I wish I could take credit for the phrase, ‘self-referential incoherence,’ but I cannot. I believe it was born in the mind of Professor Alvin Plantiga. Way back in the late 80’s, when I was in Aberdeen, Scotland, studying with Professor J. B. Torrance, Plantiga came to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures. After one of his lectures, several of us gathered for a beer and a follow up discussion with the famous philosopher. It was then, I believe, that he shared that great phrase with us. It stuck with me ever since. Over the years I have expanded it slightly into, ‘the latent deism of the Latin West and its ongoing problem with self-referential incoherence,’ as a larger statement about how lost we become when God is only watching us ‘from a distance.’ But I digress.
I think Plantiga meant to give us a thought to put in our back pockets for the days when the naysayers out do themselves during Q & A. Nonetheless, ‘self-referential incoherence’ is a profound insight into the problem of ‘the fall.’ For the most part we have been taught to think of sin as primarily a moral problem. I think sin is fundamentally a reference problem, followed, of course, by all manner of other rippling relational, social and moral issues. In the fall, Adam’s reference point moved from God to himself. He became self-referential, and thus developed a perception of himself, God and the world from a center in himself and his terrible fear. From that point the human race was trapped in its own way of seeing. If it does not ‘make sense to us’ it cannot be true. Our way of perceiving a person or a situation is the way it is. And that is the problem fraught with utter impossibility. Even the Lord’s presence and self-revelation, and indeed his way of thinking and saving, has to pass through Adam—and our—way of thinking, and thus the Lord himself and all his ways are subject to our judgment. He must make sense to us, or He is not correct, and thus dismissed. So we invent a god in the image of our own self-reference—which, of course, from the Lord’s perspective is utterly incoherent—and judge God’s presence and action by it.
So how could the Lord possibly reach us, and establish a real relationship with us in our self-referential incoherence? Everything the Lord does will be perceived, or misperceived, through our grids of judgment. Whatever he ‘says’ will be ‘heard’ through our ears. Who among us would ever suspect that our way of thinking or hearing could possibly be faulty? And even if we stumbled onto the idea that our judgment could be wrong-headed, what could we possibly do to escape our self-referentialism?
How does the Lord reach us? How do we escape our own way of seeing? How could we possibly perceive beyond our own perception and know the Lord as he is? How could we have real relationship with each other when between us stands our own judgment?