//
Uncategorized

Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part Three: Truth and Study

I wrestled and wrestled with this segment of the essay. Each of three attempts to articulate what truth might look like in a college context, or what college might look like in the light of the Christ who is the Way and the Truth and the Life, ended up looking, respectively, like a college version of Christian Music Radio, a reverse-engineering of Wellhausen-style scholarship, and a relativism that says that Christians should be just like other academics, except not as nasty.

This third one, not itself adequate to the question at hand, ended up being my best starting point.

Remembering the Fall

Of course, personal nastiness is not the real hindrance to what we Christians might call Truth in the academy. Beyond individualistic personality lie (pun intended) categories and agendas and assumptions that, irrespective of how nice their professors are (another pun intended), they will lead not to truth nor even to ignorance but to active lies. One would do well to remember that in Confessions, Augustine noted without irony that Faustus the Manichean was one of the most self-aware and kindest men he knew.

My point here is not that academics are Manicheans (though some of them are pretty close) but to analyze the problem of truth in the academy in roughly Augustinian, anti-Manichean terms. The inadequacy of Manichean theology, in Augustine’s terms, is that their concept of God is inadequate. Rather than being the ground of all being, thus by definition both good and comprehensive, Mani’s good god that Faustus professed was merely one player on a larger ontological stage. Evil for the Manicheans was something, whereas for Augustine evil is nothing. The difference is more than semantics: if reality is a contest between light and darkness, a struggle without a point of origin and without an intelligible terminus, then ethical sophism would be the natural outcome: whichever course of action on earth will align one with the power winning at the moment is the good one.

Augustine, on the other hand, because he insisted that evil is no-thing rather than some-thing, because good is both the origin point and the teleological goal, because goodness, with divine intervention, pulls all of creation towards Himself, because evil as we know it is not ontologically prior to goodness but fallen from goodness, is free to celebrate God’s succinct “it is very good” upon the world’s creation, Plato’s insistence that all being is good, Paul’s anticipation of resurrected bodies. Thus Augustine need never wonder whether the good things in life are really bad things, only whether his own desire for them is loving (that is to say, properly ordered relative to his relationship to God as creature) or lustful (that is to say, out of that order).

Privation in the Classroom

Thus my initial musings: I was at first approaching the life of study as if my task were to winnow out which things were good and which bad when, had I remembered my Augustine, I should have begun with the affirmation that all of creation is good, very good. Thus to study biology as a Christian is not to tag something extraneous onto a logically prior “secular” biology but simply to study biology fully where some might only study it partially. The same goes for sociology and literature and law and business: if indeed God created all things and called them good (God did), then human community and human art and human justice and human commerce all stand to be good if only we will submit to the reality that God rightly orders all of them and devote ourselves to lifetimes and dynastic explorations of what that might mean.

Such is not to say that our dynasties of educational theorists will always agree with other dynasties of educational theorists; instead a Christian philosophy, and by extension a Christian college, will approach the work that others have done in a field both with a sense of gratitude and with a sense that we are here to bless the nations. Daniel and Abed-nego did not build Babylon, but Babylon was a better place for their involvement. Likewise Christians did not invent the German-style research university (we did invent the teaching university), but we can, by our insistence upon research with love (that is to say oriented properly towards our Creator), we can offer a richness to their work that without us simply would not be possible. But I should not get too far into the fifth part of this essay; I need to bring this idea of a love-that-is-truth back to the realm of the Christian liberal arts college.

Accurate, Comprehensive, Accountable

Too often modern theorists of knowledge surrender all the territory to the German critical philosophers without thinking about what that might mean. They assume that before Kant, people thought that their human minds were apprehending things-as-such and that nobody ever stopped to think about what we humans could and could not know. A brief run through some medieval philosophical history points in a starkly different direction. Saint Thomas for one knew that humans are unlike angels in that God’s creation has to come to us through five senses rather than the unmediated intellection that angels enjoy. He also knew that the senses, employed either in apprehension of human artifice or divine, were media, that they stood to foul some things up. The medievals were no dummies.

Where the medievals were, in fact, more humble than the German high moderns was that they did not declare a priori where the ontological boundaries of reality lay. To translate that into geographic terms, they did not draw on the map of reality a border between the “natural” and the “supernatural,” and by no means did they forbid all mortals to cross such a line, as Kant and his generation did. Instead Aquinas realized that nature was not a bounded space but that which was inherent in a creature, that divine revelations were supernatural not because they were weird (Augustine among others knew how weird the world of matter could be) but because they’re not normally within human capacity. Thus revelation, though it didn’t happen all the time, wasn’t out of bounds for philosophy any more than were those things that we humans can only see by secondary means or with the help of those disciplined to see them (e.g. magnetism, allegory, and tax law).

For those of you still reading, this is where truth comes in to our discussion of a Christian college. No Christian has to assert contra Kant that right now, at this moment, we have angelic, unmediated access to things as they are. Instead, the Christian story of human knowledge is a rich and complex one, encompassing both supernatural revelation and natural sensory experience, and we should be able to start with those data and speculate about how they connect one to another.

Therefore Christian pursuit of truth is not raw angelic assertion but the more mundane and ultimately rewarding life of the scholar: we seek to represent accurately the details both of what all of us can sense and of what those supernaturally gifted relate to us. We seek to speculate in comprehensive manners, not omitting significant chunks of experiential and revealed data but including as many as we can and standing willing to revise our theories when our friends propose more comprehensive ones. And we always stand accountable for our theories, willing to hear other theories and to respond truthfully when one ends up being more accurate or comprehensive than another.

So truth in our Christian college, that pursuit that binds Christian philosophers together, is nothing more than the scholarly life and nothing less than pursuing that life in love. I can only hope that my next post, an account of liberal arts in the Christian life, ends up being this clear to me.

Advertisements

About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

Discussion

10 thoughts on “Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part Three: Truth and Study

  1. >”Milton is always great. He’s one of those old-school Republicans. (The kind that I am.) ;)”I’ve only ever heard good things about Paradise Lost so I figure I should probably read it.”Dante, on the other hand, is an unapologetic imperialist, which makes him great to read, largely because his theology and poetry are wonderful even as his politics revolt me.”I was supposed to read Dante’s Inferno for one of my summer classes a few years back. From the little bit of it that I actually read (you know how that goes…wait maybe you don’t :)) I enjoyed it.”I’ve not read The Conservative Mind. Buckley?”Russell Kirk

    Posted by J.Wizzle | March 10, 2008, 5:00 pm
  2. >Milton is always great. He’s one of those old-school Republicans. (The kind that I am.) ;)Dante, on the other hand, is an unapologetic imperialist, which makes him great to read, largely because his theology and poetry are wonderful even as his politics revolt me.I’ve not read The Conservative Mind. Buckley?

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 10, 2008, 4:50 pm
  3. >When this semester is over I am going to try and knock out The Confessions of St. Augustine, Paradise Lost, and The Conservative Mind…and if I get around to it maybe Donte’s Divine Comedy. We’ll see.

    Posted by J.Wizzle | March 10, 2008, 3:23 pm
  4. >I missed this comment, Jeff. I’m glad I returned to see it. Funny stuff.Now imagine how I feel reading all the Election ’08 posts! πŸ˜‰

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 10, 2008, 2:26 pm
  5. >So far this semester I have read:Plato’s Apology, Meno, Euthyphro, and Phaedo, Aristotle’s On the Soul and Nicomachean Ethics (selections from),Epicurus’s Letter to Menoecceus and The Principle Doctrines,Epictetus’s Encheiridion,Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines in Pyrrhonism,Plotinus’s The Enneads (selections from),and right now I am working through Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will and Confessions, Book XI.Then I’ll move on to Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Mill, and Nietzsche.So I will soon be able to start interacting with Nate’s posts. πŸ™‚

    Posted by Jeff Wright | March 9, 2008, 10:01 pm
  6. >What still confuses me is that in order to speak of evil we must regard it as more than privation. It is a thing, a self. You referred to it in the quote above with the pronoun “itself.” It seems like we have to assume self or being in order to even speak of a thing.So often my prose betrays my thought. πŸ™‚ I should have hyphenated the phrase entity-in-itself to be clearer. My point is that evil has no “itself.” Even Satan is not evil “itself” but an evil angel, in other words the highest of good creation, corrupted.Perhaps a better way to think of good and evil is in spiritual (i.e. moral) rather than ontological terms. In other words, maybe its better to think of both good and evil as expressions of conformity to the character of God, good being conformity to it and evil being any lack of conformity to it but both equally being.What do you think?I think that’s not unlike my suggestion that “evil” remain only adjectival. I would say, though, that good (or Good, if one reads Plato) does itself have being and in fact is Being. That’s part of the genius of Augustinian philosophy: it proposes a rather elegant solution to the dilemma of Euthyphro by locating both Being and Goodness in Trinitarian caritas and thus thwarted the Manichean doctrine that Evil is Being counter to Good Being. Instead, evils are lacks of participation in being, and common evils are lacks of Trinitarian caritas.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 7, 2008, 11:02 am
  7. >Conceptually, it means that evil can only be a privation in a good, not an entity in itself.I think describing evil as privation of good helps us understand the relationship between the two concepts. What still confuses me is that in order to speak of evil we must regard it as more than privation. It is a thing, a self. You referred to it in the quote above with the pronoun “itself.” It seems like we have to assume self or being in order to even speak of a thing. Perhaps a better way to think of good and evil is in spiritual (i.e. moral) rather than ontological terms. In other words, maybe its better to think of both good and evil as expressions of conformity to the character of God, good being conformity to it and evil being any lack of conformity to it but both equally being.What do you think?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | March 6, 2008, 4:09 am
  8. >I was a little confused on this point. Thinking along with Van Til, if all of creation is revelation, then isn’t revelation both natural and supernatural (i.e. inspired Word illumined by the Spirit)? Therefore, when we perceive either, don’t we fundamentally perceive reality, because God, who is ultimate reality itself, reveals himself clearly in them (Rom. 1:20)? Also, if all creation is revelation, isn’t our experience within the category of revelation?I think this is an instance where vocabularies might be more harmonious than first we think. In Thomas’s terms, revelation is not a divine actum so much as a moment when a human being, by divine grace, achieves angelic intelligentia. Without the Latin, Thomas holds that what John the Seer and Daniel the prophet saw was always real; they just couldn’t see it because the natural limits of human intellect fall short of them. However, in moments of supernatural (i.e. beyond inherent capabilities) awareness, mortals can indeed see such things. That’s why, according to Thomas, the book full of that stuff is called apocalypsis, or unveiling.I think that Thomas’s categories and van Til’s (if I’m understanding van Til right) then what Thomas calls simply revelation van Til would call supernatural revelation, and what Thomas would call experience van Til would call natural revelation.At any rate, to bring it back to Christian colleges, the upshot is that Germanic-style “religious studies,” which theorizes on ritual phenomena and perhaps psychology of belief but rules claims about the world beyond natural sensation off-limits is not a neutral science but one that sets certain metaphysical rules, rules that the text of the Bible and traditional Christian theology do not consider rules. So a Christian college’s work in theology should be bolder than its deficient cousin “religious studies” and be willing to examine and perhaps even confess those supernatural moments of awareness in addition to analyzing sensory phenomena.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 5, 2008, 6:36 pm
  9. >(1) What is non-being?(2) If it is nothing, how can we even speak of it? [or] If we speak of it, then mustn’t it be something?Assuming the category of non-being has meaning . . .(3) How does it relate to the concept of reality?Good questions. Here are my answers: 1) Ontologically, precisely that. Conceptually, it means that evil can only be a privation in a good, not an entity in itself. Grammatically, it means that an Augustinian likely would use evil only as an adjective, not as a noun in its own right. In other words, a man can be an evil man, but that phrase names a man who lacks, not a man with something added to him.Borrowing from Plato’s Republic, a man who has become most thoroughly evil is actually not that dangerous: he’d likely stand about peeing on himself and trying to mount anything that moves. But a man who has human goods like discipline and intuition and intelligence but lacks the proper orientation towards the Good (for Plato this means service of the community), that man stands to be quite a dangerous tyrant because he has the good tools to become a ruler but lacks the good orientation to be a good king.In Tolkien’s terms there are no orcs, genetically speaking. There are only corrupted elves. 2) As I said above, if we speak it adjectivally we have no problem; if we nominalize it we run into ontological difficulties. It’s analogous, I suppose to the word/concept vacuum: if there’s something there, it ceases to be a vacuum.3) I’m not sure whose concept of reality we’re starting with, but in terms of Christian colleges, the insight that I drew from Augustine is that Christian literary criticism is not some neutral lit crit with Christian flavor added in. Nor is Christian sociology Auguste Comte plus the Augsburg Confession. Rather fields of knowledge are a priori connected to God’s sustaining the world, and attempts at them that ignore this are not neutral but deprived.I’ll get to your other questions later; my students are coming in, and presumptuously enough, they look as if they expect me to teach a class this morning.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 5, 2008, 1:49 pm
  10. >Good post Nathan. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I enjoyed reading it very much.I particularly liked this:. . . if indeed God created all things and called them good (God did), then human community and human art and human justice and human commerce all stand to be good if only we will submit to the reality that God rightly orders all of them and devote ourselves to lifetimes and dynastic explorations of what that might mean.Excellent!I like the way you brought Augustine’s neo-Platonic understanding of being and non-being as he applied it to the problem of evil to bear in your discussion of truth. I think speaking of evil as privation does teach us something of the relationship between the concepts of good and evil, although I’m not sure I fully agree with Augustine on this point. I question how helpful the category of non-being is with regard to the metaphysics of evil and metaphysics in general. But I have to confess I haven’t thought through the issues adequately enough to offer a solid evaluation. Maybe you could help? Here’s a few questions:(1) What is non-being?(2) If it is nothing, how can we even speak of it? [or] If we speak of it, then mustn’t it be something?Assuming the category of non-being has meaning . . . (3) How does it relate to the concept of reality?Instead Aquinas realized that nature was not a bounded space but that which was inherent in a creature, that divine revelations were supernatural not because they were weird (Augustine among others knew how weird the world of matter could be) but because they’re not normally within human capacity. Thus revelation, though it didn’t happen all the time, wasn’t out of bounds for philosophy any more than were those things that we humans can only see by secondary means or with the help of those disciplined to see them (e.g. magnetism, allegory, and tax law).I was a little confused on this point. Thinking along with Van Til, if all of creation is revelation, then isn’t revelation both natural and supernatural (i.e. inspired Word illumined by the Spirit)? Therefore, when we perceive either, don’t we fundamentally perceive reality, because God, who is ultimate reality itself, reveals himself clearly in them (Rom. 1:20)? Also, if all creation is revelation, isn’t our experience within the category of revelation? Just a few questions. I may be speaking with different terms in mind. I apologize if I have drawn conclusions based on my own misunderstanding rather than what you meant.Jay

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | March 5, 2008, 2:32 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

From the Vault

Friend of Grace

Photobucket
All articles Β© 2007-2011 by the respective authors of the Conservative Reformed Mafia. All Rights Reserved.
%d bloggers like this: