Tag Archives: Jurgen Moltmann

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?

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The missing mode in evangelical thought


Nobel Prize-winning scientists tend to be atheists. Do orthodox Christians shrug-off their accomplishments?

This issue should be addressed from the pulpits, not just in the seminaries:

When Galileo wanted to show Jupiter’s moons to his theological opponents, they refused to look through his telescope. They believed — as Berthold Brecht put it — that “truth is not to be found in nature, but only in the interpretation of texts.” — Jurgen Moltmann, “Science and Wisdom,” in Theology Today, July 2001

Above, Moltmann (and history) provided just a small illustration of a wider problem. A mere response to this problem — like, “I believe the contradiction between Scripture and science is only apparent, and ultimately the two will be reconciled” — is inadequate. Each believer — myself included, because I’m not sure I can do this yet — ought to be able to make a critical assessment of the relationship between the old texts and scientific facts, as well as the two modes Scripture and science represent. In our time, nothing less will do.

Fear of the Lord — and astonishment at his creation (Jurgen Moltmann)


I found this enormously helpful:

“According to the biblical traditions, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. According to the early Greek philosophers, all knowledge is the fruit of wonder. Do we have to choose between Jerusalem and Athens? Must we decide between the church and the laboratory? Are the sciences and the humanities two different cultures, or two different windows to reality?

“When Galileo wanted to show Jupiter’s moons to his theological opponents, they refused to look through his telescope. They believed — as Berthold Brecht put it — that ‘truth is not to be found in nature, but only in the interpretation of texts.’ A classical definition of this separation of science and theology was given by Pascal: ‘If we perceive this distinction clearly, we shall lament the blindness of those who only allow the validity of tradition in physics instead of reason and experiment; we shall be horrified at the error of those who in theology put the arguments of reason in place of the tradition of Scripture and the Fathers.’ But why does astonishment over the world not lead us to the fear of the God, and the fear of God not to astonisnment over the world?”

— Jurgen Moltmann, in “Science and Wisdom,” Theology Today, July 2001

An abundance of joy and the passion of love


“It is unlikely that anything good or just will come about, unless it flows from an abundance of joy and the passion of love.”
– Jurgen Moltmann, writing in The Theology of Play