Posts tagged with: intellectualism

Blog author: jsunde
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
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marylazarusWe humans have a pesky tendency toward earthbound thinking. The natural world comes more easily to us, for obvious reasons, and thus, even when we aim to overcome our disposition and contemplate ways to improve things beyond the immediate, it’s hard for us to break out of the box.

Much like Judas Iscariot, who reacted harshly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment on Jesus’s feet, we are prone to react only to the material implications, ignoring altogether whether God might prefer us to do something so peculiar as “keep it for the day of [Jesus’s] burial,” as was the case for Mary.

It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul urged us to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” — to not be “conformed to this world,” but be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Such a life, Paul explains, demands a transcendent perspective made up by constant “testing” of the world as we naturally see it, that we might “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is a life consisting of far more than surface-level observations of the physical world, requiring us to submit our reasoning about everything from material prosperity to human happiness to the ultimate will of the Supreme Creator.

This call to active and continuous spiritual discernment reaches into every dusty corner of our day-to-day lives, and it involves plenty of overlap with what we might call the “natural realm” (unhealthy dualism in the other direction is, of course, a competing temptation). Thus, in exploring something as overarching and all-encompassing as our social and economic thought, we should be wary of allowing these natural tendencies and earthly values to serve as the dominating inputs, legitimate and valuable though many of these features may be when properly ordered (e.g. “happiness”).

When we attempt to subvert God’s transcendent reality, the problem can play out in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. Most clear, perhaps, at least in recent memory, is the example of Soviet Communism — an orientation that Whittaker Chambers once described as “man’s second oldest faith,” whose “promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”:

[Communism] is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

But although the glaring errors of atheism help illuminate where things can turn sour, the trickier questions lie with the rest of us who do seek to place God at the center of all things, yet still find ourselves persistently struggling with how that should look in our day-to-day endeavors. (more…)

Last week I attended a lecture on the campus of Calvin College given by Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of Oxford. His lecture was titled, “God and Morality,” and was the fourth in a series of lectures for a summer seminar, “Science, Philosophy, and Belief.” The seminar was focused on the development of Chinese professors and posgraduate students, and included lectures by Sir John Polkinghorne, Alvin Plantinga, and Owen Gingerich.

Swinburne, who is a convert from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, has recently turned his attention to questions of morality, having previously dealt with most every aspect of the philosophy of religion. I will not attempt a summary of his presentation here. The lecture has been digitally archived on the seminar site (downloadable MP3 here), and the comments and critiques I offer below will best be understood after having listened to the presentation yourself.

Swinburne’s list of publications includes a forthcoming article, “What Difference Does God Make to Morality?” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics, ed. R.K. Garcia and N.L. King (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), scheduled for release in October of this year later this month. This article will presumably present a similar case as appeared in Swinburne’s lecture. (more…)

This post concludes my series on the largely forgotten catholicity of Protestant ethics, with a few brief remarks and reflections.

My goal for this series, as stated in Part 1, was to show that voluntarism and nominalism are not the same thing, that two important Reformed theologians (Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi) had more than a passing interest in Thomism (or intellectualism as Pope Benedict XVI referred to it in his now famous Regensburg address), and that evangelicals need to revisit their wariness on the capacity of reason to discern moral truth. Much more could be written on each of these topics, and likely will be on this blog and some others, but the fundamental point should not be missed that two significant sixteenth-century Reformed theologians break the modern mold for Protestant ethics. Among the thinkers and writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I can assure you there are numerous others who also break the mold.

For almost one hundred years now, Protestant theologians and ethicists have held natural law at arm’s length. During this same period, Protestant theologians have also largely shunned any vestige of the scholastic and metaphysical base of Reformation-era theology in order to gain acceptance in the modern Academy and to increase their contemporary cachet. Whether this strategy has been successful, or if it is even coherent to begin with, is beyond this blog series to determine, but I have my doubts.

It is enough to simply point out that natural law is tied to philosophical realism — the belief that the created world is the external foundation of knowledge for all science. (Read Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1, pp. 223-33). And that a realist metaphysic, was the agreed upon philosophical approach from the very beginning of Christianity to somewhere in the eighteenth century when modern currents of thought began to chip it away. (For those who doubt whether this is so, take up and read Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine). According to the Belgic Confession, the world “is a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.” It is high time that Protestants recover a sense of their connectedness with the broader and older Christian moral tradition and take up once again “the invisible things of God.”

“If nominalism is correct,” as Bavinck warned, “we can forget about science altogether.”

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.