Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism // Nancey Murphy.

Wonderfully short — roughly 150 pages — Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism by Nancey Murphy makes a scandalous claim: conservatives and liberals are closer than one might think! Indeed, they share a common philosophical ancestor: foundationalism of a Cartesian bend. Foundationalism is best understood, I think, with a building imagery: just like how every building floor is grounded and upheld by the foundation at the bottom, every knowledge is built on an indubitable — impossible to doubt — foundation. This is to avoid circular reasoning and infinite regress (a never ending chain of justifying a claim with another claim in need of justification). Indeed, knowledge must be grounded in some indubitable foundation for certainty’s sake, so the argument goes. This narrowing of epistemology (the study of knowledge and how we can know stuff) limited the modern Christian’s choice between two indubitable foundations: Scripture or experience. The former foundation gave rise to Fundamentalism, while the latter to Protestant Liberalism. The products, it seems, could not be more divergent, yet their common ancestry — foundationalism — betrays their similar way of arguing. In other words, conservatives and liberals might only differ in content, not in form. 

Other implications follow: for conservatives or Fundamentalists, religious language must be propositional (truth statements about reality) because Scripture is the indubitable collection of absolute data about everything. For liberals, on the other hand, religious language is metaphorical and expressivist (expressions of our deep religious experiences) because experience is the indubitable foundation for belief in God.

It should be clear by now that Murphy is not convinced that foundationalism is a suitable system of knowledge because the (self-proclaimed) indubitable foundation will always be dubitable. But she is not as naive to abandon all foundation(s) (i.e., like non-foundationalism). Rather, she suggests, following W.V.O. Quine, that a system of knowledge is like a web. Instead of one (self-proclaimed) indubitable foundation and unidirectional arguments (from foundation upwards), knowledge as a web allows multiple foundations and multidirectional arguments, thus coherence (the parts make sense with other parts in the whole) as truth-value is highly prized. 

There is much more Murphy argues, and one short amateur book review cannot do justice to her work. What I appreciated the most is unveiling the idol of certainty: should Christians strive certainty of their faith more than, say, love of God and neighbor? Does certainty save doth Christian? I don’t think so. Instead, we should aim for confidence

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s