Friday, January 27, 2012

Concerning Civil Government (Second Essay) John Locke

     In a time such as ours, it is wise to be politically well read. As a matter of fact, it might be best to turn off the "debates" and Presidential State of the Re-election Speech and read a Classical document on government. One great starting place, to be more informed is John Lock's Concerning Civil Government: The Second Essay.      
     Mortimer Adler does a great job of introducing this important political work and its historical context within The Great Ideas Program. He points out that Locke was not the first to articulate the notion of "social contract."  Adler, adds also there are great differences between the views of Hobbes and Locke on the origin of the state.  Adler compares Hobbes, Locke and Aristotle showing, that for some, the state of nature was rather dark.  However, Locke's view of the state of nature was not as bleak. (120)   "Hobbes thinks of the state of nature as one of war and brutishness, Locke thinks of it as a state of liberty." (127)  However, according to John Locke, there are distinct disadvantages of the state of nature (129).  It is clear that property is very important in Locke's political theory.  By property,  Locke means private property.  One can only imagine Locke's reaction to one's labor being taxed.  
     Adler does another service for the reader by connecting Aristotle's notion of humans being political animals to what John Locke is examining. For Locke, we are political animals because "we possess speech and reason." (131) The other advantage to reading Adler's brief introduction to this work is that he includes interpretive questions.  These are the kinds of questions that would cause current American political figures to lose sleep.  With teleprompters off, it would get very ugly, very fast.
     Some questions that Adler asks,
1) Aristotle said that the political state is natural,  Locke says that the natural condition of man is that in which he existed prior to the origin of the state. What is the reason for this difference?
2) Does a social contract theory require us to believe that there actually was a time when men believed in the state of nature?
3) Are sovereign nations in a state of nature?
4) Since, according to social contract theories,  a state is formed by the consent of all those who were in a state of nature, must a government of a civil society also be based on consent, i.e., must it be constitutional?
5) What, if anything, is the significance of substituting "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for "life, liberty and estates" in the enumeration of natural rights?
6) Were the writers of the Declaration of Independence any less believers in the right of estates (i.e., private property) than Locke?
7) Why should property be represented at all?
   You can see why I believe that turning off the political noise, reading this work, and then thinking through these questions would be of far greater benefit.  It may also shock us into seeing that the issues and ideas of Locke and the Founding Fathers have been set aside for the agenda of a massive federal government that is bloated to the point of self-destruction, and all the while property is still a major issue.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

On Why C.S. Lewis is Right About Reading Old Books

     The first-rate Christian intellectual C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963) certainly left the world of Christendom a chest to constantly return to and draw new treasures from. In addition to Lewis's essay Learning In War Time and his must read (for any and all concerned with real education) The Abolition of Man, his short piece On the Reading of Old Books reflects a maturity and understanding of learning that has few rivals.
     Lewis knew what all lovers of Great Books know--that of all their many qualities, literary, theological, and philosophical masterpieces have the potential to expand the human soul. Lewis's case against derivative works, instead of the primary works, is extremely insightful. He was sensitive to the fact that most readers are intimidated by the classics.
     When Lewis says, "The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism," I would agree completely.  My experience of teaching Great Books to college Freshmen and Sophomores bears this out entirely.  Many of them have even noted that Plato is considerably easy compared to the modern "experts" offering commentary on Plato.  I suspect one could say the same about the Bible.
     Of the many intellectual nuggets Lewis has in this brief essay, it is the point about reading older books more often than newer books that people often site. In truth, being the kind of person that does read more old books than new books, I would agree again.  There is something fresh, new, distinct, rich, and vibrant with the old books in contrast to most of the new books, especially since most new books are in some way or manner derived from the old books.  One point that Lewis makes on why we should read older books more often than new books is that the new books are still being tested. In other words, the jury is still out on the real value of these works. If we only have so many hours in a day, and so many days in a year, and so many years of our life, then the big question is what should we spend time reading?
     After reading this essay, we can better recognize that we need books that help us to see the mistakes of our own era, and modern books are too much a part of our own error.  Modern books tend to increase our myopia of our own age.  Lewis was not ignorant of the past. As a brilliant literary historian, he recognizes that the past had its own set of problems. However, these problems were not always the same as our own, and by virtue of being different problems, it gives us both an insight into that age and into our own age.
     On an autobiographical note, it was actually C. S. Lewis's deep admiration for George McDonald that prompted me to write a doctoral dissertation on MacDonald's shorter fairy tales.  I was so struck by Lewis's love of an author who preceded him and so keenly affected him, that I needed to read this author.  Knowing MacDonald's works has indeed heightened my appreciation of Lewis's works, especially Lewis's The Great Divorce.
     In this fine essay on books, Lewis makes a brief and yet persuasive case of the historical  reality and the value of what has been associated with Lewis's name--"mere Christianity." "Measured against the ages,  'mere Christianity' turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible."
     Further proof of C.S. Lewis's respect for older great books is that this piece is now part of the forward for a great, old writing by Athanasius. Lewis admits that when he first read Athanasius's The Incarnation, it change the way he thought entirely about Jesus and the Church.  It would do us all well at this point to track down some old writings of George McDonald and Athanasius, and read some of the older Great Books that can help change the way we see the world we live in and be more diligent in being faithful in that new world.

Petrarch's Sonnets and Shorter Poems....The David Slavitt Translation

     Once again, David Slavitt has provided a fine translation of an important Italian treasure.  Petrarch's Sonnets and Shorter Poems is well worth the time and expense.  Slavitt offers a preface with a few thoughts about Petrarch and some words on Slavitt's own rationale for translating as he does.  Petrarch is recognized as one of the greatest and most diverse poetic voices of the Renaissance. The reader is able to enjoy the terrestrial and divine delights explored in meter.  As a way of helping us think through human experiences, Petrarch reflects the Christian Humanistic impulse that this world is where God temporarily placed us to live, and live we should.  
     Exploring mainly human love and primarily the sorrows of that heartfelt impulse, Petrarch is a master of both form and content.  Here are some select lines:
Ambition tempts you, and you try and fail, 
and reap bitter remorse instead of fame
for having chased a dream of the world's delight. (1)

Love found me unarmed and helpless; he 

saw that my eyes were an easy way to my heart
(those passageways that so easily fill with tears). (3)

Avarice and excessive indolence in

our comfy beds have turned our natures bad,
corrupting them and making us a sad 
mockery of what we could have been...
Philosophy wonders about, naked and poor, 
while practical men seek comforts that gold buys. (7)

     Petrarch often communicates his deep feelings for Laura, but in this stanza we see his feelings and response to her in the most beautiful of terms, 

From her come loving thoughts on the kind that lead 
to noble and virtuous actions that one would 
associate with grace. She makes me good,…" (13)
and When I have turned my eyes toward my Lady's face
I am blinded as if by the shine the light so bright
that broad daylight is dazzled into night
and I have no sense either of time or place. (18) 

     However, there are also moments of true darkness in the poems of Petrarch, 

"You can be my friend
and save me – and yourselves as well, for you 
are mortal meat that must any income to
the nothingness, which may be
not so far off, 
if you could only see
through all our tears the blackness's vivid burning. (14)

     There are certain poems by Petrarch that I understand not only in terms of the words, but of the reality and the truth that stand behind the words because of the experiences of my life and the love for my wife, Tina.  

     That wispy idea of beauty we all adore
made of wind and shadows will never appear
in a single body – or rarely, it can cohere
as it did in her one time and then no more.
     Nature begrudges us such gifts when the rest
are poor, but to demonstrate that it can be done
she lavished all her riches upon one, 
the nonpareil, the paragon, the best. (315)

     Petrarch also captures the essence of the truth that sometimes the greatest teachings of pain can make us wise,

But as Nature gave you wings,
she gave me eyes
that I could use to observe what caused me pain
not merely sharp but shameful to explain
(but only from its teaching do we grow wise). (320)
     There are also some poetic lines reflecting a devotion to God that rivals the great Dante:
A number of these poems are rich in theological and devotional import, 
This life's delusions cannot hold me here. 
I know them all and long since have learned
where true happiness lies, and I have turned
toward Heaven from which the light is bright and clear. (322)

     Love stabs in heals, but I have escaped his grip

and have found in an easy freedom from his wiles,
though not through any virtue or scholarship.
     The lord in heaven has put an end to my trials, 
and his peace is the object of the trip
I shall conclude after a few more miles. (326)

You can see all my defects, Heavenly King,

and can mend my soul,
in tatters now and frayed. 
Having been indifferent and having strayed,
your mercy is the hope to which I cling. (327)

     Petrarch poetically and clearly states what his overall intention is--that he longed to be as skilled as the poetic masters of ancient days, in hopes to give proper literary homage to Laura.
She deserves at least a Homer or divine
Orpheus, or perhaps the Mantuan bard
to celebrate her grace as she walks on earth. (164)

     Having read and enjoyed the masterpieces of Homer and Virgil, Petrarch can requiescat in pace that he is indeed in their company.  
The good news is that there are Classical Christian schools across the nation that read, copy, imitate, and study the masterpieces of poetry.  Following the Great Tradition of the Medieval and Renaissance academy, in the discipline of imitating the best, students developing the skills of copia should look at masterful translations of the poetic giants and strive to imitate.  The practice of imitating the best in a range of translations will assuredly provide richer form and content for all students.    

Simone Weil's Enchanting "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies"

     Imagine a modern educational tract, or possibly a speech on the ends of education, beginning with the assertion that the goal of all learning is to love God.  Most of us cannot imagine such an assertion.  Within the deeply secularized institution of modern American learning, there is really less hostility toward God and more of common place apathy.   
     For those of us that cannot imagine a view of education with God at the beginning, middle, and end, we have to look to a different time.  Simone Weil (1909-1943) offers such a view of education.
     Among the many redeeming qualities of this brief piece is the main theme that is present throughout the entire essay--Weil's contention that we must develop the 
"faculty of attention."  She wonderfully asserts that if we love God, we should learn to like all subjects.  In other words, our love for God will prompt our love for all of reality and all learning of reality.
     For Simone Weil, prayer and studies are  intertwined as they relate to the theme of attention. Weil believes there is great value in exercising attention. It appears to me that by the term attention, Weil means consideration or deep awareness.  She says, "Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted."
     One great point in this piece by Weil is, "quite apart from explicit religious belief, every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit."
     As with other writers in the Great Tradition that address the sense of authentic learning, a matter of virtue is of the utmost importance. For Weil, "a far more precious treasure than all academic progress" is the virtue of humility.
     There are a number of insights within this brief work that are simply striking. One thing Weil says that is rare among thinkers, even within the field of Classical Christian education, is the notion of joy as it relates to learning.  "The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking is that there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade." One could easily add that the atmosphere of joy would certainly be more conducive to not only the learning of intellectual matters, but the learning of spiritual matters.
     In addition to defining attention within the essay, Weil actually gives advice for what one should do as an instructor when attention is waning.  She also encourages schools to provide unique exercises of a thought nature that can be, and should be, seen within a sacramental sense. Weil says, we have a duty toward children to make this method of devotion to attention a top priority. Related to this is the thought, "Happy then are those who pass their adolescence and youth in developing this power of attention…Whoever goes through years of study without developing this attention within himself has lost a great treasure."
     I will conclude this summary of Weil's essay with what is an appropriate summary of this entire writing, "Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worthwhile to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it."  When was the last time you heard anyone, including academic leaders, speak of learning in such lofty terms?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Christian Humanistic Reading of Ovid or Why Dante Is Our Virgil for The Metamorphoses

     For no other reason than Ovid's influence on Dante and Shakespeare, the Christian should read Ovid.  How are we then to read this author?  Beyond his well known and more often read Metamorphoses, there is his erotic poetry Amores, Ars Amatoria, and Remedia Amoris.  Ovid's poems, letters, and remedies, most recently translated by David Slavitt are certainly not for the novice.  These poems are often polite, humorous, and could be seen as a "How To Manual" for wooing a would-be lover and even a manual on how to "fall out of love." These works of "lighthearted amatori advice" had most severe consequences in a time of Augustus's moral reforms and ultimately led to Ovid being exiled.
     One possible way to get more out of these works, in addition to a few laughs and a few moments of enjoying the beautiful use of language, is to do a kind of reading in reverse.  For example, Ovid suggests that one can "fall out of love" by highlighting negative qualities and dwelling on those features.  A reverse practice might be, that in order to stay in love, one ought to highlight wonderful qualities of one's beloved.
     Metamorphoses deals with transformation and eroticism.  This work should be thought of as a grand foundation writing in the Western world that provides the reader with humorous moments and insights into the nature of transformation.  Ovid wrote in a tone and style reflecting detachment.  These writings span the spectrum from heartrending romantic love to some examples of sexual perversion.  
     Even Ovid, in his own defense claimed (while in exile) that his poems were not read as he intended.  Regardless, Ovid died in exile and the powers of that day did not think they had misread his love poems.  Many today read Ovid in the spirit of base sensuality.  Is it possible to read Ovid and gain some edifying insights into the human condition and enjoy the beauty of his poetic imagination and poetic expression?  
     One route might be a Christian allegorical reading of Ovid.  A modern Christian could easily follow the example of Dante.  As Christian readers, we are an interpretive community and, as with all camps, have our biases and presumptions.  We should admit that up front and then jump in with care.
     What might this way of reading look like?  Here is a brief example below:
     In Canto twenty-four through twenty-six of the Inferno, Dante, following the form and content of Ovid, vividly demonstrates that the most horrific metamorphoses are those from peace, grace, and eternal joy toward evil and eternal damnation.  The serpent of the garden is the most profound example of the transformation from angelic being to lowly serpent.  Even more profound is the transformation from being human, the image bearing pinnacle of the creation of God, into anything less than human.   

Some fine recent translations of Ovid's key works:
Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies by David Slavitt
The Metamorphoses translated by Stanley Lombardo
The Metamorphoses translated by Charles Martin
Tales From Ovid by Ted Hughes

Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall Of the Roman Empire

     I would like to begin by encouraging everyone to read, as a way of corrective to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Christopher Dawson's essay, "Edward Gibbon and the Fall of Rome."  Contrary to Gibbon, Dawson recognized that, in the history of the the Western world, there is no more momentous occurrence than the spread of Christianity.  It is this event which gives social and political meaning to the division of history into B.C. and A.D.
     Adler, in his introduction to the Gibbon's reading, argues that the replacement of paganism by Christendom represents a profound, perhaps the most profound, change in the moral and spiritual character of western life as it revolutionized society and human life.
     It certainly seems very intentional that Adler begins his reflections of Gibbon's writing in this manner particularly because he points out Gibbon's general skepticism.  Adler also recognizes that it is an unfair and indeed an unwise procedure to speak in any summary manner about such a work of such a massive scale.   With a work so large in scope, by reading just a few chapters of that work could easily lead to misreadings.  Adler selected the portion he did because he points out that the Roman emperors during the first 200 years of Christianity are worth understanding.  Adler, also encourages the readers who are reading Gibbon's massive work  to read the works of history by Tacitus and Livy.  I believe that Adler did this as additional corrective to Gibbon. 
     It is indeed striking to realize that from 180 A.D. to 323 A.D. there were twenty-five emperors. Adler makes it pretty clear that Gibbon's attitude towards Christianity is indeed less than friendly and objective.   However, Adler states that Gibbon does not hide this bias (154). 
     Some questions that Adler encourages us to consider as we make our way through this work. 
1) How does the rise of Christianity relate to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire?
2) Is Gibbon a determinist in his view of history?
3) Does Gibbon seem to think that history moves in a pattern that is unchangeable according to laws of its own nature so that it accomplishes its own end?
4) What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Christian religion?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Life of the Mind as Vocation in a Mindless Age....Sertillanges's The Intellectual Life

     When I tell people that have little or nothing to do with the academy of which I am a Professor, I usually get the same look.  While it is not the same look I imagine one would get if they declared they worked with those inflicted with leprosy, it is close.  I have even had a few honest folks say, "well, what's it like working with a bunch of egg-heads all the time?"  They are even more surprised when I tell them that many in the academy care nothing about learning and education.  The truth is, and I have said this before in several settings, the Christian intellectual is doubly marginalized.  The academy cares little for Christian intellectuals, and the church cares as little for Christian intellectuals.
     So what is one who is desiring to honor God with the life of the mind to do?  First, know what you are getting yourself into before you start down that path. The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges is a fine guide.  While it was published in 1920, it is filled with much instruction on these matters.  This book, as with others of this nature, was influenced by Thomas Aquinas's "Letter to Brother John."  Before James Schall in his book, The Life of the Mind,  Os Guinness in his book The Call, and Mark Noll's recent Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Sertillanges points out that the vocation of the intellectual life can and should be seen as a calling.   He says this of vocation, "vocation is not fulfilled by vague reading and a few scattered writings. It requires penetration and continuity and methodical effort…"
     As with all great masterpieces, there are often passages that beg for analysis and extended reflection and mediation.  The Intellectual Life is such a work, and what follows is such a passage. "The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind, like those of the playing field, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us."  I remember reading Adler also speaking about the demands of an intellectual life borrowing the language of sports.  The problem is that in a culture that has become cultic about sports, this metaphor makes no sense.  The notion of students giving such attention to the mind with the fervor as many do to a game is just silly.
     Sertillanges highlights a key point often forgotten when it comes to searching for one's location. Finding real pleasure in what one does may be a large part of finding ultimate fulfillment in location.  He would have us to seriously consider the ends and the means of our vocations. Among the many insightful points within this work, one that stands at the top of the list is a proper definition of scientia that the author gives.  "Science in the broad meaning of the word, scientia, is knowledge through causes; but actively, as to its attainment, it is a creation by causes.  We must recognize and adopt the causes of knowledge, then provide them, and not defer attention to the foundations of our building…"
     As with other great works through the ages that address the life of the mind, this work, The Intellectual Life, encourages us to take care and redeem the days, strengths, and vigor of our intelligence.  Any and all who are able ought to encourage students to be diligent in the life of the mind.  "Lectures, reading, choice of companions, the proper proportion of work and rest, of solitude and activity, of general culture and specialization, the spirit of study, the art of picking out and utilizing data gained, some provisional output" are all of extreme importance.
     Sertillanges in key places in this work emphasizes something that few people recognize the value of as it relates to the intellectual life. He lifts up the value of the will.  As if one is willing, then much can be accomplished.  If one has not the will, then what is to follow?  What true education is and learning God's wisdom, according to this author, is that it creates within us a humble spirit and drive for wisdom and it turns our hearts and our minds toward what is first and foremost, and then our hearts and minds toward the supreme and of what is ultimate.

“On Mathematical Method” Alfred North Whitehead....Gateway to The Great Books Vol. 9 Mathematics

     I have expressed in other blogs I've done on Math, that if I had a teacher like Whitehead, that is one who not only gave me the mechanics of "doing math," but also, the "what is the meaning of this," it is likely that this blog would be entitled, "Confessions of a Christian Mathematician."  I was almost giddy when I read from the great Alfred North Whitehead, “But it is equally an error to confine attention to technical processes, excluding consideration of general ideas” (51). 
    Well, maybe, just maybe, there are future mathematicians being encouraged with the meaning of math and not merely the "how to" of math.  Among the many treats in this short piece, Whitehead does what few moderns do today when comparing our mathematical and scientific position with future generations.  He graciously and humbly affirms that, “There is no reason to believe that they were more stupid than we are” (62).  What a surprise. The norm when reading math and science today is the chronological snobbery that belittles and berates anyone not currently a practitioner with all the presuppositions of moderns. 
     The ultimate value of "doing math" historically is to learn along side of those who were often first rate philosophers and theologians as they were exploring the meaning of math.  Can you imagine a child, who learns the formulas and procedures, with the ideas of why and how, through the lens that affirms the good, the true, and the beautiful? 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Petrarch's On Religious Leisure

     When most think of the father of Christian Humanism, Petrarch, they tend to think of him in terms of his extraordinary skills as an essayist or poet.  Few know that he wrote an extremely influential devotional book.  Despite this reality, I have read anti-Petrarch tracts over the years blaming him for all sorts of evils.  In truth, his life and works could parallel that of any number of other leaders during the Renaissance and Reformation. What is stunning is how few of his critics have actually read his works.  What is more stunning is that this was true in his own day.
     In his On Religious Leisure, we have a rare treat from any era.  Petrarch, a first rate Renaissance humanist (in the historical sense of that term), deeply reflecting on Sacred Scripture and matters of the faith with the aid of the best tools of the studia humanitatis penned a devotional classic.  This work is a model for aspiring Christian Humanists.  Within this devotional masterpiece, Petrarch, adopts the medieval literary form of devotional literature which shows his humanistic impulse of imitating different forms to match the content.
     This beautiful work as a whole is divided into three major parts essentially addressing the "enemies of the soul".  First, demons.  Second, the world, and the third part is the flesh.  For any who has seriously read the writings of Petrarch, whether they be of a so-called religious or secular nature, it is clear that Augustine is of great influence on his soul. This writing demonstrates this in the most profound way. For critics who see a humanistic impulses in Petrarch's mind in opposition to traditional Christianity, this work could easily correct that falsehood. In this book, Petrarch speaks of God in terms that are decidedly Biblical. It is clear that a rationalistic or naturalistic notion of God is completely absent from this work.
     There are too many places to note within this writing that demonstrate Petrarch's humility. Let me give just one, "Here now I mean to make good my intention and to express in writing what I was not able to do in person, if only my voice is strong enough, the voice of a sinful man who is tired, ignorant, and overwhelmed with care." (4)
     The true genius of this work is found at moments of what would be called an extended meditation on particular words or phrases. One such example is his use of the term "take time". In addition to reflecting on this notion in reference to Aristotle, there is a good bit of Scripture where Petrarch connects the phrase of "take time" and all that it implies for living a faithful diligent life. Here is one quote that perfectly illustrates this point, "What am I doing? Is there any corner of the Scriptures anywhere which is not full of useful threats and admonitions, which is not full of consolations and cures for the soul? Therefore take time, my brothers, from these unseen plagues about which I have warned you above and about to speak further, and so that I may settle the matter once and for all, abstain from all matters in which the peril of your soul lies." (19)
     Throughout this work Petrarch makes distinctions. Possibly the most important distinction is between true virtue and apparent virtue. It is simple enough to recognize from this work and other writings by Petrarch that he has not always been well represented. Contrary to the all too common misreading of Petrarch, one place of correction is when Petrarch discusses virtues. His reflection on virtues is clear that he sees virtues as a gift from God. One such instant is here, "They believe habit is created by repeating acts, as if either one act of virtue or the choice itself were within the power of humanity without the help of God." (137) In places in this work Petrarch gives God the entire credit for the possibility of even being virtuous. In other places he speaks about God as assisting or providing grace to those who are seeking to please God by living a more virtuous life in Christ. On this particular point, the most telling may indeed be this, "Into this way only his evils are his own, or if he wants to share his attributes with someone else, whatever virtue there is in a moral man belongs to God alone. This cannot belong, or be said to belong, to another because even exterior objects belong to God. " (140)
     For Petrarch, "true virtue" is that which is authentically rooted deep within the human soul and manifests itself in consistent Christian conduct. False or inauthentic virtue would be that which is not rooted within the soul and/or that which does not manifest itself consistently in Christian conduct.
     This work is filled with devotional gems from beginning to end. It is not uncommon to find on different pages insights into God's Holy Word that causes the reader to commit oneself to greater devotion. It is also common to see Petrarch referencing Cicero in part of a paragraph and God's Divine teaching in another part of the paragraph.  However, he does this in a uniquely complementary manner.
     There are times On Religious Leisure sounds more like a contemporary fundamentalist preacher than a brilliant Christian humanist of the Renaissance. One example is, "More pertinent to this endeavor, however, are humanity's sins, which have created all the problems and remaining plagues of the world, which are innumerable and limitless. If there were no sins, there would be no human misery, no disaster, no confusion, no death. Now, however, they are so great that they bring with them another evil even greater than the goads of our conscience…This is above every other evil: our sins make us unfaithful, lacking in belief, continually desperate, and, as if God did not care for human concerns, prone to all crime and shame." (56)
     On the other hand, true to the Humanistic impulse of the Renaissance, Petrarch speaks in a more favorable manner of human nature as created by God, and of which even sin could not ruin all of God's glorious working.  In other words, Petrarch and some of the Reformers would not have been on the same page regarding the power of sin to alter the nature God formed with Adam and Eve.  It is worth noting that Petrarch's view of human nature, despite the power and destructive force of sin, is high because of God's common grace and the original human nature being crafted by a more powerful God.
     In addition to numerous insights into Biblical passages, Petrarch also provides insight into countless Classical writings. One example is when he gives a brief meditation on Plato's Phaedro (94).  Petrarch makes abundant references to Aristotle, Augustine, Cicero, Ambrose, and a range of other early Church Fathers, while he offers rich and insightful comments on Holy Writ.

     While this work could not silence the critics, especially since in their ignorance their arrogance reigns supreme, it can offer an edifying devotional writing to those who seek spiritual reflection of a deeper nature.  Be warned, this devotional writing is along the lines of The Imitation of Christ, not what one might find on the shelves of the local Christian bookstore.  The would be prefect for anyone desiring to go to the deeper side of living the faith in Jesus Christ.

Wisdom, Wildlife and Words

     Do you know what world respected university affirms in its 1650 charter that it was established for “the education of the English and Indian youths of this country in knowledge and godliness…”?  Answer: Harvard.
     What famous American university founded by ministers in 1701 states in its charter that the trustees of the college must be ministers, and that “the purpose of the school was the instruction of youth in the arts and sciences, that they might be fitted for public employment, both in church and civil state...To the religious leaders central to this university, theology was the basis, security and test of arts and sciences…education and religion should be the basis and the chief fruits of the educational process…”? Answer: Yale.
     Several scholarly volumes have chronicled the decline and failure of higher education.  Is this decline a result of one of the many boogiemen we fear may take us over, or was it something much more subtle and subversive?  My suspicion is that the usual foes that are mentioned are not our greatest threat.  It seems that even the “best” universities and Christian schools that guard the gates against common threats eventually have the walls broached; or some spy makes his way in to cause collapse from within the camp.  In truth, the real problem may be the slow and daily decline of Christians thinking seriously as Christians.  It is a gradual and nearly unnoticeable failing of God’s people, who are supposed to be shaped by God’s Spirit through Sacred Scripture, but instead are being molded by worldly wisdom and the spirit of the ages.  Did the drift begin with the Bible teachers, among the Biology faculty, or with the literary selections made by English faculty?  Or did it begin with the historians’ studies as they lost sense of the big picture?  Maybe the drift began when the many philosophies contrary to common sense became commonplace. 
     While many have written about the demise of education over the past generation, we should be less concerned with the soulless state university and more concerned with the mindless Christian academy.  The Bible encourages us to glorify God in our thinking.  This is what we refer to as Christian education.  There may indeed be legitimate grounds for deep despair, but we, as followers of the Christ, should have real hope.  Those in the Christian academy serve the one who gave new life to His murdered son; he can certainly give new live to the withered Christian mind.
     Therefore, for a few moments, let us reason together.  I am compelled to admonish the reader, the body, and the Christian academy.  It is worth noting that even the Greek word, admonish, translated in both classical and New Testament Greek, can denote “to speak to the mind.”
     Let us begin with a most peculiar passage in the Old Testament that describes the “wisest” man in the Old Testament.  
     1 Kings 4:29-34 (ESV) And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt.  For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations.  He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005.  He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.  And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom. 
     Isn’t that strange?  We might think that a devout, religious king would be busying his royal head with merely practical matters of managing his minions.  In truth, Solomon stands as a model for all of us.  You can be devout and be a thinker at the same time.  You can be intensely concerned about the ways of God and a reflective ruler.  Solomon’s knowledge and wisdom were interconnected and they should both be seen as a gift from God.  In this passage, we see the king described as philosopher, poet, musician, and natural scientist.
   In the new covenant, we even see that our brother, Stephen, made a unique reference to Moses as he stood before the Sanhedrin moments away from his mature death.   Acts 7:22 (ESV) And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.  While Moses was certainly wise in the ways of God, it is the reference to him being “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” that stands as a possible spur for us to attain all the wisdom of the ages and place it in the service of God. 
     We should recall that while Jesus used some “uneducated and untrained” fisherman to turn the world upside down, he also used the highly educated Luke and Paul to pen most of the New Testament
     By way of a cautionary tale, even education can be taken to extreme.  If we recall how others may perceive the highly educated, we may be moved to keep in mind that while the life of the mind is a noble way to serve God, others may not be able to properly appraise our learning.  Acts 26:24-25 (ESV) And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, "Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind."  But Paul said, "I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.
     Another key figure we meet in Acts is a Greek.  We read in Acts 18:24 (ESV) that he was a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures.  No doubt that this eloquence developed while studying rhetoric, logic, and philosophy, and was placed in service as he grew in his competence of scripture.  
     All true knowledge ultimately finds its place in God.  He is the author of all truth; therefore, all truth is God’s truth:  from Biology to Bible, language to Liberal Arts, Math to Marketing, Chemistry to Calculus, Logic to Literary Criticism, Philosophy to Physical Fitness, English Literature to Economics, Criminal Justice to Computer science, and Psychology to Physics.  Lest I attempt to include all that is in the university catalog, let me sum up this verbal see-saw by affirming that if Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, he is also Lord over disciplines ranging from Algebra to Zoology.
     The very fact that God chose to reveal Himself through the written Word stands as the greatest evidence for this part of education.  We need some knowledge of words and how they convey meaning, value, and truth.
     We would be missing the foundational call to Christian education by one greater than Solomon if we ignore His teachings when He gave the greatest command.  In Mark’s gospel we read, And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the most important of all?"  Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'  The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."  Mark 12:28-31 (ESV)
     It should be our prayer that the Creator of all forgives us because we failed to make His thoughts our thoughts, and we have failed to make His ways our ways.  If we beseech our Father, we can trust that He will enable us to take every thought captive for His eternal glory. 

Is there a BEST English Bible? Possibly....

     Since the middle of the twentieth century there has been an explosion of translations of the Bible into English. Between 1952 and 1990 there were twenty-seven English versions of the entire Bible.  Several have been added to this number since 1990.  Many are excited about this ever-expanding number; others are contending that there may be some negative unintended consequences due to this development.      
     Most discussions and debates about the “best” translation of the Bible into modern English are rooted in misconceptions about the most reliable original manuscripts, varying philosophies of language, and various translation philosophies.  The two main camps are the literal word-for-word, or the dynamic equivalent thought-for-thought.  
     Dr. Leland Ryken, Professor of English at Wheaton College, brings a unique and discerning perspective to this discussion.  Due to his expertise as a Biblical literary critic, Ryken is highly qualified to enter this arena.  He has written several helpful books that apply the discipline of literary analysis to the Scriptures.  In this current book, Ryken places the discussion of the best English version of the Bible translation within a broader context.  The majority of books written over the past few decades that examine English Bibles either take a historical approach by examining the development of the numerous versions, or a linguistic comparison of particular words, phrases or ideas from the original languages into English.  Ryken poses different questions and examines the discussion from a broader cultural and literary perspective while providing exceptionally perceptive analysis. 
     One of the many keen observations within his work, Ryken explores the shift from the more literal KJV, RSV and NASB to the more parphasistic NIV and NLT.  He questions the philosophy behind this shift and highlights the errors inherent with diverse translating philosophies.  By placing questions of “thought” translations in a philosophical context (how does one have thoughts without words?) and literary context (are some ways of expressing an idea not better than others?), Ryken makes a tremendous contribution to an extremely important issue.  Ryken offers persuasive evidence that there is a substantial difference between a translation of the Bible and an interpretation of the Bible.  
     Ryken’s book is distinctive when compared with others that evaluate and contrast various English versions.  He examines matters such as effective diction, clarity, vividness, connotation, ambiguity, rhythm, and beauty.  The sections of the book that explore these issues, as well as the all-important matter of style, are among the most important, but may also receive the greatest criticism.  Since many believe that style is merely opinion and highly subjective, then the case for an elevated style (where appropriate in the original) will fall on deaf ears.   
     The book is not a tirade against the KJV for being archaic English or the NIV for being too tolerant by adding words where they are absent, or deleting words where they are present in the original.  Ryken is laying the groundwork for dealing with the serious matter of having the best English Bible.  Specifically regarding the KJV, Ryken praises the literary quality style of the KJV, while recognizing that it “has become culturally obsolete with its archaic language and deficient scholarship.”
     At the heart of Ryken’s argument is the question of how modern readers can be confident that we have the best (that is most literal and most literary) Bible in English?  Ryken does an exceptional job refuting many fallacies about Bible translations and the ideas that go behind them.  Three sections are dedicated to refuting common fallacies of translation.  He also does a marvelous job of establishing the criteria of what would be the best English Bible.  Nearly half of the book is dedicated to exposing and refuting faulty ideas about the Bible in English and the other half provides many helpful suggestions toward solving these problems.
     One flaw that some may levy against the book is that it is too repetitive.  In truth, Ryken often repeats a point, but develops it within a different context, or toward a different end than previously pursued.  Another possible flaw of Ryken’s work is that he seems hopeful about the possibilities of real change regarding this subject.  If Ryken is correct, then Christendom is torn between the “if Peter and Paul used the KJV, it’s good enough for me” and the “I personally like the NIV because it speaks to me in language that is easy to understand.”   If his assumptions are true, the problems are worse than the solutions he proposes.  Simply put, if the church is filled with some who, on the one hand, are entrenched in the way of using a translation with 1611 English and others who, on the other hand, desire a microwave version of the Bible that is tasty and easy to digest, then we are far from having one Bible that is recognized as the best translation of the Word of God into today’s English.
     Ryken’s book is a much-needed corrective to misguided translation theories that have contributed to a debasing, rather than an elevating, of the English language.  Anyone with a college level education or someone well read and familiar with these issues would benefit from this book.  It is well suited for a college level class on the History of the Bible in English, Bible as Literature, or a Hermeneutics class.  It would also be great for a small group that would be interested in grappling with this truly important issue.
     Those in the church should consider this final issue—if many modern Bible translations are written on an elementary school reading level, what happens to the maturing Christian who is desirous of a literal and literary translation written for the college graduate?

My Favorite Liberal Arts Professor and I Never Had Him for Class

     What prompted this blog is that not long ago, a professor I have tremendous respect for stated in an interview that there are few, if any great essayist alive and writing today.  If I understood him correctly, I disagree.  If I misunderstood him, I apologize.  In either case, I wanted to write a blog (not an essay) about my favorite living Liberal Arts professor.  There are some odd things about him being my favorite.
      Professor Schall is Roman Catholic (actually Father Schall in the Jesuit order) and I am not.  Professor Schall is a Professor of Political Science and yet a genius of Liberal Arts.  I am a Professor of Great Books and when he writes of Great Books (it is obvious he has read many) he warns of the temptation of relativism.  Mortimer Adler and others also warned of such things and they are right in their warnings.  I have never heard a single lecture by Dr. Schall but have read over a thousand pages he has penned.  In one essay he speaks about the mystery of people who have taught him and yet he has never met them.  Dr. Schall is such a teacher for me.  We did have one brief email exchange once about Great Books and in his gracious tone he told me to proceed with caution.
     I have for several years now required some of my graduate students in a Great Books program I oversee to read select essays by Dr. Schall.  I always get the same reaction.  The students speak about how much they have learned in only a few pages of print.  Dr. Schall moves from Scripture to Thomas Aquinas, to Peanuts (that is correct, Peanuts the comic strip), to discussions about metaphysics, science, the economy, and our muddled political milieu with the greatest of ease.  My theory is that he is able to do this, because he has the wisdom that can come with the best of a Liberal Arts education.
     In addition, to offering delightful insights on just about every page, Dr. Shall provides reading lists of books that have shaped the way he thinks.  I suspect that he has read more books than many in our increasingly bookless society have seen.  Dr. Schall writes with clarity, grace, wit, and wisdom.  I hope I have learned much from him, and if I have then I thank him for being one of my best teachers, and he is indeed my favorite teacher I never had for a single class.

     The books in the above picture are:
  • The Modern Age (grand insights into our dark moment)
  • On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs (for those needing clarity on why wasting time can be virtuous)
  • The Life of the Mind (for those with a mind looking for furniture to place in it)
  • Another Sort of Learning (for those who have yet to learn despite all their learning)
  • A Student's Guide to the Liberal Arts (for any and every student who will ever attend a modern university)
  • *The Classic Moment (not pictured, but will be purchased and read as soon as released)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Francis Bacon's The Sphinx: A Slanted Fable

     While Francis Bacon is a first rate intellect, he can also be seen as one of the enablers of our modern scientific madness. Adler says of this key Bacon work that, "The Sphinx is a fable. It is not always wise to say much about a fable. It should be read and pondered." In his introductory comments, Adler observes that at the heart of Bacon's fable is an exploration of the nature of science itself and human nature.  Adler does ask one great question, "Is there not evidence that the one kind is much more difficult than the other?" In other words, Adler is making a great observation that human nature and the nature of science are profoundly intertwined and need to be considered together as they both have implications for one another.
     There are two related questions that are also worth pondering as one reads the Francis Bacon fable on "The Sphinx." Adler asked, "to the nature of man, how much does the modern age know which Bacon did not? Or has it even forgotten some things that seemed clear and obvious to him?"  My own sense is that neither Bacon nor much of the modern mind has a real clear understanding of either the nature of science or the nature of man.
     Part of the reason I make such a bold assertion is found at the very beginning of the fable by Bacon. He describes the looks of the Sphinx that has claws of aggression. It seems that the modern world has forgotten how Christianity came to view the Griffin.  If the moden mind was guided by the Griffin, we would certainly be in a better condition.  It is worth noting that Bacon says, "the Sphinx is a killer." However, it is Oedipus in his wisdom, that slays the Sphinx. Here's one key quote from the story, "Science, being the wonder of the ignorant and unskillful, may not absurdly be called a monster." One could add, even to the knowledgeable and the most skilled, science could be thought of as a beast, apparently open to being tamed, but also ultimately beyond human control.
     Bacon also says, "again the Sphinx proposes to men a variety of hard questions and riddles which she received from the Muses." One could say that modern practical science seems to have entirely lost this sense of mystery, awe, and wonder. One thing that Bacon says that is certainly not true is that, "For he who understands his subject is a master of his end; and every workman is king over his work." Bacon and other scientists seem to miss one of the most striking aspects of applied science. It is what the Amish clearly understand. It is the reality of the unintended consequences of our application. In other words, our tools often act back upon us in a manner we did not anticipate.

     Even though this fable by a mind as grand as Bacon's is worth reading and pondering, it is the slant of the fable that is easily missed.  While there is something of a warning tone in the fable, ultimately, Bacon celebrates in fictional form man's potential for reigning sovereign with science (theoretical and applied) as our slave.  The reality of the lessons of history has demonstrated that it is often the master who is the slave.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Other Side of the Keyhole: Russell Kirk's Ghost Stories

     During my years of teaching, I have frequently admonished students with this deeply held conviction.  If you can find a cultural critic or essayist that you enjoy, and he or she also happens to write fiction—read it.  
     While Russell Kirk (1918-94) is best known as one of the founding fathers of post-World War II conservatism, a cultural critic, historian and political thinker, he has also been praised by the likes of Ray Bradbury, T.S. Eliot, and Madeleine L’Engle as a teller of ghostly tales.
     Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales is a collection of nineteen of Kirk's best “ghostly” tales from periodicals and anthologies published throughout his life.  The average literary treat is approximately seventeen pages in length.  A few of these tales delightfully exceed forty.  These stories are a real intellectual pleasure by an accomplished scholar and man of letters.  The intellectual virtues wonderfully blended with form and content are manifested within this fiction, which conveys the essence of the permanent things by means of the moral imagination.
     If this is the reader’s first encounter with the thought of Russell Kirk, great assistance comes by way of the helpful introduction by Vigen Guroian.  Guroian contends that “for a comprehensive understanding of Kirk’s conservative vision, a familiarity with his fiction is necessary, for it is here that Kirk’s rich imaginative mind vividly casts the drama of the soul’s struggle with good and evil in relation to a transcendent realm of meaning and purpose.” 
     After the introductory essay by Guroian, the reader may actually benefit by reading the concluding essay by Kirk.  “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale” is an insightful addition in which Kirk muses over why he writes such stories.  Kirk observes, “All important literature has some ethical end…and the tale of the preternatural — as written by George Macdonald, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other masters — can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.”
     Describing his own stories, Kirk notes, “The tales in this volume have retributive ghosts, malign magicians, blind angels, beneficent phantoms, conjuring witches, demonic possession, creatures of the twilight, divided selves.  I present them to you unabashed.  They may impart some arcane truths about good and evil; as Chesterton put it, all life is an allegory, we can understand it only in parable.” 
     Reminiscent of medieval morality plays where the drama is set on a cosmic stage, particular characters struggle with particular vices and virtues in places and time with eternal implications.  While Kirk has favorably been compared to Edith Wharton, Ambrose Bierce, and Edgar Allen Poe, one can also see affinities to the style and atmosphere of Charles Williams and Flannery O'Connor.   
     In comparable fashion to Williams, Kirk often blurs the artificial lines we construct between this realm and the ultimately authentic world beyond this one.  It is with a profound sense of mystery that Kirk’s stories unfold.  Similar to MacDonald, Lewis, Williams, and O’Connor, Kirk’s fiction could easily be characterized as sacramental.  In other words, there are everyday realities that serve as signs pointing to a transcendent reality often ignored or unnoticed.  This reality can and does break into our experiences and move us through marginalized moments toward that which is definitive. 
     Kirk was a fabulous prose stylist, as anyone who has read his non-fiction could attest.  His skill and imagination are demonstrated in these stories.  The plots and settings are imaginative and varied while peopled with believable characters struggling with redemption.
     Just as it is stated of Uncle Isaiah that he “left his brand on people”, it could be said of other characters that inhabit the literary and moral universe of Russell Kirk. Characters such as Raymond Thomas Montrose, Isaiah Kinnaird, Gerald Ogham, Cribben, Sarah Corr, Yolande, Frank Sarsfield, and Fork Causland tend to stay with the reader.  
     Encountering various compelling characters in Kirk’s fiction moves the reader to introspection.  “A sargeant’s son, I was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and I am shiny black: nobody excels me in negritude.  The barmaids of Pentecost Road say I have a ‘cute British accent.’ I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; the resurrection of the dead; and the life everlasting.  I am celibate, not quite forty years of age, and since my ordination chaste of body.  I have survived Hawkhill a whole year.” The various encounters, trials, temptations, failures, and a graced victory, parallel those of the readers’ who may be open to the workings of the divine.  
     The reader also inhabits the terrain of places such as Low Watford, Balgrummo Lodging, Parish of Hawkhill, Anthonyville, and Tomarack House which, in turn, become part of the reader’s internal landscape.  
     Among the many enjoyable tales in this book, there are a few that are truly outstanding.  A Long, Long Trail A-Winding and Watchers at the Straight Gate are two tales featuring the most unique central character, Frank Sarsfield.  His life is multi-layered and emotionally moving.  In The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost, (closely resembling the spiritual atmosphere of certain Flannery O’Connor short stories), ghosts are agents of Satan.  While this evil reality is not as powerful as God's “ghosts”, it can still work the master’s dark will.  The Surly Sullen Bell is an effectively heartbreaking story of unfulfilled love unified within a disturbing plot. Balgrummo's Hell follows a traditional plot of the end to which greed leads. 
     In a cautionary tale for bibliophiles, What Shadows We Pursue describes how an excessive fixation on books (like anything else) can bring deceit and death. In Saviourgate, a distracted man moves beyond the normal temporal and spatial bounds to find genuine courage.
     These stories are all placed within a moral universe where actions, words, and events have weighty import.  Russell Kirk was an orthodox Catholic believer and affirmed belief in real good and diabolical evil, the presence of sin, a need for repentance, salvation, and judgment in both the here-and-now and the age to come.
     The secular and sacred, holy and profane, temporal and eternal bleed into one another in Kirk’s ghost stories in an approach parallel to the novels of Charles Williams.  Take as one example this description, “Shoddy little theaters for X-rated films (their marquees promising more than they can deliver, in competition with the living flesh next door or down the road); ‘adult’ bookshops for retarded adolescents and middle-aged illiterates; scantly stocked tiny ‘notion’ shops that are fronts for narcotic-peddling—these are the thriving enterprises of Pentecost Road, in this year of our Lord.  The hideousness of it hurts as much as the depravity.”  
      Kirk writes in a captivating, entertaining, and engaging prose giving incarnation to his deeply held convictions.  Signals of transcendence constantly break through even as the decline of mundane surrounding is described,  “Fashionable suburbs, the automobile, and industrialization had turned the North End into a boneyard of defaced and degraded old houses.”  Or in another scene, “There were more than two thousand people here in town and roundabout, a few years after the General built Tamarack House!  But first the lumber industry gave out, and then the mines were exhausted, and the prison-break in 1915 scared many away forever.  There were no passenger trains now, and they say the railway line will be pulled out altogether when the new freeway—they have just begun building to the east—is ready for traffic. But we still have the maples and the tamaracks, and there are ever so many raccoons and the opossums and squirrels for you to watch—and a lynx, I think, and an otter or two, and many deer.”  This scene is evocative of author Wendell Berry with the key difference that it is set within a backdrop of a purgatorial environment.
     Characterization is achieved through the normal means, but the language used by Kirk’s theological heritage is utilized, “‘I look upon you, sir,’ said Isaiah Kinnaird, ‘an an interesting phenomenon of social disintegration, a representative specimen of these depraved days.” 
     Kirk likens the ghostly tale to the “parable and fable” and comments that these stories “can be a means of expressing truths enchantingly.”  So what is it that makes these “ghosts stories” so ghostly?  In Kirk’s own words, describing the “ghosts stories” of others, “The better uncanny stories are underlain by a healthy concept of the character of evil.”  These are not mere bump-in-the-night, goose bump, chills producing stories; rather these are tales that have the capacity to move the soul toward refection.  Kirk does indeed accomplish the task of unblocking the “keyhole” and allows us to peer through to the other side.