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other philosophers were condescending toward the history of thought because they found the older thinkers to be, well, outdated.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 He was beholden to ancient and outdated ways of thinking.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

Guest Post (David Prince): Jesus is Not Colorblind: Celebrating Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Local Church

[Editor’s Note: Every so often, we at Between the Times wish to share with our readers especially important thoughts. Such is the case today. This post is by David E. Prince, Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church and Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.]

On Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. took his place alongside Abraham Lincoln as a preeminent shaper of American culture when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 civil rights supporters. The most oft quoted line of the famous speech is, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Some have appropriated King’s words (wrongly I think) to argue that a colorblind society should be our ultimate goal.

King was arguing for racial equality, which does not necessitate a colorblind society. He uttered those words in a context where sinister Jim Crow laws legally codified the message that white skin meant a man was inherently superior and black skin meant a man was inherently inferior, even something less than a man. King’s rhetorical masterpiece publicly exposed the hypocrisy of America: A country founded in liberty as the land of “freedom and justice for all,” subjugating a people for no other reason than the shade of their skin.

“Separate but equal” was the bankrupt cry of segregationists opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The segregationist mindset has been largely repudiated in American culture. Tragically, the one time in which America still functions as a segregated society is on Sunday morning. One article, “Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations,” published in Sociological Inquiry (July 2010) found that 90 percent of congregations in the U.S. are segregated (a single racial group accounts for more than 80 percent of membership). That Sunday morning worship is the most segregated hour of Christian America has become cliché, but it is largely true.

The usual defensive response when these facts are mentioned is that we all believe in racial equality, but we cannot help the fact racial groups have different preferences when it comes to worship, preaching and how church is done. In other words, we may be separate but we’re equal, so it’s nothing to worry about. After all, we reason, if someone of another race wants to attend our church, we would be glad to have them, so there is no problem here. Thus, tolerating racial and ethnic diversity amounts to doing our Christian duty.

However, a genuinely Christian attitude toward racial and ethnic diversity is not one of toleration, but celebration. The entire human race was made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27, Acts 17:26) and shares a common descent as the fallen children of Adam (Gen. 3:17, 1 Cor. 15:22). The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is composed of redeemed image bearers described as “one new man” (Eph. 2:15), a new race and ethnicity of people whose identity is found in being united by faith to Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). Racial hostility is a gospel issue, it is the spirit of Antichrist, and on the cross Jesus killed it (Eph. 2:16). The inclusion of ethnically diverse peoples in the household of God is God’s intention, fulfilling his gospel promise (Gen. 3:15, Gen. 12, 15, Ps. 67, Acts 2, Rom. 4, Gal. 3, 4, Eph. 2, 4, Rev. 5, 7, 14).

Sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark notes that the city of Antioch, during days of Roman rule, was divided into 18 different and intensely antagonistic ethnic groups with almost no social integration (The Rise of Christianity, 157-158). It was followers of Christ in the multi-ethnic church of Antioch (Jews, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Asians) who were first called Christians (Acts 11:19-26) and who took the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world (Acts 13:1-3). The gospel advanced as the Greco-Roman world stood in awe of the people who formerly hated each other because of ethnic distinctions, who now loved each other as family and worshiped and served together in the name of Jesus.

When we re-create Jesus and the biblical story in our own image, we ignore the gospel implications for how we are to understand racial and ethnic diversity as a cruciform community. Jesus is not colorblind and his followers must not be. Our differences are now seen in Christ, as celebratory markers of God’s expansive providential grace. The gospel does not erase our cultural, racial and ethnic distinctions, but rather reinterprets every aspect of our story in light of the gospel story (Rev. 21:24). The Christian community trades ethnocentricity for Christocentricity and is liberated to celebrate the breadth and length, height and depth of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:14-21).

In dominant white evangelical culture we often unwittingly proceed with a white Messiah attitude toward living out the demands of the gospel in our churches. Well-intentioned social ministry is often done with an off-putting aura of white evangelical aristocracy, albeit a benevolent one toward needy ethnic people. A local church unwilling to celebrate racial and ethnic diversity, interracial marriage, and transracial adoption, has a gospel problem. It is an inadequate justification for inaction to assert that intentionally pursuing a multi-ethnic congregation might disturb congregational peace. Jesus is at war with that kind of serpentine pseudo-peace.

We need to exorcise Jim Crow’s ghost that tragically still lingers in too many churches. “Separate but equal” was empty rhetoric used to defend cultural racial segregation in the 1950s and 60s. And it still is empty rhetoric when it is used to defend segregated churches today. The problem of latent racism will not be overcome by resolutions & conferences (though they have a place) but by integrated local churches. You do not need a platform at the Lincoln Memorial to do something about racial and ethnic segregation today. You already have the gospel and a local church.

By David E. Prince

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“We Are All Kings In Exile”–Thoughts on the Events in Connecticut

Like most everyone else, I have watched the news coming out of Connecticut in sickened disbelief. It just so happens that this week I have been studying and writing about the Fall. Without the biblical teaching of the Fall provided in Genesis 3, how could we begin to understand what has happened? The Bible teaches that we are not merely animals trapped in a bad world. Evil is real, as the tragic events this week at the Sandy Hook Elementary School demonstrate. We are horrified by such acts–and our horror evidences that we know things are not the way they ought to be, and that we know we are not simply amoral animals.

In his little but important book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?, John Collins provides an extended quote from G. K. Chesterton that I think hits the mark.  Chesterton explains that the doctrine of the Fall is actually a very hopeful teaching.

Here’s the passage:

“The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things; on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man’s machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind; . . . . on that proverb that says ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,’ which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and sceptics: ‘We look before and after, and pine for what is not’; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.”

Chesterton had a way with words, didn’t he?

We weep with those who weep. Let’s pray for those in Newton who are experiencing an unimaginable grief. May God give them comfort as only He can. One day, maybe some day soon, all things will be made right and new. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

Cross posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com

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