Orthodox Scholars Initiative

Thanks to a friend of mine and one of the Consultation Administration Staff of the Orthodox Scholars Initiative, I have been alerted to a quite interesting project being done at Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary.

Check this out upcoming event!

Orthodoxy and the University

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Bock on Ehrman: “One has to wonder when an author admits to providing nothing new in a book what the motive is for writing”

With a tip of my hat to Baptist Bible Seminary’s Dr. Rod Decker, Dallas Theological Seminary’s Dr. Darrell Bock on the latest in UNC Chapel Hill’s Dr. Bart Ehrman’s <verb>-ing Jesus series:

Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted by his own admission says nothing new. It packages what scholars have been saying for two decades. Since he learned the historical critical method in place of the devotional method, he discovered the Bible was full of contradictions and discrepancies, a completely human book with Christianity being a religion that is completely human in its origin and development. That is the core thesis of Bart Ehrman’s new book, who has become a one man marching band to make clear what everyone should know about the origins of the Christian faith. We cannot speak of the divine in any of this, he says, because historians cannot handle that kind of data. This represents a convenient limitation on what he can speak about (even as he makes all kinds of pronouncements about what is taking place and who is responsible).

One has to wonder when an author admits to providing nothing new in a book what the motive is for writing. Informing? Apparently not. Crusading? Perhaps. But to leave the criticism on this point would be to ignore the case Ehrman tries to make. The conservative writers Erhman apparently wishes to challenge (and mostly ignore) have engaged on all the “non-new” points Ehrman makes, even highlighting themselves the “human” side of the Bible’s production. But partly by caricature and partly by setting rules where God cannot be invoked in a historical discussion, Ehrman proceeds. God is not even able to be brought into the possibility of an interpretive spiral, because “miracles are not impossible,” just very much unlikely and a least likely explanation (read a “next to impossible” category). I think what is most bothersome in this book is the way it sets up discussions, pursues a topic for several pages, often noting the point is not as devastating as the impression given (usually with a sentence that qualifies things so the author has cover) and then continues to launch in a direction that implies more than the evidence really gives, leaving a greater impression about what is said than the author claims in the qualification.

This is a great response, and worth the read — that said, I don’t know that I wonder too much about Dr. Ehrman’s motives for writing. He sells a lot of books and he appears on media outlets like The Daily Show and Fresh Air. His motives seem reasonably clear to me.

“the New Humanism”

A wonderful essay by Roger Scruton on the sad state of the New Humanism/Atheism

The family in which I was raised was, in the matter of religion, typical of postwar England. There was no objection to the children receiving Christian instruction at school, and performing there a daily act of worship. There was no objection to chapel and Sunday school—indeed, provided these institutions were gloomy enough, my parents thought, their children could only be improved by them. But the home was a religion-free zone: no grace before meals, no prayers at bedtime, and the Bible wedged firmly on the shelf between the Oxford Dictionary and Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War. Our parents called themselves humanists. They had been raised as Christians, but had lived through the Second World War and lost faith in the God who permitted it. They regarded humanism as a residual option, once faith had dissolved. It was not something to make a song and dance about, still less something to impose on others, but simply the best they could manage in the absence of God.

All around me I encountered humanists of my parents’ kind. I befriended them at school, and was taught by them at Cambridge. And whenever I lost the Christian faith which had first dawned on me in school assemblies I would be a humanist for a spell, and feel comforted that there existed this other and more tangled path to the goal of moral discipline. Looking back on it, I see the humanism of my parents as a kind of rearguard action on behalf of religious values. They, and their contemporaries, believed that man is the source of his own ideals and also the object of them. There is no need for God, they thought, in order to live with a vision of the higher life. All the values that had been appropriated by the Christian churches are available to the humanist too. Faith, hope, and charity can exist as human causes, and without the need for a heavenly focus; humanists can build their lives on the love of neighbor, can exercise the virtues and discipline their appetites so as to be just, prudent, temperate, and courageous, just as the Greeks had taught, long before the edict of the Church had fallen like a shadow across the human spirit. A humanist can be a patriot; he can believe with Jesus that “greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friend.” He is the enemy of false sentiment and lax morals, and all the more vigilant on behalf of morality in that he believes it to be the thing by which humanity is exalted, and the proof that we can be the source of our own ideals.

That noble form of humanism has its roots in the Enlightenment, in Kant’s defense of the moral law, and in the progressivism of well-meaning Victorian sages. And the memory of it leads me to take an interest in something that calls itself “humanism,” and is now beginning to announce itself in Britain. This humanism is self-consciously “new,” like New Labour; it has its own journal, the New Humanist, and its own sages, the most prominent of whom is Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and vice-president of the British Humanist Association. It runs advertising campaigns and letter-writing campaigns and is militant in asserting the truth of its vision and its right to make converts. But the vision is not that of my parents. The new humanism spends little time exalting man as an ideal. It says nothing, or next to nothing, about faith, hope, and charity; is scathing about patriotism; and is dismissive of those rearguard actions in defense of the family, public spirit, and sexual restraint that animated my parents. Instead of idealizing man, the new humanism denigrates God and attacks the belief in God as a human weakness. My parents too thought belief in God to be a weakness. But they were reluctant to deprive other human beings of a moral prop that they seemed to need.

The British Humanist Association is currently running a campaign against religious faith. It has bought advertising space on our city buses, which now patrol the streets declaring that “There probably is no God; so stop worrying and enjoy life.” My parents would have been appalled at such a declaration. From a true premise, they would have said, it derives a false and pernicious conclusion. Had they wished to announce their beliefs—and it was part of their humanism to think that you don’t announce your beliefs but live them—they would have expressed them thus: “There probably is no God; so start worrying, and remember that self-discipline is up to you.” The British Humanist Association sees nothing wrong with the reference to enjoyment; it seems to have no consciousness of what is clearly announced between the lines of the text, namely that there are no ideals higher than pleasure. Its publications imply that there is only one thing that stands between man and his happiness, and that is the belief in God. Take that belief away, and we can run out into the garden of permissions, picking the fruit that we wrongly thought to have been forbidden. The humanists I knew as a young man would have reacted with disgust at this hedonistic message, and at a philosophy that aims to dispense with God without also aiming to replace Him.

BUT THE BUS adverts fit the spirit of modern Britain, and not even the Muslims complain about them. One Christian bus driver has refused to drive his bus, and a few hundred people have written to the Advertising Standards Council, which has rejected their complaint, but that is as far as the protests have gone. When, in the light of this advertising campaign, I look back at the humanist movement that I encountered as an adolescent, one thing above all strikes me: that the old humanism was not about deconstructing God; it was about constructing man. It was a positive movement, devoted to seeking things worthy of emulation and sacrifice, even if there is no God to promote them. Its principal fear was that, deprived of religious belief, people would let go of their ideals. Hence it urgently sought a new basis for moral restraint in the idea of human dignity.

The old humanism was not a pleasure-seeking, still less a pleasure-loving philosophy. It took its inspiration from Enlightenment philosophers, from Milton, Blake, and D. H. Lawrence, and from the legacy of Western art. The humanist who most influenced me at Cambridge believed that in no works had humanity been more blessed by true ideals than in the St. Matthew Passion of Bach and the Tristan und Isolde of Wagner, the one a work of Christian devotion, the other a work that makes no mention of God or gods, but simply dwells on the exalted nature of erotic love when tied to mutual sacrifice. Although I was skeptical toward that kind of humanism, I never doubted its nobility of purpose. It was devoted to exalting the human person above the human animal, and moral discipline above random appetite. It saw art, music, and literature not simply as pleasures, but as sources of spiritual strength. And it took the same view of religion. Humanists of the old school were not believers. The ability to question, to doubt, to live in perpetual uncertainty, they thought, is one of the noble endowments of the human intellect. But they respected religion and studied it for the moral and spiritual truths that could outlive the God who once promoted them.

Observing the new humanism from my old perspective I am struck not only by its lack of positive belief, but also by its need to compensate for this lack by antagonism toward an imagined enemy. I say “imagined,” since it is obvious that religion is a declining force in Britain. There is no need to consult the pronouncements of the Archbishop of Canterbury: the response to the bus campaign abundantly proves the point. But a weak enemy is precisely what these negative philosophies require. Like so many modern ideologies, the new humanism seeks to define itself through what it is against rather than what it is for. It is for nothing, or at any rate for nothing in particular. Ever since the Enlightenment there has been a tendency to adopt this negative approach to the human condition, rather than to live out the exacting demands of the Enlightenment morality, which tells us to take responsibility for ourselves and to cease our snivelling. Having shaken off their shackles and discovered that they have not obtained contentment, human beings have a lamentable tendency to believe that they are victims of some alien force, be it aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, capitalism, the priesthood, or simply the belief in God. And the feeling arises that they need only destroy this alien force, and happiness will be served up on a plate, in a garden of pleasures. That, in my view, is why the Enlightenment, which promised the reign of freedom and justice, issued in an unending series of wars.

I never thought, when I finally put the old humanism behind me, that I would ever feel nostalgia over its loss. But now I recognize that it was not only noble in itself, but was also a serious attempt to retain the belief in nobility without the theological vision on which that belief had once depended. It was, in effect, a proof of the ideal that it proposed: an example of how human beings can provide themselves with values, and then live up to them.

Letter to the Editor

Roger Scruton, the writer and philosopher, is most recently the author of Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum).
roger scruton

Design and Religion

I believe in Design

As I am someone with an interest in aesthetics and faith a good friend of mine forwarded the above article to me.

Look at this excerpt:

“Historically, graphic design has found plenty of room for the ineffable in its theories. Not to demean either religious belief or Modernist principles but many of the historic (and contemporary) rationales for graphic design activity have been based more in faith than evidence. Gestalt principles are still unencumbered by objective verification, to name just one. Graphic design’s traditional emphasis on rationality and neutrality immediately seems to portend a conflict with a sensibility that highlights transcendence. Of course, rationalism has resided in cooperation faith for centuries, despite events in the recent past.

I count it as no surprise that my experience critiquing religious content in student work has gone without contention or awkwardness. Students do question my ability to evaluate their work at times but never due to my personal spirituality or lack thereof (that I simply possess a contrary taste is far and away the leading complaint). If anything, I’ve been regarded as a fellow congregant as I’ve addressed the content with the same verve I do all material.

With eight years of nun-directed Catholic grammar school in my past, I’m quite conversant with the themes of Christianity, so I have a leg up there. However, I’m just as ready to take on — and welcome for my own education — design work based in other faiths. If I’ve articulated a common critique it’s that a student’s work isn’t passionate enough. That appraisal pretty much goes across the board for student (and professional) work. Most graphic design suffers from an impersonality and detachment that resists audience interaction. For religious work, such an approach is distressingly mortal (bring back the Latin Mass!).

Overall, I’m not expecting any special insight about graphic design and faith. In practical terms as a teacher, I seem to have it covered. But I wonder sometimes about the absence of public discussion about the topic, no more or less than any other intangible but heartfelt influence upon creativity. And never mind about touching someone’s heart with graphic design — what about their soul? Is anyone making the attempt? “

Professor April DeConick: “Should the Historical Jesus matter to people of faith?”

Dr. April DeConick, Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, has a brief essay on the potential relationship between the “Jesus of history” and the “Jesus of faith” in the minds and hearts of the faithful.

In this post I want to try to respond to one of the comments that was left on my last post on whether or not the historical Jesus can be recovered. I argued that I am quite sure that we can recover very early memories of Jesus, but whether or not these get us to the historical Jesus himself is still open for me because of the way in which social memories are constructed from the get-go (both as a natural process or a conscious plan). I think we would need to look at the picture of the early memories we recovered and then do some evaluating from there, with the caveat that we are treading on very dangerous waters.

The questions left in the comments?

I’m a preacher who has had no anxiety (or little, at any rate) about preaching what has been called the “Jesus of faith.” Can you say what you think the implications of your method of constructing Jesus might have for those who preach, who take” the quest,” as you have described it seriously? Is this something that simply doesn’t belong in the pulpit? Or… do you have no opinion on this, since your project is scholarly and not about faith? There is a long history about this very issue – of faith and reason and whether reason should matter to faith. I leave that to your reading.

For me personally this is very difficult for me to answer because even though my project is not about faith – it is an historical project – the results matter for some people of faith.

I have found that for some Christians they could care less, because for them the Jesus they know is the Jesus of the spirit and the scripture, the Jesus of faith as you put it. There is nothing that an historian is going to say that will make a bit of difference to their religiosity or change their perception of their own experience of God. They are like Paul, the apostle who knew next to nothing about Jesus’ life or teachings, and this didn’t seem to matter one bit to him in terms of his faith which was based on a mystical experience and conversion.

But then there are those Christians who want their faith to be factual, because for them only facts are true/truth. So they want to align their faith with what they understand to be historical facts about Jesus. It is for these people that the Jesus Seminar was so valuable, because it gave them a new “scientifically”-constructed red letter edition of Jesus’ teaching, minus all the supernatural stories and theology.

For me to suggest that the Jesus of history may be lost to us, and all we have are memory constructions of him by Christians writing long after he is dead, can be traumatic for some Christians because we live in a society where truth and fact are equated, and where myth-story-memory-experience (which are definitely not observable empirical facts) are what? Untruth? Highly suspect? False?

So now we see scholars like Richard Bauckham coming to the rescue of these “faithfully nervous”, trying out the argument that the early memory constructions in the gospels must have been those of eyewitnesses (they do?) because the texts make this claim (so what?) and because these eyewitnesses were the apostles (they were?) we can trust them (we can?) because they wouldn’t purposefully lie to us (they wouldn’t?) and we all know that our memories are fairly accurate anyway (they are?).

So I don’t know if this answers your questions, which are honest and good questions. But should this information be distributed from the pulpit? I have found in my classroom when students begin to think critically about the scripture, many become angry and confused, wondering why they didn’t hear about any of this in their churches. To these people, it matters.

The comments are worth reading.

Thoughts?

Literacy-chic: “I’m starting to think that I have no business applying to Catholic colleges, since one of my concerns is orthodoxy”

Interesting. We don’t quite have this problem in the Orthodox world, since St. Vladimir’s and Holy Cross/Hellenic College are really it in terms of Orthodox academic institutions in this country, but this is food for thought nonetheless:

I’m starting to think that I have no business applying to Catholic colleges, since one of my concerns is orthodoxy–actual adherence to the Church’s teaching, broadly conceived. What kind of battles will I be in for if I go to a school that violates or disregards Church teaching on life issues, ordination of women, and even questions whether it is just to exclude non-Catholics from the Eucharist? Matters of conscience even get tricky at a secular, state school; how much more so if the administration of a Catholic college where I worked were to promote an agenda opposed to Church teaching? And yet, I interview by phone tomorrow with a college that was founded by an order that ABSOLUTELY supports women’s ordination. Campus ministry reluctantly acts according to the will of the local bishop in refusing Communion to non-Catholics (not the Vatican, you will notice). I even emailed for clarification on this point, and the tone was one of remorse and sad disagreement. I have no idea how this would influence the tenor of the English department, except that the faculty members list the subjects about which they will willingly be interviewed by the press on their web pages–yes, that’s ENGLISH faculty, people. Yet they’re hiring for a position that would, essentially, oversee the school’s orthodoxy, including screening new hires for willingness to adhere to the school’s mission, uphold Catholic identity, etc. This person does not have to be a practicing Catholic.

What to do??

(Tip of the hat to the Pertinacious Papist and his Musings.)

St. Photios on Books!

St. Photios

The Word, the Book, the Library

by Fr. Stanley Samuel Harakas

From “Photian Studies”, edited by George Papademetriou, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1989.

The Library: The meeting place for books

The Myriobiblos or the Bibliotheca is Photios’ most valuable work. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes it in this way:

Photios was a scholar of wide interests and encyclopaedic knowledge. His most important work, his “Bibliotheca” or “Myriobiblion,” is a description of several hundred books, often with exhaustive analyses and copious extracts. It is an invaluable mine of information as a great number of the works mentioned are now lost (8).

Included are references to some of the holy books which he had read, but the majority are descriptions of the books of natural knowledge which he had studied. Photios held them together in his “library.” He did not perceive of them as mutually exclusive. Rather, they were related — part and parcel of a single reality and a description of a single coherent truth. Gathered together into a single library, much like this library, they form a unity, a cohesiveness, and a single unified witness to an inclusive truth which is at once divine and human, each with its own integrity and each with its own important witness to the truth and to knowledge.

Some would hold that the holy Book and all which it represents should so control natural knowledge and science that the relationship should correspond to the ancient heresy regarding the person of Jesus Christ known as Monophysitism. In that understanding, the divine overwhelms and controls the sphere of natural knowledge. Today, “Creation science” is an example of that kind of thinking.

Some would, in a Nestorian manner, separate the holy Book and the book of natural knowledge, isolating them one from another. Nestorios taught that the divine and human natures in Christ could have no contact and relationship. There are many proponents of this view in our society today, the advocates of sectarianism in religion and secularism in society.

Such views are not acceptable to the Eastern Orthodox Christian way of thinking. Not to the Church. Not to Chrysostom. Not to Basil. Not to Photios. Their view of the relationship of the holy Book and the book of natural knowledge was a reflection rather of the Chalcedonian teaching about the two natures of Christ; divine and human in one person or hypostasis. Two natures, united unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.

There is an integrity, in this approach, accorded to both the books in this one library and this one philosophy of education. Each follows its own nature, its own development, its own law and understanding. Yet, in their use, in their application, in their power to form the lives of human beings and societies, the holy Book maintains a role of giving direction, providing vision, setting the moral goal, and standing as the evaluator of the use of the book of natural knowledge. Nevertheless, they are gathered together in a single place, in a single library, in a single system of education. Just as the one person of Jesus Christ includes the divine and the human in one person, in which, while the identity of the two remains distinct, there is a communication between them, the philosophy of education in this school seeks to unite the two books into one mutually informing unity, “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.”

One of the most moving and touching letters which Photios ever wrote was to the Emperor Basil, who had deposed him for the last time and had exiled him. The letter is an appeal to the emperor to claim his rights as a human being. Photios denies to the emperor neither the privilege to depose him, nor the power to exile or imprison him. The greatest denial of his rights is the unheard of punishment of refusing him his books. As a last consolation, the great Photios, whose hymn calls him one of the very few personages of the Church, an “Isapostolos,” that is, “Equal to the Apostles,” seeks only to have his books restored to him. He speaks with an enraged sense of the injustice perpetuated against him.

The fact that we have been deprived even of our books is novel and unexpected and a new punishment contrived against us. … Why, then, have books been taken away from us and, in fact, even teachers, in order that by reading we may be benefitted more, and by being proved wrong, we may correct ourselves. If, however, we have done no wrong, why are we wronged (9)?

There is no indication in the letter that Photios distinguished between his holy books and his books of natural knowledge.