Sunday 8/17/14

  1. The Orthodox Philosopher’s God
  2. The myth that killed music for math
  3. No need for Christian tradition?
  4. Fighting for God as if possessed


Listening to [Richard] Dawkins try to do philosophy is what it must be like trying to watch a dophin attempting tap-dancing.

David Bentley Hart, author of The Experience of God, is a certified brilliant guy, but he’s no aphorist. I have listened repeatedly with great pleasure and profit to his long interview on Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 122, but not for zingers, one-liners or aphorisms. The lame one, above, stood alone.

But some good things don’t readily reduce to sound bites anyway. Hart reports listening to debates between new atheists and putative Christians  where he really couldn’t bring himself to care because “on most occasions none of them is talking about God in any coherent sense at all” (from the book, Kindle edition at 43, not from the interview).

Yet he’s an Orthodox Christian, and certainly believes in God. The God he defends as a philosopher is, until He reveals Himself in Jesus Christ, largely unknowable in ways that can be described with cataphatic affirmations.

But in one verse of the year-long song sung by the Church, or as Hart puts it, the “solemn circumlocutions of liturgy and praise” (Kindle Edition at 68) we sing that “God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us. Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord.” (Opening of the Sunday Matins Propers) Then in another verse, we sing that Christ revealed Himself to His disciples “so far as they could bear it” (Troparion of the Feast of Transfiguration). I don’t know how much they could bear, but eventually they fell on their faces at the glory.

The Christian God really is Hart’s philosophers’ God (though much more, too): transcendent in essence, but as imminent in revelation as we can bear. A lot of the squirrely god-talk of new atheists and putative Christians is based on the bizarre notion that we can bear it in full, that we have comprehended Him. No wonder what they have to say is incoherent.


The Mars Hill interview with Hart is preceded by one with N.T. Wright (wow! Wright and Hart on a single edition!) and followed by one with Thomas Lessl, on, as the Mars Hill summary puts, it, “the institutional ‘Copernican revolution’ of the university and its attending warfare mythology as enduring perpetuators of the war between science and religion.”

Once again, the interviewee is too scholarly and circumspect to come up with a lot of zingers, but in the messy matter that is history, there arose a myth that suited the institutional needs of science and captured the academy quite decisively.

Interviewer Ken Myers interjects a reference to a book on a cognate topic with an evocative old-fashioned-sounding title:  Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority.

In short, the myth is one of conflict between science and religion, with which every reader is well familiar in its modern form of sniping between New Atheists and fundamentalist religionists. The myth grew initially for the sorts of complicated institutional reasons (think “People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority”) that make the Lessl interview rewarding to audit. And then there was Thomas Huxley, interested in perpetuating the myth more to debunk religion than to build up science.

That myth has lost all it’s Ivy Tower Cred among historians but retains its Street Cred. And Lessl tells why it’s unlikely to go away.

There was an innocent bystander that got gravely wounded in this “war”: the humanities generally. First, they were associated with the Church and its educated clergy, who (it was felt) needed to recede in influence if only to steer more students toward the sexy new disciplines of science. Second, neither religious nor humanistic ways of knowing were “scientific” in the emerging view,* so the scientistic sniping at religion took a collateral toll. As Lessl put it, the new mythology put science at the center of the university solar system, shoving the humanities out toward Neptune and Pluto. We’re not even sure they’re real planets any more.

To bring “wounded humanities” down to earth, and down to your local school board, all the disappearing music and art programs in your local schools just might trace, via the STEM mania, back to this myth.

One reason to spread the word that the war is a myth is so that the humanities might once again thrive in institutions that largely have come under the thralldom of Big Science, and are seen as almost nothing more than science and scientist factories. We all benefit from the science. Less noticed, we all suffer – very badly, I suggest – from a dearth of people with well-rounded educations.

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* Yes, they were scientific under the receding view. Romano Guardini reportedly described “science” as “study of a subject by means appropriate thereto,” or to that general effect. Wish I could find the quote.


We’ve covered matters relating to sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) and Christian tradition here before, but I thought I might do a little thought experiment here to illustrate just how complicated it is to try to hold these two beliefs, namely, that the Bible is true and also that Christian tradition is false or at least unnecessary. For the purposes of this thought experiment, we’re going to define “tradition” as anything which is seen as necessary and yet is not explicitly endorsed in the Biblical text. The idea here is that the Bible comes from God and tradition comes from fallible human beings, so tradition should be ignored while the Bible should be heeded.

(Father Andrew Stephen Damick) This definition of “tradition” seems fair to me, as a recovering sola scriptura adherent. Father Andrew goes on to show just seven ways it’s really complicated, with the title Seven Reasons that Reading the Bible = Tradition.

If you need think you don’t need tradition because you have the Bible, you should read this to see just how clueless that thought is. I can say that because I was clueless on that point for many decades. I’ve provided three four links for your clicking convenience. You’re now without excuse.


I have learned long since, not to fight for God as if the devil were in me. If reason and charity cannot promote the cause of truth and piety, I cannot see how it should ever flourish under the withering fires of wrath and strife.

(Samuel Stanhope Smith, President of Princeton about 200 years ago, via Touchstone magazine)

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.