George Marsden on Point of View
I’ve been thinking a good deal about what George Marsden wrote—in a book I have thoroughly enjoyed (two chapters to go and I’m really eager to see what he says in the final one):
Let me say a word about point of view. One of the conventions of the mid-twentieth century was that authors and teachers normally did not identify their points of view but spoke as though they were neutral observers speaking on the basis of universal reason. Such practices reflected standards that went back to the eighteenth-century enlightenment, in which one was to hold forth on most topics on the basis of objective standards rather than from the point of view of one’s particular faith….
In recent decades there has been greater recognition that, although there are common standards for rational discourse, arguments, and evidence, there is no one standard, underlying set of assumptions, including beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality and values, that all rational educated people can somehow be presumed to share. So, although many still follow the old convention of posing as though one were objective, it has become more acceptable these days to help out the reader or listener by identifying one’s fundamental viewpoint from the outset.
My own point of view has been shaped most basically by my commitments as an Augustinian Christian. Those commitments involve a recognition that people differ in their fundamental loves and first principles, and that these loves and first principles act as lenses through which they see everything else. At the same time, all humans, as fellow creatures of God, share many beliefs in common and can communicate through common standards of rational discourse. Furthermore , even though I am an Augustinian Christian, I am also shaped in part by many other beliefs and commitments that have been common in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. One of my goals in life has been to understand such characteristic American beliefs and to critically and constructively relate them to my religious beliefs. This book is an instance of that project. Much of it is about understanding a fascinating moment of the American experience, but that account leads to critical analysis and reflection on the question of the place that religion should have in that culture.
I hope that readers who hold other points of view, whether secular or religious, can nonetheless learn from what I present here. Although I write from a specific point of view, I do not differ from other writers or public intellectuals in that respect; I differ only in that I identify my viewpoint more explicitly than some of these other writers do.
George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
I’m not sure I’d want to speak of “common standards of rational discourse” shared by believers and unbelievers. As Steven D. Smith has shown, secularism provides a standard that public discourse cannot live up to, a baseline standard that excludes Marsden’s point of view—in what sense are the two sharing common standards?
By God’s common grace, I think they do, but only because it’s impossible to completely ignore the created order we all have to live in. There’s no denying that Christians and non-Christians do communicate, do often understand one another. One of the most eloquent statements of the gospel I’ve ever read came from an openly unbelieving academic. He understands the message of the gospel; he just doesn’t receive it.
What really grabbed me about Marsden’s comments was his life project of intellectual self-examination. Because of the Spirit, because of the Bible, because of the created order providing general revelation, I believe that truly true knowledge is possible in this world. So is confidence. Despite all the legitimate postmodern insights into the social construction of reality, despite my belief in not just my finitude but my fallenness, I can know truth.