PHILOLOGY THE HANDMAID

As this blog post appears, I will have just gotten back from a week at Snow Wolf Lodge near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, teaching about the place of literature and literary study in the Christian world view and the Christian life for Summit Ministries.  Literature?  In most treatments of the Christian world view the subject of literature never even comes up.  If I am successful in this post, you will realize that this omission is a serious problem.

Snow Wolf Lodge at Sunset in the Rockies
Snow Wolf Lodge at Sunset in the Rockies

Christians believe that the only way we can know God is that He has revealed Himself.  He has done so in nature, for “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).  He has done so in history, by calling into existence the nation of Israel, redeeming it from slavery in Egypt in the Exodus, and preserving it as a nation.  Supremely He has done so by sending His Son into the world.  The miraculous birth, sinless life, authoritative teaching, atoning death, and glorious resurrection of Christ show us who God is more profoundly and more clearly than anything else.

The classroom at Summit Semester
The classroom at Summit Semester

There yet remains a problem.  Nature is fallen.  As such it still shows us God’s power and His intelligence, but it no longer reflects His majesty perfectly.  History by itself contains no rubrics to point out the core redemptive history of Israel as being special or significant.  Christ is no longer with us in the flesh.  Therefore, nature, history, and Christ need to be presented to us in a way that reports, points to, and interprets their revelatory significance reliably and authoritatively.  The provision for this need is a book, the Bible.  It is the lens that brings the rest of revelation into focus, the Rosetta Stone that interprets it for us and renders it intelligible.  Our access to revelation therefore depends on our ability to read in such a way that we can receive the ancient message, let it speak to us for what it is, and humbly and obediently hear in the Text the Voice of the Spirit who inspired it.

Elmer the Elk Surveys his Domain: the Snow Wolf Lodge Dining Hall
Elmer the Elk Surveys his Domain: the Snow Wolf Lodge Dining Hall

So faithful reading is required if we are profitably to receive God’s revelation and know Him.  “How do we do that?” becomes a critical question.  Part of the answer is to realize that the Bible is made out of literature.  It is not (mostly) systematic theology.  It has some (Romans, Ephesians), but it is mostly history, poetry, prophecy, parable.  The theological message is fleshed out most basically on the skeleton of a Story—the story of our creation, fall, redemption, and restoration through Christ.  So if you don’t know how poetry works, if you don’t know how stories work, you will be handicapped in receiving God’s revelation of Himself.  You will be handicapped in knowing Him, enjoying His salvation, and following His will for your life.

Echo Canyon, Containing the Classroom
Echo Canyon, Containing the Classroom

In other words, Theology is the Queen of the Sciences, and Philology is her Handmaid.  I said Philology, not Philosophy.  Philosophy is a Handmaid too, but Philology is the Head of the Handmaid staff.  Note the difference in spelling.  Philology is the love (phileo) of words (logoi), the loving study of language and literature.  Any version of the Christian world view that leaves literature out of account leaves its disciples hamstrung in trying to understand anything else it wants to teach them.  I spent a week on this with my Summit students, and we were just getting started.

"Theology is the Queen of the Sciences, and Philology is her Handmaid."
“Theology is the Queen of the Sciences, and Philology is her Handmaid.”

I’ve written a whole book on this topic:  Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).  To order it, go to  https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

InklingsofReality5c

 

POSTMODERN “THEORY” SELF-DECONSTRUCTS

POSTMODERN “THEORY” SELF-DECONSTRUCTS
(With a Little Help from an Old Western Scholar)

NOTE: The following dialog is based on a debate I actually had with a Post-Modernist friend who will remain nameless. I say this so you will know that the antagonist is not a straw man constructed by me but an actual Post-Modernist. Other than giving myself the last word (because I can—Foucalt is not completely wrong), I have not appreciably altered the dialog. This is the kind of discussion I actually have from time to time.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: How is it that thinkers like Jaques Derrida have become such venerated gurus in graduate English programs? Derrida couldn’t have written an intelligible sentence if his life had depended on it. He makes banal, juvenile relativism sound profound by cloaking it in jargon. And he did not even take his own ideas seriously: He proclaimed the “death of the author” in books that had his name on the spine! I can’t see why he deserves any respect at all.

Derrida
Derrida

POST MODERNICUS: I think you fail to understand how a scholar like Derrida asserts what he asserts. The message of his texts is not just what is written, but also how it is written. The reason his books are complex is because, were he to simply and clearly assert the point he wanted to make, he would destroy his own point.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Exactly. Though I think he does it quite effectively either way.

POST MODERNICUS: Besides, jargon dependence is not necessarily a sign of unclear thinking. Sometimes, you’re trying to say something that simply cannot be said using ordinary language. Do you demand that physicists use ordinary language? Then why demand it of philosophers?

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Technical language and jargon are not the same thing. The former exists for the sake of efficiency, the latter to obscure the fact that the content is non-existent, muddy, or fatuous. What was Derrida saying except that we can’t say anything? The only way to hide the fact that it is sheer self-contradictory nonsense is to hide its emptiness under jargon.

Do these books have authors?
Do these books have authors?

POST MODERNICUS: But there is a difference between the nonsense that a poor freshman writer might hand in and the nonsense of a thinker like Derrida (or an author like James Joyce) puts out.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Yes, there is a difference. Derrida’s obscurity was intentional, and the freshman’s is not. Which simply means that Derrida had less excuse.

POST MODERNICUS: But Derridean nonsense is nonsense that makes sense — it expresses meaning in the fact that it is nonsense. It demonstrates the emptiness of logocentricity by its very being. For example, there are at least three good ways to interpret Derrida’s book Spurs. Why? Not because he is incapable of writing clearly, but because the book is meant to express the notion that a text can have more than one viable interpretation.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Of course a text that is deliberately written to be incomprehensible and indeterminate can mean anything. What does this prove? How does it show that any text can mean anything? How does it advance knowledge or understanding? It’s just a silly game, and a rather tedious and tiresome one at that. Why dignify it by calling it scholarship or philosophy? I still have been shown no compelling reason to do so. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “I am so dense, the things that Critics see / Are obstinately invisible to me.”

Do these books have meaning?
Do these books have meaning?

POST MODERNICUS: Do you not agree with Derrida that we cannot have a God’s-eye view of the world?

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: No. I don’t. Contrary to Derrida, a God’s-eye view does exist. God has it, and he has shared at least parts of it with us. He did so definitively in Christ and Scripture, but also in Reason and Conscience. Again, it depends what you mean by “God’s-eye view.” When God contemplates the fact that 2 + 2 = 4, or the Law of Non-Contradiction (as in C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles), or the Law of Decent Behaviour (from Mere Christianity), he no doubt sees many more ramifications of these truths than I do. But we are contemplating the same thing; their content is no different for Him than it is for me. And, because these are things founded in his Mind, they are Reality, just as hard and unyielding as the bullet-like raindrops of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

POST MODERNICUS: If truth comes only from Christ and scripture, do atheists then have no true beliefs?

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: I never said “only.” Christ and Scripture are in my view the authoritative and trustworthy guides to Truth, but Scripture is not exhaustive of Truth. As Lewis said, “when the Bible tells you to feed the hungry, it doesn’t give you lessons in cookery.” Even Derrida has some true beliefs, though he does his best to suppress them.

POST MODERNICUS: I have no view of truth. I think I sometimes say true things, and that God knows all true things, but I don’t know what truth is. And neither, I would claim, does anyone else.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Are these statements true? How do you know? If the last two are true, then you cannot know that they are. But, then, if you are not asserting that they are true, this discussion becomes impossible, a game too trivial to be played—like reading Derrida!

Is there any truth here?  Can we discern it?
Is there any truth here? Can we discern it?

POST MODERNICUS: And what do you and C. S. Lewis mean by “reason is the organ which perceives truth”? You mean we just “see” what is true?”

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Sometimes, as with First Principles. People who try to deny them can do so only by affirming them in spite of themselves. You either see this or you don’t. Once you have seen it, it is forever after self-evident and undeniable. And the only way it can be denied is through a kind of really despicable intellectual dishonesty.

POST MODERNICUS: That doesn’t seem right. Honest and intelligent people often differ about just what the truth is. So there must be more to it than that.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Yes, there is more to it, but not less. I did not claim that all truth can be seen that clearly; only certain basic truths. But they are enough to cut us off from total skepticism and to serve as a foundation for other truths. The fact that people disagree about those other truths does not keep even non-self-evident truths from being either true or knowable. Truth is determined by evidence and reason, not by opinion polls.

LibraryTrinityDublin2
Can these authors communicate with us, or are they forever inaccessible, trapped behind their language and situation?

I think it ultimately boils down to a choice offered us by Milton’s Satan (the first Post-Modernist), who claimed that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” He was claiming the right to create his own values, his own meaning, and his own view of truth in his own mind, because there is no objective reality, no Author, to which or whom he was willing to submit. Derrida is in my mind simply his most sophisticated and consistent disciple to date. Lewis was the great champion of the other choice: the mind, like everything else in the created world, is God’s place, and can therefore only find fulfillment when, instead of insisting on the right to create its own meaning/truth/values, it submits to His.*

The Satanic/Derridean way of seeing things increasingly dominates the intellectual landscape. But C. S. Lewis’s writings still incarnate the older view on almost every page. Lewis was wrong about one thing, though: he was not the last Dinosaur. I am but a tiny lizard to his T Rex, but at least I am here (and I am not alone). One of Flannery O’Connor’s characters is told, “People have quit doing that.” His response is my motto: “They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.”

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*See my article “’The Mind is its Own Place’: Satan’s Philosophy and the (Post)Modern Dilemma,” Proceedings of the Georgia Philological Association 2 (December 2007): 20-34. A shorter, more popular version of the same material was published as “Devil Talk: Milton’s Post-Modern Satan and his Disciples,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 21:7 (September, 2008): 24-27. And the original article has been reprinted as a chapter in Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). It can be ordered at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/

The Language of Middle Earth

“In the beginning was the Word.”

LANGUAGE AS THE FOUNDATION OF MIDDLE EARTH

If you are not yet sufficiently awed by the profound depths of which the human mind is capable through the mystery of human creativity, ponder the fact that you have just successfully read this sentence. It has quite a complex structure, with an independent clause and three subordinate clauses, plus four prepositional phrases. It contains thirty different words used thirty-seven times.  The odds that you have ever seen them before combined in precisely that order are, for all practical purposes, zero. I could spend a whole chapter just analyzing that one sentence without taxing my own patience (yours is another matter). Yet I created the sentence effortlessly, and most of you probably understood it with little or no conscious effort.  Both of those facts are just plain stupefying.  And usually we do not even waste the adjective creative on expository prose of the kind I am writing now!  But without this almost indescribable human capacity for creativity, language could not work.  Without consciously doing any of the formal analysis (until after the fact), I spontaneously created a structure that allowed you to recreate with some accuracy in your mind the fairly complex and sophisticated meaning I was attending to in mine.

Where Shakespeare learned his grammar
Where Shakespeare learned his grammar

Where does this astounding ability come from? Man’s creation in the image of God is the source of the difference between us and the rest of the animal creation.  But what is the imago Dei (image of God)?  Is it our amphibious nature combining matter and spirit, our rationality, our moral (or immoral) nature, our capacity for relationship with God, or is it simply the position we occupy as His regents, representing Him as stewards and governors of creation?  None of these attributes is irrelevant to the imago, but neither is any of them its essence.  Theologians can spend interminable pages debating the details to no purpose, because they have never bothered to read Genesis for its narrative flow in context.  When we do, the answer is very plain.

Where Lewis and Tolkien practiced grammar
Where Lewis and Tolkien practiced grammar

The first statement that God intends to create Man in His own image occurs very early, in Genesis 1:26.  We are in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible.  So let us start from scratch.  So far we have only seen two attributes of God in action; they are all that has been revealed to this point, hence all we know of Him.  First, He is creative; second, He is articulate.  And these two facts are related:  He uses language as the means of His creativity, first declaring things into existence and then giving them both form (separating light and darkness, water and land, etc.) and value (it was very good). 

And God said, "Let there be light."
And God said, “Let there be light.”

So if we are then told that Man is going to be “like” God, one would think that this likeness must refer to the only attributes that have so far been introduced into the narrative.  Man too will be creative and articulate. And this reasonable assumption is confirmed by the story.  Adam is the first creature to be personally addressed by God’s speech; after a long string of third-person “let there be’s” he is called “thou.”  And he immediately starts talking back.  His first official act is to create the first human language:  God brings the animals before him, and whatever Adam calls each one is its name. So Man, like God, is creative because he is articulate. The core of the imago Dei is language.

Calvin abuses the gift of language.
Calvin abuses the gift of language.

Language allows us to contemplate things not immediately present in the physical environment and then to manipulate them in our heads.  It is therefore the foundation of our capacity for abstract thinking and reason. Language allows us to render an account to God of our stewardship of His creation.   It is therefore the foundation of the fact that, in a manner not true of the other animals, we are accountable for our actions, i.e., have  a moral nature.  That accountability allows us to function as His regents, the stewards of creation. We see then that all the major facets of our uniqueness that have traditionally been related to the image of God find their unity in language; it is the characteristic we share with Him that makes all the others possible.  Like Him, we are creative and articulate, articulately creative and creatively articulate.  We are language users because we are language makers, made in the image of the Word.

One who used the gift of language well.
One who used the gift of language well.

It is therefore no accident that the greatest story teller of the Twentieth Century, who propounded as well as practiced the theory of Secondary Creation, began the creation of the most believable, consistent, and compelling imaginary world ever known with the ultimate act of human creativity:  the endeavor to create a language.  Tolkien discovered that in order for Elvish to have a convincing sense of reality as a language, it required a people to speak it, a world for them to live in, a history and a mythology for them to remember, and other languages (spoken by neighboring peoples, who would have all the same requirements) to be related to.  And that is both how we got Middle Earth and one reason why it is so convincing.

Tolkien-Sam'sSong

For more on the gift of language and how we may best thank the Giver by using it well, see Dr. Williams’ book Inklings of Reality, available in the Lantern Hollow E-Store!

InklingsofReality5c

Wordy Wisdom: Why We Love Our Living Language

Okay, I admit it.  I’ve been pretty harsh about words these last few weeks, and that’s not fair at all.  Words are wonderful.  Words are magical.  Words allow us to craft our thoughts, just so, and lead our readers on a path of thought, adventure, whimsy.  Finely crafted words invite us to trespass into other worlds for as long as our eyes are captured by the pages.

Let’s be honest.  We love words!

(Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog… )

So, enough of the lambasting of the poor unworthy adjectives and the literal things that aren’t literally literal (… actually, no, I’ll never give up in my fight against poorly used “literally”).  Let’s focus instead on well-crafted and well-used words.

First of all, after how twitchy Twain made us about those pesky adjectives and poorly placed adverbs, I think we need to call him out on how little credit he is giving to beautiful writing.   When I think of descriptive passages and the images they summon to the imagination, I think of George MacDonald’s Phantastes:

“The trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning, while their roots were planted deep in gloom; save where on the borders of the sunshine broke against their stems, or swept in long streams through their avenues, washing with brighter hue all the leaves over which it flowed; revealing the rich brown of the decayed leaves and fallen pine-cones, and the delicate greens of the long grasses and tiny forests of moss that covered the channel over which it passed in the motionless rivers of light.”

What I see.  What do you see?
What I see. What do you see?

 

Now, maybe we are all seeing different trees bathed in different light, different leaves and different moss. Does it matter?  Does it make the image that this passage conjures for each of us any less lovely?  Adjectives can easily become trite, meaningless, and overdone.  An adverb is more often excessive than a necessity.  However, in the right place at the right time, we can use words to transform a wisp of an idea into an image that is almost tangible, and there is something eminently satisfying in the product.

Furthermore, as readers, we have the privilege more often than we realize to appreciate the wordsmithing of others, their images and ideas unfolding before us.  We make the images our own and so both share them with their creator and adopt them into our own library of treasured thoughts and stories.  This is the constant and endless delight of the reader, an abundance of words transformed into an infinite store of impressions.

The wonderful thing about words is that, while we do submit to their meanings on the one hand and allow them to create a picture for us when we approach them, we are on the other hand and in another way their masters.  We are the creators of the words themselves and we are allotted some of the responsibility of giving them meaning.

Sometimes this goes horridly awry, and more than one stuffy wordophile (I don’t exclude myself from this category, by any means) turns a nose up at such travesties as ain’t and irregardless and… you were waiting for this one… literally.  Words that aren’t words or shouldn’t be words or aren’t being used the way they should be used – we gaze in most respectable and erudite horror upon these little gremlins of our language and try (uselessly, alas) to squish them the way Twain squishes adverbs.  Of course, he didn’t have very much success either (Do you see those adverbs I just used, Twain?  And I’m not even sorry).

But there are two things that we must remember, no matter how stuffy we are or how much we love to preserve our sacred, lovely, beautiful vocabulary just as it is.

First, for a language to be alive, it must be allowed to grow, change, and flourish.  Now, I do still firmly believe that trimming little, rogue branches is in the tree of la langue‘s best interests.  We should definitely discourage the words that are senseless and correct mistakes as they come our way (in the nicest way possible so that our friends don’t start apologizing every time they write anything they know we’ll see… Not that this ever happens to me).   However, aside from the words that just plain shouldn’t be allowed, there are new words and new meanings that are always springing up, and I think that we might approach these with more fascination and excitement than gloomy discouragement.  Our language is still alive!  It is growing!  Our culture, one generation after another, is exploring and creating and inventing new words and new meanings as our world continues to change.

And some words are just fun to say, aren't they?
And some words are just fun to say, aren’t they?

 

Take for example a word that is quite appropriate for this post: text.  A word that means words, born of the idea of a substance, like textiles, something you can touch and feel and hold in your hand.  Something solid.  In our technological age, text has changed.  We might become a bit nostalgic about it, but we might also see the magic in it.  Text has grown and expanded, still attached to the page, but also floating off of and away from it, a collection of thoughts sent invisibly (magically, as far as I’m concerned) from one device to another.  It’s not just a thing anymore.  It’s an action.  I can text someone.  Let’s set aside the usual bemoaning of what the digital age has done to our youth’s perspective of the written word (a worthy subject for another day) and just contemplate how many ideas are being sent in all directions all the time.  Because text has changed.

The second thing that we must remember about words is that we are not passive onlookers.  We are a part of our culture’s language, and we participate in its lively evolution.  Words don’t magically appear; someone starts the process.  Shakespeare is responsible for the use of a massive number of words in the English language.  We can go into a zany rant about a bedazzled arch-villain because Shakespeare was awesome and creative (short story idea, just in case someone wants it).  We chortle and gallumph because Lewis Carroll wrote nonsense that just might make sense.  Words are fun, and while I sometimes like to say that only Masters of English should be allowed the privilege of adding to our vocabulary (I told you I was a stuffy elitist), the fact is, if you write it, text it, say it, or share it, and someone else loves it and passes it on, a new word or meaning can very easily be born.

So to end this month’s long-winded, wordy exploration of reading, writing, and the words we use, I want to know what you think of words.  What is your favorite word to say?  What word do you love for its meaning, origins, or impact?  What fabulous word do you think should be added to our vocabulary?  Maybe we can spread a new one and make our language grow a little more (something to replace literally as an intensifying adverb, perhaps?  Please, I beg of you!)

* * *

Previous Bits of Wordy Wisdom:

Too Much of a Good Thing

Very, Very Verbose

I Literally Died!

POSTMODERN “THEORY” SELF-DECONSTRUCTS

POSTMODERN “THEORY” SELF-DECONSTRUCTS

(With a Little Help from an Old Western Scholar)

 NOTE:  The following dialog is based on a debate I actually had with a Post-Modernist friend who will remain nameless.  I say this so you will know that the antagonist is not a straw man constructed by me but an actual Post-Modernist.  Other than giving myself the last word (because I can—Foucalt is not completely wrong), I have not appreciably altered the dialog.  This is the kind of discussion I actually have from time to time.  

CSL20
One “Old Western Scholar”: C. S. Lewis

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS:  How is it that thinkers like Jaques Derrida have become such venerated gurus in graduate English programs?  Derrida couldn’t have written an intelligible sentence if his life had depended on it.  He makes banal, juvenile relativism sound profound by cloaking it in jargon.  And he did not even take his own ideas seriously: He proclaimed the “death of the author” in books that had his name on the spine!  I can’t see why he deserves any respect at all. 

POST MODERNICUS: I think you fail to understand how a scholar like Derrida asserts what he asserts. The message of his texts is not just what is written, but also how it is written. The reason his books are complex is because, were he to simply and clearly assert the point he wanted to make, he would destroy his own point.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Exactly. Though I think he does it quite effectively either way.

POST MODERNICUS: Besides, jargon dependence is not necessarily a sign of unclear thinking. Sometimes, you’re trying to say something that simply cannot be said using ordinary language. Do you demand that physicists use ordinary language? Then why demand it of philosophers?

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Technical language and jargon are not the same thing. The former exists for the sake of efficiency, the latter to obscure the fact that the content is non-existent, muddy, or fatuous.  What was Derrida saying except that we can’t say anything?  The only way to hide the fact that it is sheer self-contradictory nonsense is to hide its emptiness under jargon.

POST MODERNICUS: But there is a difference between the nonsense that a poor freshman writer might hand in and the nonsense of a thinker like Derrida (or an author like James Joyce) puts out.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Yes, there is a difference. Derrida’s obscurity was intentional, and the freshman’s is not. Which simply means that Derrida had less excuse.

The man himself.
Another “Old Western Scholar”: J. R. R. Tolkien

POST MODERNICUS: But Derridean nonsense is nonsense that makes sense — it expresses meaning in the fact that it is nonsense.  It demonstrates the emptiness of logocentricity by its very being. For example, there are at least three good ways to interpret Derrida’s book Spurs. Why? Not because he is incapable of writing clearly, but because the book is meant to express the notion that a text can have more than one viable interpretation.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Of course a text that is deliberately written to be incomprehensible and indeterminate can mean anything. What does this prove?  How does it show that any text can mean anything?   How does it advance knowledge or understanding? It’s just a silly game, and a rather tedious and tiresome one at that. Why dignify it by calling it scholarship or philosophy? I still have been shown no compelling reason to do so. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “I am so dense, the things that Critics see / Are obstinately invisible to me.”

POST MODERNICUS: Do you not agree with Derrida that we cannot have a God’s-eye view of the world?

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: No. I don’t.  Contrary to Derrida, a God’s-eye view does exist. God has it, and he has shared at least parts of it with us. He did so definitively in Christ and Scripture, but also in Reason and Conscience. Again, it depends what you mean by “God’s-eye view.” When God contemplates the fact that 2 + 2 = 4, or the Law of Non-Contradiction (as in C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles), or the Law of Decent Behaviour (from Mere Christianity), he no doubt sees many more ramifications of these truths than I do. But we are contemplating the same thing; their content is no different for Him than it is for me. And, because these are things founded in his Mind, they are Reality, just as hard and unyielding as the bullet-like raindrops of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

POST MODERNICUS: If truth comes only from Christ and scripture, do atheists then have no true beliefs?

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: I never said “only.” Christ and Scripture are in my view the authoritative and trustworthy guides to Truth, but Scripture is not exhaustive of Truth. As Lewis said, “when the Bible tells you to feed the hungry, it doesn’t give you lessons in cookery.” Even Derrida has some true beliefs, though he does his best to suppress them.

POST MODERNICUS: I have no view of truth. I think I sometimes say true things, and that God knows all true things, but I don’t know what truth is. And neither, I would claim, does anyone else.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Are these statements true? How do you know? If the last two are true, then you cannot know that they are. But, then, if you are not asserting that they are true, this discussion becomes impossible, a game too trivial to be played—like reading Derrida!

POST MODERNICUS: And what do you and Lewis mean by “reason is the organ which perceives truth”? You mean we just “see” what is true?”

Pit
The pit into which the self-referential intellect inevitably falls.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Sometimes, as with First Principles. People who try to deny them can do so only by affirming them in spite of themselves. You either see this or you don’t. Once you have seen it, it is forever after self-evident and undeniable.  And the only way it can be denied is through a kind of really despicable intellectual dishonesty.

POST MODERNICUS: That doesn’t seem right. Honest and intelligent people often differ about just what the truth is. So there must be more to it than that.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Yes, there is more to it, but not less.  I did not claim that all truth can be seen that clearly; only certain basic truths.  But they are enough to cut us off from total skepticism and to serve as a foundation for other truths. The fact that people disagree about those other truths does not keep even non-self-evident truths from being either true or knowable. Truth is determined by evidence and reason, not by opinion polls.

I think it ultimately boils down to a choice offered us by Milton’s Satan (the first Post-Modernist), who claimed that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” He was claiming the right to create his own values, his own meaning, and his own view of truth in his own mind, because there is no objective reality, no Author, to which or whom he was willing to submit. Derrida is in my mind simply his most sophisticated and consistent disciple to date. Lewis was the great champion of the other choice: the mind, like everything else in the created world, is God’s place, and can therefore only find fulfillment when, instead of insisting on the right to create its own meaning/truth/values, it submits to His.*

Dante-Satan
Satan, the first Post Modernist, claims the mind is its own place, with predictable results.

The Satanic/Derridean way of seeing things increasingly dominates the intellectual landscape. But Lewis’s writings still incarnate the older view on almost every page. Lewis was wrong about one thing, though: he was not the last Dinosaur. I am but a tiny lizard to his T Rex, but at least I am here (and I am not alone). One of Flannery O’Connor’s characters is told, “People have quit doing that.” His response is my motto: “They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.”

*See my article “’The Mind is its Own Place’: Satan’s Philosophy and the (Post)Modern Dilemma,” Proceedings of the Georgia Philological Association 2 (December 2007): 20-34.  A shorter, more popular version of the same material was published as “Devil Talk: Milton’s Post-Modern Satan and his Disciples,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 21:7 (September, 2008): 24-27.  And the original article has been reprinted as a chapter in Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

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