Monthly Archives: April 2014

What is the Concordia system now, and where is it going?

csp2NOTE: I do not speak for my employer, Concordia University – St. Paul. This is my own theologically-informed evaluation of what Concordia is.

I think when it comes to the LC-MS’s Concordia system (here is a fairly recent analysis), our institution, Concordia University Saint Paul, is the “cutting edge” (whether one construes that as a good or bad thing in this case).  Here is our relatively new “promise statement”:

“Concordia University, St. Paul empowers you to discover and engage your purpose for life, career and service in a dynamic, multicultural, urban environment where Christ is honored, all are welcome, and Lutheran convictions inform intellectual inquiry and academic pursuits.”

Now, let’s back up.

One of Martin Luther’s most interesting and profound theological insights had to do with the fact that the fundamental units of society on earth are the family, the church and the nation.  Although Christian faith will ideally figure into nations in some way, without the fall into sin, the nation would have been an unnecessary concept.

I think all of this has to do with what the Concordia system used to be and has now become, and I’d like to explain.  At first, it may not be obvious how all of this relates, but I think it is like one of those picture illusions that you need to stare at for a while before things “pop”.  Here goes…

Regarding Martin Luther’s insight above, the “natural law”, or perhaps better yet, God’s “law of creation” – which is inextricably connected with faith in God as “Creator” – is always lying in the background here.  As professors Robert Kolb and Charles Arand note in their book “The Genius of Luther’s theology”, “Luther believed that the Decalogue applied to Christians not because it appeared in the Bible but because it expressed the law of creation”.  They go on to demonstrate this in a very interesting and explicit way, as they note that God has “organized [the] created structures of life” around four groups of “fathers” – biological, fathers and mothers in their roles as employers, fathers of the nation (public service), and spiritual fathers – and that the fourth “order of life” is the religious life that deals with “external religious communities”, that is “congregations consisting of pastors and parishoners” (K&A, 62).

Kolb and Arand explain at length:

“Luther argued that we would consider religious life within the context of creation for two reasons. First, as creatures we were designed to trust God for his gifts.  Second, God gave Adam his Word that he was to proclaim to Eve and formed a community within creaturely life dedicated to hearing the Word and praising God together. In the New Testament the church was called into existence in order to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and exercise Christian discipline.” (K&A, 63)

They go on to note that since the church is a human community like all the others, it needs “rules and guidelines for its practice of life together” – as it “takes form in the world”, it needs “structures and governance” (K&A, 63). Interestingly, earlier in the chapter, Kolb and Arand even point out that the other kinds of human righteousness serves “life in this world” for the sake of this fourth kind of righteousness.  They say:

“The goal of an EMT [emergency medical technician] is to keep patients alive until they can be taken to the emergency room of the hospital, where their wounds can be tended and eventually healed.  By analogy, human righteousness serves life in this world (according to the first article of the Apostle’s Creed, on creation) so that people may be brought to Christ (the creed’s second article, on redemption), who deals with sin once and for all, and may live as God’s children (the creed’s third article on sanctification)” (K&A, 57).

All well and good, I think.

Now, let’s make this concrete by looking at an example from my own backyard, Concordia St. Paul.  First of all, my pastor recently asked me a very interesting question: “What really is a school that has been established by a church?” 

At the local Northwestern college, at one point headed up by Billy Graham, this takes on a pretty explicit and intentional Christian shape.  Their mission statement says: “University of Northwestern exists to provide Christ-centered higher education equipping students to grow intellectually and spiritually, to serve effectively in their professions, and to give God-honoring leadership in the home, church, community, and world.”

Compare this with Concordia’s:  “The mission of Concordia University, St. Paul, a university of The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, is to prepare students for thoughtful and informed living, for dedicated service to God and humanity, for enlightened care of God’s creation, all within the context of the Christian Gospel.”

csp4Here is my analysis.  In the past, a college education at Concordia St. Paul could be understood as a more intensified expression of the Christian church on earth.  In other words, the school, college, university, etc. was more of a monastery, some more or less so (think of the gamut in medieval times: universities -> monastaries).  Now, in the present, I think that a Christian university like Concordia could be understood as a mild expression of a model nation on earth (perhaps as ideal a state that can be found in a fallen world)**, where Christians rule, in succession, with very soft power for the benefit of all people, in practice focusing first on earthly needs and concerns common to all, and only second – their truest needs, their spiritual needs, that is, the Christian Gospel narrowly understood (God was reconciling Himself to the world in Christ Jesus, defeating sin, death and the devil, freely giving forgiveness, life and salvation).  All authority derives from parental authority, as Luther said, and yet, as one would expect in a “nation model”, there is less “in loco parentis” (where those who work at the school are seen to basically stand in the place of legal parents for the student’s time of study).

In any case, assuming this model can be seen as being valid, it is my contention that many of the Christian students coming to Concordia, arguably, may not be ready for this model.  They would actually benefit more from the model of old, which operated more like monastaries, and when the schools were more focused on Christian discipleship and producing church workers (of course, if Concordia did attempt to portray itself as more explicitly Christian in all of its advertising and promotional material, one might reasonably question whether it would attract these same students, much less all the non-Christians who attend the school).

I've added the "dying" here. For my review of this book, go here.

I’ve added the “dying” here. For my review of this book, go here.

Now perhaps in today’s world there is a need for both models.  All this said, I think that an eyes-wide-open approach would reveal to us that we did not go here willingly.*  The current Concordia system, it seems to me, is our attempt to re-capture what little “Christian nation” we sense we once had in a world increasingly devoid of faith in the Word of God.  It is our last gasp at the “shining city on the hill”, not necessarily as Jesus understood it, but perhaps as Ronald Reagan (and John Winthrop before him) understood it. Concordia would be a city, a city-state, where “God is [not] dead” (note: this does not refer to the recent movie, but was written several months in advance of it) – that is, where the culture formed largely by Christians lives on. Where there is a “grounded, public, and shared sense that there is a single, unquestioned set of virtues – Judeo-Christian virtues – in accordance with which one’s life is properly led” (Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, p. 44).

Still, God can use evil for good – again, maybe there is something about this new model that could be commended and is useful. Perhaps it might even make sense to have both models on the same campus? (another experiment!). If so, perhaps this would enable the campus to serve as a live model, or teaching tool, of the two kingdoms.  Perhaps.

A few final thoughts.  Perhaps some might say that the Concordia system is more like a business than a nation – after all, Kolb and Arand talk about fathers and mothers in their roles as employers.

My response to this would be to say that while good businesses come from good families, they can exist in good nations.  Good nations don’t exist in good businesses! If we are turning into a good business run by Christians, in reality, that is just one more step in the wrong direction (even if some might think it is a necessary one) – after all, we don’t offer a product among other products but a very culture, a way of being and living in the world! I think courage and vision are needed here: perhaps opening up a new Concordia or transforming an old one – unapologetically more like those of old.

As far as the current experiment with Concordia goes – the “ideal nation” model I have hypothesized – it seems to me that the words of Martin Luther in the following quotation are well worth heeding:

“Certainly it is true that Christians, so far as they themselves are concerned, are subject neither to law nor sword, have need of either. But take heed and first fill the world with real Christians before you attempt to rule it in a Christian or evangelical manner.

This you will never accomplish; for the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in names.Christians are few and far between (as they say is). Therefore, it is out of the question that there should be a common Christian government over the whole world, or indeed over a single country or any considerable body of the people, for the wicked always outnumber the good.” (Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed [found here])


*Ideal in that no gross public sins would be permitted, whether idolatry, thievery, greed, drunkenness, slander, sexual immortality, etc. Like any secular university, “banishment” would always an option at Concordia. Outside of Concordia, in a hypothetical “Christian kingdom” that would be more like the “real world” we are familiar with, there would be an even greater tolerance of other religions (allowing them to build houses of worship, etc), some expression of sinful lifestyles (allowing things to exist on the outskirts of town, etc), etc. Not “tolerance” in the sense that things would be seen as equally valid – or that things must be done this way out of a universal sense of “fairness” – but in the sense that because of the hard hearts of men and the ambiguities involved in ruling a nation, rules of nations must sometimes be this way, much like parents are with their own children. Allowing persons some real allowance to be wrong – what in traditional American government some have called the “right to be wrong”, is key. This also means having the courage to tell them they are wrong when the time is right. While at this Concordia the emphasis would be on the freedom found in Jesus Christ those things that would be out of bounds should also be made clear.

** In some ways we did, but never without a lot of angst and the sense that things were not necessarily changing for the better.  The ideal situation would be to have a college more connected with the Church, with regular worship, study of the Bible, presentations of Christian faith, etc. participated in by all – including non-believing persons curious about the Christian faith to such an extent that they would “come and see” (some Christian activities and service, including organized evangelism/outreach efforts, could be optional).  My pastor talked to me about the influence here of “the rules and regulations established by society in order to be accredited (the same could be said for a restaurant, rest home and hospital). Those rules and regulations would seem, eventually, to eliminate the influence of the church within those institutions.”

Luther statue @ CSP pic:

CSP in winter pic:

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Posted by on April 29, 2014 in Uncategorized


The center holds in Christ: the perspective of reality that Christian faith provides

The center holds in Christ

“The center cannot hold.”  But in Christ…

Evidently, even atheists themselves believe that atheism makes a man less moral (for heart-felt protestations see the comments section in this post).  I’ll admit I’m predisposed to accept the findings of that study.

After all, ever since Nietzsche put forth the idea that morality was basically contingent, his view has either had traction with – or has at least been used as a rhetorical weapon by – the secular Western intelligentsia.

And as William Butler Yeats said some time ago, “the center cannot hold”.  Dostoyevsky uttered another classic line most of us are probably familiar with: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”.

And yet, in spite of our generation’s rank unbelief and sheer arrogance, God continues to work in history, even if believers themselves do not understand the particularities subsumed in the wider narrative. This, of course, is a narrative that includes Him working even now for our forgiveness, life and salvation – en route to His “coming again to judge the living and the dead” (and this, of course, does not preclude God’s always “working for good” in the world – with and without His people – sending things like rain and joy to all on earth [see Matt 5 and Acts 14])

We can contrast this with the cheery viewpoint of the 20th c. Bertrand Russell, who, in evident harmony with Nietzsche, said of “the world which science presents for our belief”:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins…. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” (Mysticism and Logic, 1957, p. 45)

"Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!"  Ho boy.

“Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!” Ho boy – but at least he had a better sense of what he was rejecting…

And not only is this the view held by many moderns today, but it is also held without much of a full understanding of its implications – particularly of what it is rejecting. See David Bentley Hart’s recent lament on the utter incapacity of even our best secular elites to recognize anything remotely resembling classical wisdom (a sentence: “What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best”).

The late Wheaton college philosopher Arthur Holmes wrote in his Fact, Value, and God:

“We must distinguish epistemological subjectivity and objectivity (i.e., to what extent knowledge is perspectival or not) from metaphysical subjectivity and objectivity (i.e., whether things exist and are what they are independently of our knowing them). Nietzsche may be in measure correct about the epistemological subjectivity of the human situation, but it does not follow that no objective truth or goodness exists, only that we may not fully know it as it is in itself. Knowledge is indeed perspectival, and we owe thanks to Nietzsche for making us suspicious of foundationalist and other objectivist claims; but that does not deny the independent reality of the objects we think we know. Anti-realist that he is, he tends to equate our difficulty in knowing exactly what an object is in itself with a denial of the metaphysical fact that it exists – regardless of our knowledge of it, and regardless of our perspective of psychological history.

If Nietzsche’s suspicions are overgeneralized half-truths and his genealogy of morals an interesting but overdrawn hypothesis*, then it does not follow that truth and goodness are just illusions that we create. Even on Nietzsche’s terms, there are at least two different kinds of metaphysical hypotheses: traditional ones like Judeo-Christian theism that ground objective morality, and his own kind of evolutionary naturalism. A Nietzschean hermeneutic of suspicion could apply to both. And if the choice were reduced, as he says, to a question of pragmatic consequences, we would do well to recall Russell’s warning about human hopes and aspirations being doomed to extinction in a naturalistic universe. The alternative perspective – belief in a Logos-ordered cosmos – grounds objective truth and goodness, gives purpose to life and viability to reason, and offers the hope of an eventually moral world.” (pp. 171-172, 1997 ed.)

"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Pretty good reasoning, I think. Not that I expect it to convince anyone though (even as the Holy Spirit may use such modern Christian arguments as He pleases – I suggest we might often try going in this direction).

To explore more about how all of this plays out on the ground in real life – namely the “common good” consequences of Christian belief (as opposed to the more individualistic ideas about “how Christianity works”) – you can listen to this recent Issues ETC show with Professor Korey Maas.


all images from Wikipedia

*As theologian Matthew Becker points out “even Nietzsche and post-structuralist historians involve themselves in ‘totalizing’ discourse and the formation of meta-narratives…” (p. 292, “Hofmann as Ich-theologe? The Object of Theology in Johannes von Hofmann’s Werke,” Concordia Journal 29 (July 2003), 265-293)

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Posted by on April 26, 2014 in Uncategorized


What even babies can’t not know

justbabiesPer Albert Mohler’s Briefing this morning, you got to love those just babies.  Paul Bloom, giving a glimpse in the NY Times about what is contained in his new book Just Babies

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

As Mohler says, this delightful action shows us the glory of God!  From an interview with an author:

Prominent writers and intellectuals like David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell, and Jonathan Haidt have championed the view that, as David Hume famously put it, we are slaves of the passions. Our moral judgments and moral actions are driven mostly by gut feelings—rational thought has little to do with it. I find this a grim view of human nature, but if it were true, we should buck up and learn to live with it.

But I argue in Just Babies that it isn’t true. It is refuted by everyday experience, by history, and by the science of developmental psychology. It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.

And this:

A list [of moral principles young children share] would include: An understanding that helping is morally good, and that harming, hindering, or otherwise thwarting the goals of another person is morally bad. A rudimentary sense of justice—an understanding that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished. An initial sense of fairness—in particular, that there should be an equal division of resources. And alongside these principles are moral emotions, including empathy, compassion, guilt, shame, and righteous anger.

Amazing what the mindless and purposeless process of natural selection can accomplish?  Or: made in the image of God!


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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Uncategorized


Imagination, abstraction, and limits

Content of this book, by an ELCA philosopher, discussed below.

Content of this book, by an ELCA philosopher, discussed below.

(Warning: not much infant theology going on here today. Just a reflection and critique of modern epistemology as done by modern theologians).

Rod Dreher wants to talk about the trouble with nominalism. That’s above my pay grade, I am afraid, even as I am thinking that I am going to eventually have to learn more about this area (from what I understand about it, it seems that a strict approach to nominalism is clearly fatally flawed, even as it surely provided some answers for other philosophical theories that did not seem able to account for the complexity found in the world).

Will have to tackle that more later…. For now, let’s deal with modern ideas of what constitutes knowledge we can be pretty sure of and the proper use of such knowledge….

The ELCA Lutheran philosopher Tom Christenson is a smart guy.  Read this slowly:

The powers of human imagination are necessarily linked to the powers of abstraction. An architect imagines a building as floor plan or section. In order to do so she must abstract from many aspects of humanly experienced space. A physicist imagines masses in gravitational fields.   In order to do so he must abstract from many aspects of the bodies considered. These aspects are irrelevant to his study, though they may be very relevant to him in some other facet of his life.   This is not how he experiences the world, but it is how his science requires that it be seen. An economist imagines the world as a network of realities measurable in monetary units. This imagined world is an abstraction of certain features from among a continuum of features including ones the architect and the physicist (and the economist herself in a different context) find relevant. Only certain measurable features of the world enter into an architect’s, a physicists’s, or an economist’s way of imagining. The world thus imagined is simplified and clarified. The relations between focal quantities are expressible in formulas. The economist’s quantities do not fit as variables in the physicist’s formulas; the physicist’s do not fit the economist’s formulas eithers. Different features of the same thing (e.g., of steel girders or the midday sun) may appear in the imaginatively clarified worlds of all three thinkers. 

Human imagination and focused attention allow us to perceive and interpret the world in many patterns. The variation in those patterns of imagination/abstraction make possible such widely diverse things as space flight and short stories, computers and mythology, skyscrapers and pornography, relativity physics and the work of Shakespeare, chemistry and ethics. Because each is an imaginative reconstruction of the world, it is an abstraction of the world. Because each focuses something in, it also focuses something out. Because each expresses a way things are, each also expresses a way things are not. Each is able to tell a truth because each does not tell the truth.

[Nathan’s note: yes, I too was wondering what pornography was doing in a list of otherwise undeniably good and useful things]

Herein lies one of the sources of our difficulty as humans. We have been so highly and perhaps naturally impressed by what we have been able to see and understand from our imagined/abstracted points of view that we have become seduced into thinking that these abstractions are reality itself. So we have created religions on the basis of our mythologies, and schools of thought on the basis of our disciplines. We have declared alternative views heresies, reduced others’ ways of thinking to nonsense, and persecuted those who have not occupied our thought-world, calling them savages, uncivilized, and uneducated; calling those who did not know our stories and languages illiterate and barbarian. We have turned these abstracted worlds into playing fields on which all must play in order that we can win and they will lose. Their loss justifies their poverty and disenfranchisement. They cannot complain. They had their chance. We have called it equality of opportunity.

Thus our accomplishments in imagining and abstracting have often been accompanied by claims for the comprehensiveness, absoluteness, and exclusivity of the views based on them. The appropriate response to this realization is not to abandon or accuse this human ability to imagine and abstract. The proper response to learning that tools can be dangerous is not to stop using them. The proper response is to be much more critical of our own claims to exclusivity and comprehensiveness. We must realize that it does not follow from the fact that my view reveals a truth about the world that alternative views must be presumed false. Monet painted many pictures of Rouen Cathedral. Each of them does not refute the others. He was not a failure for not being able to paint the picture. Our failure lies not in imagining and abstracting, but in taking our imaginings and abstractions as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It isn’t that we need to find a newer, truer view. We need to find the power to criticize ourselves honestly and then go on to celebrate the variety of our own and other’s limited successes. Let us be happy we have as many paintings of Rouen Cathedral as we have without lamenting the fact that we do not have the picture of Rouen Cathedral, whatever in the world that might be… (pp. 74-75)

I think that Christenson says some things that are helpful here and some that are not so helpful. I will refrain from doing a detailed exegesis of what he is written here. Suffice it to say that while he wants to just talk about painters, I would like to talk also about photographers as well – which can indeed sometimes provide a “newer, truer view” (contra 76 ; see 80)

It seems to me that for Christenson, taking into consideration the subjective aspects of knowing (i.e. the fact that knowing is something done by individual persons of various backgrounds and views) must necessarily go hand in hand with a dismissal of rigorous attempts to “size up’ the cosmos that exist outside of us in a manner that has at least some concern for notions of objectivity (see p. 103 in particular) and the notion that some descriptions and viewpoints of this or that may be superior (“newer, truer view”) to others across a variety of cultural contexts (see p. 76, paragraph 1).

In spite of his words on p. 106 that a key aspect of knowing is that it is “object-focused” (and it does not need to be prejudiced, unobservant or untrustworthy), I think that his view leaves him unable to defend himself versus the charge that his very own way of seeing things is nothing more than a way of advancing his own agenda (his own “transcendent, global claim[-making] power-defined epistemology” [p. 104] ; see his own remarks about being wary of this on page 126, paragraph three) at the expense of a rigorous concern for truth, including seeing things as they really are (which he also wants to do, shown, for example, in the John Updike quote he uses on page 122).

In other words, for some Christians in particular, he can be dismissed as just another garden-variety ideologue (albeit a “soft power” one and not a “hard power” one) and indeed a sexual-libertine one at that! (not just because of his remarks on pornography – there are other reasons for thinking this might be the case). Of course, saying this may not be fair to Christenson himself, but it seems to me that more robustness is actually needed in his systematic treatment of epistemology – one that is more explicitly self-aware vis a vis other viewpoints (I get the impression that he thinks that since he perceives that he does not hold to his own views “in a dogmatic way”, that he would never be capable of “beati[ing] someone over the head with [his] version of reality, truth, beauty, or goodness” [or worse!, p. 79], which is basically what I thought was happening to me throughout much of his book, since I disagreed with several of his views, descriptions, assertions, etc.).

This reminds me of a book I recently read by the integrationist linguist Roy Harris (I appreciate integrationists and am somewhat attracted to their theories), called After Epistemology. In it, he says that “Classical thinking, imposes an epistemological hierarchy, in which linguistic knowledge takes priority over non-linguistic knowledge” (AE, p. 78), but I submit that that this is a recurring human story. It seems to me that human beings have a tendency to suppress any “non-linguistic knowledge” – or any kind of knowledge for that matter – which they find inconvenient, that “cramps their style”. “Inconvenient truths” and annoying contextual knowledge, sometimes seemingly trivial, sometimes more clearly of wide consequence, (this is not to insist that apart from our own or other’s lies, deceptions, and illusions that our senses and minds are perfectly reliable – i.e. that what is within us [our “personal equipment”] tracks in a perfectly “one-to-one” way with what is external to us – but that it is reliable enough for helping people do what they are meant to do) are to be mitigated – and it only makes sense that they would do this with our words – to create our own meaning. 

I agree with Harris that Classical thinking was unique in that it was “a bold attempt to move knowledge into the public domain” (AE, p. 79, emphasis Harris’), but I think that whatever the motives of those who did this, overall, it served to help fight against our tendency to suppress our knowledge of ourselves and the world. Overall though – of course – suppression still reigned and reigns – and new kinds of knowledge suppression were undoubtedly introduced and made possible by this new “public language” as well. A little stability, a little order, a little love, a little pleasure, perhaps a little justice (however conceived): what more could one ask from life? “What is truth?” indeed.    

In any case, from this Christian’s perspective, Both Christenson’s and Harris’ ideas are certainly able to be easily molded towards the service of moral pursuits at odds with the Scriptures. Any view of the world that assumes there always have been and always will be some stable categories – even if only during our time on earth! – must be suppressed, or at the very least, mitigated.

This goes along with the spirit of the age. Hans Ulrich Bumbrecht, professor of Romance languages at Stanford University, from his 2004 book Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey”:

What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot…

(quoted in Armin Wenz, Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism, LOGIA, 2013)

As I have noted before, I would not say that we can never, a la Kant a la Plato, talk about “Instantiations (creating concrete representations of abstract things or ideas) of noumena (a “thing in itself”) for phenomena (a “thing as it appears to be”, i.e. through one’s sensory experience and construction by the mind)”, but this should be the exception, not the rule – especially in theology!  Aristotle, for all his imperfections, is more in line with biblical thinking here. 

For more reflection on Christianity, epistemology and history, also see the series I did elsewhere on this blog, What Athens needs from Jerusalem.

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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in Uncategorized


Faith Seeking Truth – my talk to pre-sem students here at [my university]

[Infanttheology], May 1, 2012, AEX (slight revisions since talk was given)

“There is in everyone a quest for truth and also a rebellion against its demands, and a doubting of the truth when it is discovered….there are many partial truths.  Jesus is the truth, the whole truth”

— Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the Voice of the Martyrs

“They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them”

— St. Augustine


It is absolutely great to be here. I have no idea what kind of expectations some of you guys have for tonight. I should reveal however, that when it comes to texts and learning, I have high expectations of you! Several studies have been done that talk about how many higher ed. students have an anxiety of the library – but I trust such is not the case with you. If it is, I hope I can help a bit.

(A warning: I may say some things that make you say “Wha…?” This happened the first time I met Dr. Carter – the first time he saw something I had written – he got the impression, I dare say, that I was a bit of a crazy zealot. : ) Well, maybe I am, but we later had a chance to get to know each other a bit better [he invited me to lunch with him!] – and to ask lots of questions – and I think his view of me changed quite a bit)

I will say up front – initially this talk may not seem to be about libraries so much (I was told I could discuss anything I wanted to, in light of our faith – really? : ) ). Also, it may lack a little balance…Its heavy on the intellectual side of faith. That said, know this: I love talking about how faith is the fundamental knowledge – and that Jesus emphasized being child-like when it comes to living in His presence (not childish) – receiving his external Word of Promise in simple, unassuming, unpretencious, and unreflective faith. I even have a blog to this effect: theology like a child:  I’m not on Facebook. I don’t do Twitter. But I do have that blog.


I want to talk about truth tonight – the search for knowledge. This is the connection between learning and faith, or as Augustine put it: “faith seeking understanding”. In the title of this talk I have put it as “faith seeking truth”.   I will also tie all of this in with libraries, vocation, technology and evangelism – all in under forty-five minutes!

First, some Scriptures that I’d like to bring to our minds in light of this theme tonight.

  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.“—Jesus, in Matthew 22:37
  • “’In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”—The Apostle Paul in Athens, Acts 17:28
  • “And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”—Festus, in Acts 26:24
  • “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”—Philippians 4:8,9[1]

When Jesus told us to love God with all our mind, I am sure that first and foremost He was thinking of the oracles of God, which of course, lead to Himself – after all “in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3)”. He is the Truth we should seek! Still, as we see from the passages above, Paul knew more than just the Scriptures and His Lord – for example, he knew, or knew about, prominent pagan poets. Other biblical characters had this “secular” knowledge as well: Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22). Daniel, Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego, as promising young Judean nobles, were chosen by their captives to learn “the literature and language of the Chaldeans”, and “God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom”. (Daniel 1:17)

Getting ready for this talk today was a very valuable exercise – because it helped me come to the realization that when I introduce myself to classes as a library instructor, I should simply use one or two of these verses I bullet-pointed above when I start to speak. Libraries and librarians are naturally associated with knowledge after all, so it will be a natural way of bringing up spiritual matters – hopefully laying groundwork for future conversations, reflection, etc.

For me, libraries have always held some real fascination. All that information – I dare say knowledge – in one place. I loved going to libraries when I was little. And libraries go way back – the earliest libraries we know of were storehouses of religious “knowledge”, and were connected with the religious temples (in Egypt, for example). Later on, all manner of learning were sought by the cruel Assyrian conqueror Ashurbanipal, who, oddly enough, was at once the leader of the world’s superpower and one of the world’s first librarians. When he said “Shh”, you took heed.

ashurbanipalWhat is Truth?

So – why should we seek knowledge… understanding… truth?

From a simple worldly perspective, I can think of a variety of reasons persons might seek truth.

Truth is something we just want to know. The creation, or cosmos, can be captivating. Why does it matter whether the sun goes around the earth or vice-versa? It does not make a difference to our day-to-day life, but we just want to know. We are curious and want to know what we can about the mysterious and wonder-filled world around us. As some discover more and more fact, or truths (little t) their sense of awe and wonder might deaden (with the illusion of control). For others, these discoveries may cause them to worship the Creator – or alternatively, the creation. They know there is so much they do not know, and that much will remain mystery.[2]

Truth is valuable in a practical sense. It may be enjoyable for this or that moment to try and escape reality, but all of us know that there are times we are acutely aware of how important it is to know what is true, that which is “really real”. Obvious examples are everywhere: in times of war, for example, accurate military intelligence is critical. In times when we or loved ones face medical issues, we want the best information possible.[3] The process of the scientific method seeks to overcome false understandings of “how things work” by observation and experiment. As such, using this and the discipline of mathematics, we sent people to the moon.

Finally, it is good to seek the truth, even if the truth is not always good.[4] Why do children become so angry when they discover an untruth – a lie? Even as the nobles/elites[5] of our age talk about how one may seek the truth but cannot be sure we know the truth, their actions betray them[6], because they are constantly trying to organize and define and state what is true – and even ultimately True (with a big T)[7] – even as they admit to doubts. Even if some nobles/elites think it may not always be good for the “masses” to know the truth, it is good for them, at least, to do so.

But even if the world strives for a Truth (big T) – which inevitably ties in with how they live their life – we know they don’t have it. This brings us to this Biblical truth found in Romans 1… We actually suppress the truth. And without the power of God to turn us from our sin, we suppress the Truth Himself.[8]

And finally, all truth is God’s truth” as the 2nd century Christian apologist Justin Martyr said.

Along these lines I think about this interesting account, which I culled from the world-famous missionary Brother Andrew (the founder of the ministry “Open Doors”, and author of God’s Smuggler):

“Answer me one question”, [the communist Polish government official] continued. “If I came into one of your buildings and on every desk saw a Bible, would you let me put a statue of Lenin next to it?”

It was one of those situations when you have no time for prayer. Yet in the split second which he looked at me , anxiously waiting for my answer, God revealed something terrific to me: If people have access to the Bible and if they truly base their lives upon it, then let Lenin come.   He will come anyway, or else someone like him. Let temptation come. Let sin come. Let problems come. Let anything come. If my life is grounded firmly on the Word of God, then in Christ I am more than a conqueror.

“Yes” I said, “I would let you do that.”

Immediately his face relaxed into a smile, and he grabbed my hand warmly. “Now”, he said, “we are real friends.” And from that day on we have kept in touch with each other (italics his).[9]

One might wonder about the wisdom of these words (and did God really tell him that?), but I love the point that they ultimately have for us. We have nothing to fear from a robust conversation with the world (they, alternatively….). All real truth and knowledge are of Divine origin. The people of God have always been about learning, and hence, literacy, universities, and libraries have taken hold in areas influenced by Christianity.[10]

So, in sum, truth is valuable, wanted, and the seeking of it is good – even if it is also suppressed.   As Christians, we seek to know for practical reasons, or sometimes just because… but we also seek truth because it is all His.

Evangelism and Truth

I think looking at things in this way does wonders for how one views evangelism.   I Peter 3:15 says “ but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…”  Sometimes it just doesn’t seem “natural” to being up matters of God and Christ in a conversation. But when we start to see more and more connections between all the things in the world – realizing that all truth is God’s truth, and that all subjects not only touch one another but the One in whom is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” – I submit that the opportunities to do this will all of a sudden become more prevalent (by the way, here we should at least mention the supreme importance of story as this relates to truth: God’s truth comes to us largely in story form, and different kinds of fiction can also be such a wonderful vehicle for learning about the world[11]).

So are all called to be exactly like Paul, for example? Must all be scholars like himself? No. But all, regardless of their vocation, are called to growth in love as regards our heart, soul, strength and mind – which we are focusing on. Who are the folks in your circles? Into which contexts has God thrown you? Those are the arenas in which your intellectual growth – your “loving God with all your mind” – will take place: get to know them, learn more about them, their interests – by talking with them… maybe going deeper by reading a good book or article… (perhaps something on the internet will do, perhaps not).   Paul saw in the writings of the pagan poets something that was good and valuable, and in studying their writings, his love for the people who valued them no doubt grew. Later on, he was able to use them as a connection point to Christ.

Last Wednesday, I was in this thing called the Lutheran identity seminar with some other Concordia staff. There we heard from eight students – none who were Lutheran, most who were not Christians. Several lamented the fact that in spite of the diversity on Concordia’s campus, people still tended to spend almost all of their time with groups of people like them (one specifically mentioned ministry students). All of them seemed to long for more persons to simply initiate conversations with them, and to really start getting to know them as persons.

How is that for an invitation? So go get ‘em!

There is no “one-size-fits-all” method for evangelism or apologetics (which I’ll say is like moving rocks out of the way so seeds can be planted). Each encounter is going to be as unique as each person is unique.

Still, that said, I think there is much to be learned in these words from the late historian Tony Judt

It was John [Dunn] who—in the course of one extended conversation on the political thought of John Locke—broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.

That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum…” (italics mine)[12]

That may be teaching, but I’d say it’s also good conversation, much like when the Christian apologist Greg Koukl encourages us to keep these 3 questions prominent in our conversations with others at all times: “What do you mean by that?”, “What are your reasons for coming to that conclusion?”, and “Have you considered….[alternative viewpoint]”.   The liberalism that Judt mentions above is known as “classical liberalism”, coming out of the Enlightenment and exemplified in men like John Stuart Mill.[13] I actually think that this kind of liberalism would not have been possible without the influence of Christianity – and that it is a great blessing (which may soon pass). Still, that is another talk.

Librarians, Libraries, and Truth

All of this kind of thinking – and thinking about what the Bible has to say about knowledge – meant I felt led to become a librarian, or someone who knew his way around the world of information and knowledge, and could quickly locate the variety of things that had been said on this or that matter. This is a particular interest (perhaps obsession) of mine.   I think the profession becomes all the more interesting when it seems like “everything is on the internet”. Further, as regards the question “How can you determine what are reliable, or authoritative sources?” (I often ask this in classes, and a couple tutorials I have made go pretty deep into this topic – see “How Can I Find and Evaluate Quality Websites for Academic Work?” and “How Do I Decide Which Sources are Good to Cite?” here:[14]), I think librarians in general have much to offer here, but that Christian librarians have the potential to be even more insightful.

So, at this point, what can I say about libraries and how they can be most helpful to you?

1)      First of all, librarians, like journalists, are obsessed with the demise of their institutions, as society produces new technologies and is in turn transformed by them. One can argue that physical libraries, and even writing itself, are forms of technology that were at one time “cutting edge”.   I think libraries (and librarians) will continue to exist in some form.   So we’ll be here for you.

2)      Perhaps the biggest value of the library for you may simply be locating and gaining free access to a known item – i.e. a book or article you already know about that want to read. Especially with interlibrary loan, this is not to be underestimated.

3)      Most academics (and probably pastors to) figure out what they want to or should read from their colleagues (and then 2 above comes into play). Still, libraries are really good for getting into serious research for topics you don’t know much about (Wikipedia is a great place to do presearch). For example, subject browse lists in library catalogs (see pic below) are fantastic places to go to get an overview of the serious works that have been done on a subject. And books, which libraries of course focus on, are still the place to go for the fullest treatments on subjects.

4)      How does all of this relate to education in general? Libraries are meant to support the educational institution of which they are a part. Like the desire to impart a good liberal arts education[15], there generally are good reasons why professors and schools require you to learn the things you do. Hopefully, you all at once are captivated by, see the value of, and feel a duty to learn the things you are focusing on (theology).   In the case that you aren’t, one approach I recommend is asking your professor lots of questions – even challenging them in class. Generally, if you do this respectfully, they usually appreciate this, because it means you are thinking – and trying to apply what you are learning to real life.

5)      Lastly, if you were really hoping to simply receive all kinds of links to great online sources tonight, you can get those by going to the Religion and Theology Subject Guide ( and clicking on the “Supplementary Web Resources” tab. Alternatively, I did a presentation for my church entitled “Using the Internet to Enhance Bible Study” and it is located here:

lcsh browse


How to close? Why not with Luther?:

A student who does not want his labor wasted must so read and reread some good writer that the author is changed, as it were, into his flesh and blood. For a great variety of reading confuses and does not teach. It makes the student like a man who dwells everywhere and, therefore, nowhere in particular. Just as we do not daily enjoy the society of every one of our friends but only that of a chosen few, so it should also be in our studying.[16]

So have I failed today? And should I not have become a librarian? I would “tweak” Luther a bit here, and say that in general, he is right: valuable authors ought to predominate our study: they should be read and re-read. The Bible.[17] Small Catechism. Large Catechism. The rest of our Lutheran Confessions (have you read the Smalcald Articles?). Luther. We should read these again and again – and if we feel compelled to test them, we will see that there is truth there. And this truth – this teaching – is indeed life, for the Word of Christ is Spirit and life. Still, I note that Luther certainly did advocate something similar to what I have been saying here today.   For example, he said that Christians should know the Koran so that we can be aware of its errors and be able to speak to those who hold to its errors. He also reportedly said: “How dare you not know what can be known!” (quoted on p. 88, of Benne, Quality With Soul). I think all of this has to do with the opportunities we are given – with the people that God throws in your path, “interrupting” your life.

Just remember though “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Ecc. 1:18). But we are to imitate Christ, the Man of Sorrows – who also knew great joy.

Go in peace and know the Lord – and the world He came and died for!


[1] Also see I Cor. 10:31-11:1: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

[2] There is stuff we don’t know, stuff we know we don’t know, stuff we don’t know we know, stuff we know but don’t know how to express, and stuff we don’t know we don’t know…

[3] Of course, in the past, many pagans – and even believers – looked for answers in things like the stars as well. How could there not be some message there? (from Whoever or whatever was responsible for the cosmos).

[4]Although the definition of true here being used is “being in accordance with the actual state or conditions; conforming to reality or fact; not false” and “being or reflecting the essential or genuine character of something” respectively, “true” can also mean good things like being genuine, authentic, sincere, caring, firm in allegiance, loyal, steadfast as well. For example, we speak of true feelings, having a true interest in another’s welfare, or being a true friend. Here, in this sense, it seems to me that “real” could serve as a synonym of true. See

[5] What really, is an “elite”? One definition might be “The best or most skilled members of a group”, and in this sense, all of us might be “elites” in one regard or another, i.e. the “football team’s elite”, etc. Usually, though, it means “a group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status”. Note the intellectual status (here, there is the social aspect of this to: many also pursue knowledge and spar with it simply for the pleasure it brings, as my pastor pointed out to me : ) ) As regards truth, how does this tie in with the world of intellectuals? First of all, all unbelievers seek truth (for practical reasons, out of curiosity and wonder, sense of duty, as we note) and may also want a Truth (big T), but also want to be in control. With intellectuals I submit that this is simply ratcheted up a lot higher. If Truth seems to be pointing to Christ – if Truth means Christ – then many will simply redefine the rules in the middle of the game. When they come dangerously close to the truth, truth no longer becomes the goal – victory (over this God who would “rule” them) does. Not saying God does not break through sometimes with the power of His Word (C.S. Lewis)! See also footnote 7.

[6] The former Pope, John Paul II, in his encyclical Faith and Reason, said: “Yet, for all that they may evade it, the truth still influences life. Life in fact can never be grounded upon doubt, uncertainty or deceit; such an existence would be threatened constantly by fear and anxiety. One may define the human being, therefore, as the one who seeks the truth.”

[7] This note added after initial presentation: I had to question myself about this again: How many persons are really looking to organize, define, and state what is True?  Don’t some say that the only truth is that there is no all-encompassing Truth (with a big T)?  Is not this alone True? I think the point here is that even persons who want to say things like this also ultimately find themselves saying that we can have enough real knowledge about the cosmos we live in to believe that some ways of living are preferable and more responsible than other ways of living.  If they refuse to even admit this, it seems to me they are simply not being honest with themselves.

[8] This is why when John Paul the II writes in his encyclical Faith and Reason, “As appears from this brief sketch of the history of the relationship between faith and philosophy, one can distinguish different stances of philosophy with regard to Christian faith. First, there is a philosophy completely independent of the Gospel’s Revelation: this is the stance adopted by philosophy as it took shape in history before the birth of the Redeemer and later in regions as yet untouched by the Gospel. We see here philosophy’s valid aspiration to be an autonomous enterprise, obeying its own rules and employing the powers of reason alone”, I cannot ultimately endorse what he says.   I would submit that no one seeks THE answer that/who ends up on the bloody cross for the rebirth of the world.  They may be curious regarding ideas about Him or that resemble Him, but until He takes a hold of them, they have no desire to take hold of Him. As a whole, I think that human reason apart from such faith may readily acknowledge (if they don’t suppress the truth in “atheism”) “creators” or idols (strictly speaking, not “the Creator”) *to its own ends* (even “Intelligent Design”), but not *Jesus Christ to His ends*.   Further, all of our “what” language is intricately connected with “hows” and “whys” – purpose.

[9] Brother Andrew, The Calling (Nashville, Tennessee: Moorings, 1996) 179-180.

[10] I think that a Christian university that tries to offer shelter from “secular” learning (as opposed to interacting with it, both in curricula and as regards a willingness to address questions as they come up) is shirking its responsibility, and might actually contribute to its loss of Christian identity, at least insofar as it means being a true Christian *university*.

[11] See these interesting blog posts: , Also, the Christian scholar Robert Benne writes about the importance of story for Christian universities: “…the Christian account given by the religious tradition should constitute the organizing principle for the identity and mission of the college.  The Christian story as a comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central account of reality must be held strongly and confidently enough to shape the life of the college in all its facets.” (Benne, 97)

[12] He goes on to say: “…No doubt such tolerant intellectual breadth was not confined to King’s. But listening to friends and contemporaries describe their experiences elsewhere, I sometimes wonder. Lecturers in other establishments often sounded disengaged and busy, or else professionally self-absorbed in the manner of American academic departments at their least impressive.

…. Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing.”

[13] Here is a sampling of Mill: “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this.” Obviously, there is much value in this approach when it comes to some topics, with others certainly less so. In any case, one certainly cannot eliminate this approach entirely, as there will always be some people one feels are worth talking to, yet have different viewpoints about this or that important topic.

[14] I also have written extensive conference papers on Wikipedia and Google Books. See here:

[15] Here I am bowled over from this Luther quote: “How dare you not know what can be known!” (quoted on p. 88, of Benne, Quality With Soul) I think this goes along with the idea that to those who have given much, much is expected…   In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, it actually says that academic activities are to be used, whether they have been fashioned by the heathen or others, “and in their use they are to be instruments of love” (Apology XVI, 2,3). In the modern era, T.S. Elliot talked about “thinking Christianly”, that is bringing faith to bear on all aspects of learning.  I believe that education is about enjoying God and His gifts, and serving our neighbor for His Name’s sake with our knowledge of Him and His creation, and is about being human in the fullest sense of the word. Of course, we often should make a valuable distinction between the things we know by divine revelation and “natural revelation” (where there is much “common ground” that all persons share – for we share a world out there).

[16] Found here:

[17] Recent quote from my pastor to me: “As Luther demonstrates, the Word of God contains allows a lifetime of investigation and discovery, of wonder and peace, if only we allow ourselves to do so. Every moment we spend away from it, we do not spend within it.”

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Posted by on April 17, 2014 in Uncategorized



The God of all has called something very specific “proof” for all men

Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Kimel has responded to my post “Man’s limp ‘who do I say that he is’ and what God calls reliable proof“.  Go here to see his post challenging mine.

Here’s my response back to him:

Father Kimel,

Thanks for discussing my post. Let me just say this upfront: I realize how audacious it seems to be, but I really do think I need to stick with my point.

You said:

“I think Nathan misses the key point: the dogma of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is revelation, and therefore can only be received by divine faith and experientially confirmed in the sacramental life of the Church. How could it be otherwise?”

Here is the way I am seeing this pan out:

1. The claim of the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 is that the Creator-God of all has called something very specific “proof” for all men.

2. That something is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, by which God has shown all men who will judge the world. He is not just any man. This message creates angst in the unbeliever and is to comfort the believer.

3. It certainly follows that God will publish for the world the words of this man whom He has appointed.

4. And it is within this message, found in the Gospels, that we find this man asserting himself to be God in human flesh, come to give eternal life to the world. This message creates trust.

I suggest that by submitting to contemporary human notions of what constitutes proof – as if what God calls ‘proof’ is less important – we short-circuit the power behind simple proclamation like Paul’s here, which looks to have its roots in passages like John 16:8-11.

You say: “By itself, God’s raising Jesus from the dead only publishes God’s approval of Jesus. And how does one demonstrate that it was God who raised Jesus from death, as opposed, say, to aliens from another planet using some marvelous piece of advanced technology?”

Did the aliens do this because of the Old Testament prophecies (see Luke 7:18-23 and Luke 24)? : )


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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


Is the internet taking away America’s religion?

That is what a recent MIT study concludes.  Take a look, as it is worth a read.  The article ends in this way:

So that leaves us with a mystery. The drop in religious upbringing and the increase in Internet use seem to be causing people to lose their faith. But something else about modern life that is not captured in this data is having an even bigger impact.

I think the prime candidate here is the loss of traditional notions of morality and family, and that the internet enhances this.  That said, here is the comment I left:

I have a suggestion as relates to causation: technology can enhance/leverage our behavior, whether good or bad, and given the form of information technology, it is easier for it to tempt us towards bad behavior.  I will try to briefly explain

In Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book “Shop Class is Soulcraft” he notes at one point that the word “idiot” “has an origin in the idea of privacy or self-enclosure” (224).  The importance of embodiment – “fleshiness” – in our interactions with others cannot be overrated.

Crawford also writes at one pt.:

“If we accept the testimony of the early-twentieth-century banker Thomas Lamont… his work was founded on direct perceptions, a ‘wide vision’ over the community, issuing in judgments of better and worse character – the sort of evaluative attention that can join us to our work as full-blooded human beings.  But as the subsequent history of banking illustrates, any job that can be scaled up, depersonalized, and made to answer to forces remote from the scene of work is vulnerable to degradation, even to the point of requiring that the person who does the job actively suppress his better judgment.” (198-199).

I will let you check out the book yourself to get a better sense of why he speaks this way.

Getting concrete about the effects that information technology can have on us, I offer the following four things as food for thought, from part 7 of my open source paper available here: (this is a paper that I recently gave at a library technology conference, the slides for the presentation, “Big Data, Big Libraries, Big Problems?” can be found on SlideShare as well):

1) information technology tempts us to overly simplify everything

2) information technology tempts us to push real costs on to everyone else

3) information technology tempts us to be more self-centered and to increasingly “commodify” the world  

4) information technology tempts us to forget how to do traditional yet valuable tasks – and tempts us to avoid attention-developing practices in general

What connection might this have with religion?  The church has always said “lex orendi, lex credendi”, which basically means the law of prayer affects the law of belief, or practice impacts belief.  I suggest that many of us realize that those four things above are true, and that to some degree, we feel ourselves implicated because of it.  Guilt.  That said, we love the benefits we feel too much too stop.  As such, we subconsciously move away from God, and slowly find ourselves more estranged from him, even as the surprisingly alluring mechanical muse of information tech – which we love and hate – lures us ever closer.

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Posted by on April 9, 2014 in Uncategorized


Man’s limp “who do I say that he is” and what God calls reliable proof

Festus: “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” Paul: "I am speaking true and rational words."

Festus: “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” Paul: “I am speaking true and rational words.”


Yes, I do continue to pick on our elites (see here for the epitomy of this).  In his Time magazine review of the Noah movie, John Meacham writes:

The God of the Hebrew Scriptures can be as capricious in his way as any of the gods of the ancient world; later, the God of the New Testament, in offering a means of salvation, does so only through the brutally violent execution of his own son. To engage with the biblical, then, is to engage with texts that are not historical in the ordinary sense of the term. Largely written to convince and convert, the Bible is a special kind of literary country. As the author of the Gospel of John said of his own work, “These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” Understanding the stories of Scripture requires what British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called a “willing suspension of disbelief” — a suspension that in turn creates what Coleridge thought of as “poetic faith. (bold mine)

Add view #6

Add view #6

That, I submit, is some very wishful thinking (see Matthew 24:37, II Peter 3:4-7).  Recently, I explained my view of Christian apologetics – that is, the defense of the Christian faith – to someone this way:

“I don’t say that we can reasonably argue someone into the Christian faith, but I do say that apologetics can serve like the law – perhaps as its handmaid (removing objections to the word), and that the fact that God has given all men proof of Jesus’ right to judge by raising Him from the dead would seem to serve both a Law and Gospel purpose.”

In other words, theology and real history go hand in hand. And I would assert that this all happens by the hand of the Holy Spirit, who would guide such right proclamation. This said, I recently noticed the following note from Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Kimel, over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, where he seems to go in yet another direction (splitting the middle?):

And here is the answer to the question so often put to us by those outside the Christian faith: “Prove to me that Jesus is divine.” We can’t. Such “proof,” such as it is, is only available to those who have heard the summons of the risen Christ, been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, and now indwell the eucharistic life of the Church.

I can’t agree with Father Kimel here: I do not think that it is responsible for Christians to speak in this fashion, and I will explain why.

Again, I note that in Acts 17:30-31 Paul seems pretty clear about the fact that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead that the world may know He is going to judge it. But perhaps Paul was really just saying that he personally had experienced the risen Christ (and not just as a spiritual resurrection!), and, confident of this, simply was inviting others to test and judge for themselves the truth of the risen Christ?

No – it is true that Paul did talk about his own experience with the risen Christ on three occasions in the book of Acts, but he also, in his Acts 26 comments to Festus noted that his comments about Christ’s resurrection were “true and reasonable” and that this event “had not been done in a corner”. This is very fact-oriented, empirical, data-driven kind of talk. But perhaps Paul was holding only men like Festus and Agrippa accountable, given their local and temporal proximity to this event?

"They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them” -- St. Augustine

“They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them” — St. Augustine

Again, no – for as we are told in Acts 17:31, “He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (NASB). This is the only passage in the New Testament where the word pistis, usually translated as “faith,” means “proof” in the sense of “a token offered as a guarantee of something promised.”* Lenski says it means “to furnish trustworthy assurance or evidence” (p. 138, The Interpretation of the Acts…). As Matthew Henry put it several centuries ago, “the matter is not left doubtful, but is of unquestionable certainty. Let all his enemies be assured of it, and tremble before him; let all his friends be assured of it, and triumph in him”. But perhaps Paul was only holding persons like the Athenians accountable here, given their temporal proximity to this event?

Again no – “all men” would mean all men. The resurrection is a pivotal event in which Jesus Christ is “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1, ESV). Here, the world, is held to account, not through human reason and argumentation but through the assertion of the Holy Ghost convicting the world of unbelief (see John 16:8-11). As Lenski says, Paul “is preaching God to these pagans in mighty terms. As far as Christ is concerned, they will accept him only as the one who was ordained by God” (p. 738, The Interpretation of the Acts…). An unbeliever might insist that this does not establish the man Jesus as Lord and Judge of all (Lessing in the 18th c.: “the accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason”….), but it is quite clear that this is the case for the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

According to the 20th c. philosopher of science Michael Polanyi, “knowing is a form of activity…which…. involves the whole person in a passionate commitment to make contact with reality. Knowing is not something that happens to us; it is something we seek to achieve” (according to Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 50). Michael Polanyi is an extremely valuable thinker for the 20th c., but here I think he goes too far, because when we talk about knowing other persons, they definitely make take the initiative and inculcate knowledge – of themselves and other things they bring – in us. Sometimes whether we like it or not! Certainly, there are more passive and active aspects of how we “come to know”…

What does this look like when it comes to God’s work in us?  At this point I will simply quote from an extended section from Lesslie Newbigin’s 1995 book Proper Confidence (for a lecture that sums up the book, go to this link – also provided by Father Kimel on his blog). While I have certainly not agreed with everything in this book (I think the title is great, the overall execution not so much), I very much share his passion when it comes to what he says below:

For Plato, the ultimate realities were ideas, which are more or less fully realized in the various entities which are the objects of our experience. It is by grasping these eternal ideas and participating in them that the soul attains its true being and its salvation. These ideas constitute a hierarchy which the Idea of the Good is the apex. The other major strand of classical thought, that strand which originates in Plato’s great disciple Aristotle, is more concerned with the causal relations among things in the world of becoming…. this Aristotelian tradition was to play a major role in the development of Europe at a later stage.

What is obvious an important at this stage is that the acceptance of the biblical tradition as a starting point for thought constituted a radical break with the classical tradition, whether in its Platonic or Aristotelian form. To put it crudely, in the latter form we begin by asking questions, and we formulate these questions on the basis of our experience of the world. In this enterprise we are in control of operations. We decide which questions to ask, and these questions necessarily condition the nature of the answers. This is the procedure with which we are familiar in the work of the natural sciences. The things we desire to understand are not active players in the game of learning; they are inert and must submit to our questioning. The resulting ‘knowledge’ is our achievement and our possession.**

There is another kind of knowing which, in many languages, is designated by a different word. It is the kind of knowing that we seek in our relations with other people. In this kind of knowing we are not in full control. We may ask questions, but we must also answer the questions put by the other. We can only come to know others in the measure in which they are willing to share. The resulting knowledge is not simply our own achievement; it is also a gift of others. And even in the mutual relations of ordinary human beings, it is never complete. There are always further depths of knowledge that only long friendship and mutual trust can reach, if indeed they can be reached at all.

There is a radical break between these two kinds of knowing: the knowing often associated with the natural sciences and the knowing involved in personal relations. We experience this radical break, for example, when someone about whom we have been talking unexpectedly comes into the room. We can discuss an absent person in a manner that leaves us in full control of the discussion. But if the person comes into the room, we must either break off the discussion or change into a different mode of talking.

This is a proper analogy of the break involved in the move from the classical to the Christian way of understanding the world. If, so to say, the Idea of Good has actually entered the room and spoken, we have to stop our former discussion and listen. Instead of asking all the questions, we must answer the questions put by the Other… (pp. 9-11, bold mine, Proper Confidence)

“We are not honest and open-minded explorers of reality; we are alienated from reality because we have made ourselves the center of the universe” (p. 104)

“We are not honest and open-minded explorers of reality; we are alienated from reality because we have made ourselves the center of the universe” (p. 104)

I would add that for the Christian, this kind of personal knowledge of God in general comes to us through other Christians – from generation to generation – and that this personal knowledge is something that both humbles us and inspires us to boldness when it comes to sharing the joy. The joy of knowing Him who is eternal life. II Tim 1:12: “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me”.

Newbigin says that “the certainty that Descartes sought and claimed to have achieved is… available only within a mental world that is not in contact with a reality beyond itself…” and therefore “only statements which can be doubted make contact with reality” (p. 52, see 75 as well). Even if there is something to what Newbigin says here – about only particular dubitable statements being capable of making contact with reality – the Christian knows that we should not (ideally) – and in fact need not! – say this about the solid persons… and especially Persons, who have led us to the truth and into the incarnate Truth, who Himself is the “Indubitable and Demonstrable Certainty” and speaks thusly (p. 95)*** More on this in future posts (hopefully in a few weeks).

As Newbigin deftly points out in his book, doubt is indeed always a part of our knowing, but that said, speaking of historic biblical Christianity, doubt in God is never something to be encouraged in Christian faith (for more on this see here) – or something that we build into our “systematic theologies” – even as yes, we will not truly grasp the Mystery until the Last Day.  We always can – and by His grace will – know better the one that we have begun to know with surety.


* BDAG, s.v. pistis 1c., quoted in Schnabel, Acts Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Zondervan, 2012.   I also note that F.F. Bruce says the phrase pisten parexo means “having provided proof” and that “Vettius Valens 277. 29 f. provides an example of pistin parexo in the same sense”, p. 340, The Acts of the Apostles, 1951.

** Elsewhere he writes: “What is clear is that the Cartesian confidence in mathematics as the locus of certainty Is part of the same dualism that dominated classical thought, the dualism that separated a world of pure forms known by the mind from the world of material things known through our senses. Certainty belongs to the former, not to the latter….” (p. 52) I would also challenge Newbigin’s assertion that the modern world insists that facts are only things that are tangible and measurable…. (p. 55) – while this may be true for the majority of elites, I think there are many who persist in believing that there are certainly facts that have more to do with the “qualitative” than the quantitative.

*** Disappointingly, it seems to me that Newbigin begins to stumble in his book when he rather sharply distinguishes between faith and knowledge on page 55: “there is no way of being indubitably certain that [the claims and promises that the Bible makes are]… what history is really all about and that this gives us the direction of our lives. It must be, as the church has always said, a matter of divine revelation accepted in faith (John 1:18)”. This, it seems to me, is a fatal statement that undercuts the rest of his work, where he also tries to valiantly assert that the Christian pilgrim “knows the Way” (p. 92) Yes, in life “we are continually required to act on beliefs that are not demonstrably certain and to commit our lives to propositions that can be doubted” (p. 102), but there is more to be said here – there is also certain knowledge to be had, a “proper confidence” that does not have all things in common with the one spoken of by Newbigin.

I do think there are some aspects of Newbigin’s analysis that might indeed open doors with some folks, as might these words from Father Kimel (found here) – a simple apologetical argument to remove roadblocks to really hearing the Gospel: “Why would an intelligent, rational person believe in God? Put aside Aquinas’s Five Ways or the popular arguments from design (which I rarely invoke). Why believe? Because LIFE is bigger than all of our rationalistic constructions. Life does not permit us to only commit ourselves to matters about which we can rationally prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Life doesn’t permit us to live only on probabilities….My belief in God has very little to do with metaphysical arguments. It never has. My belief in God—not just any God but the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead on Eastern morning – has everything to do with LIFE, SUFFERING, DEATH, HOPE, MEANING, LOVE.” (bold mine, caps his)

 Pic credits: Wikipedia


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Posted by on April 7, 2014 in Uncategorized


Going after philosophical materialism


Joe Carter has a really interesting thought-piece up at the Gospel Coalition website: What is a religious belief?  He is maintaining that materialism most certainly is a religious belief in that for any religious belief “The divine is simply whatever is unconditionally, nondependently real; whatever is just there”.  I challenged him a bit on his thesis (see the comments), but he came back with a good reply.

As anyone who has looked at it will note, I also went after philosophical materialism (reductionism) in my library technology presentation up here in the Twin Cities a couple weeks ago.  See here.

Its nice to see a person writing in the Chronicle of Education piling on as well.  In “Visions of the Impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, he writes, among other things:

Our present flatland models have rendered human nature something like the protagonist Scott Carey in the film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). With every passing decade, human nature gets tinier and tinier and less and less significant. In a few more years, maybe we’ll just blip out of existence (like poor Scott at the end of the film), reduced to nothing more than cognitive modules, replicating DNA, quantum-sensitive microtubules in the synapses of the brain, or whatever. We are constantly reminded of the “death of the subject” and told repeatedly that we are basically walking corpses with computers on top—in effect, technological zombies, moist robots, meat puppets. We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.

The comments section has been abuzz.  I am posting one of the better ones below (but do consider reading the whole article)

Love this article. Love the sprawling (and unsurprisingly heated) conversation it has spawned. Love that it appears in The Chronicle. Thank you, Jeff.

I wanted to weigh in regarding an assertion that appears several times and in various forms in the nearly 175 comments that have been posted so far as I type these words. The assertion is that materialism is a conclusion drawn from the available evidence, not an a priori assumption that is brought to the evidence ahead of time.

Quite simply: no. As a matter of clear philosophical principle: no. As a matter of sheer and verifiable historical fact: no. Scientific materialism is the result of applying a specific mental/philosophical filter to the totality of experience. This filter is made up of the scientific method (in its various iterations), methodological naturalism, and various highly inflected sociocultural motivations, biases, and assumptions stemming from the late Renaissance and, especially, the Enlightenment. Nor is this filter applied to some existing field of phenomena that presents itself spontaneously as “evidence,” since what counts as “evidence” in the first place is determined by the filter itself. Everything else is screened out and effectively hidden from awareness for those who choose to construct their view of reality as a whole based on the results of, and from within the bubble of, this single philosophical filter.

Of course, the same thing could be said of pretty much any attempt at constructing an all-encompassing worldview, and there have been many of these. But since scientific-type materialism is what’s at issue, and since it has long been the dominant cultural paradigm for most of us chatting here, like an enveloping ideological fog that we absorb through our very pores as we’re growing up, it’s important to call it out for the pointedly limited and provisional — and ultimately destructive and deadly — picture of reality that it really and truly is.

I think the very transformation of academic and cultural discourse that Jeff describes and advocates in this article, and also in his books, is the type of thing that will, or could, or may, contribute to a general correction of the situation and a re-enriching of our collective experience as both academics and human beings. Of course there are those who will say they feel empowered and enriched, not enervated and impoverished, by the scientific-materialist worldview itself. Personally, I think they’re failing to take into account both the negative philosophical/spiritual effects and the negative practical effects — think the twentieth century, think war and genocide on a previously inconceivable scale; think real-world science fiction-type super-technological dystopia — that have flowed, and that continue to flow, from the ontological flatland viewpoint of the materialist ideology.


quote pic:


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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Uncategorized


Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with our God…. in and for His Name

Click on book to learn more about it

Click on book to learn more about it

When I read the works of the Indian Christian Vishal Mangalwadi, it got me thinking about the relation of the Church and matters of justice in a big way.  I tried to synthesize a lot of my thoughts in the parts I and II of my series “How Jesus becomes King in man: what role does the church have in building good nations?”

Today, at Concordia University St. Paul, we had a visitor from the International Justice Mission who talked about this Christian organization’s efforts and successes in fighting poverty and injustice.  As always, there was theological nuance I wanted to add or share (again see my posts above), but as a whole, I thought the presentation was very helpful and challenging.  It will certainly drive me to prayer.

Gary A. Haugen is the president of the organization, and after writing several books about justice from a biblical perspective, has just released a new book written for a broader audience.  On this page devoted to the book, one will find ringing endorsements from a rather wide range of persons, from Bill Clinton to Pastors Lou Giglio and Tim Keller.

Here are some of the images from the media page devoted to the book:

FACT: In India, statistics indicate if you hold someone in slavery you are more likely to be struck by lightning than ever being sent to prison.

FACT: In India, statistics indicate if you hold someone in slavery you are more likely to be struck by lightning than ever being sent to prison.

FACT: If a man sexually assaults a poor child in Bolivia, he is more likely to die slipping in the shower or bathtub than going to jail for the crime.

FACT: If a man sexually assaults a poor child in Bolivia, he is more likely to die slipping in the shower or bathtub than going to jail for the crime.

4 billion people in the world live outside of the protection of the law.

4 billion people in the world live outside of the protection of the law.

I rejoice that Gary A. Haugen has this calling and that he is bringing the insight that he has as a Christian to bear on this issue for the wider world.

Ephesians 5:8-14:

for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Awake, O sleeper,
    and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”





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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in Uncategorized