The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Thursday, December 19, 2013

We know more than we can tell

Thus said the 20th century scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi.  Tom Christenson, in his book “The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education” tips his hat to Michael Polanyi on several occasions.  In one instance, as Christenson explains what our approach to knowing should be, he says the following:

“Our own approach, I would argue, should be the opposite of Descartes’ exclusivism.  Let us begin by looking at knowing inclusively, by noting the variety of ways of knowing there are and then examine the variety of modes such exemplars embody:

-Being able to recognize one’s own camel in a herd of 200 camels
-Knowing how to successfully turn the corner on a bicycle
-Driving a car – safely getting where we wanted to go
-A doctor diagnosing a disease
-A teacher detecting that a student does not yet understand
-A young man discovering that he is gay [note: I would say has homosexual inclinations]
-A child learning to recognize that she is experiencing a headache (not as simple as it seems)
-A person realizing she was born (or do we only know this on someone else’s authority?)
-A person realizing that he will die (Tolstoi’s Ivan Illich)
-A student concluding on the basis of lab experiments that the unknown substance is aluminum oxide
-A psychologist diagnosing a patient’s problem
-A physicist concluding that the earth is in motion
-Knowing what time it is in spite of not being able to say anything non-metaphorical about it (St. Augustine’s puzzlement)
-Einstein postulating that time is the fourth dimension
-Shakespeare seeing deeply into the human psyche
-A reader seeing deeply into Shakespeare
-Annie Dillard experiencing “the tree with the lights in it”
-A parent realizing deep love for his children
-A child learning the language of his parents well enough to say, “I don’t want to eat because I amn’t hungry”
-A student of Buddhism understanding the truth of the teacher’s claim: “The self is a cultural construct, not a reality”
-A young woman knowing her self well enough to set priorities for her life, turning down a proposal of marriage
-A man discovering that some of his most basic beliefs about human fulfillment were false
-A grandmother once again making flawless piecrust
-A student finally “getting” a poem by Wallace Stevens
-A witness to a crime testifying under oath
-A couple dancing a samba

(pp. 105 and 106)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Should libraries ever be “neutral”? Can any library? One Christian’s perspective (part III of III)

Picking up from part I and part II

There is no doubt that all of us have the desire to know. It has been said that “knowledge is power” and while that is undoubtedly true, we are not only trying to simply gain more control of the cosmos when we endeavor to learn.  There are many things in life that we are simply curious about.  We seek “knowledge for its own sake” even as we sometimes seek to know things that others around us may not deem to be appropriate, relevant, or even true.   This was true of human beings even before the Enlightenment. 

That said, perhaps even this should give us pause, especially after considering the metaphysical claims of the Sprint ad embedded here (take some time to look at it).  Consider these challenging words from Parker Palmer’s To Know As we Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey:

Curiosity sometimes kills, and our desire to control has put deadly power in some very unsteady hands.  We should not be surprised that knowledge launched from these sources is heading toward some terrible ends, undeflected by ethical values as basic as respect for life itself….  If curiosity and control are the primary motives for our knowing, we will generate a knowledge that eventually carries us not toward life but death.

But another kind of knowledge is available to us, one that begins in a different passion and is drawn towards other ends.  This knowledge can contain as much sound fact and theory as the knowledge we now possess, but because it springs from a truer passion it works towards truer ends.  This is a knowledge that originates…. In compassion, or love (pp. 26-27, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, quoted in Christensen, p. 99)

In addition, wisdom would tell us that some knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands, some knowledge is simply dangerous, and all will agree that there are at least some things we know (until they are shown to be false!) that need not and perhaps should not be doubted!  All this said, what does this mean for our conversation about this issue of neutrality?  Can more be said?  Is this something that we should strive for at all, even if it is nothing more than an ideal?

While there are certainly times in life where it is wrong to be “neutral”, I do think that there are times and places to strive for this – and to encourage such efforts – as much as possible.  By “neutrality” I simply mean giving a voice to persons who attempt, by their education and reasoning, to persuade others regarding issues that are very important to them and others.  In times such as these, it is a very special teacher who can hold student’s interest and is able to not tip his or her hat as to which way she leans about what she thinks about this or that – even if it is philosophically na├»ve to say that any person can truly be neutral!  As regards libraries, striving for some kind of neutrality – across a narrow or broad selection of topics – may not be able to be much of a focus for some as their missions will understandably guide the material that they select.  That said, libraries in aggregate can get very close to just this ideal, via the modern marvel of interlibrary loan, allowing the exchange of perhaps very disparate materials from very disparate institutions!

In the end, I think all real neutrality is impossible: we are all idealogues, every one.  The fact that evidence which is public, relevant and convincing is (evidently) important to many of us cannot change this fact – a fact that I do not think is necessarily bad.  The real problem and question, I suggest, is what kind of idealogues are we?  It seems to me that libraries are often made up idealogues who at least occasionally like to have their views challenged, which is another thing that attracted me to the profession.

That said, I can’t necessarily say the same thing for some other persons of the “liberally educated persuasion”.  Just the other day while listening to N.P.R., I heard a program in which highly educated men – men whom I have generally found to be quite reasonable – made it clear in no uncertain terms that “religious freedom” – that is the practices which flow from the beliefs I have discussed in this series – will need to be a casualty of the continued march of progress (ah, progress).  It was a jarring and disconcerting experience, even as I certainly am not ready to resort to feverish language about persecution. : )

Nevertheless, experiences like these makes statements like the following, from Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s book “Libraries and the Enlightenment”, all the more interesting to me: “Devout religious believers who also believe that everyone should worship as they do understandably dislike or even fear freedom and autonomy” (p. 35)

Is it possible that the “devout religious believers” Bivens-Tatum mentions might be a broader category than he thinks?  Is it possible that the number of those who fear “freedom and autonomy” might be more than he suspects?  In any case, I am always curious to know where men and women who sign on to the purely secular version of Enlightenment think “the rights of man” came from – if not simply from the “will to power”!  It seems to me that even highly educated persons can be as unreflective about questions like these as can those who produced the mind-blowing (or destroying!) Sprint ad above.  No, if this series of posts has caused anyone to even doubt the veracity of Bivens-Tatum’s statement above – as regards some devout Christians at least – it will have been worth my efforts. 

Just because I, for example, might have extremely strong convictions about what is true – that I generally don’t think are good to doubt – does not mean that I can’t genuinely engage other’s views and “learn from the disagreement” (the Catholic Christian and librarian Gabriel Naude [1600 – 1653] said: “God permits us to profit from our enemies”, quoted in Bivens-Tatum, 153).  And it definitely does not mean that I do not sometimes wonder whether I could be wrong about this or that.  And if even after confronting numerous persons and books of the contrary opinion I continue to hold on to a fierce conviction that everyone should indeed worship Christ, this certainly does not mean that I need to, as Christensen says, “beat someone over the head with [my] version of reality, truth, beauty, or goodness”.  Much less that I need to, as some frequently imply, pick up the sword about it if we disagree, i.e. be a “human[] willing to destroy for the sake of their abstractions”!* (p. 79, 80, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education, 2004 ; see p 123 and 192 as well)  The New Testament, after all, informs those who believe that Jesus Christ is God speaking to them in these “last days” that their weapons are not fleshly, but spiritual.  There are some judgments that only God is meant to administer.

But here is one judgment I feel confident in making: libraries – and perhaps “Enlightenment libraries” most of all – are a wonderful gift of God.

Soli Deo Gloria.

*though I certainly consider Christian doctrine more than an abstraction!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Should libraries ever be “neutral”? Can any library? One Christian’s perspective (part II of III)

Picking up from part I

The main problem with Bivens-Tatum’s argument, as I pointed out to him, is that he is assuming that there actually can be topics that have nothing to do with religion.  To say that this is not the case does not mean that religion needs to be explicitly mentioned whenever a topic is discussed, but simply that it could be, because “all truth is God’s truth” as one second century believer said.  To a Lutheran’s ears, it sounds a bit strange to talk about a Christian theory of economics, psychology, or physics – as Calvin college actually does – and yet, as Christenson points out in his book, this approach has often yielded some rich insights (p. 94)

Notice also that a lot of this approach certainly seems to go hand in hand with some of the rich insights from thinkers like Michael Polanyi, E.F. Schumacher, and Charles Taylor, Christian men who wrote, or have written, for “secular” audiences throughout their careers.  Michael Polanyi, for one, is known for his observation that “we know more than we can tell”.  He further asserted that knowledge was fundamentally personal and always involved “passionate and personal commitment” – and that we can speak of “knowledge as performance” or being “embodied”.  No one can stop the passionate desire human beings have to know, and it permeates the whole of our lives!   As Christenson says, “knowledge contains its own morality”.  Needless to say, this means that the Enlightenment efforts of men like Descartes (“the only things that can be proved, demonstrated, and verified beyond a doubt can be called ‘knowledge’”) and David Hume (there is a “fact-value split”) were, at the very least, “a bit off”.  It seems the Greek philosopher Aristotle would fall short here as well. 

So at the very least, one could say that the approach towards knowledge that Calvin practices is analogous to the various feminist and minority perspectives that have generally come to be seen as being valuable when it comes to “the discovery and promulgation of the truth” (as John Hopkins University, the first research university in America, describes its mission).  That said, of course from a Christian perspective this would not be going far enough – for the Christian “worldview” would seek to distinguish itself from feminist views, Marxist views, etc.  After all, it is not just another perspective, but one that includes claims rooted in a narrative of the cosmos’ origin and destiny – and with human beings at the center of the whole show.

But of course, this viewpoint has always been vigorously questioned by Christianity’s opponents.  As Bivens-Tatum implies in the statement quoted earlier, what gave the Enlightenment project an advantage over beliefs that were religious or political was its central focus on not only “autonomous” human reason and consistent methodologies but also various kinds of physical evidence.  As he says in his article: “Having no publicly available evidence to support a statement is prima facie proof that statement is false. The burden of proof is on the person without evidence, not the skeptic.”  Here the views of Michael Polanyi become even more interesting.  While his views can indeed be used to defend Christianity from views of reality that do not give enough time to the subjective, or personal, aspect of knowledge, there is also something that tracks very nicely with these Enlightenment concerns in Polanyi himself.  The fact that knowledge is subjective – meaning that it cannot be separated from the experience of living persons – does not mean that the “objective”, as we have come to call it, should be minimized. In fact, Polanyi tells us, increased “objectivity” is the accomplishment of personal subjects, who, having been guided by apprentices, willingly dedicate themselves to making contact with the external world. 

Concerns about knowledge’s relation to objectivity are no doubt reflected in recent comments in the N.Y. Times from Mark A. Chancey, who is concerned about the topic of religion teaching in public schools, which the law says is supposed to happen in a “value-neutral” way.  He says: “So many people who love the Bible and read the Bible, especially in America, under the influence of Protestant sensibilities, read it as a historically accurate text.”  Note that while this man is concerned about neutrality of some who teach this, he himself brings certain assumptions to the table – and is clearly not neutral either!  Of course none of us can be, even if we can in due diligence try our best to accurately (and perhaps even winsomely) represent the views of others.  That said, the most critical question this example brings up is not whether or not persons from various religions believe their sacred texts are true (in this or that sense), or whether or not it is even possible to teach a class on world religions class in a truly “value-neutral” way, but whether or not the topic matter really is true, in a sense akin to what Polanyi says about objectivity.  This question, of course, is always right beneath the surface, and it can’t be held underwater forever. 

 I cannot speak for other religions, but I find it very compelling that Christianity not only claims to be true, but purports to offer the kinds of publicly available evidence that Bivens-Tatum says is necessary.  In Acts 17:31, the Apostle Paul spoke of the fact and meaning of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and proclaimed it as God’s “proof” to all men.  In Acts 26, he notes to a fellow Jew that the event was not done “in a corner” and that the words he speaks about it are “true and reasonable”.  In his first Epistle to the Corinthians he says that if Christ is not raised the faith of Christians is in vain.  In other words, when Paul writes of the crown of God’s interventions in history – the resurrection of Jesus Christ – he states radical words that completely undercut modern secular understandings of what “religion” is all about.  So while it is true that Christianity is not so much an ethic but an epistemology, or an approach to knowing, as Christensen says, it is also an epistemology that cannot be untethered from historical circumstances – from God’s own work in the past which has come down to us.  It really is good “news”, as the word Gospel implies. 

To say it in a different way, Christianity does not just purport to be a “way of life” on par with other ways of life, but the truth itself – and further, a truth rooted in the empirical, that is, in past events that really happened.  Christensen says that “hope is what makes us endure in spite of our realism” (130), but I note the Biblical claim is that we have hope precisely because of God’s real actions in history.  First, Jesus Christ, the self-proclaimed “Way, Truth and Life”, “took on human flesh”, and second, he was raised by God to vindicate His claims of being both God and God’s mediator vis a vis all others who would claim to be prophets of the Divine.  As regards the resurrection in particular, I think that the modern skeptic who would question this proclamation – but would seriously examine it – will find that the evidence is surprisingly plentiful and rich (for example, see here and here). 

If he allows it in his courtroom.  If he believes “open inquiry” includes inquiry even here.

In the next post then, we will finally zero in on this series’ title one more time.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Should libraries ever be “neutral”? Can any library? One Christian’s perspective (part I of III)

Nothing consistent about this blog, I know...

In this first post, we will discuss these questions as regards libraries in general, but before we go there, I will talk about the library of which I am a part.  This, however, involves talking about the institution of which I am a part: Concordia University in St. Paul, whose mission it is to “prepare students for thoughtful and informed living, for dedicated service to God and humanity, for enlightened care of God's creation, all within the context of the Christian Gospel”.

In his book, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Education, Tom Christensen says “Education in a Lutheran college or university should be surprisingly bold, open, multidimensional, challenging, experimental, diverse, and engaging; never frightened, closed, authoritarian, sanitized, and defensive.” (p. 139)

I agree in full with Christensen – this is not something we want.  We want rather a place where conversation flows freely – though I think never apart from informed and orthodox Christian teachers guiding – or at the very least being a part of – that conversation.  Even if swimming into such waters may indeed present a danger to souls in this or that occasion, I think here of how the father of the prodigal son, when he thinks the time is right, lets him “go free”.  Several characters of the Bible, not least the Apostle Paul, were familiar with and valued the learning of their pagan neighbors.  Further, if we would love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind – and our neighbors as ourselves – I suggest that there is indeed some risk that goes along with this.  

First of all, as regards libraries, I am confident we can say this: just as there is no such thing as absolutely complete academic freedom in any university, there is also no such thing as libraries that don’t practice censorship.  Now, when it comes to some kinds of libraries, I am actually a proponent of limited forms of conscious censorship (that is another blog post, but I agree with much of what this man says here).  Further, of course there is also that indirect form of censorship that takes place every time a library decides to either “weed” or develop their collection - according to the mission statement(s) it is directed by.  

 That said, there is this ideal that librarians tend to have about how extensive the collection should be – the works that should be available to us (an ideal, that thanks to interlibrary loan, is in large part attainable).  I will confess that one of the reasons becoming a librarian appealed to me is because I liked the idea of trying to “organize the world’s knowledge” (with the purpose of making it easily findable for others of course!)  I remember the first time discovering a “subject browse” list in a library catalog – I fell in love with the sheer Enlightenment-style audacity of its comprehensiveness.  As I am now one who helps to create that catalog, perhaps this was “cataloger predestination”.

In any case, at this point let us talk about libraries more in terms of ideals – collections that, as much as possible, are comprehensive, making serious efforts to collect not only works that have been highly influential in the world, but also all educated views on all topics that anyone finds to be important and interesting.  I am not excluding a great fiction collection from our ideal library, but at this point am thinking primarily in terms of non-fiction.   To that end, I do not think there is any better place to start than librarian-philosopher Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s provocative article “Libraries as Indoctrination Mills”.

First, regarding American colleges, Bivens-Tatum says they indoctrinate students “into methods for how they should form beliefs about the world”.  He claims that:

“The motivation for scholarship and teaching is to investigate any topic of interest and follow the investigation wherever the evidence leads. It doesn’t matter if the evidence contradicts some religious authority. In the battle between reasoned argument and the unsupported claims of a religious text, reason wins, at least in the academy.  One goal of a college education is to indoctrinate students to believe that this method of scholarship is a good thing.”

Regarding libraries, he says:

“Academic library collections are designed to support critical thinking, skepticism about the known, and curiosity about the unknown… we [challenge] students to think critically about what they read and see, to ask hard questions: Who claims that? How do they know? What do others say? What are the arguments and evidence on every side? These seem like harmless questions designed to provoke skepticism and critical thinking, harmless, that is, until you realize skepticism and critical thinking are not the foundations upon which religions are built.

…Reason, analysis, evidence, critical thinking, and temperate debate: these are all good things indifferent to political or religious beliefs… If those are bad things, there’s little purpose to universities or academic libraries.”

I appreciate Wayne Bivens-Tatum as a philosopher and deep thinker when it comes to libraries and their role.  He is, after all, also the author of what I consider a very informative work of scholarship, “Libraries and the Enlightenment”. 

That said, there is much room to question some of what he says.  My first point would be note that there is biblical warrant for many of the “Enlightenment values” he espouses (see p. 190) – there is, after all, a good reason why so many Christians went along with the “Enlightenment program” he discusses in its early stages.  Second, note for example the phenomenon of Calvin College, a Christian college of the Dutch Reformed persuasion.  Calvin is well-known for its “many noted writers, poets, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and teachers” (Benne, Robert, Quality With Soul, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 69).  And yet, at Calvin College, they explicitly instruct students that belief in God is a basic belief – meaning that it is a belief one argues from and not one we argue to.  For world-renowned Calvin professor, Alvin Plantiga, St. Augustine’s statement about “faith seeking understanding” – which Bivens-Tatum is critical of – makes perfect sense.  Belief in God is rational, he argues, even though it is a logical error to give reasons for it* (Christenson, Tom, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education, Augsburg Fortress, 2004, p. 95).

We’ll explore the issue of religious faith, knowledge, and “neutrality” more in the next post in this series (Monday)