When religious matters are debated in our culture–e.g., the existence of God, what God is like, morals and ethics–there is an implicit set of rules that everyone is obligated to follow. Number one on this list of unspoken rules it that you can never claim to know anything about God with any level of certainty.
To do so quickly leads to charges of being arrogant, dogmatic, or intolerant. Christians know this all too well because we are often on the receiving end of these charges. Our claim to actually know things about God is a violation of the rules of polite society.
Of course, this sort of “polite society” is a rather new invention. In prior generations, such claims would not have been ruled out of bounds from the outset. There may have been disagreements over such claims. There may have been debate about whether such claims could be justified. But, the claims themselves were not regarded as inadmissible.
But in our postmodern world things have changed. Any claim to actually know one’s religious beliefs are true is regarded as a violation of the rules of intellectual inquiry. Such things simply cannot be know, we are told, regardless of whether they are true. As human beings we do not have access to knowledge outside our own self-constructed realities. Thus, to claim such knowledge is to be uninformed or arrogant (or both).
But, it is precisely this assumption–namely that humans don’t have access to knowledge outside themselves–that needs to be challenged. Indeed, the tables need to be turned. How does the average postmodern individual know that knowledge works like this? How does he know that reliable knowledge of God is impossible to attain?
After all, these are not modest claims. They are enormous, far-reaching, all-encompassing epistemological claims. The postmodern individual is, in essence, claiming that every single religious person on the planet who claims to have knowledge of God is flat out wrong. They are deluded. They are mistaken. All of them. Such knowledge just isn’t possible.
But, again, how does the postmodern individual know this? If all they have access to is their own self-constructed realities (as they have claimed), then they have no basis to make such sweeping claims about all other religious systems. Indeed, one might even say that to make such a dogmatic claim, while chiding others for making dogmatic claims, is the epitome of arrogance.
This is precisely the problem with the well-worn analogy that all religions are like blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. As the blind men try to determine what an elephant is like, one feels the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a snake!” Another feels the tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope!” Another feels a leg and says, “An elephant is like a tree trunk!” And so, the argument goes, they are all right because they are only seeing part of the truth.
The core problem with the elephant analogy is that the person using the analogy is assuming that they themselves are not blind! The person using the analogy is basically saying, “Let me tell you how all religions really work.” But that is an enormous (and arrogant!) claim that requires near-omniscient knowledge. How would this person know how all religions work? And why should this person be exempt from the very analogy they just gave?
Of course, Christians also make grand, sweeping truth claims. There is no denying that. But, there is a fundamental and essential difference. Christians don’t make exclusive claims on the basis of their own knowledge, but on the basis of Christ’s knowledge (revealed in his Word). If he is the very Son of God, it is reasonable to trust what he says about the way religion works. There is nothing arrogant about that.
Not surprisingly, the postmodern individual will reject the Bible as divine revelation and will thus maintain that the Christian is still arrogant. But, this misses the point entirely. The question still remains: who has better grounds for making all-encompassing truth claims, the postmodern individual who denies one can have knowledge outside himself, or the Christian who at least purports to have access to divine revelation?
To put it simply, if a person is going to make absolute, all-encompassing truth claims, they better have access to some source of knowledge that is absolute and all-encompassing. And, of course, this is the very thing that the postmodern individual lacks.
James Anderson, Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy here at RTS Charlotte, has recently written an excellent piece on this very topic. He sums up the issue well:
All this to say, the Christian position is that all knowledge of God comes through divine revelation (either general/natural or special/supernatural) and divine revelation is by its very nature a free and gracious act of God. (I’ll register but not defend here my conviction that the Reformed tradition has emphasized and developed this point more than any other stream of historic Christianity.) Knowledge of God is far from being the exclusive property of those who have exercised their natural intellectual abilities better than their peers (cf. Luke 10:21).
So is it arrogant to claim to know God? Does claiming to know the will of God fly in the face of humility? Not necessarily. It all depends on how that knowledge is thought to be acquired. No doubt according to many religions those who possess knowledge of God have some basis for pride, for they can take partial credit their knowledge. But Christianity isn’t one of those religions.
You can (and should!) read Anderson’s whole post here.