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Posted by on Dec 16, 2013 | 2 comments

On Forgetting Our Many Horizons

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Sometimes Christians run the danger of creating too much of an epistemological gap between the “us” (Christian) and the “them” (secular). This danger is often done as a reaction to belonging to an intellectual culture that seeks to deny all mystery for the sake of clarity. To name the danger is to say that sometimes we deny what we share in our humanity when we try to make room for the divine in our midst. I want to argue that we see this not just in radical fundamentalist arguments that deny the intellectual pursuit in matters of faith, but also in intelligent arguments, say, about apologetics.

This past week Many Horizons has posed and offered responses to the question “Is Apologetics Dead?” As Lance highlighted, the journey to faith cannot be understood simply as a logical progression. There are elements of encountering God that can be understood only experientially. These are aspects that fall outside of the intellect and fit best in Marion’s concept of “over-saturated phenomena.” These phenomena, as they speak to the infinite distance between the Creator God and the creaturely human, appear not as an intellectual ascent but rather as experience. When I read this post, I pictured Gregory of Nyssa’s reading of Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai. For Moses’ communion with YHWH in the dark cloud is described as one that resides not within but without the intellect:

For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God.[1]

In Barney’s follow-up post, he voices his “concerns about tendencies and possible dangers, not wholesale rejections of the apologetic project.” Part of the danger that Barney recognizes is that confusion that reason means that same thing for both Christian and non-Christians. In particular, he is concerned that reason is viewed as an “autonomous judge” which resides outside of cultural and religious norms. The irony of Barney’s argument is that in his language of inside/outside and we/them, he has concealed the reality that reason never stands outside of the conditioned nature of existence—not even for the Christian. I want to argue that Barney has accidentally swung too far in his insistence on a secular, autonomous reason not getting the last word in matters of faith including within the realm of apologetics. The nuance that I think is lacking from Barney’s post is not the distinction, but rather the shared nature of reason across religious/non-religious spectrums.

Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of tradition helps to elucidate this point. Central to Gadamer’s thought is the conviction that all human understanding happens within a particular historical horizon. (I present this more fully in our opening blog post for this site.) This horizon “is the range of vision that includes everything seen from a particular vantage point.”[2] Tradition is what makes up the stuff of our particular vantage point; it “is the horizon in which we do our thinking.”[3] Jens Zimmerman, in Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, helpfully clarifies Gadamer’s use of the term “tradition.” Tradition is not simply a cultural or historical influence on the reader, but, more accurately, that which is considered reasonable itself: “Gadamer uses ‘tradition’ almost synonymously with ‘human reason,’ which reveals and recognizes through language…truths concerning our world.”[4] These traditioned preconceptions, then, are the starting point for a reasonable exploration of a reader’s interpretation of a text.

Reason being understood not as an “autonomous judge,” but as what is contained within our traditioned, horizoned understanding does not seem to allow for some drastic distinction of external versus internal explanations of Christianity. When it comes to “reason” the distinction of us versus them cannot, I want to argue, fall within Christian versus non-Christian categories. In fact, those that often seem the most unreasonable to me are those who actually share in the Christian identity.

The danger of using language like “inward” and “outward” or “we” and “them” is to mistakenly appeal to a shared atemporal horizon that does not exist. The Christian claim is not (or should not) be a claim to have arrived at some point of epistemological clarity. Lance’s use of Marion and Gregory’s use of Moses demonstrate this point—encountering God is not ultimately defined by intellectual realization, but through experience. This means that it would be wrong to create too strong of a distinction between outsider and insider understanding of Christianity.  In many ways what I deem reasonable is more similar to my agnostic neighbor than a Christian half a world away.

The beauty of the Christian faith is not that it pulls us out of our horizoned creaturely understanding, but rather that it brings us into an encounter with another who challenges, transforms and works a good in us.


[1] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, (New York: Paulist, 1978), 95.

[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. J. Weinsheimer and D.G.Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2004), 301.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 306.

[4] Jens Zimmerman, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 175.

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Rachel

Studying theology, baking bread, enjoying the company of a handsome bearded man and two adorable pit puppies.

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  • It’s about time our founding philosopher made a fresh appearance!

    This is a powerful statement: “sometimes we deny what we share in our humanity when we try to make room for the divine in our midst.”

    This could be cashed out as the dialectic between natural theology and revelation. Natural theology asks what are the connection points between revelation and common human experience/reason. Revelation claims that we have been told something we couldn’t have figured out for ourselves, something that radically reinterprets how we previously understood everything else. But it’s hard with clarity to draw the line between common humanity, distinctive experience, and interpretation of both. In my post, I may indeed have created too strong a separation between Christian and non-Christian reason. It is not as if no communication is possible between us.

    The central point of my post was to deny that there was any independent arbitrator (called ‘Reason’) to which Christian claims can make an appeal to determine their truth status. I don’t think you disagree with this. Gadamer himself made great contributions to this idea. But I think in your post there isn’t enough of a sense of what holds all Christians together, of the ground rules of a common discourse outside of which it would not be legitimate to call a view “Christian.” This is not to deny multiple horizons within the Christian setting, but only to identify common landmarks within each of those horizons, landmarks not shared (by definition) by those outside the Christian fold.

    • Hey Barney,

      Sorry just replying now. These last couple weeks have been quite full.

      Thanks for your reply. I think the way that I like to think about what makes Christians different (including the role of revelation) is that we interact with, can we say, a divine horizon which challenges, shapes and molds our identity, mission and faith claims. This doesn’t mean that we convert/are baptized and suddenly have everything (or even much of anything) figured. Instead, we enter into ongoing encounters with God, which depending on your tradition might come most tangibly at the Table, in the form of listening prayer, Bible reading, etc. But in no way does this change the fact that it occurs on our very human horizon.

      I think my reasons for wanting to clarify are mostly in an aim to not make it sound like what it means to be Christians is to be “in on something” that other just can’t understand. I don’t like the exclusivity/elitism that it might convey.

      Anyways, I very much think you and I are in many ways on the wave-length.