[New lecture: June 1, 2011]
One Ugly Ditch
Lessing to Sartre
world safe for the truth
label the 19th century the Age of Progress—in many ways, a very
appropriate name for that era. It was a time of unprecedented
technological and economic progress, an era where mankind seemed on the
verge of creating an earthly paradise—a paradise without war, crime,
poverty, or disease; a world where ignorance and superstition gave way
to reason and truth.
In America and
England, especially, the intellectual mood was optimistic.
Knowledge of this world was expanding at a tremendous rate—and
understanding of the things beyond this world seemed to be on track as
well. Scriptural truth gave philosophers a common core to build
on, while reason was given free rein to investigate and expand on that
Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton provided scholarly
communities that helped ensure what seemed to be a better understanding
of the scripture than had ever before been possible. Particularly
important in this regard, the tremendous increase in historical
knowledge and in the disciplines foundational to history. As
philology (the comparative study of languages) took off, scholars were
better and better able to understand the meaning of the Hebrew,
Aramaic, and Greek portions of the scripture. As archaeology took
off as a discipline, it was much easier to understand the material
conditions of the Biblical world. Obscure passages in the Bible became
suddenly clear as scholars understood better the historical context.
said of Newton, “Nature and natures laws were all in darkness: God
said, let there be Newton, and all was light.” Similarly, one
might have said about certain passages in the scripture that they were
all in darkness: God said, let there be history, and all was light.
Now notice what
a difference this makes. Suppose all one has from the law codes
of the Ancient Near East is Mosaic Law, the laws found in the
Pentateuch. What hope is there for understanding an obscure law or why
some of laws that seem strange to us are there in the first
place? But then, in relatively short order, one has laws from 400
years before Moses—the Code of Hammurabi—and, soon after, laws more
than 1000 years older, laws from the Sumerians. Being able to
compare and contrast what Moses wrote with these earlier codes makes
the whole of his law a lot clearer.
takes off, Biblical geography begins to make sense. One knows
where the cities and towns of the Bible were. New information about
day-to-day life in Biblical times likewise clarifies what had
previously been mysterious passages. Archaeologists give us books
like “Light on the Old Testament from the Ancient Near East” and “New
Light on the New Testament” while the philologists provide books like
“A Grammar of New Testament Greek in the Light of Historical Research.”
work of the historians and scholars in Biblical scholarship spread far
more rapidly among the general populace than had ever been the case
before. The public school movement in this country had increased
literacy as one of its major goals with the express purpose of making
sure young people could read their Bibles and find salvation through
it. And in England and America, a better educated general
populace than had ever existed at anytime anywhere did read the
Bible—and ended up understanding it better than, say, the average
medieval priest. But while the lasting triumph of a reasonable
Christianity might have seemed assured, the pursuit of truth was once
more undermined by the pursuit of truth.
What’s real? And how do you know?
Locke contributed a lot both to the reason/scripture synthesis and to
the intellectual tolerance that put both England and America on the
fast track to increased knowledge, he inadvertently opened up the door
to one of the forces that would, eventually, derail at least some of
he had accomplished. He did this through his advocacy of a theory
of knowledge radically different than that of both Plato and Aristotle,
an approach we call empiricism. Empiricism suggests that all
human knowledge ultimately derives, not from reason, but from our
Well, of course
it does, say most of us. So what? We do gain information
from our senses—information crucial to the advancement of learning.
Well, as it
turns out, the shift to empiricism opens up a philosophical can of
worms. Consider the question you’ve all heard: if a tree falls in
a forest and there is no-one to hear it, does it make a sound? If
reality consists solely of sense-data, the answer would seem to be no.
The never-ending sound of falling trees:
Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) solved the empiricist dilemma rather
neatly. Because God perceives all things, there is always someone
to hear the falling tree, and all other phenomenon. Here’s a
rather clever poem by Monsignor Ronald Knox summarizing the dilemma and
God in the Quad
There was a young
man who said "God
Must find it
To think that the
Should continue to be
When there's no one
about in the quad."
"Dear Sir: Your
I am always about in
And that's why the
Will continue to be
Since observed by,
Yours faithfully, God."
offers is another version of the ontological proof for the existence of
God. It impresses me, but most philosophers (including, I think, Dr.
Blanchard) think Berkeley is guilty of a kind of circular
reasoning. We are all ideas in the mind of God. We
exist. Therefore God exists.
sound of no trees falling: David
Berkeley’s position is defensible or not, it doesn’t seem to mark out
the mainstream of empiricism. Certainly the most influential of
David Hume (1711-1776) went in a totally different direction.
Hume uses empiricist ideas to deny all of the traditional evidence
for Christianity. Typically, a Philosophy 100 course will tell
you that, in his “Dialogues on Natural Religion” Hume thoroughly
debunks the argument from design and that, in his “Of Miracles,” he
completely disposes of any attempt to use miracles as evidence for
Now it is
certainly nice to have the testimony of a great scholar (which Hume
certainly was) if you don’t want to attempt to answer yourself two of
what had traditionally been some of the strongest arguments for
Christian faith. You can simply cite Hume, and then claim that
we’ve reached a dead-end in the Great
Conversation: it's no longer worth even talking about miracles or the
argument from design, because Hume proved conclusively that such
arguments were worthless.
unquestionably, Hume’s argument is a strong one: airtight--if one
presuppositions. But in debunking miracles and the argument from
design, Hume has also done something else. Hume also rejects the
idea of cause and effect—an ultimately he rejects the idea that you can
know anything at all for certain. It certainly follows that, if
there can be no proof of anything at all, one can’t prove the existence
of God. But does one really want to buy that premise?
and the Ugly Ditch
One who did not
was Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781). Lessing thought of truth as
being of two types, the truths of reason (necessary truths) and the
truths of fact (contingent truths). If the empiricists are right,
what we have to work with is only the evidence of our senses:
contingent truths. It would make sense to start with necessary
truth and then derive contingent truths from those necessary
truths. But how can we possibly reverse the order?
Necessary truths will main beyond our grasp. And things like
Biblical miracles? Well, says Lessing, a miracle I actually experience
I can believe in: but how can I believe in miracles I haven’t directly
experienced? Truth about religion is, by definition, necessary
truth. But I am stuck with contingent truth, and can’t figure out
any way to move beyond that:
That, then, is
the ugly great ditch which I cannot cross, however often and however
earnestly I have tried to make that leap.
"Copernican revolution" in
Is there any way out of the dilemma? Another German Philosopher,
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) thought there was. Kant’s philosophical
system combined Platonic (well, really, Cartesian) realism with Lockean
empiricism. He does this by saying that the empiricists were
right in saying that sense data was the source of our knowledge, but
that they stumbled in trying to find higher truth because they had
missed something fundamental. Can we use sense evidence to
discover order in the world? No: but we don’t have to. The
order we should be looking for is not in the phenomenal world, but in
the noumenal world, the world of our own minds. We do not discover
order in the world, but our minds give it order.
described as a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy—and so it was.
While later philosophers moved away from his particular synthesis of
empiricism and rationalism, they retained the notion that the world was
something we ourselves create in our minds. And if we are the
creators of the
world…well, we will see shortly.
what has God said, and how do you know?
At the start of
the Reformation, Martin Luther had tried to trim away all the excess
added on to New Testament Christianity by Catholic tradition,
especially those additions that undermined the idea of salvation by
grace through faith. Indulgences, certainly, had to go, and the
Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy, too, could be dispensed with.
Relics, the intercession of the saints, belief in purgatory—all would
But once one
begins to cut, where do the cuts stop? There’s a great passage in
George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess in which a physician talks
about how, in his younger days, he had been given the advice that, in
surgery, one continued to cut until nothing remained but completely
healthy tissue. Following this advice, he just about killed his
first patient: there is no such thing as completely healthy tissue!
struggled with questions about the scripture. What does one do
with the Deuterocanonicals? Well, Luther decided these books,
important to Catholic tradition, would have to go. But what of
James and Revelation, books Luther didn’t much like. These he did
translate, and these books continued to be used in Lutheran churches.
But Luther has
set a precedent. After all, deciding what to include and not to
include was something of a judgment call, dependent on human
reason. And if human reason is the ultimate criterion by which we
accept or do not accept scripture, what if reason suggests to us that
some of the traditional canon must go as well?
the Bible: F.C. Bauer
Eventually, many scholars, particularly in Germany, followed this line,
e.g., Ferdinand Christian Bauer (1792-1860). Influenced by the
German philosopher Hegel’s idea of a “dialectic” process behind all
human history (a conflict between thesis and antithesis leading to
synthesis), Bauer applied this dialectic to the New Testament.
The “thesis” idea dominant before Christianity: salvation comes through
following the law. The “antithesis” brought by Jesus?
Salvation comes through faith. The synthesis? Eventually,
the Catholic system that combines works and faith. Bauer thought
that using this model could show clearly which parts of the New
Testament were early and which late. Anything that stressed
salvation by faith alone was early: anything that combined works with
faith was late. Bauer concluded that Romans and Galatians, with
their antithesis to salvation by works were early and genuinely from
Paul. Books like the pastoral epistles (I and II Timothy and Titus)
couldn’t possibly be authentic Pauline writing: too much works/faith
Now notice that
this is hyper-Lutheranism: an attempt to cut out even more of the
“additions” to faith- based salvation made by the Catholic
church. Note also that Bauer taught at Tubingen, one of the
finest universities in the German-speaking areas of Europe—and a
university that, previously, had been every bit as much committed to
Biblical Christianity as Oxford, Cambridge and, at the time,
Harvard. The other great German university, Gottingen, likewise
ended up in a similar hyper-Lutheran direction, with its great scholars
using Lutheran principles to try to separate out what should/should not
be accepted in the Old Testament.
to the source: Wellhausen and Gunkle
One such figure, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), the most famous figure
in the development of what’s called the documentary hypothesis, the
idea that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, but that it was put
together much later using four main sources (usually abbreviated JEP
introduction to his Prolegomena to the History of Israel, Wellhausen
explains exactly how and why he set out to do what he did. As a
boy, he says, he read and loved the prophets and the stories of David,
Saul, etc. But the law gave him difficulty. He had always
been told that the law was the foundation of the prophets. But he
found the law difficult and repellent. He even read a famous
commentary on the law and wasn’t any more impressed.
So, what he
wanted was to show that the law really was not the foundation.
The law developed after (!) the prophets. That’s why he uses his
late dates for his analysis of the Torah. It’s not linguistics,
archeology or anything else: just an antipathy to the law.
really is, of course, is a kind of hyper-protestantism. Luther
emphasized grace over law—salvation by faith only. But Luther
acknowledged that the law was at least (in Paul’s words) a schoolmaster
to lead us to Christ. Luther said that there was no book more beautiful
or more useful than Genesis. Wellhausen has no place for the law at all.
scholar, Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), also suggested that the Old
Testament ought to be reevaluated in the light of reason.
Here are some selections from Gunkel's Legends of Genesis. Note
how quickly he goes from rejecting the historicity of the Genesis
accounts to dogmatism regarding his own guesses as to Hebrew history.
daughter of Jacob, is seduced by Shechem, and in punishment Shechem is
treacherously assaulted by Dinah's brothers; Jacob, however,
abjures the brothers and curses them. The history at the bottom of this
is probably as follows:
Israelitish family, is overpowered by the Canaanitish city of Shechem
and then treacherously avenged by Simeon and Levi, the most closely
related tribes, but the other tribes of Israel renounce them and allow
the two tribes to be destroyed.
The legend of
Tamar, also, depicts in part early relations in the tribe of Judah:
Judah allied itself with Canaanites, in the legend Hirah of Adul- lam
and Judah's wife, Bathshua; a number of Judaean-Canaanitish tribes (Er
and Onan) perished early; finally two new tribes arose (Perez
Esau-Jacob legend also there are quite evidently historical
reminiscences: Esau and Jacob are brother tribes, Esau a tribe of
hunters, Jacob a tribe of shepherds; Esau is the elder, but by sale or
fraud he loses his birthright, that is, the older and better known
tribe of Esau was compelled to give way to the later and originally
weaker tribe of Jacob and has now the poorer land.
rivalry is assumed by the legend between the Judaean tribes of Perez
and Zerah and between Ephraim and Manasseh. Reuben, the first-born
among the Israelitish tribes, loses his birthright on account of sin:
the tribe of Reuben, which was the leading tribe in the earliest times,
afterwards forfeited this position. Cain, the husbandman, slew his
brother Abel, the herdsman, but was compelled to leave the land which
they had before occupied in common. Shem, Japhet, and Canaan are
originally brothers; but Japhet has now a much more extensive territory
than the others, and Canaan is the servant of both.
Wellhausen, and Gunkel and the students they trained were brilliant
men, far more able than I am in fields like philology. But the
direction here is a dangerous one: if scholars are free to pick and
choose what they like and don’t like from the scripture, what about the
rest of us?
kingdom come, my will be done on Earth: the great dystopias
that, in the German speaking world in particular, there is a radical
shift in the way philosophers and academics approached the world.
Kant’s ideas lead to a plethora of philosophies that basically say that
we are the creators of the world and can mold it as we like. The
tendency of German theology is to say that we are the creators of
religion and morality and can mold them any way we like. We shall
be as gods: a heady idea—and a very old temptation.
Of course what
comes of this eventually are movements like Communism and National
Socialism: attempts to radically reshape human society and human beings
themselves. Note that both these movements are exceedingly
hostile to Christianity: with good reason! A society has to be
thoroughly dechristianized before there’s any possibility of creating
the utopia of your dreams.
One would have
thought that perhaps the 20th century’s dreadful experiences with human
attempts to create utopian societies would have discredited the whole
idea—but not so. Ironically, as German scholars fled from the Nazis,
they came in large numbers to Britain and the US. Formidable for
their intellects and erudition, they made their way into the top ranks
of American and British education—bringing with them their dreams of a
man-made paradise. This strengthened an already-growing tendency
among American and British intellectuals to want to thoroughly
Orwell and Huxley warned about how dangerous such re-engineering could
be. Yet despite their strong warnings about the “dystopias” we
would more than likely create for ourselves, much of our intellectual
community still seemed bound and determined to re-engineer humanity.
own personal dystopia
And if waiting
for a re-engineered world proves too difficult, it’s easy enough to
create your own personal dystopia right now—and our contemporary
philosophers will show you just how to do it. You might, for
instance, find just what you are looking for in the existentialist
philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).
In the years
after World War II, Sartre was treated basically like a rock star in
France. His plays, novels, and philosophical works were
extraordinarily popular. Eventually, he was offered a Nobel Prize
for literature--which he turned down. His was surrounded by
thousands of admiring young people. What did he have to
offer? A special flavor of the existentialist philosophy.
several types of existentialism, but Sartre's brand is what's called
atheistic existentialism. It begins with the idea that there is
no god. Further, if there is no god, there can be no universal
standards of right and wrong. If there were a god, morality would be
simple: what God says is right is right, what God says is wrong is
wrong. But if there is no God, all ideas are subjective--and that
makes our lives very difficult. How can we know what to do, how
can we confront difficult ethical decisions if we have no objective
standards of morality? Sartre's version of existentialism seeks a way
out of this dilemma, offering a way of making moral decisions in the
absence of objective standards of right and wrong.
that, before taking any action, we should look deep within ourselves to
discover where our own true values are, and then should act
accordingly. If we do this, we will have acted in "good faith,"
authentically. If, on the other hand we do not look deeply within
ourselves or if we fail to act in accord with that which is deepest
within us, we will have acted in "bad faith," inauthentically.
Now this seems
a plausible philosophy of life, similar to Polonius's advice in Hamlet,
"This above all, to thine own self be true." But what happens
when one tries to apply this philosophy?
When I was in
high school, I really liked Jean-Paul Sartre--especially his plays. One
of Sartre's books was called "St. Genet, Actor and Martyr." It's
about another French writer, Jean Genet, a writer Sartre greatly
admired. I figured that, if Sartre liked him, Genet must be
something special. There were not Genet books in the library, so
I went to the bookstore and ordered a Genet book, "Our Lady of the
It's the only
book I have ever burned. The book is filthy, featuring the most
degraded and degrading stuff imaginable. So why did Sartre like
it? Because Genet wrote about what he *really* thought, what he
*really* felt. Genet was, therefore, "authentic"--and therefore
good: good enough so that we should call Genet a Saint! Note the
tendency to stand traditional ideas on their head!
personal life, too, the existential philosophy led to an inversion of
the usual moral standards. As Sartre looked within himself he saw
a couple of things. He admits that he is unable to love. He
admits that, as far as sex is concerned, incest appeals to him.
His books and plays often applaud incestuous relationships. And
in his personal life--well, Sartre had a long-time live-in girlfriend,
Simone de Beauvoir--his wife in everything but the legal sense.
Simone's young women students would often come to their home--and
Sartre would seduce these young girls one after another. Horrible
behavior in a conventional sense--but, from Sartre's point of view he
was acting "authentically." He really wanted these girls, and so,
the "right" thing to do is to act in accord with what he just happened
to find deepest within himself.
Beauvoir was the leading French feminist writer of the time, and, when
she died, French feminists proclaimed that they owed her
"everything." Part of what they owed her: a breaking down of the
standards women can expect from the men in their lives.]
Now notice here
what has happened in Sartre: the complete triumph of subjectivity in
regard to morals. It’s not just the idea that we are free to do
whatever we want and that we choose our own values. It is a
philosophical imperative to do so: to behave otherwise is hypocritical.
view of personal life and personal decision making is, if not totally
triumphant, certainly a major force in today’s world, eclipsing the
traditional idea of objective moral truth.
what’s it all about?
Now all this is
just to set the stage for the final act of our drama—the response of
Christian apologists in the 20th and 21st centuries to a world which
not only questions Christianity, but is actively hostile to it and will
not rest until society is thoroughly and completely
Key to societal dechristianization: the dechristianization of
intellectual life, the life of the universities. And it is
amazing how far dechristianization has gone in many of our academic
Sociology, for instance, was deliberately founded as a secular
alternative to Christian thinking about the world. Much of modern
sociology follows the lead of the founder of the discipline, Comte, a
man who explicitly claimed he was establishing an alternative to
religion in addressing fundamental questions about people and
society. Add to this a strong strain of Marxism, as most
sociology departments do, and its no surprise that sociology has become
a discipline rather hostile to Christianity.
Education departments in general base their practices and philosophy on
the works of John Dewey, a signer of the Humanist Manifesto, and, once
again, a man who openly broke both with Christian and classical
In fields like history, of course, one can't ignore Christianity
entirely--but Christian ideas are easy enough to marginalize. Shift
away from ancient, medieval and early modern history to focus on more
recent developments. Do away with Western Civilization
classes. "Hey, hey, ho, ho--Western Civ has got to go," chanted
Jesse Jackson and his followers at a Stanford rally a number of years
ago. Even here at NSU, History 122 has been reduced from a
required course to one of several options. At the U of M (and
many similar institutions) a tiny fraction of students will take the
And then their are our Religious Studies departments: not so long ago,
departments that provided solid foundations in Biblical languages,
Biblical archaelogy, etc. And what's happened here? More
often than not, those that teach religious studies at secular
universities are hostile to traditional Christianity, trying to remake
Christianity in their own image.
Now the questioning of traditional ideas is part and parcel of
university life. The problem is, that only one side of the
conversation insists that it is the only side that can be heard, that
the defense of Christian tradition is inappropriate to university life,
while attacking Christian tradition is the hallmark of cutting-edge of
The one-sidedness of much of the academic approach is particularly
evident by recent developments in archaeology. In the 19th
century and through the 1960's, Biblical archaelogy was making
tremendous strides in providing the kind of material that helped
clarify the Biblical message. William Foxwell Albright, the most
influential of the Biblical archaeologists, helped provide all sorts of
background information that, in general, supported the main outlines of
Biblical history while providing a context that made Biblical stories a
lot easier to understand.
But after the time of Albright, Biblical archaelogy came under the
dominance of a group called the minimalists. The
minimalists position was that, unless archaeology specifically
confirmed a Biblical claim, one should be skeptical that the event
described ever happened at all. What this has meant is that,
instead of helping clarifiy the Bible, Biblical archaeology's main
thrust in recent years is a general debunking of the Bible, a debunking
based, not on new evidence that suggests the Bible is wrong, but on the
absence of evidence proving that the Bible is right.
And this is the general attitude of the academic world, not just toward
the Bible, but toward traditional Christians in general: guilty until
Seems to me we've seen this before.....