Samuel V. Adams in The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright says that Wright’s method is based on the philosophical position called critical realism.
Now I have seen this term used broadly of several divergent thinkers. Originally, as I understand it, critical realism was used by thinkers who wanted to distinguish their position from Kant’s philosophy characterized as critical idealism. Kant’s critical idealism, in turn, was a contrast to Hegel’s absolute idealism.
For writing history it is important to have an understanding that we have some access to events in the past. I think this is why historians need some kind of realism.
Philosophical realism is confusing because Plato had a doctrine that is called realism. That is not what we are talking about. We are talking about realism as the belief that physical objects continue to exist when we do not perceive them. Kant believed that the qualities of things, like their places in space and time and their color or texture, get produced in our minds and do not exist independently. But his idealism was not absolute. He believed “things-in-themselves” existed underneath these qualities. We just could not know much about them.
Critical realism seems to be a philosophy that says things exist independently of our perception while still taking into account Kant’s critique of perception. Some Catholic writers have attempted to renew the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas by bringing Kant’s “transcendental method” into it. These writers include Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan. Adams says that N. T. Wright has been influenced by Lonergan and uses such a method.
Wright’s realism is critical in the sense that he does not think we can directly access the reality of the past. Rather he thinks it is possible for there to be a “conversation between the knower and the thing known.”
Adams’ discussion of this is quite detailed. But my understanding is that in the end he rejects Wright’s method because it treats our knowledge of God the same way it treats our knowledge of history.
Adams thinks this is wrong. He apparently thinks Gotthold Lessing’s famous ditch between faith and history remains intact and that revelation in history is impossible. Instead, he says that our knowledge of God is somehow grounded in our own subjectivity–and God’s objectivity. He uses Kierkegaard, Barth, Bonhoeffer and T. F. Torrance to argue that an encounter with God takes priority over history. He claims that this is not fideism or blind faith.
Here is my problem:
The Mormon missionaries here are quite courteous and they know to only come to my house about once a year. I try to be courteous to them as well. But I always ask for some historical justification for their claims about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. And they always tell me that instead of looking for historical evidence, I should just pray about it and that God will reveal the truth to me.
How is this different from grounding my knowledge of God in the subjectivity of my “bumping into God”, as Adams puts it?
I notice that so far I haven’t said anything about Paul. This is because Adams makes the first part of his book all about the subject-object relationship and Wright’s critical realism.