Friday, July 18, 2014

Who Needs a Liberal Education?

Gilbert Meilaender, "Who needs a Liberal Education?," The New Atlantis, Number 41, Winter 2014, pp. 101-108.

Who needs a Liberal Arts Education?

The main purpose of this article is to argue for the importance of a liberal arts education. Meilander, however, suggests that there are correct and incorrect ways to defend a liberal arts education. Quite surprisingly, he argues against having a core curricula and argues for specialization. Why would this author argue in this way? In addition, he seeks to address the question who needs a liberal education.

One argument the author is making that some of the things that are defended by "educational traditionalists and defenders of the liberal arts" are not necessarily good for a liberal arts education. One of these things is the defense of core curricula. Another is the "bemoaning of the rise of specialization among faculty" (2). Another argument the author makes is that the "notion of 'interdisciplinary' study is misguided" (3). In addition, the author argues room must be made for the natural sciences. Lastly, the author concludes, "it may simply be true that education in the liberal arts is not intended for or needed by many students" (6).

The evidence the author uses in this article to support his arguments are student indebtedness, a definition of liberal arts, disciplinary knowledge, student interest, and vocation. He notes that many students do not want to be in these general education courses. In addition, their "energies are focused mostly on other aspects of the curriculum" (2). The author actually thinks we should have few required courses. He thinks that simply adding educational courses to students coming to college to earn a degree in business, nursing, education, or some other professional field does not make it a liberal arts education. He defines the liberal arts as being free. He notes, "they are free in the sense that they serve no goal external to themselves" (2). In other words, a liberal arts education is not training for a job. Neither are they to make us "good citizens." The author thinks the true goal of a liberal arts education is "an openness to what transcends us" (6). It is a freedom to pursue truth and wisdom.

What are the implications of the article? Should we give up general education courses? Should we give up interdisciplinary studies? The author thinks that the future liberal arts students should "look for schools where the specialized academic disciplines are valued and cultivated" (3). In addition, he argues that "no one's knowledge is narrower than the non-specialist, who knows a very little about a very lot" (3). These words seems quite strong. Does this condemn all interdisciplinary studies? Is there a difference between disciplinary studies at undergraduate and graduate levels? The author believes we get at truth from a disciplinary perspective. It is specialists in different disciplines in conversation about truth:

"But why do we need students of philosophy, literature, history, or religion? What is their study for? The point of this sort of education is simply that we want to understand ourselves and to know the truth about human life, whether about individual lives as we might examine them in literature or philosophy, or life in society as we might examine it in political theory or sociology. To be sure, an education in the liberal arts will sometimes be more about seeking than finding this truth. There are no guarantees. At its best, however, it draws us into a centuries-old conversation among specialists--scholars from various disciplines, each providing us a different angle from which to examine what it means to be human" (3).

Meilaender makes a strong case for his argument. He defends a liberal arts education, but, maybe, not in the way we would expect. Not everyone will want to follow his suggestions. Do we really want few required courses? Do we really want no general education requirements? Is career training really the purpose of education?


Monday, July 14, 2014

Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology

Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology, edited by Linda Zagzebski. University of Notre Dame Press, 1993. 290 pages. ISBN: 0-268-01644-5.

A popular new movement in epistemology arguing for the rationality of religious belief is "Reformed Epistemology." It is called this because of it's origin in Calvinist theology. Some of the major thinkers are Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Mavrodes, and others. One of the key texts is Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God. This was published in 1983. Plantinga would later revise his ideas in a later book, Warrant and Proper Function.

Reformed Epistemology has been largely unnoticed by Roman Catholic Philosophers. This neglect is addressed in this book: Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology. The contributors to this volume include John Greco, Patrick Lee, Ralph McInerny, Hugo Meynell, Philip L. Quinn, James Ross, Thomas Sullivan, Linda Zagzebski, and John Zeis. All of the contributors are professional philosophers at some of the leading universities: Fordham University, University of Notre Dame, University of Calgary, and others. The authors show a firm grasp of Reformed Epistemology and its contributors. They do a good job in critiquing their works and showing problems with it. They also address the issue of natural theology. Reformed Epistemology and Calvinist theology seems to argue against natural theology. Catholic philosophy has defended it historically. The contributors of this volume argue for the necessity and the usefulness of natural theology.

There are many things I like about this book. It provides a good commentary of Reformed Epistemology. It shows where they agree with it and where they disagree. They provide arguments for at least the usefulness of natural theology. The authors seem to be engaging Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and others in a respectful way. It does not seem they are setting up straw men for them to knock down. The Catholic philosophers do not agree with each other on every point. Some seem closer to Reformed Epistemology than others. Some seem to be foundationalists, while others do not.

For example, "both foundationalism and evidentialism are strongly defended" in the paper by Hugo Meynell, "Faith, Foundationalism, and Nicholas Wolterstorff." Thomas D. Sullivan disagrees with more moderately with Reformed Epistemology. The editor summarizing Sullivan's paper notes, "Sullivan agrees with Plantinga that believers are right to refuse to pare down confidence in a putative revelation in the face of unanswered objections. But his justification for such resolute belief is different from Plantinga's. The attempt to justify absolute conviction cannot be made successfully on Plantinga's account of warrant, Sullivan argues, but must instead be justified by reference to certain functions of the will that make revelation both reasonable and objective. Sullivan answers objections from the rationalist and the evidentialist in the course of defending a position similar to John Henry Newman" (8). This idea is that faith is caused by both the mind and the will. It is similar to the position of Thomas Aquinas.

Other contributors speak of the ethics of belief. According to their interpretation of Plantinga, he seems to suggest that in the right situation and proper machinery, belief just happens. It is naturally implanted in us. Patrick Lee argues "that the function that reasons or evidence play in a reasonable act of belief is morally responsible act or that one morally ought to believe" (8). This seem to suggest that we have responsibility in believing or not believing.

I appreciated James Ross' reflections on those who do not believe: "But it is a harsh view that those who do not believe that God exists (and accept revelation) are caused not to do so by their unrighteousness and that by that unrighteousness have wills opposed to God and deserve so as to deserve damnation. That seems totally implausible, especially when a kind of atheistic naturalism can be as well warranted by the means of rational reliance (natural faith) as the right belief, since warrant from the aims of the rational appetite can extend to what is not true as well as to what is true. . . Still, whether one's unbelief amounts to a will opposed to God cannot be determined from the externals of unbelief alone but only from the inner heart visible to God. So we are not entitled to attribute unrighteousness to unbelievers from their unbelief" (247). These are words that I heartily commend. Too often we attribute evil motives to those who disagree with us. There is a difference between faith and reason; however, they are compatible. We should do our best to respect the beliefs of others as we witness to the Christian faith.

In "Religious Knowledge and the Virtues of the Mind" Linda Zagzebski discusses three characteristics of Reformed Epistemology she disagrees with and provides characteristics that an epistemology must have to be considered knowledge. One objection she has is that it is "belief-based rather than person-or virtue-based"(222). Other features she disagrees with are they are based on "externalism-nonvoluntarism" and "individualism. She seems to be arguing that the believer has no control over what she believes. For example she notes, "Plantinga stresses that we do not decide what to believe. Typically, he says, I simply find myself with the appropriate belief"(203). The other objection is that it is individualistically based versus community based. She argues that Catholics look at revelation as something given to the church and not the individual. One would find warrant within the church. Other authors see the faith being confirmed in living it out in Christian practices.

Rational Faith provides an excellent critique of Reformed Epistemology. It shows some of its weaknesses. Some of these weaknesses have been addressed in more recent works. Reformed Epistemology still seems to have many followers today. This book does a good job in introducing us to a conversation taking place between Catholic and Protestant Reformed philosophers on the rationality of religious belief.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Imagining the Kingdom

James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Baker Academic, 2013. 198 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8010-3578-4.

Imagining the Kingdom is Smith's long-awaited second volume of the "Cultural Literary series. In the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith showed the importance of desire or our loves in shaping what we do. In this volume he continues this conversation with an emphasis on the imagination and poetics. In addition, he shows how we are shaped either by secular or religious liturgies.

Smith explains how the series has changed in intention. He originally was writing to scholars and the first volume turned out to be more of a hybrid, written both to scholars and practitioners, or ordinary readers. He decided to keep this focus for the rest of the series. This volume could have been the first volume because of the emphasis on the imagination. This is thinking on a subconscious level. It is our perception on what causes human flourishing.

Smith shows how we are shaped by our worship. We are repeating the story of God in worship. He gives an example of a man who has been shaped by confession and worship in the liturgy. At a particular time his son has departed from the right path. He comes to the father asking for forgiveness. Because of the father experiencing God's forgiveness in worship many times, he forgives his son. Smith says the worship of God is an end in itself. It is also connected to mission or our being sent out to the world.

Smith does a good job in explaining the thought of Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu. He has mentioned them in other works and I was interested in knowing more about this work. He gives an excellent commentary on their work and how it applies to the emphasis on the body, practices, imagination, and thick, particularized Christianity. They authors argue that we are more shaped by bodily actions. They also emphasize the importance of story.

Smith says that "the focus of this second volume is to home in on these themes, further exploring the shape of liturgical anthropology in order to articulate a Christian philosophy of action that (1) recognizes the nonconscious, pretheoretical 'drivers' of our action and behavior, centered in what I'll call the imagination; (2) accounts for the bodily formation of our habituated orientation to the world; and thus (3) appreciates the centrality of story as rooted in this 'bodily basis of meaning' and as a kind of pretheoretical compass that guides and generates human action. In short, the way to the heart is through the body, and the way into the body is through story" (14). This leads to his last chapter on worship. How intellect and desires are shaped by the bodily actions of worship. He provides good insights on how tradition liturgies shape us into God's image. It is important how we worship. I like this affirmation of Christian liturgy and how it tells a story. We need to be more intentional on how we worship.

The second volume is as good if not better than the first volume. Smith seems to be still working on these ideas. There is much to like about this project. I like how he corrects the over emphasis on the intellect and how we are shaped more by our desires or loves as taught by St. Augustine. I look forward for volume three.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought

Arvin Vos, Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Christian University Press (Eerdmans), 1985. 178 pages. ISBN 0-8028-00602

Have Protestant misinterpreted Thomas Aquinas? Arvin Vos contends that by depending on secondary sources instead of a first-hand reading of Aquinas, Protestants have passed on a flawed view of Aquinas. What are some of these misinterpretations of Aquinas? They have seen Calvin and Aquinas as diametrically opposed on the nature of faith. They have argued that Aquinas' "Five Ways" on proving the existence of God are prerequisite for faith. They have argued that Aquinas has argued for a "two-story" view of knowledge where faith is added to reason.

Vos, a Reformed Protestant, in meticulous detail shows how they views are misguided and shown to be false with a first-hand reading of Aquinas. In this book, Vos believes there is a need for Protestants to re-evaluate Aquinas and commends this effort. Vos was a Professor of Philosophy at Western Kentucky when he wrote this book. His specialty was the philosophy of the Middle Ages, with special interest in Augustine and Aquinas.

Ralph Mcinerny wrote the foreword to this book. Mcinerny, a Roman Catholic,  has written many excellent books on Aquinas. Mcinerny notes, "Vos shows, I think convincingly, that some Protestant misgivings about Thomas's conception of faith, as well as his understanding of the relation between nature and grace, are not solidly based in the text and intent of the Angelic Doctor. It is easy to find passages in Thomas that emphasize the very point of doctrine most dear to the Protestant critic. This is not, of course, to say that disagreements among Christians are always misunderstandings, but it does serve to show that there is a far broader base of shared understanding than is typically assumed" (vii).

Mcinerny makes some good points in his comments. There is a danger in basing our beliefs on an author from a second-hand source. All interpreters are fallible and influenced by particular biases. It is important to get our information from the horse's mouth. Another key point is that we must show charity to texts. We must seek to understand as we want to be understood. Another good point is that until we have done this necessary work, the real work of critique cannot be done. Vos has provided an important service to Protestants by showing what Aquinas did say and what he meant by it.

I have been an Evangelical Protestant for over thirty years. I started reading Aquinas about twenty years ago. My life and thought have been enriched by reading Aquinas. I believe Protestants can receive much benefit by reading Aquinas.

Aquinas, Calvin & Contemporary Protestant Thought is divided into six chapters. Chapter one compares Calvin's thought with Aquinas on the nature of faith. Vos notes, "While Calvin and Augustine differ radically in the language they use and the methods of analysis they imply, in substance their views of the nature of faith are similar, if not identical" (20). Both Calvin and Aquinas see faith as knowledge without complete understanding. This points to the Medieval understanding that faith seeks understanding.

In chapter three Vos asks the question, was Aquinas an evidentialist or a fideist? Vos uses definitions given by Nicholas Wolterstorff to define these two terms. Wolterstorff believes Aquinas was an evidentialist based on his definition. Vos disagrees with him and sees Aquinas more of a fideist. Vos thinks Aquinas would define these two terms this way: "He would say that evidentialists are those who rely on reason, who will give assent only in cases which the intelligible object moves the intellect, and he would say that fideists are those who admit cases in which one gives assent in spite of the fact that something is not evident to the natural light of reason" (59). According to this distinction, Vos believes Aquinas is more of a fideist. He believes faith is primary. In addition, he shows how this explains Aquinas' discussion of the will and intellect in believing. Aquinas states that we are to give assent to divine revelation even when it is above reason. Aquinas sees faith and reason as compatible. Vos notes, "Aquinas does insist that reason has a role in faith. One must in some way grasp that which is believed" (60).

Other chapters analyse the "Five Ways" of proving the existence of God or the preambles and its relation to faith, God's existence "as seen and known," and nature and grace. In discussing the meaning of the preambles, Vos shows how Protestants have misinterpreted Aquinas in teaching that "Aquinas holds reason to be a precondition for faith" (67). Vos shows convincingly that Aquinas teaches no such thing. This is what Aquinas says, "The truths about God which St. Paul says we can know by our natural powers of reasoning--that God exists, for example--are not numbered among the articles of faith, but are presupposed to them. For faith presupposes natural knowledge, just as grace does nature and all perfections that which they perfect. However, there is nothing to stop a man accepting on faith some truth which he personally cannot demonstrate, even if that truth in itself is such that demonstration could make it evident" ( 70). This quote shows clearly that Aquinas is not teaching that reason is a precondition to faith.

In the last chapter Vos analyses Aquinas teaching on nature and grace. In this chapter he disputes the Protestant idea that Aquinas taught a two-story universe where faith is built upon nature. It is the idea that natural man is sufficient in himself. Grace is something added on the natural man. This idea came later from certain interpreters of Thomas Aquinas in the 17th century. Vos notes about Aquinas' teaching: "All good acts have their origin in God, for he is the author of nature as well as the gifts of nature says Aquinas. Before the Fall, man was able to do the natural good because his being was well ordered: the gift of original justice gave the soul power to control his desires. But now that nature is wounded, it can attain only part of the good connatural to it. Grace both restores the supernatural gifts and heals the wounded nature, he says, but such healing is completed only in the future life" (147). In other words, Aquinas believes man is fallen and that he requires grace to achieve his final end.

Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought is an important work. It shows how there is much in common in Aquinas and Calvin's thought. It has shown how some Protestants have misinterpreted him by relying on second-hand sources. Vos does a good job in helping us to read Aquinas first-hand. His interpretation resonates with my own reading of Aquinas for the last twenty years. Even Flannery O' Connor said she read from Aquinas daily. I do not go many days without reading from Aquinas. He is my bread and butter.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Postliberal Theology and the Church Catholic

Postliberal Theology and the Church Catholic: Conversations with George Lindbeck, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas, edited by John Wright. Baker Academic, 2012. 159 pages. ISBN 978-0-8010-3982-9.

Many of the books I have been reading refers to postliberal theology. It is sometimes referred to as the Yale theology. This is one of the reasons I decided to read this book. For example, James K. A. Smith has a chapter on George Lindbeck in his book, Who's Afraid of Relativism. Postliberal theology and the Church Catholic is centered around interviews with three prominent theologians who are associated with and considered first generation postliberal theologians. Burrell is not associated as much with postliberal theology as Hauerewas and Lindbeck. Another important theme of these three writers is how their theology is in conversation with the Catholic church. All three authors believe we need to work from this tradition even though only one of the authors is Roman Catholic and the editor is Nazarene.

Wright includes an excellent introduction that situates the interviews and the theologians. There are three chapters on individual interviews with each of the theologians. There is also an additional chapter of an interview with the theologians in conversation. Wright includes a closing chapter where he summarizes what has gone before and tries to show the implications for the universal church working towards unity. He asks the question, Is the reformation over? He does not think it is over but is optimistic about relations between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox.

The purpose of this book is "to place postliberal theology within the broader stream of the 'Tradition of the Great Church' (4). Wright states that postliberal theology is "radical" liberal because it wants to update the "faith given to the saints" (4). It is "radically conservative" because it wants the faith to return to "the normative historical sources of the faith" (4).

Postliberal Theology is a good introduction to Postliberal theology and three prominent theologians. The theologians represent three different traditions: Roman Catholics, Lutheran, and Methodist. Lindbeck's major contribution is that he has pointed us back to the "normative historical sources of our faith." Hauerwas' contribution has been his emphasis on narrative theology and integrating The Great Christian Tradition of the Church to theology. Burrell's major contribution is dialogues between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. This book is recommended for those interested in living out the ancient faith in today's world.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reasonable Pleasures

This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:

Shaffett, John E. "Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism." Catholic Library World Vol. 84, No. 4 (June 2014): 270.

Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism
By James V. Schall, Ignatius, 2013, 218 pp., ISBN 978-1-58617-787-4, $16.95

Father Schall retired from Georetown University last year. He has written many excellent books on the relationship between faith and reason. In Reasonable Pleasures Schall shows how the mind’s pursuit of truth is pleasurable. He notes, “Aristotle taught that every activity that is normal to us, including thinking, has its own proper pleasure” (12). Pleasure “enhances” the particular activity performed. The subtitle points out how Catholic Christianity, reason, and pleasure are not opposed to each other. Schall in eight chapters demonstrate the reasonable pleasures of knowing the truth of various topics: dogma, humor, sports, hell, temporal existence, “worship,” and “eternal life.”
            In the introductory chapter Schall states three truths: The importance of learning from the past; we are more than minds; and we can know all things through our minds. He believes that truth is knowable and that things exist outside of our minds and knowing reality or the “truth of things” is pleasurable.
            Schall’s first essay is on dogma. He explains what it is and why it is important. He defines dogma as “an accurate statement of what is true” (30). In contrast to modern thinking, he thinks dogma is a good thing. The reason for this is that “a dogma is intended to clarify, to state accurately, to illuminate what can be stated about an experience, an ultimate issue, or something connected to it” (31). This is what Schall attempts to do in these essays. He illuminates the topics of reason, pleasure, faith, learning, and eternal life. For example, the author states that to live correctly we must think correctly. Ideas matter and they have consequences, both good and bad.
 In his essay on eternal life, Schall argues that man’s end is eternal life. One of the problems of modern man is that they try to make earthy, temporal, existence into heaven on earth. Faith not only answers reason, but provides meaning to our temporal life.
            In addition, Schall argues that faith and reason are compatible. They fulfill one another. He asserts that “revelation is a claim to truth,” and “this truth will be coherent with all other truths, including the truths of reason” (39). This affirms Aquinas’s assertion that “grace builds on nature” (39).

            Schall in Reasonable Pleasures shows how faith, reason, and pleasures are coherent in the Catholic faith. He also shows that truth is knowable and reality exists outside of our minds and we can know it. Schall believes that revelation answers reason’s questions. He states, “the truths of revelation, while often not directly able to be proved or understood by human reason, still, when thought about, cause reason to be more, not less, reason” (194). This is vintage Schall and is recommended to all readers who are interested in the “truth of things.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The End of Apologetics

Myron Bradley Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Baker Academic, 2013. 180 pages. ISBN 978-0-8010-3598-2

Penner in his book, The End of Apologetics sates that "this is a book about apologetics. Or, more precisely, it is a book against apologetics" (4). Is this a book of apologetics against apologetics? In some sense, it is a book against apologetics. The author thinks popular apologetics is not relevant to the current postmodern context. The author means by apologetics "the Enlightenment project of attempting to establish rational foundations for Christian belief" (7). The author seems to assume the truth of postmodernism in arguing against popular apologetics as represented by William Lane Craig and the Biola School.

Penner is an Anglican priest in Canada. He previously taught at Prairie College and Graduate School. He is the editor of Christianity and the Postmodern Turn.

Penner argues that Enlightenment apologetics "are taken to be ahistorical, unsituated, abstract, and universal"(17). The author used Kierkegaard as a model for a different type of apologetics that is more fitting to the postmodern context. In the introduction the author declares he does not argue for postmodernism but assumes "postmodernism as a starting point" (14) to show the deficiencies of modern apologetics. Some readers might think his depiction of William Lane Craid, J. P. Moreland, and other are straw men and a little harsh.

In chapter one he describes the apologetics of Craig. He gives much attention to Craig's background and how he does apologetics. He calls Craig's type of apologetics the "objective-universal-neutral complex" (32). This is a typical point made by postmodernists. The idea that there is no netral, objective, universal truth. Everyone sees from a particular perspective. Penner sees that both conservatives and liberals are captivated by the enlightenment view of the intellect.

There are many things to like about this book. It shows the weaknesses of popular apologetics. It shows how apologetics have been used to abuse certain individuals. There is much truth in the idea that truth is not ahistorical, unsituated, abstract, and universal. However, there are particular problems with this view. I might be misreading this view though in these criticisms. How will we decide truth claims if we are all caught in our particular perspectives? Are there no ways to decide between particular differences? Postmodernism has contributed much to discussions on how many Christians are imprisoned to Enlightenment views.

The End of Apologetics is a good book to see problems with popular apologetics. It also shows us what an apologetics would look like that assumed postmodernism. I was able to follow the author's thought for most of the book and agree with much of it or see how the position was a valid alternative. However, I had a problem following and accepting the last chapter, "The Politics of Witness." It is in this chapter that the author connects popular apologetics with violence. I might have taken him to connect the two together where he is arguing there is the possibility. He seems to be using stronger terms than I could accept. In addition, It did not seem called for in certain instances.

One other note, this book won honorable mention in Christianity Today Book awards 2014. It has also received endorsements from Jonathan R. Wilson, Fergus Kerr, John R. Franke, and others. I have mixed feelings about this book, but I do recommend it. I think the author makes some good points that are beneficial. For example, Kierkegaard's distinguishing between a genius and an apostle. Another idea is the faith based on an elite who have the gifts, time, and education to be an apologist like Craig. What about ordinary Christians? Popular apologetics seem overly cerebral.