Ryan Nichols is a Lecturer in philosophy at University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He finished a Ph.D. in philosophy at Ohio State University in 2002, and has active research interests in Early Modern history of philosophy and philosophy of religion. He is very interested in thinking with others about the issues raised in this paper.
In a recent contribution to this journal entitled "Christian Education: The Question of Engagement," Dean Harry Huebner argues that the Enlightenment model of learning is incompatible with a Christian model largely because it overestimates our ability to acquire knowledge and projects a false sense of objectivity. Once he clears the ground, he describes some ways to construct an improved model for Christian education, specifically Mennonite post-secondary education.
There is much to recommend this article. Huebner expresses a keen sensitivity to the languages in which debate about engagement is carried out. He nicely defends the need for an increased role for theology across the curriculumfor educators and students alikeas a means to a holistic Christian education. The purpose of this brief response is to isolate a few issues Huebner raises about the role of Christian philosophy, for I fear that Huebner leaves little room for philosophy in his proposals for a Christian educational program. But even here I want to note my agreement with him on one important point: contemporary analytic philosophy is often conducted under the illusion that the Enlightenment offers us the best model of the mind. It does not. But I believe we can find a middle ground that embraces and values a distinctively Christian philosophy without placing too much value upon our cognitive powers.
Huebner rightly suggests that this Enlightenment model of the mind fails to recognize our epistemological limits as human creatures (p. 2). Huebner contrasts the Enlightenment model with the Christian model by using 2 Timothy 2:7, on which understanding is the gift of the Lord. He says, "Today we tend to believe that thinking itself generates understanding and that is why we often say that the most important skill students can be taught is how to think. The belief that clear thinking itself will be able to recognize untruth, error, immorality, heresy, etc. is substantially different from the 'thinking' of Timothy" (p. 5). Huebner offers an historical explanation of how it was that the distinctively Christian notion of understanding imbued with faith gave way to a secular model, and indicts a succession of philosophers from Ockham through Descartes to Kant on the charge that they fail to appreciate the way in which knowledge is dependent upon God. Instead, he suggests that a Christian theory of education should draw upon pre-Enlightenment Jewish, Greek, and Christian ideas in order to construct an educational methodology suitable for the whole person. (I am assuming throughout, along with Huebner, that a Christian philosophical understanding of the mind and its relation to God is of obvious assistance in the construction of a theory of Christian education. I will not elaborate on this connection. This is why Huebner, rightly, discusses philosophical views about the mind in an article about the foundations of Christian education.)
A well-rounded university education will require students to learn more than critical thinking skills. While I certainly would not say that universities nowChristian or secularpromote critical thinking to excess, all educators will want to guard against the facile use of argument, which Plato lampoons nicely in Euthydemus. Critical thinking can be misused, but a far greater danger is its non-use. One project with which Huebner is engaged is determining the bounds of pure reason. He implies that one thing pure reason, i.e. "clear thinking itself," cannot do is recognize "untruth, error, immorality, heresy, etc." Here is not the place to articulate the boundaries of pure reason, but I can say that I believe reason is capable of recognizing untruth, etc., in many cases. Huebner believes that historically 'Christian' philosophers have radically overestimated the power of reason. Let's explore his case for this thesis.
One of his respondents in the last issue of Mennonite Life, Paul Lewis, uses the term "battering" to describe what Huebner does to the Christian philosophers he discusses. Lewis is probably right to use that term, which is why I want to begin by clarifying a few misconceptions I'm afraid Huebner's readers might absorb about the Enlightenment. To do this I need to distinguish between the goals and the outcomes of Enlightenment thinkers. (A caveat: in other circumstances I would be more careful about using this term to generalize over a wide number of diverse thinkers and movements. My area of expertise, the Scottish Enlightenment, presents us with a model of the mind much differentand much more resonant with a Christian visionthan the views to which Huebner and I use that term to refer.) We can object to the outcomes of someone like Descartes, whose project in the Meditations ends with an unconvincing attempt to show that we do have knowledge of the external world. Here it looks as though, because of Descartes' methodological commitment to a very strict account of knowledge (on which knowledge requires certainty), he has overestimated the capacity of the human mind. After all, can sinful human beings ever attain certainty? This is the sort of charge Huebner is most concerned with when he says that Descartes "began to place the human mind on the throne now gradually being vacated by a half-obliterated God. The irony deepens when we realize that it was the mind that was supposed to vanquish human fears and provide the certainty that humans needed in the way of a re-narrated God of radical singularity. It is noteworthy that trust in the one who, over millennia, sustained a people with generosity and love is now being replaced with trust in the foundational logic of the human mind" (p. 6).
Here Huebner seems to be speaking of Descartes' goals, rather than the results of his project (for Huebner doesn't express disappointment that Descartes was not able to overthrow skepticism). But a more careful look at Descartes' philosophical goals shows that he did not aspire to "place the human mind on the throne . . . vacated by . . . God." It is of the utmost importance to understand Descartes' actual method, goals and results in order to appreciate the history of Christian philosophy since then. Descartes is often ridiculed, unjustly, by contemporary Christian philosophers. (This group includes famous philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, whose views significantly influence Christian philosophical and intellectual communities, in this case, if I may say so, for the worse).
Briefly, Descartes' Meditations are suffused with unambiguous Christian commitments, commitments not foreign to our own. The very nature of the work is religious: it is a meditation in the same genre of writing as that in which Anselm and Augustine worked. The content is also distinctively Christian, as we see in its Dedication: "I have always been of the opinion that the two questions respecting God and the Soul were the chief of those that ought to be determined by help of Philosophy rather than of Theology; for although to us, the faithful, it be sufficient to hold as matters of faith, that the human soul does not perish with the body, and that God exists, it yet assuredly seems impossible ever to persuade infidels of the reality of any religion, or almost even any moral virtue, unless, first of all, those two things be proved to them by natural reason." Descartes had a fairly clear vision of what Christian Philosophy is for: to clarify the content of the faith, and to respond to objections to it. Achieving these goals serves the larger purposes of the church by providing philosophical resources to lay people who, at that time, were facing serious challenges to their Christian belief from science and materialism much as we are today.
The means by which Descartes carries out this goal is itself thoroughly indebted to his faith. Indeed, many a philosopher (Christian and non) have criticized the Meditations for being too dependent upon faith, which further sets the historical Descartes apart from the Descartes described by Huebner. After setting up the skeptical problem in the first meditation, Descartes attempts to solve it in the second by his appeal to self-knowledge: even if there is an evil demon tricking him, Descartes can still know that he thinks. That is, if the evil demon were to trick Descartes into thinking something false, Descartes would nonetheless still be thinking. But how does one build up to knowledge of the world upon this small foundation of self-knowledge? Descartes responds to this problem by appealing to God as He who vouchsafes Descartes' memory beliefs. The details surrounding these moves in the middle of the Meditations are mired in interpretive difficulties, none of which are germane to the present point, viz. that, for Descartes, most of our knowledge (all knowledge but knowledge of our own mental states) does depend upon God. Far from replacing God with human reason, Descartes argues that our human knowledge depends directly (and, most philosophers believe, excessively) upon God.
Descartes' stated goals and his method in carrying them out are suffused with Christian thinking. But perhaps one might object to the results of the Meditations as being somehow unChristian, for it must be said that Descartes fails to meet his goals: his arguments for knowledge of the world and his proofs for God's existence are unconvincing. I have two points of response to this objection. First, we must take into account Descartes' many other works, which do not take skepticism nearly as seriously as the Meditations. In this sense, he thinks that we can have knowledge of the world. Indeed, in the Principles, arguably his richest work, Descartes distinguishes between scientia and cognitio. Cognitio is often translated in this context as 'moral certainty' but this antiquated term is unhelpful here. He means by it something like 'justified belief', which is quite distinct from the 'true knowledge' to which 'scientia' refers. He argues that, due to human failings and error, we can only truly hope that beliefs about the world measure up to the standards of cognitio, not scientia. Thus, in his more scientific work Descartes does not overestimate the human capacity of knowledge, and does not "place the human mind on the throne . . . vacated by . . . God." Secondly, there is a principled objection to claiming that someone is not a or is less of a Christian philosopher for failing to reach her goals. Being a Christian philosopher should not be something that is dependent upon whether one succeeds in, say, proving God's existence. (I certainly hope not!) If this is true, then we must evaluate the Christian character of Descartes' corpus on the basis of his goals and methods, in which case, if I am correct, he passes the test with flying colors.
A further objection brought to my attention by Tim Peebles is that, despite what I have said here, Descartes operates under a different theological paradigm than does Thomas Aquinas or Augustine, say. For them God's influence permeates the world and our understanding of it for these figures. Descartes' driving project in the Meditations proceeds upon taking global skepticism seriously, thus setting up human reason for a fall; non-enlightenment Christian philosophers do not take global skepticism in this way due to their thoroughly theological outlook. Thus for Descartes God's influence remains on the sidelines in important ways. Even if my description of the ways in which Descartes' philosophical work is deeply indebted to his faith is accurate, Descartes is still rightly seen as succumbing to enlightenment thinking in ways that other theological models do not. In this way Huebner might seek a return to Aquinas or Augustine as of more assistance in the analysis of the mind and the role of God in learning and intellect.
I cannot but agree with this pointDescartes is known as the father of modern philosophy for good reasons, most of which have to do with important differences of philosophical method with Aquinas and others. But more and more historical work on Descartes shows just how indebted he was to Medieval philosophy and especially to the work of Augustine, in which we find statements of global skepticism and its resolution in cogito-propositions no less.1
Up to this point, I have shown that Descartes has much more to offer than Huebner allows. (I will not analyze Huebner's uses of Ockham and Kant here.) I believe this point is well worth making on its own rights, for Descartes plays a towering role in our intellectual history as Christian educatorsa past from which we alienate ourselves at our peril. Furthermore, completely repudiating Descartes' struggle for objectivity, which Huebner's proposal tacitly recommends, has been used by others as a means of endorsing a form of cognitive relativism.
While Huebner writes at some distance from relativism, others do not. I mean by 'cognitive relativism' the thesis that the truth of any proposition depends upon the person or society affirming it. The forceful defense of what is awkwardly called "non-constantinianism" occurs in many facets of Mennonite theology. In short, I will take "non-constantinianism" as a two-fold thesis: (1) an affirmation that all participants in a theological debate operate upon presuppositions distinctive of their philosophical and theological system, and (2) that no one's position is, antecedent to the debate, intellectually superior. Non-constantinianism, as the term would imply, is motivated in part on grounds that theological dialectic should not be combative or colonial. A part-time cynic such as myself sees this emphasis as an unhappy consequence of a misguided devotion to political correctness.
There is a slippery slope leading from non-constantinianism to cognitive relativism. The non-constantinianist recognizes that we, as Christians or as Mennonites or as Westerners, do not occupy a place of unadulterated objectivity. We stand in one of many different, but, one might say, 'equally valid' areas. Contrasting his view with that of the Enlightenment Christians, Huebner says, "our faith is rooted in revelation and is not the product of either reason or experience. Our faith in fact has the power to transform both reason and experience. . . . The Christian faith has its own history, tradition, logic, and sacred texts" (Huebner, 9). We lack any objective starting point for discussion, a persistent theme in John Howard Yoder's work. The key point, though, is that no one occupies any position of pure reason or objectivity.
Affirming that the intellectual perspective we take to debates of theological or philosophical interest is ineliminably biased does not imply cognitive relativism, even though the affinities should be clear. To get to cognitive relativism one must take the further step of holding, in addition, that there are no objective rules by which participants in this conversation must follow. In other words, someone might add that there are no logical strictures upon the debate by which its participants are bound. One might thereby claim that, as part of the constitution of our own particular intellectual perspectives, we will all have different and 'equally valid' standards of logic and rationality. I believe Huebner affirms this further thesis when he writes:
This is what Kant failed to see. There is no pure reason outside of all disciplines or traditions to guide us in ways that can adjudicate among competing claims arising from different discourses. There is no outside reason that is not itself located within a particular narrative. The criteria of judgment are within each discipline. This is what makes the matter so difficult. At one level then all we really have is competing narratives. (p. 12)
"The criteria of judgment are within each discipline," each "narrative." He repeats the phrase "Christian logic," which would imply that not even logical laws are to be construed as genuinely objective.
The thesis of cognitive relativism effectively states that each society, worldview or, in the limiting case, each individual, is its own, independent arbiter of truth. If an animist tribe believes that spirits inhabit trees and mountains, then, while we might disagree, they nonetheless have true beliefs simply because there is no "outside reason," because theirs is only one amongst thousands of "competing narratives." Here we travel from a commitment to non-constantinianism to cognitive relativism.
I say this with regret and chagrin, for it is a daily struggle for a philosophy professor like myself to excise this pre-theoretical commitment to cognitive relativism from students who take introductory classes on ethics. Huebner does not overtly endorse this form of relativism, but I am less concerned at this point with Huebner's own position than I am with this widespread, corrupting influence on theological scholarship.
But, you may ask, why is cognitive relativism incorrect? Here I will let Lewis again begin my point. He writes,
At some point Reason (or mind) has to mediate just which understanding of faith is best, on the basis of some principle of rationality: consistency, coherence, integrity, etc. But these are principles which go beyond the mere content of Reason, however well that content seems to be justified, and upon which Revelation may not have any real effect. In fact I would wager that it is our adherence to these principles that gets us beyond an initial mystification with Revelation, or with scripture, for that matter! (p. 3)
Descartes (and Lewis) have seen what Huebner and others party to radical forms of 'non-constantinianism' have not. If we are to "engage" our faith and have constructive debate, then that engagement must be conducted upon objective rules. The reason for this is that, without shared objective rules, there will be no engagementpeople will talk past one another. Indeed, Huebner wants to include the process of "critique" in his proposal for engagement. But how can one offer critique of another without offering that critique in accord with objective rules of reasoning? This is especially pertinent for those of us who want to step out of the shadow of Niebuhr's criticism (in Christ and Culture) that we Anabaptists are isolationists and do not engage the world as Christian thinkers. Radical non-constantinianism is ironically isolationist: though it was created to encourage equitable forms of conversation, since it eliminates any objective, shared ground, the view is given to earplugs and monologues. Again, this is not Huebner's stated view, although his view can be taken to have some of these implications.
Objectivity is a dialectical necessity, but there are much more powerful reasons to give up on cognitive relativism. The first is that the laws of logic are necessary truths. 1+1=2 is necessary and objective, as is, more to the point, the law of non-contradiction (viz., proposition A and proposition ~A cannot both be true). By virtue of being necessary truthstruths in all possible worldsthey constitute the "criteria of judgement" that stand outside any "narrative." (If you prefer, we could say that they lie "within" every narrative.)
Second, and closely related, any thesis that asserts that there are no objective, necessary truthsin short, a thesis like cognitive relativismis conceptually incoherent. If criteria are internal to each participant in the debate and cognitive relativism is true, it follows that though Fred says Jesus is Lord and Aamir denies that Jesus is Lord, nonetheless Fred and Aamir can both be correct in these claims. But this is absurd, which can be seen by replacing '1+1=2' for 'Jesus is Lord'. There are a number of further reasons on which to reject cognitive relativism, amongst which, my favorite, is that it is self-referentially incoherent. Rather than stating these reasons, I rest my case and move on.
When someone violently attacks a pacifist, the pacifist is called to respond non-violently. This may take a variety of formsrunning away, finding a creative resolution to the conflict, negotiation, etc. When we move from the physical to the intellectual realm, we face a conundrum. When someone launches philosophical attacks upon our Mennonite commitments (that God exists, that Christian pacifism is plausible, etc.), what are we to do? Perhaps here the options are fewer in number than in the physical case. We can respond to criticism using shared presuppositions, we can respond to the criticism using distinctive presuppositions or we can ignore the criticism and let someone else worry about it.
I submit that up to now we have largely chosen the last option. We Mennonites have not significantly engaged the philosophical challenges posed against our faith in this and the last centuries. Note that I am not talking about purely theological challenges regarding, say, defending a certain reading of Matthew or a special doctrine of the atonement or holding a discussion about pacifism, violence, and the Old Testament. This is valuable theological work that I endorse wholeheartedly. But notice that the types of intellectual issues engaged by Mennonite thinkers deal with internecine problems. Huebner's article is entitled "Christian Education: The Question of Engagement." But by playing on home turf like this, we as a denomination do not engage but rather generally avoid the most difficult philosophical challenges to our belief.
I'm talking about challenges like verificationism and logical positivism, the evidential problem of evil, the alleged incoherence of the concept of an omnipotent being, freedom and divine foreknowledge, objections to religion from science, objections to the rationality of religious belief. The list goes on and on.
Here we must tread carefully, and maintain an awareness of our intellectual history as Mennonites, such as it is. When we disparage philosophy, including such Christian thinkers as Descartes, we are part of a very long, venerable tradition spanning a number of Christian denominations. But we are at risk of cutting off the hand that feeds us. Philosophya distinctively Christian philosophyis the only means by which Christian intellectuals can engage the many challenges to our faith presented by the non-Christian intellectual world. These challenges are growing in number and in force, and include the problem of evil, the failure of arguments for God's existence seems to work, ethical challenges about euthanasia and genetic engineering, objections to Christian belief from Darwinism, etc. Furthermore, denying cognitive relativism and affirming the objectivity of the laws of logic is necessary for this process of 'defensive' engagement.
To those Christian denominations that have been in the vanguard of the faith/reason/education debates, viz. the Catholic and Reformed traditions, engagement is no longer construed as operating between one's faith and one's study. They've been there, done that. They have reached what we can call the second stage of engagement. At the second stage, the two parties are not faith engaging scholarship, but Christian faith and scholarship jointly engaging the non-Christian intellectual world. In other words, these traditions have already, to varying degrees, integrated faith and scholarship, and turned to using the fruits of the work at the first stage in an effort to engage the secular detractors of the Christian worldview at the second.
Omitting this second stage of engagement from discussion is another way in which we risk unwittingly reaffirming Niebuhr's accusations of our insularity. Huebner doesn't want to do that, and explicitly takes issue with Niebuhr (on p. 4). Nonetheless, if our Christian worldview is to be successful, we will need to re-conceive 'engagement' as incorporating more than the privileged, inward-looking relationships between our faith and our learning; we must get our hands dirty and begin intellectually engaging secular thought.
John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and a host of others do some wonderful theological work (even though both have listed toward non-constantinianism in ways that make me uncomfortable). But when one looks at the ways the Reformed tradition has successfully engaged objections to the Christian faith from the secular community, one quickly realizes that the Anabaptist tradition has yet fully to overcome Niebuhr's criticism. As an intellectual community, we are quite good at addressing a number of problemsbut they are our problems. Part of this can be explained by the fact that, while we have theological leaders in the vanguard of theological research, we have no philosophical leaders, let alone philosophers prominent in the wider field of philosophy. Indeed, our colleges and universities have very few philosophers on staffand for that matter several of our colleges do not have philosophy departments at all.
This is where the rubber meets the road. Mennonite theologians will continue to make contributions to thinking about God and the world. Our artists, poets, sociologists, etc., will do so as well. But if we continue to turn our backs on philosophy, the arrows shot at us from the secular world will keep us in our cavessafe, to be sure, but irrelevant to the major intellectual debates about faith and reason.
Where do we go from here? Let me close by proposing a few signposts on a path to the development of a Christian model of faith and learning.
First, we must follow Huebner's advice and strive to reach what I had labeled as the 'first' stage of engagement: integrate our faith and our scholarship. To do this, one must first understand the nature of the Christian/Mennonite worldview, and how it contrasts with alternative worldviews. Huebner suggests that this requires anyone with that goal to do some theology, and he's right about that. I would add that to fully understand the nature of the Christian/Mennonite worldview, one must also do some philosophy since theology simply cannot explain to us a host of important parts of this worldview.
For example, we think God is active in the world. A theologian might scripturally justify this view by way of pointing to Biblical passages as evidence. But pressing questions like, 'What does this mean?' and 'What is our epistemic justification for this belief?' fall outside the domain of theologythey are philosophical questions. One sense in which God is active is that God performs miracles. But what on earth is a miracle? Are they violations of natural laws? Is the concept of a miracle coherent? These are questions that Christian academics should at least consider and think about, and are questions that Christian college students should consider and think about if their faith is important to them. If I am correct in my above argument about Descartes, then there are genuinely Christian resources to be found that will assist in the construction of a Christian worldviewprovided we Mennonites overcome our endemic philosophobia.
The second stage of the process of engagement follows upon the construction of a Christian/Mennonite worldview. There are many who would tear down what we construct. We must respond to their objections effectively. But here we reach an impasse: as Mennonites, what do we think about this process of responding to secular critics? Part of the difficulty here, part of the problem one faces in writing a piece such as this, is that we are largely working in a vacuum. Both Catholic and Reformed faiths have supported rich, historically informed, longstanding traditions of Christian philosophy. For compelling historical reasons, we Anabaptists simply have not.
As a purely practical matter, building a distinctively Christian/Mennonite worldview requires time, effort, and resources spread across the curriculum. Thus I urge us as a denomination to think more carefully about our curricula, and the ways in which they marginalize philosophy. (Consider: at many Jesuit institutions all students are required to take two, and at some even three, philosophy classes, while at many Mennonite colleges, as at Huebner's, there aren't philosophy departments.)
Perhaps we can learn from those who have gone before in these efforts. Calvin College is an undergraduate institution that has chosen to spend resources on funding efforts to fulfill the goals Huebner describes, at both stages of engagement. Despite the fact that there are valuable institutes like EMU's Conflict Transformation Program, Calvin's 'Seminars in Christian Scholarship' program affirms the idea of Christian scholarship across the curriculum in a way that I don't believe the Mennonite colleges and universities have.
In order to further integrate faith with scholarship, Calvin's institute has offered seminars on such topics as: "The Arts, Aesthetic Theory, and the Practice of Christian Worship," "Anselm: Faith Seeking Understanding," "American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism: An Historical Overview," and "New Urbanism and Communities of Faith." In the effort to bring one's faith and scholarship into engagement with the world, they have offered seminars on such topics as "Biology and Purpose: Altruism, Morality, and Human Nature in Evolutionary Theory," "The Loss of the Self in a Postmodern Therapeutic Culture," "God and Evil" and "American Literature and the Question of Belief."2
On the current arrangement, we do not encourage this engaged sort of scholarship across the curriculum (but in philosophy in particular) to near the degree of the Catholic and Reformed faiths. One advantage is that it allows us to keep our hands clean, as it werewe can benefit by reading works by Plantinga, Wolterstorff, Swinburne, Stump, and many others without ourselves getting in 'wars' of words with our intellectual detractors. One disadvantage is that, as a result of this situation, we do not fulfil Huebner's wishes to be fully engaged (if, that is, I'm correct in thinking that this type of engagement is part and parcel of his vision for Christian education). How we respond to this dilemma will depend in part upon whether (and if so to what extent) our commitment to non-violence is analogically extended to the domain of philosophy. I for one do not believe that any analogical extension of doctrines about non-violence can be used to imply that Christian pacifists should not be 'defending' the faith. Indeed, to the contrary, I believe we should qua Christians be philosophically engaged if only to the extent demanded of us by Peter, who writes "but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence" (1 Pet. 3:15, NASB). We can be gentle and non-violent, and yet also 'defend' the faith. Not only can we, but we are obligated, by this passage and others, to do so. What vision of engagement do we really have? What sort of reading of 1 Peter 3:15 do we have?
Some of the hard questions this raises concern the distribution of funds for 'engaged' Mennonite scholarship, for someone will surely observe that the biggest of our Mennonite institutions is much smaller than Calvin College. Meeting Huebner's goals will thus require some creative planning. Perhaps this discussion in Mennonite Life, and the conference at which it was initiated, will prompt some thinking to this end on the part of other Mennonite administrators and faculty. And perhaps this will result in some tangible resources with which we might meet the goals we have set out here. I am very grateful to Harry Huebner for initiating this conversation anew, and putting in valuable effort at forming a vision for Christian education at our colleges.
1. Dedication, para. 2, at http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/descartes/meditations/LoD.html
2. Please see http://www.calvin.edu/scs/index.htm for more details. Know that one needn't be a
member of the CRC or other Reformed denominations to participate in their seminars and
Copyright © Bethel College Contact Mennonite Life
2. Please see http://www.calvin.edu/scs/index.htm for more details. Know that one needn't be a
member of the CRC or other Reformed denominations to participate in their seminars and
Copyright © Bethel College
Contact Mennonite Life