Briefly Noted: Ideas Still Have Consequences

Readers of a certain age will no doubt remember the 1960s and 70s. Among many infelicities committed by American scholars and intellectuals in those decades was the demotion and near-dismissal of the study of intellectual history (the discipline which tells the history of major ideas and thinkers) from the American university.

Various motivations existed for this devaluation of the history of ideas. Michel Foucault declared that we must cut ourselves off from the traditional ideas and thinkers in order to free ourselves from intellectual, social, and moral oppression. Many other philosophers were condescending toward the history of thought because they found the older thinkers to be, well, outdated. What about Plato? He was beholden to ancient and outdated ways of thinking. Or, Aquinas? Corrupted by the pseudo-discipline of theology. Et . . . cetera.

The good news, however, is that intellectual history is making a comeback. Or, so say Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn in a recent article, “Ideas Still Have Consequences,” in The Chronicle Review.[1] According to the authors, the comeback is more than a mere trend, and it is a much-needed development in Western universities. McMahon and Moyn argue that the study of intellectual history is helpful because (1) it helps brings various disciplines together over the course of history; (2) ideas matter for their own sake; and (3) ideas structure our experience.

But the authors do more than applaud the resurgence of intellectual history. They urge intellectual historians to take their craft seriously as a discipline that “ . . . reminds us where we have been, what we have discarded (perhaps mistakenly) and why, and how practical circumstances can both unleash and constrain our imaginations.”[2] Further, intellectual historians should expand their discipline beyond the West in order to include global ideas and thinkers.

The stakes are high, according to the authors. If Americans were to take seriously historical ideas and thinkers they might be able to transcend their historical moment. They might be able to transcend, for example, the current fascination with economic necessity, utility, and “interest.” Similarly, they might be able to grasp the value of a classical education even when some parents advise their children to avoid the liberal arts in order to study only the “useful” subjects.

I agree with the authors and add several reasons that Christians should value intellectual history as a discipline, and the discussion of ideas and thinkers as a way of life for all people in general. I begin by noting that God is a self-revealing God. Between an infinite God and finite humanity is God’s self-revealing Word. His word has been written down such that the Bible contains within its pages the true story of the whole world. It tells us truth about God, his ways, and his world. So, among the many functions of Scripture is one significant function: to convey true ideas about God and his world. The study of ideas is relevant to the Christian life because God’s revelation of himself is, among other things, a revelation of ideas.

One of God’s revelations about humanity is that we—as God’s imagers—use the capacities with which we are endowed (e.g. spiritual, moral, intellectual, creative, relational, and physical) to “till the soil,” to bring out the hidden potentials of the world God has given us. One of the ways we do this is to study God and his world, articulating our conclusions about him and about it. In addition to being limited by our finitude, we are, after the Fall, limited also by our sinful inclinations. In other words, we are likely to be wrong when we set forth ideas precisely because we are sinners. Our wayward hearts distort our thinking. So intellectual history is relevant because we as Christians can discern when, where, and how human thinking has been derailed by human sin and rebellion.

Finally, way we can honor Christ by bringing our thinking in submission to him. We are now new creations in Christ. As we diagnose the myriad ways which sin and rebellion distort our thinking, we seek to redirect our thinking toward Christ. If the universe consists in him and he will, in the end, redeem and restore it (Col 1:15-20; Eph 1:3-14), then all of our thoughts about the universe somehow relate to him. So the study of intellectual history can be, for believers, a study of ways that we can redirect human thought toward Christ.

There are quite a few other reasons we benefit from the study of historical ideas and thinkers. But these are three that immediately resonate, I think, with a follower of Christ. For thoughtful Christians who are interested in the history of ideas and thinkers, I recommend, for starters, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s Living at the Cross Roads or Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (both of which contain a concise summary and evaluation of Western ideas or thinkers). As a complement, I recommend Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind (a more lengthy, but very accessible, summary of the history of Western thought, whose author does not write from a Christian perspective).

 


[1] Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn,“Ideas Still Have Consequences,” in The Chronicle Review (Feb 21, 2014), B10-B12.

[2] Ibid., B12.

Briefly Noted: Henry Stob, Academic Freedom, and Christian Colleges

Be careful judging a book by its cover. Especially books published by evangelical presses in the seventies and early eighties. Some wonderfully good thoughts might be wedged betwixt those psychedelic split-pea-green dust jackets. Henry Stob’s Theological Reflections[1] serves to prove my point. Recently, as I was perusing the used books at a store here in Raleigh, I happened upon Stob’s book. Making my way past the front cover, I discovered a fine collection of essays on theology, philosophy, and education. One of the essays, “Academic Freedom at a Christian College,” caught my attention.

In the essay, Stob begins by describing academic institutions. As he sees it, a college or university is tasked with two things: “It is concerned to disclose the truth, and it is concerned to publish the truth. A college must be engaged in research, and it must teach. . . . the two functions belong together and, and they ought to be kept in the closest possible contact.” Both tasks are related to academic freedom, as Stob sees it: “if both are to be real there must be academic freedom: freedom of inquiry for the scholar and freedom of expression for the teacher.” But what is meant by “freedom”?

Stob rightly notes that the biblical Christian view differs from a prevalent popular view. “In the Christian view, freedom is at bottom positive in nature; it is freedom for something––freedom to obey the norms that structure human existence, freedom to do one’s duty, freedom to bow before the imperious claims of God the Lord.” Christianity thus offers––better––proclaims a view of freedom that balances liberty and restraint, freedom and subjection (p. 241).

The prevalent popular view, Stob writes, differs significantly from the biblical conception. “Freedom is generally viewed as freedom from something. This negative view dominates public discussions and is the bond of agreement even between disputants. Most pride themselves on being liberated, liberated especially from the domination of religious faith, the dictations of a sacred book, and the bonds of a dogmatic creed.” (p. 242)

With this distinction presupposed, the question remains: should there be academic freedom at a Christian college? Stob’s answer is sic et non. Professors at Christian colleges do have genuine freedom, but this freedom is conceived differently than the popular view. In a Christian college:

Scholars there are not tempted by the spirit of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to cut themselves loose from their moorings or to remove the ground from under their feet. They claim a liberty that is anchored in the bedrock of the universe, the liberty that sets them free to survey the world sub specie aeternitatis. . . the creaturely freedom that is rooted in obedience . . . . By this freedom they know themselves to have been released from the subjectivism, the relativism, and the nihilism of the age, and set upon the only course in which true humanness can be achieved. (p. 242)

For Stob, this is the normative environment and pattern for Christian scholarship. Yet, as he notes, sometimes colleges depart from this pattern. “It happens more often than it should that fellow Christians impose undue restraints upon the college community and involve it in a spurious heteronomy.” That is, often times the churches that establish and support Christian colleges, and the professors who teach there, seek to govern the search for truth according to the idiosyncrasies of personal (or group) opinion more than the sole authority, Scripture. As Stob argues,

There must be restraint . . . but the restraint of the truth authoritatively disclosed in the sacred Scriptures. By this the scholars and teachers at a Christian college are bound. And they are bound by another thing. They are bound by the law of love, by the obligation to walk humbly with their God and considerately and self-sacrificially with their fellows. But by nothing else are they bound, and with no other yoke should they be burdened. (p. 243)

Academic freedom at the Christian college, therefore, is bounded by the churches that establish and fund them, and these boundaries should arise from an environment marked by biblical fidelity and Christian love.

Stob concludes his thoughts with a “job description” for the professorate. “Christian teachers and scholars have together undertaken a great and delicate task. They have undertaken to construe the world in categories of eternity” (p. 243). That is, Christian education, and thus those who offer this at truly Christian colleges, exists to exclaim the fundamental realities of this world, which exist because of the God who created it and yet is unseen in this world (cf. John 1:14, 18). It is “a terrifyingly responsible task” and so should be prayed for, supported, encouraged, and cultivated in those who seek to carry it out.

In conversation with Stob’s essay, I’ll limit myself to two notes. First, while Stob emphasizes the way in which denominations can create Christian college environments which are too restrictive, we should also note that denominations and boards of trustees can err also by allowing a freedom which is not appropriately bounded by biblical fidelity and confessional parameters. The founders of Harvard College, for example, wrote in 1643, “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” Yet, one notices that today Harvard’s vision and mission is, er, markedly different. Its initial mission—which was God-saturated and Christ-centered—eroded slowly, over time, because its stakeholders forsook their responsibility to guard its confessional parameters.

Second, Stob’s essay and his chosen topic—academic freedom and confessional boundaries—raise the question of whether professors can do constructive and creative work. Especially in the theological and ministerial disciplines, one might wonder if the confessions stifle creativity. In brief response, no, they do not stifle creativity. Creativity always arises within a framework of some sort; creativity of the best sort flourishes within a healthy confessional framework. In the world of evangelical theology, I think of the constructive and creative work of theologians such as Tom Schreiner (The King in His Beauty), Craig Bartholomew (Where Mortals Dwell), and Kevin Vanhoozer (The Drama of Doctrine), each of whom composed their work in environments marked by carefully defined confessional parameters.

So be careful judging a book by its cover (I prefer to judge publishers by the covers). Stob’s essay, and his commitment to biblically-conceived academic freedom within confessional parameters, serves as a good reminder for our churches and denominational stakeholders to exercise appropriate oversight over their colleges and seminaries.

 


[1] Henry Stob, Theological Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).

Briefly Noted: On Luc Ferry and the Religious Nature of Philosophy

Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought (2011) is a very pretty piece of humanism in which he notes that philosophy is a search for salvation. The author surveys five major eras, or “great moments,” of thought: early Greek dominance, the Christian middle ages, the Enlightenment that birthed modern philosophy, postmodernity, and the present stage “after deconstruction.” He argues that in each major era, philosophy has been, essentially, a search for human salvation.

This search is the response of each era to three questions, which correlate with the three dimensions of philosophy: “What is the nature of the world?” (theory); “How are we to act in it?” (ethics); and “What should my ultimate goal be?” (salvation). He further gives two reasons why everybody should study philosophy. First, “without it [philosophy] we can make no sense of the world in which we live” (p. xii). Second, “beyond coming to an understanding of oneself and others through acquaintance with the key texts of philosophy, we come to realize that these texts are able, quite simply, to help us live in a better and freer way” (p. xiv).

Ferry’s approach to intellectual history is unique. Jonah Haddad’s review of A Brief History puts it this way: “The uniqueness of Ferry’s response to the problem stems from his high view of philosophy and from his love for the discipline which has inclined him to offer philosophical reflection as the best possibility for living well and overcoming the fear of death.” In fact, the original French title of Ferry’s book was To Learn to Live.

In his chapter on “the Greek miracle,” Ferry makes his way quickly to Stoicism. As he sees it, the Stoic system of philosophy, and so living, demonstrates a “spirit remarkably close to that of Buddhism, [and] appeals for an attitude of ‘non-attachment’ towards the things of this world” (p. 47). Hence the Stoic doctrine of salvation “is resolutely anonymous and impersonal” (p. 52). On the ultimate question of salvation, then, Stoicism fails to deliver. It is to this question that Christianity brought out “the big guns” as Ferry puts it (p. 53).

In his treatment of Christianity, Ferry depends upon the apostles John and Paul, along with a healthy dose of Augustine and a sprinkling of Pascal. In Ferry’s view, Christianity is the philosophy of salvation through love. Although he is himself no believer, Ferry is fair-minded and even sympathetic toward Christianity. In fact, Ferry once wrote a book entitled The Temptation of Christianity (never translated from the French, La tentation du christianisme).[1] Yet Ferry cannot commit to the philosophy that depends upon faith in the God who created the world and gave impetus for human inquiry. As Haddad comments, “With near lament in his tone, Ferry admits that if only God truly existed he would be tempted to accept the viability of the Christian worldview (p. 263).” And Royal adds, “Ultimately, he believes, modern philosophy and the impact of modern science exploded the supposedly naive metaphysics on which Christianity is based.”

As for the Renaissance–Enlightenment period, Ferry notes that it was marked by revolutions (notably, the French and American revolutions) which spawned modern philosophy and, in turn, birthed republics. He seeks to demonstrate how “the modern world arose out of the collapse of ancient cosmology and a new questioning of religious authority, and eventually a scientific revolution unprecedented in the history of humanity” (p. 94). Thus Ferry begins with Copernicus (1453), Newton (1687), Descartes (1644), and Galileo (1632) and their most influential works (published in the dates given) to demonstrate this sea change. He then surveys the work of Kant, Rousseau, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Descartes, who together established the modern world of the two World Wars and television (to state it colloquially). Yet the modern center did not hold.

The modern center gave way to (or was overthrown by) postmodernity. Ferry defines this for us when he writes, “we call ‘postmodern’ those ideas which, from the mid-nineteenth century, were to set about dismantling the humanist creed of modernity, in particular the philosophy of the Enlightenment” (p. 143). Post-modernity, as Ferry shows, is in large part the intellectual father and child of Nietzsche. It serves as Nietzsche’s father because it is the ideas just referenced that Nietzsche took on, and yet it also is his child because “with Nietzsche…postmodernity arrived at its zenith” (p. 143). So the postmodern ethos of power politics, relativism, and living for the moment stems from Nietzsche. Ferry does not, however, uphold Nietzsche as the answer to philosophy’s three great questions (p. 193). For the answer to these questions we ought to look to ourselves, to humanity.

In the present era, as Ferry sees it, we must search for salvation in our humanity. The history of thought has moved us inexorably to this point and in so doing points us toward salvation. Haddad summarizes well: “This is so, because according to Ferry, our ‘salvation’ lies in the evolution of the human person and their ever-increasing knowledge of themselves and their world. When we embrace this knowledge we will be able to embrace the reality of death, to love well, and to live for wisdom.” Ferry is a humanist in the idealist sense that we will be saved when we become truly human, and to become truly human means to truly discover ourselves.

In response to Ferry’s book, I first wish to note that I appreciated the book and found it stimulating. Ferry has the unique ability to distill intellectual history into a few pages, and do so without losing as much as most authors would. His prose is elegant. His analysis and evaluation of Christianity is even-handed and as sympathetic as one can expect (unlike other freethinkers, such as Richard Dawkins, whose towering sense of self-approval is matched only by his breathtaking theological ignorance and fundamental inability to represent Christianity in an even-handed manner). Even his thesis that “philosophy searches for salvation” is refreshing because, even though philosophy cannot save, throughout history it has been treated as a functional savior.

Second, although philosophy cannot save, it is, in one sense, a salvific enterprise. The academic enterprise can be compared to a tree.[2] In this analogy, the roots of the tree are “faith” or the direction of the heart. The work of philosophy always is underlain by faith commitments, either to God or to idols. The base of the trunk is biblical studies and biblical theology, which serve as the foundation and trajectory for the growth of the tree. The main body of the trunk is a Christian worldview, which in turn has two main branches, namely, systematic theology and Christian philosophy. Growing from those two main branches are further branches, which represent the special sciences, the various disciplines each of which have their own creational integrity. In this view of things, Christian theology and Christian philosophy stand side-by-side in the search for truth. Neither discipline seeks to build its knowledge independent of God’s revelation. Both disciplines arise from the biblical narrative and its attendant Christian worldview, and therefore find themselves in a healthy and fruitful dialogue and partnership with one another.

Christian philosophy is therefore “salvific” in the sense that it can be part of a Christian person’s sanctification. Philosophy, at its best, is the attempt to describe systematically the structure of God’s creation (the nature of being, of knowledge, of beauty, etc.), drawing upon God’s self-revelation found in the created order and in the Bible, and using the tools of critical thinking and argumentation. It seeks a comprehensive view of the created order as creation (not merely as “nature”), and draws upon Scripture. Although Scripture does not give a comprehensive or detailed analysis of creational realities, it does provide the framework and many clues for understanding them. Bartholomew and Goheen write, “In our experience, sometimes people get so excited about philosophy—believe it or not—that they forget that it is Scripture which is God’s infallible word. Indeed, in our opinion a healthy Christian philosophy, like a healthy Christian theology, will take us back again and again and deeper and deeper into the Bible. We also believe that because the Bible is God’s Word for all of life that philosophy too must bow to its authority.”[3]

So Ferry is close to the truth and yet far away. Philosophy assuredly is a religious exercise. It often has functioned as a search for salvation, and sometimes explicitly has been named as such. In addition, Christian thinkers have practiced the discipline of philosophy in order to discern the structures of God-given reality (metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics) and in order to articulate biblical teaching on difficult topics (e.g. Trinity, Incarnation). Philosophers have provided us with categories that are profoundly helpful for Christian intellectual inquiry and for practical living. Therefore, as long as we practice philosophy as those with “faith seeking understanding”, we will find (Christian) philosophy to be a fruitful exercise. Thus, philosophy will always have an important role to play within the Christian faith.

However, philosophy cannot and does not stand on its own two feet. Or, to revisit the ecological analogy above, the “trunk” of philosophy is fed by the “roots” of faith. Ultimately philosophy is a function of existential and cultural realities, and at the heart of those realities is religion. The direction of one’s heart always is operative in the shaping of one’s philosophy. When we encounter non-Christian philosophies we can always note the idolatries operative in them, but interestingly it is exactly at the point of their idolatry that their most profound insights might be found (e.g. Freud’s insights on sex, Machiavelli’s on power, or Marx’s on money). The complex task of Christian philosophy is to appropriate those insights without at the same time downloading the idolatrous ideological environment in which they were conceived.

So for better or for worse, philosophy is a deeply religious exercise. Apart from Christ, it is an idolatrous exercise. But in the service of Christ’s kingdom, it is a valuable and fruitful discipline.


[1] I owe this point to Robert Royal’s review in First Things (November 1, 2012).

[2] I owe this analogy to Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming 2013), chs. 1-2.

[3] Bartholomew and Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy, ch. 1.