Friday, July 27, 2012

Mortmer Adler and Charles Van Doren Discuss How to Read a Book

How To Read a Book with Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. DVD. ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8. Can be purchased from The Great Ideas, 106 W. Germania Place, Chicago, IL 60610. $24.95 dollar donation.

Three years after writing the third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren did a series of 14 minute discussions on the book. Somehow these videos were lost. In 2008 it was published again. Many will be thankful for access to these interviews. The interviews are now on one DVD and can be purchased from The Great Ideas organization. This DVD is a great supplement to the book. The interview shows Adler and Doren "in a lively, candid discussion of the art of reading and why it is so important and demonstrating its use in their own reading.

The video is entertaining and informative. It is good to be able to see an author who you have read having a conversation on the art of reading. It is quite funny in parts and I mean this in a positive way. I enjoyed watching these conversations. For example, Adler and Doren tell the reader not to throw away the book just because it is over your head. That is the type of book you want because it causes you to grow. The interviews cover similar points made in the book, like "How to keep awake while reading," "Coming to terms with the author," "Talking back to the author." and others. The important difference between the video and the book is the book emphasizes non-fiction works while the videos includes novels, poetry, and plays. Doren's field is imaginative literature and Adler's is non-fiction works, especially philosophy. They end the sessions with asking the listeners what ten books would they take with them if they would be stranded on a deserted Island and can take only ten books with them. What books would you bring?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Who's Afraid of PostModernism?

Smith, James K. A. Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-8010-2918-9.

Who's Afraid of Postmodernism is part of a series, The Church and Postmodern Culture, edited by James K. A. Smith. The series is written for "a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church." Smith believes that Postmodernism can make a positive contribution to the church. He thinks that postmodernism has been demonized unnecessarily by Christians. Smith notes, "To some, postmodernity is the bane of the Christian faith . . . Others see postmodernism as a fresh wind of the Spirit sent to revitalize the dry bones of the church" (18). Who's Afraid of Postmodernism is intended to dispel certain myths about postmodernism. Smith believes that once these myths are dispelled, Christians will see postmodernism in a positive light. The author suggests "that this unholy trinity of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault might in fact push us to recapture some of the truths about the nature of the church that has been overshadowed by modernity" ... (23).

James K. A. Smith is associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College. He is a prolific author and published many noteworthy books. Some of the books published by Smith are Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, Letters to a Young Calvinist, and The Fall of Interpretation.

Smith's writing is clear and readable. This book will be understandable for the general reader or adults in the church. He does a good job in explaining postmodernism, especially the ideas of Derridda, Lyotard,   and Foucault. In chapter one, Smith introduces the topic of postmodernism. The heart of the book are chapters two through four where he explains the ideas of the three main thinkers. In chapter two, he seeks to dispel the myth, "There is nothing outside the text." Smith thinks that Derrida is asserting the idea that we "never really get behind or past texts" (38). Derrida means that we we can never escape interpretation. In chapter three, he explains Lyotard's "incredulity toward metanarratives." This idea emphasizes the local situation over universal truth. Smith seems to think because the Bible is teaching in story form or narrative and this allows it to escape Lyotard's judgement; however, propositional grand narrative does not. In chapter four Smith describes the context of Foucault's "power is knowledge" (21-22). Foucault means by this term to "emphasize the inextricable relationship between knowledge and power" (85). Smith has a tougher time pinning Foucault down because of divided opinion about what Foucault is actually doing. In chapter five, Smith makes a proposal for a postmodern church. He argues that postmodernism actually allows the church to be connected to its past. He believes primitive Christianity has got it all wrong.

Smith does a good job of introducing the ideas of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. He makes a strong case for prespectivism. The idea that we all come to the text with presuppositions. He also presents a good case that we are all finite, historical beings. The author does not, however, seem to make a clear distinction between ontology and epistemology or search for knowledge and truth. He criticizes objectivism and seems to discount realism. Smith seems to lock in all readers to their presuppositions. It seems that in his view that people are determined by their traditions.

This book is recommended for those who are interested in postmodernism. It is also recommended for those interested in the work of James K. A. Smith. The reader will be profited by the reading of Who's Afraid of Postmodernism. I do think that many Christians will still be afraid of postmodernism after reading this book.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Charles Dicken and Education

Thomas Gradgrind, in Dicken's Hard Times, declares his philosophy of education from the start :

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir! (9).

This is what exactly Thomas Gradgrind does. He teaches only facts to the kids, including his own children. He also beats out of them any cultivation of wonder and imagination. Dickens in Hard Times is critiquing industrialization and this type of education. It is the type of education that has no room for the arts or imaginative literature. It is a scientistic education believing only facts are real. Does this type of education harm or hurt Gradgrind's pupils? Dickens shows that it causes harm to the children. They receive a distorted education. It is only educating a part of who they are. True education must educate the whole person.

The novel describes how Gradgrind's two children are ill-prepared for the tasks of life. The son becomes a huge disappointment and embarrassment to the father and the daughter to please her father marries a cruel tyrant. It takes a girl who had been educated in both the head and the heart to provide help to this unfortunate family.

Isn't it strange how when budget cuts come around in education, the arts are the first thing to go? There is also the mis-belief that children should not be educated morally. C. S. Lewis said we teach our students to look down on morality and are surprised to find traitors in our midst. A true education will educate both the head and the heart. It will cultivate both the intellectual and moral virtues.

Faith and Reason Part 4

John Henry Newman
            The nineteenth century brought many challenges to both Christianity and Christian Higher Education. There was a growing secularization in both America and Europe because of the lasting effects of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. It was an age of many new isms: liberalism, rationalism, secularism, utilitarianism, and others. These ideologies impacted both the Church and Higher Education. Opposing these forces was a Christian scholar whom Jacques Barzun calls “the greatest theorist of university life,” and whose major work on education, The Idea of a University, Jaroslav Pelikan calls “the most important treatise on the idea of the university ever written in any language.”[i]
            In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Catholic leadership in Ireland wanted to establish a Catholic University. “In 1851 Newman was approached about becoming the rector of this new Catholic institution. He served for seven years, the first three before the school actually began, during which time he delivered several of the lectures which were to comprise The Idea of a University.”[ii] Because of many different problems, Newman resigned in 1858. The school was not a success, but what was a great success was the “discourses and educational philosophy and lectures on university subjects that make up The Idea of a University. There he argues both for liberal learning (as opposed to Utilitarian education) and for the necessity of including theology rather than secularizing learning. That, of course would require a different relationship of faith and reason than what was characteristic of Enlightenment science.”[iii]
            First, Newman argues that liberal arts education is intrinsically valuable. It has many practical benefits, but that is not its aim. The knowledge acquired through liberal learning is its end. Newman summarizes his position: “We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we, perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own.”[iv]
            Second, Newman’s idea of education is that it is a life-long project. The person who is formed through a liberal arts education is to continue to learn and grow after graduation. He acquires through his undergraduate education a “habit of mind … which lasts through life.” Graduation is not the end of the education journey, but only the beginning. It takes a whole lifetime to become educated. “The ideal of lifelong learning,” observes Benson, “is a natural entailment of Newman’s conviction that liberal arts education is intrinsically valuable. Detached from the special purposes of career education and other utilitarian aims, there is no reason why education should be seen as a project to be pursued only in one’s youth.”[v]
            Newman argues that the focus on career education is misdirected, and not “true education.” He would say that “such training and skill development and activities have value, but they should not be confused with the cultivation of the intellect and nurturing the educated person.” [vi] Further, he would say that a liberal arts education “provides a far more substantial preparation for success in the diverse career areas.”[vii]
            Third, Newman believes that truth was one; there is a unity to truth. He argues that a place for theology, both natural truth and revealed truth, must be made in the liberal arts curriculum. Newman believed that truth itself is compromised if theology is left out of the curriculum. He thought theology involved the search for “divine truth” as known through “revelation and reason.” Newman thought the discipline was as valid an academic field as any other discipline.[viii]
            Although Newman argues that a place must be made in the curriculum for theology, he does not think that liberal learning is to be pursued for the sake of theology. He does not think the disciplines are hierarchically ordered. Instead, he thinks a more accurate description of the disciplines is a “circle of the sciences” which speaks more of their mutual influence. Newman thinks that the secular disciplines need theology and theology needs the secular disciplines. This would be similar to his view on the relationship between faith and reason. Reason needs faith and faith needs reason. It is a complementary relationship.[ix]
            Newman thinks the Church must take an interest in the sciences and humanities “because they are essential elements of a liberal education.” The Church should want its members to receive a liberal arts education so they may be equipped for their vocations as citizens of the kingdom of heaven and earth because an educated mind is equipped with “the faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.”[x]
            A liberal arts education will also make the Christian better able to understand and defend the faith. Newman says it does this by “enlarging the mind of the student, enabling him to think more clearly and consistently and to express his own views in a manner that is persuasive …”[xi] “According to Newman, the uneducated Christian fails in some sense to realize the truths which he holds because he lacks a consistency of view: he fails to fully grasp the principles he holds and the conclusions that follow from these principles. The development of the mind that results from a university education, then, indirectly aids one’s understanding of the faith as well as any other subject to which one applies the mind.”[xii]

[i] Holmes, Building the Christian Academy, 83.
[ii] Ibid., 87.
[iii] Ibid., 88.
[iv] Thomas L. Benson, “Far From Home: Newman and the Contemporary Liberal Arts College,” Christian Higher Education 2 (2003): 307
[v] Ibid., 311-312.
[vi] Ibid., 308.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Ibid., 315.
[ix] John Goyette, “Augustine versus Newman on the relation between secular and sacred science,” in Faith, Scholarship, and Culture in the 21st Century, eds. Alice Ramos and Marie I. George (Mishawaka,Ind.: American Maritain Association, 2002), 211-212.
[x] Ibid., 213-214.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Ibid., 214.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Faith and Reason Part 3

Thomas Aquinas
            Birthed  in the High Middle Ages, the university was in its beginning when Thomas Aquinas was a major Christian scholar. He shaped and was shaped by this important institution. “The term universtas” writes Douglas Shantz, “first appeared in a papal document in AD 1208-1209. It referred to the total body of teachers and students, a kind of academic union or guild.  It also connoted the totality of the services in four faculties: arts (Philosophy), law, medicine, and theology.”[i]
            One of St. Thomas’s most popular works is the Summa Theologica.   A Summa is a summary of the major points of a specific topic. It follows the basic procedure of a disputation, which was similar to a modern debate. Such disputations were popular in the Middle Ages, when students or professors would hold a public debate. They would present a thesis to the audience, who would then present criticisms against the thesis. The scholar would respond to these criticisms and bring all points together in a synthesis. It is this procedure that is followed in the Summa Theologica. Aquinas begins by asking a question. For example, he asks whether revelation was necessary for individuals to obtain salvation. He then presents arguments that conclude it was not. After this, he presents his own answer and responds to each criticism. Some people find this format nerve-racking; I find it exhilarating. According to the late Mortimer Adler, all of the 102 great ideas that are studied in the Great Books program are included in the Summa Theologica. Some of these ideas are angel, animal, beauty, being, God, government and many others. Another benefit in reading this great work is that one is introduced to most of the great thinkers of the Ancient and Medieval world.
            “The Summa Theologica,” observes Shantz, “illustrates Thomas’s understanding of the teaching task. He devoted his best energies not to a work of scholarship for fellow professors but to a textbook for beginners…. “[ii] Thomas, like Plato, thought learning and teaching begin with “amazement” and “questioning.” St. Thomas tried to help the learner “recognize the mirandum, the wonderment, the novelty of the subject under discussion.” By doing this the teacher “puts the learner on the road to genuine questioning… [that] inspires all true learning.”[iii]
            Another positive trait of Thomas Aquinas is that he engaged secular learning. A major part of the writings of St. Thomas is commentaries on the works of Aristotle.  This is extraordinary because that was not part of his responsibility as a theology professor. That was a major role for the Master of Arts not theology. Be that as it may, Thomas Aquinas became one of the leading interpreters of Aristotelian thought.[iv]

            The reading and teaching of the works of Aristotle was actually controversial in the thirteenth century. Before the thirteenth century, the majority of Aristotle’s works were not known in Christian Europe, only in the Muslim world. In the 12th and 13th centuries, according to Arthur Holmes, “Latin translations from Greek and Arabic appeared, only to be greeted with grave suspicion because they seemed to contradict Christian theology.”[v] There were those who said that the works of Aristotle should be condemned. For example, Aquinas’s friend, Bonaventure, a Franciscan “preached sermons on the dangers to the faith found in Aristotle’s philosophy … and at the University of Paris the teaching of Aristotle’s metaphysics and natural philosophy was for a while officially banned.”[vi] There were others who said everything Aristotle taught should be accepted even if it conflicted with Christian revelation. They appeared to teach the idea of double truth. This basically means that ideas in two different disciplines could both be true even if they contradicted each other. Aquinas disagreed with both of these groups. He did not think truth contradicted itself. He “carefully studied Aristotle for himself and found much that was not only compatible with Christian thought but helpful to it as well.”[vii]
            We can also learn something about the vocation of Christian learning from St. Thomas. He believed teaching was his “first vocation” : “I feel that I owe it to God to make this the foremost duty of my life: that all my thought and speech proclaim him.”[viii] We can also say of Thomas that “he was one of those who teach as they grow and grow as they teach.”[ix] For Aquinas, “teaching involved two relationships and activities: his relationship to the truth in silently listening to reality; and his relationship with his pupils in clarifying, presenting and communicating that truth.”[x]
            Lastly, Thomas Aquinas actively engaged other religious traditions. For example, he studied the writings of the major Muslim and Jewish philosophers for whom he had great respect. He learned from them, but he also showed where they strayed philosophically. We may wonder at Aquinas’s welcoming assistance from Jewish and Muslim thinkers, “especially when we,” observes David Burrell, “reflect on the character of his times: the popular response to the call to arms of the crusades as well as a nearly universal impression on the part of Christians that the new covenant had effectively eclipsed the old. Aquinas may have shared these sentiments … yet his overriding concern in reaching out to other thinkers was always to learn from them in his search for truth.” [xi]

[i] Douglas H. Shantz, “The Christian University in Contemporary Culture: the Distinctive and the Challenge.” In Christian Worldview and the Academic Disciplines : Crossing the Academy, eds. Deane E.D. Downey and Stanley E. Porter (Eugene, OR.: Pickwick, 2009), 3-4.
[ii] Ibid.,5.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Jan A. Aertsen, “Aquinas’s Philosophy in its Historical Setting.” In The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, eds. Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 21.
[v] Arthur F. Holmes, Building the Christian Academy, 50-51.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid., 50.
[viii] Douglas H. Shantz, “The Christian University,” 4-5.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] David B. Burrell, “A Mingling of Minds: Why was One of Christianity’s Best Thinkers so Ready to Learn from a Muslim and a Jew”? Christian History 21 No 1 (F 2002): 37.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Faith and Reason Part 2

            Augustine was born in Roman North Africa in AD 354 and died in 430. He was one of the greatest of the Church Fathers, had an enormous influence on Church and Society in the Middle Ages, was a major influence on the Protestant reformers and continues to this day to be highly influential.
            Augustine was born to a pagan father and a Christian mother in the North African city of Tagaste. He describes his life before his conversion in his greatly esteemed work, The Confessions. He converted to the Christian faith when he was thirty-two. Saint Ambrose, Augustine’s mother and her prayers, and pagan thinkers, especially Cicero, Plato, and Plotinus influenced his conversion to Christianity.
            There are those who have opposed liberal arts education because of its close association with pagan thought. Others, like Augustine “affirmed that Christians can make a particular use of the liberal arts.”[i] Augustine believed that the liberal arts “were helpful in giving one the skills to interpret Scripture.”[ii] He argues for this use in his work, On Christian Doctrine.  “Augustine borrows imagery,” observes Brad Green, “from Exodus and the account of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.”[iii] God told the Israelites that He would make the Egyptians “favorably disposed” towards them, and the Israelites would be able to “Plunder the Egyptians.” Augustine asserts that Christians should “Plunder the Egyptians” – the “goods” being plundered are the liberal arts— and use them for Christian purposes.[iv]Augustine asserts that the liberal arts can be “both enjoyed for its own sake and used for some other end, for he discusses how the liberal arts he so plainly enjoyed should be used in the study and teaching of Scripture.”[v] He also emphasizes developing the Moral Virtues. Augustine taught that “love must be properly ordered, directed toward God and neighbors as well as one’s own soul. So to study Scripture aright, the soul must be freed from the disorder of lower desires: moral and intellectual development are both required.”[vi]
            One can clearly see both from Augustine’s life and his writings that Augustine “was impacted for the good” by his reading of pagan writers. For example, Cicero’s Hortensius was influential in Augustine’s journey to Christ. In mentioning this work, Augustine writes that the “book changed my affections. It turned my prayers to you, Lord, and caused me  to have different purposes and desires. All my vain hopes forwith became worthless to me, and with incredible ardor of heart of heart I desired undying wisdom, I began to rise up, so that I might return to you. ”[vii] Augustine recognized a certain value in pagan literature and thought, even though he also voiced concerns about it. Augustine expands this idea in his writings:
We [Christians] should not abandon music because of the superstitions of pagans if there is anything we can take from it that might help us understand the Holy Scriptures…. Nor is there any reason we should refuse to study literature because it is said that Mercury discovered it. That the pagans have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue and prefer to worship in the form of stone things which ought to be carried in the heart is no reason we should abandon justice and virtue. On the contrary, let everyone who is a good and true Christian understand that truth belongs to his Master wherever it is found.”[viii]

[i] Brad Green, “Augustine, Modernity, and the Recovery of True Education.” Unpublished paper, retrieved 09-13-2010.(, 2.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.

[v] Holmes, Building the Christian Academy, 31.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality : Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Toccoa Falls, Ga.: Toccoa Falls College, 1996), 47; Saint Augustine, Confessions(trans. John K. Ryan; New York, et al: Doubleday, 1960), 3.4.7.
[viii] Ibid., 47-48.