George Marsden on Point of View

71weanT3+QL._SL1500_I’ve been thinking a good deal about what George Marsden wrote—in a book I have thoroughly enjoyed (two chapters to go and I’m really eager to see what he says in the final one):

Let me say a word about point of view. One of the conventions of the mid-twentieth century was that authors and teachers normally did not identify their points of view but spoke as though they were neutral observers speaking on the basis of universal reason. Such practices reflected standards that went back to the eighteenth-century enlightenment, in which one was to hold forth on most topics on the basis of objective standards rather than from the point of view of one’s particular faith….

In recent decades there has been greater recognition that, although there are common standards for rational discourse, arguments, and evidence, there is no one standard, underlying set of assumptions, including beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality and values, that all rational educated people can somehow be presumed to share. So, although many still follow the old convention of posing as though one were objective, it has become more acceptable these days to help out the reader or listener by identifying one’s fundamental viewpoint from the outset.

My own point of view has been shaped most basically by my commitments as an Augustinian Christian. Those commitments involve a recognition that people differ in their fundamental loves and first principles, and that these loves and first principles act as lenses through which they see everything else. At the same time, all humans, as fellow creatures of God, share many beliefs in common and can communicate through common standards of rational discourse. Furthermore , even though I am an Augustinian Christian, I am also shaped in part by many other beliefs and commitments that have been common in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. One of my goals in life has been to understand such characteristic American beliefs and to critically and constructively relate them to my religious beliefs. This book is an instance of that project. Much of it is about understanding a fascinating moment of the American experience, but that account leads to critical analysis and reflection on the question of the place that religion should have in that culture.

I hope that readers who hold other points of view, whether secular or religious, can nonetheless learn from what I present here. Although I write from a specific point of view, I do not differ from other writers or public intellectuals in that respect; I differ only in that I identify my viewpoint more explicitly than some of these other writers do.

George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

I’m not sure I’d want to speak of “common standards of rational discourse” shared by believers and unbelievers. As Steven D. Smith has shown, secularism provides a standard that public discourse cannot live up to, a baseline standard that excludes Marsden’s point of view—in what sense are the two sharing common standards?

By God’s common grace, I think they do, but only because it’s impossible to completely ignore the created order we all have to live in. There’s no denying that Christians and non-Christians do communicate, do often understand one another. One of the most eloquent statements of the gospel I’ve ever read came from an openly unbelieving academic. He understands the message of the gospel; he just doesn’t receive it.

What really grabbed me about Marsden’s comments was his life project of intellectual self-examination. Because of the Spirit, because of the Bible, because of the created order providing general revelation, I believe that truly true knowledge is possible in this world. So is confidence. Despite all the legitimate postmodern insights into the social construction of reality, despite my belief in not just my finitude but my fallenness, I can know truth.

Review: What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions

What's Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life's Big QuestionsWhat’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions by James N. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a unique book, a choose-your-own-adventure book—yes, just like the ones you read when you were a kid, but written as non-fiction on an excessively serious topic: worldview. The author asks binary questions on major issues—is there a God? Yes or no?—and asks you to follow your train of tihnking to dead ends he creates when he offers a critique of the worldview you most likely fall into.

I like this book for what it is: a novel approach to Christian apologetics that I do believe I could hand to an unbeliever who is thoughtful—but not abundantly so. That is, I’m not sure this is the book for the philosophy major at State U; Anderson didn’t aim it that high. It’s for someone who probably hasn’t thought about his worldview as a worldview, someone who doesn’t realize that his characteristic answers to worldview questions are gelling into something sort of coherent.

The value of the book is its brevity: I read it as fast as any book I’ve ever read. It flowed very naturally and quickly. The detriment of this book is, also, its brevity: dedicated adherents of any given worldview will feel that their viewpoint was dispatched with too few shots fired.

And I’m certain any of those adherents could turn around and level the-problem-of-evil (or evolution, or empirical pluralism) at Christianity and feel they’d successfully bumped off Anderson’s worldview at least as well as he dismissed theirs.

But I think Anderson really does get to the heart of the various worldviews he tackles. Without listing every possible objection to each of them, he narrows in on the really big problems. Like, if skepticism is true, how can anyone know it? And if relativism is true, how can we say so without being guilty of claiming an absolute?

A little afterword answers a few objections to Anderson’s overall method, but he never really does get around to advancing a specifically Christian apologetic. That doesn’t seem to be the purpose of the book. He’ just knocking down other worldviews—graciously, I thought—to prepare for further discussion of the Christian worldview.

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Dr. Bob Jones Sr’s First Use of “All Ground Is Holy Ground”


Bob_Jones,_SrThe sayings of Dr. Bob Jones Sr are legendary around my alma mater. As a frequent victim of chronological snobbery, I was ready to be critical and dismissive of these statements when I first saw them tacked above chalkboards in classrooms. But I was won over by Dr. Bob’s homespun, humble wisdom. I’ve really come to like and even treasure a few of the sayings. I often pray, “Lord, give me strong shoulders to carry a heavy burden.” And I often think, “Pray like it’s all up to God, and work like it’s all up to you.” (I do admit that my theology leads me to add, “And, in the end, admit that it was indeed all up to God.”)

Another of the sayings that I’ve thought of many times goes like this:

There is no difference between the secular and the sacred; all ground is holy ground, every bush a burning bush.

I’m not sure if this is original to him. If it is, it’s quite striking. If not, still striking. I love the very last phrase; it’s so richly allusive and picturesque.

I’m writing at BJU Press right now about this very topic, the secular and the sacred, so I wanted to find out as well as I could what Dr. Bob Jones Sr., founder of my institution, meant when he said these things. For that I needed context. And the J.S. Mack Library Archives came through for me. Below, as best the Archives can tell, is Dr. Bob Sr’s first use of this saying, in a sermon dated Sep 14, 1948—very shortly after the school opened for its first semester in Greenville (after having been in Florida and Tennessee previously). As for the context of the statement, before this excerpt he just says, “We have a great school and people tell me all the time, ‘Don’t change it.'” And after it he just says it takes backbone to stick it out at Bob Jones.

So I’m not sure if the surrounding context really sheds much light on what he meant. He was kind of rambling, as university presidents (his son took over the role in 1950) are privileged to do on occasion.

Without further ado…

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Review: Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian BeliefSystematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief by John M. Frame

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a systematic theology begins with a series of endorsements that are longer than certain other systematics, you know you’ve got either a goldmine or a naked emperor. I didn’t have to even touch the book before I knew I had the former, because Frame is a favorite of mine. He is biblical, above all else (I took it as a compliment when R. Scott Clark complained in his review that Frame is “more ‘biblicist’ than confessionalist”). Frame is self-consciously Reformed while feeling free to prod his tradition when it becomes doctrinaire or semantically pedantic (like his discussion of the use the words author, cause, permit, etc. on pp. 294ff.). It is precisely Frame’s care with words that often endears me to him; in a field in which definition of terms is extremely important and much-discussed, Frame is a rarity: a theologian who maintains a keen sensitivity to the principles of descriptive linguistics. He’s also a great writer, so clear and simple.

Now, I didn’t have to read all 1,000 pages to write a review—did I? Does anyone really expect that? I wish I could deliver, of course. Some day I may. But systematics are meant to be dipped into, not, generally speaking, devoured like a 52-course meal.

So that’s what I did. I read the problem of evil section, and it was classic Frame. Utterly clear and simple, really. Carefully and frequently biblical. And, by the end, triperspectival.

If you, like one reviewer, count yourself among those who just don’t find Frame’s three perspectives helpful—if you find them arbitrary or even confusing—then I still don’t think you’ll mind. You might scratch your head, like I do when I read books full of alliteration or acronyms. But the idiosyncratic (well, Frame’s buddy Poythress uses it, too) terminology of the “normative,” “situational,” and “existential” will not obscure the real substance of the discussions.

I found that substance in other places I dipped, too. His discussion of the means of grace employed his three perspectives (fellowship, word, prayer) helpfully (1047ff.). Those perspectives also illuminated his discussion of the image of God (786ff.). And I could hardly see a page in which he didn’t cite and quote Scripture extensively.

As in the Ten Commandments section in his Doctrine of the Christian Life, Frame appeals regularly to the Westminster Standards. This alone may cause readers in my own segment of Christianity to suspect his biblicism. But everywhere you will see him use those standards as a help (he’s persuaded me fully that they are) and not an authority over Scripture. He’s willing to point to areas of weakness in the confession (866-867).

The things I’ve always disliked about Frame are present: his totally uncharacteristic uncharitableness whenever Westminster West comes up, his unwarranted charitableness toward Norman Shepherd’s “Auburn Avenue” theology (974–975), and I can’t decide how critical to be of his evenhandedness with C. John Collins’ position on the historicity of Adam and Eve (806—Frame himself does not take Collins’ view). Also, his coverage does seem a little odd, making you wonder if this ST was a little rushed or borrowed too heavily from past work—Christology gets 46 pages, for example, compared to 178 for bibliology and 75 for epistemology. As I flipped through the book, on every page I turned to I recognized Framean themes I’ve read in him before; I can’t say how much here is helpfully new. Other reviewers have complained about these things here and there.

But other reviewers have also concluded what I did: these are minor points in a massive, and massively helpful—at least everywhere I looked—systematic. It has a good glossary of Framean terms as well as a good bibliography, and helpful topical and Scripture indices. He also presents all his triads in a helpful chart form.

Frame genuflects toward more structured and lay-friendly systematics like that of Wayne Grudem by including study questions, key terms, memory verses, and a brief bibliography at the end of each chapter. These sections felt a little half-hearted to me, tacked on. Nonetheless, I think Frame’s ST could be as good a read as Grudem for a lay Bible study.

It was not the purpose of this review to engage in detailed discussion of points of disagreement, or even to mention them all (if I were even qualified to do so), but merely to alert you to a valuable resource which I do think belongs on your shelf. Or maybe your desk.

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Fantastic Piece by Douthat

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I’m really coming to enjoy reading Ross Douthat’s columns. I should have subscribed a long time ago. He’s reasonable and measured, and though (and because) he’s Catholic, we have similar worldviews.

This was just a fantastic—but still measured, not over-the-top—put-down of Jerry Coyne’s crusading materialism.

Douthat helped me take a step further toward a thought that’s been forming in my mind—or, as Coyne and other materialists would put it, toward a slightly new arrangement of atoms in my cranium.

Here’s the thought: only persons can be purposeful. Trees have a purpose in all their activity: grow and reproduce. But trees aren’t being purposeful; they aren’t doing any choosing.

If this is true, then a materialistic universe can have no purpose. It can’t have any oughts, only ises. For history, for the globe, for me to have any meaningful purposes, a Person outside history, the globe, and me has to grant those purposes.

Douthat’s big point is that atheistic materialism seems to (pretty fatuously, I’d add) cover over with bluster its failure to provide any purpose for human existence. And without a telos, it’s impossible to come up with any stable morals. Why bother forming any traffic laws if nobody knows what highways are for?

Anyway, quit reading an obscure blog and read something worthwhile.