Category: Philosophy

What is Beauty?

I will be posting several articles related to aesthetics and the nature of beauty. The following is a review of a book I picked up a few years ago and will serve as an introduction to the topic. Enjoy!


toad-beauty


art-and-music

Crossway Press

What is beauty, and how do we identify it? While the nature of beauty has perplexed philosophers for generations, perhaps the problem is best illustrated by turning to children. In every home occupied by toddlers, there are likely numerous “works of art” hanging on the refrigerator door. What mother wouldn’t consider such pictures beautiful? But can a shaky, barely identifiable image, drawn by a three year old hand, actually be considered beautiful? Would a curator declare such a drawing beautiful enough to replace a Rembrandt or a Picasso in an overcrowded exhibition? Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake utilize this scenario in their book Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, to point out why so many in our society find it easy to accept aesthetic relativism. The idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” helps us understand how a mother genuinely finds beauty in a child’s drawing, while a curator does not. It helps explain the wide variety and dissimilarity that exists in people’s preferences of beauty. But is this thinking correct? Munson and Drake’s purpose is to prepare Christians to think Christianly about art and music. How does the Christian faith and scripture inform our understanding of art and music? What constitutes beauty in these mediums? The authors are convinced that how we come to view beauty, has a direct impact on how we view truth and goodness. Munson and Drake propose a distinctively Christian conception of beauty, that is both objective and absolute, while at the same time accounts for our apparent subjective differences in taste.

drake

Joshua Drake

In fleshing out this proposal, the authors begin with an analysis of the two major approaches to defining beauty. First, is the classical approach, which views beauty as objective and uniform. Beauty is seen as a characteristic of the object of perception, and can be empirically studied and measured. At first glance, this would appear to be in line with the Christian view of beauty that Munson and Drake are putting forth. In fact, the traditional perspective of Christians has been predominately classical. But the authors view this conception of beauty as inaccurate  and dangerously idolatrous.

munson

Paul Munson

But make no mistake: not only were the masterpieces of classical antiquity made in the service of idols but also the classical vision itself, at its purest, is an idol. When form is made absolute, when—like the media-bewitched teen starving herself before the mirror—we devote our lives to the pursuit of some created formal standard, the result is not beautiful at all, but wicked and ugly.[1]
Here, the authors connect this idea to C. S. Lewis’s warning against aestheticism. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis poetically cautions that the classical view of beauty can lead to idolatry, hinting at a more accurate conception (something the authors delineate later in the book).

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[2]

Lewis is correct in his observation that the classicist conception has often led to the misguided notion of equating beauty with the object of perception. Perhaps, it is precisely this adoption of the classical approach that has led to the internal struggle that many Christians have with beauty. Why does God makes things beautiful, if beauty only serves to lead us away from him? Augustine, who clearly echoed Plato in defining beauty in terms of symmetry and proportion, writes of his own struggle in The Confessions:

Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within and I was without. I was looking for Thee out there, and I threw myself, deformed as I was, upon those well-formed things which Thou hast made. Thou wert with me, yet I was not with Thee. These things held me far from Thee, things which would not have existed had they not been in Thee.[3]

The authors maintain that the classical view is a mistake, not simply because we are sinful and inclined to abuse it, but because it is inherently idolatrous.

But idolatry is not the sole reason for rejecting this approach. The classical view tends toward uniformity, which seems to be at odds with our experience of beauty. If all things are beautiful in exactly the same way, how do we account for the diversity of tastes and the variety of perceptions regarding what is beautiful? It is precisely this phenomenon that has led to the second approach, which has become the most dominant. The postmodern approach maintains that beauty is not to be considered a quality of the object of perception, but rather a quality of the one perceiving. Beauty has essentially become synonymous with preference. It is precisely this kind of thinking that has led many to abandon the debate on what constitutes beauty. For the postmodern mind, there is no need to define what is relative to the individual and essentially undefinable.

It is at this juncture, that Munson and Drake begin to delineate a proper Christian conception of beauty. Building upon the teachings of scripture, the authors assert that beauty must be viewed as objective, rooted in the very nature of God.[4] A key verse for them is Mark 14:3-8 where Jesus commends the woman who has anointed him with oil. Jesus declares that she has done a beautiful thing. Instead of commending her for doing a good thing, he commends her for the way (or form) in which she worships him. Hearkening back to Lewis’s quote above, the authors then define beauty as the forms through which we recognize the nature and ways of God.[5] To make this clear, they juxtapose two scriptures discussing God’s creation. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, creation is referred to as beautiful. In Genesis 1:32 it is referred to as good. From this they infer that beauty is a form of communication. Beauty is the means through which God communicates truth and goodness. It is the means through which he communicates himself.

The authors are quick to distinguish this objective view from that of the classical approach. Yes, beauty is objective, but this does not mean that it is uniform. It also does not imply a cookie cutter approach to beauty where everyone must like the same things. Beauty is endlessly diverse. But how can this be the case if beauty is rooted in the unchanging nature of God? Beauty is endlessly diverse because it reflects and communicates the infinite glory of God. Because no mind can comprehend beauty in its fullness, we all see different aspects of it. Because we all have different backgrounds and experiences, we all have different perspectives and preferences. It therefore becomes necessary to view beauty as transcendentally objective.[6] In this regard, the authors believe that the Christian view of beauty is the only view that can properly account for both objectivity and subjectivity.[7]

The authors also assert that this is not a relativistic approach to beauty. The postmodern, relativistic approach implies that no one preference for beauty is better than another. When we are left with such a predicament, it leads to indifference. When no one’s view of beauty is better than anyone else’s view, then there is no need to learn from others or attempt to expand our understanding of beauty. Each person’s perception of beauty represents an objectively knowable facet of the overall concept of beauty. If we are going to come to a better and more complete understanding of beauty, then we must learn from others. “If we are going to see as much of God’s glory as possible, we have to learn to see through others’ eyes.”[8]

Returning to the illustration at the start of this essay, we can easily see how both the mother and curator are merely seeing different aspects of beauty, and to different degrees. In her child’s drawing, the mother rightly perceives beauty. The child’s picture communicates several objectively good things, namely love, imagination, and the development of fine motor skills. But the curator is also making a correct assessment of beauty in not including the child’s picture in his exhibition. He is trying to find the highest and best examples of beauty, and certainly the child’s work does not compete with those of Picasso, although some might feel otherwise. Munson and Drake conclude that to a certain degree, beauty is present is all art. Both the child’s drawing and Picasso’s painting are beautiful. However, this does not mean that all art reflects the same degree of beauty.

. . . the beauty of any object is its capacity to proclaim truth and to realize goodness. The ugliness of any object is the sum of all the ways in which it obscures truth and impedes goodness, which means that everything in this cursed world is both beautiful and ugly. Some things will be mostly beautiful, and some will be mostly ugly, but everything will be a mix.[9]

Munson and Drake next consider the question of art and music for the sake of enjoyment and leisure. Too many Christians believe that pursuing aesthetic pleasure is a waste of time. The authors provide several reasons, based upon general revelation, why this attitude is mistaken. Most notably, is the idea that Christians ought to start thinking of the artist or musician as expounding upon God’s natural revelation much in the same way that a preacher expounds on God’s special revelation. Just as not every Christian is gifted as a pastor, with the ability to exegete scripture, not every person is gifted as an artist, with the ability to observe and communicate through art the often obscured truths of general revelation. By means of color, symmetry, exaggeration and even abstraction, the artist draws our attention to the details of God’s revelation through the created order. The artist helps us see truth and goodness more clearly. She communicates a message, much like a pastor. And just as there are bad pastors, those who fail to communicate appropriately or clearly, so also there are bad artists and musicians. While Hegel is certainly not coming from a Christian perspective, I think he perfectly illustrates this when he talks about art being “born again.”[10] There is truth that is communicated via the created order, which receives added emphasis and clarity as it is reborn through the artist’s work. The artist should be seen as highlighting, elucidating, and communicating things that fallen men and women might not have seen, or might have glossed over in the busyness of life. Beautiful art and music reminds us that we need to stop, look, listen and read God’s works. Seeing it in this capacity, the Christian needs to understand that avoiding art would be disastrous. Those who fail to take the time to enjoy and appreciate beautiful art and music, or even worse focus solely on bad art and music, will inevitably become desensitized to truth and goodness.

The book concludes on a very practical note, providing the student with guidelines for judging art and music, and then asking the student to make applications. Every Christian’s goal ought to be identifying those works of art and selections of music that best communicate the true and the good, that best exemplify beauty. Here the authors once maxresdefaultagain turn to C. S. Lewis for insight. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis challenges the Christian to seek out art and music that reveals new ways of thinking, and enriches one’s life. We can either use art and music to reinforce what we already believe, or we can allow it to teach us, imparting truth and goodness. Ultimately, this means judging art and music on the basis of its purpose. Does it promote an evil use, or the reception of ideas that are evil? If so, then it should be considered ugly art. In this sense ugliness should be understood as a form that “poorly realizes a good purpose, whether it be a good use or the reception of something good.”[11]

In applying these ideas, the authors ask the reader to evaluate three separate works of pictorial art, spending at least fifteen minutes alone in contemplation before reading the author’s own analysis.[12] These instructions are repeated in the final chapter, with three separate musical compositions. In each case, the reader is looking for ways in which the artist or musician is communicating truth and goodness. Several study questions are provided for further reflection, along with a glossary of key terms and a list of suggested resources.

While I found this book to be a compelling introduction to discerning the nature of beauty in art and music, I believe it comes up short in two areas. First, in the area of providing a distinctively Christian approach. Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, is just one volume in an eleven volume series entitled Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition. And yet, while the authors are clearly influenced by C. S. Lewis, they fail to significantly incorporate any other representatives from the long tradition of Christian thinkers writing on beauty. While I am fascinated by the position that the authors take, I am not sure this represents what Christians have traditionally held. In what is arguably the most important chapter of the book, when the authors are delineating their definition of beauty as transcendentally objective, there is more hints of Immanuel Kant and Werner Krieglstein, than there is to any distinctively Christian ideas. If one is hoping to learn about the rich tradition of Christian thought on art and music, this is not the book.

Second, the authors fail to provide any strong reasons for accepting the position they are asserting. Regarding the connection between beauty, truth and goodness, the scriptural argument is weak. This seems more of an assumption inherited from the classical approach, rather than anything based upon clear passages of scripture. Regarding their definition of beauty, if the authors are going to completely redefine how most people intuitively define beauty, then they will need to provide greater biblical and philosophical support. I found the proposal very intriguing, I just wish they have made a more convincing case. In the end, it comes across sounding more like a postmodern approach to beauty (everything is beautiful, everything is ugly), nuanced slightly to retain the appearance of objectivity.

Ultimately, the book did not provide the definitive clarity I had hoped. I am still unsettled in my views about the nature of beauty. However, the book did engage me enough to make me want to study this question further. What truly is the traditional Christian view of beauty? Do we need to re-think our understanding of beauty and settle on a view that somehow bridges the gap between the classical and postmodern approach, as Munson and Drake attempt to do?

As a fun activity until the next posting, how do you think Munson and Drake would respond to the Voltaire quote at the top? How would you respond?

[1] Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake, Art and Music: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 23-24.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 29. Italics mine.

[3] Augustine, “Augustine, from Confessions,” in Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, edited by Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 1.10.5, Kindle.

[4] The biblical argument presented by the authors rests solely on Psalm 27:4.

[5] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 35.

[6] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 37.

[7] The language throughout this section seems to echo that of Werner Krieglstein and his thoughts on transcendental perspectivism. However, it should be distinguished that the authors are not making the argument that man can know nothing of the beauty of God, or that what defines absolute beauty is somehow relative to each individual’s own context and perception. Each individual has a tendency to hone in on certain aspects of beauty, on the basis of upbringing and personal experience. But each perceived aspect is still objectively discernible.

[8] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 38.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2003), 12-13. Of course, the Christian would not go as far as Hegel and claim that the artist’s work speaks with greater clarity and truth.

[11] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 91.

[12] The authors do not provide a clear delineation of “things” to look for when contemplating these works. They more or less challenge the reader to take a disinterested approach and allow the works to speak to them. When reviewing the analysis of the authors, it is clear that they are employing knowledge of artistic style and art history. The student interested in getting more specific details on what to look for might find Joshua C. Taylor’s Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) exceptionally helpful.

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Toward A More Rational Faith

school-of-athens-detail-from-right-hand-side-showing-diogenes-on-the-steps-and-euclid-1511This essay focuses on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a whole, in light of Søren Kierkegaard’s critiques of Hegel. Given that Hegel’s attempt to answer Kantian skepticism culminates in a discussion of religion, and Kierkegaard’s own status as a Christian existentialist, I will approach this discussion from a Christian perspective.  My goal is to demonstrate that, contrary to Kierkegaard’s claims, Hegel’s conception of the Christian faith is actually more in keeping with Christian tradition (and Scripture), than his own, and provides a more certain foundation for metaphysical knowledge.[1] I also believe this discussion provides insight into a distinctly reformed epistemology, which I have previously addressed, and will have more to say about in an upcoming post.


hegel-bookIt is an interesting feature of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that in his great quest to answer Kantian skepticism and show how absolute knowledge of reality is possible, Christianity plays a significant part.  For many, the mere introduction of religion may seem odd in such a discourse, especially a “scientific” work, as Hegel refers to it.  And yet, it is clear that in Hegel’s mind, the Christian religion is indispensable to the task.[2] Indeed, it is through the core belief of the Christian faith, the incarnation of Christ, that Hegel asserts such knowledge comes.  “Through,” of course, being the operative word.  According to Hegel, Absolute Knowledge is not found in religion by becoming a devout follower of Christ.  It comes about through the perfection of religion; more specifically, as a result of the insights gained from analyzing the doctrines of the Christian religion.  Consequently, Hegel ends up painting a very rationalistic picture of faith, with faith being essentially in rationality itself, rather than in a personal God.  This is a picture that most Christians reject.  And rightly so, for one of the tenets of Christian faith is that God is personal.   Perhaps the most well-known Christian voice to speak against Hegel’s thesis is that of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard argued, as Ralph McInerny best put it, that “Hegelianism explains away Christianity instead of denying it openly.”[3]   Much of Christian thought since has rejected Hegel’s emphasis on a rational religion, and has instead chosen to embrace Kierkegaard’s more fideistic approach.  This should not be the case.  As far as Christians are concerned, one’s faith ought to be more Hegelian than Kierkegaardian. Not only is Hegel’s view more in keeping with Christian tradition, it provides a basis for the justification of metaphysical knowledge (including knowledge of God). If Hegel has seen it fitting to glean insights from Christian faith without necessarily becoming Christian, then perhaps Christians can glean insights from Hegel without necessarily becoming Hegelian and adopting an impersonal view of the divine.

If there is one thing that can be said with certainty about modern evangelical Christianity, it is that the Kierkegaardian approach to the relationship between faith and reason reigns supreme.  Undoubtedly, most Christians would not be able to tell you what Kierkegaardian faith is, let alone spell it correctly.  And yet, his views on faith have unquestionably kierkegaard2_360x450informed the Christian understanding on this matter. Christians have so willingly embraced Kierkegaard’s notion that faith is contrary to reason, that even atheists and agnostics have come to define faith in these same terms.[4]  This means that in any discussion involving faith, one must take into consideration that most people presuppose faith to be irrational (and assume Christians do as well). Such understanding may be rooted in the idea that “blind” faith is more spiritual (a misinterpretation of key scriptural passages), or that belief in an other-worldly being requires other-worldly thinking.  While Christians may contend that this conception of faith is based upon biblical grounds, the reality is that it is fundamentally rooted in the metaphysical skepticism of Kant, of which both Hegel and Kierkegaard were attempting to address.

It is obvious in reading Kierkegaard that much of his philosophy is a reaction against Hegel’s philosophical system.  In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard provides a biting summary of his criticism of Hegelian thought:

The speculative movement which plumes itself on having completely understood Christianity, and explains itself at the same time as the highest development within Christianity, has strangely enough made the discovery that there is no beyond.[5]

As the quote above suggests, Kierkegaard rejected Hegel’s philosophy because it watered down Christianity’s real message and turned the church into an essentially secular institution.[6]  The reference to there being “no beyond” indicates Kierkegaard’s inability to accept Hegel’s Divine Absolute as coming anywhere close to the Christian conception of God.  Hegel may, at times, refer to it as “God” (especially in later writings), but his understanding of the divine is clearly not personal.

Certainly, Kierkegaard’s problems with Hegel went far beyond mere theological differences.  For Hegel, the individual is absorbed into the universal.  For Kierkegaard, the individual is what matters, and subjectivity is truth (a concept that Kierkegaard could not separate from his faith).

It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence.[7]

Kierkegaardian faith is entirely subjective; it is a blind leap into the absurd and the acceptance of something which Kierkegaard maintained as being completely incapable of being understood.[8] In his own words, Kierkegaard states,

Christianity specifically involves relinquishing the natural discriminations of the finite understanding and taking a qualitative leap into the realm of the intellectually opaque or repellent.[9]

hegelHow different this is from Hegel, who wants to assert that faith is rational (even scientific). For Kierkegaard, faith is irrational; there is no rational justification for belief in God, it is purely an assertion of the will. Finally, a philosopher who gets it!  Or so, the fideistic champions would lead Christians to believe. In reality, such thinking does faith more harm than good.  Kierkegaard was justified in criticizing Hegel for going too far, but in so doing, he went to the opposite extreme. A faith that is irrelevant to the modern mind is irrelevant to the modern man.  When properly understood, faith should not be viewed as contrary to reason.  It would behoove Christians to take a closer look at Hegel, back away from taking any irrational leaps into opacity, and move a few steps closer to a faith within the bounds of reason.

It is clear in the very opening pages of the Phenomenology that Hegel has Kant in mind and is attempting to overcome the uncertainty and skepticism that he has left the world pondering.[10] Clearly, he is echoing Kant’s ideas when he talks about the uneasiness we have in contemplating whether we can trust our perceptions of the world.

This feeling of uneasiness is surely bound to be transformed into the conviction that the whole project of securing for consciousness through cognition what exists in itself is absurd, and that there is a boundary between cognition and the absolute that completely separates them.[11]

The absolute that Hegel is referring to is the knowledge of reality itself, as it truly is, as a concrete particular. The problem is in getting to such knowledge, for between the absolute and one’s cognition is this great boundary that separates the two. As the individual immanuel_kant_painted_portraitencounters objects in the world, they are encountered through the senses, coming to understand them through the use of the mind. Thus, Kant asserted that a person can never get to this knowledge of true reality because they only know it after it has been filtered, mediated, and reshaped by the categories of understanding (i.e. time, space, causation). Objects are known only as they appear to the individual, not as they are in themselves. Or at least, no one can trust that this is not the case. This is the great uncertainty that Kant left the philosophical community and the very issue that Hegel is attempting to confront. Is humanity limited to a mediated and distorted phenomenal knowledge of objects, or can things be known as they really are?

These are questions that might not seem significant to the modern mind, but that have broad philosophical and theological implications for today, particularly for Christians. If we can’t have certain knowledge of the external world, then how can we have certain knowledge of God? If all of our perceptions are skewed by our senses, then how do we know our perceptions of God haven’t also been skewed? It was this same mistrust of sensory perception that led Kierkegaard to define faith as an irrational leap. If we can’t know God objectively by means of our senses and reason, then a subjective act of faith is our only means of knowing him. But while Kierkegaard believed it was impossible to rationally know reality (and ultimately God), Hegel was confident he could.  The Phenomenology sets out to delineate his solution, and as was previously mentioned, concludes with the Christian faith providing the answer.

For Hegel, Christianity was the consummate religion.  He believed that the truth of Christianity was in what it represented.  There was a deeper meaning to be found behind the symbols.  It was this picture thinking of the Christian faith that Hegel set about to transform into a scientific philosophy of religion.[12]  He argued that a traditional understanding of Christianity objectified God, placing him above and separate from our finite world.  God, being infinite and universal, is therefore left alienated from mankind (who is finite and particular). With God off in the unknowable beyond, we find ourselves restricted to the finite, cut off from God’s realm.  While Hegel certainly maintained that the Divine was infinite, he considered this particular conception a bad kind of infinity, which is precisely what leads to Hegel’s unhappy consciousness.[13]  However, Hegel did find within the Christian faith at least one good picture of how the infinite is to properly be conceived.  In the person of Christ we have the infinite and the finite brought together.  Hegel scholar Quentin Lauer summarizes what sets Christianity apart from other religions:

The inadequacy of all previous forms of religious consciousness was that they represented to themselves either a god (gods) not recognizable as spirit… In none was the abstract divine human relationship concretized into a relationship of God and man.  In Christian theology…the incarnation presents to religious consciousness a uniquely concrete union of the divine and human in the God-man, thus revealing to human consciousness that to be totally human is to be divine.  Jesus Christ is for Hegel the unique self, who is at once absolute and human.[14]

This is why Hegel refers to the Christian faith (when properly understood) as the religion of revelation. Not that it is a faith built upon the Scriptures (what Christians commonly refer to as revelation), but that it helps to reveal a profound philosophical truth.  God is present in and tying together all of Creation, and it is this unifying factor that makes knowledge of the real world possible.  If God is imminent in Creation, then for him to know the world is to know himself. If our own consciousness is part of the divine, then for us to know God is to know ourselves.  And likewise, if all of Creation is part of the universal consciousness of the Absolute, then we can know it as simply as we know ourselves.

The subject itself, and consequently this pure universal too, is, however, revealed as Self, for this is just this inner being which is reflected into itself and which is immediately present and is the self-certainty of the Self for which it is present.  This – to be in accordance with its Notion that which is revealed – this is, then, the true shape of Spirit, and this its shape, the Notion, is likewise alone its essence and its substance.  Spirit is known as self-consciousness and to this self-consciousness it is immediately revealed, for Spirit is this self-consciousness itself.  The divine nature is the same as the human, and it is this unity that is beheld.[15]

For Hegel, it is the incarnation of Christ that communicates this philosophical truth better than any other.  For within himself, Christ discovered the infinite life.  In his person, the infinite was imminent within the finite.  “Two sides have in this way encountered each other, and through this encounter their true union has come into being.”[16]

If Kant left humanity with a great gulf between the noumena and the phenomena, the real world and our perception of it, then it is through the synthesis expressed in the figurative language of the Incarnation that the two can be reunited.  Here the finite and infinite are brought together. As Copleston expresses it, “Not by denying all reality to the finite, not by reducing the infinite to the multiplicity of finite particulars as such, but by integration, as it were, the finite into the infinite.”[17]  In this sense, we can say that the finite has now become a moment (a manifestation) in the overall life of the infinite.  Hegel pushes us past natural religion and the religion of art and beauty, to an absolute religion where the totality of nature is united with God, a self manifestation of spirit (the Word).  It is rational spirit that is imminent in finite selves, uniting them into a whole.  Again, though the religious terminology of the Christian faith pervades the closing sections of the Phenomenology, Hegel is merely expressing philosophical truth in the figurative language of religion.  He is using it much like a father would use a fable to express some moral principle to his child. There is a deeper, hidden message. The Christian religion provides the pictorial thoughts that lead us to absolute knowledge.  In the end, it is at the level of absolute knowing that he distills the philosophical form from Christian expression and transcends representational religion altogether. “The content of this picture thinking is absolute spirit; and all that now remains to be done is to supersede this mere form.”[18]  For Hegel, the result is the perfection of religion, the abandonment of the figurative trappings of the faith. What we are left with is an entirely rational faith, or more appropriately, faith in rationality. Religion has evolved into science. [19]

In Hegel’s mind, he has helped resurrect religion from its Enlightenment critics who tried to dispense with it altogether. “We shall see whether enlightenment can remain satisfied; that yearning of the troubled spirit which mourns over the loss of its spiritual world lurks in the background.”[20]  Philosophy (and even science) cannot and must not entirely do away with religion. In the Phenomenology, Hegel removes the tension that has always existed between religion and philosophy and attempts to show that the one needs the other.  On the one hand, the religious consciousness must come to accept a rational picture of the world, rejecting the literal understanding of the terms of Christianity (abandoning its representational form) which is the very thing that the Enlightenment attacked.  For this service, Hegel points out that the Enlightenment critics have done their work and are to be applauded for it. On the other hand, if religious belief is thus fashioned, then there is no need for it to be rejected.[21] In fact, philosophy must come to realize that there is much it could learn from such religious belief (which is what Hegel has demonstrated). Through the perfection of religion (religious consciousness in its highest form), the difficulties between faith and philosophy are removed and the one can be incorporated into the other.[22]

While the Enlightenment set out to place reason above faith, which certainly fits Hegel’s overall purpose, he believed it went too far in trying to entirely dismiss faith and the spiritual realm. “If all prejudice and superstition have been banished the question arises, what next? What is the truth Enlightenment has propagated in their stead?”[23] The truth is that we would be left in a vacuum, cut off from absolute Being.  The opposition between finite and infinite, the world of reality and the world of spirit, cannot be overcome by philosophy alone.  For this, we must turn to religion for help.  Quentin Lauer says it best:

It is religion, we might say, which gets consciousness out of the vacuum in which it floats into the real world where alone spiritual activity and the consciousness of it have meaning.  Only as religious can consciousness see that there is no conflict between the world of reality and the world of spirit, because they are one and the same world.[24]

Hegel maintains that without Spirit, the Enlightenment leaves the self alienated from the world.

(The Enlightenment’s) behavior towards faith seems to rend asunder the beautiful unity of trust and immediate certainty, to pollute its spiritual consciousness with mean thoughts of sensuous reality, to destroy the soul which is composed and secure in its submission, by the vanity of the Understanding and of self-will and self-fulfillment.  But as a matter of fact, the result of the Enlightenment is rather to do away with the thoughtless, or rather non-notional, separation which is present in faith.[25]

Hegel argues that this is why we need the perfection of religion, a conception of faith that is free from dogmatic irrationalism and that seems to mediate the universal with the finite, the inner with the outer, and God with man.[26] Far from doing away with spirit and faith, it must now be embraced.  But in order for the philosophical mind to come to such a point, faith must be reformulated into something more rational, which is what Hegel is trying to do.  The result of such a faith is that it can truly come to know the divine being. “The world is indeed implicitly reconciled with the divine being; and regarding the divine being it is known, of course, that it recognizes the object as no longer alienated from it but as identical with it.”[27] Just as God has instantiated Himself in the world through Creation, reason is realized in the world, infusing and permeating everything. According to Patrick Gardiner,

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation should be read as symbolizing the essential unity of the spiritual and natural in the life and development of the human species as a whole.[28]

In the end, Hegel is clearly not a traditional theist, and is certainly far from the Christianity that Kierkegaard knew and embraced. If anything, we can say that he was a panentheist.[29] Peter Singer says of the Phenomenology, “Although we set out merely to trace the path of mind as it comes to know reality, at the end of the road we find that we have been watching mind as it constructs reality.”[30]  Of course, for Hegel, this is a connection that goes beyond mere creation.  This action on the part of mind is much more akin to the incarnation, where the individual and universal share the same properties.

Science sets forth this formative process in all its detail and necessity, exposing the mature configuration of everything which has already been reduced to a moment in property of spirit.[31]

God is thus the cosmic consciousness or mind that courses through all things, much like what we would find in Eastern philosophies where “all is one.”  He is the Absolute, which comprises the totality of reality as a whole.  While Hegel speaks of the Absolute as God, he does not conceive of Him as a personal deity, distinct from the world, as in theism.  His argument is never that one has to believe in God in order to know Absolute reality, simply that one has to recognize that there is an all-encompassing mind that stands over and runs through all of reality.  For Hegel, God is mind, Spirit, the Absolute, the all-encompassing Reason that interpenetrates and interconnects all of nature, providing the rational framework that enables knowledge of reality.

Not only does the “picture thinking” of the incarnation aid in communicating this point, Hegel uses it to avoid falling into subjective idealism. In subjective idealism, one’s own thoughts are what ultimately make up reality. The problem with this thinking is that we end up with a multiplicity of realities as different minds construct different worlds, with no objective outside reality to judge which is right and wrong. While Hegel is most certainly an idealist (ultimate reality is mind, not matter), he is an absolute idealist as opposed to subjective. For Hegel, there are not countless minds that exist. There is only one mind, essentially universal, representing rational consciousness (for indeed, reason is the essential principle of mind).[32] It is not that there are no such things as individual minds; they are simply incarnations, or aspects of the one universal mind. They are linked together by a common universal reason.[33] It is Hegel’s rational picture of God (if we can still call it such) that holds reality together in a consistent, knowable form.

Hegel has set out to achieve absolute knowledge, to know reality as it truly is, not merely as it appears. In the end, one discovers that there is no reality independent of the mind; it is no longer an unknowable beyond as Kant postulated, but is known directly by mind, because it is one with it.  “Absolute knowledge is reached when mind realizes that what it seeks to know is itself.”[34] Contemporary Christian philosophers Steve Wilson and Alan Padgett rightly interpret Hegel as stating that . . .

All things, historical events, finite minds such as you and I, social institutions and natural events – are all expressions of absolute spirit. Reality is in the end rational, and rationality (absolute mind) is the basis of all reality.[35]

The individual mind is an incarnation of the universal mind, as is all of Creation. Man is no longer alien to the reality of this world. The two are linked together. They share a common bond, and it is this common bond that enables the human mind to have true knowledge of the world.  Absolute knowledge can be reached by human reason, because it is reason knowing reason. According to Hegel, if everything that is real is also rational, then it can be known.

Reflecting on the totality of Hegel’s argument, one can begin to see why Kierkegaard, and Christians in general, would have a problem with Hegel’s panentheistic conception of God and interpretation of Christian doctrine.  Perhaps Kierkegaard found it ironic that while Hegel claimed to have fully understood Christianity, and to have perfected it, he was in fact completely distorting it (or so Kierkegaard claimed). In his work, On Authority and Revelation, Kierkegaard directly critiques Hegel’s approach to Christian faith, claiming that he has missed the whole point. He argued that Hegel’s attempt to subject the truths of faith to the norms of human understanding was precisely what the Scriptures had warned Christians not to do.[36] Kierkegaard believed that faith should not be based upon reason. Faith was a personal choice, entirely subjective, not backed up by evidence, and totally without basis. As previously stated, he believed that faith was a blind leap involving intellectual risk. Without risk, faith would not exist. While he may have agreed with Hegel in showing disdain for an historical-evidential basis for Christian belief, he clearly disagreed with Hegel’s attempt to construct a rational connection between human consciousness and the Absolute.[37]  In the end, Kierkegaard believed that Hegel was merely dressing up speculative thought in Christian terminology.

The problem here is that such irrational notions of God as “wholly other” and “not of this world,” seem to be merely religious expressions of the Kantian conception of cognition. It is precisely for this reason that Christians ought to be more Hegelian in their view of faith, than Kierkegaardian. If Hegel set out on his journey of consciousness to disprove the assumptions of Kant, then it appears that Kierkegaard has merely embraced them. In the end, Hegel’s answer to Kant is that one can know the thing in itself, as it actually is, because of a shared connection with it. The world is not something that is external and independent of the individual, and one’s understanding is not an ill equipped medium that distorts what is perceived. “What confronts us as being apparently foreign or ‘other’ is in fact the expression of an all encompassing cosmic process in which we ourselves participate and whose underlying essence is spiritual or mental.”[38]

But for Kierkegaard, Kant’s assumptions about cognition and perception are presupposed. If there is a great gulf between things as they are in themselves, and things as they are perceived to be (as Kant maintained), then Kierkegaard’s approach seems natural.  How can one ever approach knowledge of God using rational capacities if they are prone to distortion? Unfortunately, to accept such a basis for faith leaves us no grounds for justifying one set of beliefs over and above alternative beliefs.  This notion of justification is not important to Kierkegaard.  In the end, what matters to him is that “he” has chosen to believe.  What he has chosen is not as important as the act of choosing.  The truth of faith is determined entirely on the basis of a subjective experience.  Instead of resolving the dichotomy that Kant posits (between reality and perception), Kierkegaardian faith only makes the problem worse. Fideism gives in to Kantian skepticism and ultimately leads to relativism and mysticism.  If faith is irrational, then subjectivity is truth.  This leaves us with countless possibilities, posited by countless individuals, who all claim to have had countless esoteric encounters with countless divine beings. This is an approach to faith that Christians should not accept.

As Christians, we should favor Hegel’s emphasis on reason, but not all of his conclusions.  It is not clear from Hegel why it is necessary to reject the literal understanding of the terms of Christianity, especially if its historical and textual aspects can be demonstrated as factual.  It appears that while Hegel is fighting against certain aspects of Enlightenment skepticism, he has bought into others (particularly the attacks on the historicity of the faith). One can still hold to the authority of Scripture and the historicity of Christ, and maintain the rationality of the Christian faith. First and foremost, we should echo Hegel’s belief that there is a rational framework that pervades all of reality, including God.  Just as man is rational, so is God.  It is this rational resemblance between God and man that enables each to know the other.  In his Philosophy of Religion, Hegel states that “(h)ere it is revealed what God is; He is no longer a Being above and beyond this world, an Unknown, for He has told men what He is, and this not merely in an outward way in history, but in consciousness.”[39] Theoretically, God can tell man what He is because he has created him with the rational capacity to understand what is being communicated. In regard to this unity that exists between human and divine, Hegel states:

The absolute Being which exists as an actual self-consciousness seems to have come down from its eternal simplicity, but by thus coming down it has in fact attained its highest essence.[40]

If we say that God’s highest essence is best expressed in human terms (the condescension of God), then are we making God in the image of man (by projecting onto God the rational ways of the human mind)?  This is partly what Kierkegaard and many Christians believe Hegel is doing.  It echoes the criticisms of Feuerbach, that what Hegel has done is reduce theology to anthropology.  “Man’s supposed knowledge of God amounts in the end to no more than man’s knowledge of himself.”[41]  But, is it inappropriate for us to think of God in these anthropomorphic terms? Hegel never communicates that the Divine Consciousness is fashioned in the likeness of the individual.  Quite the contrary; Hegel is adamant that individual self consciousness is an expression, or instantiation of the universal.  All particulars are impressed or infused, with the rational order of the universal mind.  It is not a case of God being fashioned in the image of man, but rather man having been made in the image of God – a concept which clearly hearkens to the words of Genesis 1:27, “Let us make man in our own image.”  In this case, it would be entirely appropriate to speak of God in human terms because it is our way of reflecting back onto God what he first imparted onto us. No matter what can be said of Hegel’s theology, he is certainly correct in this approach.

It is easy to see this within the context of the master-slave relationship addressed in earlier sections of the Phenomenology. It is in this section that Hegel reveals his thinking to be much more in line with traditional Christian belief. Much of Hegel’s thought reflects the Scholastic idea of the doctrine of analogy.  Simply put, the doctrine of analogy states that any created thing necessarily shares qualities with the thing that created it.  It speaks of a unity between creator and creation.  This is in part what Hegel’s bondsman is beginning to realize as he works to create things with his own hands.  It is an insight which Hegel uses as a key transition into the idea that there is a rational structure to the world.  The slave begins to see the universe as interconnected.  The thread of logos runs throughout all of reality, of which man’s rational consciousness is a part.  It is this unifying force that ties everything together and provides “communion with myself, and the object.”[42]  Prior to this moment of consciousness, external objects were seen as contrary to one’s thinking.  However, in working on objects and bringing one’s ideas to realization via creation, one comes to see that there is no gulf between us and the external world.  What Hegel begins as a seed thought in his earlier sections of the Phenomenology, he brings to full development in his conclusion.  In regard to this line of thinking, Hegel falls right in line with one of the greatest representatives of the Christian tradition, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

thomas_aquinas_03fmFor since every agent reproduces itself so far as it is an agent, and everything acts according to the manner of its form, the effect must in some way resemble the form of the agent.  If therefore the agent is contained in the same species as its effect, there will be a likeness in form between that which makes and that which is made according to the same formality of the species . . . If, however, the agent and its effect are not contained in the same species, there will be a likeness, but not according to the same formality of the same species.[43]

Aquinas further states,

Because they (sensible things) are his effects and depend on him for their cause, we can be led from them so far as to know of God whether he exists, and to know of him what must necessarily belong to him, as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by him.[44]

It does not seem necessary to Hegel’s argument that he move on to a more panentheistic conception of God. Aquinas demonstrates that the Christian can maintain that the creator and his creation, God and man, are distinct from one another while still being connected.

Aquinas, articulating classical Christian thought, firmly believed that there was a direct analogy that could be drawn between God and the world, a truth that necessarily flowed from the fact that God was the primary cause of the world.[45]  For Aquinas, God stands over the world as the creator of all things to include mankind.  All of reality shares the marks of its creator and are thus similar, at least in some respects, to God and each other.  These similarities would seem to preclude the notion that there is utter alienation, or an impassable gulf between us and the Absolute.  Aquinas would argue that while there are differences between creation and creator, the differences cannot be radical.  Wolfhart Pannenberg states, “According to the doctrine of analogy, the effects produced by God are the basis of what is said about God himself, following the maxim about knowing the unknown by analogy with the known.”[46]

Just like it is not hard to see the influence of Kant on Kierkegaard, it is not hard to see the parallels between Hegel and Aquinas’ thinking.  It is even harder to argue against the logic. It is the Christian tradition that has long held the belief in the rational structure to the universe, rooted in the rational nature of its creator (as opposed to being independent of God).  This means that not only do Christians have a rational faith, they have faith in rationality (specifically the rationality of God). It would appear that while Hegel goes too far in his rationalization of Christianity, his approach is more in keeping with the Christian tradition than Kierkegaard’s. Given Hegel’s fundamental point that reason is universal, and the significance it plays in supporting our ability to have absolute knowledge (as well as our ability to know the Divine), it is hard to see how we could advocate anything less than faith in rationality – a rational faith in the rationality of God and his creation.  Anything less would reduce faith to the absurd.  But then, that is exactly what Kierkegaard is advocating.

[1] This paper will not focus on the analysis of related scriptural passages.

[2] Lauer, Quentin. A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Fordham University Press (1993), p. 259.

[3] McInerny, Ralph. “Kierkegaard and the Hegelian Christians”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1957), p. 134.

[4] I will point to a discussion in Dr. Jules Simon’s Ethics and Science class (Spring ’09) in which one of the students indicated a preference for the Book of Mormon’s definition of faith as holding a belief even if all the evidence points against it.  This comment was not recorded in the protocol for that evening.

[5] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. tr. D.F. Swenson and W. Lowrie. Princeton University Press (1941), p. 323.

[6] Gardiner, Patrick. Kierkegaard: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1988), p. 16.

[7] Kierkegaard, p. 116.

[8] McInerny, p. 135.

[9] Kierkegaard, p. 159.

[10] While Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) might have been an attempt to combat the skepticism prevalent in the Enlightenment (particularly that of Hume), he actually ended up contributing to even greater skepticism. When we talk of Kantian skepticism, we are referring particularly to skepticism regarding anything metaphysical.

[11] Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1977), p. 46.

[12] Wilson, Steve and Alan Padgett. Christianity and Western Thought. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (2000), Vol. 2, p.86.

[13] Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. New York: Doubleday (1994), Vol. 7, p. 165.

[14] Lauer, p. 275.

[15] Hegel, p. 460. – emphasis added.

[16] Ibid., p. 457.

[17] Copleston,p. 167.

[18] Hegel, p. 479.

[19] Copleston, p. 187. “But the religious consciousness expressed itself as we have seen, in pictorial forms. And it demands to be transmuted into the pure conceptual form of philosophy which at the same time expresses the transition from faith to knowledge or science.”

[20] Hegel, p. 349.

[21] Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) being an example of such a rationalization of the Christian faith.

[22] Stern, Robert. Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit. London: Routledge (2002), p. 193.

[23] Hegel, p. 340.

[24] Lauer, p. 260.

[25] Hegel, p. 348.

[26] Stern, p. 155.

[27] Hegel, p. 478.

[28] Gardiner, p. 32.

[29] Panentheism is the belief that God is in the world and the world is in God.

[30] Singer, Peter. Hegel: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1983), p. 92.

[31] Hegel, p. 29.

[32] Singer, p. 96.

[33] Ibid., p. 89.

[34] Ibid., p. 92.

[35] Wilson & Padgett, p. 82.

[36] McInerny, p. 135.  For example, Colossians 2:8 says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”

[37] Evans, Stephen. Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing (1998), p. 211.

[38] Gardiner, p.  30.

[39] As quoted in Brown, Colin. Philosophy and the Christian Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (1968), p. 122.

[40] Hegel, p. 460.

[41] Gardiner, p. 32 & 34.

[42] Hegel, p. 120

[43] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, tr. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics (1981), Pt. 1, Q. 4, art. 3.

[44] Ibid., Pt. 1, Q. 12, art.12.

[45] Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Basic Questions in Theology, Volume II. Philadelphia: Westminster Press (1971), p. 223.

[46] Ibid., p. 215.

Subjectivity & Inspiration

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Encountering

Crump, David. Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith. GrandRapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

I am of two minds when it comes to David Crumps’ Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture. On the one hand, I see it as a very useful response to the implications of higher criticism. I even find myself  agreeing with Crump about the importance of subjectivity as the only way to come to terms with these  implications. This is no small accomplishment, as I am generally reluctant to acknowledge the veracity of  anything that grounds itself in the philosophical insights of Sören Kierkegaard. [Yes, I have issues with the great Dane.] On the other hand, I find myself concerned over the implications of Crump’s approach, especially as it relates to our understanding of the nature of Biblical inspiration.

Crump begins his work wrestling with a problem that has been around for centuries, the Crump Picseemingly reckless manner in which the New Testament authors handled Old Testament passages identified as Christological prophecies. To Crump, the  messianic interpretations presented by Matthew are forced and unconvincing. There is no rational justification for Matthew’s approach, no harmonization that works. Here Crump draws upon insights from Kierkegaard to establish the only grounds upon which the believer can accept these as authentic: a leap of faith. We come to accept Matthew’s usage of these verses in the same way we come to Christ – through a subjective encounter with the living Christ. While I cannot agree with everything that Crump is saying, I do agree that these problematic passages are only fully understood through the lens of faith. I also agree with his assertion that while reason is not excluded from faith, embracing articles of faith is not a deduction from logical or historical arguments. But this is where my agreement ends.

At times, it seems that Crump is hesitant to characterize the Gospel writers handling of Old Testament scripture as divinely inspired. Crump describes their approach as one of “intuitive apprehension” when it comes to interpreting Christological prophecies. Of course, Crump would disagree with even characterizing these verses as Christological. He believes that the Gospel writers re-interpreted them, re-purposing them for the proclamation of the Gospel. The New Testament writers did not draw out what was hidden (or prefigured) in the Old Testament, they created an entirely new interpretation. This leads him to ask the very question that was foremost in my own mind: “What force directed the trajectory of this interpretive leap?” What led them to do this? An apropos question given the claims of higher criticism. But Crump’s response is far from resounding. He uses words such as artistic imagination, creative inspiration, and even personal inspiration rather than more traditional formulations. To be sure, he eventually characterizes it as “Gospel-inspired imagination activated by the Holy Spirit.” But this is the closest he comes to saying divinely inspired (and even that is the only reference to God’s role in the process in the entire book). Is Crump simply trying to articulate orthodoxy in phrasings that are more amenable to postmodern readers, or is he saying something more?

The something more comes through as Crump proceeds to demonstrate how this approach to the interpretation of scripture was not limited to the four evangelists. Jesus and Paul also made use of what he calls backward illumination, where modifications (or reinterpretations) are made to the scripture and convention. Crump is setting up a pattern that he maintains applies to all Christians. This is the way we operate in faith. While he places his exhortation primarily within the context of life experiences and our interpretation of them, he also commends this approach when “wrestling with the connections between Exodus and Calvary.” Unfortunately, he overlooks a key distinction between New Testament authors (to include the words of Jesus), and the average Christian alive today. They were divinely inspired. We are not. If we limit our understanding of inspiration to mere creative imagination fueled by our subjective experience of faith, then it is easy to see how Crump makes this connection. But if we view biblical inspiration in
the terms in which it has been traditionally articulated, then we are bound by the very words of scripture. No prophecy of scripture has ever been a matter of one’s own interpretation, or reinterpretation. The Bible is very clear on this point (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21 above). Their creative license comes from God. Yes, something we can only come to accept by faith. But faith alone, and the accompanying encounter we have with Christ, is not a sufficient license for us to creatively reinterpret scripture. I am not certain Crump is actually advocating this, but his ideas certainly lend themselves to this unfounded notion. And for that reason I did not enjoy this book.

For example, let’s apply Crump’s backward illumination to the issue of homosexuality. It is increasingly becoming more common for church leaders to “re-interpret” Old Testament passages in light of contemporary social mores. Yes, the church has traditionally interpreted passages in Leviticus, Genesis, and the writings of Paul to be condemning homosexual behavior. She has held that interpretation for centuries, and it has largely gone unquestioned. However, today’s Christian finds herself in a different context, with different experiences. We encounter homosexuals in our churches, living in monogamous relationships, and identifying as evangelical believers committed to the authority of scripture. This was not the experience that early believers, or even the people of Israel would have had when encountering homosexuals in their communities. They knew of temple-based homosexuality, pedophilia, and prostitution. Not exactly the face of homosexuality in the modern church. In light of the contrast between their experience in faith, and our experience in faith, would it be wrong for today’s Christian to view these scriptures differently? What are we to make of evangelical Christians who are increasingly re-interpreting these scriptures to only refer to the negative manifestations of homosexuality? After all, doesn’t our own personal experience of Christ’s love compel us to encounter these passages differently?

Perhaps, at this point you are ready to castigate me for reading too much into Crump’s little book. Please note that I am not saying that David Crump advocates embracing homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle for Christians. What I am saying, is that Crump’s ambiguity in his treatment of the interpretation of scripture, leaves the door open for others to make such claims. It provides a philosophical justification for such a view. When speaking about the interpretation of scripture, I would not expect a theologian (one who has committed his life to the study and teaching of scripture), to be less than resounding. When it comes to what we think of scripture, how we interpret it, and how we present it to others, we should be clear and emphatic. It’s God’s word. If we are to maintain that it encapsulates truth, that it is authoritative, and that it reflects God’s unchanging character, then we should do so with equal authority and force.

Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw, professor of doctrinal theology at Louisville Seminary, makes the argument that the ideas reflected in scripture do not necessarily correspond to human experience today. The interpreter’s context is important to how one interprets scripture. Since the context of the one interpreting scripture changes over time, Pauw would argue that the interpretation of scripture must also change.

. . . there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage. This is clear as soon as we start reading the Bible. Biological procreation was of supreme importance for ancient Israel because their very survival as a people depended on it—which is why you get biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality that seem very odd to both contemporary Christians and contemporary Jews—the acceptance of polygamy, the insistence that a man marry his brother’s widow, an extreme worry about “wasting” male seed. Those are biblical ways of thinking about marriage and sexual activity that Jews and Christians don’t regard as normative anymore.

The reason Dr. Pauw can say that there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage, is because she has bought into the notion that scripture is open to reinterpretation as individual experiences and social contect change. So it would seem that my reading of Dr. Crump’s book is not entirely out of line with the practice of modern theologians, especially those that share very close connections to Dr. Crump and Calvin College (where Crump teaches). [for the full text delineating Pauw’s views, visit http://covnetpres.org/2013/11/time-amy-plantinga-pauw/]

Unfortunately, such views fail to take into consideration that true inspiration involves the guidance and activity of the Holy Spirit. Not only is God involved with the original composition of scripture (to the point where it does not represent the thought and opinion of man), he is also involved in our own reading of scripture. This is not to say that God somehow ensures that we will always properly interpret scripture. There are simply too many contradictory interpretations of scripture to make that kind of claim. But, it does ensure that we are not left to our own creative devices. We do not have the license to interpret and reinterpret scripture according to our own whims. There is a metaphysical grounding for the interpretation of scripture, and that grounding is the unchanging nature of God.

Having asserted that point, I think it is important to conclude by circling back around to the very thing that moved Crump to make the above assertions about backward illumination: the problem of how the New Testament authors seemingly reinterpreted Old Testament scriptures to have entirely new meanings. After all, my above assertion would leave open the idea that we could re-interpret scripture, so long as we could demonstrate that it is rooted in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to modern experience. There are two reasons that such an idea should never be entertained.

  1. If in fact the New Testament authors reinterpreted scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they did so having received direct permission from Christ. As far as everyone else is concerned, there is no such permission given in scripture. That license was only given to the apostles, not every follower of Christ. John 16:13 is often misapplied to all Christians. It is important to note that in this passage Jesus is addressing the apostles and providing a future promise regarding biblical inspiration. This promise is never repeated in relation to the church in general.
  2. The New Testament authors may have divinely re-purposed certain Old Testament passages, making them prophecies about Jesus, but it is simply inaccurate to claim that they reinterpreted these passages. There is a subtle distinction to be made here. The Old Testament passages re-purposed to have Christological meaning, never lost their original meaning. And yet, this is exactly what Pauw, and others who would like to change the Bible’s narrative on homosexuality, are advocating be done with Old Testament verses regarding the biblical view of marriage. Giving a verse added meaning, and giving it a meaning contrary to the old, are two entirely different things. If we are to maintain that the writing of the scripture was guided by our unchanging God to reflect his unchanging will, then a passage of scripture can never come to have a meaning that is contrary to the original. More pointedly, even if we somehow accepted the idea that God divinely inspires today’s Christians to interpret scripture, he could never inspire them to reinterpret it.

Of course, it would be more consistent with the traditional understanding of inspiration to simply maintain that today’s interpretations of passages dealing with the biblical view of marriage and sexuality are not reinterpretations, but rather corrections of previously held misinterpretations. This is a harder argument to make, but nonetheless one that is being made quite popularly by several leaders in the gay Christian movement. Wisely, this is not the path that most theologians have taken. Such a path involves denying the clear facts of history and appearing as nothing more than a blind ideologue. For most, it is simply easier to undermine the nature of inspiration. See my earlier post Should Evangelicals Evolve on Homosexuality? for an evaluation of such attempts.

Reformed Epistemology 

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The following is a review of Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015). Plantinga is representative of the reformed epistemology movement. I may write more on this later, as I have wrestled greatly with the issue of what generates belief in God. As a self-avowed empiricist, I am hesitant to embrace anything that resembles a rationalistic approach to religious belief. Do we have innate knowledge of God, that precedes any empirical evidence or experience? At a very basic level, reformed epistemology believes that belief in God is not based upon evidence or philosophical argumentation. However, it would not be fair to say that Plantinga is somehow arguing that each person comes “pre-loaded” with the knowledge of God, prior to any experience. In his mind, there seems to be a distinction between “cognitive capacity” and “cognitive content.” It is this distinction that I will explore further in a related post. For now, let this review serve as an introduction to the discussion.


KaCBAlvin Plantinga characterizes Knowledge and Christian Belief as a “shorter and more user-friendly version” of his much larger work, Warranted Christian Belief. He notes that he has made a few minor changes of emphasis, but follows the same flow of thought. The original book was a 500 plus page philosophical treatise forming the concluding work of a three volume set on warrant. The chief issue that Plantinga explores is the justification of Christian belief (one of the central goals of reformed epistemology). He is responding to multiple variations of the claim that Christian belief is irrational. His goal is not to demonstrate that Christian belief is true (he most certainly believes it is). He is simply trying to establish if the Christian has warrant for holding to belief in the Christian faith. Are Christians justified? In the end he maintains that Christians do in fact have warrant, but not on the basis of philosophical argument.

Chapter one begins by exploring the fundamental philosophical obstacle to knowledge of God: Kant’s distinction between the world as we know it and the world as it really is. Kant’s insights have had an enduring impact on religious thought since he first published his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Plantinga brilliantly points out that Kant’s premise is self-defeating (or at least as it is expressed in post-Kantian philosophy). The statement that we can’t think, say or know anything meaningful about God is a statement about God. If statements about God are meaningless, then the above statement (about God) is meaningless as well. The point is no longer valid. There really is no good reason to suppose that, if God exists, he couldn’t simply create people with the a priori capacity to know and think about him.

In Chapters two and three he goes on to demonstrate the idea that belief in God is properly basic. This is the critical point he is making in this work and what distinguishes his work as representative of reformed epistemology. Plantiga argues the widely accepted view that there are some beliefs which do not have to be established on the basis of propositional evidence (i.e. beliefs about our own mental life, self-evident beliefs, etc.). These are beliefs that are beyond doubt and that others cannot accuse us of being irrational or unjustified for holding. We don’t reason our way to these beliefs; they are merely thrust upon us. We can’t be unjustified in believing something that isn’t within our power not to believe. Plantinga is convinced that Christian belief falls within this category. God has instilled within his creation the cognitive capacity to form belief in God. Here Plantinga uses Frued’s own critique of religious belief against him by claiming that it is the unbeliever who has malfunctioning faculties. Unbelief in God is very much a result of the impact sin has on this sensus divinitatis. Much of this discussion is tied to insights gained from

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Alvin Plantinga

Aquinas and Calvin. If the world was created by God, then he would have necessarily imprinted upon his creation the ability to know him. Of course, that’s a big if.

While the sensus divinitatis is damaged by sin, it is not obliterated. Knowledge of God is still properly basic. But how can one move from belief in God as properly basic, to belief in the Christian faith (i.e. Jesus, the authority of the Bible, etc.)? Can we say that the Christian faith is properly basic and therefore has warrant? Plantiga extends his argument to account for the internal work of the Holy Spirit, which moves the Christian to form these beliefs. These beliefs do not come to us through our senses, cognitive faculties, or even the sensus divinitatis. They are a divine gift. And if it is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerating the heart and leading the believer to form these beliefs, then she has no power to resist them. They are thrust upon her, much in the same way as belief in God is through the sensus divinitatis. They are produced by a “belief producing process that is functioning properly.” Thus, Plantinga maintains that Christian belief has warrant.

Doesn’t this mean that Christian belief gets its warrant from subjective religious experience? How would this be any different from others claiming contradictory beliefs on the basis of subjective experience? In response to this, Plantinga cautions that just because there is this experiential nature to faith, it does not mean that faith is a blind leap. Faith should never be contrasted with knowledge. All of this brings Plantinga to the exploration of defeaters. It is one thing to come to a belief beyond our control, quite another to stubbornly hold to it in the face of formidable evidence to the contrary. While a belief may initially have warrant, it can lose warrant (become irrational) if the circumstances that formed it change. Plantiga explores several possible defeaters, arguing that none of them diminish the warrant that Christians have in believing in God and the Christian faith.

Throughout this work, I continued to wonder if Plantinga would ever get to answer the question of “if” God in fact exists (given how his argument for warrant hinges on this condition). His response is simple: that is not the point of this work. Ultimately, he is convinced that the truth of belief in God is not something that can be established by argument.

Black Lives Matter, Too

I remember being offended the first time I learned about the Black Lives Matter movement. The presidential campaign was just getting underway, and the earliest advocates in the movement were often seen on the news interrupting Democratic political events. They were angry. They were interfering with the ability of others to freely express their beliefs and ideas. Who can forget former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley being famously booed off the stage when he dared to exclaim that all lives matter. I didn’t get it, and apparently neither did O’Malley. Of course, I wasn’t the only one offended. Lately, it has seemed like every white person on the planet has taken to declaring that all lives matter. It’s time for us to stop doing this, at least until we can honestly say that it is true.

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. It was a single picture that changed my whole perspective on the Black Lives Movement. On the surface, the above picture reinforces what I initially believed about this group. I know it’s 2016, but I still get offended by vulgarity being used in public. To me, it’s classless and counter-productive to a cause. But if you allow yourself to get hung up on the signs in the front of this photo, you will miss the truly illuminating one just behind the orange banner. It simply reads: All lives will matter when #Black Lives Matter. That one sign best articulates the message that this movement has been trying to communicate, and reveals exactly why white people declaring all lives matter are actually the ones being offensive.

A black man who was recently shot in Miami, despite the fact that he was laying in the street, despite the fact that he was unarmed with his hands extended above his head, and despite the fact that he was fully cooperating with police on the scene, clearly illustrates that black lives are still not viewed the same way that other lives are. Racism, particularly toward African Americans, is still alive and well in America (despite how often white people like to claim that it is a relic of the past). If some have taken to claiming that having a black president somehow proves that we have overcome our racist past, then what does the shooting of Charles Kinsey prove? Just in case you missed this little detail, the white male sitting next to Charles, and the one suspected to be holding a gun, was not shot.

Saying that all lives matter, when the evidence indicates otherwise, is offensive. Instead of trying to “out shout” black lives advocates, we should be joining with them. In fact, as a Christian, it should be my goal to live a life that truly affirms the value of every one that bears the image of God. Simply saying that all lives matter, while not taking steps to ensure the truth of those words, is hollow. Saying it, doesn’t make it true. We have to actually live it. If all lives matter, then we need to stand up for all lives.

This week, L-Mani S. Viney wrote a compelling article in Vanity Fair in which he addressed why it hurts when people say “All lives matter.”

Do all lives matter? Of course! And you will be hard pressed to find any African-American who would say otherwise. But we will continue to say Black Lives Matter until African-American lives are given the same value as the lives of people from other countries, our police officers, your property, a lion named Cecil, and a gorilla named Harambe.

This little essay is not an endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement. You will not see me out in the street protesting with Black Lives Matter advocates. I will not be donning a black tee shirt. There is simply too much baggage, and bad ideology, associated with this movement that I cannot endorse. However, I can acknowledge the legitimacy of their anger. I can raise my voice against racism. I can vote for politicians who acknowledge the lingering reality of discrimination in our nation and are committed to doing something about it. When I see discrimination taking place, I can do everything within my power to stop it. And, most importantly, I will not say the words “all lives matter” until I am convinced that as a nation we actually believe that all lives matter.

Shouldn’t We Expect More From Theology?


Charry, Ellen T. By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.


The purpose of Christian Doctrine ought to be the formation and reformation of one’s character – the production of excellent persons. This is the vision that Ellen T. Charry had in mind when writing By the Renewing of Your Minds. It is a vision that she maintains has been largely lost by today’s theologians. Her modest goal is to reestablish the salutary (beneficial) nature of theology. She seeks to do this by highlighting a variety of past theologians (all of whom wrote prior to the seventeenth century), who exemplify this unity of pastor and scholar. She does not simply want to reawaken the reader to voices that have been largely neglected by moderns; she desires to distill a pattern which can be used to guide us in returning theology to its pastoral role.

The role of many of the great theologians of the past was not simply to formulate and elaborate on the meaning of doctrine, but to use it (and present it) in the same way as a pastor. Today’s church sees the pastor as the one who exhorts, evangelizes, comforts and heals; this is not how most view the theologian. Modern theology has lost its practical and affective aspects, focusing solely on the intellectual justification of Christian Doctrine. It has become too scientific. As a result, it is detached, lifeless and impractical. Once theologians and their work become irrelevant, so too does Christian Doctrine. This is not how it should be. Truth, especially truth about God, ought to have an impact. Doctrine, by definition, should be pastoral.

In the first chapter, Charry attempts to counteract much of the ideas that have led to the separation of theology from pastoral function. She maintains that while knowledge precedes character (character reform requires a renewing of the mind), practice is also needed. Expounding on knowledge is not sufficient. Knowledge must be coupled with practice; it must be engaged if it is to truly result in developing excellence. Charry refers to this as sapience. She then takes the reader through the ideas of the three leading figures who have contributed most to the loss of sapiential theology: Locke, Hume and Kant. She follows this critique by utilizing clinical medicine as an example of how knowledge and science can (and should) go hand in hand with trust. In the case of the medical practitioner, knowledge is useless without practice (the application of the knowledge). Returning to her initial epistemic thoughts, medical knowledge must precede medical practice, but medical practice in turn enhances and refines medical knowledge. She further drives home her point by turning to literature as an example of written work that contributes greatly to moral formation. Just as literature is aretegenic (conducive to virtue), so too should be theology. Of course, whereas literature utilizes characters and real-life scenarios to form and reform, Doctrine goes beyond these aspects and is far more effective than literature; this due largely to the work of the Holy Spirit and communal practices within the body of Christ.

In the final chapter of the book, Charry looks back on the theologians she has presented in chapters two through nine to analyze the process and principles they utilized in developing sapiential theology. She does not want us to simply re-read these great theologians; we must follow their lead. Key to this is her admonition for theologians to reconnect the concepts of truth and goodness, both in their thinking and in their writing. Theologians must also come to see themselves as pastors and spiritual directors. Once they do this, Christian Doctrine will regain its relevance and speak anew to the Church.

Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action once again finds itself in the news, as the Supreme Court just upheld admission policies at the University of Texas that take race into consideration. The following post was written about a month before this decision was handed down and is intended to get Christians to re-think how they approach so-called affirmative action policies. I think the default position for most conservative Christians is to label all such policies as reverse discrimination. I’m not sure my approach was well received when I presented it to a group of colleagues. I’ll let you decide for yourself.  

Affirmative-Action-1080x645

 

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech that has proven pivotal in shaping modern American policy regarding affirmative action. The goal of this post is to take a closer look at the content of his speech, and see if today’s Christian might gain insight regarding how to approach the issue of affirmative action. Do affirmative action programs represent a legitimate avenue for redressing the problems of past discrimination and eliminating racial inequities in the workplace? Affirmative-Action-demonstrationI want to be very clear in what I am proposing in this essay. First, I maintain that Christians should be advocating for what I consider to be the spirit and intention of affirmative action: the desire to help groups that have traditionally suffered from discrimination. I believe this to be in keeping with the Church’s call to help the poor and persecuted. Second, I want to specifically propose that affirmative action programs only be implemented at the most basic levels of education. Equality in the workplace, as a fact, can only be accomplished if all members of society are provided equality of opportunity to build knowledge, skill and ability. Following this course of action will avoid the kind of programs that involve reverse discrimination and show preference to the less qualified.

The term affirmative action was first used by President John F. Kennedy in an executive order from 1961 requiring federal contractors to take “affirmative steps” and “affirmative action” to ensure equal opportunity in the hiring of minorities. The word affirmative was merely used as an adjective describing the need to be proactive in ending workplace discrimination and inequities. After this order, the phrase quickly became the official nomenclature for any such policy aimed at ending discrimination and cultivating diversity. This order actually provides an early articulation of the goal of affirmative action policies.

. . . it is the plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin, employed or seeking employment . . .[1]

The early focus of affirmative action was clearly upon ending current workplace discrimination. As the policy would develop over subsequent years, employers could potentially lose government contracts if it was demonstrated that they were discriminating against minorities (or the disabled) in their hiring practices. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 cemented these policies, in addition to ending segregation policies in schools and places of public accommodation.

President Johnson’s landmark speech at Howard University (June 4, 1965) was perhaps the first time the issue of affirmative action was clearly and persuasively brought to the attention of the American public. While the nation as a whole was wrestling with the civil rights movement and the implications of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson articulated a vision that charted the course of future affirmative action policy and has sustained it to this day. Even though he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, Johnson deemed it to be insufficient legislation.[2]

. . . freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not LBJtake a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.[3]

While Johnson never uses the phrase “affirmative action,” he is clearly talking about the ability of minorities (specifically blacks) to adequately compete for jobs in the workplace. Reflecting back on the definition of affirmative action in Kennedy’s executive order, we can see that Johnson has added a new dimension. Johnson shifts the focus of affirmation action away from simply ending current discriminatory practices, to somehow compensating for past discrimination. This would later be articulated in 1977, when the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement specifically defining affirmative action as,

. . . any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.[4]

Johnson is arguing that simply giving minorities freedom from discriminatory hiring practices is not enough. If the minority applicant does not have the proper education or skills needed to compete for a job, they will likely not be hired. Quite naturally, it is the hope of every employer to hire the best qualified person for a job. Likewise, the perception is that most colleges want to admit the best students, as determined by standardized entrance tests and performance in high school. In this kind of environment, how can a minority applicant or student properly compete? Since minorities have a higher chance of coming from a single parent home, living well below the poverty line, and not having access to the best education, more than likely they will not be as well-equipped as those they are competing against.

The illustration Johnson provides in order to make his point (a runner being released from his chains and being asked to compete at the same level as those who never had chains), echoes the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he used a similar analogy.

Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having their legs off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.[5]

Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. (Photo by Julian Wasser//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

While certainly not logical arguments for affirmative action, both analogies go a long way toward explaining the intent behind the policy. Johnson and King are both trying to justify that affirmative action is needed in our society to recompense for past discrimination. More than 50 years later, it seems the need still exists. The most recent census data supports that 27% of blacks and 25% of Hispanics earn an annual income below the poverty line, as compared to only 12% of whites.[6] The same data also shows that 67% of black children, and 42% of Hispanic children are born in single parent homes, as compared to 25% of non-Hispanic whites and 17% of Asian Americans.[7] It becomes very difficult to maintain that the economic and social status of minorities today, particularly blacks and Hispanics, is not somehow related to past injustices.

For those who have not had to endure the challenges that have faced minorities, it is easy to take lightly the impact of past discrimination. Take the heritage of African Americans for example. Slavery in America officially began in 1619 when African slaves were first brought to Jamestown, Virginia. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, that this practice officially ended.[8] That means that the institution of slavery formally existed in America for nearly 250 years. What followed was a century of laws institutionalizing racism (preventing minorities from voting, attaining an equal education, etc.), the continued practice of peonage and involuntary servitude, public lynching (which was overwhelmingly carried out against African Americans), and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other organized hate groups. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act put an end to this era of slavery and discrimination, which all together comprised approximately 350 years of American History.[9] How do we quantify the impact that kind of history still has on today’s blacks? How does nearly four centuries of having no freedom, being the objects of hatred, and having doors of opportunity continually slammed in your face, affect the psyche of a people group? Putting it in this context, we can more fully appreciate what King is referring to when he talks about black children growing up “with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies.” Author Lisa Sharon Harper acknowledges that the black community has made great strides in overcoming racial discrimination. But she is quick to caution those who think we have outgrown the need for affirmative action programs. “We have made only two generations of progress after 17 generations of comprehensive, structural, systematized, and racialized oppression.”[10] She is not arguing for a balancing of the scales that would require minorities to receive 17 generations of protected status. However, she is trying to convey the enormity of the impairment that needs to be overcome. Returning to Johnson’s speech, he touches on this by acknowledging that blacks in particular have suffered from “a devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred and injustice.” Can we honestly claim that the poverty that still exists in the black community is not a direct result of this history?

Imagine a society where the local government adopts a policy of chopping off the left hand of all left handed citizens. For a variety of reasons, the right handed members of the community, who vastly outnumber their left handed neighbors, argue that such a policy actually helps the left handed by forcing them to learn to use their right hand. This will ultimately allow them to better adapt to the way society operates. The federal government becomes aware of this deplorable policy and intervenes by outlawing the practice. Unfortunately, this intervention only comes after every left handed citizen has already suffered the debilitating amputation. Now imagine two formerly left handed members of the community, John and Sally, applying for jobs. The federal government has rightly implemented anti-discrimination policies, making it illegal for employers to not hire the left handed. However, when John applies to the local supermarket, he is informed that he will not be considered for the job, as it requires the use of two hands (a requirement he obviously does not meet). There are simply too many boxes that need to be lifted and items that need to be handled. And so the job goes to a right handed applicant, not because he is right handed, but because he is more qualified. Likewise, Sally applies for a job that requires data entry. Because of her educational background, she is given an assessment that involves manually entering figures into a spreadsheet. While an applicant only needs one hand to do this, Sally’s right handed motor skills and dexterity are not as developed as the other applicants. Like John, she is not being discriminated against because she was formerly left handed. She is simply not as fast as the others taking the test.

The above illustration is an attempt to better elaborate on Johnson and King’s analogies.  Minority applicants can’t get the best jobs, not because they are non-white, but because they don’t have the skills and background needed to qualify for the job. This is the most compelling implication of Johnson’s speech. The issue minorities in America now face is not primarily racial. Certainly, most Americans would agree that there is no inherent inferiority in a person due to the color of their skin. The fact that the majority of Americans elected a black president, twice, somewhat illustrates this point. Race is not the primary reason that minorities struggle to find quality paying jobs and earn a decent living. For Johnson, this problem is due to a deficit in ability. Rather than being discriminated on the basis of race, it is more likely that minority applicants are discriminated on the basis of not having an adequate resume. To be sure, this lack of “merit” is rooted in past racial discrimination. But simply removing the barriers of racial discrimination in the workplace, has failed to truly solve the problem of enabling minorities to actually take advantage of their new found opportunities. Minorities are not competing on a level playing field because they have been historically cut off from the means of developing their abilities, have had to deal with persistent poverty, and have suffered from a wounded spirit.

Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.

Here Johnson again stresses ability. How can the majority of minorities be expected to have the same chance as their white counterparts, if their ability has been stunted by a heritage of discrimination? For Johnson “equal opportunity is essential, but not enough.” Johnson is saying that it is necessary to go beyond simply providing equality of opportunity; society must somehow guarantee equality of result.

Unfortunately the development of affirmative action following this speech did not properly focus on the problem of developing ability, choosing instead to focus on guaranteeing equality as a result through de facto quotas and reverse discrimination. It is no surprise that a few months after giving this speech, Johnson signed executive order 11246 greatly expanding the government’s ability to enforce affirmative action in the workplace. From this, government policy began requiring federal contractors to establish abolish_affirmative_action_nowgoals and timetables for the hiring of qualified minority or disabled workers, and also required annual reports indicating the number of qualifying hires, in proportion to the number of total hires in a given year.[11] Affirmative action policy was moving closer to fulfilling Johnson’s vision of guaranteeing equality of result; it was simply going about it in the wrong way. Commenting on Johnson’s message, political scientist Edward J. Erler states, “some form of unequal opportunity is necessary to achieve equality of result.”[12] If we are to focus only on equality as an end result, then we will necessarily find ourselves limiting the freedoms of some, in order to make room for the advancement of others. Erler finds, as have many others, that this is a blatant violation of the 14th amendment, as it establishes discrimination on the basis of race.

Christian ethicist Mark Coppenger has no problem understanding Johnson’s reasoning.

It is undeniable that for many years blacks were denied many freedoms by whites . . . The suppression of blacks was so thorough that they were unable to spring forward when the pressure was released. Generations of injustice had caused significant loss of capacity and confidence among blacks. The external limitations generated internal limitations. In short, blacks were not instantly ready to compete with a change in law.[13]

What is problematic for Coppenger, and should be for all Christians, is the approach that the Johnson administration and later affirmative action policy took in order to address this situation. There is no question that the discrimination historically carried out against blacks constituted an unjust harm to innocents. However, Coppenger refers to affirmative action policies that resort to reverse discrimination as “doing justice unjustly . . . a good aim pursued in the wrong fashion.”[14]

Philosopher Robert Nozick attempts to convey the complex nature of trying to compensate for past wrongs.

If past injustice has shaped present holdings in various ways, some identifiable and some not, what now, if anything, ought to be done to rectify those injustices? What obligations do the performers of injustice have toward those whose position is worse than it would have been had the injustice not been done? . . . How, if at all, do things change if the beneficiaries and those made worse off are not the direct parties in the act of injustice, but, for example, their descendants?[15]

Answering such questions proves difficult. But one thing is certain: society will not tolerate a plan for restitution that appears unfair. A preference program operating on behalf of whites would not be tolerated. Why should society tolerate one that operates on behalf of select minorities? Forcing employers to hire less than qualified applicants simply to meet a racial quota seems inherently wrong. This is clearly the conundrum we find ourselves in today. Is it right to discriminate against others in order to make up for past discrimination? In 1995, the Clinton administration conducted a review of government affirmative action programs. The official report of the study clarified that affirmative action programs entail a “national effort to remedy subjugation of racial and ethnic minorities and of women – subjugation in place at our nation’s founding” and that still continues to this day.[16] However, the report affirmed a commitment to discontinue any program that “creates a quota; creates preference for unqualified individuals; creates reverse discrimination; or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved.”[17]

All of these undesirable ramifications of affirmative action policy have come about as a result of failing to properly focus on what Johnson identified as the real problem facing minorities: stunted ability. “The next and more profound stage of the battle for Civil Rights,” as Johnson put it, should have been on redressing the underdeveloped ability of minorities rather than resorting to quotas. If society can place the emphasis on building human ability, as LBJ implies in his speech, then policies can be developed that address the problem at its root. In order to achieve equality as a result (or, equality as a fact), equality of opportunity is necessary. But, an individual must have the ability to satisfy the conditions required to take advantage of an opportunity. Moral philosopher Bernard Williams states that

[Equality of opportunity] requires not merely that there should be no exclusion from access on grounds other than those appropriate or rational for the good in question, but that the grounds considered appropriate for the good should themselves be such that people from all sections of society have an equal chance of satisfying them.[18]

This is where affirmative action policies must be aimed: leveling the competitive job market by building up the ability of minorities. Equality of result can only be achieved if every member of society has an equal chance. This means that the focus of affirmative action programs needs to involve education and job training. In this way, minorities will be hired on the basis of merit, not because of the color of their skin. This will also insure that innocent applicants do not suffer from reverse discrimination. If someone fails to get a particular job, it will be because someone better qualified was hired.

Affirmative action is best directed at redressing inequities of opportunity in education, at the most elementary levels. True equality of result can only be achieved in the workplace if there is first and foremost equality of opportunity in the building of human ability. Johnson hints at this in his speech when he says, “the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance . . . to develop their abilities – physical, mental and spiritual.” Again, Coppenger would agree, saying that society needs to “make every effort to give black children a first-rate education . . .”[19] A year after her retirement from the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor reflected back upon the Grutter case, declaring that deficiencies in education are preventing minorities from achieving success. She very clearly suggested that the success or failure of affirmative action depends upon its ability to target this as the real issue. But in making her point, she highlights the importance of early education, as opposed to higher education, which the Grutter case involved. “We have to make sure we are maximizing their educational potential when they are 8 rather than when they are 18 . . . we are falling down in that area.”[20] Applying affirmative action quotas to college acceptances possesses all of the same problems inherent with doing it in the workplace. But if affirmative action programs can be focused on building the potential of minorities, at the very beginning of their educational journey, then that foundation will lead to better performance in high school, higher scores on college entrance exams (eventually being, on average, as good as their white counterparts), fewer college drop outs (a significant problem for minority students admitted on the basis of racial preference criteria), and higher paying jobs.

On a practical level, focusing affirmative action efforts on education will necessarily involve investing more money and ingenuity in developing quality early childhood and elementary age programs in minority neighborhoods. It will also involve investing in support systems that ensure maturing minority students don’t fall through the cracks and drop out of school early. Magnet programs designed to target minority students is a great way of building upon a strong early education foundation. In order to pay for this, one might be tempted to advocate for equality in spending in all public schools. Schools in wealthy suburbs provide predominately white students with better educational opportunities due largely to the higher taxes paid by their wealthy families. Meanwhile, inner city schools in impoverished neighborhoods suffer from a lack of funding and offer inferior educational opportunities. Do we remedy this by equally redistributing tax funds from wealthier districts, effectively reducing the quality of educational opportunities for their families? It seems that we are facing the same fundamental problem with any affirmative action policy – limiting the freedom of some to advance the freedom of others. This may be an inescapable. If so, that is why affirmative action programs must be limited to this rudimentary level. However, I remain optimistic that our leaders can find creative ways to fund these programs, without limiting the opportunity of others.

It is important to note that true equality as a result will never fully be achieved, even if affirmative action programs are properly directed at education. Inequality in regard to human ability is a fact of life and should not be considered unjust. We are all gifted with different skills and abilities. While I can be subject to the same educational opportunities as Stephen Hawking, I will never attain the level of knowledge and insight that he possesses. Nevertheless, this reality should not dissuade us. Equality of educational opportunities will bring us closer to equality of result and fact.

At the heart of affirmative action policies is a desire to help the less fortunate, especially those who have suffered as a result of past discriminatory practices. The goal of this paper is to assert that Christians should at the very least share this same desire and advocate for policies that proactively seek to right past wrongs and provide every American an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream. As Christians, we have a moral obligation to help the poor and disadvantaged in our society, finding ways to restore them as valued members of the community.

[1] Executive Order no. 10925, accessed May 23, 2016, https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/history/35th/thelaw/eo-10925.html.

[2] Edward J. Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind?” USA Today Magazine, July 2004, 62.

[3] “Commencement Address at Howard University: To Fulfill These Rights,” LBJ Library Archives, last modified June 6, 2007, accessed May 20, 2016, http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/650604.asp.  All subsequent quotes from Johnson come from this source.

[4] “Statement on Affirmative Action,” United States Commission on Civil Rights, accessed May 20, 2016, http://www.usccr.gov/aaction/state77.pdf.

[5] Coretta Scott King, ed., The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (New York: New Market Press, 1987), p. 31.

[6] Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty and health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013), 14.

[7] Joyce A. Martin, Brandy E. Hamilton, Stephanie J. Ventura, et al., “Births: Final Data for 2010,” National Vital Statistics Reports 61, no. 1 (Hyattsville, MD: National center for Health Statistics, 2012), 43.

[8] Slavery did continue in some places in the south, and was not officially eradicated until the thirteenth amendment was formally ratified in December 1865.

[9] This was not just against blacks. It also included Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics.

[10] “Jesus and Affirmative Action,” Sojourners Articles, last modified June 25, 2013, accessed May 28, 2016, https://sojo.net/articles/jesus-and-affirmative-action.

[11] The 1972 Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act is an example of such requirements.

[12] Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind,” 63.

[13] Mark T. Coppenger, A Christian View of Justice (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), 142-142.

[14] Ibid., 143.

[15] Robert Nozick, “The Entitlement Theory,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 303.

[16] George Stephanopoulos and Christopher Edley, Jr., Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs (June 1995), Section 2.1.

[17] Ibid., Section 11.4.

[18] Bernard Williams, “Equality,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[19] Coppenger, Christian View of Justice, 143.

[20] John Fund, “Getting Beyond Race.”