Friday, November 24, 2006

Structures of Plausibility

I read something interesting in a book by John Breck entitled Longing for God. He refers to a book by a theologian named Frances Young (the book is called Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture—it seems daunting in its scholarship, but I decided to order it anyway!).

I’ll first give Fr Breck’s comments: “There she speaks about the current secularized worldview that hampers interpreters of the Bible in their attempts to uncover its true message because of the inability of that worldview to perceive transcendent, spiritual reality present and acting within the material universe. Young notes that a culture ‘receives’ a text in such a way that the meaning of the text is accepted or contested depending on the ‘plausibility structures’ of that culture. Where the plausibility structures of a particular mind-set do not allow for an interpenetration of transcendent, spiritual reality in the material world, then the ultimate criterion for what is true will be factuality: that is, whether the matter in question is objectively real and therefore historically determinable… To acquire the ‘mind of the Fathers’ is to adopt and internalize ‘structures of plausibility’ that see beyond historical facts to the transcendent, divine Presence revealed in and through those facts. The Exodus, like the Exile into Babylon, is grounded in historical occurrence… The same may be said for the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, which we affirm without qualification to be historical events. Yet for those events to have meaning for us—to work their saving power in our lives—they must first be interpreted for us by the biblical authors, and then received by us in faith. Our worldview must be marked by a profound plausibility, a bedrock conviction that the material universe is indeed interpenetrated by another reality, a reality that is God—transcendent divine Life—who is present and active in every aspect of material reality, with the aim of leading us through this world and into His eternal embrace.”

I find this very interesting. It may be that, to a certain extent, the widespread falling away from faith which began with the so-called Enlightenment, and which has accelerated in the past few decades, has been facilitated by a change in the “structures of plausibility,” the criteria which are generally accepted in a given time or culture for determining what one will believe to be true or real. If such structures are based solely on scientific or empirical verifiability, then it will be hard for people to believe in a God who is not subject to such verification—and who, even if it were possible for Him to be thus subject, would probably resist it anyway, because He wants us to live by faith!

The secular worldview does not allow for the presence of God in the world, even if it does barely tolerate a notion of subjective religious belief. It does not give the Creator a place in creation, does not take seriously any worldview that accepts the reality of God as inseparable from the reality of the world we perceive through our senses. This is one reason that there is such hatred for anyone who would attempt to justify, by religious principles (even very general and non-confessional ones), their positions on various social and political issues. Believers have different structures of plausibility than unbelievers do, but the unbelievers are adamant in insisting that their criteria for what is true and real must be the foundation for the law of the land, and every other voice must be silenced—especially if it happens to be a Christian voice!

What we see today in Western society is not merely a diversity of views on various issues, but conflicting structures of plausibility which serve to define the worldviews of different groups of people. Therefore one cannot hope simply to convince another of the truth of one’s position by the rational force of a more convincing argument. One has to first discover the criteria another employs for accepting the very possibility that a given proposition or argument may be true. A worldview that is influenced by the Bible and the Church will be quite different from an atheist/materialist one, and there’s a point at which dialogue ceases because of irreconcilable fundamental assertions or denials.

I won’t try to go into more detail until I read the book! But one of the conclusions I come to is (for believers) the necessity of prayer, because the grace of God reaches places where dialogue fails. If someone’s worldview includes the rejection of the supernatural and the divine, then only an interior enlightenment by the Holy Spirit will be of any use in enabling him to see the whole truth. And the grace of the Spirit works through prayer.

Also, we may wish to ask ourselves what our own structures of plausibility are. What criteria do we use to determine what is real, what is true? Do miracles, angels, divine providence, Heaven and Hell fit into your worldview? To what extent do you accept the presence and activity of God in the world, in your life? We have to be careful that we don’t inadvertently or gradually allow secular or solely scientific plausibility structures to become our own, and thus to interfere with our reading of Scripture, our acceptance of Church tradition and teaching, and the way we look at life and the world. It’s all too common for people to jettison traditional beliefs and ways of interpreting reality in favor of “evolved” mentalities and approaches that dismiss as hopelessly antiquated anything other than their own limited (and often flawed or even dishonest and self-serving) criteria for knowledge or belief.

It’s not a matter of forcing ourselves to adopt a “pre-scientific” worldview in the name of religion. It’s a matter simply of realizing God’s place in the world—at the heart of all that He has made, present and active in human history, giving meaning and hope where the secular worldview can only offer despair (or a web of lies, to keep you from seeing that their position can only lead to despair). When our plausibility structure includes transcendent realities, then we’re on the way to the truth that sets us free.