Stanley Fish and the Bottom Line

The other day I found myself wanting to agree with with Stanley Fish (an alarming thought!) when he wrote: “[T]he various projects we pursue and engage in may not all cohere in a single intelligible story. We may not be unified beings.” Well, I thought, that rings all too true.

Last week Fish used his column in the New York Times to discuss a new book on science and religion by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and that column sparked a response from Prof. Smith and a flurry of comments and discussion. The argument put forward is sophisticated and subtle, but the upshot seems to be that science and religion are neither mortal enemies nor easily harmonized cousins. Rather, Smith argues that both science and religion are (to quote Fish’s description) “highly developed, successful and different . . . ways of coping with the situations and challenges human existence presents.”

Prof. Smith’s approach to human cognition — science and religion included — is essentially pragmatic. In this perspective, what matters about different ways of thinking and knowing is not whether they are “true” or not but whether they are “successful” in the sense that they are effective and useful. And even though various kinds of knowing may be useful, no single mode of human cognition can be made “Ultimate Arbiter” with “underneath-it-all status.” Contradictions between religion and science are not that important, Smith says, because “neither logic nor rationality requires that all our ideas, impulses, affections, and acts be mutually aligned all the time.”

All of which is very interesting as a kind of intellectual game. But, as I once told my sister-in-law (to her horror), I’m not really very interested in religion per se. To the extent that religion is a merely human way of knowing and thinking, it’s bound to be as fragmentary, incomplete, inconsistent — at best “useful” but not necessarily “true.”

Of more weight for me is the question: Can we confidently and faithfully confess the gospel of Jesus Christ, even though we acknowledge that we ourselves, including our ability to know and understand, are fallible, limited, and incomplete?

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