Sunday, January 30, 2005

Tom Wolfe: Bush's Inaugural as the 4th Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

Interesting commentary appearing in the New York Times. Check it out.

Hoorah for Iraqi Elections!

The title will take you to the NY Times front page story on the Iraqi elections, which they must be grinding their teeth to have to publish. Considering how sweet it would feel for the Times to be able to say, "I told you so" if no-one had showed up to vote, I can only believe that the election must have been a smashing success to get such grudgingly positive coverage here. Oh sure, they point out that some children were killed, and that only a few people showed up in one Sunni area, but the overall story is one of Iraqis demonstrating in every way possible their pride and joy to be voting. I heard similar stories last night on NPR; one or two sour Sunnis complaining (in any representative vote they must be a small minority, and really...who expects them to be overjoyed at taking the position of a small minority after dominating the country for a generation?) but the rest of the Iraqis positively beaming and several overtly thanking the US for making it possible.

I am proud of them. I am also proud of the US, and am sick to death of whining about there not being WMD's found, when everyone...even in self-righteous Europe...believed there were. As a physician, I know what it is to make life and death decisions based upon incomplete and sometimes inadequate data, and I also know what it is to be blamed retrospectively when the rest of the data comes through and you were wrong, even partially. Nevertheless, the mass graves are exposed; most of the tyrants and killers are behind bars or dead; and there has been an election in which, without doubt, more voters turned out than usually do in America.

There will be more whining, about how the Sunnis didn't get the vote so the results are illegitimate. I might point out that our first elections excluded, by law, all the many blacks in our land, and all the women, and all the people who didn't own property. But they were a start, and we went on, imperfect as it was. Furthermore, the Sunnis excluded themselves, and actively attempted to disrupt the process for everyone else. Let us not give them the dignity of a truly oppressed minority.

There will be whining and predictions of a civil war. There may be a civil war. Did we not have one ourselves? Over issues of the minority? Can anyone really, really prefer the "peace" of mass graves slowly filling up out of the public's eye, of state sponsored abductions and executions in the night, to the exhuming of those graves and overthrow of those murderers? I cannot.

May God bless our efforts to give the Iraqi people at least a chance, the chance we had 200 years ago, to form a representative government. It may fail, but I am glad that we have at least tried. And may He bring peace to that broken land and that broken people. Amen.

Things I love

Well, Derek has asked Kairos, the group of college-students and twentysomethings that meets in our home Sundays, to write out a list of things we love. I have enjoyed reading his list, and others' whose lists appear in the various blogs here interconnected. So here is my own, organized mostly in the manner it occured to me...

  1. The God who chose the trickster Mama’s-boy instead of his likeable brother, then wrestled with him till his hip was dislocated and lamed for life and he was hanging on His neck gasping for His blessing, and called that “prevailing” and renamed him “He struggles with God” (or perhaps “God struggles”)
  2. The God who let that trickster be tricked and broken for long years, but when he was old and tired and frightened and tender told him that his beloved Joseph would close his eyes.
  3. The God who named us after that trickster.
  4. The God that wept with the mourners outside Lazarus’ tomb.
  5. The God that wept over Jerusalem and said He had wanted to take her under his wings but she would not have it.
  6. The God who heard that Terrible prayer that was lifted up by the waters of Babylon, and answered it.
  7. The God of the Seven Thunders that we did not hear…
  8. The song that this God has sung into reality, and all the beautiful, terrible substance of that song.
  9. A light mist over glassy still water just before sunrise.
  10. Wind, especially a warm steady wind in my face.
  11. Just a breath of wind in the morning, enough to raise anchor and drift out without the engine.
  12. A steady 10-knot wind, smooth water, a close reach with all the sail up, sun optional.
  13. A steady 15-knot wind on a broad reach, with following 4-foot swells.
  14. A wind loud over the bow and in the rigging, pressing you over, nothing to think about but the sails and the waves and the tiny world of your small vessel, keeping afloat.
  15. A quiet cove in the evening, with a good bottom that will hold an anchor.
  16. The man and woman who gave me life, a warm home, and taught me how to be happy. May we meet again.
  17. The woman who gave me love and four children, three from her own womb, all from her own heart.
  18. Lauren
  19. David
  20. Daniel
  21. John
  22. Keith, and those yet-unknown young women who will become my daughters-in-law. May God make them just so.
  23. The comforts and intimacies of marriage.
  24. The smell of the top of a baby’s head.
  25. Evening before the fire, with a good book, snowing outside, and no appointments tomorrow.
  26. Early morning before anyone else is up, the house quiet, with room for the mind to work.
  27. Books. New books. Unread, chosen books.
  28. The poetry of T. S. Eliot
  29. “Four Quartets”
  30. The poetry and prose of Carl Sandburg.
  31. Science fiction, the kind with coherent science and a speculative premise.
  32. When you read the Velveteen Rabbit, and the young child in your lap asks why you are crying, but you cannot say.
  33. Why did Jesus cry?
  34. Celtic music, the kind with mournful whistles and uillian pipes that make you long for something, and weep, that remind you that the world will break your heart.
  35. But not bagpipes.
  36. Beethoven, especially as conducted by von Karajan.
  37. Most music conducted by von Karajan.
  38. Johannes Biber’s Cycle of Mary
  39. Latin music
  40. Dancing to Latin music
  41. Dancing tango.
  42. Driving. Especially an open car, especially on a trip.
  43. That sense, alone in a car or in a boat, that one could go anywhere; that an adventure awaits.
  44. Learning
  45. Seeing connections between apparently unrelated ideas.
  46. Seeing glimpses of God’s ideas in the world He created.
  47. Wondering
  48. The ocean. Could never live far from the ocean.
  49. Remembering. Longing.
  50. The wind again, warm in my face, and a well-found boat. Time to go…

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Top down or Bottom up?

[The following appears as a response to a post at the Dialogical Coffee House on Jan 19. It was so long I thought I should also post it here. Read the inciting post first...]

A few months ago, Derek Melleby gave me the CD of this speech, about which he was quite excited. "It will change your life" he said, tongue in cheek. On first listening, I found myself feeling that this was completely wrong. Because of my respect for Derek, I listened to it again a few days ago, taking notes. Here are my thoughts...

At some deep level, I felt this overall thesis...that culture changes from the top down and not from the bottom up...was wrong. If you hear the speech, Hunter is pretty categorical in saying that the predominant Christian view, that we change culture by spreading the Gospel to individuals and then the effects of that trickle up to the culture at large, is just plain wrong. He uses several examples to demonstrate that small minorities have leveraged huge changes in the culture using the principles posted above: Jews have inordinate (ie, beyond their numbers) influence in media; homosexuals have in a few years changed the sexual mores of the nation; Nietsche and Freud and even Billy Graham affected the larger culture through their association with various elites. Wilberforce was a member of Parliament and had powerful friends. Kuyper likewise. Jesus had a group of powerful friends and a network.

Uh, that last one is problematic. To be fair to Hunter, though he does use Jesus and the apostles as models, he does not suggest that the apostles were cultural elites, only that they created a network. But even this seems to belie the whole thing. Fact was, Jesus discipled a group of 12 "fringers", who then broadcast the gospel widely without any evidence whatsoever of an elite-directed, top-down strategy. Saul was not targetted by the apostles...he heard the gospel mostly at stonings, and was directly recruited by God, so to speak. Even Paul always went first to the synagogues, hardly the centers of power in the Roman empire. True, he ended up, at least a few times, speaking before power (usually in chains), but we have no documentation of any effects there, and he certainly didn't try to work himself into the elite structures directly. Then, we see this movement growing, not among the wise and powerful, but among the weak, simple, and numerous. Eventually it topples the Roman empire, not from the top, but from the catacombs, after hundreds of years. When it does, (if you see the conversion of Constantine as a climax), the resulting "Christendom", insofar as it now has power, begins to be corrupted.

I am troubled by Hunter's proposals because they seem against the whole flavor of the scriptures and the gospel particularly, that our power lies not in our own strengths, whatever they may be, but wholly in the power of God, and that God over and over again "chooses the weak to shame the powerful". Yet he has powerful examples of the culture changing from the top down, and one can hardly argue with his observations. The culture has been affected most recently, and perhaps usually, from the top down, yet there is no direction to us in the scriptures to work in this way. How can this be?

I will submit for your consideration the idea that there are two Cities in this world, Babylon and Jerusalem. Two kingdoms in conflict. This is not my idea. I believe it is very Biblical (see Revelation) but it has been articulated well by Augustine, Lewis, and others. I think what Hunter is observing is the means by which Babylon has always affected culture, and the trend which its culture always finds most comfortable. The elites of the Enlightenment write, "throw off the chains of authority and revelation, and become free to discover truth directly, through reason" and insofar as that appeals to Mankind, the majority of which are always citizens of Babylon, the masses follow. The elites of last century write, "throw off the chains of Christian sexual morality and express yourself sexually", and again, the following masses comply, because the message is consonant with their own sinful desires and with the major "truth" of their City, that autonomy is next to godliness. Kuyper rises to challenge his compatriots to adopt ways of God's kingdom, and he succeeds only to the extent...critical to note...that his people retain a remnant of their historic faith, which was there not top-down, but bottom up, through evangelism and discipleship. His effects did not last in the Netherlands, because that Jerusalem base was eroded, and when the base was replaced by the citizenry of Babylon, the ideas of Babylon gain full sway. Wilberforce and his network abolished slavery, and that effect lasted, probably because the idea of the liberty of individuals was and is consonant with Babylon's idol of individual autonomy.

In summary; I think there are two Kingdoms in this world, promoting two different directions, and having two differing methodologies of change. The kingdom of this world (Babylon) and its lord use top-down, power and elite-based methods to enslave and command its people. The Kingdom of God (Jerusalem) and her Lord undermine Babylon and effect change from the bottom up, changing the hearts and minds of individuals and creating a continuing insurrection with no single head that the enemy can take down. I think it was this method, working over 2000 years, that abolished slavery in Christian nations, and not Wilberforce or Lincoln and their elites. It, and not the feminist elites of last century, gave women dignity. It always percolates up into seats of power, and those Christians who find themselves among the elite do have both a special opportunity and a special responsibility to speak to power and to leverage their "capital." But we will be deceived if we think that we will change this culture, the culture of Babylon, by getting to the top and then working down. Our King works differently. He came to the very bottom, and works up.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Hebrew-Greek Dualism

Lately I have been troubled by discussions that seem to make a distinction among theological ideas and cultural practices as being either “Hebrew” or “Greek”.

It is not the distinction itself that troubles me (see my post on dualistic thinking, below) but the implied preference for the Hebrew over the Greek, which in its full development identifies “Hebrew” with “Biblical”. The categories in this way of thinking are:


The way this usually goes, some idea, practice or concept is being discussed, and the Hebrew-Greek dualist points out that this idea is a Greek or Hellenistic or Western idea, and that if we look at the Hebrew culture, or the Old Testament, or the Judaic culture in which Jesus lived and which we presume He practiced, we find a different or contrasting idea. This latter idea, because it is Hebrew/OT/Judaic, is therefore “Biblical” and to be preferred and emulated in our time.

I see so many problems with this that I hardly know where to begin. As a start, consider:

1. Such a distinction assumes that we can identify which elements of Hebrew culture and thought are prescriptive and which are descriptive or incidental.
2. It assumes likewise that we can tease out of the New Testament the many elements of Greek thought that appear there, and decide which are prescriptive and which descriptive or incidental.
3. Like the Anabaptists, it favors one Testament over the other, with the added problem that the favored Testament is the older (at least the Anabaptists favored the nearer, latest revelations)
4. It undermines the concept of progressive revelation.
5. It undervalues the sovereignty of God in understanding history and revelation.
6. It suggests an anti-Western cultural bias that is no more valid than the pro-Western bias it is reacting against.

It is probably most useful to start with the sovereignty of God. In my understanding, which I believe to be Biblical, all of history unfolds according to His will and toward the fulfillment of His purposes, even in all its detail. Furthermore, He is not a regional God, even during periods in history when His scriptures focus on a particular region. Though not a word about China appears in the scriptures, we have no doubt that His sovereign hand was directing its history as well as Israel’s. Finally, He is not a God only of the Testamental periods, but of all history, down to this moment. His sovereignty, in other words, extends utterly throughout time and space, and no event occurs by chance. (The concept of chance arises only from a combination of our timebound nature and our ignorance of causality and the future, which may amount to the same thing.)

I expect most of my readers to be comfortable with this. Certainly, even those who might be “soft” on God’s sovereignty over every tiny event will grant his sovereignty over the large events in history.

If this is so, then we must consider all of history to be revelatory of our own and God’s nature. This is not to say that it rises to the reliability or specificity of Holy Scripture, but it is to say that it may not be dismissed. It is the same reason we may not place Science over against revelation, as though there were two Truths discovered in different ways. There is one Truth that has many discernible aspects that may be illuminated in different ways.

Those who oppose Hebrew and Greek ideas make this very assumption, but do not carry it all the way through. Think of all the sermons based upon the “inside story” of a particular Hebrew word, or a particular practice in agrarian Hebrew society that is taken to “illuminate” some doctrine or some idea. The assumption is that God knew what He was doing, and chose to set his explicit self-revelation in this particular culture not by accident but by design. We assume that He not only chose Hebrew as the language in which to begin his self-revelation, but also controlled the historical development of Hebrew so it would be suitable for this revelation.

We also understand that the millennia of development of the Egyptian culture prior to the Hebrew immigration and captivity were not accidental, but led up to that particular Pharaoh in that particular Egypt with those particular gods. In our expositions, we love to assign meaning and God’s purpose to what others might see as historical accidents.

But this Hebrew-Greek dualism seems to me to arrest this sovereignty sometime before Alexander the Great. In the latter portions of history, this dualism picks and chooses among historical events as if it knew which were meaningful and which were not.

For example, this view has no problem seeing the Pax Romana as God’s sovereign plan to pave the way for the Gospel’s dissemination. Ironically, it even sees the amazing universality of the Greek language as preparatory for the Gospel. Yet it downplays the culture that gave rise to that language, as if this were a secondary, necessary but regrettable aspect of history that somehow God couldn’t avoid.

Was it simply coincidence that Alexander the Great was a student of Aristotle, who was a student of Plato? Doesn’t that strike anyone as amazingly odd? If there was any pagan figure of Biblical proportion, it was Alexander, conquering the known world—the Biblical lands—in a few short years at an amazingly young age, and then flaming out, disappearing, and leaving the world fundamentally changed. Why couldn’t he have been just a simple conquering barbarian like Nebuchadnezzar or Shalmanezer? Why did he make such a conscious effort to spread Greek thought?

Fact is, God sovereignly changed languages in the intertestamental period, and the language He chose for the NT was one specifically suited for and associated with philosophical discourse and civil government. If we want to find meaning in the Hebrew words and culture of the OT, we must use the same assumptions to find meaning in the Greek words and culture of the New. God’s story moves on, and the New Testament is clearly informed by Greek thought, Greek categories, and Greek/Roman culture. I for one am not at all surprised at the change. The world had changed, and the modern world was arriving. The huge, agrarian mega-Empires of the orient were about to go small and urban. Who knows small and urban better than the Greeks? Is it coincidence that all the western democracies are based on essentially Greek ideas, and a Christian heritage, and the remaining Kingdoms are based upon Old-Testament-style, theocratic near-eastern empires and satrapies?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Welcome Daniel

A Welcome to my son Daniel, hardly new to blogging, on the relocation of his site to Blogger/ This post's title will take you to his new site, to which he has copied some of the material he previously posted on Xanga, a system that seems to be primarily a type of in-circle communication medium for college students. The link in the margin of this page, that previously took you to his his Xanga posts, will henceforth point you only to his new site.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Sparta: A Terrifying Premonition

That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So, there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new”?
Already it has existed for ages which were before us.
There is no remembrance of earlier things…Ecclesiastes 1:9-11

Imagine a state in which there is no money, no poverty, no wealthy class. All the rich have been disenfranchised and their wealth and land redistributed evenly. There is no such thing as adultery. There is no covetousness, for private wealth is eschewed, and the means of daily living are provided and shared. Every citizen understands his or her part in the maintenance of the society, and there are no walled cities because every citizen is a defender of the city. All the generations have their place, and understand how to pass the culture down to the youth so that the society is self-preserving. Laws are not written down, because they are “imprinted on the hearts of their youth” through discipline. This culture is so successful it lasts for many centuries.

Sound good? According to Plutarch and various other ancient historians, a man named Lycurgus achieved this vision in the state of Sparta about 900 BC (yes, that’s almost 3000 years ago, just a short time after the Trojan War.) Since this would be still (in Greece at least) the age of legend, the absolute historicity of these accounts is certainly doubtful. What is beyond doubt is that this society was admired by Plutarch and many others, and a similar society is proposed by Socrates in Plato’s Republic.

Indeed, what’s not to admire? Does this not approach even a description of the New Jerusalem, an attainment of Shalom in a fallen creation? Before going on here, go back and re-read the description. Really, what is wrong with this?

Well, let us look behind the final achievement to the means used to bring it about and maintain it. The state itself redistributed the land and wealth, and assigned each family its portion. The state forbid the trading of gold and silver and set up a coinage based on heavy iron ingots, making the accumulation and exchange of this coin extremely unwieldy. They even distempered the iron so it could not be reworked into useful items. They closed the borders of the land so that traders could not enter and spoil the society. They forbid the manufacture of any but the most basic and absolutely essential items. Houses could not be adorned; they had to be shaped only with an axe and saw, to prevent the building of fancy homes.

There was no adultery because men and women were free to share their spouses, were even encouraged to do so, so as to provide healthy and robust babies. Girls and boys were exercised continuously and often presented to each other naked, to encourage the pairing of healthy human stock. All newborns were evaluated by the state’s representatives. If healthy and of good shape, they were kept. If weak or of odd shape, they were thrown into a local chasm. All children were raised by the state in a hierarchical society in which the elder and stronger continually tested the mettle of the younger, so as to weed out the weak. The city bred its citizens in the same manner as it bred its sheep.

The state also controlled all industry, commerce, and the arts, including music and poetry. The content of the lyrics was prescribed, to maintain the values upon which the society was founded. Every aspect of life was prescribed and managed by the society, acting through the state.

All of these ideas are thoroughly “modern”, and all have been revisited in the 20th century. I think of the collectivization of farms and industry in Russia, China and Cambodia; of the Iron Curtain preventing exchange of goods and ideas; of the eugenics movement in this country and its terribly efficient application in Nazi Germany; of the Hitler Youth; of the Cultural Revolution in China. Closer to home, I think of Peter Singer’s views on infanticide and sexual “ethics”, and of our own society’s continual effort to control the content of the education of our youth by standardization of public education. Our political discussions continually center on the question, how much of life and economics should be controlled by the state? And until very recently the answer has been similar to Lycurgus’s: “most of it, perhaps all of it”. Even today in the USA, almost every aspect of life and culture is directly or indirectly prescribed by the state. Even the “Christian Right” seems to want to use the state to regulate morality. We seem comfortable with the idea of a monoculture; we just disagree on how it should look.

What is the source of this impulse toward totalitarianism? Can we move away from it? If we wish to create a society that is just in all its aspects, can we do so without creating a totalitarian society? Does a “top down” methodology for societal change not require totalitarian control?

Saturday, January 08, 2005

A New Semester

A new semester begins at St. John’s in two days, meaning that I will be spending much of my time reading, discussing and writing about various classic texts in what some call the “Western canon”. This semester I will be reading works concerned with Government and Society, beginning with Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus and Aristotles' Nichomachean Ethics , and ending with Pessy v. Ferguson and Roe v. Wade. We’ll be deep into Plato, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, de Toqueville and the Federalist Papers. What a blast! To make it even more fun, my son David will also be a “Johnny”, and will be not only in the same segment but actually in one of the same classes with me! I’m not sure how they’ll distinguish between the two “Mr. Kearns’s”.

I have been wondering how I will have time to continue this blog, and decided that I shall just have to write about the readings. I’m hoping that the subject matter—government and society—will be of interest to my readers. In so far as there is a preponderance of Kuyperians among them, I think this is likely.

So next up…. Lycurgus, Regent of Sparta

In the News...

It is always useful to consider how the church is perceived by the general culture. PBS runs a weekly program called "Religion and Ethics" that is easy to follow because one can join a list-mail system that will send a brief summary of each new program to your email. This week, there is one about "God TV" in China and another on a Presbyterian church that has used its "capital drive" to build a homeless shelter called the "Compassion Center". (links are in the text).

Thursday, January 06, 2005

"It's Dual-ism, stupid!"

I can hear the objections already. “You’re talking about analytic, binary discussion and we’re talking about an ‘ism’, an attitude that habitually divides the world into sacred and profane. That’s Dualism, and that IS the problem.”

Well, yes, but why call it Dualism and not simply Sin? The problem is not that we divide things into twos, but that as sinners we are always seeking areas of autonomy. Divide it as you like, I still want a part for myself. Convince me that God wants my money as well as my prayers, and I will observe that I can’t actually give away all my money, so there must be some part that I can keep. That part is mine. Convince me that God wants “all my time, not just Sunday mornings”, and I’ll note that I cannot physically think of God all the time and get my work done also, so it must be OK to think about other things some of the time. That time will be my time.

This may be particularly the sin of religious people, since the non-religious do not have the problem of determining what portion is God’s if none of it is. I see this in God’s repeated rebukes to Israel that, while she might be observing the sacrificial rites well enough, she is not leaving the gleanings, or not observing the Jubilee, or, in short, not submitting the whole of life to God. Even in the conquest of the land of Israel we see a symbolic failure in this area. Israel was supposed to take the entire land, to consign all the Canaanites to the ban, but instead was satisfied with a partial conquest, with part of the land being explicitly under God’s rule and the rest remaining under the rule of the other gods.

I fear that by discovering and discussing this thing called Dualism we are making the problem seem subtler and more philosophical than it is. It can lead to long-winded missives like this one. It can suggest that this is something new in the church, which (I believe) it is not. It can suggest a philosophical etiology (Bacon and Descartes and the Enlightenment) and hence a philosophical cure, instead of a human-nature etiology and a hortatory and penitential cure.

Furthermore, and more subtly, it may make us suspicious of otherwise useful thought if we think we find “dualism” there. I am thinking specifically of such thinkers as Francis Bacon and Descartes. These men wrote within a Christian framework, and both explicitly (even if perhaps deceptively, as some think) gave glory to God and considered Truth to be Truth indeed. (Descartes realized that to prove the existence of anything outside himself he had to first prove the existence of God. Chew on that a while, materialist.) I have found their writings to be very useful in thinking about the nature of God’s world and our knowledge thereof. However, in Christian circles, because they were “dualists”, I find mostly suspicion and ignorance of what they actually wrote.

For example, until very recently all I knew of Thomas Aquinas was what I read in Francis Schaeffer’s works as a college student. There, I learned that he was largely responsible for this dreaded dualism, creating an “upper story” and a “lower story” in life. This is also the impression my son has obtained, thirty years later. (See May 19, 2004 entry on his blog.) Not a word about the richness and amazing scope of his thought, which ironically embraced almost all aspects of life in a way that we would welcome in a Christian author today! When discussing Truth in a mixed group of grad students (St. John’s College), it was clear to the Christians in the group that Thomas Aquinas is very definitely on “our” side. What a shame that all he is remembered for today among even our better-educated Christians is that he was the father of that terrible Dualism!

Dualism: Structural vs Analytic

I own a minivan that can accommodate a box of dimensions 4 x 8 x 3 feet. Many other things could be said of this box, such as that it is brown, old, made of compressed paper, smells musty, and is destined for Boston. The box, in so far as it exists as an actual box, is not made up of these descriptions, is not constituted by four feet of width combined with three feet of height, nor of mustiness and age. It is what it is…a particular real box. Yet in my considering whether or not I can load this box into a particular vehicle, I must concern myself with only those aspects of its nature that bear upon such an activity: its weight, width, height and length. In fact, I could not move it in my minivan if it had the same volume (96 cubic feet) but had dimensions 2 x 3 x 16 feet. In explaining why I could not move this box, I would say that its length—a single property among a myriad of the box’s properties—prevented me.

Go to an airport and you will find a whole cadre of people focused on the dimensions of boxes, as if that were the most important thing about boxes. (Lately, they are also concerned with the contents of boxes, but again, only as the contents fall upon a particular dimension or aspect…danger to the aircraft or utility as weapons.) They don’t care about whether the contents are gifts, or old, or purchased at Sacks or K-mart, though these are all possible characteristics of the contents. They are focused on a handful of properties, because only those properties matter in the context in which they work.

This breaking down of a thing into its components is analysis, and we do it all the time. We must do it, because our minds are finite and cannot comprehend anything in its totality, all at once, in a single thought or idea. We use analysis to focus our attention and conversation. We speak of the melody of a symphony in one part of a conversation and its harmony or rhythm or symphonic structure in another, though we know that a symphony is not simply the joining together of five parts melody and one part rhythm. In other words, we usually recognize that in speaking of aspects of something we are not positing that the thing itself is simply constructed of these aspects, or constituted by these aspects. We are simply speaking analytically, not making statements about structure or ontology.

We Christians speak analytically of God all the time. We speak at one time of his justice, and at another of his mercy, though we know that these do not exist separately in the godhead any more than omniscience and omnipotence. With regard to my relationship with my wife, I could speak of the romantic aspects and the economic aspects, and no one would accuse me of being a dualist regarding marriage. God himself commands us to love him with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength, though we know (or think we do) that we are not simply separable into these components but are single, unified beings.

Hence my discomfort with the popular emphasis these days on Dualism as the problem of the church, and with explanatory stories that trace our problems back to the Dualism of Bacon and Descartes. Yes, people today do distinguish between activities that look directly toward God and his worship (the romantic aspect of the relationship) and those that do not (perhaps the economic aspect.) But none of us fails to see a difference between time spent in direct contemplation of God and his word and time spent mending the gutters, no matter how theologically wholistic we may think ourselves. In thirty some years, I cannot recall ever hearing even the most vulgar TV preacher suggest that the Lord’s domain does not extend to all of life and to every aspect of our activities.

No. Dualistic thinking is merely choosing a distinguishing point along a perceptible dimension and giving one name or adjective to one side and another to the other. Considering populations in the dimension of salvation, there are the saved and unsaved. Considering knowledge of reality along the dimension of epistemology, there is knowledge that comes from God’s direct revelation and that which doesn’t. Among that which doesn’t, some knowledge comes from direct observation and some doesn’t. Some knowledge is deducible from other knowledge and some isn’t. But after saying all this, after doing all this dividing-into-two-parts for the sake of discussion, we do not believe that such distinctions are all that can be said upon any subject, or necessarily represent “real” divisions. It is simply a way of categorizing…of analyzing…our incredibly large and complex world.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Dualism: Yes and No

Derek Melleby has rightly advised me that the questions listed in my last post do not strictly relate to Neo-Calvinism, and that Walsh and Middleton's book, The Transforming Vision, is not the best example of Neo-Calvinist thought. Fair enough. Yet they remain questions raised by my reading of a nearly-Neo-Calvinist book that is widely referenced by N.C. writers. The listing was random...essentially a brain-dump after reading through the book, preparatory to a more organized consideration of its ideas. And this brings me to one of the Big Ideas.


A lot of blame for secularism and the weakness of the church is laid upon Dualism, by Kuyper and others. Kuyper sees it coming from faulty theology, as explained in his second Stone Lecture. In the Second Lecture, on Calvinism and Religion, he traces dualism back to the view that true religion (Kuyper’s phrase) is not direct from God to Man but is mediated by man through the Church (an essentially Catholic error not fully repudiated by Lutherans.) Since the church can hardly mediate in every detail of life, this leads to the idea that there are aspects of life that are not in the domain of religion, and hence “secular”. All of life, all activities of man in the world are hence separable into two realms, the sacred and the secular.

I agree that Dualism, so conceived, is a great problem in the world today. It has been many years since I read Francis Schaeffer, but I recall his making much the same point. Whether the etiologies they propose are correct or not, their diagnosis of the current condition is appropriate. The church today, and our western culture, are both suffering the effects of a worldview that considers some of life to be Religious in nature, and most of the rest of it to be “morally neutral”, or “secular”, meaning that God has no specific designs or desires or claims upon it.

But dualism is a tricky thing. The term has been applied to all manner of viewpoints, whenever a subject is divided into two mutually exclusive components or aspects. “Dualism” can be, and has been, applied to separating the soul from the body, Good from Evil, God from Satan, and Science from Religion. It is too simple an accusation; it can be applied to too many situations. A diagnosis that includes too many conditions is not useful because not specific enough. It misleads because it allows us to think we have discovered something when we may have discovered nothing.

Furthermore, dualistic thinking can be incredibly fruitful, and is a major tool in the analysis of almost any complex subject. In fact, both Kuyper and Walsh/Middleton use types of dualistic thinking within their works. All careful analytic thinkers do. I hope to elucidate this further in a subsequent post.

For now, let me say only that the separation of life into sacred and secular compartments is definitely not Biblical, and a problem in the world today. If we wish to call this Dualism, that is perhaps OK, but we should not think it is a new phenomenon, or that it says very much about either the underlying problem or its solution. It seems to me that Amos' indictment of Judah and Israel was for a type of dualism, and that all sin from Adam and Eve down is a matter of locally-applied dualism. On the other hand, the dualism of Bacon (Revelation vs. Observation/Induction), while condemned by Kuyper, Schaeffer, Walsh and Middleton, has been incredibly fruitful and has allowed precisely the kind of understanding and control of nature that Bacon predicted it would in his New Organon. As a scientist, I do not think one can blame this type of dualism for the situation we find in the church today. I also do not think one can even do science without this type of intellectual dualism, and find it interesting that it is actually the scientists today who seem to be writing about the necessity of God!

More on this later.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Random Questions for Neo-Calvinism

As a start, and partly to do some of my thinking "online", here is a list of questions that I have scribbled on the front page of The Transforming Vision by Walsh and Middleton:

  • What should the church look like?
  • How is the culture sanctified?
  • Can a culture be sanctified in its praxis without, or apart from, submission to the King?
  • What is more important: What one does or why one does it?
  • Are the body and the soul separable?
  • Is modern science a result of dualism? If so, does that not support the utility of dualism?
  • Can we, or should we, distinguish stuctural dualism from analytic dualism?
  • Does the fact that an idea can be abused, or has been abused, or has led to (non-necessary) errors mean it is wrong?
  • Are we certain that God didn't intend Greek ideas to spread through the west prior to the coming of Christ? If so, was this an oversight on His part? An unavoidable consequence of Alexander's conquests?
  • Do we need to blame dualism to explain the modern idolatry of man?
  • How do we acknowledge the power of science and technology without idolatry?
  • Can we go back?
  • Are democracy and capitalism separable?
  • Does one have to be a member of the Green party to be a Neo-Calvinist?
  • Besides the Dene (essentially hunter-gatherers), what cultures do Walsh and Middleton like?
  • What role does government play in redeeming creation?
  • How do we change the Christian "man on the street", to whom most of this will be either incomprehensible or of no interest?
  • How does one change a view that is pretheoretical?
  • Are we pronouncing our culture dead prematurely?
  • If the answer is community, how do we avoid the irrelevance of the Amish?

In future posts, I hope to begin to consider some of these questions. In the meantime, I invite comment on any of them.

Neo-Calvinism: A Loyal Opposition

Clicking on the title of this post will take you to my good friend Derek Melleby's blog, where you will find a good overview of the worldview called "Neo-Calvinism", as well as many links to other sites discussing, and mostly promoting, these ideas. Though I have by no means read all the books that constitute the "canon" of NeoCalvinism, I have read much Calvin and some Kuyper (the Stone Lectures) and a few of the many books Derek has recommended by Walsh, Middleton, Garber, Wolters, Sire and Cornelius Plantinga. I am convinced of the truth of the theological framework of Creation/Fall/Redemption applying to the entire creation, and am very sympathetic to the goal of engaging all of the culture and seeking its redemption in Christ. I teach a no-holds-barred, we're-not-interested-in-the-right-answers-but-in-what-you-think Bible study for high school students in my home Fridays, and Derek and I lead a similar fellowship of college students and young adults on Sundays, both with the ultimate goal of discipling Christians who will embrace all of life and culture as coming under the Kingdom of God.

Yet while thus "loyal" to the ultimate cause of the redemption of all of creation, yet I find myself unable to embrace the culture of Neo-Calvinism itself, such as it seems to me. It seems at times a little glib, a little naive. While agreeing with the overall emphasis and the articulation of the goal, I still have difficulty seeing what, precisely, we Neo-Calvinists are supposed to do about it. I am a little uncomfortable with the simplicity with which the problems of the modern church are diagnosed. I am very troubled by the observation that neither Calvin's Geneva nor Kuyper's Netherlands have anything like a Kingdom flavor about them any more. What happened? Calvin may have been centuries ago, but Kuyper was barely 100 years ago. Can anyone really suggest that the church is stronger in Amsterdam or Geneva, or the whole of the Netherlands, Switzerland, or even the EU, than it is in the US? (and it is admittedly weak and sick in the US.) It is all well and good to criticise the US church as superficial and self-absorbed, but at least it exists. Both times I have been to Europe I have been impressed by the nearly complete a-theism of the public square there.

I therefore propose to spend some time here asking some hard questions of Neo-Calvinism. I am convinced that the truth can always withstand close scrutiny, and that man's mind is always sharpened by being challenged. (as iron sharpens iron, etc). Worldviews lead to practice. Besides talking about "-isms", how should we then live? Let us explore...

Why "Little Gidding"?

"The hamlet of Little Gidding (in England) centres on the
church and, until recently, a religious community lived in the farmhouse and
neighbouring buildings. A community was established in 1636 by the Ferrar
family. The founder, Nicholas Ferrar was inspired both by the Catholic and
Protestant teachings of the time - but wanted to create a community where the
best of both could be used in harmony. He also wanted a community in which
married people with children could live alongside those committed to the single
life - each feeding and balancing the other. " (from the community's web
site, above)

T. S. Eliot visited the community of Little Gidding in 1936, and then used it as the setting and title for the fourth and final "Quartet", his master work and the last large serious poem he would publish. These poems (the Four Quartets) together with the book of Ecclesiastes express most completely my deepest sense of the sense of the world and our lives in it. (For an extended discussion of one aspect of these works, see my essay "Time and the Present in Eliot and Ecclesiastes" ) The poem "Little Gidding", while not my favorite among the Quartets (that honor would go to either East Coker or Dry Salvages), is the culmination of Eliot's consideration of the mysteries of life.

As I grow older, "the world becomes stranger". While more certain about a few things (I am indeed a sinner, Jesus is indeed my Saviour, the Bible is indeed the book of Life) yet the tidy understandings I enjoyed as a young man have mostly been rearranged and many of them pitched out as unusable because too neat. The list of things I certainly do not know has grown ever so much longer than the list of things I know, no matter my continued learning. This experience is beautifully validated as normal by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes and by Eliot.

So, I am an older man, and "old men ought to be explorers; here and there does not matter." I have raised my family and have a wife, four beautiful children and a son-in-law with whom I am well pleased. I have made my fortune to the extent that I may devote more time to those pursuits that do not produce an income. I am pursuing a master's degree at St. John's College in Annapolis, reading through the classics that constitute the canon of western thought. When the wind is fair, I sail the Chesapeake Bay out of Spa Creek. Life is good.

In this blog, I hope to grapple with those Questions that continue to press upon me. In so far as I share my nature and many of my experiences with the rest of humanity, I trust that some of these musings will resonate with others who may comment upon them, critique them, and, I hope, move them toward wisdom and truth.

PS: Note that though this site is called "Little Gidding", that Blogspot is already in use by a gentleman affiliated with the Anglican church. This site can be accessed as