MARS HILL AUDIO Journal
Guests on Volume 149: Dru Johnson on how rituals serve to shape our understanding of God and Creation; Steven L. Porter on the causes and consequences of the loss of confidence in the rationality of morality; Reinhard Hütter on why Christian ethics must be ordered by Christian eschatology; Matthew Levering on the theological and philosophical concerns of Hans Urs von Balthasar; David Lyle Jeffrey on the influence of the Bible on English poetry; and Christopher Phillips on the cultural and spiritual effects of hymns and the “thingness” of hymnals.
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[Click on the plus sign next to each segment description below to read a full summary of each interview.]
Dru Johnson on how human life in the world is always thoroughly ritualized
“Every good endeavor to understand the world contains a lot of ritual in it — and rituals where you don’t necessarily understand what you’re doing, or why you are doing them at first. . . . The idea that you should be able to understand it from the outset, before you set foot into any activity, is kind of absurd in all of life. So I don’t know why we think it would be any different if God is enjoining us through our bodies into his world, to see it properly.”
Biblical scholar Dru Johnson highlights the unique way the Scriptures link ritual with epistemology; what we know is inextricable from what we do. Human life is inescapably ritualistic, he argues, even if rituals are spurned as inauthentic or superficial. Approaching ritual studies from a Hebrew Bible perspective, Johnson views ritual as the umbrella concept for liturgy and sacrament. In his experience, the ritual nature of daily life garners resistance from Christians who want the sacraments to be almost bizarrely special. But discerning the ritual nature of all life helps us to discern the sacramentality of all life — guided by the sacredness of a particular meal and bath. Like poetry and story, the sacraments are irreducible; they cannot be boiled down to propositional statements. We are to “theologize through performance” because as Johnson explains, “The body is not ‘second-tier’ in how we understand the world.”
Steven L. Porter on the late Dallas Willard and morality and the abandonment of rationality
“To tolerate someone else’s opinion and to respect their opinion actually needs to be grounded in knowledge, in moral knowledge, because . . . [toleration] is a form of respect; it’s to give the other person the dignity to hold the view that they hold, and to be as sympathetic and understanding as we possibly can as to the reasons they hold that. So knowledge actually engenders a kind of humility, a kind of open-mindedness, an actual respect and ability to listen to the other side without immediately thinking of how I’m going to respond without even understanding their arguments.”
—Steven L. Porter
Steven L. Porter discusses The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, an unfinished manuscript (which he helped to complete) by the late philosopher Dallas Willard. The book traces how modern culture lost the assumption that ethical claims are matters of knowledge, which can be right or wrong. Without a basis in rationality, morality is confined to private opinion, pulled along by rhetoric and tribalism. While Willard held that this disappearance primarily resulted from sociological factors, nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophers did not help matters, as they failed to provide an adequate foundation to ground ethical theory. As Porter explains, Willard grounds moral knowledge conclusively in love — an embrace of the other. Ultimately, toleration and humility grow out of recovering moral knowledge, making space for respect and complexity in the mutual pursuit of what is right.
Reinhard Hütter on Thomas Aquinas and the grounding of ethics in the ultimate end
“In Thomas Aquinas, eschatology runs all the way through. . . . The eschaton describes the final end of humans with God. And the final end is, in a certain way, already thematized right at the beginning [of the Summa Theologiae]. . . . If Christian theology is not all the way shot through by eschatology, it’s not Christian theology. It’s something else. Christian theology is all the way eschatological . . . because it’s always a connection — in the encounter with Christ, it’s a connection, not only with God . . . but also an encounter with that end to which God has called humans.”
Theologian Reinhard Hütter argues that Christian theology must be oriented toward the beatific vision — eschatalogical “all the way through.” While many modern Christians anticipate an Edenic paradise as the ultimate telos, this parts from the Church’s tradition, which recognized that Adam and Eve were made for something beyond Paradise: for union with God Himself. Hütter sets forth Thomas Aquinas’s theology as a corrective to modern underreaching eschatology. From the beginning of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas weaved in eschatology. He taught that each soul is directly created by God ex nihilo and that, therefore, the end of each soul is union with God. Despite the anti-human agendas of modernity, Hütter follows Aquinas and encourages that the transcendent will always break through, because the human soul is ordered to God and created for union with Him.
Matthew Levering on the apologetic project of Hans Urs von Balthasar
“Balthasar believes that the credibility of Christianity ultimately rests on love. He has a book called Love Alone is Credible because Christ alone reveals the form of divine love. And so the ultimate apologetic for the truth of Christianity is love. . . . And Nietzsche is a factor because Nietzsche cuts through this rationalism of the day and insists upon the role of the will. Now Balthasar does not accept the will to power, but he argues repeatedly that truth — when you uncover truth, when you get to the bottom of it — you see that truth is the will to love, the divine will to love.”
Theologian Matthew Levering discusses how Hans Urs von Balthasar engaged with the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche in order to spread the Christian faith among intellectuals. Balthasar believed that Catholic Neo-scholastics had an overly negative response to Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, shunning them as a "triad of heretics." Instead, Balthasar took these philosophers seriously, with a view towards apologetics. Responding to Nietzsche, for example, Balthasar rejected the overly propositional Christianity of Neo-scholasticism, arguing that truth does involve the will, as Nietzsche insisted, but not the will to power — rather the will to love. He held that self-surrender in love is the ground of all knowing, all beauty. For Hans Urs von Balthasar, as Levering explains, love is what makes Christianity credible.
David Lyle Jeffrey on the influence of Holy Scripture on the work of English-speaking poets
“John Donne is keenly aware that when God speaks most authoritatively concerning his people, from the prophets on, through to the end of the Scriptures, and Jesus as well — when he teaches something that’s authoritative, that is absolutely necessary for the disciples to know, he resorts to a form of poetry. When Donne calls the Lord a ‘metaphorical God,’ what he means is that God, when he reaches out to us because he desires that we understand Him, recognizes the need for poetry both to communicate-- but it also becomes the stamp of Him speaking.”
—David Lyle Jeffrey
English professor David Lyle Jeffrey emphasizes the effect of “magnificent fruitfulness” that Scripture had upon the writings of English poets. Reason is not the only conduit of reality, Jeffrey observes, which is why God speaks so frequently through poetry in the Scriptures (and why John Donne can call him a “metaphorical God”). Beginning with medieval poetry, Jeffrey describes the surprising way Italian dramatic sermons, encouraged by St. Francis of Assisi, made the Gospel accessible to the imagination and later influenced English poets and Biblical translators. These dramatic sermons led to Gospel paraphrases which laid a foundation for translating Scripture into the vernacular, culminating in the incomparable King James Version. Accentuating the aural and oral nature of the English Scriptures, Jeffrey makes the case that beautiful poetic language is not only self-revelatory, but is also a stamp of authoritative divine revelation.
Christopher Phillips on the influence of hymns and hymnals in shaping Christian experience
“One of the things that I really found really exciting about this project was realizing how many things, not just people did with hymns, but how many things hymns enabled people to do and empowered them to do. To think that a creative mind as powerful as William Cowper, who would write everything from very witty rewrites of Horace and Pindar to scathing attacks on the evils of slavery to one of the most incisive descriptions of what depression fells like that a poet’s ever written. . . . He gets to it through what had been written off as this very conventional means.”
English Professor Christopher N. Phillips discusses hymnals as physical artifacts and how these “lived-with books” have formed devotion at church, school, and home. While teaching through Susan Warner’s nineteenth-century novel The Wide, Wide World, Philips noticed how hymnbooks kept appearing in the text. This led him to focus on the “subplot of the hymnbook” within the novel, and how it “traces a growth of the self.” Making application beyond the novel, Phillips highlights how physical things like hymnbooks are deeply formative, in fellowship with practices and rituals. Philips also explores how the poetic form of hymns — sometimes disparaged as conventional — actually “enabled and empowered” some poets (such as Cowper, Frost, and Dickinson) toward original creative expression.