What is “Epistemic Pelagianism”?

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor eBook: Smith ...

Looking for some light reading? How about an audio book for your next leisurely drive? This might not be it. If you’re looking for a short but extremely thoughtful book with intensely helpful cultural insights, then here you go:

I have been a fan of James K.A. Smith for several years now, and I recently read his book, How (Not) to Be Secular, which is a summary and study guide of Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age.

Smith’s purpose in writing a book about a book is that A Secular Age is both intimidating in its size and is written in a way which is inaccessible to many readers who would benefit from its content. I for one, though I am intrigued by Taylor’s book and its analysis of modern secular culture, balked at the 900+ page tome.

The Imminent Frame: Haunted by Transcendence

Smith’s book introduces you to Taylor’s key concepts and arguments, as well as some of his key terms, such as his analysis of the secular mindset as the “imminent frame.” This reminded me of a conversation I had with a relative years ago, who is my same age (an older millennial); when we started talking about the existence of God, she said, “Maybe God does exist, but: who cares?”

The imminent frame is only concerned with what is right in front of them, “the here and now”, and yet, Taylor explains that exclusive humanists who inhabit the imminent frame are “haunted by transcendence.” Smith points this out by quoting lyrics from The Postal Service:

And I’m looking through the glass
Where the light bends at the cracks
And I’m screaming at the top of my lungs
Pretending the echoes belong to someone
Someone I used to know

The Postal Service, “We Will Become Silhouettes”

Basically, no matter how much a person claims to not care whether God exists, or there is life after death, they are haunted by thoughts of it. I remember another family member describing how utterly terrified she was of dying, yet when I asked her what she believed about life after death, she said she doesn’t know, and assumes there is nothing. I don’t believe her: why be afraid of nothing? There is a nagging, haunting hunch in the heart and mind of every person, that there is something more than this life and this world… A God to whom they will answer, an existence beyond the grave.

Another aspect of the secular, exclusive humanism is the concept Taylor called “the buffered self”, which refers to the idea that an individual is an island unto themselves: that there is a firm boundary between the self and others, as opposed to the “porous self” which characterized people in previous eras.

Epistemic Pelagianism

James K.A. Smith’s book is not just a summary though, he also applies many of Taylor’s ideas to Christianity: both how Christianity contributed to and is influenced by this modern secular age.

I first listened to half of this book via audiobook on a drive to climb La Plata Peak, a Colorado 14-er. Later on, I picked up a hard copy to read as well, as there are some parts of the book which aren’t particularly well-suited for digesting properly listening at 1.5 speed while driving at dawn through the mountains.

One phrase Smith used, which my friend who was listening with me in the car ended up discussing for a while afterwards was: Epistemic Pelagianism. It’s the kind of phrase that forces you to hit the pause button and break it down in order to unpack what these two words together mean.

  • Epistemology = the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Epistemology deals with questions like, “How can we know that what we believe is really accurate or true? To what degree do we have the capacity to accurately discern truth and/or reality?”
  • Pelagianism = Pelagius (354 – 418 AD) was a theologian who denied the doctrine of original sin. He argued for the innate goodness of human beings and for absolute free will. Pelagius argued for these things in contrast to Augustine of Hippo, who taught from the Scriptures that human beings are fallen, and our fallen condition affects our will and nature.

“Epistemic Pelagianism” therefore refers to the idea that as human beings, we are capable of figuring everything out by ourselves, without any help from God.

Epistemic pelagianism denies the fact that we don’t see everything clearly. It denies the idea that, apart from God’s intervention in our lives, we are fallen, limited beings whose hearts are not pure. It places far to much confidence, to the point of hubris, in our ability to accurately discern and interpret the data we take in, in a way that can lead us to all truth, apart from any intervention or help from God.

Rather than epistemic pelagianism, the Bible teaches us that without God’s help, we cannot see clearly, and are incapable of objectively assessing and interpreting things. We need God to remove the blinders from our eyes, in order for us to see clearly.

This biblical epistemology leads us to humility rather than hubris; it leads us to the conclusion that we can’t see or know everything, that we can be wrong.

The Bible teaches that we only see in part, as in a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12), that a natural person is incapable of comprehending all truth apart (1 Corinthians 1:14), that our hearts are fundamentally broken and have a tendency to mislead us (Jeremiah 17:9), and therefore it is possible to hear and not understand, to see and not perceive (Acts 28:26).

There are things that we can know (Romans 1:19), but even in those cases we have a tendency to suppress that knowledge if we don’t like the conclusions it would lead to (Romans 1:18)

Thus, confidence in our ability, or willingness for that matter, to comprehend and follow the truth, apart from God’s intervention, is misguided. Instead, we need to take a more realistic and humble view of ourselves, which admits that we need outside assistance in order to receive, comprehend, and appropriately respond to the truth.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we see that theology shapes the way you view all of life. Modern exclusive secularism is based, at least in some part, on bad theology which is clearly refuted in the Bible. Good, robust, comprehensive Biblical theology therefore, is an antidote to many modern philosophical pitfalls.

If you’re looking for an accessible book that helps you understand Charles Taylor’s piercing insights into the exclusive humanism which is prevalent in many of today’s Western cities, as well as the cracks in those theories, and ways in which the gospel uniquely speaks to people today, check out James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) to Be Secular, but make sure to take the time to break down and digest each sentence.

2 thoughts on “What is “Epistemic Pelagianism”?

    1. Cool, I’m glad somebody did! I’m writing my masters dissertation on a related topic: the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture, which has epistemological implications.

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