Critical realism and the Bible

NTPGCritical realism is a theory of knowledge that I’ve found very helpful, both in archaeology and theology. I’ve blogged about the general principles of it, including how it gets used by theologians, but wanted to explore in more detail how it’s helpful for looking at the Biblical text.

Critical realism is used by Tom Wright as the basic method for investigation in his mammoth series Christian Origins and the Question of God. In the first book The New Testament and the People of God (1992) he outlines his understanding of critical realism and how he uses it.

Wright (p35) argues that critical realism supports both the reality of the thing known (that is, there is something beyond ourselves, that we can know something about) and also that the only way we can know this external reality is through an appropriate dialogue between the knower and the thing known. In other words, what we think we know about something is only provisional, but is (which Wright perhaps doesn’t make as clear) actually constrained by the thing we are seeking knowledge about.

So, the critical reflection includes an understanding that the observer has one, limited point of view. This consequently means that any observation is influenced by the worldview that you already have – including your society, assumptions, traditions, fears, and so on.

This leads Wright into an interesting discussion on the power and importance of stories, which he argues are a fundamental part of worldview. Basically, the stories that we tell ourselves and each other shape how we think and what we see, as I’ve blogged about elsewhere. He argues (p41) that conflict arises between stories as worldviews are just that – an understanding that claims to make sense of reality. And that’s true whether or not we recognise we have one. Therefore:

the whole point of Christianity is that it offers a story which is the story of the whole world.

The recognition that our worldviews are made up of stories also explains why we often selectively interpret evidence in favour of our own existing point of view. But, and this is the crucial bit, we don’t and can’t always do that. It is possible to recognise that another version of the story, or another story altogether, makes better sense of our observations. As Polkinghorne (another user of critcal realism) argues in his account of the scientific discoveries he made, Rochester Roundabout (1989), the “stubborn facticity of nature imposes ineluctable constraint, whatever one might have anticipated would be the case” (p167f). Polkinghorne also uses the concept of verisimilitude to describe theories (that is, the stories that we use to understand the observations). Verisimilitude is “the apearance of being true or real”, or as Polkinghorne explains it “an adequate account of a circumscribed physical domain, a map good enough for some, but not all, purposes.” (p162)

This then allows us to both tell our stories and allow those stories to be challenged, whilst also insisting that our stories can be (but might not be) real, that is, an adequate (if limited) account of what the world is really like.

Wright concludes with a helpful diagram of the critical realist understanding of how we can speak truly about the world (p44):

critical realism diagram

This then means that we can use this understanding to look at the stories that the Bible tells, to examine whether those stories are true or not, and also to have our worldview challenged by that. That’s true whether we’re examining them from ‘outside’ (wondering whether this worldview is a more true one than the one we currently have) or from ‘inside’ (having a worldview based on our understanding of the Bible). It also means that it is capable of moving us from one to the other of those positions. I also think that it can give us a language where we can have helpful disagreements, because we can agree on how and why we’re disagreeing!


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