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The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #156.1: Dream of the Rood

Nathan P. Gilmour

SONY DSCDavid Grubbs and Nathan Gilmour talk for a spell about the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood,” digging into its particular extant texts and examining the strange and complex relationships the poem maintains both with pre-Christian English heroic ethics and with the gospel of John.

Christian Humanist Profiles 31: Pete Rollins

Nathan P. Gilmour

magicianThere are Christian books that try to engage philosophical learning in a strong, rigorous manner, and there are Christian books written for a general audience. And then, once in a while, there’s a book like The Divine Magician, the latest offering from Peter Rollins. Advancing a theological agenda that’s part Hegel and part Nietzsche and part Derrida, Rollins approaches the complex task at hand with a storyteller’s style, inviting readers to a radical theology without the jargon and a challenge to theology that affirms faith.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #156: Adams and Jefferson

Nathan P. Gilmour

16808Nathan Gilmour moderates a conversation with Michial Farmer and David Grubbs on three letter exchanges between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Christian Humanist Profiles 30: Mats Wahlberg

Nathan P. Gilmour

brainvatThe epistle of Jude exhorts the faithful to contend for a faith that’s handed down, yet delivered once and for all.  In our own moment, tensions arise between Scripture’s testimony to divine act and some modes of modern thought, which by default regard stories of the fantastic to be unreliable at best and delusional at worst.  Mats Wahlberg, in his 2014 book Revelation as Testimony, invites Christians to reconsider the role of testimony as a mode of knowledge when we do theology, and Christian Humanist Profiles is pleased to welcome him to our program.

The Christian Feminist Podcast, Episode #20: Women’s Bible Studies

Victoria Farmer
  • Intros: Welcome, Alexis!
  • A listener e-mail

Knowing

  • Our personal women’s Bible study experiences
  • Gendered ways of reading the Bible: standpoint epistemology and gender-neutral language
  • Common structures and major players on the scene
  • Links between women’s Bible studies and “Women’s Ministry”

Reading

  • http://www.faithit.com/why-we-dont-need-womens-ministry/#.U_FPtoFMkYS.facebook
  • http://www.rebeccahalton.com/open-letter-womens-ministry-sarah-bessey
  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2015/january/what-happens-when-we-see-women-teach-bible.html?paging=off
  • http://www.crossway.org/books/women-of-the-word-tpb/

Passing On

Do Freshman Composition Students Have Minds?: A Response to Alex Genetti

Nathan P. Gilmour

Responding to our recent episode on Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “Honor in the University,” my former student Alex Genetti posed a fun question about the essay and the practice of teaching.  If you haven’t listened to the episode, give it a run: among other things, it was some of the first Hauerwas that Grubbs or Farmer had read, and David Grubbs finally sees now one of the influences that’s conspired to make me insufferable.

Anyway, Alex graciously granted me permission to reproduce the text of his email here, so here’s the question:

I enjoyed the recent episode on Stanley Hauerwas’s “Honor in the University.” I was wondering, though, if I could get your thoughts about a particular point: his assertion that “the Socratic function of allowing students to make up their own minds” is “completely corrupt” because “most students do not have minds worth making up.”  As a TA at Kennesaw State University, I’ll be teaching two sections of English 1101 come the fall, and the course I’m designing would involve letting students write papers defending their own positions on controversial issues.  Do you think that letting my students “make up their minds” about what they want to argue might still be compatible with Hauerwas’s model of apprenticeship?

One of the fun things about Stanley Hauerwas’s essays is that he doesn’t do a whole lot of systematic explication. His style, not unlike Wittgenstein’s or Plato’s, invites readers to conversation and doesn’t put a whole lot of check on how we respond.  (Yes, I think that Plato is aware of the irony that his own dialogue, the Phaedrus, offers just such a warning with no subsequent check on how folks interpret it.  Give the man some credit, folks.)  So what I write here is one way to take Hauerwas but never the only way to take him, and I’ll confess that to some extent (now Grubbs knows my secret), I try to do similar things with my own public utterances and public texts.

With that preamble out of the way, I think that Hauerwas’s basic point–that professors who simply let students “make up their own minds” do those students a disservice– stands, but he gets things exactly wrong when he calls that habit “Socratic.”  Anyone who reads Plato’s dialogues closely–and since I teach several each school year, I probably read them more closely than most by professional necessity–can tell you that Socrates is not by any means content to let his interlocutors make up their own minds.  Rather, his incessant questioning and contradiction are part of a process by which the teacher acts as a midwife for thoughts (Socrates’s image from Theatetus) and as a gadfly, an animal which by its nature does not let a horse “make up its own mind” about whether to move or not (Socrates’s image from the Apology).  Never content to let his interlocutors, be they his students or his peers, remain confident in bad ideas, Socrates perpetually puts to them question after question, so that even by the end of a brief dialogue like the Euthyphro, anyone who has genuinely listened to Socrates comes away, at the very least, shaken in terms of confidence and hopefully, if Socrates or a disciple of Socrates has done her job right, eager to attempt another account of reality so that another round of questioning can begin, always bearing in mind that dialectic’s job is to clear away what can’t be true so that we can get at what might be true.

(I realize, as I write this, that I’m taking up an argument against Stan Hauerwas in terms with which C.S. Lewis would basically agree.  I suppose strange things can happen.)

In a college composition class, to use Alex’s example, we teachers do as much un-teaching as we do teaching.  Students often come to us with a working assumption that the work of an academic introduction is there to “catch the reader’s attention”; I follow that act with a course of class sessions that tries to get students to conceive of an introduction as a text that establishes common ground, destabilizes that common ground, and proposes a way to think truthfully about the contestable territory.  Students often come to our classes thinking that there’s something called “passive voice” that’s the rhetorical equivalent of farting at the dinner table; I attempt to show them, in class and by means of reading assignments, that a more helpful question is not whether or not this or that verbal mood is good or bad in itself but where a given sentence’s subject and verb direct a reader’s attention.  Students often come to our classes thinking that “the essay” is a static form (five paragraphs, three-prong “thesis,” conclusion that restates “thesis”) that one must perform with some aptitude in mechanical imitation so that one can “get past” stupid required classes and move on to more specialized coursework.  I try to offer them a different vision of the essay, a genre that invites a reader to see more truthfully some segment of reality that before she might have ignored, a genre that stands as useful far beyond the first two semesters of college.  The ways that students respond to all of these invitations will vary, and some students won’t be ready to attempt such novelty.  But at the very least, my hope is that students must voluntarily maintain the old ways in the face of the new, and that’s both a student’s taking a stand and a student’s responding to something that the student likely didn’t carry, in as articulated a form, into the classroom on day one.

(I will grant, at this point, that some students studiously avoid anything resembling engagement with these new questions.  Those folks will do the minimum to pass my course, move on to their major courses, and likely do there the bare minimum to pass those courses.  This might make me a bad person, but I don’t mind letting those people spend their tuition dollars and then refuse to be educated.  They help pay the bills.  I try to maintain a democracy of opportunity and an aristocracy of desire: everyone gets invited to engage in dialectic in my courses, but I only worry about educating those who accept the invitation.)

All of that, of course, is just freshman composition; when I teach Dante and Dostoevsky and Platonic dialogue, and when I teach students to read and to translate Old English, and when I turn my attention to theological questions in Emmanuel College’s senior theology course (which I can’t get people to call “Profession, Vocation, Mission” instead of its old and bland name “Senior Seminar”), the midwifery and the gad-flying just keep on rolling, pushing students into questions of truth and goodness and beauty as they’re ready (I always hope) to confront more and more daunting challenges to what they’d learned and engaging joyfully in the art of un-teaching, always in that Socratic spirit of clearing away the intellectually inadequate so that we might strive towards more truthful ways of thinking and speaking and existing.

And now I’m ready to confront the false binary that Hauerwas seems to have intended to destroy with his rhetorical dynamite.  (And he always bring dynamite to a contest of ideas.)  Too many modern folks assume that the only choices, when a community educates the young, are indoctrination and consumerism.  If a school or a church or some other institution doesn’t want to make students adopt uncritically a body of propositions handed down, the only alternative, the way some folks frame the question, is to set other bodies of propositions in front of them, buffet-style, and to let them load up whatever they please on their intellectual plates.  (I’m tempted to make a joke about intellectual obesity, but I’ll leave that to my reader at this point.)  As a third way Hauerwas, certainly influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre and in turn by Thomas and Aristotle and the real Socrates of Plato, proposes that the supreme aim of education is neither to transmit bodies of propositions (and punish those who depart from them) nor to offer propositions that a mess of people have suggested and then invite students to pick the tastiest ones but to initiate students into a way of life. Putting students through an apprenticeship of argument, to teach them to disagree reasonably (I got this formulation from Gerald Graff), is neither to examine students’ memorization of a list of propositions independent of a larger notion of human character nor to let students simply choose the way of life they prefer without examining what it means for it would mean for a life to be good but rather to live a segment of life with students, posing challenges to what they know and striving together to do dialectic, whether in specialized modes (like the economic or the biological or the literary-critical) or in broader, more civic-oriented teaching (like our predecessors’ attempts to say what makes for political and ethical goods).

As Pierre Hadot has suggested, this was always the point of philosophy; when the ancients wrote about Platonists and Aristotelians and Stoics and even Epicureans, the emphasis was never first of all on statements that they affirmed as true in the abstract but on the ways of life, truth-seeking and goodness-loving and beauty-beholding, that they lived.  Philosophy, as they saw it, was always a way of life, a love of wisdom, rather than a collection of statements that might or might not have been true.  It’s no coincidence, I think (and yes, I borrowed this from Hadot as well), that with a couple of centuries of the resurrection of Jesus, Christians as well were known for their lives of common study and good works for the poor and their strange habit of regarding “the least of these” as sites of divine presence.

So that’s the way I tend to square that circle in my own teaching, and I recognize that my own aversion to teaching lecture courses is shining through here.  To teach the young is neither to insist upon dogmas divorced from life nor merely to let students choose their own dogmata.  Instead, dogma (which in itself has a good role to play) serves as the starting point for a process of dialectic practice that both requires and develops philosophia.  The reason we need to keep a few Socratic-types around is precisely because most of us, when we’re young, lack the philosophia (I’m naming a virtue here, not a college major) to start things rolling on our own.  The aim, if we’ve got our heads on straight, is to help our own students develop philosophia as long as they remain our students, in the hope that they’ll continue, once they’ve left our sphere of influence, always to strive for truth by means of dialectic.  Such is not the totality of human existence, but it’s one genuinely good facet of human existence, and I stand by my own vocation to invite the young into that way of life.

Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #155.2: Caedmon’s Hymn

David Grubbs

Caedmon_CHPalbumcoverDavid Grubbs chats with Nathan Gilmour about the hymn of Caedmon, a poem from the Old English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

Christian Humanist Profiles 29: Kevin Vanhoozer

David Grubbs

KJV_coverartWhat does it look like to be a disciple of Christ? Models abound, but two perennial rivals are the active life and the contemplative life—the Martha and the Mary—or, as we might say today, the activist and theologian. Both are ready to tally the weaknesses of the other: the activist doesn’t care enough about doctrine, the theologian cares a bit too much; the theologian isn’t engaged enough with the world, the activist is a bit too engaged. The theologian thinks the activist shallow; the activist thinks the theologian sterile. Why can’t these two just get along?

Well, Kevin Vanhoozer thinks they can. In his book Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine, Vanhoozer presents a dramatic model of Christian discipleship that shows the fundamental link between knowing and doing: the doctrine is the drama, as Sayers insisted, but it also should lead Christians toward their own dramatic performance—to act out the role of God’s people in the history of redemption.

Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Session 7: Philosophical Investigations sections 216-292

Nathan P. Gilmour

Want to read along with us? Get Philosophical Investigations from amazon.com.

Without a doubt rules do something when we undertake disciplined thought.  But when we try to articulate universal claims about rules, they fall flat.  Wittgenstein asks us to remember the sight of railroad tracks stretching out to the horizon (easy enough for one who grew up in Indiana) and suggests that when we try to imagine the universal applicability of any mathematical or other rule, that thought is something like the thought that those train tracks, extended without stopping, would be infinite (218).  Theoretically that might be true, but most of us are at a loss to say how that relates to actual railroad travel.

For all that, rules aren’t unavailable to most of us the way, for example, inspiration is (232).  Inspiration, the way we usually tell our stories of the Muses, comes unbidden and refuses to come when folks too readily rely on inspiration.  A rule, at least in theory, is as good at one point in a series as it would be at any other point.  Once again Wittgenstein’s work does not articulate its own rule so much as to encourage us, the readers, to examine closely what normally doesn’t seem worth a second thought.  In this case, something as unremarkable as following a rule in mathematics becomes, upon examination, something that one can experience but falls apart when one tries to examine its “essence.”  At one point, perhaps with tongue in cheek, Wittgenstein even remarks that “being guided by the rules” seems magical, beyond explanation, perhaps even reason for “giving thanks to the Deity” (234) as we perform it.  In the next section he calls such processes (as a joke?) “the physiognomy of what we call ‘following a rule’ in everyday life” (235).  The discipline here continues: the text invites us to formulate a universal rule, then leads us to despair that there are any rules, then demonstrates that our actual forms of life are unintelligible without the rules.  As example after example roll by, if we attend to the thought-experiments without falling to our temptation to regard them as museum pieces for beholding rather than exercises for performing, we learn both to mistrust any given theoretical formulation and to continue examining, knowing that something (rather than nothing) must be happening.

Such is not to say that everyone agrees on the content of such happenings, but without something like agreement on what linguistic forms constitute agreeing and disagreeing, there are no grounds to strive for truth in the first place (241).  We can disagree about how accurately this or that researcher has measured experimental results, but without some shared notion in place of what it means to measure, we can neither agree nor disagree (242).  So when the discussion returns to sensations and language, the right question is not whether private sensations and public expressions are separate but why in the world we let the border cases, those moments when people lie about being in pain, govern our theories of language rather than looking at the ways in which people usually experience pain as part of everyday life (246).  Lying, like other language-games, is learned, if we look at how people actually start lying (249).

Even more than lying, neologisms demonstrate the complex, learned-and-inevitable character of language.  If we decided to rename things, for the sake of precision, the only way to bring others along would be to define them in terms of words we already knew in common (261).  Thus the notion of a “private language,” even when somebody tries to imagine one, becomes an exercise in abstracting the self from relationships prior to the assertion of the self, and the more rigorously one attempts to separate any “private language” from extant, historical language, the more one must push against–and thus return to relationship with–languages not as one invents them but as one receives them.

Even more, when we press the concept of language, we realize that things like “looking up” definitions are inherently common acts; to test an unspoken and unwritten proposition against another unspoken and unwritten proposition is as meaningless as performing experiments that nobody observes; we can say we did such things, but nobody would regard them as worth calling “experiment” or “definition” (265).  Demonstrating the absurdity that arises in such attempts, Wittgenstein suggests that formulating definitions without some public reference is something like “giving a gift” to oneself by moving an object from one hand to the other (268).  Something happens there, but most of the time none of us would call that a gift, just as none of us would regard a definition, without public reference, really a definition.

Some of what’s going on here strikes me, in 2015, as somewhat useless.  After all, relatively few talk about “private languages,” except as a concept that Wittgenstein thought-experimented into oblivion, any more.  But when I teach, I still do encounter students who insist that “I don’t care what anybody thinks about me” and that “I don’t need other people to approve of me” without noting that such public utterances inherently invite others to think about the one uttering and that the character who doesn’t need approval is itself a type of character that one takes on in order for others to approve of one’s not-caring.  My hunch is that, even among those who don’t spend as much time as I do around nineteen-year-olds, other such analogues might make this sort of examination worth undertaking.

In sections 281-286, the last ones I’m going to treat in this post, Wittgenstein turns to the human body and the ways that it shapes our metaphors and grammatical tendencies.  In the translation of Philosophical Investigations that I’ve been using, Wittgenstein suggests that for pain to be intelligible, one must begin with the assumption “that only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious” (281).  To attribute such things to inanimate objects, as in a fairy tale or in a session of playing-with-dolls, is a secondary phenomenon, a provisional assignment of humanity to those things (282).  The pattern of thought here extends to the possibility of facial expressions (285) and localized pain (286): certain phenomena that we think of as abstract are tied to the human body, its size, and its limitations than our usual unthinking usage assumes, and part of the task of this book is, once again, to draw attention where before we’ve been inattentive.

Having gone this far in Philosophical Investigations, I do begin to wonder what it would mean to be a Wittgensteinian, if this were the only book with which one were familiar.  (I understand that other posthumous publications come into the picture, but this is the Wittgenstein book with which I’m most familiar.)  My sense, on this (my third) read-through of the book, is that I can’t really articulate any specific dogmas of Wittgenstein, at least not any that don’t get contradicted and then re-presented, as I’ve outlined above.  Rather, the main benefit of this book, for me as a Christian at least, is to train and re-train my own processes of questioning, not to yield to an unexamined dogmatism about philosophical questions but also not to relinquish the reality that something like rules and definitions and sensations and such affect what I do and what I say and what I think.  To maintain that tension requires work, and the sense I get is that Wittgenstein is helping me do that work.

I think that’s what I’ll stick to for now.

 

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #155.1: Banned Books

Michial Farmer

two-hands-holding-a-pair-of-booksMichial Farmer and Nathan Gilmour talk about banned books and the history of censorship.