The New Enlightenment, Part 8: My interview with Christianity Today – sort of.



I can remember my first experience with a journalist.  I was interviewed after an elementary school band performance that traditionally gave me trumpet solo time on center stage.  I suppose this is as close as I have every come to stardom, but despite the lowly context, the media was there to accommodate.  I was asked a question by a journalist, I answered, and my mother naturally pointed out the next day’s result in newspaper print. All I recall caring about was the fact that I was misquoted.

Fast-forwarding a few years: I found myself on a university campus in Michigan as a philosophy graduate student and teaching assistant. It was before the snow blew and the winds reached 30 miles an hour, a nice day for a traveling sex-suppressed fanatic to preach to college students away from the safety of their homes and immediate family. I had some time before my class, and so I joined the half-nervous, half-amused crowd. I found myself seated by a writer for the school’s student paper after I had successfully challenged some of the questions blasting this old Prophet (amazing psychology here: when someone within ‘the group’ answers back). And so I was interviewed. No doubt recollecting, however unconsciously, my past experience with journalists, I asked this writer to repeat what she just wrote down as she listened to my answer.  “No, that is not what I said,” I replied. It is perhaps likely that this student journalist also bears in memory this contact with an old Prophet and a fundamentalist philosophy graduate student.

After the interview, I was off to teach my critical thinking class, in part to go through a sample text from Galileo I believe. After class, a student came up to me and made some derogatory comments about the old Prophet’s views on homosexuality. I will never forget the look of horror on this young man’s face after I gracefully explained that I agreed with the old Prophet. I then spent 15 minutes at the board with this young man schematically going over redemptive history.  Soon after, my Christian professor found out about an article I just published in Credenda Agenda, and I was banned from teaching the history of philosophy.  But that is another story . . .

A few years later, now back at the Kirk and whirring along with Pooh’s Think, Part 1, I was asked for an interview by a local journalist.  ‘Hmmm,’ I thought, ‘a local journalist here in the hills of north Idaho.  Not so sure about this.’  I explained that I was only willing to interview in writing. At that, the journalist claimed he did not see anything all that distinctive about the situation with Wilson anyway, and that was that. I still wonder what that journalist was really up to. Roy Atwood, President of New St. Andrews, is a good politician and was head of the communications department at University of Idaho before making the switch. The journalism in north Idaho has been pretty well buttoned up for a while now.

So when an editor for Christianity Today was interested in an interview a couple months ago, I just re-instantiated the drill: In writing pal.  After some days, however, the interviewer sent me some thoughtful questions for me to answer in writing.  I doubt Christianity Today will publish my answers and I have heard no answer back.  So here they are:

  

Tell me about your childhood experience with Christian faith? Would you characterize it as primarily positive or negative?

I would characterize my childhood experience with Christian faith as primarily positive.  The conservative Christianity of my family brought me in contact with a number of small to medium sized independent and Baptist churches. This contact comprised most of my experience with unified interaction between parents, peers, and a broader community. Our tradition was standard evangelicalism and the simple faith of a child was accepted on face value with an expectation that greater commitment and understanding would lead to baptism in the future.  My parents considered me born again at a very young age, but I was not baptized until I was in Junior High. My father was no Big Brother, and so there is little child psychology to toy with as far as I can tell. The story gets complicated  after about eighth grade. Moral hypocrisy in the church was the primary reason our family ceased church attendance, and it was not until I experienced a crisis, followed by a conversion experience in high school, that religion became a topic in the home again. 

 

Who was the most formative influence (for better or worse) in your spiritual development?

This is a difficult answer to get quite right, but I will offer at least some primary personal and situational influences that come to mind: The crisis I mention above began in eleventh grade when my girlfriend treated me in ways that I found incomprehensible and hurtful. I was also becoming exasperated with the using, manipulation, lying, bragging, and womanizing from the cooler bunch of guys that I found myself associated with. I recall in particular noting that there was no sense of justice, and no care to defend the honor of another friend.  My good friend from tenth grade had moved away, and I found myself socially thirsty and perplexed. I was particularly unsettled when one fellow offered his surprise that he could offend me by lying to me: “I lie to you and you lie to me, that is just the way it is.”   In 12th grade, now alone in my own apartment for zoning purposes, I was poised for a good deal of fun. But, more relationally inclined than the average male of my age, I was already a bit tired – prematurely perhaps – of heading in the direction of dissipation. One night, at a high-school football game, I came back in contact with my old youth pastor from the local PCUSA church (this church had a program that was popular among the High School students). I had always respected him for the sincerity and gentleness that he gracefully conjoined with a more sophisticated intellectual demeanor. On the spot I felt dirty – to use what still seems the best word.  He mentioned the new youth pastor at the PCUSA (he was now an assistant pastor at a PCA church) and on the spot I committed to going back and checking it out. 

The next few months were a whirlwind and one evening, while lying awake in bed, I had a somewhat mystical experience – as if I could peer up through the heavens and into the infinity that lay beyond and have a sense of what God – who had been lovingly yet regretfully watching me all my life – was now thinking, which was what I was thinking: you are such a fool.  My girlfriend of 11th grade became the idol, the false god that broke my heart, and God was now the one that told the truth after everyone else had lied. I wrote a song soon after with the chorus “I’ve seen love shine, through the darkness of my life; he wouldn’t let me go, he set me free, he died for me.” Almost overnight I had lost my fits of anger, profanity, bitterness, and was keenly interested in exploring the truth of the bible, prayer, time with parents, Christian friendship, and evangelizing. I became a bit ascetic and had what evangelicals would certainly consider worship experiences in the evenings. Oddly, I also became academically inclined, went from a C student to an A student, and for some reason found the nearest bookstore and bought a philosophy book on infinity and the mind. I was now fascinated by literature, physics, the bible, and a naive exploration of what I now know is the classical problem of evil.  That original syncretism has stayed with me until today.  Ironically enough, latent in this year of conversion was perhaps my eventual apostasy.  

 

Tell me about when you first started to think of leaving the faith, or the moment when you realized that you were slipping away?

There is no clean answer to this.  I was deeply situated in Douglas Wilson’s Christ Church, or as he used to call it, the Kirk.  I was a ministerial student and contributor to Credenda Agenda, and I was well connected with the Kirk and larger Moscow community, including New St. Andrews faculty and elders at Christ Church. The first notions of ‘falling away’ – I was limited to conceptualizing it as just this – coincided with a growing desire to leave the Kirk community altogether. However, I  simply withdrew from these thoughts in horror and suppressed them. Any sign of doubt I found in me was my enemy. Although I never focused too much on the doctrine of hell, it is clear in hindsight that I was psychologically guided by implicit threats and fear.  

Soon after a year long mentorship with Douglas Wilson, I began suspecting him capable of deceit and manipulation. But it was not until I started publishing my analysis of ‘berith’ (covenant) in the Kirk’s cultural journal that I began seeing the intellectual vacuity in the community at large – starting with Wilson, extending to the pastoral students, and then filtering through New St. Andrews, elders, and younger theologically inclined laymen (and even extending to reformed theologians I made contact with over this issue). I concluded that at bottom, the point of reading, writing, and disputing in the Kirk was not truth as conventionally construed, intellectual carefulness, or an honest interaction with broader society (I would make an acception for John Schwandt [greek professor], who always intentionally had one foot out of the Kirk, and I might make an exception for Peter Leithart, and perhaps Mitch Stokes only for things pertaining to mathematics) . I had been wrestling with the tension between Faith and Reason over the years, but now the tension became a personal/community issue that I could no longer avoid.  The local controversy (Wilson was always at war with Moscow back in those days) afforded me opportunities to poke my head outside of the Kirk, and I became gradually horrified by what I was seeing from this external point of view. I began offering mild concern and I signaled a willingness to consider carefully the side of the Other. It was all down hill from there. 

Eventually, I was attacked in every ‘legal’ way: socially, financially, psychologically, verbally.  At the time, all this was symbolic not of my slipping away from the faith, but rather from the particular Christian Community I had known – although Kirkers, with some justification, would see little distinction here.  I did not realize that this was my way of beginning my journey from the faith altogether, but it in fact was.  Once I had gained the ability to question, regardless of the costs to my coherent and comfortable world, there was really nothing left standing in the way from an outright rejection of Christianity. I progressively drew connections between my experience with the Kirk and broader Christianity, and then expanded the analogical reasoning to religion in general, the biblical texts, and the protagonists of the New Testament story.  The work of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens  gave me the tools to finally pull the plug and come clean this last year.  Harris was my first introduction to how anti-theists see the morality of Christianity. Dennett pulled together a good deal of anthropological and philosophical topics. And Hitchens revealed the extend of the rhetorical weapons available to the anti-theist. Hitchens’ seasoned journalism also gave a broad perspective from which to handle the topic of Religion.  Christianity no longer needed to be treated as ‘the’ religion to reject, but rather a knowledge domain of personal experience that fit into the human drama as a mere species of a broader reality I was previously shielded from.

 

Ultimately, why do you think you left the faith?

Given the nature of exit from the Kirk, it was all quite inevitable and violently thrust upon me. However, I could say that I have left the faith in part on moral grounds: I now see the bulk of institutionalized Christianity as immoral: it is political, hypocritical, the power domain of the priesthood. I now understand religion to be primarily a mechanism of control (whether perceived so by practitioners or not) and Christianity – however unique the story of redemption might be – to be little different from other institutionalized religions. During an early meeting with Dr. Peter Leithart at New St. Andrews, I began explaining my concerns about the violent and arrogant way the Kirk was treating the local community, contrasting it to the idealized narrative of Jesus. And it just hit me. I began weeping.  The issue is also certainly intellectual, although I do not see a strong distinction between the moral and the rational on this topic. I concluded that Wilson was intellectually dishonest, but now I see how this is so more generally with fundamentalist Christianity at large. 

 

 Spiritually speaking, where are you at right now?

How would you describe your world view or life philosophy?

[I answer both of these questions here]

I am still dealing with the post traumatic stress of exiting the Kirk. Making a final clean break more recently has been therapeutic in this regard.  From my view, Christians were unable to understand or admit the implications latent in my exit experience from the Kirk, and secular culture and academia has provided me with a far better fit for all the conclusions I have drawn from that experience that might be otherwise neutral to the question of atheism.  My closest professor and long term friend at the University, as well as the University as a whole, provided a refuge for me during my exiting of the Kirk, and I have found some of the most gentle, sincere, and intelligent people to have very little religious inclination at all. It seems as though the last place I have found myself is in the gutter with the prodigal son. 

I had always wrestled with discussions about consciousness and intentionality in the philosophy of mind. Either personality was ultimate or the atomos was ultimate, and the derivation of meaning and intentionality had to go in one direction or the other. As a Christian apologist, my task was to argue that the emergent properties of the human brain were a derivation from, albeit in an ex nihilo sort of way, eternal personhood. With the late apologist Greg Bahnsen, I concluded that the ‘mind was the body,’ but the direction of intentionality necessarily went from God to matter. This left me with a philosophical problem on my hands. The Churchlands were therefore the enemies of the faith and Daniel Dennett, bless his humble heart, just had things backwards (Kinds of Minds, 1996, p55).  I had to therefore refute some of the greatest philosophical minds of the 20th century, and the developing empirical evidence seemed to give me nothing to work with while just lending support to the Churchlands’ original materialist thesis.  Part of my final rejection of the faith was my coming to terms with the spiritual implications of all this.

It is now hard to imagine that creationism has any credible challenge to offer the scientific community and I am growing more convinced that our traditional notions of beliefs, desires, action, deliberative conscious control, guilt, blame, and responsibility will many years from now be understood as explanatorily useful as the Cartesian theatre, the ghost in the machine, and the gods that moved the winds and made the crops drink rain.  A new appreciation for science is therefore an important part of my new ethos – swinging all the way towards eliminative materialism (although I doubt I would ever be drawn to any mystical devotion of infinity or the origin of the big bang). The most important conclusion is that we humans are really a bunch of dumb mammals – our unconscious minds far more sophisticated than our linguistic blabbering and ignorant social practices.

My newly developed rough edges and mild skepticism to traditional morality is certainly something I need to force myself to be honest about.  There is something sad about losing the beauty to be had in a Christian Cosmos, and likewise a degree of cynicism in the writing of H.L. Mencken and Christopher Hitchens. I would not say I am in that spiritual/emotional camp just yet, but as much as I would like to be the new Friendly Atheist, you will find the nature of my adoption of what I find to be the truth to leave me with some permanently raised prickles.  Although, I doubt these prickles will ever become nearly as deadly as what I was or could have been capable of dishing out as a fundamentalist theist loyal to a Dear Leader speaking for God.

 

What do you miss most about being a Christian? What do you miss least?

I miss the way the Christian view allowed me to make the world more enchanted, meaningful, and at times, lovely.  It is a very comfortable place to be at times emotionally and psychologically.  You can stand within the grand tradition of Western Culture and have a robust sense of your place in the cosmos – conveniently right at the center. The classical education tradition, the gloomy days on the Palouse, and the talent of Douglas Wilson certainly helped augment this effect. You are also given the tools – fashioned and refined by priests over the course of thousands of years – to psychologically and rhetorically suppress or reinterpret the incongruence between your Christian story and the world around you. What I miss the least about being a Christian is the constant battle of standing in and out of the world at the same time. During and soon after my conversion, this was a moral battle, where the world represented selfishness, deceit, and debauchery.  But over time, the attempt to take the claims of the faith at face value created a different tension.  Much in the world was good and lovely and true and much in the church was not. I think the honest determination to be in the world but not of the world inevitably leads to some degree of fanaticism, which becomes most apparent when considering the apostolic claims about hell, the status of non-believers, and the ‘foolishness’ of the world’s wisdom.

  

How have Christians treated you since you left the faith?

The majority of Kirkers have ridiculed and shunned me. Almost all the rest have at least kept a distance from me. The few that do not keep a distance do not want to discuss the issues with me; there might be a couple borderline cases, but the complexity of the story neutralizes this I think. The treatment I have received – whether the harmful kind or the silence – seems to be just more justifying evidence supporting my change of direction.

 

Do you have any fears or lingering regrets about leaving the faith?

All that comes to mind is how difficult it seems to be to leave an anthropocentric world with one’s self in the middle, only to find a vast, meaningless, and uncaring cosmos that will ultimately burn out and die. Curiously, it is at just this cosmological level where the philosophical arguments of the Christian gain some common ground with the atheist’s.  I no longer find any fear or regret on the issue of morality or social solidarity since I do not believe religion fosters genuine morality, which is grounded in empathy on my view. But the cosmological issue is certainly something to come to terms with.  A corollary to this is a reconsideration of one’s creativity, morality, and smarts: I now find myself only ever so slightly creative, moral, and smart, and this relative analysis is made possible only after a comparison is made between myself and the monkeys! I would perhaps see myself as more intelligent, creative, and moral if I was comparing myself with the various gods of our more distant past – or perhaps the Old Testament’s fickle, jealous, and angry father.  I regret this is the only alternative to the divine spark that one gets with theism.

  

What’s your opinion about Jesus? How about the church?

 H.L. Mencken summed it up well:

 ”If there is a bishop in this great Christian land who has not, at some time or other, composed and uttered an article of diatribe entitled “What Is the Matter with the Churches?” then the present subscriber is prepared to pay $10 cash for his name and address, or if he has been translated to G.H.Q., for a hair of his episcopal head . . . the bishops join the lay pathologists in arguing that the only salvation for the church is to go back to His teaching.  It has taken on crusts, excrescences, an unhealthy and forbidding patina.  It is covered with boils, and racked interiorly by grinding pains.  The world has debauched it, and it shines with a baleful light. Its deliverance lies in the fifth chapter of Matthew, among the glorious asseverations known as the Sermon on the Mount. Let it throw off its gaudy trappings and its lust for pomp and power, and teach once more that the poor in spirit are the really blessed, and that theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Let its ordained pastors abandon their bloodthirsty wowserism and delirious money-chasing, and give ocular proof that the meek shall inherit the earth. Let its customers cease their attempts to dispose of one another by the sword, and so restore the old saver to the salt. . . . . But I regret to add at once that I cherish no hope that they will accept.  More, I find myself impelled to say that I believe they are too intelligent to accept.  For bishops, whatever their liking for hollow and lascivious utterance, are surely not ignorant men.  Their magical trade makes them privy to the secrets of the human heart.  They understand mankind, even though they often act as if they do not.  And at no time do they give better proof of their understanding than when they forget their own soft murmurs, and give their customers rough and bloody shows.  It is, indeed, the rough stuff that maintains them in their levantine luxury; it is hatred that they feed upon, as lawyers feed upon folly.  The minute they really went back to the Beatitudes, that minute the business to which they have consecrated their lives would blow up, and the name of Christ would disappear from His Churches, and follow that of Mithras into learned and unreadable books”

 – H.L. Mencken, What’s the Matter with the Churches?, American Mercury, 1928

  

What advice would you give Christians, to help them speak in an inoffensive, meaningful way, to people like you?

As for personal communication generally, I think your question answers itself. I – and I am sure countless other thoughtful, moral,  non-believing Americans – would require inoffensive and meaningful exchange.  What I have seen so far is either silence, clearly offensive approaches that are not intended to draw me in to a rational dialog, or pious platitudes that would not count as truly meaningful exchanges at all. I am at a loss recollecting more than a few relations or events that do not clearly fall in one of these three categories. Brian McLaren diagnosed this problem but was hung on a cross for it.  

Given the advances of the social, psychological, and brain sciences, we are growing more sensitive to manipulative rhetoric and what Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfort has famously referred to as ‘bullshit’. Christians will therefore need to more than ever resort to sincere, charitable, and intelligent exchange with our growing skeptical culture.  Personally, I think this might lead to nothing more than a fruitful growth of ecumenicity between academia, the sciences, and Christianity. But on the Christian’s assumptions, this could lead to a spiritual awaking. After all, journalists have aptly noted that the recent wave of anti-theist literature has failed to suggest a cultural replacement for religion. Religion less its cussedness would seem to still have something to offer. Personal liberty, social justice, and a cosmopolitan vision do not replace our need for the bonds of local community and a commitment to the nurture and education of our children.  Religion remains the most potent mechanism available to us for this.  

I have an M.A. in philosophy and continue to study the literature on various topics, and I was always a philosophically inclined apologist while a Christian. I would therefore like to speak directly to the issue of apologetics.  I have come to see a good deal of apologetics as philosophical priest-craft.  On my view now, the practice of apologetics – generally speaking – never was meant to offer a formidable intellectual challenge to non-believers, but was rather intended to sanitize Christianity’s barbaric roots. The general goal of apologetics is to keep the laymen comfortable amidst the significant skeptical challenge that surrounds them.  In my opinion, this is why you do not see apologists dealing with their authoritative text as narrative (which, by the way, seems to be an important consideration in interpreting the recent debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig).  Plantinga’s integration between epistemology and theology is perhaps the most successful intellectual success the faith has had in a long time; however, Plantinga’s argument stays rooted within the traditional conceptual analysis of analytic philosophy, and is thereby less accessible to broader culture and easily outdated academically. More importantly, Plantinga’s argument is solely defensive and hinges on the antecedent “if Christianity is true.”  But non-believing academia no longer takes this possibility seriously. Getting academia to take this possibility seriously would seem to be a main challenge for a Christian apologetics that wishes to be offensive in strategy, rather than merely defensive.

There is something to be said about taking a front and center, cultural approach, and the Kirk has been a successful prototype.  There are ways to make folks take you seriously. A humble, intellectually honest Kirk could have gone a long way in penetrating American culture it seems to me.  A formidable Christianity worth the attention of the American people would have to be a community without the cult, provide leadership without the cult of personality, and offer an alternative approach to education that is more than a marketing platform (e.g. the rediscovery of the ‘medieval’ trivium).  Christians need to determine what the crucial elements of the Christian story/truth are, stick to their guns only on this score, and show the world how these crucial narrative elements can mitigate the problem of evil and leaven ecumenical discussions about the real problems and needs of our new global society – all the while honestly clinging to the claims of their authoritative text. This latter part will be a trick, but necessary on my view.

I leave this final note with the theist that would should like to either convert me or use me as an example for those who remain in the flock:  The more I ponder semantics and how we accrue knowledge of the world, the more I am convinced that we move forward in understanding not through the abstract concepts and propositions the more superstitious philosophers like to talk about, but rather by means of embodied analogy. This is how I have moved forward in my understanding of Christianity and religion in general. I gained unique and emphatic personal insight into a leader, a church, and a community, and I have moved on and applied this knowledge domain to the world outside. The argument could be made, then, that I have seen the outside world too much in terms of my experience with the Kirk. I have reasoned metaphorically and the metaphors are not sufficiently apt:  Religious leaders are Douglas Wilsons, the church is the Kirk, and Religion is the priestcraft I found on the Palouse.  My metaphors have not successfully predicted reality outside my experiential knowledge domain of the Kirk, but has rather merely exaggerated my extended interpretation. This is one possible line of argument I would recommend.

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The New Enlightenment, Part 5: Christopher Hitchens & Douglas Wilson: The Collision Movie



Douglas Wilson’s and Christopher Hitchens’ involvement in the recent Christian booksellers’ Expo and Wilson’s involvement in this years’ conference with John Piper is a significant insertion of Wilson, and by association his Kirk of north Idaho, into the consciousness of broader evangelicalism. You can see Piper’s and Wilson’s public discussion of Wilson’s involvement with Hitchens here .  Many Christians who have an understanding of Wilson’s pedigree and history over the last two decades think this is actually a serious insertion of an aberrant and dangerous controversialist into the mainstream.  Molly Worthen tackles this issue tactfully, if not coyly, in her write up on Wilson in Christianity Today this last summer, before Wilson was invited to John Piper’s conference. You can see Worthen’s article here.  (I replied with commentary on Worthen’s article here.)

Now, media coverage of the movie Collision – a presentation of the three day tour of Hitchens and Wilson – is spiking in order to introduce the release of the movie this week, which is, arguably, at least in proper context, an important cultural event for America. You can see, for example, NPR’s interview with Hitchens and Wilson here, (conducted by Guy Raz).

For anyone interested in the immediate context of Collision, I recommend at least two sources: First, I recommend Canon Press’ short book  (Canon Press is the Kirk’s inhouse press) containing the original debate between Hitchens and Wilson, titled ‘Is Christianity Good for the World?’ (2008).  I provided a summary of this debate, which you can find here. This summary was intended to be rigorous and exhaustive enough for the reader that did not have access to book, but this debate was already published online by Christianity Today, which can be found with a few keystrokes in Google (you will need to wade through many pages picture-framed by evangelical advertising).

Second, I highly recommend listening to the tour debate at Westminster Theological Seminary in full, without the movie-craft of Collision (Collision is produced by a Kirker and an evangelical movie-maker). You can find this debate, hosted by the Seminary’s website, here.  I think proper immediate context can be well served by listening to this debate raw.

(For extra-credit homework, please also watch the exchange between Hitchens and the four Christian apologists at the Christian Book Expo, which you can find here.  And if you have a bit more time on your hands, you do not want to miss Hitchens’ article in Newsweek back in March:  ‘The Texas-sized Debate Over Teaching Evolution’.  Hitchens begins by mentioning  the Book Expo. Please note the link to the right of this site, titled Christopher Hitchens’ Papers.)

But these two sources – the Canon Press debate and the Westminster debate – are just for necessary, immediate context. As for broader context, well, where to begin? 

The function of a religious leader in the act of apologetics has little to do with the argumentative content of discussion (as I will argue as I continue to develop my philosophy and social psychology of religion and informal anthropology with respect to the Kirk). In the case of Wilson’s performance of late, this factor is multiplied exponentially. I say this for a number of reasons but will name only two here: First, Wilson is not interacting with Hitchens’ arguments nor supporting his select assertions through the same rigorous and rational habits of modern apologists that have preceded him – from C.S. Lewis to Greg Bahnsen.  This is actually not intended as a criticism, given what I take to be the social role of Christian apologetics. Second, this association with Hitchens is a very interesting stage for Wilson, and precisely what is not being discussed explicitly about Wilson in these exchanges is more important than the what is.  What Wilson does not say, given the historical and social context, as well as what Hitchens implies about Christianity and her apologists only generally, is more important that the content of rational dialog and what Wilson and Hitchens are saying explicitly about one another. Just what is so immensely interesting about Wilson and his Kirk, and why Wilson is one of the most ‘important’ religious leaders in America today, has very little to do with Wilson’s rehashing half-baked ideas about objective standards for morality, rationality, and beauty.

It is worth emphasing here that I had been working on a book for a couple years, The Kirk: Mother of War. My primary work so far was conducted before Wilson and Hitchens made contact and before, in fact, I knew who Hitchens was.  I remain convinced as I follow this media coverage on the intersection of “two lives colliding”, as well as the largely uninterrupted footage of Collision, that this broader context is necessary for a full and proper understanding of the linguistic sound bytes we have seen so far and might continue to be exposed to. Those appreciative of Hitchens’ past journalism will no doubt understand the importance of an expanded, historical, narrative, and anthropological investigation.

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Faith & Reason, Part 7: Here I Stand



the-death-of-sapphira-wife-of-ananiusPlaying armchair chess with technical terms – what the mathematical monkeys and theology wonks consider precisely defined natural language – just might reveal a tension between Faith and Reason. Or it might not. Either way, it does not matter. We are after a real tension between faith as it is in the world and reason as it is in the world. Further, as we have seen, even a more sensitive armchair approach to central topics such as Belief, Knowledge, Narrative, and Metaphor has left us with the opposite of what we were out to accomplish. These topics, comfortably off the ground and up snug in the arm chair, evidence a harmony between Faith and Reason. Indeed, the two concepts, under contemporary and considerably subtle scrutiny, begin looking much the same.

Once we begin poking reality as it is now and as it has been recorded in world history, the situation changes a good deal. Despite the assuring platitudes of the rationalist cleric or the mystic philosopher, tensions, disharmony, polarization, enmity, and violence are seen everywhere. Faith is at war with Reason. But if this is reality, so much for the armchair.

I of course speak banality for the ignorant, although I feel the effort may be worth it given the size of this constituency, which comprises, H.L. Menken informs us, 99.8% of the civilized populace (an idea that took me 35 painful years to finally venture believing). And so I remind the idiots reading this blog: once we get off our armchair and quit our sanitized chess game, it becomes much easier to imagine opening a window or, even, venturing outside into the sun and one’s more natural place in the food chain – which, by the way, is fairly low. One is not educated unless they travel; but this need not be to Paris; it could be a trip to the cry closet of a lonely child, the sandbox where four year olds tussle, the den where grown men rape a thirteen year old girl, or the dusty battle field scarred with the rotten flesh of the latest empire and the latest theonomic regime. Getting out – and generalizing a bit – helps prepare one for the inescapable fact that they are a dumb and frail animal that knows more of its petty lusts for comfort and control than truth and justice.

Those aspects of the environment that pertain to Faith and Reason reinforce the idea nicely, as they are, despite the dictates of armchair philosophy, all bipolar: we see the church and the academy, the monastery and the University, Jerusalem and Athens, the monk and the philosopher, religion and science, the hypothesis and the creed, the sage and the self-critical, the loyal disciple and the free-intellect, dogmatics and the inquiry, the authoritative Bernard of Clairvaux and the denigrated Abelard.

And indeed, we see the Apostle Peter killing layman and hurling insult and condemnation at any political opponent in the new ecclesia; the Apostle Paul threatening the ‘rod’ for his baby birds at Corinth that dare think more highly of the classically trained teachers than they do of their jealous, manipulative father – exalting his flights into the seventh heaven over all the combined genuine wisdom of the ancient world; the author of Hebrews threatening – page after venomous page – nothing short than torture for those who wish to stop attending the mind-altering liturgies or wish to not ‘obey those that rule among them.’ Should it therefore be surprising in our own day that Dear Leader John Piper has warmly invited the harmful, raving orangutan in North Idaho to instruct the evangelical world about the glories of John Calvin’s Big Brother? This is just the New Testament of love I am here dealing with – with a final sprinkling of some Romans 9. Shall we even dare turn back and investigate the dark, barbaric violence alleged in the histories of the Old Testament?

Perhaps you see what kind of new methodology that awaits us: the anthropological, the historical, the investigative; in sum, the empirical.

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Academic Tenure and The Contrarian



obama-thumbMy previous entry, a catalog of excerpts from Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian (2005),  has provoked some interesting discussion - some from within the walls of the Kirk (although, I particularly enjoyed the discussion with James Leroy Wilson).   The discussion was largely spawned from the fact that I published these excerpts. Moving forward, then, I will focus on the content of just one excerpt in what follows:

 

. . . One is sometimes asked “by what right” one presumes to offer judgment.  Quo warranto? is a very old and very justified question.  But the right and warrant of an individual critic does not need to be demonstrated in the same way as that of a holder of power.  It is in most ways its own justification.  That is why so many irritating dissidents have been described by their enemies as “self-appointed” . . . I am happy in the ranks of the self-employed.  If I am stupid or on poor form, nobody suffers but me.  To the question, Who do you think you are? I can return the calm response: Who wants to know?

 

This is one pregnant paragraph.  The Quo warranto? question is the launching pad for the Moral Argument, and the “self-appointed” description reminds me of one of the more defining moments of the Wood’s early development.  But my reason for focusing on this paragraph is Hitchens’ use of the word ‘self-employed’.  I will get to this, as well as the topic of academic tenure. But for the moment, I feel compelled to wander a bit off my chosen path.  My imagination is now at the mercy of the phrase “self-appointed” – still priming my episodic memory as I write.

 

Oh, yes, the early days. Sweet reminiscence. The creepy, nasty, bitter self-appointed pooh bear. What it was like to be me back then. I recall in particular that time when, still a member in good standing in Wilson’s church, I decided to start a blog, and before long, provide a link to some primary documents posted to the internet by a man Wilson was then publicly attacking. Needless to say, these primary, historical documents did not make Wilson look all that spirit filled. I will refer to the man Wilson was attacking as the ‘X-elder’, since he used to be an elder in the Kirk (replaced by Jones in the early 90s) and his picture now hangs in Wilson’s War Room, marked with a big fat X.

 

After providing a link to the evidence, I went further and dared to ask a question about the evidence. In response to this, Doug Jones and Douglas Wilson crawled into the comment section of my blog and began pelting me with questions of a slightly different kind. Just now counting, it looks like they had thrown at least 41 of these questions at me by the time I had a chance to begin answering the very first one (yes, forty one, as in four sets of ten and then add one).  Here is a pertinent sampling:

 

What are your qualifications to be making the assertions you are making? Are you a witness? Are you an investigator? Are you an investigator who has assembled all the facts? If you answer our questions, giving the basis for your affirmation of the truthfulness of the answers, this should establish your competence or lack of it in this matter. In short, on what basis have you been making your claims? And if you investigated these allegations [sic], could you tell us how many statements you received from anonymous sources? . . .we are asking about your qualifications to put yourself forward the way you have. . . we are asking you to demonstrate that you have the capacity and standing to prove them. . . . Michael . . . Our questions concern your standing and competence . . . And why should we believe that you are credentialed to be among the special three?

 

Wilson had failed to link to the evidence himself (until forced) and he never honestly described the nature of the evidence this X-elder had presented. And so, my curiosity, which had already been building for months, finally expressed itself by a preliminary inquiry into the evidence Wilson himself had been indirectly referencing. This alone was enough for my pastor and another elder (both friends and past formal instructors) to begin a campaign of harassment. Seven of the forty-one questions they blasted my humble little layman’s blog with pertained to my qualifications, my investigative license, competence, capacity, standing, and credentials.  In sum, they were claiming – with a commendable weight of vocabulary –  that I was wrongly self-appointed. Who did I think I was? I do not deny it. I was self-appointed – self-appointed as a free-thinking free-born American citizen presuming the right to ask a question. (more…)

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