catholic Chesterton, who was a Protestant when he wrote Orthodoxy, got it right initially: tradition is the democracy, not dictatorship, of the dead. We give a vote those who come before us, valuing their opinion as much as our own. They are a foundation, but not the Cornerstone. And the application of this principle goes far beyond brute theological matters. It applies to virtually any form of education or enculturation.

Scientifically Branded Wrapping

The public, taught by the sociologist to distrust its traditional morality, is grateful to receive it back from him in a scientifically branded wrapping.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 234

Polanyi was all over the idea that modern Science (with a capital S, not the kind he loved and practiced) had essentially become a popular religion. Put the stamp of science on it and it becomes like the law of the Medes and Persians.

The Moral Force of Immorality

The propagandistic appeal of Marxism is the most interesting case of (what might be called) the moral force of immorality. For it is the most precisely formulated system having such a paradoxical appeal, and this self-contradiction actually seems to supply the main impulse of the Marxian movement.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 227

Sound familiar? Polanyi wrote that over half a century ago. Marxism may be no longer the most interesting case of the moral force of immorality; it’s certainly not the most contemporary. He was fighting the battle of his day, and we have our own battles to fight.

It’s a great phrase that is worth remembering.

Purpose before Suitability

The suitability of an object to serve as a hammer is an observable property, but it can be observed only within the framework defined by the performance it is supposed to serve.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 175

You have to figure out what something is for before you can figure out if it is good or bad, right or wrong. That’s part of our problem in ethics: if we claim that we do not know what man is for, then we do not have to judge him morally; or if we make false purposes for him, then we can judge him according to those false purposes. This is why question 1 of the Westminster Catechism is as important today as it has ever been. The big question for every action of a human is, Is this action suitable for the purpose for which this human was made?