Thursday, June 12, 2014

Who's Afraid of Relativism

Who's Afraid of Relativism?: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood, by James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 186 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8010-3973-7.

Smith's Who's Afraid of Relativism seems to be a sequel to his earlier book: Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? In that book Smith tried to rehabilitate the teaching of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault and apply it to the Church. In Who's Afraid of Relativism, Smith seeks to rehabilitate the thinking of Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom and apply its teaching to the Church. These thinkers basic philosophy is pragmatism. Smith sees himself doing what Saint Augustine spoke of "as looting the Egyptians." In other words, taking the good from secular thought and capturing for the Church.

Smith argues that Christians should be relativists. However, what he defines as relativism does not seem to be the popular idea of relativism. His relativism does not seem to be anything goes. It actually argues against individualism and supports the idea of being shaped by a community.

Smith has a chapter for each of the thinkers.He adds another chapter for what he considers to be a Christian pragmatism: post-liberalism. He asserts that his book can actually stand as a prequel to George Lindbeck's Nature of Doctrine. 

Who's Afraid of Relativism seems to dovetail with Smith's other works. He wants us to understand the importance of the body and embodiment. He wants to point out that our lives are limited by contingency, context, and environment.

Sometimes in reading the book I was little confused. Smith seems to be arguing one thing in one part, and then seems to be qualifying it in another part. This book does make you think. Smith seems to be arguing against realist conceptions of truth. Does his arguments refutes all presentations of realism? It does seem to refute some representations of realism, but not all.

In the epilogue Smith states that his argument for relativism is not "arbitrary or subjective or governed only by fleeting whims" (179). He seems to be using special terminology for relativism. He defines relativism as something "related to something or someone, relative to say, a context or a community" (179). I think this gives us an idea that he is implying. We are historical beings. We are not God. We are limited beings constrained by our history, context, and community. We are also dependent beings. He would argue that our practices shape our beliefs instead of saying our beliefs shape our practices. He basically is arguing for ""our creaturehood." This recognition should lead us to a more "catholic stance that begins with an affirmation of tradition, a gracious reception of the gifts we receive from our past" (182). In other words, Smith's use of secular sources point us to the importance of the Christian Tradition.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

George M Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: the 1950s and the crisis of belief. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 219 pages. ISBN 978-0-465-030101.

George Marsden is one of the leading historians of our day. He has written many prize-winning books including Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. In addition, he has influenced many Christian scholars today. The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is a different type of book for him. In this book, he examines the 1950s and the attempt of secular liberals to create a consensus for American culture and life. He shows through his analysis of this period how this experiment failed. He connects the birth of the Religious Right with the failure of the liberal establishment. He faults liberals for shutting out the voice of religious conservatives. He faults the religious right for creating a mythical Christian nation. His overall goal is to argue for a principled pluralism that allows for the voices of liberals, moderates, and conservatives to be heard in the public arena.

This seems to be a goal worth shooting for. I do not think his analysis of the failed liberal experiment necessarily leads to the argument for pluralism in our day. It is hard to apply the findings of one period of history to another. One might also wonder if we do not have pluralism already and different voices are already evident in this arena. There does seem to be a need for civility in the public arena as argued by Richard Mouw and Os Guinness. It would seem that Christians can play an important role here.

Marsden's analysis of the 1950s is expertly done. He shows he is throughly familiar with the key individuals and events of the time. He does show that the liberal elite had no transcendent(?) belief that could unify the nation. The strange thing here is that many conservatives look back longingly at the fifties as a time of family values. Despite this being a time of legal segregation; this view is based on a myth. We should be thankful for Marsden's help in having a more truthful view of the 1950s.

The Twilight of the Enlightenment includes five chapters. In chapter one Marsden analyzes mass media's affect on American culture. This is the time of television. Many liberals spoke out to its negative characteristics. Marsden notes, "The anxieties over television, mass media, and a culture dominated by mindless anti-intellectualism were all premised on the deeper concern that the world might be witnessing the emergence of a whole new creature, 'mass man' or modern man' (21). There were many intellectuals who spoke against this master culture. Some of there were Eric Fromm in his book Escape from Freedom; David Riseman, in The Lonely Crowd; and the popular novel and film, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. These authors were arguing for freedom against mass conformism. Marsden notes, "Yet, it was not clear what criteria one should use to determine what the positive alternatives were to the shackles either of traditionalism or of modern conformity" (42). In addition, he argues that "the social commentators who identified conformity as a preeminent modern problem could assume that autonomy was the solution because they were taking for granted that there were better values that authentic, self-fulfilled people could draw upon" (43). Marsden argues that this search for some higher goal to based these values were a failure. The building they were building "were without foundations."

One of the leading liberal intellectuals who saw this failure was Walter Lippmann. In his last book, he wrote of this failure. His book was trated with scorn and ridicule. Marsden notes, "His heresy was to say that his liberal colleagues were trying to build a public consensus based on inherited principles, even after they dynamited the foundations on which those principles had first been established. The result was that liberal culture, of which he was a part, had no adequate shared criteria for determining 'the good' (44). " Lippman went on to argue that we must try to renew something like a natural law.

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment is a well-written book. It persuasively argues that the liberal attempt to create a consensus after letting go of the Christian foundation ultimately failed. What we have as a result is the modern culture wars. It does seem that we need to come to some-kind of a consensus or our nation will rip at the seams.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Dangers of Reading Books

The Dangers of Reading Books

James V. Schall, Frederick Wilhelmson, and Leo Strauss warned against the dangers of reading the Great Books. This might seem surprising. Everyone knows that reading the Great Books is what everyone wants to do, but never does. The reason these authors warned against the dangers of reading the Great Books is because the authors of these books disagreed with each other. They thought that reading these books without special guides would lead to relativism. Relativism is the "idea that truth, morality, etc., exist only in relation to other things and are not absolute." In other words, there are no universal standards for morality and truth.

I do think these authors have a point. One could think of what the book of James says: ". . . for the one who doubts is like the wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind (;) . . . he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (James 1:6-7, ESV). Or one thinks of what the apostle Paul wrote: "that we may no longer be children , tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine" (Ephesians 4:14). What we see pictured hear is that we go whichever way the author leads us. One author leads us one way; another author leads us another way. We are lost at sea.

Schall and the others want to keep us from despairing of the truth. They want us to be properly grounded. This is why they think we need to have expert guides to lead us through this wilderness of relativism. One might say we need a place to stand, so we can distinguish between what is true and untrue. The Christian tradition or a Biblical understanding can be helpful here.

I think there argument can be applied to modern books. If we read books regularly, we will come upon authors who disagree with one another. How do we handle this? Should we refrain from the reading of books because the danger involved. C. S. Lewis Wrote that the atheist cannot be too careful of the books they read. Should the Christian read only Christian books? The problem is that many Christian authors disagree with one another.

I remember when I decided to attend a public university instead of a Christian college. My Associate Pastor and mentor discouraged me from doing this. He thought I would endanger my faith. Many Christians want to read authors that only agree with their beliefs. This is not a solution for me. I have learned many things from authors that disagree with my beliefs. For example, I think there are things we can learn from Sigmund Freud even though he was an atheist. Many time my faith is challenged just as much from certain Christian authors as it is from atheists. For example, One of my favorite contemporary authors is James K. A. Smith. I have read many of his books. Many of his ideas challenge much of what I have been taught in Christian circles. Two books that come especially in mind are Who's Afraid of Post-modernism and Who's Afraid of Relativism. In these books he looks at certain non-Christian authors, even atheists, and argues that they can teach us certain truths that the Church needs to hear. In other words, secularists are donning the robes of prophets.

Reading authors that disagree with one another makes me uncomfortable. Reading authors that disagree with my beliefs makes me examine my beliefs closer. Am I wrong to read these books? The only safe thing to do would be not to read any books at all. Books can be quite dangerous.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Slow Reading in a Hurried Age

David Mikics, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. Harvard University Press, 2013. 320 pages. ISBN 978-0-674-72472-3.

I remember several years back when speed reading was a craze. There were all kinds of books, workshops, and courses how to increase the reader's speed. We now have several authors telling us to slow down our speed of reading. Which advice is correct? It depends. It depends on what you are reading. Mortimer Adler and Charles Doren's How to Read a Book taught me that the speed of reading depended on the purposes of reading. For example, you would not read a novel for entertainment at the same speed as you would read a non-fiction book analytically.

David Mikics sees a need for readers to slow down too. His major concern is that in the digital age we are developing certain habits that creates poor readers. His book can be divided into three parts. The first two chapters discuss the negative affects of the digital age and how to respond to it. Chapter three describes fourteen rules to make us a better reader. The last five chapters applies these rules to the reading of different genres: short stories, novels, poetry, drama, and essays.

These are the fourteen rules described by Mikics:
1. Be Patient
2. Ask the Right Questions
3. Identify the Voice
4. Get a Sense of Style
5. Notice Beginnings and Endings
6. Identify Signposts
7. Use the Dictionary
8. Track Key Words
9. Find the Author's Basic Thought
10. Be Suspicious
11. Find the Parts
12. Write it Down
13. Explore Different Paths
14. Find Another Book

These rules are helpful in helping the reader to be better readers. The first two chapters does present some dangers to deep reading in the digital age. For example, the author notes, "This book will teach any interested person how to be a good and careful reader, a slow reader, even in the age of the Internet. The Internet fosters light reading: we scan and graze, searching for tidbits" (3). I think there is truth in what Mikics is saying. In some sense, the digital age creates different kinds of readers. Reading a good book is an education in itself. One good book leads to other good books.

I still think Adler and Doren's How to Read a Book is still essential. It is a book I will read again. Two other books I like on reading is by two Christian authors: Lit!:A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke, and How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension by James W. Sire. All three of these books I highly recommend. Adler's book mainly covers reading Non-fiction books. Reinke and Sire cover both fiction and non-fiction. Sire does a good job in teaching the reader how to read poetry.