Influencers shape of us – whether we acknowledge it or not. Some of us, who see ourselves as more spiritual, might think that only Jesus and the Scriptures serve in this way. Perhaps. I thinka we’re more complex than that and find inspiration from a variety of places – some Biblical, some historical, some literary, some from within our families, and some from acquaintances we’ve made along the way.
Abraham Lincoln is one of my “historical mentors” for many reasons. Here, I’d like share two: His foresight and his depression.
(I know. You’re thinking of finding other blogs to consult – If I’m recommending “depression” as a source of inspiration, it can only go downhill, right? But please bear with me).
I should mention I’m not lifting up Lincoln as a model of Christian faith. I’ve read several evaluations of his religious beliefs and I’m convinced he is not the best model for growth in Christ-likeness. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn other valuable insights from his life and words and apply them through the grid of the Gospel.
Regarding Lincoln’s foresight, I find strength in his willingness to pursue long-term goals at the risk (ye, almost the guarantee) of short-term losses. In 1861, Lincoln addressed the congress in something like a state of the union address. Remember the year: 1861! He told them, “The struggle of today is not altogether for today.”
Do these words not have weighty significance for us who serve in academia? Are there not intellectual fronts on which we struggle that may seem to some as mere academic intramural squabbles but could reshape peoples’ thinking down the road? Consider postmodernism’s infancy in the minds of a few intellectuals and then watch a rerun of Seinfeld.
Regarding Lincoln’s depression, I point you to a marvelous recent book, Lincoln’s Melancholy : How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Shenk is correct to make a distinction between depression and melancholy and perhaps I should have done likewise in this blog. Shenk exemplifies excellent scholarship of a historian, insight of a therapist, and a fluid writing style.
More than anything, the book offers hope (and I am well aware of the higher than usual rate of depression among academicians). The darkness of the soul we (yes, I am including myself) melancholic types experience can actually be the “fuel” for greatness, a wellspring for compassion, a crucible for deep thought, and a laboratory for personal transformation. Lincoln knew both his temperament and his struggles and aggressively pursued avenues of strength. His two favorites were humor and poetry.
Can you see far ahead? Can you search deep within? These are two qualities Christian scholars should long for, work towards, and pray in as they follow Christ.
Join Us in Our Misery
This post was written by Randy Newman on April 16, 2006
I’m sure you’ve seen those drawings that have two different subjects in them. In one of them you see an old woman if you look at it one way. If you shift your perspective, you see a beautiful young lady. Once you see the young lady, you can never not see her again. For some of these, you marvel that you ever looked at it without seeing something but, in fact, you were blind to that very thing that now stands out as the main attraction.
I find a similar experience, theologically speaking, regarding the issue of calling. As one of the pillar assumptions of this blog and our entire Academic Initiative effort, calling frames how we see much of life. We believe God calls all His people to some kind of work, all of which has His stamp of approval. This is contrary to the reductionistic view that God only calls some people to “full time Christian work” and all others are settling for second best (or worse). The reformers rebelled against such a notion and argued that anyone who did any kind of work (excluding things which are evil, exploitive, destructive, etc.) could do so “to the glory of God.”
This is especially important for academicians to grasp. The study of an academic field could help promote God’s kingdom in ways that are quite strategic. Just a few examples could illustrate my point. The work of a sociologist, exploring ways that society could function better so that justice could be pursued, could lead to more people experiencing life free from inequity or exploitation. The work of a physicist could help researchers find better detection of earthquakes, thus saving lives. The work of an artist could lead to more artistic beauty (instead of nihilistic ugliness) that points to a creative God who values the good, the true, and the beautiful. The argument could even be framed in less utilitarian ways. Research and study and instruction, done with excellence, can glorify God as well.
The problem is that once you see things this way, you start cringing when people express the old reductionistic view that only sees “religious” work as worthwhile. For example, a few months ago, as I sat in church, our pastor introduced a new member of the church’s staff. He announced, “This man used to work at the admissions office of a major university but we finally convinced him that getting people into heaven was more important than getting them into college.”
Or, over lunch with a student finishing his masters degree in fine arts, I asked him what he hoped to do with his degree. “Nothing,” he replied. “I just want to do something for the Lord.”
Or, in conversation with an obviously stressed graduate student (it does not matter what her field was – this could apply anywhere), I asked her how it was going. Her reply was, “Terrible. But I finally figured out that it just doesn’t matter. None of this academic stuff matters. All that matters is that I just love Jesus and tell others to love Him.”
I am not making these stories up! Each one brings me significant sadness. And I could tell a lot more. I understand, historically, how we got to this point. Perhaps that’s a topic for a future blog. I also understand, theologically, why this sacred-secular dichotomy is wrong. More blog material, I guess. If we’re successful in sharing this vision, you’ll join us in our misery…but you’ll also rejoice that there are signs that things are changing.
For the most part, I am encouraged that more and more Christians, it seems to me, are questioning this unhealthy seo wellington way of seeing “calling” and are pursing God’s leading wherever He make take them – into the arts, government, research, business, the pastorate, medicine, social service, and even…academia.
Everything I Know
This post was written by Chris Gadsden on April 11, 2006
A professor friend was baffled at my suggestion that there may be limits to scientific knowledge, for instance, that certain kinds of depression may never be explicable in strictly neuro-chemical terms. How can I say this? Because I believe that human beings are composed of a material body and an immaterial soul, which implies that some mental disorders are at least partially caused by mental (non-physical) events. He persisted in asking how I could make such a claim without any scientific evidence. Here’s how I do it: I bring everything I know to the table. In other words, I know many things, and only some of them have come to me by way of science.
Alvin Plantinga, in his essay, “Advice To Christian Philosophers,” puts it this way:
“In trying to give a satisfying philosophical account of some area or phenomenon, we may properly appeal, in our account or explanation, to anything else we already rationally believe- whether it be current science or Christian doctrine.”
As Christians in any field of inquiry, we may bring science, theology, philosophy, even our intuitions or any other legitimate source of knowledge to the table. Knowledge is knowledge. Science and theology are not different kinds of knowledge, they are two different sources or ways of arriving at knowledge. Science is not the uber-knowledge, standing as judge and arbiter over all other disciplines. If we seek a guide, Reason and Faith would serve better in helping us discern truth from error.
What is the implication of this? When engaging in my discipline, I do not have to cordon off my beliefs about God, about building inspection brisbane human nature, or about morality. Similarly, when I study my Bible, I do not have to keep my biology or psychology in the back room. Let each source of knowledge brought to the table be given the common courtesy of credulity – innocent until proven guilty.
Post Modern, Pre-Modern, or just Plain Fallen?
This post was written by Randy Newman on April 7, 2006
The theology of meaninglessness is back in vogue. Maybe it never went out. How are Christians in the academy, a place where absurdism, existentialism, and postmodernism have long felt at home, to respond? Much has been written about postmodernism’s affect on academia and culture at large. I certainly will not try to duplicate those analyses here. I simply want to examine this phenomenon through the lens of theology.
Simply stated, some people today are saying the modernist enlightenment crowd was too optimistic. They sought meaning and purpose by way of reason but came up short because, to be honest, there really isn’t any building inspections melbourne meaning or purpose. Whether it’s from the philosophy of Camus (and his devotees), the films of Woody Allen or Charlie Kaufman or the music of Madonna, the students in our universities have been indoctrinated with the doctrine that there is no doctrine.
But maybe they’re right! (OK. I’m overstating things. This a blog, after all, not a journal article). Maybe the basis for meaninglessness has deeper roots than postmodern theory. Maybe the ground for this sense of rootlessness is the innate human condition – apart from God. Postmodernists are simply recognizing what’s really there but are unwilling to consider an alternate solution.
The book of Ecclesiastes would argue this way: Whenever we seek for meaning through avenues of pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or any other route that fits the category of “under the sun,” we come up empty, affirming the cry of, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
David Wells, historian and theologian, addresses this in his latest book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. He writes, “The question of contemporary meaninglessness, then, is one that has two sides to it, I would argue, and these two sides are sociological and soteriological….Biblically speaking, meaninglessness is primarily soteriological in nature and only secondarily sociological: as it is experienced by people, its soteriological nature is often not comprehended.” (p. 194).
In other words, while there may be cultural and intellectual trends that contribute to a sense of the absurd, there are more theological reasons for it – reasons to be found in the Scripture’s teaching of the fall and our resulting need for salvation.
At first, this may seem discouraging – but only until we reflect on the goodness of the Gospel. People feel alienated in this world because they are alienated - from their creator. If they’re admitting this, they’re more open to hearing the Gospel than they may know. They’re ripe for hearing that God has sent His son to reconcile us to Himself and save us from meaninglessness. If they’re still clinging to modernist, enlightenment optimism, they’re still thinking their problem is less severe than it really is. If that were the case, mere education or self-improvement would do the trick.
What this means is that postmodernism can be our evangelistic ally. When colleagues or students express camaraderie with Derrida, Foucault, or Sartre, don’t offer them Descartes. They need to look building inspection gold coast further back than that. Start a dialogue that affirms their sense of meaninglessness and tell them about Solomon who felt the same way. Then point them where Solomon pointed – to the Messiah.
Integrity: Historical Lessons
This post was written by Mark Hansard on April 4, 2006
In reading Joseph J. Ellis’ His Excellency George Washington, I was, ironically, reminded of the importance of integrity in academic work. Washington’s famous sacrificial decisions for integrity’s sake stood in sharp contrast to Ellis’ own problems with honesty (As you may recall, Ellis was caught lying to his history classes at Mount Holyoke that he had been a platoon commander in the Vietnam War, a falsehood he had perpetuated for years. No doubt he picked the subject of Washington to help rehabilitate his reputation).
In academic circles, the pressure to publish, competition for research money, and hence the temptation to cut corners for expediency’s sake is palpable. Yet we can take heart by looking at Washington’s own fascinating decisions among difficulties and temptations.
In particular, Washington’s refusal to endorse a coup that was being planned by his officers after the Revolutionary War represents an almost inexplicable refusal of power. The Continental Congress had promised pay, monetary landscape design wellington rewards, and other enticements which the officers or enlisted men never received, reducing many to a level of starvation that forced them to eat their own horses to stay alive. After the war when it became clear Congress did not have the money to make good on its promises, Washington’s officers planned an armed march on Philadelphia to demand from Congress the pay and rewards they deserved.
Washington had seen his men trail blood in the snow as they marched without shoes into Valley Forge because Congress would not provide for their needs. Yet he stood up at an officers’ meeting and pleaded with the men not demand their rights and create a bloodbath. Miraculously, he refused an easy shortcut to power that could have secured the rights of his men, in addition to setting himself up as a dictatorial leader that the nation would have accepted because of his already legendary status. His refusal to take the quick way out kept the fledgling American nation from becoming another dictatorship, democratic in name only.
Similarly, when we refuse to plagiarize, fudge research results, or exaggerate to make a class more interesting, we do more than protect our reputations. We protect the pursuit of knowledge and the confidence of dentists wellington students and colleagues that truth is knowable. More importantly, we protect our own ability to look at our reflection in the mirror, and our ability to look our Lord in the face—two things much more valuable than a career or a reputation.
Plausibility Structures and Belief
This post was written by Patrick Rist on March 29, 2006
In my last blog, I posited the concept of “plausibility” as a worthy goal for Christian mission in the academy. I’d like to explore this idea further here.
Plausibility or the notion of “plausibility structures” originates in the field of sociology. In brief, it is an attempt to explain why something is more believable in one social setting, but less so in another. For example, Mormonism is more believable in Provo, Utah, than in New York City. Islam is more believable in Pakistan than in Uruguay. Hinduism is more believable in India than Serbia.
And it is easier to believe in Christianity in a rural, small town setting, where everybody you know is either a Baptist or a Methodist, than it is on the campus and in the departments of a major research university.
Why is this? Our usual explanation deals primarily with the realm of ideas: Professors don’t believe because they aren’t aware of the apologetic evidence that can be marshaled on Christianity’s behalf. Or another typical explanation deals with depravity: Professors, even if they are made aware of Christian evidences, reject the Gospel because of their innate falleness.
It is absolutely essential that we affirm both of these reasons. We must continue in our apologetics efforts, and indeed, bathroom renovations auckland continue to grow in our abilities to present a reasonable faith. At the same time, we must acknowledge that human falleness prevents anyone from coming to faith unless they are called (and I believe regenerated) by God.
But there’s another issue we must consider: It is not just that academics and others don’t believe the facts concerning the gospel; the problem is what they do believe – a whole host of other ideas that make belief in the gospel untenable.
What are those other things? Notions concerning morality, what it means to be human, the role of sexuality, the origin of life, the nature of the Good Life, concepts concerning the self and identity, and the list goes on and on. None of these issues directly touch on the facts of the gospel message – the death and resurrection of Christ, or the subsitutionary atonement, for example – but they all contribute to bathroom renovations wellington creating a mental world in which the historic Christian message is simply unbelievable. It becomes inconceivable that Christianity could be true because of all the other things that are believed to be true.
There then begins a “feedback loop” of disbelief: The shaping of one’s mental world transforms one emotionally and morally, which in turn determines the practices which orders one’s life, thus making it even more implausible to believe the gospel.
This is the connection between ideas and plausibility structures. An equally important connection concerns the state of being kitchens gold coast surrounded by people who all believe (or disbelieve) the same way. And despite the university’s claim to champion diversity, there is profound uniformity in terms of its view of traditional Christianity.
This seems to be the situation before us. How can Christians in the Academy address this challenge? What would be an appropriate and yet missional response? I’ll offer some possible answers in my next blog.
Hegemony vs. Plausibility
This post was written by Patrick Rist on March 27, 2006
Many Christians who actually live and work in the academy cringe at phrases like “reclaiming our universities for Christ” or other such triumphalistic catchphrases usually meant to loosen wallets. Such cringing is not necessarily an indicator of faintheartedness. It’s more likely a result of clear-eyed appraisal of the modern university as a complex institution which both reflects and instigates the changes that have taken place in modern American culture.
This is not to deny that most of our oldest colleges had Christian foundings. And it certainly doesn’t deny that the University needs to be infiltrated (or re-infiltrated) with a Christian vision of morality and human flourishing. Indeed, the Academic Initiative is dedicated to that goal.
But the language of “reclaiming” or “taking” our universities in the name of Christ fails on (at least) two levels. First, it has bad – possibly even catastrophic – publicity value. Imagine your secular colleagues coming across some kitchens auckland Christian materials (which they’d view as propaganda, anyway) claiming a goal of “retaking” the University. This phrase, which we recognize as hyperbole and read with the grain of salt that comes from long exposure to The 700 Club, would strike our colleague as an affirmation of his and the ACLU’s worst fears as to the intentions of evangelicals.
Secondly (and this is related to the first), “reclaiming”, “retaking”, etc. fail at the level of strategy. Essentially, it is claiming as a goal the re-establishment of a Christian (and really a Protestant evangelical Christian) hegemony on the university campus. One has to wonder if this is really God’s will for our time. Our country has undergone profound changes since the days when such hegemony was an actual fact. Although we suspect that the multi-culturalists routinely overstate their statistics and their implications, it seems clear that we really do live in an age of diversity. What is kitchens wellington left unsaid in the nostalgic blather about the days of “Christian America” is just how much exclusion was taking place against (to name just one group out of a long list) Irish Catholics. Having married into such a family, I’m not entirely unsympathetic towards such a position, but it should certainly not be an official policy.
The “reclaiming” language is simply undoable, and it is just too late in the day to continue using it as if we really mean it. Instead, I would like to propose a more modest idea that, while still posing a tremendous challenge, will ultimately be more productive and at the same time, less potentially threatening to those who don’t share our convictions.
I believe a large part of Christian mission in the academy should be one of changing the plausibility structures of the university, with a view toward creating an atmosphere in which the gospel is more believable and the Christian worldview is more accessible. I hope to unpack the concept of plausibility and contrast it with hegemony in a later blog.
There Is a Cake
This post was written by Randy Newman on March 24, 2006
I came across an illustration of our modern, technological age, which has important implications for the world of academia. Peter Berger has suggested that technology may have unintended consequences we must recognize and challenge. One is the fragmentation in which the parts of life are lost. (David Wells interacts with Berger and others along these lines in his recent Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 2005).
Wells offers, “Since the focus of technology is always narrow – how to get things done better and faster – everything else in life, if technology is the prism through which we are experience it, tends to be marginalized or lost….In life, one does not remark on how good the eggs, flour, and vanilla taste; one remarks on how good the cake was. But the technological mindset separates and disengages things. It leads us to talk about eggs, flour, and vanilla in isolation from each other.” (p. 36 & 37).
I might push it further. After more and more talk of eggs, flour, and vanilla, (e.g. “Let me show you what this new software program can do.”), we no longer remember the cake at all. If this is true of society at large, I fear landscape design auckland it may be far worse in the university. Some academicians might go so far as to insist there is no cake at all. To suggest there is one would be primitive, ethnocentric, and worse.
But even in less extreme situations, the danger of losing the cake for the ingredients seems to be an ever-present occupational hazard for the scholar. The nature of graduate level study and beyond demands specificity and detail with little emphasis on pulling back to see where the parts fit into the whole.
The Christian scholar, on the other hand, firmly believes in the reality of “the cake” and should speak of it regularly. The leavening influence (to push the illustration too far) Christian scholars can provide could involve some of the following:
- Asking questions others don’t ask of where one’s research or writing fits into a larger frame of reference.
- Admitting that you do believe in larger metanarratives, despite their recent decline in popularity. (Being willing to point out the self-refuting nature of the statement, “There are no overarching metanarratives”).
- Pushing for a return to the “idea of the university” where the parts all do contribute to a unified “universe” of study.
- Asking students who they want to be, not just what they want to do, as a result of getting an education.
- Serving on committees and task forces that address holistic goals of the university. (I know! This sounds horrible. But who, at your university, are serving in those capacities? What frame of reference do they bring to the task? Do they talk about cakes or just flour, eggs, and vanilla?)
- Interacting with individual students on the larger issues in addition to the specific ones.
I commend Wells’ work to you. His insights about our culture and the church’s call to be salt and light have powerful lessons for those of us living out that call in the university. I hope to share more from his writing in future blogs.
School for Scoundrels
This post was written by Patrick Rist on March 22, 2006
In the latest Wilson Quarterly, I ran across this quote. It is from the fall edition (Number 3, 2006) of New England Review. The entire essay, well worth reading in its entirety, can be found here.
In the academic world . . . in which superior virtue is routinely assumed, it appears that cheating is so endemic that it is ignored, or when exposed is treated with laxity, though here, too, whatever punishments are meted out tend to be harsher for more junior members of the hierarchy, and certainly more for students than faculty. Tenure committees are inured to the cooked resumé, the fudged attribution, the casual appropriation of the intellectual work of others; among faculty only the most exorbitant lapses tend to attract investigation or censure, and punishment seldom involves leaving the academy. Most offenders, taking advantage of the ever-convenient threat of litigation, manage to negotiate a whitewash of some variety that enables them to move on unscathed to the next institution. The whole effort to detect and eliminate faculty wrongdoing is indeed so embarrassing, time-consuming, and often inconclusive that the American Historical Association decided, in 2003, to cease accepting complaints of professional misconduct and to stop conducting the formal adjudication of such cases. The Association justified its step by announcing that its past efforts “have not had sufficient impact either on the individuals involved in cases of misconduct, or on the profession as a whole, or on the wider public.”
Mind you, this isn’t student cheating the author (A. J. Sherman, who teaches history at Middlebury College) is discussing; it’s faculty cheating. He goes on to lay the blame on the postmodern turn toward questioning even the possibility of veracity, as well as the tendency of the uber-class of academics to cut corners, which in turn tempts the envious strivers underneath to cheat as well. And, as the quote mentions, there simply are few penalties for those caught.
All this seems to bring into focus the insufficiency of consequentialist ethics to control behavior. Sherman suggests that an internalized code of honor can prevent cheating. While this is true, Christians can rightfully ask from whence this code will come at this late date. We should also be able to describe some alternatives that the University has prematurely discarded.
Of course, the University is not willing to contemplate our alternatives at this time. But it might be good work to encourage one’s colleagues and those in authority to say so and to articulate why not. As Os Guinness says, even if the truth is supressed, it is still there!
What Is the Purpose of Christian Scholarship?
This post was written by Paul Gould on March 20, 2006
Why, as Christians do we engage in scholarship at all? Furthermore, is there any intrinsic worth to scholarship in and of itself, or does it just serve an instrumental value, helping the scholar to gain respect so he can share the gospel?
As is often the case, C.S. Lewis has some eloquent and insightful thoughts to offer in answer to these questions. In a lecture given in the fall of 1939 to students at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford, England, Lewis describes the purpose of scholarship and learning as follows: “I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake.”
Thus, while Christian scholarship is never an end in itself, it is also not merely something of instrumental value. Knowledge is an intrinsic good and scholarship, as the pursuit of knowledge, is as well. However, the pursuit of knowledge ought to be viewed as a subordinate goal; good in and of itself, but subservient to the ultimate goal of the glory of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31).
Lewis’ words were especially poignant because he was addressing students who were wondering why should they study and learn when Britain had just entered what promised to be a devastating war with Germany. I heartily recommend Lewis’ discussion on the importance and purpose of scholarship. The title of Lewis’ talk is “Learning in War-Time” and can be found in the book The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001).
This year marks the 75th Anniversary of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and for many reasons, Huxley’s Orwellian story remains as relevant today as it did when he wrote it.
In fact, in two important areas, Huxley’s novel is remarkably prophetic. The opening scenes in which we are introduced to a genetic engineering factory, observing as new embryos are created, assembly-line style, with certain genetic proclivities to fit within their needed castes, are chilling. After embryos are created, named, and “bottled,” for example, they make their way on the conveyer belt to the “social predestination room,” in which they are genetically examined, chosen for their future caste according to the needs of the society, and carefully environmentally engineered.
While we are a long way from social and genetic engineering on this scale, we are taking our first steps toward such engineering through market forces already at work. Recently ABC News ran a profile of a woman in Texas who runs an embryo bank out of her home, in which she includes “Ph.D. sperm,” and eggs donated from “attractive” females with at least a college education. You can read about it here. There is certainly enough market interest to make such “designer babies” ubiquitous. I would be grieved (although not surprised) if eventually we saw the government design “aggressive” babies for use in the military. Huxley reminds us that such abuses are a realistic possibility.
Another thought provoking facet of Huxley’s story is the use of soma, a drug that the government uses to keep people blissfully ignorant and peaceful, “happy” at all costs. As one character admonishes a distraught friend, “What you need is a gramme of soma…One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments.” Here he is repeating a mantra with which he was blissfully brainwashed as an unsuspecting embryo on a conveyor belt.
It seems to me these scenes are remarkably prophetic in that in contemporary American culture we see a confluence of unbridled hedonism and increasing government parentalism. These days it’s not just that every individual has a right to pursue happiness, it seems that the government is increasingly seen as the institution that must provide such happiness for the individual (e.g. making trans-fats illegal in New York restaurants—do we not have the ability to make these decisions on our own?). The use of soma in the novel allows the government not only to control the population, but to keep them happy and to protect them from themselves. Are we headed toward our own drug-controlled, parental society? Only time will tell.
One thing’s for sure. Every once in awhile, we all need a good dose of Brave New World.
Pursuing Knowledge and the Image of God
This post was written by Mark Hansard on March 26, 2007
One of the more frustrating aspects of American culture, and the church in America, is a common misunderstanding of what it means to pursue knowledge. To most Americans, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a luxury; there is a belief that only knowledge that has immediate practical value is wellington painters worth pursuing. Thus, scholars who spend years contemplating beauty, or ethics, or the arts, or even physicists, who study subatomic particles or cosmology, are wasting their time because there is no immediate practical value of such study. Whereas studying business, engineering, computer technology — disciplines that have immediate marketable value — is more important.
I’m not a social historian, but I suspect this view results from a capitalist-driven economy in which making money, the practical result of much knowledge, is the goal. Why study something in which it is difficult to make a living?
But this view of knowledge is a serious mistake that could have far reaching consequences for American culture and the Western church. It is, simply speaking, a misunderstanding of the value of knowledge.
In philosophical terms, knowledge is an intrinsic good. That is, it is good in and of itself and has value in and of itself. This is a view that dates back to Plato, and his view was that knowledge is worth pursuing for its own sake. It is not an extrinsic good, a good that is instrumental to obtaining some higher good. Medicine is an extrinsic good. Taking medication is good because it promotes health; therefore health is a higher good for which taking medication is an instrumental means. Beauty, for example, is an intrinsic good, according to Plato.
In theological terms, all propositional knowledge is intrinsically good because it is a reflection of God’s omniscience (a proposition is, roughly speaking, a statement which is true or false). God’s omniscience has traditionally been viewed as perfect knowledge: he knows every proposition it is logically possible to know. Since God himself is the ultimate ground of all goodness in the universe, pursuing knowledge is a good in and of itself because it is a reflection of God. This was the traditional view of the Church as Greek philosophy was incorporated into theology by thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas. We human beings can fulfill the image of God in us by pursuing propositional knowledge, in order to be like him.
Is all knowledge good? No, there are some types of knowledge that are not good, and these are types of knowledge that God does not have. There is a difference between propositional knowledge and experiential knowledge. God does not have experiential knowledge of sin, because he has never sinned. He doesn’t have first-person experience of what it feels like to sin because he’s never experienced sinning. But he does know the proposition that “sin feels good,” or that, “performing sin x will feel a certain way y.” And it is good that he knows such propositions. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to empathize with our weaknesses.
All this brings us back to the pursuit of knowledge. In my view, an intellectual is someone who pursues knowledge for its own sake, not because it is of practical value. Thus, pure intellectual pursuit fulfills part of the image of God in us, and that is something worth doing, whether it has practical value or not. If we don’t pursue knowledge this way, not only will we miss fulfilling God’s image in us, but we will also miss practical applications of such knowledge years down the road that we couldn’t see as an immediate result of such pursuits.
N.T.Wright’s Simply Christian
This post was written by Randy Newman on March 22, 2007
Editor’s Note: This blog entry is a modified edition of Integration Points, Randy’s regular email on integration and culture. To sign up for Integration Points, click here.
In a previous blog I said that Francis Collins’ book, The Language of God, despite some weaknesses, was worth the risk in use for evangelism.
Today I’d like to tell you about one that is not worth the risk: N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian.
I wish this were not the case. I wanted to like this book and I had high hopes of recommending or giving away copies. I even began to construct a list of thoughtful people who might find the Savior as a result of reading it - people turned off by trite or simplistic evangelistic tracts or works that insult their God-given intelligence.
Wright’s great work countering the claims of the Jesus Seminar has been a valuable tool for the church. He has many fans among evangelicals for that reason. Unfortunately, he is inconsistent and does not deserve blanket affirmation.
Simply Christian starts out amazingly well, finishes weakly and, in between, flirts with heresy. The minuses far outweigh the plusses.
The strongest segment of the book is the beginning. The first four chapters examine what Wright calls “echoes of a voice,” longings from within that point to something eternal or divine or transcendent. These “echoes” may not prove God’s existence but certainly point in that direction and prompt honest people to consider the claims Christians espouse.
These four echoes are Justice, Spirituality, Love (or the importance of intimate relationships), and Beauty. Each chapter is well written and pushes the reader to challenge naturalistic or nihilistic presuppositions, in light of the powerful draw of these four universal pointers to eternity.
Wright has much to offer Christians by way of modeling winsome apologetics in these chapters. We should use his method of building and pest inspection brisbane evangelism often in the university and elsewhere, as we try to find common ground with unbelievers and show how justice, spirituality, love, and beauty are not merely products of human endeavor, societal trends, or random accidents. He also models well the approach of telling the grand story of the Bible as a way of showing where the cross fits into the larger picture.
However, the book’s fatal weakness makes it unacceptable, in my opinion, for evangelistic purposes. Wright’s view of Christ’s deity - specifically, Christ’s self-awareness of his divinity is novel – and novelty in theology is never something to be valued. Why he even bothers to voice such a marginal (at best) perspective seems counterproductive. One has to wonder if there’s a theological agenda that he just can’t resist promoting.
Allow me to quote a section and see if you don’t agree that his theology is suspect. After stating that “the earliest Christians had never imagined that the Messiah would be divine,” and observing that they nevertheless made such an assertion, Wright comments:
“At this point, again, many Christians have taken a wrong turn. They have spoken of Jesus as being “aware,” during his lifetime, of his “divinity” - aware in a sense that made him instantly, almost casually, the possessor of such knowledge about himself as would have made events like his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane quite inexplicable. What I have argued elsewhere, not to diminish the full incarnation of Jesus but to explore its deepest dimension, is that Jesus was aware of a call, a vocation, to do and be what, according to the scriptures, only Israel’s God gets to do and be.” (p. 118).
On the next page, he goes even further. “I do not think Jesus knew he was divine, in the same way that we know we are cold or hot, happy or sad, male of female.”
To be fair, I must admit I have not read what he has “argued elsewhere” but I do not need to for the purpose of determining the suitability of this book for evangelizing my friends. To bring this issue up, in a book aimed at commending Christianity to those outside the faith, seems foolish. To do so with little support of the claim seems dangerous. And to state that many Christians are wrong for believing Jesus was aware of his deity seems to fly in the face of numerous, frequently quoted statements by Jesus himself - e.g. “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58), “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5), “I will be with you always” (Mt. 28:20) and many others. I can’t even stretch it to give Wright the benefit of the doubt and say his view is an argument from silence.
One has to think he was alluding to C.S. Lewis’ classic, Mere Christianity, with a title like Simply Christian. Given all the potential problems this recent book poses, I’m still planning to give away Lewis’ work instead.
Francis Collins’ The Language of God
This post was written by Randy Newman on March 19, 2007
We should constantly search out tools for sharing the gospel with those around us. Those called to the academy especially need academically credible, intellectually rich works to commend to people in their spheres of influence. You may have already heard about Francis Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. This book has both positive contributions and substantive drawbacks, but in my opinion, it’s a book that is well worth the risk.
Francis Collins is the head of the Human Genome Project, which finished mapping the human genome in 2003. He also leads several research projects at the National Institutes of Health. Prior to this he helped to discover the genetic misspellings that cause cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, and Huntington’s disease.
His book begins with his own personal story of faith, from an agnostic/atheist upbringing through a rigorous academic training in science to conversion to Christianity during his residency for medical school. He honestly shares both his intellectual questions and emotional/spiritual roadblocks. For the non-Christian who sincerely wants to interact with the claims of the gospel, this book could serve in ways that other books fall short. Collins respects the intellect and the academic process while pointing people to an intelligent, informed faith.
Collins’ major influence in his search for faith was C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity along with several other works of the Oxford Don. Thus, if nothing else, readers of The Language of God may pick up one of Lewis’ books and find a fuller treatment of the gospel there. That may turn out to be the greatest contribution of Collins’ book.
In the introduction, Dr. Collins states, “So here is the central question of this book: In this modern era of cosmology, evolution, and the human genome, is there still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews? I answer with a resounding yes!” His style is winsome and gracious. Indeed, when I heard him speak on the topic of his book, he treated critiques (from both atheistic scientists and fundamentalist Christians) with gentleness, patience, and respect.
If there is any weakness, it is in Collins’ handling of Genesis. He clearly identifies his approach to the creation account as “theistic evolution.” (He prefers the term “biologos” but I seriously doubt this label will catch on). He fairly but briefly tells of other views – atheism, agnosticism, creationism, and intelligent design – and why none of them satisfy him.
But his approach, while solving some difficulties in the science-faith nexus, leaves some (me, for example) less than “richly satisfied.” The thorny details of Genesis’ six days still needs deeper thought than Collins presents in this brief book. One gets the idea that he certainly has given the text deeper thought but doesn’t display all that wrestling in these pages. Perhaps this reflects his humility and willingness to leave such debates to Old Testament commentators. If so, I respect him for that.
Is Collins’ book worth the risk? In other words, even if I more closely align myself with the intelligent design movement than theistic evolution, should I give copies of The Language of God to scientifically minded skeptics? Yes. I certainly think so and plan to do so as often as God leads me to open doors and receptive hearts. There are many around us who believe the only real options are atheistic science or shallow faith. Well meaning Christians have backed them into this anti-intellectual corner.
This new book helps reopen issues that never should have been closed.
On Spinoza, A.W. Tozer and Pearl Jam
This post was written by Paul Gould on March 13, 2007
I hear a lot of Spinoza’s thinking on campus today – of course hardly anyone knows they are parroting Spinoza –which just goes to show the importance of understanding what has come before. Hence the title of this blog – Antecedents. In 1670 as the Enlightenment was just getting into gear, Spinoza said this about belief in God: “The intellectual knowledge of God which contemplates his nature as it really is in itself…has no bearing on the practice of a true way of…faith…and that consequently men can go far astray in this manner without sinning” (in Theological Political Treatise). Spinoza was saying something we still hear today: “It doesn’t matter what you think about God, just be a good person and everything will work itself out.”
But this line of thinking is utterly false. Scripture reminds us many times about the importance of believing the truth about the true God, which moves us to worship. Today, as with Spinoza, faith is often viewed as subjective and private – but knowledge, facts and truth – well, to get that, we need to go to the scientist! Contrast that with A.W. Tozer, who says, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” (in The Knowledge of the Holy). Tozer goes on:
“The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. “
Which brings me to Pearl Jam. While living in Southern California a few years ago, I went with a friend to a Pearl Jam concert. The minute the opening act finished and Pearl Jam took the stage, the crowd began to energize, rising an hour later to a crescendo as the audience (me included) screamed at the top of their lungs in unison, “I, I, I’m still alive….” And then it dawned on me – this is the secular equivalent of a church worship service. I was reminded of the truth found in Ecclesiates 3:11 – that God has set eternity into our hearts. We are by nature creatures who seek to worship that which is transcendent in our lives. But, if like Spinoza we think that it doesn’t really matter whether or idea of God is actually true, then there isn’t much of a difference between a Pearl Jam concert and a church service.
But we know better, Tozer again: “It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as He is.”
I am convinced that A.W. Tozer, and not Spinoza got it right on this one. What is your idea of God? Have you been captivated by a sense of awe and wonder at the goodness and greatness of the God who created you? Perhaps this is a good time for all of us to pick up Tozer’s classic The Knowledge of the Holy, or J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, or Anselm or Augustine and be reminded once again of the God whom we worship and serve.
The Famous Keynes Quote
This post was written by Patrick Rist on March 8, 2007
It’s difficult these days to say much that is positive about the great economist John Maynard Keynes (although it’s become harder for me be enthused over the thought of Milton Friedman or Gary Becker, either). But he did give us a great quote at the end of his massive General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, 1935. I first ran across this quote in Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy.
At the end of the book’s last chapter, Keynes speculates on the possibilities that his prescriptions for organizing the modern economy will be adopted. He is somewhat doubtful about the prospects of his ideas in the short run, but then ends his book this way:
But apart from this contemporary mood, the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil. (Page 570).
This is a challenging paragraph on many levels. Here are some thoughts one might want to consider:
– First, is Keynes right? We might quibble with details or degrees, but I think he is largely correct. The key is that we broaden the application of what he says beyond the realm of economics.
– Note especially his statement about “practical men” – a description of the American mindset if there ever was one. Even our devotion to pragmatism, with “what works,” still arises out of the realm of ideas. It has such a long history on this continent, and has become so “normal” that we can forget that even pragmatism has antecedents.
– His words about “vested interests,” or we could say more broadly, “societal influences,” show that he views culture as being shaped by the continuing combat between opposing ideas; the “History of Ideas” approach. We might take a more nuanced view of how culture changes, but Keynes’ words are a needed reminder for all of us to take ideas seriously.
– How does this paragraph challenge you as a Christian in academia? Few of us are going to generate world-changing theories like a Keynes. Does that mean one should simply focus on building a good CV, on furthering one’s career? Or could Keynes’ words issue a challenge to us to be about countering the bad ideas that harm people’s souls, and planting seeds of right ideas that may yield the fruit of faith?
This post was written by Randy Newman on March 4, 2007
Some books are worth reading. Some are worth tossing. Some should be recommended. But some, a rare few, deserve the bulk purchase approach. In other words, you’d want to have a stack of a dozen or so, right next to your desk, so you could give copies out on many occasions.
Some evangelistic books fit into this category: C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and John Stott’s Basic Christianity would be my favorites. A few discipleship books deserve this status, for the sake of giving to a Christian student or colleague. J.I. Packer’s Knowing God or Francis Schaeffer’s Escape From Reason seem to fit the kind of intellectually minded student we hope to strengthen.
I’d like to suggest another book, which branches off into a slightly different category. Technically, this fits under discipleship but it’s the specific subgroup of discipleship we promote often here at Antecedents. I’m referring to books that promote the life of the mind. George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship and Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind are the stalwarts of this genre.
I found a new item to start stacking in your office. It’s small enough that I would hope the publisher could offer a good deal to you. If you find yourself interacting with undergraduate or graduate students who love Christ and want to pursue academic work, James Emery White’s A Mind for God could be a nice shot in the arm for that future scholar.
The book is basic, probably written for a freshman. It is short (which might make it seem appealing to a student who already has too much to read). It serves as a nice introduction to the literature that has long bemoaned the dumbing down of our culture while encouraging a swimming-against-the-stream mentality for thoughtful Christians.
This short book points readers to Os Guinness, Mark Noll, Harry Blamires, C.S. Lewis, and many others. In fact, one of the most valuable parts of this book is the appendix with 3 lists of books: “Ten to Start,” (starting points for thoughtful discipleship), “Twenty-five Books Toward aChristian Worldview,” and “Encountering the Great Conversation, (a list of the great books of the western canon).
I admit there is an irony of a book promoting depth and thinking Christianly that is less than 100 pages, with the size dimensions of The Prayer of Jabez. Don’t let that stop you from ordering a case. The challenge is worth those drawbacks.
One part I found particularly praiseworthy, was White’s championing of reading. Don’t let the obvious nature of this argument make you think it’s too elementary. Your undergrad students, even the intellectually gifted ones, need to hear these words, so they might unplug their iPod, turn off their Instant Messenger, and shut down their MySpace long enough to read a book:
According to the comprehensive “Reading at Risk” report (2002) from the National ndowment of the Arts, for the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population now reads literature, reflecting a larger decline in all other sorts of reading- a rate of decline that is accelerating, particularly among the young. Such a shift comes at great cost, for much is lost when reading is discarded-much more than the knowledge that might have been gained through the act of reading itself. Reading a book requires a degree of engagement, of active attention, that enlivens and expands the mind. Electronic media makes far fewer demands; it breeds passive participation, fosters shorter attention spans and creates the demands for immediate gratification. The report went on to note that the diminishing print culture brings a diminished capacity for focused attention and contemplation that makes complex communications and insights possible. In the end, it can lead us to forgo the practice of active learning altogether. (pages 37-38).
Let me know if you find a great deal on a case of these. Maybe I’ll split it with you.
Students and Life Online
This post was written by Patrick Rist on March 1, 2007
Apologetics is a challenging, but necessary task. What is even harder, though, is recognizing and countering societal trends that have little to do with traditional apologetics questions, but everything to do with how we order our lives. Case in point: The phenomenon of “living online.”
New York magazine recently carried a story, Say Everything, which profiled several young people, some college age, a few older, most younger, who personify the online lifestyle. This is the realm of Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and much, much more. What emerges from the interviews is a vision of life in which shame, privacy, and reticence no longer exist, and that celebrity is the highest value. In fact, the author believes that young people are literally negotiating their lives with an eye towards their “audience”:
This is an entirely new set of negotiations for an adolescent. But it does also have strong psychological similarities to two particular demographics: celebrities and politicians, people who have always had to learn to parse each sentence they form, unsure whether it will be ignored or redound into sudden notoriety (Macaca!). In essence, every young person in America has become, in the literal sense, a public figure. And so they have adopted the skills that celebrities learn in order not to go crazy: enjoying the attention instead of fighting it—and doing their own publicity before somebody does it for them.
What does it mean when two groups of people, historically seen as among the most superficial in a culture, become the lodestars by which the young navigate their lives?
These are your students. These are our children. These are issues that we really need to engage with wisdom and discernment.
Here’s a quote from a Columbia student, concerning the exhibitionism inherent in documenting one’s life online:
“My philosophy about putting things online is that I don’t have any secrets,” says Xiyin. “And whatever you do, you should be able to do it so that you’re not ashamed of it. And in that sense, I put myself out there online because I don’t care—I’m proud of what I do and I’m not ashamed of any aspect of that. And if someone forms a judgment about me, that’s their opinion.”
What would this individual hear if she was presented with the gospel? What exactly does the subsitutionary atonement offer someone like this?
Some observations about the article’s content and presuppositions:
– The article is mostly anecdotal, and it could be argued that New York City is not a fair representation of any societal trend. Except that one of the profiles concerns a high school student from Kansas City. And the MySpace and Facebook and blog-as-diary phenomenon is nationwide.
– The author, Emily Nussbaum, eschews any moral judgments about what she observes. Instead, she seems to be trying to make the case that these kids are the vanguard of a new type of human existence. Of course, that is a moral judgment, a laudatory one. Reading her copy is an exercise in frustration – a common experience given the “amoral” tone of most writers in the mainstream media.
– What drives the impulse to emotionally (and sometimes photographically) expose oneself online? This would seem to be a fundamental question, but it largely goes unasked in the article. The implicit answer seems to be “affirmation”: “There was a clear return on investment when I put myself out there: I get attention in return. And it felt good,” says one person interviewed.
One suspects that “affirmation” might also be linked directly to “emptiness”. Nussbaum tries to tie exposure to authenticity. But that idea seems dangerously parallel to the warped teenager practice of “cutting” – self-mutilation as a means of proving oneself alive.
Here then is the jarring question: Have we created a affluent, middle-class suburban existence in which young people are completely disconnected with “real life” – to the extent that “living online” seems real?
And here is the challenge for Christians: How do we advocate something better? Can we make a case for an existence that is embodied, that has rich textures that living online cannot claim? Can we point to a better way of living, one grounded in deeper practices than consumerism and the media?
Scolding is not going to work. Your students, having literally grown up online, probably wouldn’t even understand what you’re talking about. But perhaps by elliptically questioning the reality or necessity of life online, chinks can be poked in its plausibility:
– What is shame? Is shame ever valid? What would it take to shame you?
– Why is authenticity a value? Can authenticity ever be artificial? Inappropriate?
– Are bodies necessary? If your mind could be uploaded into a computer, would you do it? What would be the downside?
The Defeat of “Faith and Reason” at Harvard
This post was written by Mark Hansard on February 26, 2007
You may have heard that recently Harvard University decided to revamp its “core curriculum,” a set of subjects that all undergraduates are required to study. In October, a course entitled “Faith and Reason” was proposed as part of the curriculum. The course would study, among other things, “both local and global issues involving religious faith…to help students become more informed and reflective citizens,” according to an article in Newsweek. Sounds like something we would propose.
But, according to the Newsweek piece, the science faculty at Harvard shot it down (the final decision on the curriculum was subject to a vote by the faculty). Newsweek linked this animosity among scientists to a recent study which showed their anger regarding how little of the public believe in evolution.
So, Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, writes, in an editorial in the Harvard Crimson:
“The juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for ‘Astronomy and Astrology’ or ‘Psychology and Parapsychology.’”
Of course, if “faith” were actually “believing something without good reasons to do so,” then it wouldn’t belong in such a course (it would certainly fit in a sociology course which studies why people have religious beliefs, as Pinker points out). After all, higher education is really about imparting knowledge (not belief), and knowledge is based on reason. Most philosophers would agree that if you do not have reasons for a belief, you don’t have knowledge (on the traditional view that knowledge is “justified true belief”). So, we can agree with Pinker that only knowledge should be imparted to students.
But notice that Pinker does not argue for his position that faith is “believing something without good reasons to do so.” He merely seo services states it, as if it is patently obvious and without rational dissent. But this simply demonstrates that Pinker’s position, while eloquent, is uneducated. He is ignorant of church history, of Scripture, of literary history. This is not surprising. Most of us are woefully uneducated in Western history since it has fallen on hard times, and, after all, who has time to study such things when our field of specialization demands such rigorous attention?
But we must understand that for centuries, church leaders argued that faith and reason go together. They argued that “faith” is simply a word for “trust,” and we trust things that we have reasons to trust. This idea is certainly born out in Scripture in places like 2 Peter 1:16, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses to his majesty.” This, of course, is a reassurance to the reader that there is eyewitness evidence of His “power and coming.” In other words, it is claimed to be a rational position to hold.
I applaud Harvard’s adherence to a “core curriculum.” Very few universities have a standard at which they can measure whether graduating students are truly educated in the classical sense. But I believe Pinker’s objections are less rationally based than based on a stereotype and a resulting fear. The stereotype is that religious believers are ignorant barbarians who want to take civilization back to the Stone Age. The fear is that they will.
Amazing Grace - A Different Opinion
This post was written by Patrick Rist on February 26, 2007
This is not a movie review site.
Now that I’ve made that clear, I want to offer a more positive reaction to Amazing Grace, the biopic released last weekend which covers William Wilberforce’s untiring efforts to see the English slave trade abolished. My colleague, Randy Newman (with whom I rarely disagree about anything other than the satirical possibilities inherent within National Socialism) liked it for the most part, but found the pacing problematic, saying that he was worn out by the multiple heavy emotional peaks that came before the climatic Parliament vote that finally ended the slave trade.
I think I understand Randy’s point, but I disagree with it. Although not particularly innovative in its storytelling, I found Amazing Grace quite moving without being overdone, or what is the more common shortcoming of films with heroic subjects, being maudlin.