Through the River

Through the River

Through the River: Understanding Assumptions About Truth — Hirst, Hirst, and Hiebert 2009—200pp.

Jon and Mindy Hirst thoughtfully present teachings absorbed by the authors from a book by Dr Paul Hiebert (1999), using a visual analogy, based upon three communities of people living in different ways around River Town. Each community lives by and depicts a particular epistemology—a ‘truth lens’—either positivism, instrumentalism and critical realism, respectively.

These truth lenses are things you think with, internal tools the brain uses to organize the world, like our worldview, culture and experiences (:18).

Positivism relates particularly to modernity, instrumentalism to the relativism of postmodernism and critical realism to an emerging “third way” of post-modernity. The river in the analogy represents “Truth.” The three communities are:

  1. Rock Dwellers, representing or using the truth lens of positivism. They see truth as something ‘hard and fast’, obtainable and useful as a dogmatic tool to dictate that which others ‘ought’ to believe. “Positivist (strive) so hard toward objectivity that they den(y) personal experience” (:78) In practice, this leads to their living in relative isolation from communities holding to alternative understandings of truth.
  2. Island Dwellers, representing or using the truth lens of instrumentalism. They see truth as only determinable on a purely person level, “knowledge as real but subjective, defined by their own realities” (:61). Everyone’s view of truth is validated (ostensibly), in the pursuit of human dignity and tolerance. However, such validation has little practical value, since it is not allowed to challenge any conflicting version of truth. This leads to isolation(ism) of a different, but equally gripping, sort.
  3. Valley Dwellers, representing or using the truth lens of critical re-alism. This involves a recognition that “knowledge is more than factual information…Critical realism also restores emotions and moral judgements as essential parts of ‘knowing’ and argues that these do not necessarily negate the objectivity of scientific observations.” (:77)

The text gets rather too bogged down in the analogy, however, lacking real-world research and examples, which limit its usefulness. Imagined examples used to suggest how the respective analogous groups would typically behave lack depth and are often incomplete (by contrast, Hiebert notably employs many real world examples in his writing on culture).

In particular, I would have liked to see some specific examples of Christian denominational culture and how it relates to the three truth lenses. This would have earthed the authors challenge in something recognisable and encouraged Christians of different shades to be courageous enough to look properly over each others fences (to mix analogies for a moment) and see how we each live and relate to God, people and truth and the faith we respectively express towards them.

Withal, the text plays a helpful role in identifying the three truth lenses and in articulating a vocabulary to distinguish between them. Particular examples of helpful articulations include: reference to ‘maps’ as a method of describing human knowledge (:86); the role of ‘disturbances’ as people butt up against those with other truth lenses (:123 ff.) and highlighting the need to work sensitively “within the world of human ambiguity” (:178).

It is clear that the text actually takes a high view of critical realism as having a greater integrity in comparison to the other epistemologies (at least, in combination with the Bible, assumed throughout to be a guiding authority, e.g. p.150) and that those who take the route towards embracing this particular truth lens are undertaking a difficult, testing journey that requires considerable courage. The text would have been improved by being more honest about this; the net effect is to tame the epistemological challenge being presented, so that it can, at times, come over as suggesting little more than emphasising the need to “learn together” (:145-150)—a stance unlikely to convince people operating out of the positivist and instrumentalist worldviews.

When clear conviction does erupt out of the superficial ambivalence towards the respective epistemologies, it risks expressing its sentiment in suspiciously positivist manner: “Today we realize that we must bring a whole gospel…” (:181)! There is little recognition here, for example, of a sense of the Gospel is already alive within many cultures waiting to be brought to fulfilment—as explored particularly eloquently by José Comblin, in The Meaning of Mission.