Kreeft Critiques Cultural Decline

Kreeft_review_20210507

Peter J. Kreeft. 2021. How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Hardly a day passes without someone explaining sharing their views about U.S. cultural decline. This morning after my swim a woman in the net lane introduced herself and expounded at great length on why she sent her kids to a Catholic school. At noon, I heard comparisons to the Book of Judges and the Deuteronomic cycle (Deut 30:1-3). More typically, these discussions focus on bad politics and things like rampant drug use or exotic sexual practices. When I heard about Peter Kreeft’s new book on this subject, I immediately ordered a copy.

Introduction

In his book, How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss, Peter Kreeft starts with a brilliant statement of the obvious. To save Western Civilization, start by having children (7). What is ontologically obvious is, however, not obvious to everyone—only a philosopher (or an astute student of the Bible) would be mindful of the priority of ontology.

Kreeft goes on to observe that a third of the pregnancies in North America end in abortion (8). Everyone wants to have sex, far fewer want to raise children—it is the religious people who have the most children; they are the also the happiest and live the longest (11). Thus, while the absence of children is an important indicator of cultural decline, their presence is indicator of cultural and personal advance.[1]

Background and Organization

Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic school. His doctorate is from Fordham University.

Kreeft must believe that cultural decline is death by a thousand cuts because he treats the subject with eighteen chapter-essays on a number of pertinent topics. These essays stand on their own without obvious connection to one another. They are:

1.    How to destroy Western Civilization.

2.    What can Chicken Little do?

3.    The unmentionable elephant in the living room of the religious liberty debate.

4.    The paradox of poverty.

5.    The logic of liberalism.

6.    The social, moral, and sexual effects of symbolic logic.

7.    Twelve core values.

8.    Traditionalism and progressivism.

9.    C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the culture wars.

10. Heros.

11. What is a liberal?

12. What is the key to a good society?

13. Seventeen freedoms.

14. Four confusions about freedom.

15. Is Agnosticism in religion the default position?

16. A word about Islam and a defense of my controversial book about it.

17. Pity vs. pacifism.

18. Judgment. (v)

The pragmatic, postmodern art is a collage so to describe and rebut problems with it, one might reasonably employ an alternative collage.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Inherent in the observation that our cultural decline is a case of death by a thousand cuts is that small things matter. When we read in Leviticus—be holy because I am holy—we see God as concerned with details. We clearly are not. When Kreeft criticizes a thousand incoherent arguments that lay at the foundation of the postmodern era, it evokes the torture that a thinking person must endure being symbolically chained to an ant hill in the middle of such philosophical chaos. Ants possess no poisonous venom that can kill a person, yet the sum of a thousand ant bites is most certainly life-threatening. Those chained to the hill will no doubt appreciate the incineration of a few ants.

Thus, Peter Kreeft’s How to Destroy Civilization and other Ideas from the Cultural Abysis a delight to read for the reflective soul.

Footnotes

[1] The fact that Hispanics are the only ethic group in the United States where the fertility rate is above 2.1 children per woman, which is necessary for a stable population, may be related to their status as immigrants—they have had the smallest exposure to the negative factors leading to U.S. cultural decline.

Kreeft Critiques Cultural Decline

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Webb: Analyzing Culture

Webb_reviw_20210713William J. Webb.  2001.  Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Toxic waste is a term once used in Washington to describe issues that could not be openly discussed without tainting the person discussing them.  High on the list of such issues were race, gender, and sexuality.  Hopefully, it is now possible to engage in reasoned conversation about these issues.  William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis clearly attempts to begin that conversation.

Introduction

Webb begins with a question and an answer.  The question is:  So how does a Christian respond to cultural change?  His answer is:  It is necessary for Christians to challenge their culture where it departs from kingdom values;  it is equally necessary for them to identify with their culture on all other matters (22).  The tough part arises in distinguishing:  between kingdom values and cultural values within the biblical text (23).   This is what Webb sees as the interpretative (hermaneutical) task.

Webb applies his hermaneutical framework primarily to 3 issues:  slavery, women, and homosexuality.  He picks slavery because he believes the issue to be settled within today’s church.  Clearly, the role of women and the issue of homosexuality are under active conversation—at least across denominations and, in some cases, within denominations.

Four Views on Women in the Church

Webb (26-28) defines these 4 positions as held on the role of women within the church:

  1. Hard/strong patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with an extensive power differential;
  2. Soft patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with a moderate power differential;
  3. Evangelical egalitarianism—mutual submission with equality of power between male and female; and
  4. Secular egalitarianism—equal rights and no gender-defined roles.

Three Views on Homosexuality in the Church

Webb (28) likewise defines 3 positions within the church on issue of homosexuality:

  1. Marital heterosexuality only—homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle for Christians;
  2. Covenant and equal-partner homosexuality—homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle for Christians provided that the partners are equal-status, consenting adults, and the relationship is one of a monogamous, covenant, and lasting kind; and
  3. Casual adult homosexuality—homosexuality is an appropriate lifestyle for any member of society provided it involves consenting adults.

In laying out these positions, Webb is simply defining the field of inquiry.  He is not at least initially advocating for any one of these positions.  Near the end of the text, however, he identifies himself as an evangelical egalitarian on women’s issues and argues for a marital hetersexuality only position with respect to homosexuality.

Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic

An important contribution of Webb’s work is a concept that he calls as a redemptive-movement hermaneutic.  In defining this concept, he outlines a model:  X=>Y=>Z.  The X stands for the original culture;  the Y stands for scripture; and the Z stands for the ultimate ethic (30-33).  This model permits us to ask 2 important questions.  First, does scripture move beyond the cultures of surrounding nations in addressing an issue? (X=>Y)  Second, does scripture point to an ethic beyond that actually embodied in scripture? (Y=>Z)  These 2 questions allow us to isolate the redemptive movement implied in the text of scripture.  Webb uses this model to examine several scriptural passages that today sound bizarre, but which would have been at least slightly redemptive to the original audience.  One example was the taking of female prisoners as spoils of war:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV)

Attitude about Ugly Texts

Webb (32-33) argues that this is clearly an ugly text in today’s culture [2], but in relation to the customs of ancient times was redemptive in its application under the X=>Y criteria.

Today’s application of the text would not follow the exact words prescribed in the text, but rather to observe the redemptive spirit of the text and draft an appropriately redemptive, modern policy dealing with female captives (33).  Webb describes an attempt to apply the exact words of the scriptural text in a new context as a “static” interpretation (36-38).  Ignoring the redemptive spirit of the text leads to wooden or misleading interpretations and may lead to the text being discredited in the eyes of believers and non-believers alike.  Clearly, much more could be said about this redemptive-movement hermaneutic.

Organization

Webb writes his book in 8 chapters preceded by a foreword, acknowledgments, and an introduction and followed by a conclusion, 4 appendices, a bibliography, and a scriptural index.  The chapters are:

  1. Christian and Culture;
  2. A Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic;
  3. Cultural/Transcultural Analysis:  A Road Map;
  4. Persuative Criteria;
  5. Moderately Persuasive Criteria;
  6. Inconclusive Criteria;
  7. Persuasive Extracriptural Criteria;
  8. What If I Am Wrong; and
  9. Conclusion:  Arriving at a Bottom Line.

The foreword is written by Darrell L. Bock of the Dallas Theological Seminary [3].

Assessment

Webb’s Slaves, Women and Homosexuals is a readable and engaging text that focuses on applying scripture rather than simply arguing over it.  It is gutsy for a writer to take on the ugly texts of scripture and to find both redemption and application in them.  Personally, my initial response was to reject cultural analysis because it lies outside the twin authorities of scripture and God’s direct revelation.  However, I realized that I was guilty myself of discounting or skipping over the difficult texts rather than engaging them.  In effect, I was already doing cultural analysis, just not employing a consistent method.  This internal struggle led me to reconsider Webb’s analysis.

I am sure that some readers will simply not be able to engage in conversation about politically incorrect topics, but I would challenge them to stretch their own views a bit for the sake of understanding scripture better.  Webb’s own words are helpful when he says:  I must thank our modern culture for raising the issues addressed in this book.  But our cultural only raises the issues…it does not resolve them (245).

Footnotes

[1] http://www.tyndale.ca/faculty/bill-webb

[2] This exact issue was in the news this past week in the Middle East war in Iraq as ISIS fighters rounded up women hostages to the horror of the onlooking world.

[3] http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock.

Webb: Analyzing Culture in Scripture and in Life

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Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

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Plueddemann: Cross-Cultural Leadership

Plueddermann_review_20201126

James E. Plueddemann.  2009.  Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As you exit the parking lot in my home church, a sign reads: you are now entering the mission field.   Few years back on a Sunday morning Evangelist Hussain Andaryas (www.HeSavedMe.com) cited the Great Commission in Matthew 28 and said:  because you would not go across the seas to bring Christ to your brothers and sisters, God has given you a second chance.  Now, they live across the street from you.  Now, will you go?  Each of us, if we lead at all, must now lead across cultures.

Introduction

In his book, Leading Across Cultures, James Plueddemann cites Geert Hofstede and likens leadership like learning to play an instrument and likens leadership across cultures as like learning to play several instruments (11).  For Plueddemann:  A missionary is anyone, from any country, who leaves home in order to proclaim the gospel, usually in another culture (13).  For Plueddemann, a Christian leader focuses, harmonizes, and enhances the gifts of others for their own growth while cultivating the kingdom of God (15).

From Everywhere to Everywhere

Plueddemann summarizes the challenges of multicultural leadership with a slogan—from everywhere to everywhere (25).  Mission challenges include short-term missions, church-to-church partnerships, leadership development strategies, and working under leadership of another culture (25-27).  Short-term missions, for example, imply that missions are undertaken with little or no experience with either missions or the cultures involved.  Clashes in culture are often therefore immediate and unexpected.  For example, the American assumption of “equal partners” is foreign in most of the rest of the world where the usual assumption is a senior and a junior partner (26).

Cycle of World Missions

Plueddemann envisions a cycle of world missions composed of 5 steps:

  1. Pre-evangelism,
  2. Evangelism,
  3. Church planting and nurture,
  4. Leadership development, and
  5. Partnership (48).

For Plueddemann, pre-evangelism involves both caring for people’s physical needs and their eternal needs through medical help, humanitarian relief, schools and development programs (51). Evangelism Is bringing people to Jesus and sharing the gospel:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ESV; 52).  In discussing the need to plant churches, he writes:  Evangelism without discipleship is like giving birth and then leaving the baby in a dumpster.  Newborns can’t live more than a few hours without the help of a family (53).

Role of Leadership Training

On leadership, Plueddemann observes that:  Jesus taught and healed the sick, but his lasting ministry came from the training of the 12 disciples.  Leadership development was also at the core of Paul’s evangelism (55).  Leadership development naturally leads to partnership because Plueddemann observes:  mature churches are characterized as self-propagating, self-supporting, and self-governing (56).  It is indeed ironic (and a bit embarrassing) to see former mission partners now sending missionaries to North America.

Dr. James E. Plueddemann  is Professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School [1] in Deerfield, Illinois just outside Chicago. Leading Across Cultures is written in 12 chapters divided into 4 parts, including:

  1. Multicultural Leadership in the Worldwide Church,
  2. Leadership and Culture,
  3. Contextualizing Leadership, and
  4. Global Leadership in Practice.

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue (7-8).

Clearly, there is not time to summarize all that Plueddemann has written.  However, I will never forget his comments specifically about culture.  He defines two concepts—context and power distance—which bear summarizing.

High and Low Context Cultures

Citing Edward Hall’s book, Beyond Culture (New York: Anchor Books,1976), Plueddeman high-context and low-context cultures.  In a high-context culture, information is passed informally with very little being communicated through formal speech.  What is important are the atmosphere of the room, the sounds, smells, facial expressions, and body language.  This is the norm in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East.  In low-context cultures the opposite is true.  People pay attention to what is explicitly said.  For example, people remember ideas, but forget who said them.  Highly expressive forms of speech are valued in high-context cultures and viewed with skepticism in low-context cultures (78-79).  In low-context cultures, speaking the truth face-to-face is valued; in high-context cultures, relationships are more important and difficult conversations take place through intermediaries (81).

Power Distance

Leadership always involves use of power so attitudes about power are culturally important.   Plueddemann cites a study by Robert House (and others) called Culture, Leadership, and Organizations:  The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies (London: SAGE Publications, 2004) which defines power distance as: the degree to which members of an organization expect and agree that power should be shared unequally (94).  In a high-power distance culture, everyone agrees that leaders should have more authority, respect, and status symbols (fancy cars, expensive clothes, and so on).  In low-power distance cultures, leadership is more participatory and leaders are expected to act like a peer and have a minimum number of perks (95).

Attitudes about the role of context and power distance can be dramatically different not only internationally, but between ethnic and age groups within a society.  This is, in part, why pastors are sensitive to the style of dress and musical preferences when speaking at new churches.

Assessment

Plueddemann’s writing on leadership in a cross-cultural setting is insightful.  His writing is filled with personal accounts, particularly focused on his time as a missionary in Nigeria.  However, keep in mind that he writes primarily for the seminary student and professional missionary.  The growth of North America as a mission field, however, widens the number of professionals who need to take his counsel.

[1] http://divinity.tiu.edu/academics/faculty/james-e-plueddemann-phd.

Plueddemann: Cross-Cultural Leadership

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Limits to Progress. Monday Monologues, February 5, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will offer a G328 Prayer and talk about Limits to Progress.

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Limits to Progress. Monday Monologues, February 5, 2019 (podcast)

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Limits to Progress

 

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of progress arose out of the technological euphoria of the modern era and entered theology in the nineteenth century with the euphoria over the abolition of black slave trading and ownership. The idea that progress is an inevitable and irreversible force remains, however, economically and culturally tenuous. 

While the specific reasons for economic and cultural backsliding will always be unique, the general reason to be suspicious of economic and cultural progress is that progress is a cultural artifact that changes with circumstances.

If cultural progress an historical anomaly, especially in view of the economic stagnation that many Americans face, what conditions support it?

Economic Progress

Standards of living that were rising with the increasing rationalization of different industries and regions have come to an end with the construction of the interstate highway system, national media, national banking, and the internet.  In this context, rationalization means the opening up of local markets to competition from outside firms and the destruction of the local cultures through universal education consisting of both new knowledge and indoctrination.

If science can tame the natural world and put it to work in the service of humanity, then standards of living should rise. However, diminishing returns to new investment will be reached at some point as the cost of implementing new ideas rises. From that point forward, additional growth can only come from demographic growth and technological innovation. Falling fertility rates and poor choices with respect to education and public expenditures suggests that we are not focused on making public policy choices consistent with growth.

In an environment of slower growth, social groups will compete increasingly for limited resources and opportunities—this can get nasty, as we have seen. Outside of deliberate policies to focus economic resources on the most productive investments and to maintain equal opportunities for all groups, standards of living will decline for all but favored groups able to maintain and expand their relative position. This competition makes it increasingly unlikely that everyone will share in economic progress.

Cultural Progress

The abolition of black slavery in the nineteenth century is a source of pride for many people. In my case, I am named for my great, great grandfather, Stephen DeKock, who as a young man volunteered to fight for the Union in the American Civil War. Success in abolishing slavery motivated latter efforts to expand voting rights to women and minorities, to prohibit alcohol consumption, and to extend rights more recently to homosexuals. 

A byproduct of the Civil War seldom mentioned in this context was the development of large corporate firms that supplied Northern troops and major advances in weapons of mass destruction—iron clad ships, submarines, the gatling gun, and repeating rifles. Modern warfare (war on civilians) is said to have begun with Sherman’s march to the sea in Georgia that helped starve the Confederacy into submission. These innovations helped pave the way for the United States to become a super power (the American empire) over the decades that followed and, as a consequence, fueled the economic expansion that led to the economic and social progress than we enjoy as Americans.

The abolition of black slavery is unlikely to be reversed, but slavery itself has not so much gone away as been re-defined. Many former slaves in the rural South in American became share croppers who were technically free, but caught in debt to their former masters. During much of the twentieth century, American men were involuntarily drafted in the military and forced to fight in foreign wars from the First and Second World Wars to the wars in Korea and Vietnam. For women caught up in gangs, drugs, and prostitution, a different kind of slavery exists that never really went away.

While nasty institutions like slavery, debt-enslavement, and prostitution will probably continue to exist in the shadows of society, major reversals in the number of slaves occurred during the Second World War. Nazi Germany rounded up millions of Jews, political dissidents, and undesired groups and placed them in concentration camps where many were worked to death. Japan had similar policies and the U.S. had its own internment camps. Today such camps continue in communist countries, like North Korea.

The point of raising these examples is, not to throw salt in old wounds, but to highlight the tenuous nature historically of human rights and notions like progress. If progress is a cultural artifact and can be reversed by changing circumstances, it is not inevitable or irreversible. The key question is what foundation supports these rights and progress itself?

Cultural Reversal

For those who believe in progress, the biblical support is slim because of original sin and our fallen nature both individually and collectively. The most apt metaphor for progress is found in the Book of Genesis with the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), but other metaphors can be found. 

Although we are created in the image of God, original sin polluted both our hearts and minds instilling in us a rebellious spirit. Cain, best known for murdering his brother Abel, started the first city mentioned in the Bible (Gen 4:8, 17). Human sin, after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, grew to the point that God destroyed most of humanity with a flood (Gen 5:5). However, starting out fresh with a new family, Noah’s, proved not to improve the faithfulness of humanity after the original sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:6). Even Jacob’s sons, the fathers of the Nation of Israel, sinned in selling their brother, Joseph, as a slave to the Egyptians (Gen 37:28). 

What should we conclude from the witness of Genesis? The idea of adding fallen human beings together in forming a community will somehow result in progress towards righteousness is not to be expected. The biblical expectation cited earlier is the Deuteronomic cycle: doing evil, angering YHWH enough to produce historical subjugation, crying to the Lord in need, and raising up a deliverer (Deut 30; Brueggemann 2016, 59). This is not an endorsement of cultural progress, but rather of divine intervention in spite of the proclivity of human beings to sin.

From my earlier model of culture, reversal of progress is expected when any culture comes under stress. The dying culture then takes on more attributes of a traditional culture. These reversals normally occur on the outbreak of war or during economic crises. However, large corporations that now dominate markets throughout the world frequently have traditional cultures that profoundly influence their employees from morning to night. Democratic rights such as free speech are routinely denied corporate employees and even legislatively mandated employee rights, such as unionization rights and whistler-blower protections, are dead-letter for employees unable to afford legal counsel. Consequently, the inevitable, irreversible cultural progress is not expected and the progress that we have witnessed should be seen as a gift from God, not a natural right.

Christian Foundations

The only glimmer of hope cited in the Bible is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that led to the giving of the Holy Spirit and the founding of the church (Act 2:1-4). Yet, outside of faith even the church is a fallen institution as we read in the first three chapters of Revelation.

The warning in Revelation of special concern to the postmodern church is the letter to the church at Laodicea. John writes:

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev 3:15-17)

We could imagine the postmodern church sharing in tribulations similar to those articulated in Deuteronomic cycle that applied earlier to the Nation of Israel. More generally, Revelation talks about a great tribulation (Rev 7:14) that will occur before the second coming of Christ. This tribulation has all the markings of a reversal of cultural progress and should serve as a reminder that our only hope is in Christ.

Limits To Progress

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Often the toughest part of any controversy is to ask the right question. Asking good questions requires deep knowledge of the subject, proper timing, and good intuition. In the scientific method,[1]the most challenging step is the first one where a felt need is converted into an hypothesis. Everyone can complain about needs, but it takes knowledge, timing, and intuition to form a working hypothesis.

Introduction

In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“In different ways, the East and the West are go

ing through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss—the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence with its larger horizons…The world lost its human dimension…” (1)

We are in a spiritual crisis characterized by a lost sense of God’s transcendence. The culprit? Smith writes:

“modern Westerners who, forsaking clear thinking have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life’s material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check…This is cause of our spiritual crisis.”(4)

While Western civilization could have accepted the benefits of scientific inquiry, but retained its traditions; it did not. Instead, it accepted materialism and shunned metaphysics that strives to explain everything not explainable through empirical observation and testing.

Three Philosophical Periods

Smith (11-22) outlines three philosophical periods—traditional, modern, and postmodern—focused primarily on their metaphysical assumptions and the principal problems that they addressed. The traditional period focused on the religious problem—how do we related to the cosmos? The modern period focused on problem of nature—providing food and shelter. The postmodern period has focused on the social problem—how we get along with one another. 

Smith chief issue with the modern and postmodern periods is that they are metaphysically handicapped. Focusing only on looking down, they have left us unable to find meaning in life and deprived the living of their humanity. Here we discover Smith’s reason for writing:

“I am convinced that whatever transpires in other domains of life—politics, living standards, environmental conditions, interpersonal relationships, the arts—we will be better off if we extricate ourselves from the world view we have unwittingly slipped into and replace it with a more generous and accurate one. That, and that only, is the concern of this book.”(24)

Smith is, of course, commending a traditional worldview with God at the center of our universe. (21-22).

Background and Organization 

Huston Cummings Smith (1919 – 2016)was born in China in a missionary family. He attended Central Methodist University and the University of Chicago. He taught religious studies at a number of schools, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Smith writes in sixteen chapters in two parts:

PART ONE: MODERNITY’s TUNNEL

  1. Who’s Right about Reality: Traditionalists, Modernists, or the Postmoderns?
  2. The Great Outdoors and the Tunnel within It
  3. The Tunnel as Such
  4. The Tunnel’s Floor: Scientism
  5. The Tunnel’s Left Wall: Higher Education
  6. The Tunnel’s Roof: The Media
  7. The Tunnel’s Right Wall: The Law

PART TWO: THE LIGHT AT THE TUNNEL’S END

  • Light
  • Is Light Increasing: Two Scenarios
  • Discerning the Signs of the Times
  • Three Sciences and the Road Ahead
  • Terms for the Détente
  • This Ambiguous World
  • The Big Picture
  • Spiritual Personality Types
  • Spirit

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments, preface, and introduction and followed by an epilogue and Indices.

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.

Assessment

Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.



[1]The scientific method consists of a number of steps in problem solving: felt need, hypothesis, data gathering, analysis, decision, implementation responsibility bearing.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

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Pathological Culture, Monday Monologues, January 21, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will offer a family prayer and talk about Pathological Culture.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Pathological Culture, Monday Monologues, January 21, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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The Pathological Culture

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

At this point, it is helpful to return to a question posed earlier in our discussion of proper mental function in view of culture. What if a culture evolved that, far from supporting and sustaining proper function, made proper function more costly and unlikely? Would we see more dysfunction, anxiety, and suicide as people found it harder to thrive and survive?

Proper Mental Function and Rational Culture

If as Plantinga (2000, xi, 153-154) argued proper mental function is a requirement for warranted faith, then it is also required to meet the demands of rationality, which drives our earlier understanding of culture as a deviation from perfect rationality. Much like a traditional, modern, and postmodern cultures are deviations from perfect rationality, one could argue that secular culture is a deviation from perfect Christianity.

The Apostle Paul appears to be focused on this line of thinking when he writes about God’s peace:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…” (Phil 4:8)

We can infer from Paul’s bracketing in verses 7 and 7 of this verse with God’s peace that when we take Christ as our role model we become more truthful, honorable, pure, lovely, and commendable. I could see Plantinga adding more rational to Paul’s list.

A Breakdown in Authority

If God is no longer a transcendent reality for most people, then obviously leaders in society no longer feel accountable for their actions outside of a political context and the organizing context for political action never extends beyond law. If postmodern society is also suspicious of all formers of authority (Blamires 2005, 132-133),  then our models of proper mental function and perfect rationality start to show wear and tear.

One explanation for this wear and tear is that the vesting of authority in parents, teachers, preachers, police, and government officials offers coherence and consistency to culture that is mostly dispersed in postmodern culture. Deconstructionism, a postmodern philosophy that is suspicious of all authority figures, disenfranchises traditional and modern leaders, via lawsuits and frivolous attacks, reducing the incentive to invest in leadership roles that previously gave stability to the culture.

Another explanation is that postmodernism no longer share Christian presuppositions that gave a foundation to objective truth during the modern era. Most moderns grew up in at least a nominally Christian environment, much like Nietzsche who was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Even if they rejected Christian faith, they knew its foundations. By contrast, many postmoderns are like sons of Nietzsche who have little or no experience with Christian beliefs and, because of the politics of suspicion, are not open to learning about it.

Thus, both practical and theoretical reasons can be cited for why postmodernism is not provide a stable foundation for unified national culture. Instead, it tends to decay into the formation of subcultures (tribes) that pursue their own interests at the expense of the larger society.

Formation in the Home

Consider the problem of raising children. Research by Stinnett and Beam (1999, 10) reports six characteristics of strong families:

  1. Commitment—these families promote each other’s welfare and happiness and value unity.
  2. Appreciation and Affection—strong families care about each other.
  3. Positive Communication—strong families communicate well and spend a lot of time doing it together.
  4. Time Together—Strong families spend a lot of quality time together.
  5. Spiritual Well-being—whether or not they attend religious services, strong families have a sense of a greater good or power in life.
  6. Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis—strong families see crises as a growth opportunity.

What happens when both spouses work, neither feels like they are in charge, and the family finds itself under economic and time pressure? The strong family model outlined here breaks down. Assuming a strong family starting out, stress shows up potentially in all six characteristics outlined as time and economic pressure are increased.

A key point in unifying these different models of behavior as it pertains to raising children is that adults are present and fully attentive to the children. When television becomes the primary baby-sitter and the adults are buzzing to and from work and activities for the children, the children are not formed rationally or in the image of Christ. It is not unusual in my home town to observe children roaming in packs through the neighborhoods and to hear complaints from libraries, neighborhood pools, and church vacation-Bible school leaders that children are simply abandoned for long periods of time by their parents during the summer. 

The model of strong families clearly is being tested severely in our society.

Signs of Wear and Tear

News reports and studies showing a stagnating standard of living, drug use, declining fertility rates, lower life expectancy levels, and record levels of suicide all point to a culture under stress.⁠1 This stress leads to greater deviations from rationality because highly rational decisions require time and energy that are no longer available. In this environment we expect cultural change to occur more rapidly and, because of stress, we expect traditional subcultures to become more pronounced, as argued earlier. 

Broken Glass Theory

While the exact time-path and particular difficulties cannot be exactly forecasted, the general trends are obvious and dysfunction in one area of society increases the likelihood of contagion elsewhere. In his book, Serious Times, James Emory White (2004, 158) highlighted of the broken glass theory of criminologists James O. Wilson and George Kelling (1982). The idea is that crime is contagious. It starts with a broken window and spreads to an entire community. 

Cleaning up trash, graffiti, and broken windows and minor violations of law through increased emphasis on foot patrols by police, New York City substantially reduced crime in the 1980s. For those of us who grew up scared to walk the streets of New York, this reduction in crime was a big deal. Pushback against this program came later as not everyone was happy about the increased police presence in the neighborhoods.

The broken glass theory has a familiar ring: “I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev 11:45). If attending to the appearance of neighborhoods in New York helped reduce crime, how much more couldn’t focusing on our own sin and weakness and forgiveness in Christ improve the quality of life in our families, churches, and communities?

References

Bernstein, Lenny. 2018. “U.S. life expectancy declines again, a dismal trend not seen since World War I.” Washington Post. November 29. 

Blamires, Harry. 2005. The Christian Mind: Hoe Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stinnett, Nick and Nancy  Stinnett,  Joe Beam, and Alice Beam (Stinnett and Beam). 1999.  Fantastic Families:  6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family.  New York:  Howard Books.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

White, James Emery. 2004. Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Wilson, James Q. and George L. Kelling. 1982. “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” Atlantic Monthly. March.

Footnotes

1 (Tavernise 2016); Bernstein 2018).

A Pathological Culture

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Blamires: Lost Art of Christian Thinking

Harry Blamires. 2005. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Loneliness is not having anyone who speaks your language. Christian intellectuals (13-14) are probably lonelier than garden variety intellectuals because in addition to being considered eccentric, they may be accused of having a six-foot invisible rabbit for a friend.[1] What do you do when you see the world in technicolor and those around you see only black and white?

Introduction

In his book, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? Harry Blamires writes:

To this Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God… There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly, or even evil, which cannot be thought about Christianly…The purpose of this book is not to judge [people], whatever their religious position, but to clarify a problem by defining states of mind.” (44-45, 144)

In my own writing, I describe this idea by saying that God is my denominator, the measure by which all things are measured. My own Christian frame of reference has been a source of complaint within my family so I have learned to translate my own thoughts into secular concepts. Blamires (70) observes:

“…the modern Christian, a schizophrenic type who hops in and out of his Christian mentality as the topic of conversation changes from the Bible to the day’s newspaper, or the field of action changes from Christian stewardship to commercial advertising, or the environment changes from the vestry to the office.”

The hardest translation in my experience is explaining why gave up a six-figure income working as an economist to go to seminary—instead of referring to my call from God I need to find some excuse like “I wanted to give back”or “I wanted to have more fixable work hours”or some other such silliness. Sadly, my sacrifice in attending seminary has often marked me as a kind of village idiot even with my ordination committee.

Background and Organization

Harry Blamires (1916−2017) graduated from Oxford University, where his tutor was C. S. Lewis, and he was an Anglican theologian, literary critic, and novelist.[2]He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:

PART ONE: The Lack of a Christian Mind

  1. The Surrender to Secularism
  2. Thinking Christianly and Thinking Secularly

PART TWO: The Marks of the Christian Mind

  1. Its Supernatural Orientation
  2. Its Awareness of Evil
  3. Its Conception of Truth
  4. Its Acceptance of Authority
  5. Its Concern for the Person
  6. Its Sacramental Cast (v)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by a postscript.

Let me say a few words about each part.

The Lack of a Christian Mind

Blamires (3,15) believes that modern Christians have conceded the mind to secular thinking in what could be described as the triumph of romanticism. He writes:

“Christianity is emasculated of its intellectual relevance. It remains a vehicle of spirituality and morel guidance at the individual level perhaps; at the communal level it is little more than an expression of sentimentalized togetherness. The mental secularization of Christians means that nowadays (1963) we meet only as worshipping beings and as moral beings, not as thinking beings.” (16)

Writing as he does in the early 1963s, Blamires is commenting primarily on a modern problem of intellectual irrelevance because Billy Graham was still drawing crowds and hosting television interviews well into the 1970s. Still, one wonders whether the Christian intellectual suffers any worse than intellectuals more generally (19) as modernism started to give up the ghost already in the 1950s with severe criticism of the scientific method that started in the immediate aftermath of the World War II.

Blamires’ illustration of the Anglican church’s problem in selecting bishops highlights the problem that even within the church secular values dominated thinking. Unlike the Orthodox church that promotes bishops only from within the ranks of its monks, Anglican bishops are expected to be good administrators—thoroughly worldly individuals (54-59). It is hard to argue with his logic here as church administrators are often the most talented, but also the most cynical and manipulative of people. Blamires concludes:

“Since we refuse to think Christianly even about the office of bishop, it is scarcely surprising that we lose the habit of thinking Christianly about secular matters.” (59)

Blamires is even careful to distinguish Christian thinking from scholarly thinking (51).

The Marks of the Christian Mind

In this second part Blamires inventories areas where the Christian mind differs most dramatically from secular thinking, starting with metaphysics—the physical world is not all there is. 

Supernatural

Because God created heaven and earth, he must stand apart from them. He is eternal; we are not. It sounds quaint to talk about the supernatural only because so many people cannot think beyond the natural world (67).

Good and Evil

If God is good, then the antithesis of good is evil, another topic that moderns typically avoid. Denying evil or discounting it, however, gives it space to grow. Blamires goes on to show how it is considered sophisticated to discount sin in its portrayal in the media (96). He notes that “flowers grow best in manured soil” (97), as we have seen in recent years. He writes:

“Immoral literature is literature which recommends immoral behavior. If a play or a novel wins sympathy for adulterers, sodomites, dope addicts, or nymphomaniacs in the sense of making the audience or the reader feel that such people are right to indulge their vices and aberrations, then it is immoral.” (98-99)

His comments appear dated today as the film industry insists on checking all the boxes above in practically every film.

Truth

The idea of objective truth is grounded in faith in God (108). Measured against the eternal judgment of God, other truths lack appeal or pertinence. Blamires observes: “You cannot construct truth at all; you can only discover it.” (112) His anchoring in the modern era and rationality is clearly evident when he writes:

“Two opinions are rarely better than one. If A thinks rationally on a given matter and B thinks irrationally on the same matter, then neither A nor the world in general will benefit from having A’s view adulterated with B’s.” (113)

In this regard, Blamires seems to equate rationality with Christian thought.

Authority

If the Christian loves and respects God, God’s authority is obviously recognized. But what if the world around us rejects all forms of authority? Does God then become our buddy? Blamires obsevers that: “distaste for authority is unparalleled in history.” (132-133) The respect for the authority of God allows the Christian to in turn respect other authorities—parents, teachers, preachers, police, and government officials—in ways that are hard for secular people to emulate.

Blamires writes:

“For if the Christian faith is true, and the Christian church the authoritative vehicle of salvation in time, then it is the most urgent, inescapable need of the modern [and postmodern] world to adapt itself to the church [not the other way around]” (148) 

Obviously, it all forms of authority are questioned and ignored, then salvation is indeed an unlikely outcome of secular thinking.

Persons

Being created in the image of God confers a high regard for persons in Christian thinking that is only borrowed in secular discourse, which focuses more on material goods and mechanics (156-157). Blamires sees the secular notion of progress as imbedded in the acquisition of things (161) He writes that we are:

“… so engrossed in performing functions in contemporary society that they have neither the time nor the energy left for the business of merely being human.” (164)

He goes on to observe that: “The Christian will think in terms of persons and institutions; but modern secularism thinks in terms of units and mechanisms.” (166) Perhaps the worst of it is that no one actually forces us into this mold more than we ourselves when we get carried away with trying to provide for our families and achieving success.

Sacred

Recognizing the sacredness of God and of life go hand in hand. The loss of the idea of these things is perhaps an example of the slippery slope that we have been on in recent years. Blamires writes: “There is no doubt that commercial interests actively stimulate youthful sexuality and self-indulgence” (173) making money by corrupting our youth.

Assessment

Harry Blamires’ The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? is a thoughtful, assessible, and well-written book on the interface between Christian and modern culture before political correctness. Blamires documents that many of the problems of postmodern culture were already in view in the late modern period (1960s). While it is likely to be perceived by many as a period-piece, I found it helpful in identifying contemporary points where the Christian and secular mindsets deviate.

Footnotes

[1]This is an allusion to a movie called Harvey about a man who sees a six-foot, invisible rabbit and is committed to an insane asylum until others start seeing the rabbit for themselves. Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_(film)).

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

Blamires: Lost Art of Christian Thinking

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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Cultural Adaptation, Monday Monologues, January 14, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will pray Over Culture and talk about Cultural Adaptation.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Cultural Adaptation, Monday Monologues, January 14, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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