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 endeavour 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
Stephen 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 possibility 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.”
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.”
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
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.”