Sunday, March 28, 2010

Confessions of a closet RSV reader and how the ESV brought me out...Pt I

I begin by confessing that I was not raised in the church. By the grace of God and through some excellent preaching from the epistles of John, I was baptized into Christ on a summer Sunday evening at the age of seventeen. Now, these number of years later, I have another confession. While many who were older than me in Christ were reared on the *KJV, and many younger than me in Christ were taken captive by the clever campaign of the *NIV, I remained silently faithful to the Bible translation that was given to me shortly after my baptism. My Aunt Kathy went to the local bookstore and asked for a translation of the Bible that was accurate and in modern English. I am grateful that the cashier sold her an *RSV of the Bible.

Later that year, I went to Bible college and found that some of my Bible professors used the KJV, some the *NASB, and a few the RSV. I can also remember the first time someone warned me about the RSV, calling it the “liberal” translation. I discovered through reading and conversations that the liberal label was applied primarily because of two key verses. Below are the two verses, first in the KJV and then the RSV:

Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (KJV)

Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el. (RSV)

Colossians 1:14 In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:…(KJV)

Colossians 1:14 …in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (RSV)

Needless to say, I was greatly encourage a few years ago when I read about the English Standard Version and its relationship to the Revised Standard Version with some key changes. One main reason that I will happily acknowledge reading and using the *ESV is because it has acted to alter one of these two controversial verses.

Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (ESV)

For all RSV closet readers, you will be greatly encouraged to find that the ESV is approximately ninety-two percent of the RSV. All English Bibles have a history (including the KJV) and the RSV is no exception. Simply put, the minds behind the RSV had as a priority “a through revision of the American Standard Version and that revision should be as close to the King James tradition…”1 In 1928, a committee was charged with the task of revising the copyrighted 1901 ASV. After two years of deliberation, the committee recommended a major revision reflecting the best scholarship and accurate diction.2

In addition to the controversial translation of a few verses, another early criticism of the RSV was the change of Christ being addressed in terms of “you” and not the traditional “thee” and “thou”. The logic for this change was sound and in truth, more accurate. This change was not an attempt to deny the deity of Christ, but was to reflect the historical reality that “those who spoke to Him then did not use a different form of address from that which they used in speaking to other people.”3

*ESV – English Standard Version; KJV – King James Version; NIV – New International Version; RV – Revised Version; RSV – Revised Standard Version; ASV – American Standard Version; NASB – New American Standard Bible

1. Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions (Baker Books House Co.,: Grand Rapids, 2001), 118.

2. F.F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English (The Lutterworth Press: Cambridge, 1961), 186.

3. F.F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English (The Lutterworth Press: Cambridge, 1961), 188.

Confessions of a closet RSV reader and how the ESV brought me out...Pt II

The Bible is literature whose original languages differ from our own current versions in English. There should be no confusion when the claim is made that the Bible is literature. For the Christian, to claim that the Bible is literature is to assert that it is much more than literature, but it is not any less than literature. As literature, the Bible in English should be literal and literary. Any modern translation should strive for accurately translating the original languages and loyalty to the best of current English. The goal should be nothing less than the Word of God in English. Or, as one stylistic reader of the ESV has written, “Fidelity to the original will produce its own stylistic variety commensurate with what the original texts actually say and how they say it. If translators simply follow the contours of the original, the results will resemble the original text.”4

The goal and philosophy of the translating and editorial committee of the ESV is admirable. “The ESV is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on "word-for-word" correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus, it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.”5

For all of those looking for a literal and, yet, literary English translation of the Bible, they can be confident that the ESV follows within a noble tradition of Bible translations. “The English Standard Version (ESV) stands in the classic mainstream of English Bible translations over the past half-millennium. The fountainhead of that stream was William Tyndale's New Testament of 1526; marking its course were the King James Version of 1611 (KJV), the English Revised Version of 1885 (RV), the American Standard Version of 1901 (ASV), and the Revised Standard Version of 1952 and 1971 (RSV). In that stream, faithfulness to the text and vigorous pursuit of accuracy were combined with simplicity, beauty, and dignity of expression. Our goal has been to carry forward this legacy for a new century.”6

The ESV is a much-needed corrective to the recent proliferation of misguided translation based on flawed theories that have contributed to a debasing, rather than an elevating, of the English language. The ESV would be an excellent choice for teaching, preaching, devotional, or public reading. No doubt, the church will not see a mass movement back toward widespread use of the KJV and it would be a major task to bring down the of the passionate preference for the NIV or the unfortunate drift toward the more faddish use of the NLT. However, if the church were looking for a literal and literary translation, then she would look no further than the English Standard Version.

The next time someone asks me what translation I read, I will boldly proclaim English Standard Version. If the replay is, “Isn’t that a liberal version,” I will graciously say, “Do not confuse the ESV with the RSV. The ESV is not liberal (neither was theRSV!), it is literarily literal and it is a blessing to read the Word of God in the best current English.”

4. Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Crossway Books: Wheaton, 2002) 225.

5. Taken from the preface of the ESV (Crossway Books: Wheaton, 2001)

6. Taken from the preface of the ESV (Crossway Books: Wheaton, 2001

Friday, March 26, 2010

God's Sociological Fool and His Toolbox...Pt 1

Os Guinness has been writing, lecturing, and living the insights of his more than twenty-five books he has written or edited for about thirty years. Despite his impressive work, I still regularly meet Christians who do not know of his tremendous contribution of some of the best of Christian cultural criticism. He has declared himself an intermediary scholar who is trying to bridge the gap between scholarship and the life of the Church. His most recent book, The Last Christian on Earth is a re-publication of the earlier version The Gravedigger File. It is great news to see this book in print again in an updated edition. I providentially encountered The Gravedigger File in a local Christian bookstore while I was in a graduate class on the Sociology of Religion. Guinness helped me see the ways that sociology could be (if wisely used) a tool in helping the modern day Christian navigate the world within which we live.

The Gravedigger Thesis

Guinness recognizes that many American Christians are like fish that only know the water within which they dwell and therefore really do not know water at all. In other words, most of us are most blind to the world that is closest to us. Dr. Os Guinness makes the fundamental assertion that the Church in the west largely shaped ideas, values, attitudes, and institutions of the west. However, over time, the ways of the west have slipped significantly from its religious worldview and sensitivities. The current relationship between the broader culture and contemporary Church has become a strained one—at times apathetic, at times tense, and at times too comfortable. Most dangerously for the Church is that “the more the Church becomes one with the modern world, the more it becomes compromised, and the deeper the grave it digs for itself.”

As the Church plans and attempts to bring about changes in the contemporary culture, there is a terrible blindness to the ways that culture shapes the Church. This blindness, sometimes unintentional cultural accommodation and sometimes even cultural assimilation can lead to what Guinness calls the “culture-burnt level” of interaction between the Church and the world.

As the Church becomes more comfortable with the dominate culture in America, it has manifested itself in the form of “Civil religion,” “Consumer religion,” and “Closed religion.” Of these three, the one that is most easily identified is “consumer religion.” If the Church promotes itself in the language of Wal-Mart (greater value and we offer more than the smaller “shops” in town), then it is easy to see how the language and mindset of the market as a social institution has shaped the Church as an institution. I can even remember being in a Bible discussion once where someone commented that we can learn a lot from Disney, Wal-Mart, and Crispy Cream. I thought, sure if the Kingdom of God is merely about “happiness,” consuming, and getting soulishly fat.

Worldliness (the Biblical term) or cultural assimilation (the sociological term) should not be associated exclusively with one side of Christendom such as conservative or liberal. The truth of the matter is that worldliness can be manifested (and is manifested) among the most conservative or even the moderately liberal congregations. Guinness provides much helpful explanation on this and related matters.

God's Sociological Fool and His Toolbox...Pt 2

On Being Conformed to this World

Ironically, many American Christians who think about culture think mostly or solely in terms of “ideas.” So Christians are very taken with the various “isms” that plague the land—liberalism, sexism, racism, or the omnipresent secular humanism, but are ignorant of the insights of the sociology of knowledge.

Guinness is calling for a wise as serpents use of a most helpful tool. That tool, if carefully used, can assist those who have long used and even over used the history of ideas approach to understanding culture. The Christian thinker by wisely using the “sociology of knowledge…traces the line back from people’s ‘social setting’ to their ‘thoughts,’ and shows how the former shape the latter.”

One example of this may be the rather mindless way in which many Christians accommodate the use of technology. By living in a culture dominated by the “instant” as technology has made the ease, accessibility, and instantaneous consumption of words, images, and ideas, there comes the illusion that this is the way of the modern world. In truth, all who strive to follow Christ know that there is nothing instant about discipleship. The technological society has shaped our vocabulary and the way we view reality, and in turn has shaped the way we talk and think about living the Christian life. “Culture is therefore a ridiculously easy way to influence Christians without their realizing it.” It is about the intellectual ideas we unknowingly breathe or the social institutions that we habituate that shape our habits.

Guinness creatively shares insight from the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of religion such as secularization, privatization, pluralization and modernization. Again one example will suffice. Most American Christians are familiar with the term secular or secularism. However, Guinness argues that secularization, “the process through which, starting from the center and moving outward, successive sectors of society and culture have been freed from the decisive influence of religious ideas and institutions” is what Christians should be countering. In other words, the average American Christian probably spends most of his day, thinking, feeling, and even acting like his non-Christian counterpart, but likely at home, and most certainly “at Church” is more redeemed. It is possible for a Christian to go through his daily life and function as a practical atheist. A secularized culture is on the opposite end of the continuum of Deuteronomy 6:1-15.

Briefly, Guinness also notes that while pluralism does not always or necessarily lead to relativism, “pluralization” as a process increasing choices and changes “leads to a decrease in commitment and continuity.” In consumer and marketing terms this is why “sellers” must constantly be promoting their goods and pushing customer satisfaction. Listen to the way Church leaders talk about their programs and activities. If the religious consumer is not content then she will shop somewhere else.

On Fools, Mousetraps, and the Church’s Only Real Hope

All of Guinness’s books that analyze and comment on Christians and society tend to have a realistic analysis that could, in the hands of others, tend toward despair. Os Guinness is also different in this manner. His arguments are persuasive, and sometimes prophet-like in tone, but always, always with the hope that Chesterton described as being much richer than mere optimism. “Like an eternal jack-in-the-box, Christian truth will always spring back. No power on earth can finally keep it down, not even the power of Babylonian confusion and captivity.”
The open reader is educated, enlightened, at times entertained, but always with the goal of persuasion. The Christian who reads this helpful, and insightful cultural analysis, will also recognize why the Gospel is truly good news. While the content of The Last Christian on Earth is deep, the format is that of a popular “Spy Novel.” The book is filled with illustrations, examples, allusions, and references to literary masterpieces, which is to the credit of Guinness and demonstrates his depth and breadth of thinking. It should be clear that what Os Guinness is striving to do in this important work is be discerning of the ways of the world so that the Christian and the Church can strive for fidelity to the ways of God. This is an extremely important wise meditation on being “in the world, but not of the world.”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics - Great Ideas Program Vol. I

If within the course of your college education, most of your professors do not begin the semester with some reference to Aristotle and our collective indebtedness to him then you are being cheated and chances are your "very learned" professor was also cheated. Here is a listing of Aristotle's writings that would still be worth your time to read and then I will briefly address his Nicomachean Ethics.

Categories; On Interpretation; Prior Analytics; Posterior Analytics; Topics; Sophistical Refutations; Physics; On the Heavens; On Generation and Corruption; Meteorology; On the Soul; On Sense and and the Sensible, On Memory; On Sleep; On Dreams; On Divination in Sleep; On Length and Shortness of Life; On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration; History of Animals; Parts of Animals; Movement of Animals; Progression of Animals; Generation of Animals; Metaphysics; Nicomachean Ethics; Eudemian Ethics; Politics; Rhetoric; Poetics

It surprised me when I first read Aristotle's Ethics and it surprises my Great Books students year after year that this ancient Greek philosopher starts with the question of happiness in his writing on ethics. It no longer surprises me, but still surprises them that he also spends a great deal of time discussing friendship in his writing about ethics.

Adler asks, related to Aristotle's Ethics, "Why does happiness involve a complete life"? (45) In Book One of Aristotle's Ethics it states, "For assuredly he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has enough for his daily needs. For many of the wealthiest men have been unfavoured of fortune, and many whose means were moderate have had excellent luck. The wealthy man, it is true, is better able to content his desires, and bear up against sudden calamity. The man of moderate means has less ability to withstand these evils, from which, however, his good luck may keep him clear. If so, he enjoys all these following blessings: he is whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to look upon. If in addition to all this, he ends his life well, he is truly the man who may rightly be termed happy. Call him, however, until he die, not happy but fortunate."

Maybe part of the reason is that Aristotle, always with the end (telos) in mind, recognizes that like any event, it is best to judge if it was "good" at the end when you can look back on the whole. Many a person has certainly declared "I am happy" and later declared "I am miserable". One needs to also note the way in which Aristotle connects, happiness, goodness, and the good life.

I have come to greatly appreciate the following translators and their respective translations:
-Joe Sachs
-Terence Irwin
-Jonathan Barnes
-W.D. Ross

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On Mathematical Method--Reading from Gateway to the Great Books Vol. 9

Early in this piece, Alfred North Whitehead explains his objective. He states that his goal "is not to teach mathematics, but to enable students from the very beginning of their course to know what the science is about, and why it is necessarily the foundation of exact thought as applied to natural phenomena" (52). I am reminded of the great cultural critic Neil Postman who believed that all truly educated people would know the "history and philosophy" of their respective disciplines. The truth of the matter is that if Postman is right then there are not many truly educated people. Whitehead was an exception and fully understood (as he received) the history and philosophy of mathematics.

In this helpful short piece (pp 51-67), Whitehead provides the leading characteristic of mathematics (52), how science seeks to describe things (54), numerous helpful illustrations of his reasoning (55-66), methods of application (59-67), and uniquely arguing (as a humanist) for the value of pursing knowledge for its own sake (62).

On one point he betrays his bias against the ancient and medieval mind when he asserts, "Throughout the middle ages, under the influence of Aristotle, the science (of dynamics) was entirely misconceived" (61). Sadly, Whitehead should have avoided the elementary logical error of "entirely". On the other hand, Whitehead manifest real humility when he says of some ancients that "there is no reason to believe that they were more stupid than we are" (62).

Whitehead, was an impressive scholar and it is always encouraging to me when I see people such as Aristotle, Plutarch, Archimedes, Newton, Galileo, Faraday, and Hertz, and even Chaldean shepherds, Mesopotamian and Egyptian priests and philosophers addressed respectfully.

One place the Christian Humanist would part company with Whitehead is when he claims that, "science seeks to describe an apple in terms of the positions and motions of molecules, a description which ignores me and you and him, and also ignores sight, touch and taste and smell" (54). I would suggest that we cannot and do not know apple (that is real apple-concretely or abstractly) apart from the seeing, tasting, and touching of the apple. There is no description of apple or the one eating the apple separate from the very things Whitehead mentions.

Reading Christopher Dawson...Part III of Dynamics of World History

Christopher Dawson is such a breath of fresh air for the Christian historian who is striving to honor God with his mind as he seeks to interpret history. For Dawson, the fabric, texture, and flow of history are different for the Christian who pursues the study of history as a vocation. “History was no longer a mere unintelligible chaos of disconnected events. It had found in the Incarnation a centre, which gave it significance and order. Viewed from this centre the history of humanity became an organic unity. Eternity had entered into time and henceforward the singular and temporal had acquired an eternal significance” (268).

Dr. Quinn summarizes this particular thought in the writings of Dawson by saying, “Dawson’s recognition of culture as a bearer of truth was the insight of an anthropologist but also, in a more profound way, that of a Christian. His understanding of man is society was, in the deepest sense, incarnational” (xxiii).

One mark of the character of a historian (or any academic) is the manner in which she deals with others within her discipline. Due to the competitive atmosphere in the academy, other writers and thinkers could easily be dealt with in a hostile method. Once again, Dawson represents a unique example even in this sphere. When writing about other historians and social scientists, Dawson graciously acknowledged points of agreement with such writers as Gibbon, H.G. Wells, Spengler, and Toynbee. At times, he is razor sharp in his criticisms and observations, at other times, he is highly complementary of their ideas and work.

Of Gibbon’s popularity as a historian, Dawson questioned, “What is the explanation of this extraordinary success? Above all, no doubt, it is due to his extraordinary literary gift, which surpasses that of every other English historian with the exception of Macaulay” (346).

It is worth noting at this point that Dawson would most certainly advise historians not to learn their history primarily from other historians. “In reality a great art is always the expression of a great culture, whether it be manifested through the work of an individual genius or embodied in a great impersonal tradition” (75). As a specific point Dawson noted that “we can learn more about mediaeval culture from a cathedral than from the most exhaustive study of constitutional law, and the churches of Ravenna are a better introduction to the Byzantine world than all the volumes of Gibbon” (72).

While Dawson respected aspects of Gibbon’s work, he was most critical of the seemingly dismissive way that Gibbon handled the Byzantine Empire. “The real fault of these later volumes lies not in their discontinuity, but in his complete lack of sympathy with his main subject—the Byzantine empire itself. No modern historian can agree with Gibbon’s supercilious dismissal of Byzantine history” (347). Years later, with the full blossoming of Byzantine studies, we know that Dawson was closer to the truth than Gibbon as it related to the richness of this culture and empire.

Dawson brilliantly analyzed the popular historical writings of H.G. Wells. Again, he offers words of praise where they are due, but observed that, “Wells was a frustrated evangelist who was always on the verge of producing an apocalypse or founding a new religion, but who was held back at the last moment by some obstacle which he never clearly understood” (382).

By way of a general observation, Dawson offers critique that demonstrates that these authors, Gibbon and Wells, were apparently blind to the reality that they were intellectual children of the Enlightenment with many of the ideas and assumptions of that era. Regarding the works of Arnold Toynbee, Dawson provided a philosophical criticism when he noted that; “I was always perplexed by the difficulty of reconciling the moral absolutism of his judgments with the cultural relativism of his theory” (407).

Regarding the controversial theory of secularization, Dawson is within the school of thought that contends that secularization does not mean a complete absence of religious vocabulary, rituals, and institutions in the public square. When traditional religious language and foundations have been replaced, the semi-religious manifestations tend to take other absolute forms. “The three main substitutes for religion in the modern age, Democracy, Socialism, and Nationalism which are typical of the age of transition from religious to a secular society, are each of them based on one of these fundamental factors” (103). Even if a social institution, such as the church, has a more marginalized role within society, key social realities retain a type of religious residue from previous sources of influence. The fundamental factors that are continue to how influence and the ones that Dawson had in mind are people, place, and work.

While there are numerous viewpoints related to the theory of secularization, few have thought that this process can be reversed or altered. Christopher Dawson held a different view. The only way to desecularize culture is by giving a spiritual aim to the whole system or organization (83). While Dawson was a realist, he was not a despairing gloom and doom cultural historian. He believed that until history comes to a God ordained end, “sooner or later, there must be a revival of culture and a reorganization of the spiritual renaissance” (81).

A number of Dawson’s works have recently been reprinted. Historians of any orientation would benefit from exposure to this first rate historian. Certainly some of his thoughts are outdated, some are too specific, while others may be considered too broad to have current meaning. However, as Dr. Quinn, notes in his introduction, “¼the significance of his thought as a philosopher of history and culture has been obscured by the fact that the majority of his books have been devoted specifically to two major tasks: (1) tracing the historical development of Western culture, and (2) analyzing the causes of the contemporary world crisis” (xlii).

The Christian intellectual community has a wonderful opportunity to study anew the writings of a historian who made a major impact in his day. As a writer and thinker, the depth and breadth of Dawson’s work is impressive. His writings offer insight into key figures, major social and cultural movements and ideas with momentous consequences. Dawson consistently demonstrated immense scholarship as he related the significance of religious, political, artistic, general cultural, and social happenings to the shape and flow of western civilization.

Reading Christopher Dawson...Part II of Dynamics of World History

Another tendency that Dawson desired to alter with his own academic pursuits is the practice of compartmentalization and specialization. While an intellectual historian may simply trace the history of an idea, the cultural historian may examine the cultural context of an idea. Dawson sought an interdisciplinary approach (more common today but rare in his own). Once he asserted that “we cannot understand an idea unless we understand its historical and social foundations.” (31). A modern day example may be the idea of “tolerance”. A cultural historian may ask questions about the broader contextual nature of the issue. The realization that the idea and practice of tolerance is neither historically absolute nor found within all cultures universally begs the question of from where did it originate. It is important to also note that for Dawson, the study of history is “the essence of history is not to be found in facts but in traditions” (285). In other words, the contemporary historian applying Dawsonian insights would seek to understand the various social and cultural traditions that gave birth to the idea of tolerance.

One point of interest among historians is the attempt to chronicle and explain the rise and decline of cultures and civilizations. Over the centuries, theories have accumulated and numerous paradigms have been proposed. Dawson also made several keen observations within this area. Recognizing that the most helpful model for understanding cultures is an organic one, Dawson examined the roots and growth of a civilization in an attempt to discern when decline began to occur. On the fall of the Roman Empire, Dawson observed, “Rome became more and more a predatory state that lived by war and plunder, and exhausted her own strength with that of her victims” (67). More succinctly Dawson argued, “it was literally Rome that killed Rome” (68). Of the decline and ultimate fall of Greek civilization, Dawson put forth a less than popular position. He argued a specific moral and social reason for the ultimate decline of Greece. In Dawson’s own words, “This aversion to marriage and the deliberate restriction of the family by the practice of infanticide and abortion was undoubtedly the main cause of the decline of ancient Greece,...”(170).

In contrast to the cultures that fell within a relatively short period of time, Dawson discerned that there were reasons certain cultures endured for thousands of years. “The cultures of China and Egypt survived for thousands of years because they preserved their foundations intact” (66).

Dawson wrote against the overly optimistic grain and the nearly euphoric obsession with the idea of progress. More than once Dawson asked key questions and made insightful observations about the problem with thinking of progress without a context. In the essay Vitality or Standardization, first published in 1942 he commented, “Today we have made incalculable progress in the scientific control of our environment, but at the same time our culture has lost any clearly defined spiritual standards and aims, and our cultural values have become impoverished” (81). This spiritual entropy was another sign of the west’s cultural decline.

Historians today tend to fall into two broad camps related to the recognition of their own biases and presuppositions. Sadly, there are those who continue to insist that they write “objective” history within some type of cultural, social, and intellectual vacuum. On the other hand, there are those who approach their studies with agenda in hand. In this second type, there is a conscious and overt attempt to read their convictions into history.

One may make the case that Dawson represented a third type. He clearly strove to understand the traditions, artifacts, people, and ideas he was examining “as they were”. He also never apologized that he was a Christian, who was reading, thinking and writing as a Christian. It is a general tone and posture of respect that guided Dawson in his research and writing.

In this volume, the Christian view of history is ever present. Specifically, in the essay, “Christianity and Contradictions in History,” Dawson is most explicit with his Christian assumptions and convictions. The essay is a masterpiece of how and why the faith of the Christian is not merely a set of values or some handy ideas to use, but, rather, a way of seeing reality. It was not merely the approach that he took as a Christian, but it was the truth that he understood the nature of history and historical events from a distinctly Christian view. In other words, the Christian is part of a tradition that thinks a certain way about history and should never attempt to diminish this reality. Dawson went so far as to say that, “the Christian interpretation of history is inseparable from the Christian faith” (263).

Reading Christopher Dawson...Part I of Dynamics of World History

As a graduate student in Religious Studies, I was introduced to the writings of Christopher Dawson. In his day, Dawson was recognized as among the most important cultural historians exploring the intersection of religion and sociology (not the craziness of the last thirty years sociology, but more of a philosopher of culture and society kind of sociology).

It is extremely encouraging that Dawson's works are being reprinted. More often than not the new forwards of these works are pointing out that more and more scholars of cultural history (traditionally educated), and scholars of religion and culture recognize the tremendous contribution Dawson made and is still making.

Here is the full table of contents so you can get a sense of the extraordinary breadth and depth of Dawson's historical vision:
Part One: Toward a Sociology of History
Section I: The Sociological Foundations of History
1. The Sources of Culture Change
2. Sociology as a Science
3. Sociology and the Theory of Progress
4. Civilization and Morals
5. Progress and Decay in Ancient and Modern Civilization
6. Art and Society
7. Vitality or Standardization in Culture
8. Cultural Polarity and Religious Schism
9. Prevision in Religion
10. T. S. Eliot on the Meaning of Culture
Section II: The Movement of World History
1. Religion and the Life of Civilization
2. The Warrior Peoples and the Decline of the Archaic Civilization
3. The Origins of Classical Civilization
4. The Patriarchal Family in History
5. Stages in Mankind's Religious Experience
Section III: Urbanism and the Organic Nature of Culture
1. The Evolution of the Modern City
2. Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind
3. The World Crisis and the English Tradition
4. Bolshevism and the Bourgeoisie
Part Two: Conceptions of World History
Section I: Christianity and the Meaning of History
1. The Christian View of History
2. History and the Christian Revelation
3. Christianity and Contradiction in History
4. The Kingdom of God and History
Section II: The Vision of the Historian
1. The Problem of Metahistory
2. St. Augustine and the City of God
3. Edward Gibbon and the Fall of Rome
4. Karl Marx and the Dialectic of History
5. H. G. Wells and the Outline of History
6. Oswald Spengler and the Life of Civilizations
7. Arnold Toynbee and the Study of History
8. Europe in Eclipse

So, if you are a historian (any flavor-political, intellectual, religious, cultural) then you really need to read Dawson and see how many people have been stealing ideas from him for the past fifty years. Here I begin a series of blogs on Dawson's works in reprint...Dynamics of World History (possibly the best place to start with Dawson because it gives a wide range of his writings on historical issues and historiography)

The republication of this work is the third edition of Dynamics of World History. This volume represents a range of Christopher Dawson’s writings initially printed between 1921 and 1955. Originally, this work was edited with the introduction to the 1958 edition written by John J. Mulloy. Included in the original, as well as this edition, is the standard setting essay, “Continuity and Development in Christopher Dawson’s Thought”. While the essay has become the Afterword, it would be wise to examine immediately after reading the new introduction by Seaton Hall’s associate professor of History, Dermot Quinn. Dr. Quinn’s new introduction does an outstanding task of bridging the gap between the time of Dawson and our own.

Dynamics of World History consists of two major divisions: “Toward a Sociology of History” and “Conceptions of World History”. There are five subsections under the major two. These subsections offer an assortment of perspectives on a variety of topics. Some of the essays are reflective pieces focusing on the work of other historians, some are considerations of the way that the Christian faith shapes the way Christians do historical studies, and others are specific examples of Christopher Dawson thinking about an era or an issue within that era.

Dr. Quinn rightly comments that “The reissuing of Dynamics of World History is thus part of a wider reexamination of the thought of a major Christian writer. In an academy dominated by modernism and postmodernism, it may also represent an effort to recover an older, realist tradition of historical scholarship, a tradition that does not treat the past as an illusion or tool of some hegemonic myth” (xii).

Sound and frequently insightful, Dawson’s prose is refined. It is with apparent ease that Dawson moves within and across several disciplines including religion, philosophy, history, and the social sciences. Simply put, “He was an historian at home among anthropologists, sociologists, cultural critics, philosophers, and theologians” (xiii).

In truth, much of Dawson is uncannily relevant to contemporary times and historical studies. This is true in part because Dawson was, indeed, “worldly but not world weary, he had the sharpest eye for human folly, for modern man’s self-worship, for the constant, indeed pathological, self-reinvention of the enlightened, rationalists personality” (xvi).

Dawson’s writings and thought are a wonderful antidote to the toxic tendency to scoff at the question of meaning and the possibility of continuity. Quinn observes, “questions of meaning and continuity in history represent an important leitmotiv throughout Dawson’s writing” (xiii). While much of the contemporary writing of history is characterized by a rather dismissive attitude related to the philosophies behind various approaches, Quinn comments, “To dismiss a philosophy of history is a philosophy of history”(xiii). Dawson would have certainly concurred with this truth.

Dawson never shied away from his philosophy, or, more accurately, theology of history. “The paradox that runs through all of Dawson’s work is this Augustinian sense of the past as both time bound and timeless; as action humanly complete yet still striving towards greater completion, towards fulfillment beyond time” (xxvi).

Dawson was critical of the reductionism all too common today within the humanities and social sciences. While the Marxist and scientific versions of reductionism are the ones most familiar to Dawson, he seems to anticipate the reductionisms more prevalent in our day. “The most popular type of ‘simple’ explanation is, of course, the materialist one, which attempts to deduce the whole social process from economic or geographical or racial factors, and relegates the cultural superstructure to a lower plane of reality as a subjective reflection of material conditions” (25).

The More Things Change....Our New Love Affair With Ourselves

One cultural historian and cultural critic that all "Thinking Christians" should read is Christopher Lasch. Even when you find reasons to disagree with him (and you should/will) Lasch was always insightful. See the piece that the N. Y. Times recently did on how relevant Lasch is for our current moment.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mathematics, in Life and Thought--Reading from Gateway to the Great Books Vol. 9

In Mathematics, in Life and Thought, (pp. 26-46) Andrew Russell Forsyth provides a balanced and historically informed piece. It is a wonderful corrective in form and content to the first essay in this volume. It is so refreshing to read a mathematician who respectfully references and is obviously familiar with Dante, Euclid, Lucretius, Aristarchus, Copernicus, Galilei, Democritus, Epicurus, Hipparchus, Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz, Newton, Kepler, and Einstein.

When was the last time you heard a math or science professor state, "The hypothesis must be tested; it is not to be declared true because it has not been disproved" (37) or affirm that we should hold on to the Newtonian theory of the universe because it still provides us with a "working hypothesis" (44).

However, the real surprise is when Forsyth declares, "If utility should come, well and good: but we need trouble no more about immediate utility as an aim than the Greeks troubled about utility of their conic sections or Newton troubled about the utility of the gravitation theory" (46)

I recommed this essay for all thinking Christians and would especially urge High school and College Math professors to figure out a way to work this into the educational process because in addition to being informative, it is a fantastic example of fine humanistic writing in the field of math.

Sophocles - Oedipus the King and Antigone - Great Ideas Program Vol. I

Adler makes a comment that properly guides a reading that would be fruitful. "Oedipus and Antigone are each confronted with a choice between alternatives, neither of which can possibly turn out well. Yet they must choose. There is no escaping that" (25).

Adler asks, "Did Oedipus/Antigone have genuine alternative courses of action open to them"? (33)

I have had this strong sense that generally speaking, Greek tragedy, holds fate and free-will in constant tension. While there are clearly certain events and maybe even actions that are "set", there are as many if not more actions and words that come from the choices (will) of the characters. The question I would pose of those reading tragedy or sacred scripture is this-- if free-will is an illusion, ploy, trick, or fiction then what does that say about the God/gods that are a part of such deciption?

I have long appreciated the translation and notes of the Theban Plays by Brenard Knox.

Recently I made my way through David Slavitt's translation of the Theban Plays. I fully enjoyed the beauty of the plays and I gained additional insights into the meaning of this masterpiece.