Monthly Archives: October 2011

Us vs. Them, Or Schaeffer vs. Kierkegaard Revisited

My friend Raymond, a history professor, believes religion is at the heart of all human misery and turmoil. He ought to read How Should We Then Live?

In a few hundred pagesFrancis Schaeffer analyses the history of western philosophy, art, and politics, and argues that Judeo Christian ethics essentially civilized our world, until the reemergence of Greco-Roman thought instigated a downturn. The case he presents might at least prompt Raymond to reconsider.

The history prefaces Schaeffer’s theme, that the future of humanity is in dire jeopardy, thanks to our culture having accepted a world-view he calls the “existential methodology.” Under this system, he contends, we must base all decisions either exclusively upon “reason” or  “non-reason.” He argues that reason, strictly employed, insists we conclude that humans are machines, ruled by deterministic principles. And reliance on “non-reason,” by which he means feelings and impulses, delivers us into the postmodern realm of value-relativity from which the concepts of good and evil have been expelled in favor of “if it feels good, do it.”

Schaeffer traces the “existential methodology” back to Soren Kierkegaard. Without attempting to probe Kierkegaard’s thought, he asserts that the philosopher opened the gateway to relativism.

Since the book offers no evidence that Schaeffer read Kierkegaard, I suppose he is relying on the common misconception that Kierkegaard, often labeled the father of existentialism, was advocating for the death of critical thinking at the hands of a culture ruled by philosophical libertines.

Anyone who holds that opinion of Kierkegaard, please read Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

Schaeffer proposes that a return to Judeo Christian values is the only antidote to the collapse of Western civilization.  On this point, I tend to agree.  But I have to ask, “So, does this fellow mean we should believe in God simply because the faith is practical? ”

I prefer to think we are challenged to find what is true.

I’m no authority on Francis Schaeffer. But after one book, I fear the man is a prime example of the us vs. them attitude that has sent many bright, honest, and creative minds fleeing in dismay from the church and which may prove to be even more evil and dangerous than relativism.

by Ken Kuhlken, who now means to turn from defending Kierkegaard to reflecting upon the philosopher’s ideas.

We Are Not Droids — Schaeffer v. Kierkegaard

A couple weeks ago, my friend Bob Weathers mentioned that while at Fuller Seminary, he read something by Francis Schaeffer that criticized Soren Kierkegaard. I knew of and admired Schaeffer on account of his L’Abri community, but I hadn’t read his any of his books.

Now, while reading How Then Should We Live?  (written, like Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, in answer to the question Aristotle raised) I see Schaeffer’s problem with Kierkegaard.

He appears to blame Kierkegaard for the result of his ideas, for what the philosopher’s followers have wrought, which Schaeffer calls the “existential methodology” that places reason and non-reason (the objective and subjective, in Kierkegaard’s terms) as mutually exclusive processes.

Schaeffer blames this “existential methodology” for causing the flight of reasonable people from Christian ideals and ethics.  He maintains that existentialists, beginning with Kierkegaard, have convinced us that values belong to the realm of  “non-reason” or blind faith and therefore can never be universally or culturally applied. So, according to Shaeffer, on account of the existentialists, our culture as a whole considers values as relative only to the individuals who choose to follow them.

Certain existentialists may argue for the relativity of values, but according to my reading of and about him, Kierkegaard made no such argument. I have found not the least indication that he denies the value of reason, a faculty he consistently applies with a master’s touch. His rejection of reason is only of the insistence that it is all we have with which to discover truth.

Schaeffer appears to believe we must either rely exclusively upon reason or ban reason and rely only upon the “non-reason” of our instincts, desires, and wishful fantasies.

This morning I came across an article about scientists who contend that reason is only one of our tools, and perhaps not the one we most often apply, even while we consider ourselves reasonable, logical. Please click and read.

Surely reason is a factor in what Kierkegaard means by the subjective. Likewise, intuition, emotion, and perhaps divine inspiration, influence our reasoning.  After all, we are not droids.

This Schaeffer v. Kierkegaard conflict ought to matter to anyone concerned who has ever wondered if evangelists should aim to influence the objective or the subjective; the mind, the heart, or the whole individual. A worthy question, especially for those who take The Great Commission to heart.

Ken Kuhlken

Kierkegaard v. melancholy, post 10

The Innocents

Director Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (with a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote), The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, a newly-hired governess of an English playboy’s country estate, watching over two children, one of whom has just been expelled from school.  The children, Miles and Flora, at first seem nice and charming, but their behavior grows increasingly strange.  Miss Giddens begins to see apparitions which correspond to what she has been told of the previous governess and valet, a decadent pair who wound up dead.  She quickly becomes convinced that the ghosts wish to possess the souls of the children, and tries what she can to save the children’s lives.

Ghost stories tend to be the most subtle and genteel of the conventional forms the horror genre takes, and The Innocents, though frightening, is quite restrained for a horror film, coming in between the more overt horror of the classic monster movies and the later splatter movies.  We are never told for sure whether the ghosts actually exist or are the byproduct of Miss Giddens’s madness—those who can’t handle such ambiguity should probably stay away.  Not all the complexity of Henry James can survive the transition to the screen, of course, but the characterizations in The Innocents admirably provide the film’s staying power.

This is helped by the terrific performances of Deborah Kerr and the two children, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin.  The film also benefits from the lush cinematography of Freddie Francis, showcasing the lovely estate and the terrors hidden not only in the darkness, but sometimes in broad daylight.  Highlights include Miss Giddens’s trip through the house during a game of hide-and-seek, using only a candelabra for illumination, and the appearance of the former governess, Miss Jessel, standing across a lake.  It is the influence of Miss Jessel and the valet, Mr. Quint, over the children which provides the film with its main theme, that of moral corruption.  From what we hear, the two servants, adored by the children, had a sadomasochistic relationship, and encouraged dissimulation and deceit in their young charges.  The behavioral habits the children picked up from the dead pair’s example represent the “haunting” of the living by the dead.

Whether or not anything genuinely supernatural is going on in the story, The Innocents is a creepy affair that will provide brave viewers with quite a treat for this Halloween season.

James Garfield

 

Tough Guys Like Jesus

Following the lead of my son Cody who at age seven hoped to become a ninja, I practiced Tae Kwon Do for five years, under Master Jeong.  Among his admonitions were, “Don’t fight unless you are willing to die,” and a corollary, “Don’t take black belt test unless you are willing to die. “

The advice is about risk versus reward. If you fight with the least timidity, you probably will lose. The black belt test is meant to push you beyond your capacity.

Soren Kierkegaard offers similar advice about choosing the Christian faith. Making an existential choice, at least one so fraught with peril as following Christ, requires us to take a stand, to commit to an idea, value, or view with the intention of following it to the grave.  Like marriage, for those who take their vows in earnest.  So, wisdom would dictate, “Don’t take a stand, don’t commit, unless you are willing to risk dying for it.”

To commit ourselves is simple enough unless we mean to keep the commitment.  To keep a commitment, we don’t just choose once, but need to make the choice over and over, all our lives.  Remission in our will to stand firm often proves fatal to the commitment, and causes its purpose to backfire.  Again, think of marriage, or of church leaders who get busted for preaching one value and living otherwise and who in consequence bring disgrace and mockery on the faith.

Recently Zoë and I watched The Karate Kid.  The old one with Mister Miyagi.  I was reminded that the Tae Kwon Do spirit is “indomitable spirit”, which I as a black belt am supposed to exemplify.

At first, I felt confronted with a dilemma, and struggled to resolve the insistence on exerting my indomitable spirit with the Christian’s call to die to self, to consider our own power as nothing, but submit to God and rely on His power.

Then I saw that in order to stand up to discouragement, frustration, doubts, and the other forces that attack us all, and to recommit over and over to follow the choice I made, I (at least) need an indomitable spirit.

For those who would remind me that God can give us an indomitable spirit, I will point out that we still need to summon and apply it, and to remind ourselves of it when we feel forsaken, as even the best of us occasionally do.

Ken Kuhlken

Learning to Live in Perspective

         “tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner” –  French Proverb

In the early twentieth century, the British philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947 CE) developed a metaphysical system known as “process-relational philosophy” in which the fundamental nature of all of reality is one of process, dynamism, becoming, and perpetual change.  The intrinsic nature of reality is not static, but “processive”.  Whitehead sought to address the weaknesses of an emerging naturalism that favored being over “becoming”.  This post initiates a series related to Whitehead’s life, work, and philosophy.

In 1929, Whitehead published The Aims of Education, wherein he proposed an approach to learning that was rhythmic rather than linear.  Education, according to Whitehead, is not a matter of acquiring “half-digested” theoretical or knowledge; rather, it is the “acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge” (Aims 4-5).  Such knowledge is not, as Dewey contended, for economic gain or social utility – it is knowledge that permits us to live life and live it well.  Unfortunately, although Christians regularly speak about “life”, rarely do we make the connection between life and learning.

While “pedants sneer at education which is useful”, Whitehead argued that knowledge and understanding must be intrinsically useful for human existence.  He notes, “it was useful to Saint Augustine, it was useful to Napoleon” (Aims 2).  Knowledge and understanding “equip us for the present” and the present is “holy ground”.  Understanding of the knowledge of the past equips us for the present (Aims 3).  Such acquisition and utilization of knowledge is an active, but patient process that is lived in perspective.

Knowledge must be exercised and evoked in the “here and now” because that is precisely where life is lived. The essence of education is that it is religious and the essence of religion is life.  Religious education “inculcates duty and reverence”, duty to change the present with knowledge and reverence as a “perception that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, the whole amplitude of time, which is eternity” (Aims 14).  Thus, to Whitehead, religious education has nothing to do with dogma. On the contrary, it is full of becoming, dynamism, and life.

To attain understanding is to apply knowledge to life.  To live life well is to live with understanding.  To live with understanding is to see the present in perspective of the whole story.  The utilization of knowledge is when “general ideas give an understanding of that stream of events which pours through the life” of each human being (Aims 2). Thus, Whitehead concurred with the French proverb: to understand all is to forgive all.  To learn is to live life in perspective.

Joshua Reichard

In future posts we will explore the stages of Whitehead’s “rhythm” of education: romance, precision, and generalization.

References

Whitehead, Alfred North. The Aims of Education. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1957.

The Good Know Nothing

A quote by novelist Paul Auster rang so true, I used a phrase from it as the title of my current Tom Hickey novel in progress.

“Only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing.”

The best minds are too small to consider all the complexities around us.  The most objective are driven by emotions, needs and passions they can barely begin to understand, let alone control.  Surely all our beliefs might be illusions.

We claim to know so that we can feel secure, or to create a useful platform from which to further our particular agenda.  Churchgoers aren’t likely to admit to the extent of their doubts.  The wealthy commonly believe poverty equals laziness.  And so on.

When I passed along the Auster quote to my son Cody, he thought it through then came back with, “But Dad, if that’s true then the good must be ineffectual, because they don’t have the certainty about anything to make a stand.”

Here’s my answwer:

Those of us who can’t be satisfied with a meaningless life are by definition called to make an existential choice, to decide between alternatives and dedicate ourselves to a guiding belief.

As a path toward recognizing the best choice, Kierkegaard argued the value of subjectivity.  The highest and deepest truth, he contended, is discovered by an inward journey rather than by observation of external reality.  By searching inside ourselves, in solitary, devoted, open-minded exploration; by preferring the instincts of the artist to the over-confident ways of science or philosophy, we can discover realms beyond the external and objective.

Those who have chosen to believe but admit that they are choosing on the basis of subjective experience can draw a distinction between knowledge (in an absolute sense) and belief.  Then they can make a stand with dedication and passion, yet retain a lightness of heart and mind, a portion of humility.  With these they can avoid the defensiveness or arrogance of the know-it-all.

 

Getting It

The common belief about knowledge, at least in our culture, is that to claim knowledge about something we should be able to backup the claim with logic, sensory observation, personal experience, or a solid reason to trust the provider of the knowledge.

But sometimes we encounter ideas we simply know are true even though they don’t come through any of the accepted methods.  Occasionally an idea rings so true that it sets off a whole new vision and calls us to view ourselves, or an element of our lives, or the whole world, in a remarkably different way. Light breaks into the cave.  Suddenly we “get it.”

My earliest recollection of “getting it” is of my reaction to Feodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment.  The best I can express the experience in words is, I realized that compared to love, nothing else matters.

Later, the final lines of John Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn” knocked me out cold.  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” When I came to, the world was a far richer place.

And William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” floored me, and convinced me that the “rough beast … slouching toward Bethlehem to be born,” was real and something I had better reckon with.

Then came Sören Kierkegaard.  I wish I could recall the passage, because its theme has haunted me ever since, with the knowledge that Christian churches can be the enemies of Christ.

While most evangelists labor to bring people to church or lead them to professions of faith, Kierkegaard challenged us to undertake a passionate, vigilant, and persistent search for truth.  I suspect he believed that if Christ, as he claimed, is the truth, to Christ is where honest truth seekers are bound, whether or not they set off in that direction.

Churches, like schools or mentors, can be valuable resources, or distractions, or worse.

During graduate school, I had the privilege of hanging out with novelist Kurt Vonnegut. At a party, a few of us gathered in the kitchen, which is often the setting for the most engaging conversations.  Mr. Vonnegut used the platform to argue that if one of us worked in a gas station and the price of a gallon was outrageous, we should realize our responsibility for charging that price, and not blame the station owner or anyone else. Because we had chosen to work there.

B. Traven, author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, maintained that oppressed people should realize that they don’t need to remain oppressed. They could choose to die resisting.

What these bright fellows were getting at with their extreme examples is that each of us, not our nation, employer, family, or pastor holds the ultimately responsibility for our thoughts or actions.

As Kierkegaard would have us recognize, neither God nor our conscience, if we attend to it, condones the neglect of our capacity to discover the truth and act accordingly.

Which is good advice to remember especially now that a cadre of pastors have declared they mean to preach on politics.

Ken Kuhlken, www.kenkuhlken.net