The Confusion of Epistemology in the West and Christian Mission -- By: J. Andrew Kirk

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 055:1 (NA 2004)
Article: The Confusion of Epistemology in the West and Christian Mission
Author: J. Andrew Kirk

The Confusion of Epistemology in the West and Christian Mission

J. Andrew Kirk


Western culture is facing a major intellectual crisis, because it is confused about the meaning of truth, the relationship between belief and knowledge, and the nature and use of language. This article points out some of the consequences and suggests a new way of meeting contemporary cognitive challenges to communicating Christian faith.

I. Introduction

The title may not seem very promising. In a quick association of ideas, epistemology and mission do not seem closely related.1 Surely, there are more important mission concerns. For example, what about the stubborn problems that arise from the process of secularisation, at the heart of which is a massive indifference to any supra-natural reality? Then again, although some writers believe we live in a post-ideological age, the all-embracing phenomenon of ‘globalisation’ presupposes a powerful ideology, all the more perilous for being implicit rather than overt. Ethical and cultural relativism is now assumed to such a degree,

that a putative burden of proof seems to rest on those who would dispute it. Last, but not least, the equal validity of all religious beliefs is taken for granted by most self-respecting liberal thinkers as self-evident; conversely, those who still wish to hold to the exclusive truth of their faith are dismissed as anachronistic fundamentalists.

However, interestingly, each one of these issues embodies deep epistemological premises and theories. Relativism, for example, the view that all beliefs are proportionate to particular circumstances and no belief can claim to be universally valid, because there are no generally agreed standards for ascertaining truth, only transitory and localised consensus, is a claim to knowledge about a reality open to examination. Epistemology is simply that discipline which studies the articulated or unexpressed convictions that all people have about what and how it is possible to know. As such, it deals with the assumptions that underlie any assertion that people make about any aspect of life. Though probably unrecognised by most people most of the time, its subject matter is a piece of any thinking. Action, in so far as it follows a process of self-conscious reflection, depends on epistemic principles.

The case for taking epistemology seriously as a crucial subject for mission does not have to be made a priori; it should become obvious in the course of our study. Nevertheless, we do have to establish concretely that, at present in the West, confidence in the ability to know anything is in deep trou...

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