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.

If There Is No Pain in Heaven, How Can There Be Joy?

A few months ago, on a long car ride, a friend asked me an honest question: “If there is no pain in Heaven, how can there really be joy?”

He went on to explain how all of his deepest joys in this life have, in some way, included pain. Whether it was love, faithfulness, or comfort set upon a backdrop of heartache or suffering, or whether it was a great obstacle which was overcome, it seems – he said – that in order to have great joy, there must be some sort of pain involved.

At first, this might sound like a strange question; after all, who wants pain? Wouldn’t the absence of pain equal joy? Isn’t the great hope of Heaven the absence of pain?

But on further examination, it seems there may be something to my friend’s question.

The Single Note on the Piano

I have friends who live in Southern California, where the weather is “perfect.” Year-round temperatures are mild. It’s dry, but not too dry. There’s an abundance of sunshine. Several times I have flown out of Denver in the snow, to arrive in SoCal to beautiful, warm, sunny weather – no matter what month of the year.

But that’s exactly it: the weather is the same all year long. It’s great – but there’s no variation. There’s no opportunity to wear coats, or layer up. They don’t experience four seasons.

It’s like playing a single note on the piano: it might be a wonderful note, but if there’s no variation, even the best note gets old…

Will Heaven be the same way: a single note on the piano? Even if it is the most beautiful, good, glorious note that has ever existed, won’t that single note get old after some time – much less for eternity? How will we appreciate goodness, if there is nothing bad to cause us to appreciate the good? Can there really be joy apart from pain?

Pain Without the Curse

Recently I’ve been climbing some of Colorado’s highest mountains. My goal is to climb all 54 of Colorado’s 14ers: peaks over 14,000 feet (4267 meters) above sea level. Every climb is difficult. It saps your energy. You end up hurting and tired. It takes days to recover. And yet, there is something great about it, something addictive and enjoyable – despite the pain.

On the summit of La Plata Peak (14,343 ft / 4,372 m)

This year I’m working on running 1000 miles by the end of the calendar year. Oftentimes when I head out the door I tell my wife, “I hate running.” It makes my heart beat out of my chest. I sweat. I breathe hard. It hurts. I can’t wear sandals because I have several missing toenails. And yet, I actually love running – just not when I’m walking out the door.

Whether it’s climbing mountains or running, or something you voluntarily do which involves choosing pain, the pain of those activities is not the result of the curse of sin and death.

The gospel, the core message of the Bible, is that the world, and all of us in it, have been corrupted by the curse of sin. This curse affects all of creation, and it affects us in myriad ways: physically, mentally, and spiritually. This curse is the cause of sickness, disorders, and death. It affects our very nature, to our ability to comprehend, to our ability to do what is right. It is what is at the root of racism, hatred, pride, and malice of all sorts. And the good news of the gospel, is that Jesus Christ came and took this curse upon Himself in order to put it to death and set us free from it.

The promise of the gospel is that the day is indeed coming when, because of what Jesus did, those who have received His grace by faith will dwell eternally with God, and “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Adventure Awaits!

Heaven is described as a garden city where we will dwell on a “new Earth.” In this city, we see the restoration of Eden from Genesis 1-3: the garden paradise God created for the people He made. In this New Jerusalem we will be reunited with the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9, Revelation 22:2), which gives healing and life forever.

The New Jerusalem that awaits us, AKA Heaven, is not only the restoration of Eden, but the fulfillment of what Eden would have been if sin had never entered the world!

And here’s what is interesting: In Eden – God gave his people work to do! What this tells us, is that Heaven will not be an ethereal experience of floating on clouds, bored out of our minds for eternity, but it will be a tangible, physical place – a new Earth, but without sin and its curse!

See also: Playing Harps in Heaven? Don’t Be Ridiculous

In other words, we can expect that Heaven will be full of meaningful, fulfilling work, as well as opportunities for adventure and discovery.

I expect there will be hikes and games that make your legs burn! Physical work and activities which push your muscles to their limits. Yes: pain – but the kind of pain which is not the result of sin, rather that which accentuates and enables greater joy!

The ultimate joy of Heaven will be the immediate presence of the Lord. He will be our light! And the joys of this world are but a foretaste, a faint whiff of what is to come! Maranatha!

Peaked Out Weekend

This past weekend was a busy one for us, full of many good things.

It began on Saturday with the Longmont Sunrise Stampede. My wife and 8 year old son ran the 2 mile race, and I ran the 10k. On the one hand, we were excited to run a race here in Longmont, but an added bonus was that the race went to support a great cause: proceeds went to help fund special education in the St Vrain Valley School District.

I was proud of my son for finishing his first race, and getting a time he could be proud of.

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Before the 2 mile race

I finished my 10k race in 54:51 which was a personal record time for that distance and even better than I had hoped to do.

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At 9.5 km of the 10k race which ended at Silver Creek HS

We then went up to Bailey, to a picnic for pastors and their families put on by Crossroads Church of Denver, my old church which sent me to Hungary.

We then went to Denver for the Lego BrickFest, which our kids loved, and then finished the day by having dinner with family and friends.

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On Sunday we had church. I taught on Colossians 3:1-11 in a message titled “A New You”, about which I got a surprising amount of positive feedback. One of the key concepts I discussed was the “Already… but Not Yet” nature of the gospel. If you’d like to listen to it, you can find the audio of that message here.

I got an email after church that a couple from Texas had been at church that day, and that they had come because they read this blog and were in the area! That encouraged me to be writing here more.

Right after church at White Fields, we went down to Littleton, where the Colorado Hungarian community was having their annual picnic for Szent István (St. Stephen) Day. István was the first king of Hungary, who after converting to Christianity as an adult, established Hungary as a Christian kingdom in 1000. He was declared a saint on August 20, 1083 and because of that, August 20 is the national holiday of Hungary.

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Hungarian language church service in Littleton

At this picnic, I lead a church service in Hungarian for the Hungarian Reformed Church of Denver, at which I preached on one of my favorite scriptures, Matthew 13:44 – “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” I really enjoyed preaching in Hungarian again! I get to do it sometimes when I visit Hungary, but felt great to do it here in Colorado.

On Sunday night, I left home at 11pm with two friends from church to climb Longs Peak.

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My wife took this picture of Longs Peak and Mt Meeker as we drove into Longmont Saturday evening. We love when the light highlights the layers in the mountains.

It was the 2nd time I’ve climbed it, and it was just as beautiful and difficult of a climb as I remember it being! It’s a 15 mile round trip hike, with 5100 feet of elevation gain. The most difficult part of the hike, mentally, is the last 2.5 miles, when you descend back into the forest and it feels like it will never end. The most technically difficult part is probably “The Trough.” Here’s a description of the route.

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The view from the top of Longs Peak looking South-West towards the Indian Peaks. The lake on the left is Barker Reservoir in Nederland.

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The Twin Peaks – Longs and Meeker, from the split off to Chasm Lake

Today the kids went back to school, which is bittersweet for us as parents. On the one hand, we are going to miss having them around, but on the other hand, it was a lot of work keeping them occupied and on task at home, and we see how good it is for them to be with the other kids and learning.

We took a trip last week up to the Mount Evans as a family to celebrate the end of summer vacation. It was my wife and kids’ first time up above 14,000 feet.

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Mt Evans summit (14,270 ft)

I can’t get enough of these Rocky Mountains…