In response to this great article on Keith Mathison’s Shape of Sola Scriptura over at Called to Communion, an interesting discussion has emerged revolving around the tu quoque—certain folks are arguing back that Catholics are in no way on better ground epistemologically. That is to say, the Catholic position and subsequent argument against the non-Catholic positions can be applied equally to the Catholic making the argument. Slightly related to this issue, in my opinion, is the question of epistemological certitude, which I perceive has deep roots within the Called to Communion crowd. After all, once having swum the Tiber (or any conversion, for that matter), who wouldn’t want to consider those newly held beliefs with 100 percent certainty?
In this modern age, we all face the so-called “heretical imperative.” As Peter Berger put it in his book with the same title (and I paraphrase): Plurality of alternatives is the core of the modern experience. If there are no options, then what is can be interpreted as what must be; in the modern condition, there’s less and less of what must be. Fate becomes choice. Destiny becomes decision. In short, we are all forced to choose.
And this is why, in nuce, the argument proffered in the review of Mathison’s book suffers from the tu quoque fallacy. But it suffers from something else too. A pinch of hubris, or, rather, an overextension of what can be known with certainty, for the sake of cognitive rest. It seems to me all too convenient for the Catholic to suggest that his own private judgment led him to accept the authority of the Magisterium, which authority then grants him the knowledge that “there are no options" (or, in the words of Bryan Cross [comment #46]: "he discovers a living divinely-appointed authority, and that discovery then shapes his theology"). But once that leap has been made “what is can be interpreted as what must be.”
This is tantamount to sticking one’s head in the sand, so far as I can tell.
Now, this line of reasoning might not be useful at all, but for the sake of argument, let’s say I become Catholic in the next five years or so. In no way could I in good faith speak of my journey to Rome in the same manner that those folks (or at least a few of them) over at Called to Communion do (for the very reasons proffered above). It presumes a kind of epistemic certainty that to my mind is impossible to achieve before the return of the King.
Berger sums up nicely what I'm getting at here:
As Christians we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in his glorious return. But that glory is not yet. The triumphant Christ is still coming; we are still in the aeon of the kenotic Jesus—the self-emptying Jesus, who humbles himself by taking human form. The church, while it announces the coming triumph (indeed, that is the core of its message), still bears the marks of Jesus’ kenosis.
Epistemological modesty, he suggests, is part and parcel of bearing the marks of Christ's kenosis. I'll conclude with a final thought from Berger in an interview published in The Christian Century (29 October 1997, pp. 972–78):
The basic fault lines today are not between people with different beliefs but between people who hold these beliefs with an element of uncertainty and people who hold these beliefs with a pretense of certitude. There is a middle ground between fanaticism and relativism. I can convey values to my children without pretending a fanatical certitude about them. And you can build a community with people who are neither fanatics nor relativists.
My colleague Adam Seligman uses the term "epistemological modesty." Epistemological modesty means that you believe certain things, but you're modest about these claims. You can be a believer and yet say, I'm not really sure. I think that is a fundamental fault line.
So, here we are: a mellow synthesis of skepticism and faith. I realize the epistemic can of worms this may open for some—Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But this defines the religious affirmations of my journey for most of my life, and yet I believe—more strongly and exclusively Christain than Berger allows for himself. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night otherwise, flailing between the fact of modern pluralism, hyper-rationalistic solipsism and epistemological immodesty.