Guests on Volume 121
• DANIEL GABELMAN on how George MacDonald’s celebration of the “childlike” promotes levity and a joyful sense of play, rooted in filial trust of the Father
• CURTIS WHITE on the troubling enthusiasm for accounts of the human person that reduce us to mere meat and wetware
• MICHAEL HANBY on why there is no “neutral” science, how all accounts of what science does and why contain metaphysical and theological assumptions
• ALAN JACOBS on why the Book of Common Prayer has lived such a long and influential life
• JAMES K. A. SMITH on how some movements in modern philosophy provide resources for recovering an appreciation for the role of the body in knowing the world
• BRUCE HERMAN and WALTER HANSEN on Herman’s paintings and how conversing about works of art enables us to grow in understanding of the non-verbal meaning they convey
“What faith can and should do in its best forms and in its best ways is to allow us to be children again in some sense. [It can and should] allow us to be playful and to be free of the cares and the anxieties that most frequently crush in upon us and bear us down.”
— Daniel Gabelman
In Divine Carelessness and Fairytale Levity, Daniel Gabelman attempts to correct the notion that George MacDonald prizes seriousness and sobriety. In fact, he, with contemporaries like Lewis Carroll, frequently poked fun at the seriousness of Victorian culture. What separated him from his playful contemporaries, however, was that his notion of levity was rooted in Christ. He viewed Christ's first miracle--turning the water into wine--as an expression of this levity. He believed that we should strive for a certain childlikeness in our lives. Promoting levity, however, can easily seem misguided. Indeed, MacDonald had a very specific conception of proper levity: it must exist on a backdrop of treating other human beings with a certain seriousness. For this reason faith is a necessary condition for levity. Through it we can respect others as persons yet retain levity in our freedom from the anxieties of the world. MacDonald, as Gabelman notes, struggled with the seeming rigidity of Christianity early in his life. While he loved and enjoyed nature, it seemed that Christianity would condemn his passion. Growing up in Presbyterian Scotland, the Christianity he saw did not appeal to him. In interacting with the Bible, however, he discovered that all did not have to be so serious. We as Christians would do well to emulate children in their levity and playfulness.
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“The thing that is very disturbing to me is the sort of joyfulness with which a certain American or Western audience takes up the idea that we're just, in Daniel Dennett’s words, moist robots.”
— Curtis White
In The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, Curtis White questions the widespread and seemingly mindless acceptance of reductionism. As he explicitly states in this interview, he is not targeting science as a whole, but rather scientism, which he describes as science as ideology. Not only do many passively accept the scientist account, he argues, but they do so with rejoicing. In addition to questioning this reaction to the reductionist story, he also questions the reductionist story itself. In contemporary science, we are studying things so small that they are not subject to empirical tests. In their stead, the modern scientific accounts rely on mathematical models. As Newtonian physics has shown, however, mathematical models are idealized; they can be extremely helpful, but they do not accurately reflect reality. White believes the demise of the romanticist scientist has precipitated this acceptance of scientism. We need to view science in light of the larger picture, not as the larger picture.
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“If the world really is Creation, then that has to matter: that has to make a difference to what the world is, that has to make a difference to our ability to adequately describe and understand it.”
— Michael Hanby
Theologian Michael Hanby questions the significance of the distinction between science and scientism. People often believe that we can strip away the metaphysical assumptions and totalizing force of scientism and reveal a neutral science. Hanby thinks otherwise. Any science unavoidably involves certain assumptions. Since this is the case, science can never be neutral. A Christian account of science must consider the ongoing relation of God to his Creation. This relation has ramifications not only for the Creation itself, but also for every moment of existence. The distinction between science and scientism, then, serves to conceal the fundamental problems with modern science itself. For these reasons, the doctrine of Creation is fundamentally a doctrine of God. In a certain sense, Hanby argues, every moment is Creation. It is just as impressive that we continue to exist now as it is that we came into existence in the first place. If we subscribe to the Christian account, then, we must incorporate theology into the foundation of our science. For this reason, Creation answers different questions than science thinks.
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“So for [Thomas Cranmer] the language is not about how it looks on the page, but what it’s going to sound like when a priest says it to people, and what it’s going to sound like when the people say their parts back to the priest. How is it going to fill this room?”
— Alan Jacobs
Literary critic Alan Jacobs details the creation and reception of the Book of Common Prayer. Highlighting its composition, he discusses the character of its primary author, Thomas Cranmer, in great depth. In doing so, he hopes to illustrate the impossibility of extricating the literary aspects of the book from its liturgical and other features. Cranmer, in composing the book, understood its proper use, namely to be read aloud in church services. For this reason, he wrote it with rhythmic considerations firmly in mind. He hoped that the construction of the prayers would keep congregations in unison as they recited them. Motivated by these considerations, he also frequently utilized Hebrew poetic styles like alliteration and repetition. Cranmer's literary and theological skills, Jacobs argues, cannot be found in today's era of extreme academic specialization. Today, we would have to assemble an expert theologian, an expert writer, and other experts, whereas Cranmer was able to play all of those roles. While many, including John Milton, opposed this liturgical conception of prayer, Jacobs argues that even extemporaneous prayer quickly becomes liturgical as those who pray rely on structures they have already used or heard. The Book of Common Prayer was and is an invaluable tool for the Christian.
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James K. A. Smith
“We’re still making sense of the world, but we’re not processing it propositionally or merely intellectually. There’s a kind of know-how that’s carried in our fingers and our hands and our bones that makes sense of the world in that way.”
— James K. A. Smith
In Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, James K. A. Smith advocates for a return to some pre-modern conceptualizations of the human body. In contrast to the popular notion of the human as rational and analytic, Smith stresses that other features of the human body—like habit and "feel"—are also important. In morality, we are not rational agents who choose principles, but rather we have a pre-rational attraction to a certain conception of the good life. This process incorporates the whole person, not just the rational part. Contemporary philosophy of action offers evidence for these claims. As corroborated by contemporary cognitive science, most actions are not caused by rational choice. Rather, they occur through habituated processes of various kinds. Many in the pre-modern tradition, such as Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, noticed this habituation. Applying these observations to morality, we should view it as a kind of disposition toward the good; we should try to create good habits which incline us toward the good. Thus even morality incorporates the whole person, not just the rational or analytic part. For God will raise us as whole persons, body and soul, in the resurrection.
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Bruce Herman and Walter Hansen
“This split between propositional and personal in fact isn't life. We communicate our inner being by words but meaning is far beyond that. Meaning precedes that and follows that. Meaning is very much embodied. Our body experiences meaning before the mind verbalizes that meaning.”
— Walter Hansen
In Through Your Eyes: Dialogues on the Paintings of Bruce Herman, theologian Walter Hansen and painter Bruce Herman question contemporary conceptions of meaning that confine it to the verbal or consider visual and verbal meaning to be completely exclusive. As we view art, we cannot simply be passive recipients of it. As settings change and we change, we will view artworks differently and gain new insights from them. We cannot translate this meaning fully into verbal meaning; it goes beyond that. Indeed, the visual and the linguistic intersect, or as Herman puts it, "dance." When viewing a portrait or any work with a human likeness, we engage with this face in a certain way. Putting a human likeness into a work, Herman says, creates a target: the viewer will immediately focus on it, sometimes at the expense of other features of the work. Meaning, in this sense, is embodied. We have a certain hunger for the human visage and we derive meaning from it. To reduce this experience to the purely verbal would be to needlessly impoverish our conception of meaning.