Category Archives: Christian Humanism

Paul Krause has a heartier take on the humanities than Stanley Fish


In my last post, I found several thoughtful, salient points in Stanley Fish’s recent article, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But Paul Krause, writing at ImaginativeConservative.com, makes a new defense of the humanities anyway, and I loved it. Fish lit up parts of my mind, but Krause lit up my heart.

His definition is useful because I think many people just don’t understand what the humanities are and do:

The name humanities has “human” as its basis. The humanities are about us. In a way, the humanities are the study of what it means to be human along with the fruits of human genius and the creative spirit. The humanities ranges from philosophy—that most sublime and supreme queen—to literature, art, music, religion, language, and all the disciplines and topics that inform, build, and constitute what people have long called “culture.” Humanist studies is not, however, an outright celebration of every aspect of the human spirit and endeavor. It can be just as critical as it is appraising. Its study can inform and instruct—pointing out errors, as much as pointing out goodness, virtue, beauty, and other such things to strive for.

And later, Krause gives an example of what the humanities accomplish by demonstrating how key texts are integrated with each other—in ways that both form our intellectual understandings and our experiences as creatures with historical antecedents:

In the first book of Politics Aristotle makes a direct reference to the ninth book of Homer’s Iliad. When Augustine penned City of God he assumed his readers to be familiar with the works of the Platonists, Virgil, Cicero, Sallust, Varro, the Bible, and the great stories of Rome’s founding mythology: Romulus and Remus, Lucretia, and Aeneas. Dante’s Divine Comedy is not simply allegory of his own tumultuous experiences in Florence; it is also journey through the very soul of Western literature, philosophy, and theology from start to finish. Shakespeare is riddled with Biblical and literary references that lessen the greatness of Shakespeare when missed by the reader. Jonathan Swift, that great satirist, was engaged in his own cultural criticism in satirizing the philosophies of Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke when Gulliver meets the Laputans.

Building on the past, referencing and critiquing influential texts, understanding the origins of the cultural and intellectual flooring (however mismatched some of the boards) on which we stand—these are good reasons for the humanities. You don’t have to believe or accept everything you read in the great books (that’s the “critical” part of the humanities). Sometimes the point is simply to learn why other people saw things the way they did (why they currently see things the way they do) to better understand the excellencies and errors of today. To do so, one must understand other metaphors and stories, and see how they inform nuances of moral principles. To understand another culture’s metaphor or story is to be able to understand motivating forces and forms of thinking in other people. As John Stuart Mill once said, if you don’t know another point of view, you really don’t know your own.

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Stanley Fish Slashes the Tires of the Humanities


That’s an overly dramatic title, but it sounds like Bonfire of the Vanities.

I always appreciate Stanley Fish’s point of view, even when I don’t agree with him. I think he is on the wrong side of the free-speech debate, but his recent essay, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has a lot to love and consider.

Wait a sec—in case you don’t know what “the humanities” are, I like a definition from the Stanford Humanities Center, which reads in part:

“The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world.”

So as much as I like Fish’s recent essay, it is a bit painful for me when he says:

I hate to be the one to tell you, but there is no generalizable benefit to having led a life centered on great texts. It is sometimes thought that those whose careers are spent engaging with beautiful and stringent works of literature and philosophy will become, perhaps by osmosis, better persons than they otherwise would have been. Anyone who believes that hasn’t spent much time in English and philosophy departments.

That last sentence is supposed to be funny, in a darkly humorous way, and it really is.

Fish also analogizes the age-old faith and reason debate with one of the predicaments faced by universities today, that is, whether to continue supporting the humanities at all while demand for science and technology training grows. After considering some of the justifications for the humanities, he writes:

This line of humanities justification has taken many forms, usually involving pointed distinctions between body and soul, letter and spirit, techne and art. A number of famous debates — between Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold, C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, Alan Sokal and the editors of Social Text — participate in a long conversation between those who believe that science and the scientific method provide the way both to knowledge and the betterment of mankind, and those who believe that without the informing spirit of the humanistic perspective, scientific knowledge is a dead letter. (One can see this opposition in all of its variety as a subset of the larger, perdurable opposition between reason and faith.)

Just for clarity, the parenthetical comment is his. Considering these broad tensions sometimes described as sciences versus humanities, take a look at theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s questioning of the tension between Athens and Jerusalem.

My excerpts here could be misleading, taken by themselves, because Fish believes in the humanities and loves them. The question is whether they can be defended from the outside, or only from within. (Sometimes people will say, for example, a religion is internally coherent, yet open to external critique.)

While I don’t want to “side” with Fish against anyone I know in the digital humanities (and while I didn’t previously quite understand “digital humanities” in the way Fish describes), I really loved this helpful, insightful, foundational humanistic perspective within his critique of the digital humanities:

Think of puffs of smoke seen on a distant ridge; they could be just puffs of smoke, they could be smoke signals. How do you know? Not by just looking at them; it is only when you are persuaded—not by the data but by extratextual information—that a particular someone has designed the sequence that you will ask what message that someone might have wanted to send. Interpretation can’t get started without the prior identification of an intentional agent, and brute data, no matter how it is sliced and diced, cannot produce that identification by itself. 

I take that to mean, humanities people understand or are persuaded—in numerous situations and through numerous media—someone is trying to send a message, and that message should be comprehended and evaluated. If you and I give time and effort to intentional messages, are we acting in mere faith?

Soren Kierkegaard on Being Completely Sure of the Christian Faith


“No, away, pernicious sureness. Save me, O God, from ever being completely sure; keep me unsure until the end so that then, if I receive eternal blessedness, I might be completely sure that I have it by grace! It is empty shadowboxing to give assurances that one believes that it is by grace—and then to be completely sure. The true, the essential expression of its being by grace is the very fear and trembling of unsureness. There lies faith—as far, just as far, from despair and from sureness.”

— “Resurrection of the Dead,” in Christian Discourses (1848), by Søren Kierkegaard  (Hong & Hong translation)

I first discovered part of this excerpt thanks to a post on the Søren Kierkegaard and Christian Existentialism Facebook page.

Tom Wolfe kicked off a mainstream understanding of brain imaging that challenged faith


The recently departed writer wrote a 1996 piece for Forbes ASAP, a magazine supplement to Forbes, entitled, “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.”

When I read it back then, Wolfe’s reporting on the nascent field of brain imaging seemed to have big implications, which was exactly his point: “…anyone who cares to get up early and catch a truly blinding twenty–first–century dawn will want to keep an eye on it.”

Since then, “neuroscience” has exploded within something like a popular consciousness as brain-scan findings and their possible implications are served by journalists to mainstream audiences. I guess I did just that in my last post about brain scans and beliefs. (When you’re not an expert, you just quote experts.)

So I’m grateful to Vaughan Bell for writing this February 2016 piece in the Guardian, republished this week after Wolfe’s passing: “Did Tom Wolfe’s bold predictions about human nature come true?” Bell gives a quick overview and assessment of Wolfe’s 1996 predictions. I especially liked this sentence from Bell’s second paragraph:

An interest in neuroscientists—brain geeks—must have seemed like an enthusiasm for paint salesmen to much of the mid-90s public but Wolfe saw a genuine cultural subversion emerging from the field.

To what extent has “genuine cultural subversion emerg[ed] from the field”? Read all of Bell’s essay to find out.

A challenge for evangelical apologists: brain scans and Bible reading


Let me start with a real-world example from regular church-going folks: two adult men, both toward the conservative-evangelical or perhaps fundamentalist end of Protestant, both of whom I’ve known personally for decades, one a full-time pastor, the other a lifelong participant in lay leadership. (Then we’ll get to the scientific study.)

When on separate occasions I pointed out to these men the discrepancies between the two accounts of creation in the Old Testament book of Genesis, they both said, essentially, “Wow, I never noticed that.”

They didn’t say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I’ve read a scholar who can make sense of it.” Nor did they say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I really wrestle with it.”

They had never noticed the discrepancies despite having read the book of Genesis many times over the years. (I’m referring to the two distinct creation stories, with different orders of events, in Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:5-2:25.) In fairness, I never had noticed, either, until around 20 years ago when I tried to start reading more about the Bible.

My surprise was context-dependent: I grew up in churches and schools that believed the Earth was made in six 24-hour periods, and that insisted there were no contradictions in the Bible. Now I had discovered there were two different accounts, back to back, that contradicted each other, without any explanatory connective tissue between the two.

Yes, some people within the Christian and Judaic traditions have speculated about possible purposes behind the two different accounts of creation, but that’s a different matter from not noticing the different accounts.

I think I know why we never noticed, if I may generalize a bit just at the start here: When some people read the Bible, they read with a kind of altered mentality.

Here, I’m referring to my own experience and the experience of the two men I’ve just mentioned. I’m not referring to all Christian experiences of reading the Bible.

At best, we might have been reading with our hearts, which I will leave mostly undefined here because most of my audience will know more or less what I mean (although I will briefly point to the enduring influence of pietism in evangelical churches). Or, at best, consider how humans approach any number of not-strictly-informational experiences of the written word or artistic expressions. Or, again at best, an individual’s encounter with a text co-creates the meaning.

At worst, some people could be reading in a kind of situation-induced trance state. At worst, they could, for reasons we’ll consider with the scientific study below, approach the Bible with a state of mind that is less than analytical or properly critical.

Either way, these Bible readers, like the men I mentioned earlier and my younger self, don’t scrutinize what they read; rather, they sort of listen to it in a completely different way than if they were reading something technical or dryly informational (more about this shortly).

And, if I can make an association between religious reading and religious listening, there might be a scientific measurement for reading-in-an-altered-state, according to a Feb. 16, 2017, article in Nautilus, which read in part:

In 2011, a team of Danish researchers led by Uffe Schjødt, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University, examined the brains of individuals experiencing one of the most extreme demonstrations of charismatic influence—charismatic healing. To do so, the team recruited 18 devoted, young Christians from faiths with a tradition of intercessory prayer (mainly from the Pentecostal Movement), all of whom reported a strong belief in people with special healing powers. They also recruited 18 secular participants, who did not believe in God and were skeptical that prayer could cause healing.

Both groups of participants were instructed to listen to 18 different prayers performed by three different speakers—and told the speakers were either non-Christian, Christian, or Christians known for having healing powers. The speakers were all unremarkable churchgoers randomly assigned six prayers apiece.

The researchers found profound differences in brain activity based on assumptions made about the speaker. In the Christian subjects, activity spiked in analytical areas of the brain in response to the non-Christian speakers, but plummeted when they listened to the speaker they believed was known for healing powers. These changes were not present in the secular group. The researchers drew parallels to similar experiments done on subjects on hypnosis, noting that hypnotism, when it works, was usually preceded by the massive frontal deactivation—in effect, a “handing over” of executive function to the hypnotist. Further, they found that “the more the Christian participants deactivate their executive and social cognitive networks, the higher they rate the speaker’s charisma post-scan.”

We’ll connect that to Bible-reading in a moment. First, the only problem, in my view, with this study is its focus only on Pentecostal Christians and a vaguely defined (at least in Nautilus‘s telling) “secular group.”

Sure, I find the results of the study very easy to believe, having grown up in so-called neo-Pentecostal or charismatic churches—some types of worship shut down analytical faculties, or at least get the analytical part of the to temporarily step aside. Once that state of less-mind is achieved, the congregants can accept an awful lot from a sermon, and become more open to suggestion.

However, many times over the years, in a mainstream newsroom and later in a state university, I’ve noticed how critical thinking skills soften to accept claims from left-leaning politicians. We’re all human here, and we probably experience “massive frontal deactivation” around anything we love, and when we are thinking about anything or anyone we love. Maybe “love is blind” really means “love massively deactivates your frontal lobe.”

For example, I couldn’t believe my ears during the last election: I could easily agree with critiques of Trump, but when it came time to discuss Clinton, well, sometimes, around some people, it was like I was watching a group of Sunday School children imagine Hillary walking on water and multiplying bread and fish for the masses. Why couldn’t critical faculties be applied in all directions? Just because one party was already hated? Yes. Just because one party was already hated. And because one party was already loved, perhaps leading to the massive frontal deactivation discussed in the study above. (At the end, I’ll link to another study that makes a similar suggestion.)

Yes, of course, I’ve noticed the same thing among advocates for right-leaning politicians, too. Cultists come in all political persuasions, as Michael Shermer has noted regarding followers of Ayn Rand.

People hand over “executive function” to many different kinds of influencers, not just those among faith and politics, but those among market brands and trendy ideas, too.

What’s interesting about Bible-reading in this respect is people might alter their mentality when they prepare and settle down to open the Scriptures. They may transition into a different mode. Their expectations of the text have nothing to do with mind as commonly conceived and everything to do with the heart as commonly understood. The “heart versus mind” concept isn’t well-defined in our culture, but it is everywhere, like cultural furniture. I mean, “heart versus mind” or “head versus heart” is not well-defined among everyday people, but a lot of people use it . (Like Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think, but look!”—at how language is being used.)

Of course, we can’t blame the Biblical texts themselves for this. And the way contemporary middle-class people approach church and Scripture is not a verdict on any of the numerous historical, ethical, moral, and metaphysical claims in institutions and books. (If not a verdict, though, sometimes I wonder if it is a reflection of church and Scripture.)

After all, if you are a nonbeliever and you were to go to hear some non-religious person speak, someone you think very highly of, in a place where you were surrounded by people with similar enthusiasm, would your brain scan be pretty much the same as those of the Pentecostal youths who thought they were listening to a minister with healing powers? My money is on yes.

On a related note, see Tali Sharot in this Big Think video (here linked to the 2:26 mark) on research into how people respond to others with whom they agree and with whom they disagree. The research used brain scans to notice what is happening during agreement and disagreement—and it seems similar to the outcome of the Danish research mentioned above.

The big question of our time, of course, is whether neuroscience says or can reveal all that there is to say about being human, or about the essence of humanness.

Philosopher Roger Scruton takes a kind of both-and view that acknowledges both an historically older sense of the self and the contemporary insights offered by neuroscience. If you’re a believer over-troubled by the studies referenced above, it’s worth listening to this interview with Scruton just for a sense of what might be ultimately relevant to tradition religious worldviews.

But maybe the biggest takeaway from all this is an exhortation to sharpen how we read and listen — to anything, to anyone, for any reason.

Plumbing not posting


Mostly, I’m grading, traveling with my family to and from conferences, and overseeing the re-plumbing of my entire house—which necessitated the destruction of pretty much all of my driveway—and the much needed remodeling of our bathrooms. Now we’ve got new water and sewer lines out to the street. Soon the entire house will have new pipes, replacing a true hodge podge of cast iron, copper, steel, and PVC lines.

I shouldn’t say I’m overseeing all that.

My wife, having grown up around construction, really has been overseeing everything. She talks to the plumbers, the carpenter, the architect, the guys who were supposed to remove all the chunks of concrete driveway by now. Meanwhile I stand, at six feet and four inches tall, scowling and nodding to give such occasions gravitas. I never understand what they’re talking about.

I’ve still been writing here, just not posting any of it yet.

For about two weeks now, I’ve been working on a post tentatively entitled “A Challenge for Christian Apologists: Brain Scans and Bible Reading,” in which I wrestle with two research studies on how our brains respond when we are listening to someone with a declared point of view. It turns out what we know or believe about a speaker influences activation or deactivation in parts of our brains—and it seems to me this has broader implications within the context of my personal experiences and observations in evangelical and fundamentalist corners of America.

Considering the recent change in my tagline for this blog, I also want to write a post entitled “What is ex-evangelical?” I imagine a few folks, in some local church drama, might want to make that tag into something other than it is. (They’re the ones teased in that old joke: be quiet when you pass through their part of Heaven—they think they’re the only ones there.)

After I had changed the tag, I came across “The Last Temptation” by Michael Gerson in The Atlantic, which if you haven’t seen it already, is well worth your time. The article’s subtitle, at least on the webpage, is, “How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory.”

Meanwhile, among the previous posts that lately keep popping up in my blog stats are two you might like if you haven’t already seen them:

Cornell West as jazz man, blues man, as ‘a Christian but not a Puritan’

C.S. Lewis Drank Three Pints of Beer in the Morning—A Letter from Tolkien

I hope to see you again here soon.

The net of our days chasing the bird of our lives: relating stories to life


I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding of plot and storytelling. I’ve been reading ancient (Aristotle’s time-honored Poetics) and contemporary (Benjamin Percy’s amazing Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction).

So it seems like a good time to dust off an essay from which I have quoted here before, C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” (which grew from a presentation in 1940 to a published essay in 1947). Like Lewis himself said, there’s more hope for someone who has never read a book than someone who has read it once and thinks he’s got it down. So re-reading him along with Aristotle and Percy, I hope, will help my fiction-writing-challenged brain better understand the basics and make new connections. (My graduate degree is in literary nonfiction.)

It’s been interesting to read Aristotle’s assumptions about real-world psychology as he dissects plot in general and tragedy in particular. (“Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.”) Considering relationships between our real lives and fictional stories, here’s a segment from Lewis’s “On Stories” I think is especially interesting because it offers a useful metaphor.

“It must be admitted that the art of Story as I see it is a very difficult one. What its central difficulty is I have already hinted when I complained that in the War of the Worlds the idea that really matters becomes lost or blunted as the story gets under way. I must now add that there is a perpetual danger of this happening in all stories. To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path. The titles of some stories illustrate the point very well. The Well at the World’s End—can a man write a story to that title? Can he find a series of events following one another in time which will really catch and fix and bring home to us all that we grasp at on merely hearing the six words? Can a man write a story on Atlantis—or is it better to leave the word to work on its own? And I must confess that the net very seldom does succeed in catching the bird….

“It may be asked why anyone should be encouraged to write a form in which the means are apparently so often at war with the ends….

“Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. This is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas—home-coming, reunion with a beloved—similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so — well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that, something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more?… The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

“In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”

I love the idea of seeking or reaching for something we kind of know, we almost see, we suspect is there, yet somehow evades us. With Lewis’s metaphor, the best aspirations of life could be the best accomplishments of stories. In life we want to achieve a qualitative state, and we hope to maintain it. (Most of us keep failing to catch it.) We go to the arts to experience a distilled version of a qualitative state. (Of any number of qualitative states.) We return to certain works of art because they do so well at allowing us to experience that distilled qualitative state again.

Of course, not everyone agreed with Lewis’s view of stories, including his former student turned friend John Wain, an acclaimed writer in his own right who would “frequent the Inklings.” Read Wain’s recollection of his differences with Lewis on the purpose of stories here.