Volume 97 (CD Edition)
Guests on Volume 97: Mark Noll, on how Christian higher education is aided by a commitment to something like Christendom, a commitment to the assumption that the Gospel has consequences for all of life and all of social experience; Stanley Fish, on how university professors should refrain from bringing their own political, philosophical, and religious commitments into the classroom; James Peters, on how Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Pascal, and many others had an understanding of the nature and purpose of reason quite different from the common modern understanding; Scott Moore, on cultivating an understanding of politics that goes beyond mere statecraft, and on the limits of the notion of rights; and Makoto Fujimura, on how his work as a painter is enriched by writing, why artists need to cultivate an attentiveness to many things, and how visual language expresses experience.
“At its best, the Christendom ideal argued, or took for granted, that everything held together in Christ.”
Mark Noll shares his thoughts concerning the future of Christian education. As a historian, Noll sees how Christian education flourished in times of Christendom; he is careful to note he is not suggesting a return to the entirety of the political forms and institutions of that era would be desirable, but merely pointing out that the education of Christians — among other significant cultural institutions and achievements, including that of philosophy and music — flourished greatly during that time in part due to the support of the Christendom civilization. Specifically, Noll believes that those Christian groups and populations that have taken seriously the public implications of the gospel for all of creation and all of life and the continuity of the Church in history have been the populations that have best succeeded in developing social and educational institutions that strengthen the Church. Noll suggests there are signs that evangelicals, who have tended to be suspicious of institutions and relatively uninterested in history, are moving toward a recognition that pursuit of faithfulness requires attentiveness to the history from which we come and the institutions that form us.
“The next step is the one that I resist, and that says, ‘Therefore, you’re now a better person than the person who did not undergo that literary training. That’s the step that I don’t want to take, and that’s the humanist step.’”
Stanley Fish talks about the boundaries of the classroom. He argues that the academic vocation is rightly limited to conveying truths concerning subject material, rather than including particular implications for social action or individual morality. He insists those types of implications or instrumental uses of academic knowledge are beyond the expertise and responsibility of academics, though they should certainly be taken up by institutions outside the university. Fish points out that this kind of “academicizing” is consistent with liberalism, which separates public behavior and communications from private religious beliefs for the sake of liberal political order.
“The first principles of ethical reason aren’t these self-evident, immediately known, knowable to any rational being, they’re not those sorts of foundations. You have to become a person who can esteem and acknowledge those first principles, and that requires a moral community.”
James Peters discusses historical understandings of reason and rationality and how they differ from the modern notion of rationality which is imbued with autonomy and impersonal, universal objectivity. Such a modern notion was alien to Plato and Aristotle both, who understood rationality as inextricably tied to the pursuit of the good through the imagination, first and necessarily formed through participation in a moral community. One is not simply born rational, nor does one develop rationality as an autonomous individual such that all individuals, universally, are endowed with rationality merely by virtue of their consciousness. On the contrary, rationality is formed in the context of moral communities that may differ across space and time. Reason, then, is not a-historical and abstract, but situated in history and community.
“It shouldn’t surprise us that in a world in which all preferences are designs towards some sort of personal fulfillment, that marriage is a sort of contract for security and prosperity, that all of a sudden we would have people wanting to say that this shouldn’t be denied to homosexuals.”
Scott Moore talks about “extraordinary” times in history where particular fields of inquiry are shaken at the foundations. He argues that contemporary politics is at that point for American Christians. Increasingly, Christians are questioning the extent to which their American identity is at odds with their Christian identity. According to Moore, the cracks have always been there but have been papered over because the issues have seemed to be marginal. Over 300 years, those cracks have grown. Moore argues that what Christians need to do is to recover a deeper and broader conception of politics that is not restricted to modern statecraft and the enforcement of rights, which tends to lead to dead ends because it ignores other more fundamental considerations appropriate to the nature of the particular communities and situations involved. Such a recovery involves an awareness and consideration of myriad commitments in life in the context of the redemptive language and history of the Church.
“There’s a sense in which language and poetry draw us out into the intuitive domains that we’re not really aware of until we write or paint.”
Artist Makoto Fujimura reflects on the role of writing in his life as a painter. Fujimura observes that artists often write because they’re contemplative. The motivations and mental processes involved in creating art are conducive to writing as well, though the visual arts are distinct languages. The kind of language a particular type of painting constitutes depends on the nature of the painting, the materials and methods and media used. The way painting communicates, then, is particular to its form and so makes possible the expression of thoughts and desires and joys that are real though they have no precise verbal articulation.