[New lecture: June 1, 2011]

One Ugly Ditch

From Lessing to Sartre

A world safe for the truth

Most historians 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 common core.

Places like 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.

Alexander Pope 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.

As archaeology 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.”
Further, the 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.   

Hyper-Lockeanism: What’s real? And how do you know?

While John 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 what 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 senses.

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 Berekley

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 Berkeley’s solution.

God in the Quad

There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there's no one about in the quad."


"Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God."

What Berkeley 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.

The sound of no trees falling: David Hume

Whether Berkeley’s position is defensible or not, it doesn’t seem to mark out the mainstream of empiricism.  Certainly the most influential of the empiricists, 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 Christian faith.

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.

And, unquestionably, Hume’s argument is a strong one: airtight--if one accepts his 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?

Lessing 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.

Kant's "Copernican revolution" in philosophy

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.

This, Kant 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.   

Hyper-Lutheranism: 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 go. 

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!

Luther himself 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?

Purifying 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 synthesis.

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.

Right 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 and D).  

In the 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.

What this 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.

Another German 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.

Dinah, the 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:

Dinah, an 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 and  Zerah).

In the 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.

A similar 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.
Now Bauer, 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?

My kingdom come, my will be done on Earth: the great dystopias

Now notice 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 re-engineer society.

Writers like 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.

Your 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.

There are 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.

Sartre says 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 Flowers."

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!

In Sartre's 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.

[Simone de 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.

And Sartre’s 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.  

So 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 dechristianized. 

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 disciplines.

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 tradition.

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 equivalent course.

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 scholarship.

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 proven innocent.

Seems to me we've seen this before.....