Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Poverty Then and Now

Charles Taylor charts a shift from the Middle Ages:

“For the Middle Ages, there was an aura of sanctity around poverty. It was not that this extremely rank-conscious society did not have a healthy contempt for the destitute and powerless, at the absolute bottom of the social ladder. But precisely because of this, the poor person offered an occasion of sanctification. Following the discourse of Matthew 25, to help a person in need was to help Christ. […]

But in the fifteenth century, partly as a result of a rise in population, and crop failures, and a consequent flow of the destitute towards the towns, there is a radical change in attitude. A new series of poor laws is adopted, whose principle is sharply to distinguish those who are capable of work from those who genuinely have no recourse but charity.”

This shift to distinguishing the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor (to use the 19th century terminology) has been well sustained throughout Western culture for quite some time now.


_222_1000_Book.53.coverNarrowly beating out “kitsch,” that’s the one word description that seems most applicable for the American Patriot’s Bible that is now making the rounds in the blogosphere.

Deist (and Bible re-writer) Thomas Jefferson was unavailable to comment, same with atheist Ben Franklin.

In all seriousness, I understand the impulse behind an attempt like this, the hope that everything that a person holds dear can fit together in a harmonious set of interlocking goals and ideals. For the many American evangelicals who are particularly stirred by patriotism this is a sort of wish-fulfillment isn’t it? 

The reality is that every Christian-majority country has tried to couch their political and military actions in religious terms. God was claimed to be in aid of both the British and the German empires at the onset of WWI. Britain, Spain, France, and Prussia all tried to claim him in the Seven Years War.

Class & Gender Stereotypes

I wonder what Mark Driscoll would think of this:

“Men have worked as essentially shop keepers and store clerks for a lot longer than they have worked on assembly lines.  There have been waiters forever.  Lawyers are the world’s second oldest profession.  Teaching was a male-only profession for centuries.  The idea that men are and ought to be unreflective, grunting, two-fisted louts good with their hands but not so much with their hearts and their heads is a class thing not a gender thing and it is imposed upon working class men by a system that needs them to be beasts of burden.”

Too Little or Too Much Hellfire?

Charles Taylor on Luther, Catholicism, and hell:

“The sale of indulgences was driven by a fear of punishment. But Luther’s message was that we are all sinners, and deserve punishment. Salvation involves facing and accepting this fully. Only in facing our full sinfulness, can we throw ourselves on the mercy of God, by which alone we are justified. ‘Who fears Hell runs towards it’. We have to face down our fears, and this transmutes them into confidence in the saving power of God.

There is perhaps an irony here. A great deal of Catholic preaching on sin and repentance was based on the principle that the ordinary person was so insensitive that they had to be terrified into responding. They had to be woken with strong effects. Preachers tried to culpabilize their audiences to the extreme. Even venial sins were talked up as something terrible, because after all, they also involve offense to God. But just this cranking up of fear may have helped to prepare people to respond to Luther’s reversal of the field.

The irony is perhaps compounded when we see how some Protestant preaching repeats the same pattern. You’re supposed to be confident in your salvation, but not flatly complacent. But because many ministers saw their flocks as leaning towards the second danger, they too cranked up the terrifying visions of damnation. Did this prepare the desertion of a goodly part of their flock to humanism?”

This is interesting given that there are still many among the Protestant laity and clergy that insist that no one is saying enough about hell these days. Could this be exactly the wrong impulse?

Creationism vs. Christianity

I came across this BBC show where a Christian philosopher argues that evolution is entirely consistent with traditional readings of the Bible, something that ought to frustrate everyone from Kent Hovind to Richard Dawkins.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Goodbye to all that


Thematically, this sort of riffs on something Keith wrote recently. A couple shows that I’ve sort of started paying attention to on TV are Mad Men and Life on Mars (the British original). Purely as entertainment, I’d recommend both, but that’s not why I’m talking about them today. Now I don’t want to speak too much about either show since I am indeed a novice fan at best, but these are my first impressions: What both of these shows do so masterfully is look at the past without nostalgia, in such a way that you don’t yearn for the past, but are rather thankful that we are no longer in the past. At least for my part I’m not in any hurry to return to the magical time ruled by chain-smoking womanizers whose tactics would today fall under the rubric of date-rape.

Anyway, I prefer this to the boomer-nostalgia narrative about things being so much better in the “good old days” and how life used to be so much simpler and nicer. That’s not a wise way to look at the world.

Martin Luther and theological controversy


Here are some interesting quotes from Martin Luther regarding how he dealt with theological controversy. Be warned, I don’t know how much Wittenberg ale is responsible for some of these comments. (HT

Luther said that he has “not been hesitant to bite my adversaries….What good does salt do if it does not bite? What good does the sword do if it will not cut?”

When Roman Catholics wouldn’t use Scripture in their debates with him, Luther called them “coarse asses.” 

The best is reserved for his theological sparring partner, Erasmus: “Erasmus of Rotterdam is the vilest miscreant that ever disgraced the earth. Shame upon thee, accursed wretch! Whenever I pray, I pray for a curse upon Erasmus.”

Luther on anger: “I have no better remedy than anger. If I want to write, pray, preach well, I must be angry. My entire blood supply refreshes me….My mind is made keen and all temptations depart.”

And most pertinent to our discussion, Luther on false teachers: “With the wolves you cannot be too severe. With the weak sheep you cannot be too gentle.”

Why the Enlightenment?

The average conception of the Enlightenment is that it came about because people realized they were believing fairy-tales on the basis of simply some other person’s say so. The Enlightenment was the discovery of the responsibility of autonomous thinking.

But it strikes me that exactly the opposite is the case. The end of Christendom didn’t come about because people were Enlightened; rather people brought about the end of Christendom so that they could claim to be Enlightened.

Let me put it another way: Christendom led, through a series of historical events, to apparently irreconcilable truth-claims. In many people’s eyes, this led to the intractable wars of religion. To end these wars, thinkers proposed that knowledge be justified only on the basis experiences all people had in common (according to them): sensation and conscience, and definitely not revelation. Once this proposal was accepted, by definition revelation-claims became seen as a-factual, and therefore irrelevant to politics.

There is really no reason to think that only things held in common by all people can justify knowledge, and that should be our first clue that something besides realizing the truth about the human condition was occuring in the Enlightenment. In reality, politics was driving philosophy, not the other way around.

The Way Southern Baptist Seminary Used To Be

Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Al Mohler has changed the landscape of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

It’s hard to imagine SBTS as it was in it’s pre-Mohler days when the Imonk went there:

When I was in seminary, I sat in a classroom and watched students heckle the gentle and zealous Dr. Louis Drummond as he talked to us about personal evangelism. I watched students in the campus “Evangelism Club,” ridiculed openly as idiots by graduate students who held evangelism in contempt. I heard professors talk about how to deal with the ignorant and unlearned back at the church, those benighted laity who weren’t fortunate enough to know what was really going on as the anointed ones practice the mysteries of Biblical criticism. A friend heard pro-lifers called “fools” by a professor of Christian ethics.

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Modernism: Bad Points

I have two major criticisms of modernism. (My analysis and criticism of modernism is limited to the intellectual history of modernism as it relates to secularization and the philosophy of religion.) Both of these criticisms are attacks on the status of absolute reason as understood by moderns. Moderns believed, especially after Lessing, that rational thought sought out truths of reason rather than truths of history. They also believed that statements could either be demonstrated by reason or they were contradictory. This is known as the autonomy of reason. Both of these assertions are serious errors.

One might believe that the goal of rational thinkers is a system of thought that makes to essential references to history. All of the important truths are timeless truths. This might even sound noble because these timeless truths are difficult to obtain and available to everyone equally. The only problem is that the justification for this is historically situated. It has not been obvious to everyone throughout history that all the important truths are non-historical. One might also believe that rational agents should be unbiased and objective. There is a sense in which this is true, but modernists tend to believe that this means we should all start with the same position! Finally, modernists tend to believe that there is a sort of univerally recognized (or recognizable) standard of “good” positions and arguments. These positions all treat the history of a person’s thought and history in general as irrelevant to good arguments and theories. This is modernism’s avoidance of history.

Leibniz believed that there were some truths that we both above reason and not contrary to reason. These truths included the trinity and the incarnation, and required revelation in order to know them. Later on, the pietists and Socianisms were united (!) in claiming that any truth “above reason” was also contrary to reason. The Socianisms claimed that this gave reason to reject the mysteries of the faith. The pietists claimed that this was the virtue of faith – believing contradictory claims. Both sides accepted the idea that there were no mysteries of the kind that Leibniz espoused. If human reason could not reconcile two claims, then those two claims were contradictions. This placed human reason in autonomy in the realm of rationality. Human reason did not have to answer to anything. This is was modernisms avoidance of mystery.

I am not (yet) going to argue against these positions. I am just going to point out how common they are. Consider the case of Bart Erhman. He claimed that those who believed that the Bible is inerrant and were aware of Biblical problems would lose their faith. This is only true if that same person believed in a strong form of the autonomy of reason. If we should be able to reconcile all Biblical problems right now, then that is true. Otherwise his warning is silly. Consider the case of those who believe that God exists in the philosophy classroom. They will be asked to defend their belief. Yet those who believe that God does not exist, those who believe that we cannot know whether he exists or not and those who believe that there is no practical difference are not asked to defend their belief. The is only a good method if some universal standard tells us that “God exists” is an inferior position to the other ones. Consider the case of politics. Some people are for the Iraq war and others are against it. Both positions (or neither) require defense equally. Yet very few treat it that way. That imbalance is evidence of the modernist avoidance of history. (Not everyone shares your intellectual history.)