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

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.

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