Thursday, 22 October 2015
Posted by Ben C. Blackwell under Hebrew Bible
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I received a review copy of John Walton’s and Tremper Longman’s How to Read Job from IVP this week. This continues an already fruitful series by Tremper and IVP on How to Read various biblical books: see How to Read the Psalms, How to Read Proverbs, How to Read Genesis, and How to Read Exodus. I confess this is the first of this series that I’ve really looked at, but I’ve been impressed. I am easily tired by commentaries and other works that seem to miss the big picture or that bury the answers to the questions that I am most interested in under a mountain of details.
Without time for a full review, let me note a few salient points:
The book is separated into 4 parts: 1) Reading Job as Literature; 2) Getting to Know the Characters of Job; 3) The Theological Message of Job; and 4) Reading Job as a Christian. Spread evenly between the four parts are 20 chapters that discuss a range of issues from the high level to specific interpretive and topical issues. For example, chap 1: ‘What is the book of Job about?’, chap 6: ‘Who is “Satan” in Job?’, chap 11: ‘The retribution principle and theodicy in Job’, or chap 20: ‘Applying the book of Job’.
The layout and topics will be helpful to those teaching/preaching the book and to students who want to engage the main ideas in the text. Though not a fully academic monograph, the footnotes engage a wide range of literature that will help students understand key issues. For instance, along with commentaries they cite a range of dictionary articles, essays, and monographs, as well as other ancient texts. For instance, in the chapter on Satan they mention Second Temple texts (like 1 Enoch) that set the stage for wider conceptions.
I’m definitely intrigued by the book and the series. It seems to fall into a similar category of integration along with the T&T Clark Study Guides and the Cambridge New Testament Theology Series. I really like those too, so I’m sure I’m predisposed to like this series as well.
Sunday, 11 October 2015
After reading through a good bit of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I’ve assigned my students to read Jamie Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, a summary and exposition of Taylor’s work, so they can benefit from the fruit of this important piece. Smith’s account of how (some forms of) modern apologetics “diminishes Christianity” (p. 51) reminds me of MacIntyre’s treatment of God in God, Philosophy, Universities. Smith summarizing and quoting Taylor writes:
What [Taylor] finds [in modern apologetics] is that the responses themselves have already conceded the game; that is the reponses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways…. As he notes, ‘ the great apologetic effort called forth by this disaffection itself narrowed its focus so drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence’ (p. 225). What we get in the name of ‘Christian’ defenses of transcendence, then, is ‘a less theologically elaborate faith’ that, ironically, paves the way for exclusive humanism. God is reduced to Creator and religion is reduced to morality (p. 225). The ‘deism’ of providential deism bears many marks of the ‘theism’ that is often defended in contemporary apologetics. The particularities of specifically Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity–as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice. (Smith, 51)
MacIntyre’s lack of specificity about distinctly Christian claims appears to fall into this trap. I’m not arguing that any specific interpretation of these Christian claims should dominate, but if they are not even raised, then what warrants the adjective ‘Christian’ to describe terms like philosophy, theology, etc.?
Thursday, 8 October 2015
As I mentioned yesterday, I recently read Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition. I noted then how I found several points from the book helpful and engaging, particularly as he questions some of the post-Enlightenment formulations on which modern research universities are based.
A few things seemed puzzling to me, however, in that he seems to play right into the Enlightenment inspired problems that he decries. For instance, by only preferencing a generic theism, I felt his call for a distinctively Catholic voice in the conversation was muted and even deficient. That is, if you almost never talk about specifically Christian doctrine, then how can you contribute a Christian voice to this open conversation? Let me offer a few examples:
- Key Christian ideas are ignored or only barely mentioned. Based on my e-search through the book, the most distinctive claims of Christianity–Jesus’ death and/or resurrection–are never mentioned. The Trinity as essential to historic Christian faith and philosophy or the role of Jesus as fundamental for forming a Christian anthropology are briefly mentioned in passing, only a couple of times, throughout the whole historical section, which takes up over two-thirds of the book. Yet, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, et al. would have never conceived of metaphysics, epistemology, etc. without reference to the specifically Christian claims and debates related to the Trinity, incarnation and atonement. The generic recourse to “theism” without specific Christian content therefore appears to reflect a post-Enlightenment, least-common-denominator God.
- MacIntyre regularly speaks of the “secular” world when speaking of patristic and medieval Catholic philosopher-theologians, and this appears to betray a post-Enlightenment dichotomy between sacred and secular. Of course, Augustine can speak of the City of God vs the City of Man, which might seem to allow this, but he and other pre-modern thinkers would have placed all this in an ordered cosmos rather than a flat secular universe (I’m thinking of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, one of my current favorite books). Thus, to separate philosophy into the secular and theology into the sacred would be to demonstrate a post-Enlightenment separation rather than a pre-modern ordered hierarchy of ontology, epistemology, etc.
- Though he mentions three big issues, he only focus on the second. Thus, the human (rather than God) takes center stage in his discussion. He essentially leaves behind the problem of evil, which would provide a obvious lens on the specifically Christian perspective on this discussion, and he repeatedly returns to the question of human composition, of the relationship of body and soul. This not an unimportant question, but the Christological debates about Jesus’ humanity radically shaped these discussions in the history of Catholic thought. At the same time, the anthropological focus rather than a theological focus reflects a post-Enlightenment perspective rather than one shaped by the Catholic tradition.
Though he regularly notes how the tradition sees philosophy or reason as inadequate on its own, and therefore in need of revelation, his consistent lack of any engagement with what revelation actually has to say (or with how the tradition engages the content of revelation) appears to show that revelation has little or no place in the actual practice of philosophy. That might be true for contemporary post-Enlightenment “Christian” philosophy, but it surely isn’t for Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, et al. who spent as much and even more time writing commentary on scripture as doing philosophy. (This is the exact kind of separation that led Karl Barth to reject a natural theology.)
My critique of MacIntyre is not based on my desire to have one, right, Orthodox Christian voice that only coheres with certain interpretations of special revelation. But to ignore the most foundational tenets of Christianity, much less the specific contribution Catholic Christianity makes, leaves me wondering what contribution does Christianity actually make other than providing some key figures in the history of ideas. I contend that the best conversations arise out of robust discussions, where particularities don’t have to be erased. Thus, a distinctively Catholic Christian voice should have a seat at the table of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, and it need not denude itself of anything distinctly Catholic or Christian. If our post-Modern context has shown us anything, it is that our particularities make us unique. So, while we can and should have robust conversations with a variety of partners, it need not be based on a bland, least-common-denominator basis, but one that is honest about the history and current position from which one comes. This includes highlighting points of commonality with others, but is therefore not limited to it.
Wednesday, 7 October 2015
One very enjoyable aspect of my work at HBU is a reading group that I participate in. It draws primarily from other faculty in other arts and humanities disciplines: history, government, classics, music, honors college, philosophy, etc. We read a variety of texts drawing from diverse genres and time periods–Gilead, Thomas Nagel, King Lear, etc. Tonight we discussed Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.
In this short and engaging book, he gives a history of the Catholic philosophical tradition and then proposes a way forward for situating Catholic philosophy in the context of modern universities. The survey of the philosophical quest is appropriately selective, as he explains several of the key figures in the history of western philosophy (including Muslim and Jewish ones) and their contributions. One key theme is the question of the relationship of theology to philosophy, or we might say special and general revelation. He also notes three key issues that will serve as a delimiting lens on the discussion: the problem of evil, the independence of finite beings, and how to speak meaningfully about God. It is the second question that gets most attention as he returns to the question of the relationship to soul and body and to the question of the temporal vs eternal existence of the world.
As a positive contribution, I thought the summary of philosophical history served as a nice refresher on the historical progression. Integral to his argument is that (mono)theistic faith traditions share central common foundations and questions. This, therefore, helps foster conversations between Christians, Jews, and Muslims since we have common concerns. He also rightly argued that religion does not need to be minimized in the questions and research of a modern university. Accordingly, he questions some of the post-Enlightenment formulations on which modern research universities are based.
I’ll comment on my critiques tomorrow.