Tag Archives: books

Theonomy

I recently finished reading a book, “No Other Standard: Theonomy and its Critics” and have been thinking about it ever since. Theonomy is the belief, among some Christian theologians, that Moaic law, indeed all the laws in the Bible, should be followed to the letter. There is no room for interpretation or for believing that certain laws are outdated and can no longer be followed in a modern society. There are think tanks, seminaries, churches, and many individuals committed to this idea. One of the best known organizations is the Chalcedon Foundation.

This group is focused on “rebuilding the theological foundations of Christian civilization.” This foundation believes that humanism and secularism have ruined the world and if only the whole world would accept what they believe, then we would have a great civilization.

When I first started reading the book, I was looking for some logical inconsistency, some reason for why theonomy didn’t make sense, some way to demolish the arguments. I couldn’t. Every question I had, every objection I could make was answered.

Does this mean I was converted to the theonomic worldview? No. The reason is simple. You have to accept a few basic premises. Once you accept those premises, then I think you must accept theonomy. The premises are as follows:

  1. The Bible is the inerrant word of God.
  2. Human reason can be used to interpret and understand God’s word, but not to question it.
  3. The Old Testament laws must be followed, unless they are specifically rescinded in the New Testament.

If you accept these premises, then you must accept the conclusion. I do not accept the premises, therefore I cannot accept the premise.

  1. While the Bible may be divinely inspired, this is the most that I am willing to grant. The Bible is a flawed document, written by men and women who were trying to express their stories and their ideas as best they could. But, I have trouble believing that the Bible is absolutely without fault and is the direct word from God.
  2. Human reason, whether it’s a gift from God or a byproduct of evolution, is a wonderful tool, flawed and limited, but always capable of pushing the limits further and further. We should use our reasons to fully understand and even question our faith and the faith of others. We cannot simply accept that a divine being has provided us all the answers, but must investigate it for ourselves.
  3. This only makes sense in the context of premise 1. Otherwise, if you look at the Old Testament in a historical context, some of the laws make sense for that time period but simply do not apply to our modern times. I simply cannot abide by the idea that homosexuals should be killed, among other laws.

I may be wrong and the Bible may be the inerrant word of God, in which case I would have to accept theonomy. But, I don’t think I am.

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How to Argue

I’m currently reading a slim book, “A Rulebook for Arguments” by Anthony Weston and have found the advice in it to be fascinating and uniquely suited to this election season.

Some people love to argue, even if they don’t know how. Other people hate to argue, no matter what. Then there’s others who genuinely want to know the truth and engaging in arguments with people is the way to go about it. I’d like to think I’m on of these people, but I know my own prejudices get in my way sometimes. It’s human nature to want to be right and to feel defensive whenever someone approaches you with a different opinion.

But arguments are not necessarily bad and do not have to be painful. One piece of advice from the book is to “consider counterfactuals”. Many of us argue by using examples and generalizations. We think that when we’ve found a few examples that prove our point, we must be right, but we refuse to consider any examples that oppose our conclusions. Your argument will be stronger if you consider all the ways in which your argument may be wrong and can find an alternative explanation for those examples that contradict your own. Or, you may even (gasp!) change your mind!

Human knowledge and reasoning is limited, but you can get closer to truth and be more sure of your beliefs by arguing effectively.

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The Essential Plotinus

Plotinus was a neo-Platonic philosopher during the Roman Empire (born 204/5 CE). His works are extremely important in developing the history of Platonic philosophy. Of course, Plato inspired Plotinus and inspired works by Christianity, and you can see Plato very clearly in Plotinus and Christianity.

For instance, the idea of a perfect unified God looks remarkably like the Plotinus’ concept of the One. A perfect being that is beyond being in some ways, a being greater than that which can be imagined. Sound familiar? The Christian God is usually portrayed as absolutely unified, perfect, transcendent, so far beyond and above any human endeavor that it is impossible to even consider with our mere human brains.

Plotinus’ writings were rather obtuse. I’m not sure if he was being intentionally difficult or if he was trying to really go further than Plato in getting deeper into what these transcendent forms can be. Plato is relatively easy to read (at least most of his dialogues) while Plotinus is not. However, if Plotinus is trying to add something to Plato, I can understand why his writing is difficult to understand because how can you add to what Plato said? It has often been said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

One thing that struck me with Plotinus and connects with Plato and with Stoicism is the idea that the purpose of being human is simply to contemplate, to think, to use your reason. These philosophers believe that what sets us apart from animals is that we have reason and can go beyond our instinct. This is what truly sets us apart and so what makes us a better human being is to live a life of reason and rationality.

While many people may agree with this if it is clarified, I am not sure that people consciously think about it (ironically). It is difficult to imagine a person who simply does not think throughout their day, but how many people do you know who seem to merely go through life by following their urges. I’m hungry, so I’ll eat. I’m thirsty so I’ll drink, etc. After you get home from work, you just want to “veg out” so you simply watch TV or play on social media. How often do we truly exercise our mind and try to expand our horizons?

Perhaps a way to start would be to read some Plotinus.

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The Consolations of Philosophy

Alain de Botton, in the spirit of Boethius, wrote this book to show us how six different philosophers offer us some advice for our daily life. Ranging from a consolation for not having any money, to a broken heart, de Botton explicates some major philosophers main streams of thought and how they can offer us relevant advice.

Most people think that philosophy is for stuffy old men and women to sit around and debate ideas that don’t matter or have any effect on our lives. While there is a great deal of modern philosophy that does not necessarily seem to be relevant to how you live your life, the best philosophy is something that should be embraced and used to run your daily life. A philosophy of life can be similar to a religion, without all the dogma. Philosophy can help provide meaning to your life, can help you determine how you should live every day, can help you make decisions.

Philosophy can be extremely pragmatic. Examine any number of works on Stoicism and you can see this for yourself. Philosophy can also seem extremely useless. But, without the theories behind pragmatic philosophy, pragmatism can only get you so far. Anyway, back to my main point.

de Botton has written a great book. He has shown how philosophy can help real people with their problems. And, he may have helped to spark interest in philosophers that some people may overlook. I want to take a closer look at Nietzsche after reading de Botton’s book, and you might too.

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“Beyond the University” by Michael S. Roth

I took a small 2 day detour from Kant to read this book. It was enlightening and an engaging read, even if I was ultimately a little disappointed. We’ll get to my disappointment in a minute.

Roth argues that the liberal arts and a liberal education should be designed with the intention to liberate people from their ignorance. He argues that there is a long tradition in America of pursuing a liberal education with the intention of becoming a better human being, and that there has always been critics of a liberal education, arguing that the university was merely a place for rich people to learn how to walk into a room more genteelly. All this seems true to me.

An education has long been considered the route to success, both materially and more generally a feeling of satisfaction with your life. One meaning of the word “leisure”, now taken to mean time off from work and study (Vegas!), meant time to study in the Greek world. People with leisure were free to study what they wished. For the ancient Greeks, this most often meant philosophy, but philosophy could cover almost everything. Politics, an early form of science, religion, etc. were all contained under the umbrella of philosophy.

Kant famously answered the question of “What is Enlightenment?” thusly: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” If we assume that an education is designed to lead us to enlightenment (taken in the Kantian sense) then it seems that the liberal arts can do this effectively, even if they sometimes fail. I still maintain that all disciplines have the ability to do this, to lead us to question ourselves and authority, whether that authority is familial, religious, political, etc. When we begin to think about our assumptions, biases, prejudices, etc. and we do not take someone else’s answer as truth, we can be considered enlightened.

Even if you are not at a university, not teaching students, just trying to get by in the world, there is room for you to be enlightened, to question yourself and those around you, to wonder why our world is the way it is, and if it has to stay that way. Most of us will never be in the privileged position of tenured faculty at a university. We will not be afforded the leisure to sit in an office and think big thoughts and then write a book or a paper. But, this does not mean that we cannot be enlightened.

Now, for my disappointment. What disappoints me is that this book will further convince people who already believe that the liberal arts are a good thing and should be kept around. If I didn’t already agree with Roth’s argument, I doubt I would have been convinced by it. Too often the argument for the liberal arts and the humanities tries to appeal to human nature, to some time “back in the day” when things were better and the farmer would read Shakespeare while plowing. I don’t think that if you believe (like Scott Walker and others) that the liberal arts have nothing of value to add (and they may be right if we consider pure economic value) then reading this book will only make you think that Roth is a privileged university president of a privileged liberal arts school that doesn’t know how “real America” works.

If you’re looking for a quick read and you already have some empathy towards the liberal arts, then read this book, by all means. It has some nice historical context on the rise of universities in America, some discussion about how the arguments we’re having today about the cost and practicality of the university are nothing new, and some good discussion of how our founders felt about college (always a popular read). But, if you’re looking to be convinced of the value of the liberal arts, you will probably be disappointed.

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“Christian Materiality” by Caroline Walker Bynum

This monograph is a return, of sorts, for me to my first passion in history, that of iconoclasm and the problem of religious images. Bynum does a remarkable job of commenting on and describing some of the finer points of the medieval Christian practice of icon-worship and the unique way in which Christianity dealt with material objects.

Everything we see has been created by God and yet the flesh and worldly objects are evil and used by the devil. So goes the thinking of many Christians, past and present. Matter and material objects are a paradox and Bynum explicitly talks about this paradox throughout the book. How are Christians to reconcile this? Bynum argues that it is largely a question that goes unanswered, or at the very least that context matters more than anything else. When a consecrated host bleeds, it could be showing that it is alive and well, therefore eternal (aka good) or it could be surviving an attack by a Jew (also showing its eternality, but for a bad reason, not necessarily for a good one).

The idea of material objects being alive, having some sort of power may seem strange to us today, because we generally treat objects with disdain, to be used today and thrown away tomorrow. But, there are some objects, mainly religious objects that people view with some sort of reverence. Even if one does not believe that the object will begin spontaneously bleeding or in some other way show its life, many do treat objects as though they were more than mere matter.

And yet, this is not quite what Bynum has in mind when she describes Christian veneration of objects. It is not merely that the image or object represents or symbolizes something, but that the object actually becomes that which it represents. One can see that this can be very problematic for theologians. To claim that a statue of Mary is Mary?!

I have argued that iconoclasm was a response to the objects as objects of power. That icons were destroyed and defaced in a very systematic way in response to a feeling that the object had some sort of power that had to be nullified. There are examples of iconcolasts taking an object out of the church to destroy it elsewhere, only to bring the object back and place it unharmed back in the church. Why would they have done this? Perhaps they felt that the object itself had some sort of power that would harm the iconoclasts or would prevent the object from being harmed in the first place? There’s not as much documentary evidence as we would hope, but it seems clear that there was more than mass violence and hysteria when it came to Protestant iconoclasm. I think Bynum’s work provides some evidence for this, even though her work does not deal with the issue in any great detail.

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“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca

I had a remarkably productive weekend of reading and finished Seneca and an article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel titled “Death”. To the casual observer, it may appear that these two works would have nothing common, however, they are both concerned with the brief span of our lives, and while Nagel is not overly concerned in this article to discuss how we should live, if we can accept that death is the end of our life, that entices us to ask, “How should we live?”.

This is a question that philosophy and religion has spent a great deal of time an energy trying to answer. I think philosophy has offered a better solution to date. Most religions offer the promise of an afterlife as an enticement to good living in the present while we are here on earth. It’s similar to the parental trick of using Santa Claus around Christmas time. “Act well and you will be rewarded!” the thinking goes. Philosophy, especially ancient Greek philosophy, and even more specifically, Stoicism, offers no afterlife (although it does not expressly forbid thinking about an afterlife) but focuses on the here and now, life before death, instead of life after death. So, we should act virtuously now because we will have a better life. If acting virtuously also leads to a better afterlife, then all the better!

Seneca is a remarkably cogent writer and I often felt that he was writing just yesterday, instead of 2000 years ago. For those who don’t know, Seneca was writing right around the time that a little Jewish rebellion led by a fellow named Jesus was happening. He details the way people lived in debauchery and I swear he knew exactly what people today would do! Drinking, entertainment, prostitutes, spending vast sums of money on the most ornate houses and chariots (or cars); how is this much different from today? I think what Seneca shows us, in part, is that humans have not changed much in 2000 years. We may like to think that we have evolved and we are much better than the ancient Romans, but really we have not changed that much.

Stoicism offers a life of simplicity, a life of joy, and a life of stress-free (or at least less stressful) living. I have recently begun to attempt to practice some pieces of Stoic philosophy, namely attempting to control negative emotions, not allowing jealousy or anger to take a foothold, focusing on living simply and not extravagantly, desiring the things I already have instead of trying to gain more things, and I have begun thinking about loss more.

Thinking about loss is an important Stoic process. Thinking about losing your cherished possessions, about losing your loved ones, about losing your own life is an important part of becoming a better person. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the person who keeps the thought that everything they love can be taken away at any time is more likely to enjoy what they have and focus on what’s really important. I think about all the times I, or people around me, get upset at the smallest things at work, and I realize that if I could keep in mind that which truly matters, then I wouldn’t allow these things to bother me! They simply don’t matter in the larger context of my life. It is better for me to spend time with my family or doing the things I truly enjoy, than fuming about what someone said in a meeting earlier that day. Stoicism helps us keep our eye on what’s important.

In general, I highly recommend Seneca’s works both as literature, and as reading that may well change your life.

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