The flattening of the disciplines 

Carl Trueman notes an important trend in the way that contemporary educational institutions flatten the distinctions between disciplines and relegate the content of classes to insignificance:

As I prepared to return to the classroom this week, I remembered my very first foray into full-time teaching, some twenty-three years ago. I had just been appointed to the faculty at the University of Nottingham, and it was required that I attend a three-day training session on how to teach, and then to do a refresher course of similar duration two years later. On both occasions, my wife went into labor by day two. Felix culpa indeed, for I was then allowed to leave the pointless course prematurely and return to the real world. We had not timed the pregnancies that way, but what can I say? God is good. God is very good.

I remember the sections I did attend for the desolate and desultory nature of their content. Not a single thing I heard was relevant to anything I have ever subsequently done in a classroom. There were plenty of buzzwords: “goldfish bowls”; “shared educational journeys”; “transferable skills”; etc. And there was the usual pious claptrap: “There are no teachers, only learners. Lecturers and students learn together on their mutual journey.” I remember thinking at the time that that was self-evidently false. I was being paid to teach. My students were paying (albeit indirectly, in those days) to be taught. Follow the money, as they say.

What was most striking, however, was the reduction of teaching to the merely technical. What discipline we taught was apparently irrelevant. The room was full of historians, theologians, philosophers, medics, nurses, engineers. But that did not matter, because education was ultimately not about disciplinary content. Rather, we were to use our disciplines to teach “life skills.” Given that most of us in the room had made the disastrous decision to pursue Ph.D. studies and thus dramatically to reduce our usefulness to society as well as our earning potential, the possibility of our helping others with their “life skills” seemed rather remote.

This relegation is not necessarily intentional, but it does reflect the loss of confidence by educational institutions that any knowledge can be declared essential. Teachers may believe that, but humanities and social sciences courses are often offered as interchangeable credit units for the purposes of the institution. If philosophy is literature is history for the purposes of graduation, then what institutional support is there for the content actually mattering? Teachers obviously have issues to think through here as well, because they gain individual freedom when the institution does not care about content. More institutional affirmation that certain content is essential would mean more institutional influence on the classroom.

Reflections on history

The Lessons of HistoryThe Lessons of History by Will Durant

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Will and Ariel Durant’s reflections after writing a huge 11-volume history of civilization was probably most interesting to me as a work reflecting the time it was published (1968). Their evolutionary, progressive view of history and civilization is not as common in our more relativistic and fragmented times, and their confidence that religion would decline and the welfare state would continue to advance (perhaps toward a Hegelian synthesis of capitalism and communism) reflected a time before the late-20th-century resurgence and expansion of Christianity and Islam and the rise of neoliberalism. They can’t be blamed for not anticipating those things, but it does seem that their confidence was misplaced.

To be fair, they also note that civilizations grow and decay and that religion might return if modern civilization declined, so they were not forecasting a permanent secular paradise. And in some ways they were more right than they knew about secularization in Europe. At this point, it may not have been as clear that European Catholicism would also decline, meaning that the speculation about Catholicism recapturing France, Switzerland, and Germany through higher birthrates was based on a trend that would not last. Philip Jenkins writes in God’s Continent that the decline of European Protestantism preceded Catholicism.

The Lessons of History is interesting and well-written, but the narrowness of the perspective makes it of limited value today. I hate to say that about something written by people vastly more learned and accomplished than I am, but there it is.

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Herbert Butterfield on history

Peter Leithart posted this quote from Herbert Butterfield:

We might say that this human story is like a piece of orchestra music that we are playing over for the first time. In our presumption we may act as though we were the composer of the piece or try to bring out our own particular part as the leading one. But in reality I personally only see the part of it, shall we say, the second clarinet, and of course even within the limits of that I never know what is coming after the page that now lies open before me. None of us can know what the whole score amounts to except as far as we have already played it over together, and even so the meaning of a passage may not be clear at once – just as the events of 1914 only begin to be seen in perspective in the 1940s. If I am sure that B flat is the next note that I have to play I can never feel certain that it will not come with surprising implications until I have heard what other people are going to play at the same moment. And no single person in the orchestra can have any idea when or where this piece of music is going to end.

The quote is from Christianity and History.

21st-century communism

Alan Johnson wrote a very interesting analysis of a new wave of communist thinkers in World Affairs. Johnson is on the editorial board of Dissent, an avowedly democratic socialist magazine. According to its description, Dissent has been anticommunist since its founding in the 1950s. I happened on Disssent several years ago through Michael Kazin’s excellent takedown of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Johnson contends that the new authors’ proposals of communism as the solution to capitalism in crisis are neither coherent nor humane. Here is Johnson’s description of the new communists’ writing on the crimes of previous communist regimes:

Finally, the refusal to face up to the criminal record of actually existing communism as a social system, let alone stare into that abyss until one’s politics and theory are utterly reshaped by it, tells us that the new communism remains within the orbit of leftist totalitarianism. These evasions take several forms.

First, for all the talk of new beginnings, new communists often deploy what Louis Althusser mockingly called “quotes from famous people” as a substitute for serious social science. For example, Zizek argues that “one should shamelessly repeat the lesson of Lenin’s State and Revolution” (as if the book holds the lessons, not the history). And Toscano makes the case for “communist equality” by simply repeating phrases from Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme. Second, a bleaching language is employed to redescribe mass murder. Thus, there were “many restrictions on freedom” under Stalin, mumbles Gianni Vattimo. Third, a hollow rhetoric of resurrection is deployed to market the idea of leftist revival: “communism is rising from its grave once again,” celebrates Zizek. Fourth, the new communists like to change the subject—from the crimes of communist regimes to the “long history of struggles, dreams, and aspirations that are tied to [communism].” So, Jacques Rancière is able to write that “communism is thinkable for us as the tradition created around a number of moments . . . when simple workers and ordinary men and women . . . struggle.” For its millions of victims, of course, it is thinkable as something else. Fifth, there is a brazen promotion of evasion as a virtue. The “culture of memory” is right-wing, according to Bruno Bosteels, so it must be combated by “active forgetfulness”; Badiou declares that “the period of guilt is over”—as if it ever started. About criticism of Stalin and other communist leaders, he warns that it is “vital not to give any ground in the context of criminalization and hair-raising anecdotes in which the forces of reaction have tried to wall them up and invalidate them.” Sixth, definitional fiat is used to ward off criticism. Thus Zizek: “There can be a socialist anti-Semitism, there cannot be a communist one. (If it appears otherwise, as in Stalin’s last years it is only as an indicator of a lack of fidelity to the revolutionary event.)”

Johnson also thinks that the communist revival poses a danger:

The democratic socialist Eduard Bernstein issued a warning at the turn of the nineteenth century to his fellow Marxists. The danger of a “truly miraculous belief in the creative power of force,” he prophesied, is that you begin by doing violence to reality in theory, and end by doing violence to people in practice. What distinguishes the new communism is that its leading partisans are fully aware of that potential . . . and embrace it as a strategy. As Zizek puts it:

The only “realistic” prospect is to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (“human rights,” “democracy”), respect for which would prevent us from “resignifying” terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice . . . if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus [left-wing fascism], so be it!

This flirtation with the notion of left-fascism helps explain why the new communism needs to be taken seriously. Communism itself, of course, is dead. But when Zizek recommends the “insight” of the 1970s Baader-Meinhof gang that “in an epoch in which the masses are totally immersed in capitalist ideological torpor . . . only a resort to the raw Real of direct violence . . . can awaken them,” we should be concerned. Recent history tells us that authoritarian philosophical and political ideas can still find their way to the streets in advanced capitalist societies. The new communist ideas might yet connect with the young, the angry, and the idealistic who are confronted by a profound economic crisis in the context of an exhausted social democracy and a self-loathing intellectual culture. Tempting as it is, we can’t afford to just shake our heads at the new communism and pass on by.

Ancient evidence of silent reading

Peter Leithart notes Bernard Knox’s argument that, contrary to the usual idea that ancient reading was almost always done aloud, “short document[s]” were assumed to have been read silently:

According to another scholar’s summary of his argument: “Knox adduced two examples from fifth-century Attic drama in which silent reading actually takes place on stage before the audience. In Euripides’ Hippolytus, Theseus notices the letter which is tied to the hand of his now dead wife. He opens it, the chorus proceeds to sing several lines, and then Theseus bursts out in a cry of grief and anger (lines 856-74). As Knox says, ‘Clearly he has read the letter and read it silently—the audience watched him do so.’”

Further: “The other passage comes from the prologue of Aristophanes’ Knights. There, a Demosthenes opens a writing-tablet containing an oracle and while looking at it he continuously expresses his amazement at its contents, asks for more drink but does not tell what he is reading. His partner presses him with demands for information, which Demosthenes finally gives (lines 116-27). Both passages make sense only if we infer that both Theseus and Demosthenes are reading silently.”  Knox himself concluded that “for fifth and fourth century Athens . . . silent reading of letters and oracles (and consequently of any short document) was taken completely for granted.”

Although I’m not familiar with Knox’s full argument, this could be a good illustration of how historians of the ancient world (and afterwards) have to be creative in the ways that they learn about the past because so much evidence has not survived. Of course, that increases the risks of erroneous interpretations, too.

One person, two natures: anhypostasis and enhypostasis

Sometimes I’m amazed by the questions that theological definitions raise.  They make sense when people ask them, but so often there are great theological questions that I wouldn’t think to ask.  David Mathis, writing a two post series on the Desiring God blog (links here and here), explored the implications in historical theology of the definition of Chalcedon that Christ has one person and two natures.  It seems that some asked how this could be once Christ took on human flesh.  The question seemed to be whether Christ had taken on a second person at the incarnation, as well as a second nature.

The two important terms were anhypostasis (that Christ did not take on a human nature that had its own personhood defined independently from Jesus) and enhypostasis (that Christ’s human nature receives its personhood from Jesus, the second person of the Trinitarian God).  There are several quotes that Mathis includes from theologians, and this one from Fred Sanders’ Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology summed up the doctrines well:

On the one hand, the human nature of Jesus Christ is in fact a nature joined to a person, and therefore enhypostatic, or personalized. But the person who personalizes the human nature of Christ is not a created human person (like all the other persons personalizing the other human natures we encounter); rather it is the eternal second person of the Trinity. So the human nature of Christ is personal, but with a personhood from above.

Considered in itself, on the other hand, and abstracted from its personalizing by the eternal person of the Son, the human nature of Jesus Christ is simply human nature, and is not personal. The human nature of Christ, therefore, is both anhypostatic (not personal in itself) and enhypostatic (personalized by union with the eternal person of the Son).

On this subject, I thought that I might share the way that I try to explain the Christological disputes of the 5th century to students in the first part of my Western Civ survey course.  Do you think that it’s helpful and, just as more important if not moreso, accurate?

I use analogies of liquids in glasses, with the liquids representing nature and glasses representing persons.

  • Nestorian view of Christ as having two persons and two natures: Since in the Nestorian view the divine nature comes upon a person and Nestorius tried to distinguish between the actions of the human Christ and the divine Christ, my analogy here is a smaller glass filled with the divine nature floating in a larger glass filled with the human nature.  (Actually, this might be a little clearer than the way that I’ve presented it in the past because I don’t know if I distinguished which glass was this).  The two separate glasses are the two separate persons.
  • Monophysite view of Christ as having one person and one nature: Here I portray salt (or food coloring) and water being mixed together in a solution.  The problem with this view was that Christ’s divine nature is changed by being mixed with the human nature.
  • The Chalcedonian view of Christ as having one person and two natures: There’s one glass that contains oil and water.  The two natures are separate (and in communication), but are contained in one person.

I’d be very grateful for your feedback on this!