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other philosophers were condescending toward the history of thought because they found the older thinkers to be, well, outdated.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 He was beholden to ancient and outdated ways of thinking.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.

An Invitation to Study English and Humanities at the College at Southeastern

The College at Southeastern offers a robust core curriculum which includes courses in English and the Humanities. One unique aspect of the college is its four required seminars in the History of Ideas. These seminars are capped at 15 students, and consist of reading 8-10 great books per semester, and writing 10 short papers and 2 long papers per semester. The authors covered include philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, etc.), theologians (Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc.), historians (Herodotus, Thucydides), and the great literary figures (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc.). As the students read these books, they learn to read for deep comprehension, and to respond to the ideas in those books Christianly and critically.

In addition to the History of Ideas seminars, Southeastern offers a further fine array of courses in the Humanities and English. The student wanting to study literature has the opportunity to take courses such in World Literature, British Literature, and American Literature. The student wanting to study the humanities in more depth may take further seminars in Theology & Culture, Philosophy & Science, History & Politics, for example. These courses and others are taught by a fine faculty, including:

John Burkett (Ph.D. candidate, Texas Christian University) is Instructor of Rhetoric and Composition and Director of the Writing Center at Southeastern. He is the author of The Rhetoric of St. Augustine of Hippo: De Doctrina Christiana and the Search for a Distinctly Christian Rhetoric (Baylor University Press); further, his dissertation critically examines Aristotle’s rhetoric. Dr. Burkett is the quintessential scholar, known both for lofty thoughts and detailed careful scholarship.

Jamie Dew (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ph.D. candidate, University of Birmingham) is Assistant Professor of History of Ideas and Philosophy and is the author of Science and Theology: An Assessment of Alister McGrath’s Critical Realist Perspective (Wipf & Stock), co-editor with Norman Geisler and Chad Meister of God and Evil (forthcoming, IVP), and co-author with Mark Foreman of How do We Know? (forthcoming, IVP). His specialties lie in philosophy of religion, the history of philosophy, and epistemology. He is currently working on a second Ph.D. (in religious epistemology) at the University of Birmingham, England. Jamie is also a senior pastor and the father of two sets of twins.

Steve Ladd (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy. Dr. Ladd’s expertise lies in the realms of logic, rhetoric, and metaphysics. He is a student favorite in our college’s History of Ideas seminars.

Ivan Spencer (Ph.D., University of Texas at Arlington) is Associate Professor of History and Philosophy and author of The Christology of Liberation Theology. His areas of specialization include the history of ideas, liberation theology, and classic literature. Dr. Spencer is a student favorite in the college’s History of Ideas seminars, and is known for roasting, grinding, and brewing his own coffee beans.

Michael Travers (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is Professor of English and Senior Fellow, L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture and is the author of The Devotional Experience in the Poetry of John Milton (Edwin Mellen), Encountering God in the Psalms (Kregel), and co-author with Richard D. Patterson of Face to Face With God: Human Images of God in the Bible (Biblical Studies Press), and has published articles in Bibliotheca Sacra, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Baker), Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, and Westminster Theological Journal. Dr. Travers is known as a master teacher, a mentor to young faculty, and a fine writer.

Further, through these faculty members, Southeastern offers the following curricula in English and Humanities:

The Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies and English double major promotes an understanding of literature, trains students to think critically and write effectively, and encourages them to reflect on the central issues of the human condition-all from a Christian perspective. Core curriculum classes in composition emphasize the skills of effective research and writing. English major classes present literature from within a Christian worldview. Students will be equipped to understand culture and to communicate the gospel to others clearly and effectively.

The Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies and Humanities double major introduces students to the influential ideas of Western civilization. Students read great works of literature, history, philosophy, theology, and political theory and interact with them from a Christian perspective. Additional courses in philosophy, literature, and history prepare students for graduate work in seminary, classical studies, literature, history, law, or any other field in the liberal arts. Students may also choose to major in Christian Studies and minor in English or Humanities.

We invite you to study with our English and Humanities faculty in the B. A. programs of Southeastern. For more info visit our website (http://www.sebts.edu/college/) and check out the Admissions and Academics links.

Ideas Have Consequences: The Place of the Liberal Arts within a Theological Education, Part 2

This is the second article in a series of two defending the study of the history of ideas as a crucial component in a balanced undergraduate theological education. Our guest author for this article is Ed Gravely, who serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and the History of Ideas at Southeastern Seminary. His teaching responsibilities include courses in New Testament at both the graduate and undergraduate level and courses in the History of Ideas for undergraduate students at The College at Southeastern. Though Ed is a text critic by training, but he is the quintessential “Renaissance Man” with interests in philosophy, intellectual history, economics, political theory, and modern fiction.

I know it isn’t enough to say, “This is the way Christians have always done education,” without also explaining why. This brings us to my second point: a robust liberal arts education is key to any quality Christian ministerial training, because worldviews matter. The term “worldview” has become an almost meaningless buzzword in pop Christian culture, but that term represents a concept that is vital to Christian students. Every person living on this planet looks at the world with a certain set of assumptions upon which their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are situated. Until you understand a person’s worldview, communication with them about spiritual things in a meaningful way is nearly impossible, and communicating with people about spiritual things in a meaningful way is quite important to the life of the Christian. If, for example, you sit on the bus next to a person who grew up in the southern United States and say to him, “God loves you,” he will probably have some idea of what you mean (though it would be foolish to blindly assume that). But if the person sitting next to you on the bus just emigrated here from India, when you say, “God loves you,” he most likely misunderstands what you mean, because he has a radically different understanding of God than you do. Notice that this is not a case of you presenting the Gospel to a Hindu and the Hindu rejecting it. If he doesn’t understand what you mean by “God,” or more likely misunderstands what you mean by “God,” you haven’t accurately communicated the gospel yet at all. No one would think that the phrase “God loves you” would make any sense to a person who didn’t speak English, and Christians seem to have no trouble learning foreign languages to meaningfully communicate the gospel to people. Why then would we also not learn their worldview?

If worldviews really do matter then what is the best way to teach students in general and ministers-in-training in particular to think worldviewishly? The answer is, as you might guess, a robust liberal arts education. The History of Ideas is, in many ways, the history of worldview development. To understand, for example, why Plato reaches some of his more outlandish conclusions in the Republic and yet also seems to be making a very sensible argument for God’s existence in Laws (and both apart from a knowledge of the Bible) is an exercise in worldview thinking. The roots of the thinking of a modern Hindu are found in the ancient worldview of pantheism. And the best way to understand a worldview and to learn to think worldviewishly is to study the development of those worldviews, including our own. The great works of western civilization are the literary, philosophical, and historical record of worldview development, and therefore those famous works are the best material through which to teach worldview thinking, so long as they are taught alongside a rigorous biblical and theological course of study.

Finally, a robust study of the great works of western civilization (i.e. History of Ideas) is important because in many ways the development of ideas in western civilization is the history of the development of those ideas in Christian tradition, and ideas matter. Christianity has been immeasurably influential as the interpreter and influencer of western thought, but it has also been influenced by western thought. Understanding that relationship is vital to the minister-in-training. It is can be misleading, for example, to try to understand Aquinas without first understanding Aristotle, or Calvin without first understanding the Roman Stoics which he quotes so frequently, or Edwards without first understanding Hobbes and the other post-Newtonian mechanists to which he is indebted. And yet Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards stand as some of Christianity’s greatest thinkers, theologians, and Bible interpreters. We today are greatly influenced by them and their view of Scripture, as well we should be. But there is also a danger here. Though Christian theology is derived from God’s word, it isn’t formulated in a vacuum. The way we think about God and his Word is influenced by generations of thinkers in western culture, for good and for ill. It is easier for us to look back at Aquinas and identify where he departs from the Scripture and merely reflects his medieval culture than it is for us to examine our own theology to see where we depart from the Scripture and merely reflect our own largely post-Christian culture. Study in the History of Ideas is essential training for this necessary exercise.

There is a longstanding tradition in Christianity to teach the Bible and theology robustly but to also train Christian students in the liberal arts. Such training better prepares students to take the gospel in a meaningful way to a world that does not even share their basic understanding of God. Such training also prepares Christian students to understand the history of their theological beliefs so as to better spot where modern post-Christian culture has wormed its way into their thinking. Since tradition matters, worldviews matter, and ideas matter, training in the History of Ideas is not just essential preparation for would-be ministers, it is essential preparation for any serious, educated follower of Christ.