Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Death of God and Knowledge

I haven't posted much from my current reading on hermeneutics - partly because it's incredibly dense, pretty boring, and I'm not quite sure I understand all of it. However, one of Vanhoozer's main points in the book Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Landmarks in Christian Scholarship) is worth some reflection. The first 200 pages of the book is given to explicating the work of Derrida and other deconstructionists who undo the author, the text, and the reader and the consequential loss of meaning. At the core of Vanhoozer's book is the conviction that this loss of meaning is the inevitable outcome of the death of God.

With the death of God we are left to explain all origins (not just human origins) from purely naturalistic, materialistic sources. So where has language come from? Why did we develop speech and writing? On a naturalistic explanation, all human functions have two purposes: survival and reproduction. Vanhoozer unpacks, briefly, the implications, "From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, the primary purpose of language, as of all other human capacities, are survival and reproduction. Language is useful for getting along with others, and getting along with others is useful in surviving (and in reproducing). Yet evolution need not underwrite language as anything more than a useful tool for coping with the world - a tool for manipulation, not communication, much less a medium of meaning and truth. Indeed, an evolutionary account is unable to provide an account of language as anything other than instrumental" (pg. 206). In other words, on a naturalistic explanation of language, language works properly when it helps you survive and reproduce, not necessarily is truthful, meaningful or communicative.

The philosopher, Alvin Plantiga takes this line of reasoning a step further. Vanhoozer unpacks Plantiga's point, "He observes that naturalistic evolution does not provide sufficient reason to believe that human cognitive faculties produce for the most part true beliefs. That is "Darwin's Doubt": Darwin doubted whether the operations of the human mind, developed from the mind of lower animals, is trustworthy" (206). Rationality, like language, developed to help us survive and reproduce, not necessarily to help us understand the world as it is. If all our thoughts are based on survival/procreative instincts, there is no assurance they are true, only useful.

In all our attempts to seek meaning - in life, in language, in texts, etc - we are brought back to the necessarily starting point of God. Without God, there is no possibility of meaning. Vanhoozer sees the irony - a system built on the foundations of God's death ends up proving that "God is the condition for the possibility of meaning and interpretation" (198).

Language is yet another good gift from God - a gift we are meant to trace back to its source in thanksgiving and worship.

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