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Tag Archives: Knowledge/Epistemology/Truth

What do Jordan Peterson’s and Harvard’s Views of Truth Have to do with One Another?

What does this mean?

 

The key similarity is this:

Both are confident that their understanding of what is both significant and true will, in the long run, be justified. This, interestingly, is related to their persons – to the fact that they understand themselves as striving to be as true as one can be.[i]

The idea is this: In the long term, things will work out well, meaning increased benefits and flourishing for many, and therefore, they will be shown to be true.

What is happening here? In sum, truth’s connection with classical ideas of knowledge – that is justified true belief – has been severed. We now have a new kind of knowledge: conceivable useful trust.

Let’s take a closer look.

First, here is a short account of Harvard’s history with the word truth:

The story of the Harvard arms is writ deep in the past. Veritas, which is Latin for “truth,” was adopted as Harvard’s motto in 1643, but did not see the light of day for almost two centuries. Instead, in 1650, the Harvard Corporation chose In Christi Gloriam, a Latin phrase meaning “For the glory of Christ.”

Veritas eventually was discovered in old college records by Harvard President Josiah Quincy III, and re-emerged in 1836 when it appeared on a banner celebrating the College’s 200th anniversary. The word briefly lived on in the Harvard seal from 1843 to 1847, when it was booted off in favor of Christo et Ecclesiae, or “For Christ in the Church.”

In time, Veritas would become the one word most closely associated with Harvard. But it took an 1880 poem by writer and Professor of Medicine Oliver Wendell Holmes to revive it for good. The poem urged Harvard to “let thine earliest symbol be thy last.” If ubiquity is any measure, Holmes’ poetic wish came true. Veritas was Harvard’s oldest idea for a motto and, after centuries of neglect, is here to stay. (from here: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/05/seal-of-approval/)

All this is very interesting when taking into account recent actions that have occurred at Harvard, which you can listen to Albert Mohler discuss here under his heading “Ideological cleansing on campus: Harvard forces Christian ministry to choose between Christian convictions and continued ministry on campus”.

From the Harvard Crimson:

Harvard College Faith and Action will need to sever ties with parent group Christian Union in order to re-earn recognition from the College at the end of its year-long administrative probation, according to College spokesperson Rachael Dane….

[HCFA’s co-presidents] deny that [it] ever fell out of compliance with the College’s nondiscrimination standards.

The two wrote in a previous statement that they “reject any notion that we discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.” Ely and Richmond attributed the Sept. 2017 dismissal of the student to an “irreconcilable theological disagreement.”

Asked to elaborate, Ely and Richmond specifically pointed to HCFA’s stance on extramarital sex. The co-presidents asserted the group believes those in leadership positions must remain celibate, adding HCFA applies this policy “regardless of sexual orientation.”

But the woman who was asked to step down wrote in an email to The Crimson Friday that she and her girlfriend had never engaged in “extramarital sex.” The woman spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

“We’ve been fairly open in our conversations within HCFA about our decision to not have sex until marriage since the beginning of our relationship,” the woman wrote in the email.

From here, one sees that Harvard University – and many of its student population for that matter – do not believe that the Bible’s identifying homosexual activity as sinful is right or true — at least for today or tomorrow. The Right Side of History, you know.[ii]

In order to examine Jordan Peterson’s view of truth, I am going to quote from an email I recently received from a very knowledgeable colleague in my field, library science:

Recently, I discovered the thinking of Jordan Peterson, an academic from Canada, and I haven’t yet reached a final opinion, although he is interesting and all over the web. He did a podcast with Sam Harris, a scientist and it set me thinking.

Peterson is a Christian but of no particular denomination that I am aware of, while Harris is an atheist. Their discussion was interesting because they got stuck on the notion of truth…. From my understanding of their point of disagreement, Peterson believes in the primacy of the moral consequences of any thing or event. Therefore, while something may be objectively (or scientifically) true, if accepting that truth leads to evil consequences, then what we perceive as true cannot be ultimately true.

Therefore, if scientific truth is at odds with moral truth, then the moral truth should prevail. The example was the nuclear bomb. Here is a quote from Peterson: “…I would say that the proposition that the universe is best conceptualized as sub-atomic particles was true enough to generate a hydrogen bomb, but it wasn’t true enough to stop everyone from dying.  And, therefore, from a Darwinian perspective, it was an insufficient pragmatic proposition and was therefore in some fundamental sense, wrong.  And, perhaps it was wrong because of what it left out.  You know, maybe it is wrong, in the Darwinian sense, to reduce the complexity of being to a material substrate and forget about the surrounding context.”

This makes sense for Peterson, who is a Christian and believes in an all-powerful God who is good and loves us.

To Harris, who is a scientist and atheist, such a way of thinking was incomprehensible. A truth/fact is a fact no matter where it leads you, but for Peterson, if it leads to bad moral consequences, that same truth/fact cannot be true.

….This is the link to the podcast, if you are interested but there are lots of discussions about this podcast on the web. https://samharris.org/podcasts/what-is-true/

For now, let us leave aside the question of whether or not Peterson claims to be a Christian.[iii] As for his interesting view of truth, in some ways it does mirror the Christian message, because a part of that message is that God is faithful and true – He will “set the world to rights” in the end.

“It works! It works!” — Jordan Peterson, speaking of the Logos.

That said, all of this is missing something very important, and something that even many secular persons (like Sam Harris and the man who sent this to me) want to hold on to.

Namely this: We can and should say that some things are true (and not just conceivable, useful, and worthy of trusting in). We can make statements that are true, period. Even statements that stand trans-historically and trans-culturally.

That is what things like the Nicene Creed are all about.

The world’s a chaotic sea and the faith is our Ultimate Rock.

Now, I can sense the objections coming: all of this might make some — particularly those in the academic world — think that Christians cannot speak intelligently about change.

On the contrary, I would humbly suggest that Christians are the ones who can most sensibly about the reality of change. If you don’t believe me, listen to this excellent presentation on “The Provisional Nature of Truth” from Pastor James Wetzstein from Valparaiso University, speaking this past week at the first annual Oswald Hoffman lecture at Concordia University in St. Paul:

 

After listening to the talk, I again thought about how there are a lot of things you and I can say that are certain and true (some more readily believed by everyone than others, even trans-culturally and trans-historically) — even if the fullness or completeness of that statement and what it entails, means, etc. is not known.

I checked with Pastor Wetzstein and he indicated to me that he thought that was a good point.

I hope you find that I’ve made another good point in this post. Let me know if you disagree.

FIN

 

Notes:

[i] This is related to my argument here: https://reliablesourcessite.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/sola-commoditas-truth-is-fitness-alone/

[ii] Nevermind.

[iii] He has certainly been willing to let statements implying that he is stand unchallenged. Note the discussion starting around 48:28 in the following YouTube video (Jan. 31, 2018):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRPDGEgaATU. On the other hand, not long before that conversation, in Canada’s National Post, the following exchange took place: “Are you a Christian? Do you believe in God?” Peterson responds: “I think the proper response to that is No, but I’m afraid He might exist.” http://nationalpost.com/feature/christie-blatchford-sits-down-with-warrior-for-common-sense-jordan-peterson

Images:

n-gram: http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/04/17/the_phrase_the_wrong_side_of_history_around_for_more_than_a_century_is_getting.html

 

 

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Posted by on February 28, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Why Jordan Peterson’s New Book Doesn’t Work

“Does that please God? Well, you’ll find out…” – Jordan Peterson

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His star continues to rise. He is indeed a force to be reckoned with.

Referring to last weekend’s BBC interview with Cathy Newman, Rex Murphy’s headline in Canada’s National Post announces: “The prime moment Jordan Peterson’s ‘gotcha’ was heard around the world.”

 

Indeed. The Atlantic Monthly took note, stating in a headline “Why Can’t People Hear What Jordan Peterson is Saying?” (evidently, given the url, the headline initially read: “Putting Monster Paint on Jordan Peterson”). David Brooks and Peggy Noonan quickly got caught up and read Dr. Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life, and writing articles respectively titled the “The Jordan Peterson Moment” and “Who’s Afraid of Jordan Peterson?”

I’ve said before that I can’t not love Jordan Peterson. I have learned much from him, this man from whom so much truth pours forth.

I have called him a “noble pagan” par excellence and will stand by that.

That said, his new book doesn’t work. Why? Because Peterson is a pragmatist and pragmatism is a false philosophy.

Jordan Peterson, endeavoring to “resurrect the dormant Logos,” says that the Logos is the central process by which human beings flourish in the world.

No.

“It’s” not, because “it” is not an it.

 

The Logos is not a principle to be adhered to.

The Logos is not the experience of feeling something meaningful (including an intimation of immortality)

The Logos is not the incarnation (enfleshment) of a “social revolutionary element” in the world.

The Logos is not the capacity to mediate between chaos and tyrannical order.

The Logos is not a thing to be learned and mastered.

The Logos is not a process to be managed and controlled.

The Logos is definitely not a system to be effectively – and even admirably – “gamed” like some Cathy Newman.

The Logos is not about the Sovereignty of the Individual – the Divine Principle of the Individual.

The Logos is An Individual who is the Way, the Truth and the Life – and the Logos is a human being, the very Son of God and Messiah, Jesus Christ.

And yes, because of Him, each individual has a sacred dignity and profound responsibility.

Dr. Peterson doesn’t know what – no Who – he is messing with. You never get to say “Gotcha” in a competence competition with the Good Lord.

Speaking generally, God’s blessings come to the nations through Christians — not by our understanding how the cosmos or even human nature “works”. They do not come about from our understanding the “machine” we call the universe and all that is therein (though we all do this, more or less: boats, for example, always float, do they not?)…

Rather, blessings and flourishing come through unquestioning obedience and loyalty to God and His commandments: “secularism,” the Enlightenment, modernism, postmodernism — and yes, Jordan Peterson’s pragmatic philosophy – ultimately depend on the Christian faith which is the faith that acknowledges God as He is.

But seeing external harmony and blessings, the “progressive Christian” or “Christian atheist” says “well, to some degree, it works”.

Well, I understand where you are coming from – and Christians writing books with a bunch of gears on the cover haven’t helped here – but, in truth, “it” never works.

 

We are alive and blessed in Christ as He sees fit, rewarding in this life and the next as He pleases, as we keep His commandments. .

As Dr. Peterson says, always tell the truth. “Life without truth is hell”.

Indeed, and hence we cry: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!”

Yes, I will see him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought!

I pray that Dr. Peterson may be also.

FIN

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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What Can C.S. Lewis’s Sublime Waterfall From His “Abolition of Man” Teach Us Today?

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Post by Nathan Rinne

If I say the “waterfall is sublime” is that an “authoritative statement”? What makes it so?

Maybe we should back up…

What is authority? Maybe we can agree that it is inextricably tied up with concerns about responsibility, knowledge (know-that and know-how), trust, and truth.

That said, is it ultimately something outside of us or inside of us? That is eventually where the question leads.

I’m an academic librarian by vocation, and I get the impression that most every librarian I know thinks that authority ultimately rests “in the receiver of information,” as Bill Badke puts it. In spite of a couple scholarly papers I’ve written against the popular idea among my colleagues that “Authority is constructed and contextual” (see here and here), it seems that even those appreciative of my work calling this into question ultimately think that the statement is problematic but that its “true enough” that they can live with it.

They can’t. None of us can. Because ultimately, truth and Truth gets the final vote. Truth is, in part, that which is the case, is not individualistic, and can create new understandings between us.

To this end, I offer you the following exploration/defense of C.S. Lewis’s sublime waterfall illustration, which I posted today on my academic librarian blog. Even if you think you can dismiss Plato, you nevertheless can’t dismiss Lewis’s important example.

Making the case from reason alone.

+++

In arguing that there is truth that we all know (see the last few posts on my academic librarian blog, here [“When truth is disregarded, authority weakens”], here [“Aristotle at the library: why philosophy won’t go away”] and here). I recently said, following C.S. Lewis’s classic example from his masterpiece The Abolition of Man, that “we know that waterfalls are sublime — not only that they produce ‘sublime feelings’ in us”*

In response to that statement a librarian colleague said this is Platonic because I am implying that “abstractions have objective reality. Such as the idea that waterfalls are objectively sublime.” (they go on to say “To many of us, our sublime feelings are subjective; they are not a sign of innate sublimeness in whatever evokes those feelings.”)

I will admit that this response, coming from another librarian who also thinks that the phrase “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” is lacking, caught me off guard. Is this necessarily a Platonic statement? If so, why? Could it just as easily be an “Aristotelian” statement?

My NeoPlatonist** friend, Dr. Eric Phillips, said the following in response:

Aristotle was a Platonist to a point, but he went renegade on the question (related to your question) of the separability of the Forms from Matter. His emphasis on the Forms in Matter, and even his insistence that they had to be contemplated in this way, both helped NeoPlatonism to improve on Platonism, but if NP hadn’t also insisted on the transcendence of the Forms, it wouldn’t have been Platonism.

…what’s really at stake in your question about Sublimity-or-sublimity is objectivity vs. subjectivity, and Aristotle was just as much an Objectivist as Plato was. Intellectual content (Form) is in the things already, and is discovered there by the Intellect of the observer. But Plato’s Objectivity is transcendent, thus hardier and more naturally anchored in the Mind of God, as we see in NP.

Plato…

Me:

… my instinct when it comes to the academy… is to stay away from NeoPlatonic assertions… because Aristotle does not deny the forms, but puts them in matter. Here, it just seems to me that one is able to start from our experiences, as existential and historical and evidence-oriented beings, and work from there…

My major concern is that all the classical philosophies seem to get neutered when historicism is understood or experienced as somehow compelling… See, e.g. https://reliablesourcessite.wordpress.com/2017/07/13/5-short-philosophical-reflections-from-hope-to-despair/

 Dr. Phillips:

That’s not a reason to favor Aristotelianism to NeoPlatonism, because NP also holds that we discover the Forms within the objects of our perception. But NP doesn’t end there.

Me:

Yes, that makes sense. It also might make sense then that people consider me to be talking about Platonism, when, in my own mind, I am simply trying to point out that persons cannot stop consistently assuming stability in many of the things in the world of which we speak — even trans-culturally and trans-historically. I don’t even mention transcendent realities (like Forms that exist somewhere outside of us in another realm).

Aristotle…

Do you have a view then about reasons why a person might immediately assume Platonism? Is it because all of us — or perhaps, intellectuals more generally — believe that we all must, from the get-go — be operating from a systematic understanding and/or narrative that we try to convert others to and others try to convert us from?***

Dr. Phillips:

I think people are making the jump to Platonism because they assume Aristotle is one of their own, although he isn’t. …secular intellectuals have out-Aristotled Aristotle, see themselves as part of his branch, and don’t consider how thoroughly he too would scorn them. Also, “Platonist” is a much worse name in their book, because whatever might have been wrong with Aristotle, Plato had it much worse. It’s like calling someone a Nazi instead of an anti-Semite, just to up the ante.

As for assuming that everyone is speaking from a philosophical system that is trying to colonize the world, that’s just the universal PoMo assumption, isn’t it?

Plotinus… father of NeoPlatonism

Me:

Why do they assume Aristotle is one of their own? Are they assuming too much devotion to empiricism in Aristotle (at the expense of a belief in real Essences/Forms)? In other words, they have a post-Ockham view of Aristotle?****

secular intellectuals have out-Aristotled Aristotle, see themselves as part of his branch, and don’t consider how thoroughly he too would scorn them.

By this, do you mean they have put all of the focus on his storied empiricism, and gladly lost the other part?

Also, “Platonist” is a much worse name in their book, because whatever might have been wrong with Aristotle, Plato had it much worse. It’s like calling someone a Nazi instead of an anti-Semite, just to up the ante.

Because he is barely empirical by their standards, and is the Evil Essentialist par excellence. Right?

As for assuming that everyone is speaking from a philosophical system that is trying to colonize the world, that’s just the universal PoMo assumption, isn’t it?

Well, PoMos say there is no truth, and hence this kind of activity is all about power. I do tend to think that we as human beings can’t stop stating what is true about the world and want others to agree with us. We certainly think that there are some things that simply can’t be right and we should be able to convince/persuade others not to believe them. Not everyone necessarily would force everyone to believe what they believe if they could though!

Dr. Phillips:

Yes, you understand me on all three of your questions. Modernists and Postmodernists are used to being on “Team Aristotle” when the annual Plato-v-Aristotle football game comes around, so often all they remember about him is that he was an empiricist and he did science. But to the extent that he was an empiricist, he offers testimony of how empirical observation can discover Form. And they don’t usually think of it in these terms, but they discover Form through empirical observation too. It’s just important to the atheists among them that there not be any Mind higher than theirs with which they might have to compete in understanding that Form and processing its implications. And to say that Form is transcendent is to say that there is such a Mind. (The Prime Mover is not nearly so threatening, because all It does is draw things to develop their own innate potential, whatever that is.)

Me:

What I find really interesting here though is how Rebecca Goldstein seems far less frightening to atheistic types than Thomas Nagel (and his Mind and Cosmos). Maybe this goes to show, however, how Platonism — updated and revised by Goldstein — is not so threatening (just like you say Aristotle is not threatening). But maybe NeoPlatonism is? [See, for example, this article that I wrote, “The Gods of our Brahmins: Thomas Nagel’s and Rebecca Goldstein’s Intelligent Designers,” exploring this topic].

Dr. Phillips:

I don’t know Goldstein except what I just read in your article, but yeah, Old Platonism is definitely less threatening to atheists, because there’s no explicit Hypostasized Intellect, World-Spirit, or One-Beyond-Being. I do think that’s where the system leads, though, if you follow its internal logic. Forms are ideas, and ideas are thinking, and thinking is what a mind does.

Attempting to appropriate Plato while avoiding his God-talk.

FIN

Notes:

*In a library technology conference presentation I made in 2014, I said the following about C.S. Lewis’s approach:

In his brilliant and more or less non-religious book, The Abolition of Man, Lewis basically contended that the [modern scientific and technological mindset] (not his language) had the power to “abolish” man. He made his argument that Western civilization was destroying itself by using a few simple sentences from an English textbook for middle school students.

In this textbook, Lewis points out that its authors, when talking about a waterfall, are careful to point out that we cannot say that the waterfall is “sublime” in itself – that is, intrinsically – but we can say that the waterfall provokes sublime feelings in the one who observes it. Lewis first of all points out that as regards feelings, the word “humble” is a more apt description and from that point on he is off to the races. He spends some thirty pages arguing convincingly that this simple move on the author’s part – where an objective goodness and beauty outside of the human being has been denied – has disastrous consequences for our lives together. In one of Lewis’ more memorable lines he states: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

**Of NeoPlatonism vis a vis Platonism, another learned friend says: “In broad strokes….Aristotle was a Platonist. Plotinus and Proclus mediated classical Platonism and Aristotelianism to a significant extent, such that while Neoplatonism is similar enough to classical Platonism to warrant its moniker, it is dissimilar enough that most of the perennial criticisms of Plato don’t stick to it.”

*** Listen from around 14:30 for a couple minutes: http://zero-books.net/blogs/zero/zero-squared122-lacans-television/ I almost want to say: “Monsieur Lacan, I see what you are saying. Well, my ‘master discourse’ (patriarchy!?) assumes various good hierarchies in nature and society and the belief that we are all human beings who share much horrific and beautiful common ground.”

**** The endgame of Ockham’s approach where universals  are not connected to things, but concepts (prior to Ockham, universals are distinct from, but inextricably linked to stable forms):

“Ontological individualism undermines not only realism but also syllogistic logic and science, for in the absence of real universals, names become no more than signs or signs of signs. Language thus does not reveal being but conceals the truth by fostering a belief in universals. In fact, all universals are merely second or higher-order signs that we, as finite beings, use to aggregate individual entities into categories. These categories, however, do not denote real things. They are only useful fictions that help us make sense out of the radically individualized world. They also, however, distort reality. Thus, the guiding principle of nominalist logic is Ockham’s famous razor: do not multiply universals needlessly. Every generalization takes us one more step away from the real, so the fewer we employ, the closer we remain to the truth.” (Michael, Allen Gillespie. “The Theological Origins of Modernity.” Critical Review 13.1 (1999): 1-30. ProQuest. 20 Apr. 2015, italics mine)

With Ockham, any sense of “natural teleology” is dulled by his denial of forms and the purely mechanistic science made thinkable by it. “Being is not intrinsically good but is value-free; fact and value are separated.” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 100)

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Is Truth What Works?

Not quite?

 

For a man like Jordan Peterson, interpretation is only “true” if it works, which means it is credible, taking into account material and social constraints. For Christians, an interpretation is true if what is stated is what is – what is actually the case. Christianity offers a knowledge (justified true belief) that is stable and even eternal.* The world, purging the word “secular” of any connection with religion, has only a “knowledge” which is constantly in flux — it is conceivable useful trust — depending on the latest intellectual desires and fashions.

In the classes on beginning Christianity that I teach, one of the questions I ask later in the course is this: “Is Christianity true because it works? Or does it work because its true?”

I get a lot of interesting answers, but invariably, as students have already read much of the Bible by this point, they choose the second option.

Of course, I then go on to qualify that we need to talk about Christianity as an “it” and define “works” in this context (i.e. we are not talking about what the world calls “success”). The cross, after all, might not seem to have worked very well.

In sum, the Christian faith tells a distinct story, or history, of the world which is meant for all persons (see Acts 17). And this narrative offers us not only stable but eternal truths that we can cling to with our whole lives.

I can’t say it better than this:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only‐begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men** and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy Christian*** and apostolic Church I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Man. Church isn’t church if I don’t hear those good words. Amen indeed!

FIN

 

*”Becoming” in the world is part and parcel of what is.

**Us men means all people.

***Christian: the ancient text reads “catholic,” meaning the whole Church as it confesses the wholeness of Christian doctrine.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Without Tradition as Truth, the West – and the Rest – Cannot Be Saved

It is not so much the incontrovertibly “mixed bag” of the West that saves, but the Gift given to us sinners.

This past week, responding to the President’s well-received speech in Poland, the Atlantic wrote:

“The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian and largely white… He’s not speaking as the president of the entire United States. He’s speaking as the head of a tribe.”

Well, excuse me (Rod Dreher’s response to), but I had always assumed people who talk like our President did in Poland not only tend to think that “democracy and capitalism [are] not uniquely ‘Western,’” but that the same holds true for our Christian heritage. In other words, it is not only a critical part of who we are as a people, but it is needed by the whole world.[i]

If you agree with me about this, you might like what follows.

I posted the Atlantic article on a Facebook group I’m on, and one man made the popular comment that: “The ‘West’ is that part of the world influenced by Greek and Roman thought, with Christianity added to it. We adhere to Western philosophy.” I think that is a pretty good way of looking at it, and when it comes to “Greek and Roman thought,” I note that many of the elites in the West look to the famous philosophers from these cultures – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Seneca, Cicero, Lucretius, etc. – as powerful guiding lights.

At the same time, the most important part of our Western heritage, by far, is the Christian faith. The historical account the Bible provides is in fact What Athens Needs From Jerusalem.

Philosophers: some better, some worse, all wrong?

As the caption in the picture above demonstrates, it is for this reason I don’t have trouble downgrading — no, not eliminating — the importance of the world’s great philosophers for us. Years ago, noting that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy said…

“The concept of history plays a fundamental role in human thought. It invokes notions of human agency, change, the role of material circumstances in human affairs, and the putative meaning of historical events. It raises the possibility of “learning from history.” And it suggests the possibility of better understanding ourselves in the present, by understanding the forces, choices, and circumstances that brought us to our current situation. It is therefore unsurprising that philosophers have sometimes turned their attention to efforts to examine history itself and the nature of historical knowledge…”

I observed that

“What is surprising though is that no serious philosopher seems to have really seen these matters as [highly] significant when it comes to doing philosophy until about the 18th century, or arguably, a bit later (particularly with Hegel) – when the Enlightenment (and Romanticism after it) ran with the Christian idea that man was not subject to the blind forces of fate.”

A wise interlocutor, however, pushed back:

“Just because [someone like Plato] didn’t do philosophy of history, doesn’t mean he didn’t care about history. Socrates chooses to drink the hemlock because philosophical considerations trump historical ones when it comes to doing the right thing. But history is the only way anyone knows that he did in fact do the right thing. Or what he said in any of his dialogues.” (italics mine)

This showed me that I needed to further explain my original What Athens Needs From Jerusalem post. I think it is neither true nor wise to say that “philosophical considerations trump historical ones when it comes to doing the right thing.”

Socrates: How well did he know himself?

What do I mean? I am not saying that the philosophers thought we could learn nothing from individuals in history or that historical facts are unimportant. Indeed, Plato wants to show us how to live by Socrates’ example which he believes personifies the highest wisdom.

We would be wrong, though, to think that Plato – or even Aristotle, who prepared the histories of 200 political regimes in order to assist politicians in his present – is saying that a particular narrative about “what happened” in the past regarding a particular people in a particular nation in a particular time… following up on the heels of a particular account of the creation of the world… should have absolute controlling significance over how every human being understands meaning in life or the “how should we then live?” (2 Peter 3:11) question (the “then” is very significant!). That such an account demands to be examined and taken seriously (note very carefully what the Apostle Paul says in Athens in Acts 17).

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” — Acts 17:30

I think my saying that that is indisputable, and in this sense philosophy as conceived in the world could not be further apart from revealed religion – not to mention any historical tradition human beings might be inclined to value and uphold in the face of seemingly contradictory views put forth as rational and scientific! As Martin Luther put it in his antinomian disputations, “after Christ’s coming, this sin of unbelief and ignorance of Christ has been made known throughout the entire world by the public ministry…(p. 111, Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus)

This is what I am saying (though perhaps quite clumsily indeed) in my What Athens Needs From Jerusalem post above. Christians in general, and Lutheran-Christians in particular – and remember, I also count myself as a “liberal Christian nationalist”! (consider this post part II of why I am that) – are the ultimate “historical conservatives”. In my mind, it is just crazy that so many Americans, for example, think that they can “champion the liberty and rights of the individual stripped of corporate and historical identify” (Gottfried, Search for Historical Meaning, 116) – particularly *Christian identity*!

Many may try to deny it, but this Christian identity — based on the Bible as God’s word and history — has always been part and parcel of “the West,” even with weakening Christian influence in light of things like the Thirty Years War, the Enlightenment, and the French and American revolutions. As such, in America the Englishman John Locke had a strong influence on the course of our nation as he presented a political philosophy which derived not only from Christianity but from materialism (atomism)[ii].

“Locke [and Hobbes] assert that human beings are fundamentally self-interested, equal and rational social atoms…” — Wikipedia

And yet, Locke and others who followed in his train still made some very important observations inconsistent with purer forms of philosophical materialism. He said, for example, that human beings realize that taking from others what they have attained by their honest industry without their consent is an injustice – even if one would call it justice (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1959, p. 234).[iii] The influential 20th century economist Friedrich von Hayek had an even more profound thing to say about the West, which, on the face of it, might appear to contradict Locke: “We do not owe our morals to our intelligence; we owe them to the fact that some groups uncomprehendingly accepted certain rules of conduct – the rules of private property, of honesty and of the family – that enabled the groups practicing to progress [and] multiply…” (italics mine) [iv]

What these men say actually does not contradict. We, contra Socrates, can know what is right and yet get in the habit of not practicing it. In fact, we both suppress the universal truths we know (see Romans 1) and often find ourselves not questioning many of the assumptions and practices – good and bad – of our heritage. Taking several steps back now, I don’t think what Hayek points out is incomprehensible at all. To me it all seems rather obvious: All of this goodness comes to us in a certain way – not as much through “principals” or “propositions” – but through the Person of Christ, His people, and those influenced and encouraged by them. Other influences are there to be sure, but in the best case scenarios they have been curtailed by Christianity and/or culturally appropriated (gasp!) and refined (“redeemed” in a sense).

And when I talk about Christianity, I am talking history and not philosophy. As Thomas Molnar once asked “Why is it that Marxists, unlike conservatives, can inspire students with their vision of history”? It is because they actually talk about a story involving real persons, even if that story is very inaccurate. As human beings we are built for stories but we really are built for The Story that we all need. The Story of the True Hero who rescues us and embodies what we are to be… the True Myth that Became Fact, as Lewis said.

“Myth Becomes Fact.” — C.S. Lewis, from “God in the Dock”

We Christians are neither “historicists” in the mold of Hegel who merely assert “the indispensability of historical consciousness to the Western understanding of man” (Gottfried, Search for Historical Meaning, 116) nor merely those who assert confidently than any person or group, regardless of their historical circumstances (and therefore regardless of their particular historical prejudices), can, just as easily, through their own rational means, “apprehend the Good and the Just,” as Leo Strauss (and perhaps Plato?) may have put it. This is not because they have no knowledge of this – may it never be! – but because, in wickedness, the knowledge they do indeed have of it has been un-nurtured, buried, suppressed (sometimes more, sometimes less), etc.

More on what I mean here: un-nurtured, in the case of those who are given the Gospel but whose seed is snatched, choked, etc ; un-nurtured in the case that a Gospel-deficient natural knowledge of the law of God given in childhood, is not encouraged and nurtured throughout one’s youth ; buried or suppressed, for example, as people may very well convince themselves that they know or should be confident about other things that appeal to them more than the natural knowledge of the law that is in them as human beings.

Luther: “many laws that are useful for this life are also given, written together with the Decalogue, and are written on the hearts of all men, unless they are utterly unnatural…” — Luther

This is what is so very wrong about what the highly influential 20th century conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss did. He exalted classical philosophy vis a vis relativism and postmodernism but downplayed as much as he could the Christian influence here (see Gottfried’s 2012 book on Strauss). He lumped anyone who believed that a real controlling story, Tradition, was ultimately of more importance than classical philosophy’s program as historicists. So the great and pious Christian statesmen Edmund Burke was unjustly tarred by him (and Strauss appears to have deliberately lied about Burke in his famous book Natural Right and History ; see p. 110 in the Search for Historical Meaning, also by Gottfried).

As Paul Gottfried put it in his 1986 book, The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right (p. 123). “There is a difficulty integrating the past into a regime whose founders declare it to be a “Novus Ordo Seclorum [New Order for the Ages].”

To say the very least! He is right. This is impossible. Hence, again, my Liberal Christian Nationalism.

Basically forbidden history.

If we as a nation would like to retain the gains of classical liberalism, we need to pay attention to what men like Tom Woods, Alvin Schmidt, and Vishal Mangalwadi, are telling us about the massive impact of the truth of Christianty on the West. The alternatives? Well, Michael Gerson writes of Yuval Noah Harari’s new book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”:

Harari has one great virtue: intellectual honesty. Unlike some of the new atheists, he recognizes that science is incapable of providing values, including the humanistic values of Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson. “Even Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the other champions of the new scientific worldview refuse to abandon liberalism,” Harari observes. “After dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of will, they perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the 18th century.”

Harari relentlessly follows the logic of reductionism as it sweeps away individualism, equality, justice, democracy and human rights — even human imagination. . . . (see here)

Mr. Dawkins, are you willing to posit any non-material force, being, thing or entity that is really good or strong enough to dissuade a particular human being who has the power to impose his evil will on other human beings?

Stuff like that might just prompt some more materialist types to take a Jordan Peterson-led leap of faith!

So what should be the Christian’s main frame here? I think it is this:

We view historical time providentially, but are rooted in the past so we can move forward. We are those who realize that without trust in Tradition, embodied most fully in the Scriptures, we cannot be saved. That without this Tradition the world – in desperate need of its historical particularities which bring universal salvation – cannot be saved. At the same time, we do not say that we have fully understood what this Tradition means – for, as Paul does with the Bereans, we may find ourselves going back to the Fount to more rightly and deeply remember and, yes, learn, what it is we are to know.

16th century Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz listed eight kinds of good and salutary traditions, including Scripture (more here).

Again, when my friend writes: “Concern for universal truth is more important than concern for individual customs. The Christian Church has always insisted that its doctrines are universally true, even against critics who find them parochial, (italics mine)” I initially agreed with him. That said, as I reflect, I come to the conviction that things are being set against one another that should not be. We should, contra men like Leo Strauss, also insist that preserving certain individual customs might be very important when it comes to people’s willingness to embrace the most important universal truths. This is the primacy of Tradition.

In his own way, a man like Jordan Peterson might appear to be bringing the more secular among us back to this reality. Recently, he tweeted out a link to an Eastern Orthodox Christian who I am guessing he believes builds a good bridge between what he is saying and what devout Christians have always believed:

 

I have some issues with some of the things that this man says, and even more issues with Peterson (as much as I can’t help loving the man for his integrity and the important information he does share). Peterson, for example, might be willing to say the Tradition is True but only because it “works,” as he is, at bottom, a pragmatist (see footnotes here). Nevertheless, he might well agree with me when I assert:

“…the Tradition of Christianity has endured enough criticism and skepticism and doubt. The time of severe questioning and attempts at demolishing it and its significance must end.”

…even as he goes on to tell a story, a new Tradition, of something that is really even more True. In the end, I cannot fathom how the Darwinian story, in his telling, cannot ultimately dissolve the Christian story.

In sum, it seems that classical philosophy and its reductionistic offspring, philosophical/scientific materialism, are still hopelessly at odds with revealed religion – and, I would insist, at odds with the significance of history in general.

That is why Athens Needs Jerusalem. For it has the Particular that gives us the Universal we all Need. And yes, the Scandal (see 1 Corinthians 1:23) is in the Particularity.

“For God so loved the world….” therefore, Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

He is the Logos we need.

“At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” — Hebrews 2:8b

FIN

 

 

Images: Richard Dawkins by David Shankbone (CC BY 3.0) ; incarnation pic from https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/onbehalfofall/gospel-meditations-incarnation-introduction/ ; all other non-book pics from Wikipedia.

Notes:

[i] Or maybe I’m full of it and what I’ve written here, for example, is just so much subtle “white nationalist” propaganda.

[ii] I get the impression that he particularly fell down in emphasizing things like human rights more than human responsibilities (and here I point out, our supreme duty to pass on tradition in filial piety – ultimately our duty to the Supreme Father). Also, as regards Locke’s own ideas, note the claims I share in this post about the likely influence of Roger Williams.

[iii]The “common sense” Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid took this even further, as according to Arthur Holmes he noticed that

“…[m]oral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good. Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice. Property rights likewise depend on it” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 1997, p. 117)

These are just some of the things it seems different groups of people do not really “design” or “construct” (unconsciously or consciously), but instead, as if by built-in design, can recognize and receive. In other words, they appear to be ethical principles that are intrinsic to properly-functioning human being. Even as this knowledge of truth can be suppressed and consciences badly seared.

[iv] I say with less excitement that he then goes on to say: “…and gradually displace the others.”

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Public Enemy #1? And if So, Why?

Paul Gottfried, p. 15: “conservative critics…attack Hegelianism as a source of moral mischief, one that has spawned both personal utopias and crazed social prophecy.” Why?

 

He influenced not only philosophy, but theology, and a myriad of other academic disciplines. Oh, and he was most influential when if comes to Western culture and politics.

So was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel the 19th century German philosopher and one of the most fascinating persons in history, the perhaps unintentional enemy of Christendom and Western Civilization? And if so, why?

Fascinatingly, when it comes to his political views he was, in his time and since, claimed by both revolutionary and conservative political forces. In his 1986 book Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right (President Nixon’s favorite book of 1987), Paul Gottfried writes, regarding the interpretation of Hegel’s dictum: “What is real is rational,” that it is a common understanding that:

Whereas the Marxists and other radical Hegelians identified rationality with revolutionary change, the Hegelian Right defended the inherent rationality of their own society (4).

Peter Singer on Hegel: Up until him humanity had been pawns in the game… they weren’t really controlling the game…. (from here)

And yet, even this picture is woefully incomplete, as Karl Rosenkranz, writing in 1869, made clear:

“He [Hegel] opposed feudalism, which exalts a patriarchal constitution, by insisting on legality; he opposed abstract democracy, which flatters the masses, by promoting monarchy; he opposed artistocracy by calling for popular representation; the state bureaucracy by calling for freedom of the press, for jury trials, and for the independence of corporations. He offended the hierarchy of all confessions by calling for their submission as churches to the sovereignty of the state and for the emancipation of science from church authority. He antagonized the industrial state, which seeks to ensnare the people with the promise of riches and material prosperity, by stressing ethics as the state’s absolute purpose. He opposed enlightened despotism… by demanding a constitution; and he opposed cosmopolitan socialism by subordinating it to the state’s historical and national character.” (quoted in Gottfried, 11).

Hegel: “Political and cultural history contained an immanent design arising from a universal mind” – Gottfried on the views of “nonleftist Hegelians” (5)

So one can talk sensibly, Gottfried argues throughout his book, for a Hegelian left, center-left (in line with classical liberalism), and a Hegelian right – in spite of the “ritualistic anti-Hegelianism” found among some of these (i.e. they don’t realize the extent to which Hegel has influenced them) (104). “According to Karl Lowith, Hegel viewed his schematization of history as a defense of ‘Christian bourgeois society'” (133). Obviously, this man was a fascinating figure, appealing to many in politics like Augustine appeals to a variety of Christian traditions today.

For me Hegel in many ways cuts a sympathetic figure. The world that he knew was losing its traditions as exciting discoveries and societal gains, seemingly accomplished by Enlightenment thinking alone, were unraveling the old certainties. The Romantic counter-movement also caused a good deal of confusion and doubt when it came to the old ways. Hegel came on to the scene as a careful observer of the past and present and as one who could make some real sense of what was happening – and much that he says is no doubt insightful. He was, for the most part, the first philosopher to actually take history seriously (even if he does it the wrong way). Furthermore, I get the impression that for him, rationality when it comes to politics is something more like wisdom than it is “technocratic” solutions.

“The conservatives’ Hegelianism provided a historical perspective that united East and West, antiquity and the modern world, and paganism and Judeo-Christianity within an unfolding divine plan accessible to human understanding.” (p. 104)

What I find most interesting though are his philosophical views, and their impact on religion (and politics). Hands down, the most helpful thing that I have found for beginning to learn more about Hegel, his beliefs, and his influence is this excellent 1987 BBC production available on You Tube (Bryan Magee appears to have been something else!):

 

How does Hegel describe reality? In the video, Bryan Magee, sums up what Peter Singer says about Hegel, by saying that for him, “Reality is a process of historical change.” What does this mean? Well, Hegel is a historicist, and, as the literary scholar Hans Gumbrecht has said, with historicism, “there is no phenomenon in time that can resist change.”[i]

“My studies…against the essentialist metaphysics of the Western tradition. I would not be completely alone…There was Hegel to.”- Gadamer

Mark that. Of course reality, is not, fundamentally, “a process of historical change.” For the Christian, it would be more accurate to say something like this: Fundamentally, reality is an ontology of harmony for eternity. The cosmos we know, because of the Triune God, is at bottom relational and stable. This is not to ignore the change that can and does occur in the world, but to acknowledge the True Creator, Preserver, and Driver of history.

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

In light of this viewpoint then, I am going to simultaneously quote and critique the section of Gottfried’s book where he talks about Hegel’s debt to historicism and defends the same (all from p. xi):

“….what we should be seeking is a dispassionate understanding of historicism, and certainly incorporates sources other than Marxist-Hegelians. By historicism is meant an ethical and epistemological perspective that makes the awareness, and ultimately, the validity, of values dependent upon historical experience.”

A couple comments here. First of all, in what sense are “values” then, “dependent upon historical experience”? In the sense that human beings must experience values in history in order to be able to discuss them and their meaning? Who can deny this then and who is not a historicist? Just what is meant here by “depend”? As I noted in this post on the 19th century “conservative Lutheran” Hegelian-influenced theologian Johann Von Hofmann, just because human beings have different perspectives and cannot stop interpreting world events[ii], this does not mean that all things which human beings come to know – and which make their presence known to them – are subject to change in time. For a “dispassionate understanding of historicism,” I recommend Dr. Martin Noland’s PhD thesis, summarized here.

“Selfie theologian” Johann Von Hofmann, leader of a Hegelian-influenced school of theology that sees Scripture as merely a “form of the word of God” (think Plato)

“The historicist, by this definition, does not deny the ontological status of values that are unrelated to historical practice but simply treats them as irrelevant, like the unnoticed leaf I the forest over whose existence, or nonexistence, philosophers once disputed.”

This, along with his comment about “honoring of forms without reference to historical contexts (p. 33),” seems to be a dig at Platonism (and with him, the political conservative giant Leo Strauss, who he is very critical of in the book), which would make sense. I contend that in view of Hegelianism, any form of Platonism which might hope to exercise cultural and political influence is helpless. As I will argue in more detail in an upcoming post on my Reliable Source blog:

“Knowledge certainly does have a very dynamic aspect – for Plato, for example, it is always “solid” in the Heavenly Forms but, significantly, here on earth our ideas can be quite off, as we struggle with the Shadows. This, of course, is taken to new levels with Hegel (where there cannot be a statement made by human beings that is true by itself and that endures throughout time). The core idea here is that Laws, Forms, or the Ideal to which we are grasping might not change, but our interpretations of them — as elites get both more educated and smarter — does. For example, our past representations of some forms (e.g. marriage, father, mother, male, female, etc.), it is reasoned, were evidently off as we, under less reasonable influences, misinterpreted the Appearances.

Is a “good, true, and beautiful” that is always changing still “good, true, and beautiful”? Or if it is stable in heaven, but not on earth?

But now, we are being enlightened, pulled along by Something, helping us get on “the right side of history.” Even postmodernists find themselves talking this way because they to have teleological impulses that sync with stable (for the moment!) notions of right and wrong that should be expected from all. They must, because they are human beings. Even if one is uncertain about their views, traditional notions of law — based on Christian ideas — must be updated and/or replaced. In other words, they might not be certain about Right and Wrong, but they are confident enough about what they don’t respect and appreciate to act. And it seems to me that any conservatives looking to Plato who want to say there is some permanence in the world — and not just in the heavens — are absolutely helpless in light of this. For permanence is the illusion of the Appearances, and Hegel, bolstered of course by Galileo, Darwin, etc. rules the day.”

Gottfried goes on:

A historicist outlook similar to the one presented previously influenced my subjects [in this book]. They arrived at this outlook, at least partly, through their exposure to Hegel, who expressed it emphatically in almost all of his writings. For the historicist, man is knowable and definable through his historical situation and cultural upbringing, but never as the object of purely abstract predicates. The charge raised by [neo-Thomist David] Levy, however, does not go way completely, even if we present historicism in its most favorable light. Historicists, and among them Hegel, have sometimes treated moral and intellectual truths as being relative to particular epochs and cultures and thus fated to vanish in a changing world. Yet, this exaggerated emphasis on historical change does not represent the whole of historicist thinking. Many historicists, including Hegel, have stressed historical continuity more than change. They have also presented history as a vehicle for teaching and testing values without ascribing the origin of morality to a changing historical process.[iii]

Nevertheless, change is stressed. And not just change, but radical change. We are not just wrestling with Kant’s antinomies anymore, perhaps doing something like what E.F. Schumacher does here in this statement:

Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice.  Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay….

No. It is no longer responsible for us to conclude that a proposition is true, even if we do not necessarily understand the full depth (and therefore full meaning) of what is being said. We now are insisting that no statement can stand on its own. We are now talking the next step, synthesizing and more with wild confidence en route to our goal of some kind of fuzzy, perpetual progress that pulls us along. But as Schumacher goes on to say:

“ Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.

Persons of a more “progressive” mindset, influenced by Hegelian philosophy (whether they know it or not), see the matter of seeking justice very differently from, for example, those influenced by more classical notions of Christianity. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “[progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… [Today,] we are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (1909, p. 195).

This is most certainly true.

David Brooks, not acting very conservative: “…creativity can be described as the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.”

As was his custom, the perspicacious 20th century Lutheran theologian Kurt Marquart nailed it. The religion of Hegelianism would attempt to appropriate even the Bible for in its cause….:

“To suggest that the orthodox [Christian] concept of authoritative propositional truth, dogma, is ‘Greek,’ while the pietistically sugar-coated agnosticism of the modern, tentative sore of ‘theology’ is ‘Biblical,’ is to turn the facts topsy-turvy and to betray a total lack of perspective. Exactly the opposite is the case! It is precisely Biblical religion which insists on the absolute and universal significance of historically-anchored particularities.”

Missing delightful, brilliant and holy Lutheran saint Kurt Marquart, very much…. (listen to him here)

Recently, in our local paper, a person responded to a piece by the conservative columnist John Kass, and wrote:

As a lifelong Christian, I join many others in the understanding that Kass’ claim[, that “[t]he basic tenet of Christianity is the belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God and that, without that belief, salvation is impossible],” is false and that the basic tenet of Christianity is, instead, the basic teaching of Jesus: Love God above all, and love your neighbor as yourself. The exclusivist claim cited by Kass, and probably held by most fundamentalist Christians, is based on an interpretation of scripture with which many Christians disagree.

Hegel would have also likely disagreed, and many of his followers certainly do. But the historically-anchored particularity of the God-Man Jesus Christ — with His perfect life and innocent death for us — is indeed said to be, by the historically-anchored witness of His disciples, the only “name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

In sum, reality is an ontology of harmony for eternity revealed in human flesh.

FIN

 

 

Images: Peter Singer from the Star ; Hegel from Wikipedia ; Gadamer from http://www.deepintheburbs.com/paper-a-presentation-on-hans-georg-gadamer/ ; Noland from himself ; Von Hoffman, Plato, and David Brooks from Wikipedia, Marquart from: http://www.angelfire.com/ny4/djw/marquartlectures.html

[i] from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGMKnG2yEc8: The Shulman Lectures, “All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present”. Regarding a definition of historicism, Martin Noland writes in his PhD thesis: “In summary, historicism was both a worldview and a method. As a worldview, it was identified with anti-naturalist and post-speculative realist perspectives, emphasizing the themes of the malleability of human nature and individuality. As a method, it operated with the principles of criticism, analogy, correlation, development, and the historical idea.” (p. 83) It also “looks at the world from the standpoint of intellectual, spiritual, and psychological entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all natural phenomena as a cultural growth. Unlike the model of Newtonian science, which posited the fixed nature of entities and the mathematical description of processes, historicism recognizes that entities change and develop over the course of time. Such change of an entity, requiring a historical account of its origin and growth, is thus the root issue dividing naturalism and historicism. (p. 47)”

[ii] Since Kant especially, the focus of human knowledge has been the human subject. As Jordan Cooper notes regarding the 19th century theologian Albrect Ritschl: “what Mannermaa rightly points out is that Luther has been misunderstood due to Ritschl’s adoption of Kantian ideas, especially as explained by Herman Lotze. In particular, the problem lies in the nature of what Kant refers to as the noumenal realm which is inaccessible to the human person. Instead, a thing is only known through its impact upon the human subject. When Ritschl applies this distinction to theology (albeit with several modifications), this means that God is explained only through one’s experience of him. This is not a subjective personal experience, as Ritschl is highly critical of individualistic pietism, but the experience of the Christian community” (italics mine).

[iii] Gottfried goes on to write in the next paragraph: “It must, of course, be stated that all historicists have not been Hegelians. Edmund Burke, who had a keen sense of the historical and evolutionary aspects of human society, preceded Hegel by almost two generations….” This seems to be a hotly debated topic (see here and here) and is certainly one I am eager to learn more about. the first paragraph of this article would seem to set the stage well.

 

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Certitude vs. Certainty: What Can Neil Gorsuch and Martin Luther Teach Us About Knowledge and Truth?

Judge Neil Gorsuch

Judge Neil Gorsuch

 

Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s widely lauded pick for new Supreme Court Justice, will be big news for weeks to come. Gorsuch is, like Antonin Scalia before him, an “originalist” judge, meaning that he “interprets the Constitution based on its plain language and original public meaning.” (see here)

According to Wikipedia, “originalism is a way to interpret the Constitution‘s meaning as stable from the time of enactment” (italics mine). Stanley Fish however, rightly argues that “[originalism] is not an approach to interpretation, it is interpretation, because what else could you be doing when you’re trying to interpret the words of another except trying to figure out what that other meant by these words?” (italics mine; see more on Fish’s view and my response here). Therefore, the originalist is one who takes the words of the Constitution very seriously.

I suggest that Christians can see this as an opportunity for having discussions about the Bible and what it means for people today (which yes, many people are open to exploring when given the opportunity!). Particularly, we can appreciate how Christians like Martin Luther believed that hearing the words of Scripture not only brings personal certitude, but certainty. The distinction is subtle but important…

certitudecertainty

We will get to that below, but first we need to cover some preliminary ground. Here we go…

How does the judicial philosophy of originalism connect with Scriptural interpretation? The main point is this: like the originalist with the Constitution, the Christian takes the words of the Bible very seriously. And, in a critical difference, he does this not only because these words are thought to be wise, like the Constitution, but because they are believed to be the very word of God.

Not only this, but the Christian even talks about knowing these words to be the very Word of God. And this, of course, means Truth with a capital T. Knowledge. Wisdom. And Certainty. And the really crazy thing? It is not only Christians who know this, but at some level those who hear the word and do not put their trust in it know it as well.

Is this a Lutheran thing to say? Is this a Christian thing to say?

Yes. For example, Martin Luther not only held to a view of the Holy Scriptures that is similar to the way originalists deal with the constitution (directly comparing the Bible to the laws written in societies), but he also believed, contrary to many theologians today, that God made Himself and His will known to all though these words.

Seriously? Again, yes. Lutherans who adhere to the Lutheran Confessions today like to emphasize, along with the giant of 20th century theology Karl Barth, that unbelievers are not able to understand the true meaning of the Scripture (see I Cor. 2:14, for example). Luther, of course, believed that this was true as well in a sense: unbelievers could not begin to discern the depths of the Bible – its spiritual meaning. That said, at the same time he also taught, per passages like John 16:8-11, that the unbeliever could be given real knowledge of the truth though the Scriptures.

bondageofthewillIn his famed work The Bondage of the Will, we see concrete examples of this (all following quotations are from the J.I. Packer translation).

Luther begins his teaching on the nature of Scripture by noting that Isaiah 40:13 “does not say: ‘who has known the mind of Scripture?’ but: ‘who has known the mind of the Lord?’” Not only does God reveal His own mind in the Scriptures, but He also brings clarity:

“the perspicuity [i.e. clarity] of Scripture is twofold… The first is external, and relates to the ministry of the Word [“all that is in Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world”!]: the second concerns the knowledge of the heart [“nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures”!]” (BOTW, Packer ed., 73, 74).

This only gives us a clue of where Luther is going. Later in this book he uses Isaiah 8:20 (“…to the law and to the testimony…”*) to circle back to the importance of the clarity and decisiveness of Scripture. Simply from the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, he marshals passages from Deuteronomy 17:8, Psalms 19:8 and 119:130, Malachai 2:7 and more to make his case. He writes:

“if laws need to be luminous and definite in secular societies, where only temporal issues are concerned, and such laws have in fact been bestowed by Divine bounty upon all the world, how should He not give to Christians, His own people and His elect, laws and rules of much greater clarity and certainty by which to adjust and settle themselves and all issues between them?… let us go on, and overwhelm this pestilent saying of the Sophists with passages of Scripture.”

Luther goes on to point out that Stephen, in the book of Acts, quotes Isaiah 66:1, “What is the house that ye build unto me?,” to prove to the Jewish council that God did not command his people to build a temple to Him. And here, he notes that Luke writes “they could not resist the spirit and wisdom with which he spake” (Acts 6:10), and that Jesus Christ Himself says of the words His heralds speak, “your adversaries shall not be able to resist.” Luther recalls that in response to Stephen’s words the council “shut their eyes and summoned false witnesses against him” – to which he replied “Ye uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.”

Luther than drops the hammer: “He says that they do resist, although they could not resist”, meaning that they very well knew the truth the external word brought but internally suppressed it in unrighteousness (see Romans 1). With Erasmus (and Rome) in his sights, Luther asks, with great rhetorical effect: “What is this but to say that their actual resistance will show their inability to resist?” (130-131)

In other words they know.

Do we have such confidence of the external clarity of the Bible – and the knowledge of truth that it brings? If not, why not? Should we seek such confidence? If not, why not?

Quoting Isaiah 6:10, “Hearing ye shall hear and shall not understand and seeing ye shall see and shall not perceive”, Luther is absolutely relentless:

“…reveal… how mighty is the dominion and power of Satan over the sons of men, which prevents them from hearing and grasping the plainest words of God, and makes them like men whom an illusionist has mesmerized into thinking that the sun is a cold cinder, or believing that a stone is gold… [Satan is the cause of man’s failure to grasp God’s words, and] if [he] did not do so, the whole world could be converted by a single word of God, hear once; there would be no need of more” (133-134).

From the parable of the sower: "the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart."

From the parable of the sower: “the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.”

Man’s failure to grasp God’s clear words (i.e. trust) does not result from weak understanding, as men like Erasmus claim, but on the contrary, weak understanding is ideal for grasping God’s words (133-134). Of course the Holy Spirit figures into all of this as well, as He works according to and through God’s word…

Can we, if we adopt the more subjective posture invoked by many modern biblical scholars, ever hope to nurture such confidence? That we possess knowledge of the truth and can and should assert the same to others?

Where was Luther wrong?

Is he wrong about the perspicuity, i.e. clarity, of Holy Scripture? Is he wrong about the knowledge that it brings those who hear it?

Today, we are told that even though we as Christians believe in Christ and know Him and His word to be true (and that we grow in this understanding!) this is, really, ultimately about our own personal certitude. In other words, this means that certainty is no longer associated with something that we can call real knowledge, but is actually just individual confidence, assurance, etc.

Regrettably, the fact/value split put forth most aggressively by the 18th c. philosopher David Hume has comes to an ever-greater flowering in what remains of Christendom.

I suggest that even one of the most conservative and respected Lutheran theologians of the last century got inadvertently caught up in this trap, saying the following almost 50 years ago:

“Scientific knowledge is evident knowledge; theology is by no means evident in the same sense, for it deals not with things to be known but things to be believed (τά πιστά). Therefore theology insists that reason that seeks to know theological matters be taken captive…”

The unintended implications of this view, I think, are that we lose Luther’s ability to assert. Luther believed that the Scriptures granted all persons true knowledge – even if that knowledge was suppressed and not understood in its full spiritual sense. And objective certainty triumphed over mere subjective certitude.

What does Christ’s church today believe? When He returns, will he find faith on earth?

Run for your life – to the Word (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11).

FIN

 

Notes:

*Of the Isaiah passage in particular he says it “dispatches all questions ‘to the law and to the testimony,’ and threatens that unless we comply the light of dawn must be denied us” (126).

 

Image credit for Gorsuch:

As a work of the United States Federal Government, the file is in the public domain in the United States.

The sower, Kew Gardens in London. Picture by mira 66, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

 

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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