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Culture Q&A

Mystery + objectivity

Leading academic Stanley Fish believes in truth, but he hasn't found the tools to tell others about it

Mystery + objectivity

(Photo courtesy of Brown University)

To celebrate another college year concluding, here's an interview with one of the nation's best known and least definable academics, Stanley Fish, who became known as a post-modernist and now writes a New York Times online column that many conservatives like. His stops include teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, chairing the English department at Duke, and serving as a dean at the University of Illinois. His numerous books including one newly published, How to Write a Sentence.

What is truth? I try to put together the traditional ambition to find the truth with the modern and postmodern realization that the truth can only be sought in imperfect and historical forms. I reject and resist the idea either that truth is relative to the position of the inquirer or that there is no truth to discover. On the other hand, the search for truth, which is a universal, can only take place within the resources available to us as partial, limited beings.

Let me try to figure out what you're saying. Can truth be both objective and subjective at the same time? I believe that truth is objective, but I believe that there is no recipe, no algorithm, which allows us to demonstrate to others that we have found it-no necessarily successful mechanism by which I can persuade others who hold the wrong view, but are as educated and credentialed as I am.

Christians believe in objective truth as presented in the Bible. Is it possible to convey that meaningfully to other people? I attempt to refute the argument leading atheists often make: that there is no independent proof, in the scientific, rational sense, of the existence of God. I respond, "Yeah, that's why He is God! If you were to have a system of rational proof which validated His existence, that system would be God!"

You've written a lot about Milton-what did he think of rational proofs for God? For Milton the chief sin is idolatry: mistaking some part of the creation for the Creator and worshipping that part. For Milton, to rely on external forms of demonstration and validity is to make an idol of them.

He was an Augustinian? One of Augustine's central tenets is between using and enjoying the things of this world. People who use the things of this world as a springboard to God and to the truth are doing the right thing. Those who linger on the things of this world are making a huge mistake, and as he puts it, they are captive to the wrong love. That's the danger that Augustine and Milton are always warning against.

Moving from Milton to Sarah Palin's book, America by Heart: You praised it in your New York Times column. I suspect that did not make you popular in Manhattan. So far I have about 100 responses, of which 99 are attacks.

To make it 100 out of 100, how about a column headlined, "Sarah Palin. George Bush. Christianity." That'll do it.

You also praised the movie True Grit, with its heroine Mattie Ross, who reminds me of some homeschooled kids I know. She's aware of mysteries and has studied the Bible. She believes that God created the world, and sees the Bible as putting us the closest to understanding exactly how the world works. There is that sense of mystery plus objectivity. Yes, mystery plus objectivity. She puts them both together in a wonderful sentence on the last page of the novel: "I love the Presbyterian church and my bank." And there's a sentence in the movie that does it even better, when she's about to set off on her adventure to find the killer of her father, and writing to her mother: "I'm in the hands of the Author of all things, and I have a fine horse." That's fantastic.

Do you give your students fantastic writing tips? There's only one error, and that's the error of being illogical, of having sentences in which some components of the sentence don't in fact relate to any other components of the sentence and are just hanging out there in some way that cannot be tied down.

What's one of your favorite sentences? John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an absolutely fantastic book. I used to teach it all the time. Bunyan's hero begins by discovering that he has a burden on his back that he wasn't aware of before. (The gloss helpfully tells you, although you don't need it, that it's original sin.) He wants to be rid of it but doesn't know how. Someone named Interpreter asks him, "Do you see yonder wicket gate?" Christian says, "No." "OK, do you see yonder shining light?" Christian says, "Not sure, but I think there's something out there." Interpreter says, "Run toward that light."

He's running toward something he doesn't clearly see or understand. . . . That's the situation, and here's the sentence. "Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it began crying after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying, 'Life! Life! Eternal life!'" Now that is an extraordinary sentence, which not only tells you about the cost or price that must be paid for the pursuit of eternal life, but makes you feel it in the narrative: "But the man put his fingers in his ears." You can actually see it. It's extraordinary.

You've written about faith. . . . Faith in some large general sense is inescapable. Sometimes the arguments against religion are posed as a contrast between knowing by faith and knowing by more objective means, knowing by empirical or scientific means. But in fact, if you think of faith not as specifically religious but as a set of assumptions which structure your consciousness and allow you to see what it is that you see, then you realize that it is impossible not to have your consciousness structured by a set of assumptions. The issue then becomes, which ones? There can't possibly be a distinction between faithful seeing and other kinds of seeing. It's all faithful seeing.

We all operate by faith of some kind. . . . I believe you cannot operate without it. This is another way of saying that there's no such thing as an open mind, and that's a good thing. If you had an open mind, a mind not structured by presuppositions, it would have the characteristics of a sieve. Everything would just fall right through it. So I am an advocate of close-mindedness.

One last question: Since you can't live without faith of some kind, could you, would you, briefly describe your own faith? No.

Listen to Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Stanley Fish.