The Enlightenment Has Its Own Narrative Too

James K.A. Smith, in clarifying the difference between “Christian dominionists” and Kuyperians, writes on Abraham Kuyper’s understanding of worldview, especially post-Enlightenment:

To say that everyone works from a ‘worldview’ is to point out that everyone’s take on the world—how we understand the good life or human flourishing or the ideals for a society—are rooted and grounded in some story we believe about ourselves. There are many, competing stories about that, and the Enlightenment narrative is one worldview among others (which usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are’). These orientating narratives and governing myths are the source of norms for what we think is the goal and good of society. There are differing worldviews, but there is no standpoint outside of a worldview.

Two important notes here. First, the Enlightenment narrative “usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are.’ What is the Enlightenment narrative? It’s the one that (1) tells us that humans are capable of autonomous, rational thought, and (2) evidence-based knowledge is all we need to understand reality as-it-is. It is further a narrative about authority (something I mentioned in a previous post) — that ultimately, reason and evidence trump experience and tradition when determining what is true about the world. The point being made by Smith though, is that this is more than just a claim about authority and knowledge — the Enlightenment narrative is often presented as though it is not a narrative at all; it’s just simply how the world works. Everyone else might have a narrative, or reasons for subjecting themselves to a belief system, but Enlightenment thinking? That’s just good sense, the best way to be human.

Second, Kuyper’s sense of the term ‘worldview’ (that there is “no standpoint outside of a worldview”) is a precursor to some of the original claims of postmodernism. Smith says as much in his article. This is something else that is a part of the Enlightenment narrative that its proponents will not often admit. Enlightenment thinking often assumes that, given its trust in reason and evidence, its stance is inherently a stance “outside of any particular worldview.”

Kierkegaard, through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus, was among the first of the modern philosophers (following Kant) to doubt the Enlightenment claims towards pure objectivity:

Pure thinking is — what shall I say — piously or thoughtlessly unawaare of the relation that abstraction still continually has to that from which it abstracts… pure thinking is a phantom. And if Hegelian philosophy is free from all postulates, it has attained this with one insane postulate: the beginning of pure thinking. (CUP, 312)

On this point, C. Stephen Evans expands:

Human beings think as whole persons. It is human beings who reflect, not brains or minds detached from concrete human persons. Their thinking therefore necessarily reflects the shape of tehir human interestes and habits. (Faith Beyond Reason, 98)

Kierkegaard was, perhaps, a postmodern thinker even before Kuyper (not in the sense of worldviews and globalism and religious pluralism — those would come later). Kierkegaard was interested in critiquing the ability of rationality to transcend our finiteness, and laid the groundwork for theologians like Kuyper to question the haughtiness of rationality in the post-Enlightenment era.

Common Prayer Subverts Our Present Anxiety

I have been attempting to pray daily using the pocket edition of Common Prayer from Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. It’s a good way to sustain a daily prayer habit (something I consistently struggle with), and also helps me to not feel like time I spend in prayer needs to be spontaneous to be heartfelt and meaningful. With Common Prayer, I am allowed to let my need for originality go in favor of joining a broad group of Christians whom I know are praying the same prayers I am, every day.

The juxtaposition of the words of the midday prayer caught me off guard today. Since last Friday, I have curbed all social media use — not entirely, but my use of Twitter has greatly diminished. After spending a week in anger and frustration at the immigration situation (about which I could do literally nothing except make a call to my representatives, who had already critiqued the president’s position anyway), I decided that I needed a break from a timeline full of outrage. So I stepped back for the weekend. I tentatively took a peek at my timeline again on Monday, but only once. The same has been true for yesterday and today. I just can’t help but feel that allowing my brain space to be overtaken by political and social outrage is a misuse of my attention.

The pocket edition’s midday prayer, however, offers a subversive response to the evil and anger we find in the world:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace

Where there is hatred, let me bring love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy…

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our brothers and sisters throughout the world, who live and die in poverty and pain. Give them today, through our hands, their daily bread; and through our understanding love, give peace and joy. Amen.

The next section of the prayer is a recitation of the Beatitudes. You know, “Blessed are the poor,” “Blessed are the hungry,” and so on.

Most of my concerns about social media that I have expressed on this blog and elsewhere have centered around both civil discourse and focus. Those are true and good reasons to stay off social media, but they are really only half of the story for me. I’m also convinced by James K.A. Smith’s argument in Desiring the Kingdom that “All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person” (83). If I’m spending my time on Twitter — a service that is increasingly political, siloed, and feeds on outrage before it feeds on virtuous action, into what kind of person is that habit forming me? Later, Smith writes, “Some of the habits and practices that we are regularly immersed in are actually thick formative practices that over time embed in us desires for a particular version of the good life.” So it’s not just about the kind of person I’m being formed into; my understanding of what constitutes a vision of a good, beautiful world (and therefore, what is good for everyone else) will be formed by my habits and practices.

It’s here that the prayer above can help subvert and short circuit our current political and social moment. If I’m praying the Lord’s prayer and prayers like the one above every day in lieu of seeing what else people are angry about on the web, it’s more likely that I’ll become the kind of person that will (lovingly) do something about the injustice I see around me.

The Non-Pragmatic Private University

Professors, and the colleges and universities they inhabit, are no longer gatekeepers of knowledge. Information can now be tapped by nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime, at a low cost…

But what if a university is not an information-based organization? What if schools did something more than inform and credential? What if they were constituted by a complex web of practices transcending the exchange of information? Indeed, what if they were animated by an entirely different conception of reality altogether?

These questions invite us to more carefully consider the identity of, and practice within, the faith-based college and university.

“Christian Higher Education in an Exponential Age” – Kevin Brown and Stephen Clements

Working in private, Christian higher education in the contemporary moment provides a unique vantage point from which to assess the necessity, practicality, and inherent ills of the strange endeavor of building and maintaining a university. We live in the kind of moment where universities (and especially education in the realm of the humanities) are being routinely questioned as regards their usefulness. (Remember Rubio’s [in]famous statement on the fact that we should have less philosophers and more welders during the 2016 primary debates? He has since recanted, but the sentiment remains within the GOP.)

When higher education in general is commodified and reduced to the dissemination of information, and its value is judged based on its ability to “contribute to society,” (read: place adults in the workforce) we have reached the point when capitalism as an ideology has subsumed higher education as a common good. What of the university, then? Especially the small, private, Christian university, which has the primary stated purpose of training ministers and preparing people theologically and spiritually. Such a university holds no inherent value for that kind of society. These questions are not lost on those who work in higher education, especially private higher education. I frequently converse with staff at my own university that are concerned about the future of, not only our university, but Christian universities in general. From my perspective, we currently find ourselves at a crossroads — do we double down on our original mission of training ministers and missionaries, with a secondary focus on marketable degrees, or do we brave the path already forged by others, allowing our distinctively Christian purpose to fade into the background?

But what if, as the quote mentions above, the university’s purpose was redefined? What if neither of these two options are appropriate? If we live in an age where information dissemination is no longer necessary because of technological disruption, perhaps the university can regain its purpose as a shaper of individuals, communities, and society. James K.A. Smith spends time writing on this in Desiring the Kingdom:

I’m suggesting that Christian education has, for too long, been concerned with information rather than formation; thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they see themselves as fostering individual ‘minds in the making.’ (219)

Instead of talking about ‘Christian college’ — which makes it easier to traffic in the abstraction of ‘Christianity’ as an intellectual system — perhaps we should instead speak of ‘ecclesial’ college and ‘ecclesial’ universities. If Christian faith cannot be adequately distilled into the formulas of a Christian worldview, but rather is a social imaginary that is carried in the distinct practices of Christian worship, then any institution that would be meaningfully ‘christian would need to be a liturgical institutions of sorts, animated by the specificity of Christian liturgical practices. If education is always a matter of formation, and the most profound formation happens in various liturgies, then a Christian education must draw deeply from the well of Christian liturgy. (221)

The reality is, many public universities have already accepted Smith’s understanding of what the university is meant to accomplish. Without getting into the dumpster fire that is the liberal-conservative debate, it’s clear that most public universities are havens for left-leaning political ideologies, and they do so not by just information dissemination, but by character formation. Christian universities would do well to follow the lead of other universities. The purpose of the Christian university ought to be character and reason formation first. Information, which is so easily attainable now, ought to only be distributed in classrooms at the service of the task of formation.

Bottom-Up or Top-Down Knowledge

(Some thoughts while reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?)

Modern frameworks regarding knowledge often begin with attempting to drill down to core, fundamental concepts about reality. The thinking goes like this: if humans can prove that there is an objective reality, then individuals can be convinced of that objective reality via logical means. Further, this will produce an objective, universal set of knowledge which is not only logical, but the only appropriate understanding of reality. From this point, it is assumed, humans ought to be able to build a community, a society, a civilization that has shared values — all because of these core, fundamental concepts of reality that are shared across the entire human race.

This is a bottom-up understanding of reality, one which requires that all humans share the same understanding of reality as-it-is in order for a society to logically share and build a fair and just world.

What if knowledge can be thought of in a “know-how,” and not a “know-that” sense? In other words, perhaps, we ought to think of our conception of how knowledge is built upside-down from the modern framework. Language describes our understanding of reality, but language is inherently a social, shifting phenomenon. Therefore our perception of reality itself is inherently social and shifting. This doesn’t mean that reality itself is contingent, simply that our knowledge of reality is contingent upon the communities in which we participate. As long as the language we use to describe reality (and the systems we build upon that language-reality conception) functions, then it is theoretically an appropriate view of reality.

One might argue that there are better and worse conceptions of reality as-it-is, and that’s fair. But the more meaningful work might not be attempting to drill down into the fundamental, core concepts of reality to build a universal understanding of particulars to ensure that everyone believes the same thing about reality as it is. Perhaps the better work is building communities which not only share a vision of the common good, but one that shares a common project among its participants that does not require uniformity in belief about reality. This common participation and vision may in fact end up producing an unexpected unified vision of reality among the participants that a bottom-up framework cannot produce.