Epistemic closure is a recently defined philosophical term that describes someone who is so thoroughly encased in the echo chamber of their own ideology that they are completely immune to considering other viewpoints. The term is derived from the Greek word pistis which means faith or trust. When people live in epistemic closure, they are immune to integrity because they only trust people who already agree with their ideology. They scan potential sources of information for the presence of code words that indicate whether or not the speaker can be trusted as a member of their own ideological tribe. As a pastor communicating in our “post-truth” environment of ideological tribalism, I try to be very attuned to both the code words that make me trustworthy and those that instantaneously discredit everything I have to say.
Part of the reason that many people today live in epistemic closure is because we no longer have a Walter Cronkite or Tom Brokaw whom everybody trusts to give us the facts without taking sides. Objectivity is no longer considered a possibility; thus the world becomes “post-truth.” There are only ideologies that must be defended or deconstructed. There is only FOX and MSNBC; every other source of information is a more or less subtle version of one or the other. Underlying today’s anti-truthful world, Christianity paradoxically provides both the source of epistemic closure as well as the means by which people can transcend it.
There are two things about the way that Christianity defines itself that can contribute to the phenomenon of epistemic closure. First, Christianity is a religion of people who expected to be persecuted: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
Second, Christianity is based upon a paradoxical wisdom that appears foolish to the wisdom of the world: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
These two passages happen to be two of my favorites in the Bible. They are immensely empowering and comforting to people who actually suffer persecution (which is different than people who proclaim their own persecution as part of a political strategy). Christianity is without a question supposed to be a home for outsiders — people who are foolish, weak, and hated by the world. But we should not turn around and make these words of comfort into a prescription for anti-social behavior. These verses are not saying that discipleship is measured by the degree to which we strive to provoke the world’s hatred, like the Westboro Baptist Church that pickets soldiers’ funerals with their strange, awful signs.
It is easy to turn these words of comfort which are part of the legitimate core of Christianity into the justification for epistemic closure. If the world is supposed to hate us, then any criticism or ideological conflict we encounter is redefined as “persecution,” which means that we don’t have to take it seriously. The world simply hates us; we don’t have to consider why. If Christian truth is supposed to be “foolishness” to the world, then the measure of how bold a person is in embracing Christian truth is how anti-intellectual that person is willing to be. When you think you are supposed to feel persecuted and foolish, it’s easy to embrace epistemic closure and immunize yourself against the possibility of considering other perspectives.
The sad irony about this is that Christianity properly understood actually provides the foundation to overcome epistemic closure. The fact that we are justified by the blood of Jesus and not by our own “correctness” ought to be the basis for a genuine humility in which we are less defensive of our own perspective and more willing to listen thoughtfully to other people. There are many verses I could cite for this, but the one that comes to mind is Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” True humility means that I value others’ perspectives enough to question my own infallibility. Otherwise it’s not really humility. If I interpret this verse to say only that I should serve other people more than they’re serving me, that might be codependency or patronage, but it’s not humility. Humility creates epistemic openness, because I don’t trust myself enough to categorically mistrust my opponents’ views; my trust for myself has been replaced by a trust for God, which means trusting that God might be talking through the people He has put in my life to disagree with and sharpen me.
Now we have to be careful, lest we turn epistemic openness into moral relativity. But they need not be the same. There is a difference between believing that there is an absolute truth and believing that I have it in my back pocket. We can only continue the lifelong, never-ending journey towards truth if we recognize that it remains perpetually beyond us. The difference between God’s truth and ideology is that God’s truth is infinite while ideology is finite. To make your ideology absolute means worshiping an idol and putting yourself in opposition to God’s truth which is only God’s if you are not able to conquer it completely.
So I pray that you would be emancipated from your ideological tribe. Almost all of us have been victimized by ideology to varying degrees. Nobody is completely right and nobody is completely wrong (which is not the same as saying that everybody is equally right and wrong). Because God’s truth has been manifested in the universe to all, even to “godless and wicked people” (Romans 1:18-20), we can and should listen for the truth in the perspectives of our opponents even if we think their applications and conclusions are wrong. We are actually less likely to be led astray with an attitude of epistemic openness than epistemic closure, because we are constantly listening for what God has to teach us, even from the unlikeliest of witnesses.
Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com. Follow Morgan on twitter at www.twitter.com/maguyton.