Saturday, November 18, 2017

Some Scholarly Concerns II

In religious life, does there need to a source of knowledge that is transcendent to the desires of the group?  What are the consequences if the there is not?

Let's examine the case of Karl Barth, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and the German Evangelical Lutheran Church that acted complicitly with Adolf Hitler.  Has Barth's error been corrected by Princeton Seminary?  If not, many lesser schools might be unwilling to turn aside from his error.

In the Reformed tradition, John Calvin is the recognized authority, even though in practice he is largely ignored.  How do they ignore him?  By invoking Karl Barth.  Barth was a voluminous writer, and most of the time he seems to be, at worst, rather inane.  Let's look at something from his writings that is not inane.

Essentially, what happened in the German low-church was that there was no way for Bonhoeffer to make an intellectual appeal that was against the desires of the low-church congregations and their leadership.  As it turned out, the issue he had to appeal to them over was for them to stop giving unconditional approval to Adolf Hitler, who was manipulating their economic desires.  But the stage had been set for decades, in part by the work of Barth, for a situation in which nothing really could be done by Bonhoeffer.  Theology is sometimes very practical.  American Protestant theologians, in general, have largely ignored Bonhoeffer's scholarly works, and from what I can tell, wholeheartedly, and publicly, endorse Barth's fatal error.  To fail to do so would displease East Coast Presbyterians and Congregationalists, which might result in a loss of revenue to Princeton Theological seminary in particular.

Like Augustine, John Calvin had an understanding that in some sense a Christian receives his or her "first principles" by faith.  Within Christian tradition, there has been a disagreement as to whether the first principles come from the Bible, the Holy Spirit or both, but both Augustine and Calvin saw these principles and their source(s) as transcendent to the community of faith and it's desires; though potentially received in and through the community and it's life together.

With some of Barth's most famous words, the Reformed church and the communities it directly influenced turned radically inward.  The principles are now entirely immanent.  In practice, there is no way to correct them, no standard to appeal to, if they go astray in a process of historical drift, as they have.  Conservative Calvinists do not usually approve of Barth; this is something primarily maintained by moderate and liberal Presbyterians, but it's a big part of what makes conservative Calvinism so impervious to reason and evidence in the United States.  In dealing with mainline Christianity, you have to ask questions like, "How do liberal Baptists enable conservative Baptists?  Typically the answer is something like, "By distorting biblical exegesis, and mishandling the writings of John Calvin."  They are more interested in flattering the Unitarians and atheists, who often don't understand "in house" Calvinist issues, like they very much do.

I am not very optimistic that this is something Princeton theologians will be willing to address in scholarship-- and am concerned that this is a dangerous matter to challenge even in an informal setting such as a blog; but there are other scholars at Princeton University, and other Ivy League seminaries.

Calvin's Institutes, including 20th century footnotes, might be a good place to start for a scholar interested in these matters.

A Ballad for Famine

"Perhaps there will be bread tomorrow"
Will feed a family for many weeks.
When it no longer convinces the person who says it,
There needs to be a change.

A barren bowl makes the world look barren;
You desire this or that
But without silver, for you
There is nothing for sale that satisfies.

Or there is silver, but it has rusted--
There are still things to buy
That your heart desires
And that your neighbors would covet.

But you need not fear
That one would steal
Your worthless currency--
Melt it down.

What is difficult, is to watch your child--
She is given the lion's share
But begrudges your smaller portion.
Do not take it personally: she doesn't know

That there is not enough to begin with.
Famine for a family can come from without;
The landlord has silver-- and will have more
The laborer is working; he spends his strength
And the grain leaves in wagons.

Famine for a city can come from within--
Your silver is yours;
It is the city that guarantees
the image imprinted upon it.

Famine is tragic for a family;
Moreso for a city--
People who would not
Eat the flesh of their own kin

Tremble not to devour
The dwindling flesh
On the brittle bones
Of their once-beloved neighbors.

A wise man in heaven concluded
That there is time for every purpose
Under heaven's sway--
Does Justice, then, strengthen the rider
Mastering the dark horse on the heights?

But in lawless times
Riders and horses come
And go as they please--
Men overlook suffering to survive.

If the city is drunken,
and artificially prosperous--
The horseman dispatched for its ruin
Might enter the open gates unmolested.

He burns this field, and that--
He weakens the soldiers,
That they may no longer plow.
The bronze gates are removed so that
not only the strong may enter.

Women forget their husbands and children;
Tables are set hastily
Hearthfires dwindle--
Homes grow cold.

But it is not until
The tabernacle's silver
Cord is snapped--
That ruin has come upon one and all.

So it is with some cities.

Others keep their silver
Secure with stone--
The rulers laugh at the misfortunes
of lesser towns:
"We trust not in tents; we need not fear heaven."

A boundary stone might be
Easily moved with wicked intent;
Even benevolent hands
Might stall before stone pillars.

But when the temple falls
The arrogant words which defended the corruption
Do not assuage the desperate cry:
"Our silver is ruined!"

Famine is not for a day--
Great houses change hands;
Families that lived in glory
Huddle together in small huts.

Those who dressed in scarlet
Grope blindly for bread.
Their smell, and haggard appearance--
Erases all their former splendor and dignity.

If the silver does not fail
the grain is vulnerable
to locusts driven by foreign winds.

Calamity may befall even a good city--
Should the righteous weep
When Justice is served?

--An oracle against the Presbyterians.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Some Scholarly Concerns I

Should an applied mathematician be paid handsomely for his or her work?  Why is mathematics an important subject matter?

Dallas Willard, in his capacity as a Fuller Seminary professor, wrote a semi-scholarly work entitled the Divine Conspiracy, which was influential on me when I was younger.  Fuller seminary largely determines the Presbyterian sub-economy in Southern California, and is influential elsewhere also. That economy has no room for an applied mathematician; I tried to make a life there from around age 20-31.

Dallas' theology of mathematics was heavily influenced by a book entitled Mathematics: Is God Silent, a books written by James Nickel, a colleague of the rather ornery fundamentalist Christian Rousas Rushdoony.  He is famous for insisting that a nominalist interpretation of the Mosaic covenant should be implemented wholesale for Federal legislation in the United States.  Adulterers, blasphemers, and homosexuals should be publicly stoned by clergy; priests should be formally in charge of medical care and decisions regarding medical treatment;  women should not be allowed to speak or write on matters of religion; slavery is essential to a biblical economy.  He is a primary intellectual authority for the Communion of Reformed Evangelicals Churches, a rather new American Calvinist denomination.  We always need more Calvinist denominations, don't we?  It's a mixture of Baptist and Congregationalist.  Doug Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho is a charter member of that denomination and one of it's chief "spokesmen."  Canon Press, under his direction, attempts to spread these political views worldwide.  New St. Andrew's College, located in Friendship Square, is a denominational "think-tank."

Here, I'm mostly interested in challenging an understanding of mathematics that would impoverish mathematicians in order to enrich middle-class businessmen in the name of religion or the force purported to be guiding it.
In our history, there have been two primary visions for mathematical study.  Plato's view, which was modified by St. Augustine, is still the accepted ideal in low-church educational institutions. This sees mathematics as pure mathematics; the goal of study and research is to delight the mind and glorify God, there might be some practical uses, but those are incidental.  Augustine, perhaps after Socrates, famously said, "Why do I need to know the circumference of the earth, if I do not know myself?"

The modern approach, stemming from the recovery of Lucretius in the Renaissance, but accepted by Christian mathematicians and theologians such as Leonard Euler, sees mathematics as determining structures in physical reality in order to enable human beings to make a more effective use of matter.
Aristotle has a different view, which has only rarely supported applied mathematics;  John Calvin's view seems to be midway between Euler's and Augustine's, with an emphasis on human responsibility over the physical environment.  Over time, his view became identified with using mathematics to generate wealth for the religious middle class and its leadership in particular.

Plato's view was important for the development of number theory; Lucretius' arguably for the development of mathematical analysis.  I'm hesitant to accept Plato's view for more than one reason, but I found it impossible to live in a context where a mathematician is supposed to be satisfied with the pleasant feelings of contemplation, while middle-class businessmen enjoy the wealth produced by his or her work.

So, one way to challenge that view would be to use some passages from Willard's book, which is an intelligent and comprehensive Calvinist analysis of contemporary culture.  His book was not taken seriously by Presbyterians or Baptists, because they resented his ethical teachings, but Fuller seminary is likely to uphold his opinion on this particular issue, in my opinion.  My grandfather went to Fuller seminary, and I had other friends and relatives associated with that organization.  It's not merely a West Coast concern, but to some degree the West Coast Presbyterian economy is distinct from the economy directed by Westminster East and Princeton Theological Seminary.
It's an issue that needs to be dealt with on a scholarly level, and I'm not in a position to do so.