Category Archives: Religious 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.

Marilynne Robinson on ‘The Accidental’ as a Basis For Interpretation

In her book Absence of Mind, in the essay “The Strange History of Altruism,” Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson reviews some of the popular books about science. In the excerpt that follows, she makes an interesting observation about the consequences of two outlooks. I’m guessing most of my readers will agree with her point of view, but even those who won’t agree could see something valuable in her take:

“The comparison that is salient here is between the accidental and the intentional in terms of their consequences for the interpretation of anything. In the course of my reading, I have come to the conclusion that the random, the accidental, have a strong attraction for many writers because they simplify by delimiting. Why is there something rather than nothing? Accident. Accident narrows the range of appropriate strategies of interpretation, while intention very much broadens it. Accident closes on itself, while intention implies that, in and beyond any particular fact or circumstance, there is vastly more to be understood. Intention is implicitly communicative, because an actor is described in any intentional act. Why is the human brain the most complex object known to exist in the universe? Because the elaborations of the mammalian brain that promoted the survival of the organism overshot the mark in our case. Or because it is intrinsic to our role in the universe as thinkers and perceivers, participants in a singular capacity for wonder as well as for comprehension.”

Food for thought.

Meanwhile, Robinson has written an interesting analysis of Donald Trump for the Guardian.

Related:

Marilynne Robinson on ‘the felt life of the mind’ and beauty and strangeness

Marilynne Robinson’s Calvinism is an alternative to The Gospel Coalition’s Calvinism

 

‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S. Lewis

I finally got through it. Starting it again recently, I got hooked and read in the evenings until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is an extraordinary book, more powerful to my mind than The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters combined. It’s a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. (Somewhere along the way, I think I read or heard that Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, a poet, helped Lewis edit the book. I imagine she contributed to its strength.)

If you’re interested in mythology and the ancient world, you’ll probably enjoy Till We Have Faces, and you’ll certainly appreciate it.

Here’s the opening paragraph and excerpts from the second paragraph:

“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

“Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain…. I will write in Greek as my old master taught it to me. It may some day happen that a traveler from the Greeklands will again lodge in this palace and read the book. Then he will talk of it among the Greeks, where there is great freedom of speech even about the gods themselves….”

This narrator is Orual, Queen of the fictitious land of Glome, which shares a world with the Greece of ancient history. Writing in old age, Orual will tell the story of her life, and especially her relationship with her youngest sister, Psyche.

Glome’s goddess is Ungit, and she requires of her priests animal, and sometimes even human, sacrifices.

The “old master” mentioned above is called the Fox, a red-headed Greek brought to Glome as a slave. Working for the king (Orual’s father), he teaches Orual and her sisters when they are children. Fox is skeptical of the religious worldview of Glome, if not strictly skeptical of the existence of the gods. His Hellenistic philosophy seems to lean toward a rationalistic worldview, maybe similar to Stoicism.

But what Orual experiences throughout the book is a universe with rich metaphysical and religious realities woven into her adventures yet countered by her own skepticism.

 

(Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold was published in 1956 and since has appeared in several editions.)

Voltaire remained a practicing Roman Catholic to the end

“By the way, according to Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, Voltaire, the emblem of Enlightenment rationalism, never stopped attending Mass during his lifetime, and he got the Catholic burial he requested.” — from Artur Rosman’s post, “Catholic Historian Takes Back ‘Secular’ Enlightenment

Marilynne Robinson on ‘the felt life of the mind’ and beauty and strangeness

“Assuming that there is indeed a modern malaise, one contributing factor might be the exclusion of the felt like of the mind from the accounts of reality proposed by the oddly authoritative and deeply influential parascientific literature that has long associated itself with intellectual progress, and the exclusion of felt life from the varieties of thought and art that reflect the influence of these accounts. To some extent even theology has embraced impoverishment, often under the name of secularism, in order to blend more thoroughly into a disheartened cultural landscape. To the great degree that theology has accommodated the parascientific world view, it too has tended to forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time. But the beauty and strangeness persist just the same. And theology persists, even when it has absorbed as truth theories and interpretations that could reasonably be expected to kill it off. This suggests that its real life is elsewhere, in a place not reached by these doubts and assaults. Subjectivity is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” — Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (The Terry Lectures Series)

Please also see “The objectives of metaphysics, the objectives of science.”