An introduction to presuppositional apologetics

Always Ready: Directions For Defending The FaithAlways Ready: Directions For Defending The Faith by Greg L. Bahnsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a clear and forceful case for presuppositional apologetics. Bahnsen wants Christians to stand on the ground of the Bible and show how non-Christian perspectives cannot adequately account for their views about reality. One of the aspects that I really enjoyed about the book is that Bahnsen’s commitment to the Scriptures meant that the Christian must love the person he or she is debating, being characterized not by arrogance but by a “humble boldness.”

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History and myth in Tolkien

An excerpt from Bradley Birzer’s J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth appeared on the Intercollegiate Review’s site late last year. Birzer points out that the characters in Lord of the Rings cite the folklore of their world that Tolkien had created. Secondly, Tolkien believed that he was exploring a world that already existed, that “God authored the history of Middle-earth, in all its manifestations. Tolkien thought that he merely served as a scrivener of God’s myth. ‘I have long ceased to invent,’ Tolkien wrote in 1956. ‘I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.’ ”

The last paragraph of the post illustrates this:

Besides Ringwraiths and hobbits, other characters presented themselves to Tolkien, and he did not always have time to discuss them in detail. One of the most intriguing omissions from the tales is the story of Berúthiel, briefly mentioned by Aragorn during the harrowing journey of the Fellowship of the Ring through Moria. “There’s one exception that puzzles me—Berúthiel,” Tolkien told an interviewer. “I really don’t know anything of her. . . . She just popped up, and obviously called for attention, but I don’t really know anything certain about her.” He proceeded to take a spontaneous and rather long guess at who she might be, and why she despised cats. The interviewer, a former student of Tolkien’s, writes nothing of what must have been a bewildering and surreal discussion except that she enjoyed being in the presence of such a fine storyteller. Tolkien also regretted leaving Círdan, the keeper of the Grey Havens, as a minor and poorly developed character in The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion and the twelfth volume of the History of Middle-earth gives him a satisfactory and interesting context, but the reader never really learns about Círdan as a person. Finally, Tolkien seemed genuinely puzzled over the names, whereabouts, and fate of the two unnamed wizards (members of the Istari) who arrived at roughly the same time as Gandalf, Saruman, and Radagast. Known only as the “Blue Wizards,” they simply fade from the legendarium, never to be seen by any of the characters who populate Middle-earth. Tolkien predicted that either Sauron corrupted them to evil or they had become the founders of Eastern mystery religions and gnostic cults. Considering that Tolkien created such a complex and believable world with what he called an “inner consistency of reality,” complete with its own culture, religion, politics, law, peoples, languages, topography, and climate, it is astounding that there are not more loose ends in Tolkien’s mythology.


Crito and Rousseau

I assigned Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo for class this semester and last. In the Crito, Socrates’ friend tries to persuade him to escape from Athens before his execution, which prompts Socrates to do his usual dismantling of his interlocutor’s ideas. Near the end of the dialogue, Socrates pretends to converse with the laws of Athens. To the statement that the legal decision was unjust and therefore can be disobeyed, he has the laws reply as follows:

“And was that our agreement with you?” the law would sar, “or were you to abide by the sentence of the State?” And if I were to express astonishment at their saying this, the law would probably add: “Answer, Socrates, instead of opening your eyes: you are in the habit of asking and answering questions. Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?” None, I should reply. “Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?” Right, I should reply. “Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?- you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? And will you, O professor of true virtue, say that you are justified in this? Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and if not persuaded, obeyed? And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country.” What answer shall we make to this, Crito? Do the laws speak truly, or do they not?

I had read this before, but I don’t think that I had realized the parallel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of the “general will of society” and society’s right of life and death over its members.

The quote from Crito was taken from the Internet Classics Archive given the ease of copying and pasting. I read the Crito in Five Dialogues (Hackett, 2002, trans. by Grube/Cooper).

Secularization in the Netherlands

A two-part analysis of Abraham Kuyper’s impact in the Netherlands by David Koyzis recently appeared at the First Things site. The first part explained Kuyper’s approach to Christian politics in the early 20th century: “During his political career, Kuyper worked, not to turn the Netherlands into a godly commonwealth, but more modestly to secure a place in the public square for his Reformed Christian (Gereformeerd) supporters in the face of the secularizing ideologies spawned by the French Revolution. He did so primarily by means of his Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), which would come to govern the Netherlands at various times in coalition with the Christian Historical Union (CHU) and the Roman Catholic State Party (RKSP), thus anticipating by almost a century the ecumenical effort known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, spearheaded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson.”

Koyzis’ second piece offers an explanation of why the Netherlands has become so secular.

During the 1960s and ’70s a number of political scientists, including Arend Lijphart and Hans Daalder, turned their professional attentions to a phenomenon they called consociationalism. In a consociational polity the leaders of mutually hostile subcultures have learned to collaborate for proximate political purposes, even as their respective constituents remain fairly isolated from the others. Power-sharing occurs at the elite level, while at the grassroots each subculture has its own churches (if applicable), labor unions, hospitals, charitable organizations, fraternal associations and so forth. This social segmentation is often referred to by the Dutch word verzuiling, or pillarization. Kuyper’s efforts led to the establishment of a variety of explicitly Christian organizations parallel to their secular counterparts. (The painter Piet Mondrian grew up in this Gereformeerd subculture.)…

Nevertheless, I have found myself wondering whether Kuyper’s perhaps too peaceful coexistence with the forces of secularization in 1917 might not have been sufficient to maintain the subculture he led over the long term. Kuyper certainly wouldn’t have been pleased by his followers’ failure to evangelize, and pillarization needn’t lead to a lack of outward strategy, but historically such power-sharing agreements place a premium on reaching a least-common-denominator form of consensus and toning down differences. In a pillarized society, the distinct subcultures became adept at erecting and maintaining barriers against the other subcultures, yet the consociational arrangements they come up with have tended to be short-lived. Lebanon’s National Pact lasted from 1943 until civil war broke out in 1975. A similar arrangement in newly independent Cyprus lasted only three years. The classic era of Dutch verzuiling endured from 1917 to around 1966, when the divisions among the subcultures began to break down.

religious community focused only on its own survival in a hostile environment may already have lost the battle, and this is where the efforts of Kuyper’s followers perhaps fell short. If we genuinely believe that the redemptive story contained in the Bible is not just our story but the world’s story, then we have reason, not to keep it to ourselves, but to proclaim that news with urgency and enthusiasm and to live accordingly. A political ceasefire may serve the proximate good of intercommunal peace, but it can never be a substitute for the biblical command to preach the Gospel to the world, whose salvation ultimately depends on it. Different confessional groups may agree to disagree for the present, but the followers of Jesus Christ must manifest a confidence that the truth that sets us free is everyone’s truth, and not just a subjective truth peculiar to our own community. We should, in short, not be content to turn inward defensively but ought always to reach out to the larger world. If we lose confidence in the transforming power of the Gospel, we run the risk of losing ground in a conflict we may forget is still being waged, even under formal conditions of a political ceasefire.

Trueman: what Arendt got right about evil

In my last post, I noted some criticisms of Arendt. Trueman thinks that she also got something right about many acts of evil (just not Eichmann’s):

This evidence definitively contradicts Arendt’s portrait of a mediocre automaton mindlessly transporting Jews to the east with no care for the larger ethical questions of their ultimate destination. Is evil then still banal? In many cases, most certainly. The Final Solution could hardly have been implemented without a lot of mediocre functionaries who simply saw themselves as doing a job. Stangneth’s work shows Arendt’s thesis to be not so much wrongheaded as too simplistic as a generalization and as incorrect when applied specifically to Eichmann. Documentation to which Arendt had no access now proves that Eichmann was not a cog in the Final Solution machine. He was instead one of those who designed the machine, ran the machine, and took immense pleasure and pride in the machine. Indeed, he was still boasting about his part in making it work in the late fifties. And he did all this not because he was mindlessly committed to obeying orders but because he was passionately committed to an ideological anti-Semitism and to an apocalyptic vision of the race war.

Weaknesses in Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann

In his comment on my last post, Doug pointed me to this article, a review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Carl Trueman. He discussed some of the serious critiques of Arendt’s analysis: missing important portions of the trial, ignorance (through no fault of her own) of Eichmann’s delight in the Final Solution revealed in interviews not allowed as evidence in court, and her limited understanding of the way that the Nazi bureaucracy worked.

Adding his own twist, Trueman notes that Arendt wrote her dissertation on Augustine and should have been able to see through Eichmann’s defense at the trial. I’m not sure that she was quite as taken in as Trueman thinks she was, but she certainly did see him as a “unimpressive, inarticulate, cliche-spouting mediocrity.” Augustine’s writings could have helped her, though:

She could have learned from Augustine that evil is at heart deceptive and adept at manipulating aesthetics to achieve its desired effect, hiding the truth from others. Yet she chose to believe Eichmann’s performance, falling for his carefully crafted and self-serving script. Self-love, not banality, was the real key to his evil. Self-preservation drove him in Jerusalem, just as self-promotion had driven him in Buenos Aires, and a selfish desire for god-like power of life and death over others had driven him in the Third Reich.

On a related note, here’s a Guardian podcast that discusses the idea of the banality of evil, that has both criticism and defense of Arendt.

Arendt on Eichmann

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of EvilEichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This spring, I watched the recent movie Hannah Arendt, which focused on the Eichmann trial and the controversy over Arendt’s analysis of it. Her reports became this book. It’s a provocative and cutting analysis of the Holocaust, with the main theme being that many people went along with it — Germans, occupied governments, even the Jewish Councils — that could have done otherwise. Arendt also is quite critical of the political goals of Israeli PM David Ben Gurion and the prosecuting attorney who sought to achieve symbolic ends through the trial. She also points to instances where those who did not go along with the Final Solution did actually successfully resist. One of the most compelling of these is her discussion of Denmark, where refusal to cooperate frustrated the German government greatly.

The introduction to the Penguin edition by Amos Elon (you can find it here) was helpful in understanding the context of the book and the attending controversy:

Walter Laqueur wrote early in the controversy that she Arendt was attacked less for what she said that for how she said it. She was inexcusably flippant, as when she referred to Leo Baeck, the revered former chief rabbi and head of the Berlin Judenräte, as the “Jewish Führer” (she excised the remark in the second printing). At times her style was brash and insolent, the tone professorial and imperious. She took a certain pleasure in paradox and her sarcasm and irony seemed out of place in a discussion of the Holocaust. A good example was her obviously ironic remark that Eichmann had become a convert to the Zionist solution of the Jewish problem. It was widely misunderstood and misinterpreted.

To illustrate a bit of her approach, here’s a quote from her critique of German doctor Peter Bamm’s lament that totalitarian states refuse people the opportunity to die noble deaths for acts of resistance by making them disappear, and thus make resistance unappealing to almost everyone. She referred to a German soldier named Anton Schmidt who did indeed save Jews for 5 months before being executed, and then noted:

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of the massacres–through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery–were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can be reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.” (232-233)

One of the most credible criticisms of Arendt’s work that I have read is that she did not realize that Eichmann was actually an anti-Semitic fanatic who hid his hatred for the trial, rather than a man who simply cooperated with evil. I would like to find out more about the accuracy of her portrayal.

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