Thursday, March 07, 2013

Plausibility structures

Clearly it is such a claim to universal judgement that is embodied in the often expressed idea that all claims to revealed truth must be judged by the canon of reason.  There are no canons of reason which are not part of a socially embodied tradition of rational debate.  It is especially important to say this because, as I said earlier, we who are Western Christians are also part of an international culture which uses the European languages as its medium of reasoning and which makes claims to universal validity – claims which are made more plausible by the success of this culture in establishing itself throughout the world as the standard of what is called ‘modernization.’  It is this way of understanding the world which provides the ‘plausibility strucutre’ for most of the educated and urbanized peoples of the world.  It we adhere to the Christian tradition we thus do so in conscious recognition of the fact that this is a personal decision.  In contrast to the long period in which the plausibility structure of European society was shaped by the biblical tradition, and in which one could be a Christian without conscious decision because the existence of God was among the self-evident truths, we are now in a situation where we have to take personal responsibility for our beliefs.  When we do so, we are immediately faced with the charge of subjectivity.  In a consumer society where the freedom of every citizen to express his or her personal preference is taken as fundamental to human happiness – whether this personal preference is in respect of washing powder or sexual behaviour – it will be natural to conclude that adherence to the Christian tradition is also simply an expression of personal preference.  The implication will be that claims to universal truth are abandoned and that we are back again in a relativistic twilight.  The only firmly established truth is the truth of the reigning plausibility structure, which is bound to deny the Christian’s claim that God has acted in historic events to reveal and effect his purpose for all humankind.

In some situations it is possible to escape from this problem by withdrawing into a ghetto where, in a small community, the Christian tradition can function as the plausibility structure which is not questioned.  There are places where that can happen, but they are few.  How then do we deal with the threat of this relativism of a consumer-oriented society?  In following the argument of [Alisdair] MacIntyre I have suggested the answer.  It is that one learns to live so fully within both traditions that the debate between them is internalized.  As a Christian I seek so to live within the biblical tradition, using its language as my language, its models as the models through which I make sense of experience, its story as the clue to my story, that I help to strengthen and carry forward this tradition of rationality.  But as a member of contemporary British society I am all the time living in, or at least sharing my life with, those who live in the other tradition.  What they call self-evident truths are not self-evident to me, and vice versa.  When they speak of reason they mean what is reasonable within their plausibility structure.  I do not live in that plausibility, but I know what it feels like to live in it.  Within my own mind there is a continuing dialogue between the two.  Insofar as my own participation in the Christian tradition is healthy and vigorous, both in thought and in practice, I shall be equipped for the external dialogue with the other tradition.  There is no external criterion above us both to which I and my opposite number can appeal for a decision. The immediate outcome is a matter of the comparative vigour and integrity of the two traditions; the ultimate outcome is at the end when the one who alone is judge sums up and gives the verdict. 

From The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pgs 64/5, by Lesslie Newbigin. 
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