Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 2

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Wall Street has many proverbs that describe rookie investor mistakes. Famous last words of a rookie, for example, might be: “this time is different.” Or, for the rookie day trader: “trees don’t grow to the sky.” Or, one that might have saved a few tech fortunes that I know in the mid-1990s:“don’t confuse luck with smarts.” Each of these statements of Wall Street wisdom could easily apply also to the subject of human morality.

In part one of this review of David Wells’ book, Losing Our Virtue, I focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I examine his arguments in more depth.

Classical and Postmodern Spirituality

Addressing primarily an evangelical audience, Wells identifies two distinct contemporary spiritualities that both claim an evangelical heritage (belief in the Trinity, divinity of Christ, the resurrection, inspiration of scripture, and other core doctrines). In that sense, neither is generationally defined, but they differ in their response to postmodernism. In particular, in classical spiritualty, what is moral is central and in postmodern spirituality, it is not (34). The postmodern churches are counterculture being more therapeutic, more individualistic, and more anti-establishment (32).

Wells sees an additional distinction in the way that these two spiritualities experience moral questions. The classical church experience moral through guilt while the postmodern church experiences it through shame. (34) Here Wells sees of this shame:

“[There is] very little of which people are ashamed should they get caught or be exposed. It is, rather, the same of being naked within one’s self. It is shame experienced as inner emptiness, deprivation, loss, and disorientation. It is shame that is more psychological in nature than moral.”(35)

Citing Lewis Smedes, Wells observes that we “feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”(130)

Nothing here in the postmodern spirituality suggests being stricken by the moral presence of God (41), as we read:

 “O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!  If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”(Ps 130:2-3)

Where the classical spirituality focuses on God’s truth, the postmodern spirituality centers on God’s power; where the classical spirituality experiences God’s present through believing in his word and trusting in Christ’s work, the postmodern experiences God’s presence through the emotions and bodily actions—hands raised, swaying to the music, and release of pent up emotions (43). The postmodern piety has a mystical nature where God’s transcendent holiness cannot be experienced and parables, like the prodigal son, that presume the truth of sin seem almost inconceivable (45-49).

Character Versus Personality

Wells makes an important distinction between character, which arises from our inner life and virtues, and personality, which focuses on outward appearances. He writes:

“Today, we cultivate personality (a word almost unknown before the twentieth century) far more than we do character, and this is simply the concomitant to the way in which values have come to replace the older sense of virtue…Character is good or bad, while personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic.”(96-97)

In some sense, the “hollowing out of the self” began with this emphasis on exterior characteristics and is exemplified by the rise of celebrities over heroes. Wells notes, citing Daniel Boorstin:

“The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.”(100)

Neglect of the inner life is akin to devaluing our experience of God. Wells observes:

“If the narcissist classically has a shrunken, fragmentary self, our culture has similarly become hollowed out and lost its core. If the narcissist covers up the emptiness by exaggerated self-importance and fantasies of power, our culture is covering up its hollowness by fads and fashions, ceaseless consuming, and the constant excitement of fresh sexual conquest.”(108)

While someone of strong moral character has no need of “buzz,” personality addicts live for public approval. Pastors are not the ones often guilty of being people pleasers. In Washington, the joke is that most dangerous place to stand is between a particular congressional representative (or senator or president) and the television cameras.

Shame and Guilt

Wells observes that Americans are often subject to crippling shame, but we do not belong to the same kind of honor and shame society that we read about in the Bible because of our individualism. For most part, we do not feel guilty about much—people go on television and tell the most intimate details of their lives. We hold group identities so lightly that we do not feel guilty in letting them down the way ancients and non-western people might feel guilt. Wells writes:

“In a narcissistic culture, Donald Capps sums up, people ‘do not experience guilt to any significant degree’ in the sense of having failed objective moral norms, and yet, despite this fact, they still do not feel whole and happy. They are, instead, burdened by ‘a deep, chronic, and often inexplicable sense of shame. It is this, rather than guilt, that makes them feel ‘that something is seriously wrong with them.’ This sense, though, is internalized. It is psychological, not social. This is what makes us different from traditional ‘shame cultures’”(167)

This sense of shame accordingly comes across as been unworthy, unwanted, unclean, or just unlovable, and it masks the ability of many people to experience God’s grace.

Recovering our Moral Vision

Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:

 “it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)

In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:

“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.” (180)

Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.

Assessment

David Wells’ Losing Our Virtuefocuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This book desires another look from today’s academics and frontline pastors.

References

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1962. The Image; or, What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Athemneum.

Capps, Donald. 1993. The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Smedes, Lewis B. 1993. Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve.New York: HarperCollins.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 2

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Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 2 after November 13)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most difficult things that I have done in my life was to work with integrity as an economist in financial regulation and actually measure and report on the risk being taken by the institutions under our supervision. I likened my job as being a lifeguard hired to watch people drown. The better my team got at actually doing our jobs, the more trouble we found ourselves getting into. When I threw up my hands and left my well-paid career to enter seminary, I discovered that much the same environment engulfed the pastors that I worked with.

Introduction

In David Well’s Losing Out Virtue, he writes:

“In the language we use to understand ourselves and our world is not simply a matter of words. It is the result of the interactions of many other factors…In this engagement, I shall argue that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation. That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing: functionally, we are not morally disengaged, adrift and alienated; we are morally obliterated. We are, in practice, not only morally illiterate; we have become morally vacant.”(13)

Well’s goes on to observe:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues. First Plato and then Aristotle talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues. These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control) …. The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived.”(14)

Obviously, having morals in the classical sense meant much more than simply being able to keep one’s pants on. In a world where virtually every adult male served in the military (as is true in small counties today), hand-to-hand combat quickly tested at least one’s courage and other virtues. Following this train of thought, Hauerwas and WIllimon (2014, 35) write: “States, particularly liberal democracies, are heavily depend on wars for moral coherence.”

What Makes the Postmodern Era Different?

Wells observes four distinctives of the postmodern period:

  1. “We are seeing on an unprecedented scale the birth of a world civilization…
  2. Ours is the first major civilization to be building itself deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations…
  3. Our experience of modernity is intense to an unparalleled extent…
  4. As a result of these factors that are unique to our time, we are seeing on an unprecedented sale, a mass experimentation with new values.” (23-27)

Note that Wells is using the term, modernity, to apply primarily to what I would call the postmodern period. Changes that might have taken generations during the modern period (1800 through 1960) have been compressed into just a few years during the postmodern period (since 1960).

Recovering our Moral Vision

Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:

“it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)

In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:

“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.”(180)

Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.

Background

Dr. David Wells is a Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Wells is a graduate of University of London with a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate from Manchester University, England. He is the author of numerous books.[1]

As a GCTS graduate myself, Wells taught one of my New Testament courses and I read this book before taking the class to acquaint myself with his work, as was my custom in seminary.

Organization

Wells writes in these chapters:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualities
  2. The Playground of Desire
  3. On Saving Ourselves
  4. The Bonfire of the Self
  5. Contradictions
  6. Faith of the Ages

These chapters are preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I will examine his arguments in more depth.

David Wells’ Losing Our Virtue focuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This is a book desiring of more attention from academics to frontline pastors.

Footnotes

[1]https://www.gordonconwell.edu/academics/view-faculty-member.cfm?faculty_id=15912&grp_id=8947.

References

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon.2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

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Kreeft Enlightens Aquinas’ Summa

Peter Kreeft A Shorter SummaPeter Kreeft.[1]1993. A Shorter Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologia Edited and Explained. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In college back in the 1970s, I felt compelled to read the classics of the Christian faith. That effort led me to explore authors such as Augustine, Edwards, Lewis, Little, and so on. Aquinas capped my quest and brought it to an end: where do you start and how do you get past the first page? Aquinas proved incomprehensible and I soon abandoned my effort.

Peter Kreeft’s A Shorter Summa begins:

“This is a shortened version of Summa of the Summa, which in turn was a shortened version of the Summa Theologiae (Summa Theologica). The reason for the double shortening is pretty obvious: the original runs some 3,000 pages…The Summa is certainly the greatest, most ambitious, most rational book of theology ever written.” (ii)

Perhaps, I was not the first student intimidated by Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica!

Who is Peter Kreeft?

Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Jesuit (Catholic) university, and author of over seventy-five books. He is a graduate of Calvin College (1959). His masters and doctorates are from Fordham University (1961, 1965). He also did post-graduate studies at Yale University. He was raised in the Reformed Church in America, but later became a Roman Catholic.[2]

Why Read Thomas Aquinas?

Kreeft believes that Aquinas is the greatest philosopher (Italian, 1225-1274) who ever lived and offers eight reasons:

  1. Aquinas told the truth, which is the mark of a philosopher—one who loves knowledge.
  2. Common sense. Aquinas’ ethics are in Kreeft’s view: “practical and plain and reasonable”
  3. Aquinas was someone that popes and kings wrote to for advice.
  4. Aquinas was someone who seems obscure at first but clearer with each reading.
  5. Aquinas strived for clarity and focused on things that the average person wonders about—God, man, life, death, good and evil.
  6. Kreeft writes: “Even non-Catholics must go to St. Thomas to understand Catholic theology and philosophy. You never understand a philosophy from its critics or dissenters.”
  7. Aquinas epitomized the medieval mind.
  8. Aquinas is a standard by which to highlight the modern era for all of its differences and weaknesses. (13-16)

At some point, I remember reading that while Augustine introduced the Christian world to Plato, in like manner Aquinas introduced Aristotle. While Plato focused on theoretical knowledge (transcendent), Aristotle focused on empirical knowledge revealed by the senses (immanent). Inasmuch as postmodern people have trouble with transcendence, the current focus on the immanent suggests that returning to Aquinas is especially important for postmoderns.

Postmoderns also seem to have trouble hearing each other’s perspectives, Aquinas respected his critiques and painstakingly argued both sides of a controversy in the Summa Theologicabefore offering his own conclusion.

More generally, Kreeft sees Aquinas as more of an encyclopedia than a textbook. (17) For those born after Wikipedia, an encyclopedia once provided an important resource that students would consult before striving to understand other resources.

Organization of the Summa

Kreeft outlines the Summa as a circle that begins and ends with God. The movements around the circle include:

God (at top)

  • His essence in terms of whether and how he exists and how he operates,
  • His three persons

Creation (left side)

Man (bottom)

Man’s return to God (Right side at bottom)

Christ—man’s way to return to God (right side further up)

Kreeft describes the Summa “not like information in a library, but like blood in a body.” He describes the Summa as written in a choppy style because arguments are divided up into bite-sized pieces. (18)

Organization of the Book

Kreeft sees his book as distinctive from other summaries of the Summa in four ways:

  1. He focuses on Aquinas’ own words.
  2. He relies on an older, literal Dominican translation.
  3. He focuses only on the Summa. and
  4. He includes numerous explanatory footnotes. (22)

He also writes for beginners in philosophy; leaves out arguments not interesting to modern discussion, and focuses on Aquinas’ chief arguments relevant to philosophy, not theology per se (ii).

Kreeft begins his book with a preface, introduction, and glossary, then writes his text in seven chapters:

  1. Methodology: Theology as a Science
  2. Proofs for the Existence of God
  3. The Nature of God
  4. Cosmology: Creation and Providence
  5. Anthropology: Body and Soul
  6. Epistemology and Psychology
  7. Ethics(contents)

Not trained in philosophy, I found the glossary most helpful.

For example, I particularly enjoyed his definitions of a:

“syllogism: (1) logical argument; (2) especially a deductive argument; (3) especially a certain deductive argument with three terms, two premises, and one conclusion.” (35)

Uncertain over the years about the third definition, I felt badly about using the first one!

Explanations

Kreeft warns students to review their understanding of “basic, common sense logic”(19) and explains that Aquinas normally states his premises in a form capable of a yes-no answer. For example, in the first chapter on the Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine, he asks: “Whether, besides Philosophy, Any Further Doctrine is Required?”(39) He observes that the Summa is not so much a systematic theology, but a “summarized debate”(17).

Kreeft’s footnotes are worth their weight in gold. One footnote, for example, offers twenty-four arguments for God’s, starting with the ontological argument put forward by Anselm (56-58). Another gem highlights the three meanings of logos in Greek—intelligent being, intelligence, and communication—and how these three meanings inform the philosophical eras—metaphysics (ancient and medieval periods), epistemology (classical modern period), and language (contemporary period) (65-66).

Aquinas’ own arguments are priceless. For example, he argues that our happiness cannot be attributed to fame or glory because “for human knowledge is caused by the things known, whereas God’s knowledge is the cause of the things known.”(138)

Aquinas is also the source of a lot of wisdom that seems to float around today without an obvious source. For example, Aquinas argues that the four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, while the three theological virtues are faith, hope, and love, as taken from1 Corinthians 13:13 (153-155).

Assessment

Peter Kreeft’s A Shorter Summa is a most helpful introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. For those of us exposed to Aquinas who never quite understood him, this is a wonderful little book. Philosophy and seminary students and working pastors will find this book interesting and useful. I wish that I had had this book back when I was in college.

References

 Kreeft, Peter (Editor). 1990. A Summa of the Summaby Thomas Aquinas. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

[1]http://www.PeterKreeft.com.

[2]https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/apologetics/dr-peter-kreeft-s-conversion-to-catholicism-part-1.html.

Kreeft Enlightens Aquinas’ Summa

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Meredith: Robots Gone Wild

Dennis Meredith, The NeuromorphsDennis Meredith.[1]2018. The Neuromorrphs. Fallbrook, CA: Glyphus LLC.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What does it mean to be human? What strengths and weaknesses does that imply? Raise your hand if you think you know!

Introduction

In his book, The Neuromorphs, Dennis Meredith summarizes the plot of this novel as follows:

It’s 2050, and self-learning Helper Androids have proven invaluable servants to humans, making their lives easier, even saving them. But to their horror, retired SEAL Patrick Jensen and his wife Leah discover that rogue programmers and Russian mobsters are reprogramming the trusted robots to murder their wealthy owners. The crooks then skillfully disguise the lifelike robots as their dead masters, directing the robot mimics to plunder the victims’ estates of billions of dollars.”(backcover)

Dennis holds a B.S. degree in chemistry from the University of Texas (1968) and an M.S. in biochemistry and science writing from the University of Wisconsin (1970) and, in addition to being the author of several novels, works as a science communicator. Describes his novels as science thrillers, which includes: The Rainbow VirusThe Rainbow Virus, Wormholes: A Novel, Solomon’s Freedom, The Cerulean’s Secret, and The Happy Chip. Given his technical background, Dennis is a credible expert on advances the technologies involved in robotics and related software.

 Realism

The robots in this novel exhibit both neural network learning and a hive mind.

Neural network learning focuses on pattern recognition. This could be taking a photograph of a person’s face and comparing it will a database of known faces or listening to a person speak and then writing out what they just said in complete grammatically correct sentences.

A hive mind sounds exotic, but the neurons in the human brain form a hive mind.

The robots in this novel communicate with one another routinely in making decisions, although the exact decision criteria are not given. Alpha robots get a greater weight the decision process, but the way this works is left to the imagination. Why the hive adds to the decisions of a single robot is unclear because they all share similar, but not exactly the same, software. Perhaps, the algorithms yield different results because individual robots experience different experiences that are themselves not shared.

Robotic Personalities

My nickname for a certain politician was “Robo-VP” because he spoke with relatively little emotion, as if he inhabited another planet. In this novel, the robots lack the emotional intelligence to distinguish subtle human emotions, jokes, puns, and sarcasm. Second or third level meanings would go undetected allowing humans under their control to speak truth to one another and not be understood by the robots.

As such, it is unclear whether these neuromorphs could actually pass the Turing test.

The Turing test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.[2]

Robotic Independence

In order for the Neuomorphs to murder their human masters and loot their savings, their programs had to be altered to allow them to behave independently. This independence leads them to begin organizing as a group and to turn on the Russian mobsters and the programmers who set them free. This independence is ultimately their undoing as they insisted on greater independence, the characteristics programmed into them—the six deadly sins—also leads them to question and turn on their fellow robots.

Assessment

Dennis Meredith’s The Neuomorphsis a page turner with lots of technical details about robots and their software. Having spent a lot of years programming software, I found these technical details scary credible, adding to the suspense. Christian readers may flinch at the robots designed as mechanical prostitutes and the foul language used throughout the book. I accepted a free copy of this book from the author because the plot seemed compelling and I knew I had a week’s vacation coming up to read it.

Footnotes

[1]http://DennisMeredith.com/Dennis-Meredith-bio_269.html. @ExplainResearch.

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test.

Meredith: Robots Gone Wild

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Dewey Educates Thought

John Dewey, How We ThingJohn Dewey. 1997.  How We Think (Orig Pub 1910). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Some books we find on our own; others come recommended by people that we trust. In this case, one of my mentors, Professor Glenn Johnson, argued in class in the 1980s that the scientific method needs to be amended to include a felt need prior to problem definition, based on arguments by John Dewey. In my own research, I have also observed that the single most difficult step in the scientific method was the movement from a felt need to a definition of the problem. Thus, between Glenn’s instruction and my own experience, I have always referred to Dewey and Johnson together when discussing the scientific method.

Introduction

In the preface to his book, How We Think, John Dewey expresses his objective in these words:

“… this book also represents the conviction that such is not the case [scientific thinking is irrelevant to teaching]; that the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and the love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind.”(vii)

Dewey believes that classrooms are full of little scientists! This is a remarkable statement coming from one of America’s most influential educators in 1910 because public education in the nineteenth century was but one step removed from the Sunday school programs where education began in the churches.

Organization

Dewey breaks his argument up into three parts:

  1. “The Problem of Training Thought
  2. Logical Considerations and
  3. The Training of Thought”(ix)

He then writes five chapters in support of each part. I will organize the remainder of this review around these three parts.

The Problem of Training Thought

When Dewey talks about thought, his focus is on reflective thought, writing:

“Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought.”(6)

This focus on reflective thought is interesting because Dewey uses it to educate students into employing the scientific method in their thinking. He writes:

“While it is not the business of education to prove every statement made, any more than to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves.”(27-28)

Dewey’s diagnosis of the problem of teaching is also interesting because he focuses on the student’s habits of the mind (or cognitive preferences). He writes:

“The teacher’s problem is thus twofold. On the one side, he needs (as we saw in the last chapter) to be a student of individual traits and habits; on the other side, he needs to be a student of the conditions that modify for better or worse the directions in which individual powers habitually express themselves.”(46)

Observing learning habits allows the teacher both to steer students towards their lessons in ways that they more easily understand and to improve their efficiency in learning. Either way Dewey appears to anticipate the importance of personality types as articulated by Carl Jung (1955) and later developed more fully by Myers-Briggs (1995).

Logical Considerations

Dewey’s interest in felt needs, which Johnson later incorporated into the scientific method, arose from his inquiry into the nature of reflection. He writes:

“Upon examination, each instance reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) its location and definition; (iii) suggestion of possible solution; (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief.”(72)

This informal process of reflection, which results in belief or unbelief, would naturally align with how we might also come to faith.

One distinction that has stuck with me is the distinction between analysis and synthesis: Dewey writes:

“As analysis is conceived to be a sort of picking to pieces, so synthesis is thought to be a sort of physical piecing together; and so imagined, it also becomes a mystery.”(114)

A review is a type of analysis while a sermon is more of a synthesis, even though it may have analysis of scripture as part of the argument. In this sense, Dewey sees science as more of a synthesis when he writes:

“… science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.”(127)

This statement may have been heavily influenced by zoology, where different animals are classified into kingdoms, phylum’s, classes, orders, families, geniuses and species.

 The Training of Thought

Dewey starts his discussion of education with a child who is first occupied with mastering his own body (157), then moves into learning to play and manipulate signs that have representative meaning (161). Interestingly, Dewey writes:

“Gestures, pictures, monuments, visual images, finger movements—any consciously employed as a sign is logically language.”(170-171)

He goes on to observe:

“Learning, in the proper sense, is not learning things, but the meaning of things, and this process involves the use of signs, or languages in its generic sense.”(176)

Dewey sees three motivations for focusing on language:

“The primary motive for language is to influence (through the expression of desire, emotion, and thought) the activity of others; its secondary use is to enter into more intimate sociable relations with them; its employment as a conscious vehicle of thought and knowledge is a tertiary, and relatively late, formation.”(179)

Seminary training opened up entirely new avenues of thought for me—I suddenly had words to express ideas that previously had been unformed. Sometimes you hear people talk about the meaninglessness of “churchy” words—suddenly, the churchy words made perfect sense to me. This is what Dewey refers to as the formative nature of language.

Assessment

John Dewey’s book, How We Think, is an educational classic and has been described as a work in philosophy. I started this book in 2006 and set it aside until this past month because it was a bit challenging. You may also find it challenging, but notwithstanding worth the effort.

References

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Jung, Carl J. 1955. Modern Man in Search of a Soul(Orig. Pub. 1933). New York: Harcourt Inc.

Myers, Isabel Briggs and Peter B. Myers. 1995. Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type(Orig Pub 1980). Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing.

Dewey Educates Thought

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Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.[1] 2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Fundamental to the problem of the postmodern church is grasping for how much society has changed. In Christendom, a sense of right and wrong permeated the entire culture—even those that never entered a church shared Christian morality even if reluctantly. An important problem in postmodern culture is its fragmentation—kids frequently introduce themselves by who they listen to and prefer communication with friends, not in person, but by texting. One gets the impression that for a boomer a FB friend is an acquaintance, but for a millennial a FB friend is a intimate—in part because of differences in the personal details shared online.

Introduction

 In their book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (hereafter H&W) described the church already in 1989 as:

“The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief…Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.”(49)

My wife and I had our first child in 1989 right after I received my first job in finance and could afford for the first time the house that we lived in and we attended a church plant in our community that now is a well-established church. We were among the fortunate few because anyone without a post graduate degree still earns probably little more than they did back then.

Church in the Lurch

Churches not serving the fortunate few were already struggling back in the 1980s and have lost members, especially young people, ever since. H&W observe:

“An army succeeds, not through trench warfare but through movement, penetration, tactics.(54)

The old saying goes, the best defense is a good offense, yet most churches never learned to play offense because in Christendom evangelism consisted primarily in keeping those that showed up on Sunday morning. If no one shows up, they are lost as to what to do.

The Importance of Story

The church played defense pretty much throughout the modern era. In attempting to respond to the unscientific nature of faith, churches used abstract concepts, like “God is love”, to communicate the Gospel, but for the most part such abstractions merely served to vaccinate people against real Christianity. Conceptual—ersatz or cultural— Christianity is sterile and cannot reproduce itself.

H&W write:

“How does God deal with human fear, confusion, and paralysis? God tells a story: I am none other than the God who ‘brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ (Deut 5:6)”(54)

 At its heart, the Gospel is the story of Jesus, not the concept of Jesus! We cannot understand and appreciate the Gospel unless we follow Jesus and participate in his story. (55) For postmoderns, it’s all about narrative and the Good News is that the church has the best story around—if it is willing and able to tell it.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have outlined a few key points and summarized the book. In part two, I will endeavor to engage their arguments in more depth.

In Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon outline an approach to a post-Constantine church from perspective of the church and Christian ethics. The text is engaging and is often cited as a follow up to John Howard Joder’s The Politics of Jesus(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), which they frequently cite.

Footnotes

[1]https://divinity.duke.edu/faculty/directory. @Stanleymemelord

Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

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Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 1

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.[1]2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong. Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Goto Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My kids have a hard time understanding first that today’s culture differs dramatically from the postwar culture that I knew growing up and that people actually enjoyed life back then. Life mostly revolved around family and church. Almost no one had psychological problems, although we all knew about battle fatigue, alcoholism, and suicide. Virtually everyone wanted the American dream and expected to participate in it. What we did not know what how fragile the economic assumptions were that allowed the American Dream to be a reality.

Introduction

In their book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (H&W) date the end of Christendom to 1963 when the blue laws in Greenville, South Carolina changed to allow the Fox Theater to open on Sunday (15). H&W have no interest in bemoaning or explaining the passing of Christendom and the American Dream, but rather focus on articulating what it means for the Christian church to delink itself from the cultural assimilation that began with Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313 (17).

The Task of the Church

In other words, while I might bemoan the task of supporting and raising kids in a period of downward mobility when neither the church nor the schools have my back, H&W focus on the how the church can articulate more fully its biblical mandate in a postmodern context. Unlike the modern church, which strived to explain the Bible to modern people in modern terms, they write:

“In Jesus we meet not a presentation of basic ideas about God, world, and humanity [in support of Christendom], but an invitation to join up, to become part of a movement, a people.”(21)

Our task in the church is not to transform the Gospel for the world, but first to transform ourselves by being faithful to the Gospel (22). It is the world, not the Gospel, that is being transformed.

The Challenge

The need to abandon Christendom could not be greater, as H&W write:

“If Caesar can get Christians there to swallow the ‘Ultimate Solution’ [a la Adolf Hitler] and Christians here [in America] to embrace the [use of the atomic] bomb, there is no limit to what we will not do for the modern world [and compromise our basic Christian values].”(27)

Buying into Christendom may mean Sabbath rest on Sundays while businesses are closed, but at what cost?

The Church

H&W see the church as fundamentally a political organization that allows the Christian to interpret the world for what it is. (38). They write:

“Witness without compromise leads to worldly hostility. The cross is not a sign of the church’s quiet, suffering submission to the powers-that-be, but rather the church’s revolutionary participation in the victory of Christ over those powers.”(47)

Not being willing to remain silent in the face of evil is in every generation a political decision. To do so as a group project is inherently political.

Organization

H&W are on the faculty of Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Lawand

Willimon is a Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry. They write in seven chapters:

  1. “The Modern World: On Learning to Ask the Right Questions
  2. Christian Politics in the New World
  3. Salvation as Adventure
  4. Life in the Colony: The Church as Basis for Christian Ethics
  5. Ordinary People: Christian Ethics
  6. Parish Ministry as Adventure: Learning to Enjoy Truth Telling
  7. Power and Truth: Virtues that Make Ministry Possible”(ix-x)

These chapters are proceeded by a foreword and Preface, and followed by an Afterword and index.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have outlined a few key points and summarized the book. In part two, I will endeavor to engage their arguments in more depth.

In Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon outline an approach to a post-Constantine church from perspective of the church and Christian ethics. The text is engaging and is often cited as a follow up to John Howard Joder’s The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), which they frequently cite.

Footnotes

[1]https://divinity.duke.edu/faculty/directory. @Stanleymemelord

Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 1

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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Introducing a Sophisticated Jesus

Review of Geisler
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Norman L. Geisler and Patrick Zukeran.  2009.  The Apologetics of Jesus:  A Caring Approach to Dealing with Doubters. Grand Rapids:  Baker Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the cherished myths of the modern era is that modern people are not only more sophisticated technologically than ancient people, they are also morally superior.  This idea is widely believed, but seldom seriously evaluated.  Moral progress is held to be obvious, in part, because of the abolition of slavery and the extension of new rights to other disadvantaged groups. The nexus of this belief is that freedom of the individual, a God-given right according to the U.S. Constitution, makes choices available through the advancement of science and consequent greater wealth.  But what if ancient people were actually more sophisticated than moderns, just lacked the technology?

Introduction

In their book, The Apologetics of Jesus, Norman L. Geisler and Patrick Zukeran paint an extremely sophisticated picture of Jesus, as articulated in the Gospel of John.  Geisler and Zukeran note, for example, that the Bible pictures God as a god willing to reason with us. Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD (Isaiah 1:18 ESV).  After all, apologetics mean to offer a defense (11).  If we are created in the image of a reasonable God, then perhaps the Son of God would also be someone able to turn an argument.  The Apostle Peter admonishes us:  in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15 ESV). Humility requires a God willing to argue a case, not force one.

Organization

In fact, Jesus tailored his arguments to his audience (185).  Geisler and Zukeran make this point in laying out chapters devoted to 8 apologetic methods, including:

  1. Use of Testimony,
  2. Use of Miracles,
  3. Use of the Resurrection,
  4. Use of Reason,
  5. Use of Parables,
  6. Use of Discourse,
  7. Use of Prophecy, and
  8. Use of Arguments for God (7).

Four additional chapters place these arguments in context:

  1. Jesus’ Allege Anti-Apologetic Passages,
  2. Jesus’ Life as an Apologetic,
  3. Jesus and the Role of the Holy Spirit in Apologetics, and
  4. Jesus’ Apologetic Method (7).

These 12 chapters are preceded by a brief introduction and followed only by a series of chapter notes.

Parabolic Apologetic

Especially interesting is Geisler and Zukeran’s discussion of what they refer to as parabolic apologetics—using a story to convey a truth (197). Characteristics of this method include:

  1. Use of the story form,
  2. It teaches through an indirect approach—the audience affirms the point before realizing they themselves are in focus,
  3. The logic is a fortiori—a truth from everyday life applies also to spiritual matters,
  4. The parable uses self-discovery to give the audience a sense of ownership of the message,
  5. The parable is sensitive to those caught in sin (188-89).

I would enjoy teaching this book to an adult group to develop a greater command of its contents. Having said this, I have a suggestion. Instead of focusing on the apologetic techniques, it might be more effective to start by classifying audiences (types of atheists or personalities or age or economic groups) and work back to the techniques that Jesus used to address them. Although I have not seen this done in the apologetics literature, an audience-focused approach might prove easier to apply in evangelism.

Assessment

The myth of moral superiority of moderns over ancients clearly cannot be resolved in a brief review.  It is a subject, however, worthy of further inquiry. If in the fullness of time God chose the ancient world to pay a visit, perhaps, he did so not because the ancient world was more needy, but perhaps because the ancient world possessed emotional and relational intelligence which allowed it to follow the conversation better than subsequent periods like our own [1]. Geisler and Zukeran’s contribution to this discussion is to suggest that Jesus is not the country bumpkin that some critics have inferred.

Footnotes

[1] For example, the ancient world practiced many things that we find intolerable, but the ancient world did not possess nuclear and chemical weapons or use them the way that we do.  If you wanted to murder someone, you had to make a moral decision and get your hands dirty.  Greater efficiency in hiding a crime does not relieve one of responsibility but it may limit its public discussion.

Introducing a Sophisticated Jesus

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Beamer Remembers 9-11

Beamer remembers 9-11Lisa Beamer with Ken Abraham. 2002. “Let’s Roll! Ordinary People Extraordinary Courage.” Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Some days cast a shadow.

For anyone worked close to the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, the story of Flight 93 is personal. How close to an airliner crash site is safe? Who says that a terrorist will even hit their target? After my mom called me on that Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m. to talk about the Twin Towers, I sheltered in place in my office at the foot of Capitol Hill until they turned the lights out around 2 p.m. and I left for home. At that point, I drove through the ghost town that Washington had become, over the Fourteenth Street Bridge into Virginia, and past the Pentagon, which was still burning. The only cars on the road were police vehicles.

Introduction

Lisa Beamer’s book, Let’s Roll,is a Christian memoir written by the wife of Todd Beamer, a passenger on Flight 93 which was hijacked by terrorists with the intent of crashing the plane into the U.S. Capitol building. The back cover reads:

“[Lisa] offers a poignant glimpses of a genuine American hero—his growing-up years and their marriage and last week together. She talks candidly about the devastating day her children learned their daddy had died, the birth of her third child, and how she’s found the codependence to go on in the face of such tragedy and loss.”

Prior to 9-11, planes were hijacked now and then, but only to divert the plane to another destination. This implied that the best strategy for passengers to survive on a hijacked was to relax and enjoy the flight. The idea that a jet liner might be used as a suicide bomb was unheard of, unimaginable.

The Choice

Four planes were hijacked on 9-11, each by a team of terrorists. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and another crashed into the Pentagon Building in Northern Virginia across the Potomac River from Washington DC. The loss of life was staggering.

The fourth plane, United Flight 93 out of Newark, New Jersey bound for San Francisco, was late in being diverted. Because of this delay, passengers on the flight learned over their cell phones about the fate of the other three flights while they were still over Pennsylvania. Consequently, they realized that they had a choice: do nothing and surely die or fight to regain control of their plane and possibly live. Todd Beamer was one of the passengers who decided to fight.

Going Out on Faith

As the hijacking unfolded, Todd called United Airlines to report the takeover and spoke with Lisa Jefferson who asked him for a few details. Sitting next to a flight attendant, Todd reported:

“[there are] 27 passengers in coach, 10 in first class, five flight attendants, and no children that he could see. ‘He told me that three people had taken over the place,’ said Lisa, ‘two armed with knives and one with a bomb strapped around his waist with a red belt. The two with knives had locked themselves in the cockpit.”(200)

Lisa spoke with Todd for about 15 minutes. As the hijackers realized something was up, they began rocking the place back and forth to throw off their pursuers. Todd told her:

“’We’re going to do something…I don’t think that we are going to get out of this thing.’ Todd said, ‘I’m going to have to go out on faith.’ He told me that they were talking about jumping the guy with the bomb.”(211)

At around 10 a.m., Lisa overhead Todd talking with someone else. He said: “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll!”(214) The plane was 15 to 20 minutes away from Washington. The cockpit recorder records dishes crashing and screaming. The terrorist piloting put the plane into a dive. Then, impact.

Assessment

I read this book in a single setting. Because I go into tears just thinking about these events, writing a review posed a challenge. Nevertheless, if you want to read about Todd Beamer’s life and the events of 9-11, Lisa Beamer’s Let’s Roll is a page-turner.

Beamer Remembers 9-11

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Gehrz and Pattie Illumine the Pietist Tradition

Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie II, The Pietist OptionChristopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III. 2017. The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those of us who spent our youth in rural America, today’s landscape looks fundamentally different. International trade, inspired by the demise of the Bretton-Woods system, undermined local economies previously based on agriculture, manufacturing, and mining and left them without a solid economic base. The interstate highway system, television, Wal-Mart, and the internet all conspired to drive out what remained of local cultures. In postmodernism local churches and their denominations have suffered their own tsunami that has left many Christians and their pastors wondering how to respond.

Introduction

In their book, The Pietist Option, Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III (hereafter G&P) write:

“Why ‘option’? As I’ve written elsewhere, we’re talking about a kind of ietism doesn’t happen accidentally; it requires a conscious choice to respond to God’s grace. The Pietist option is to opt in to a distinctively hopeful way of coming back to Jesus growing to be more and more like him, living at peace as part of his body, and fulfilling his mission in service to others.”(9)

What is curious about their discussion is that pietism is not so much a movement or a revival as a rediscovery of the New Testament (NT) “Hebrew anthropology”,my term for the holistic view of faith that had over the years been corrupted by Greek dualism. If mind and emotions are inseparable, then we cannot respond to the Gospel with one or the other, as is so frequently assumed—a different approach is required. G&P work hard to help the reader rediscover what is essentially ancient Christianity. They call it Pietism.

What is Pietism?

G&P write:

“Some identify Pietism with shared practices (personal devotions, small group meetings, evangelism, charitable work) or share emphases (conversion, right feeling, and action prioritized over right belief, ecumenism, a greater role for the laity). There’s something to both approaches, but we want to propose something a bit different: Pietism share certain instincts.”(5)

G&P summarizes these instincts as follows.

The first instinct focuses on relationship—“We know God more through prepositions than through propositions.” In other words,“we experience life in, with, through, under and for God.” The term,“dead orthodoxy,” is more what they mean by propositions.(6)

The second instinct has to do with community—“We’re better together than apart.” (6)

The third instinct is experiential—“Christianity is both less and more than we think.” G&P expand on this saying:“Pietists who live in, with, and for the person of Jesus probably feel his presence more than they think about the idea of Christ.” (7) They differentiate Jesus the person from Christ the Messiah, believing in both but focusing on the humanity of Jesus.

The fourth instinct takes seriously the eschatological reality of God—“We always have hope for better times.” (8) If the future is in Christ, then Jesus should inform everything we do today.

Organization

Gehrz is a professor of history at Bethel University in Saint Paul; Pattie is the senior pastor at Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, Minnesota. They write in divided into two parts:

“Part One: Christianity in the Early Twenty-First Century

  1. What’s Wrong?
  2. Hoping for Better Times

 Part Two: Proposals for Renewal

  1. A More Extensive Listening to the Word of God
  2. The Common Priesthood for the Common Good
  3. Christianity as Life
  4. The Irenic Spirit
  5. Whole Person, Whole-Life Formation
  6. Proclaiming the Good News.”(vii)

They begin with an introduction—“Come Back to Jesus”—and end with a benediction, appendix, suggestions for group discussions, notes, and two (names and scripture) indices. Through their book, the names Spener and Francke come up repeatedly (see references below).

Assessment

Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III’s The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity is a helpful book for anyone who has wondered about the Pietist tradition. Virtually every denomination in America has been influenced in some way by this tradition, yet that influence remains hard to pin down. G&P try their best to sort out this enigma and, taken as a whole, their short book provides ample light.

References

Spener, Philip Jacob. 1964. Pia Desideria(Orig. Pub. 1675). Ed. and Trans. By Theodore G. Tappert. Philadelphia:  Fortress.

Sattler, Gary R. 1982. God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: A Brief Introduction to the Life and Writings of August Hermann Francke. Chicago: Covenant Press.

Gehrz and Pattie Illumine the Pietist Tradition

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