Tag Archives: reading

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 There is no room for interpretation or for believing that certain laws are outdated and can no longer be followed in a modern society.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 The Old Testament laws must be followed, unless they are specifically rescinded in the New Testament.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 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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“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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Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God

John Calvin is a magnificent theologian from the Protestant Reformation. His most misunderstood theological idea is that of predestination. While predestination was an idea that was not new with Calvin but had been an idea in Christianity since almost the beginning. It was only around the time of the Reformation that people began to doubt this idea and question its validity.

In this work, Calvin clearly lays out the reasons for predestination. He also includes counterarguments, with his refusals embedded within. While many people associate Calvin with predestination, it was not his most important contribution to Christianity. Calvin was most important as displaying and arguing for the absolute sovereignty of God. God cannot be questioned and is the most powerful being. It is difficult for the human mind to fathom absolute perfection, but that is God. There can be no question that God is always in command of the universe.

Predestination is a logical subset of God’s sovereignty. If we truly believe that God is omni-omni (in other words, omni powerful, knowledgeable, etc.) then we must believe in predestination. God must know everything, must be in control of everything, must realize who will be saved and who will be damned. This simply cannot be denied if you accept the logic of Calvin’s argument.

Before everyone thinks that I am a complete sycophant, I do think that Calvin’s thought is eminently logical. But, I am not convinced that God has planned out the entire history of everybody on the planet. I am somewhat unsure of what I feel and think, but it is difficult to let go of control and believe that I may not have influence over where I go after I die (whatever the implication). I suppose that we all have to wrestle with these questions.

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Q

Q, a novel by Luther Blissett (a pseudonym for four authors who co-wrote this work), is a historical novel set in the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The work is rather stunning and fairly accurately portrays the tumultuous time of 16th century Europe.

The novel follows and unnamed Anabaptist radical across Europe as he is mired in the biggest political and religious confrontations of his day. He spends quite a bit of time in Munster, Germany, which is the focus of the Peasant’s War and still has cages which held the bodies of three Anabaptist leaders after the rebellion was crushed. He ends up in Venice, Rome, Brussells, virtually anywhere the Protestant Reformation was.

This is a good introduction to the Protestant Reformation, and combined with some historical fact, could make for a good teaching opportunity for people wanting to learn more about this time period. I think the work does a good job getting at the mentality of the common people during the time. Some were deeply devout and wanted to get close to God, others were just trying to live their life. Along the way, we meet dastardly evil characters, and sympathetic characters. The narrator is a mix of both it seems to me.

 I initially read this work because a professor of mine said it was wonderful and seemed very excited by the fact that there were not any anachronisms in the work. While I was not specifically looking for anachronisms, I must admit that I could not find any either. This should not be the sole purpose of a novel, but it is rather important to avoid in a historical novel.

Overall, this is a work that is rather nice to read on vacation or when you have spare time. It’s not necessary to read, and one should not assume that this will provide all the detail necessary to understand the Protestant Reformation, but it is a start.

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