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Polanyi, Newbigin, and the Idea of a Questing Church.

What does it mean to be a questing church? That idea can sound like saying that there are no truths, so that any and all beliefs are OK, spawning some sort of dull, relativist quagmire which has nothing much to offer its members, let alone anyone outside. It can feel a little as though the alternative to this is some variety of fundamentalism which portrays itself as having all the answers, or at least all of the important ones, protecting itself from relativism by closing down questioning and doubt.

This can be understood as the tension between conservatism and liberalism – which makes up the dialectic of modernism. They both share a basic certainty that the world (interpreted as broadly as possible) can be explained without remainder by statements about the world – truth claims. The ideal sort of knowledge, from the perspective of modernism, is scientific knowledge. This is seen as the most objective – the safest sort of knowledge.

The liberal project is to strip faith of whatever is deemed “contrary to reason,” that is, whatever is closest to a for example, miracles. The set of things which are deemed believable  is reduced down to a demythologised core that, surprisingly, has a habit of reflecting polite middle class perspectives fairly closely. Niehbuhr’s The Courage To Be is a good example of this I think – it attempts to reduce Christianity to a universalisable core, framed in terms of  post-war Existentialist philosophy. It’s a justly famous book, and it shows the heights that the liberal tradition can rise to. But it only makes sense in a certain philosophical, cultural, and indeed religious milleu.

The conservative reaction to this is to draw up ever more exhaustive lists of statements that must be believed in order to be a Christian, trying to capture that elusive exact orthodoxy – that if only we could get our ideas exactly correct, the we will be OK. Hence the endlessly diverging statements of belief in some church traditions as they attempt to endlessly pin down what the faith is.

The only time I have met the Australian bikie evangelist John Smith, he told me that he refused to talk at churches that made him sign a statement of faith, because, he said “the devil in hell could sign up to them.” What I presume he meant by this is that the attempt to pin down the correct beliefs misses the point of Christianity, surely – which is transformation.

How do we break out of this unhelpful conflict? We don’t want to end up not believing anything in particular, swimming in the warm sea of the approval of The Age / Guardian / New York Times. But nor do we want to develop an idolatry of doctrine, where “correct’” belief is the only thing of importance – and that correct belief is strained ever finer and finer, the preacher laying down the Truth and we all just assenting to it – no doubts, no questions, no growth, no grace.

I want room for growth, change, grace – but I also want what is distinctive about Christianity. I want to learn what it teaches, and have the transformation it promises. Neither of the modern approaches strike me as very attractive.

Ultimately, this seems to me to be an epistemological question. I would call myself a Critical Realist so I do believe that there is an actual “state of affairs” external to ourselves that our truth claims can point towards, but that the reality is always greater than we can encapsulate in our claims, especially when it comes to theological claims. To quote N.T. Wright:

… I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of “knowing” that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence “realism”), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence “critical”). (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 35)

So, a church which I have described as “questing” would be like that – it would accept that there is a real truth “out there” (so that, for instance, there really is a God, and that God is not just a projection of our subconscious),  but that we are in dialogue with that truth – so that our truth claims are always in a sense provisional – the best that we have at the moment, but always open to being improved.

There are two traditions of Critical Realism – one traces its descent from Bernard Lonergan ( a Canadian Jesuit philosopher ), and seems to be primarily North American. The other, better known in the UK, descends from Polish scientist & philosopher Michael Polanyi . This is where I have encountered it, firstly in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, by Lesslie Newbigin, and in Polanyi’s own book Personal Knowledge.

Polanyi’s thought is, as you might imagine, rather too complex and nuanced to be well summarised in a 1000 word blog post, but there are two threads of his thinking that seem particularly relevant here: how scientific authority works, and the idea of believing with universal intent.

He explores the communal nature of knowledge using the example of science (which is what he is primarily interested in.)  He argues that science is not so much an approach as “a tradition within which scientists have to dwell in order to do their work.” (Newbigin p.46). This explains why “great numbers of articles offered to scientific journals are rejected without discussion simply because they fall outside the accepted tradition. Without this careful protection of the tradition, science could not develop. Yet if the tradition did not make room for radical innovation, science would stagnate.” (Newbigin p.47)

There is simultaneously protection of the tradition, without which science would be impossible, but space for change – even radical change of the sort between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. The tradition can evolve, and even change radically, because it has a sort of integrity. It is notable that there is no central scientific authority, no pope of physics, who can say what is and what is not science – it is a highly distributed sort of system, with many different loci of authority.

What holds this disparate community together, according to Polanyi, is that people are committed, at a personal level, to pursuing truth – in his terms, to holding things “with universal intent.” That is, to believe that things are true, given the best available resources of the tradition, but that this factual belief is dependent on the intention to believe true things – even though no set of ideas will be finally and completely comprehensive, given our nature as inherently limited creatures. This explains how a scientist can believe a given scientific theory even though, given that new discoveries are being made all the time which could, in theory, invalidate any existing scientific theory. What is happening, according to Polanyi, is that a scientist is simultaneously asserting her commitment to the truth as such, and trusting the scientific community to be the way of discovering scientific sorts of truths.

These two ideas – of the community of belief and practice (or, in Christian terms, witness) and the idea of believing with universal intent, see to me to be the foundation of what I am calling a “questing” church. After all, a quest is only a quest if it is going somewhere! However, I am already over my (self-imposed) word count and long past my (self-imposed) deadline, so a more detailed working out of what that might mean (and how exactly I propose to justify using science as my exemplar, having been critical of that approach in the beginning of this post!) will have to wait until next time.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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