Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Current Crisis of Knowledge in Western Academia

The following quote presents something of the contemporary challenge facing Christians in the academic world. Its depiction of the current “intellectual and cultural contest” in academic resonates with my own relatively recent experience (2003-4) of studying an M.A. in cultural and historical geography at the University of Nottingham. In particular, I found describing it in terms of scientific naturalism and postmodern anti-realism to be more helpful than the usual modernism-postmodernism dichotomy.

There is a great intellectual and cultural contest going on today, what some might call a crisis of knowledge. Scientific naturalism – which for so many generations has ruled the academy and which proclaims the certainty and bias-free nature of scientific study and its promise to order and liberate all of life – is under severe attack. Most prominent of the assailants are the postmodern anti-realists, who claim that there is no fundamental structure to be found in the universe itself. Rather, humans create all of the categories; they construe knowledge. In either case, both parties seek a way of living without reference to a divine Creator and Lawgiver – the naturalists by saying that nature is self-creating and self-regulating, and the anti-realists by saying that humanly created order is the only order there is.

According to Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, both parties misplace the role of
humanity. Scientific naturalism reduces human beings to the status of complicated machines, with no real creativity. The postmodern anti-realists, by contrast, substitute human beings for God by making human consciousness the source of all reality. Christian scholars may be tempted to cheer for one side or the other – for the naturalists for defending the existence of a real world that exists outside of ourselves, or for the anti-realists, who point out the failures of science to bring a consensus about how to order our lives. Christian thought, however, points to a third way. With the naturalists, it points to a real world that exists independently of our ordering of it. With the anti-realists, it has long insisted that there are no such things as purely objective facts and theories. But against both, Christian thought insists that our world only makes sense when we acknowledge the Almighty, the God of the Bible.
From Carpenter, Joel “The Mission of Christian Scholarship in the New Millennium” in Henry, Douglas & Agee, Bob (2003) Faithful Learning and the Christian Scholarly Vocation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), pp.62-74; quote from pp.64-65

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