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Posts Tagged 'the post-christian era'

Conceptualizing the “liberal bias” of academia

Have I mentioned I’m glad I’m not a modern historian? Seriously. So much of the scholarship of modern history I’m reading in my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course is angry, ultra-liberal work that arrogates to itself a point of view of objective correctness, using theory as a blunt instrument against people, institutions, and events with which/whom they might disagree politically. Anything that might discuss an event or institution without criticism is nationalistic, conservative, anti-intellectual nonsense. There’s a strain I perceive among some of my cohort of choosing to be a historian because of a particular anger about a particular issue — colonialism, nationalism, treatment of one group or another, and so on.

But hold on. Is that really what’s happening? What is the “liberal bias” of academia, really? Does it actually exist? Would those whom conservatives accuse of having a liberal bias actually see it that way themselves (and, alternately, would those conservatives recognize a corresponding conservative bias)? What’s really going on?

What I’m starting to wonder is this — is what some perceive as a “liberal bias” not much more than the very human reaction to the horrible things of the 20th century, but that reaction occurring in a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, postmodern world? Is it as simple as a group of well-meaning, intelligent people saying, very understandably, “These are awful, evil things! How do we explain them, understand them, and prevent them?” Except with the caveat that the structures that might exist to help explain them, understand them, and prevent them, are no longer seen as reliable?

Perhaps we’re in an age where what we’ve got is “choose your own adventure humanity” — there’s no reason for society to assent to a particular religion, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to recognize as legitimate any particular power of the state, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to acknowledge and privilege any of the constructs society used to acknowledge and privilege, but go ahead if you want. Don’t agree with X? Great, don’t do it, but don’t tell somebody else they can’t, because there’s no legitimate framework to do so. As a consequence of these points, there’s no reason for any particular group of people to have any particular advantage or privilege, perceived or real, over anybody else; not only that, but there is no legitimate definition of a difference of function that asserts a lack of difference of privilege, because there is no institution privileged to make that distinction, and any institution that would assert the privilege to make that distinction must automatically be seen through the lens of power relationships.

The end result is very well-meaning, very humane people trying to solve humanitarian problems out of context, which winds up being perceived as “liberal bias”, but it isn’t, really. It’s just that they’ve backed themselves into a theoretical corner. From a Christian standpoint, what we might say is that these people can perceive — and quite unmistakably so — the effect of the Fall, but they don’t have any means of actually discussing it meaningfully. The anger I sense in the scholarship I’m reading and in some of my colleagues is maybe not poorly motivated, but the only way they have to talk about it is to say is in terms of historical constructs like colonialism, nationalism, racism, gender inequality, and so on — Foucauldian language regarding power and domination emerges as a seemingly sensible way to discuss historical problems.

Christians also wind up being backed into the same corner, and have to at least discuss problems that are a result of the Fall as though the Fall never happened. Even Christianity has to function according to the rules of a postmodern, post-Christian world, in other words.

Is this an impasse? Perhaps to some extent. Bad things continue to happen; people continue to have a very human response to said bad things. It’s not a liberal vs. conservative problem; the problem with conservatives is that the potential is there to go to the opposite extreme — “Oh well, it’s a fallen world, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, nothing you can do about it except be thankful if you’re on the winning side and hope the Second Coming happens before things get much worse,” being how I might broadly sketch out such an extreme.

Understanding the problem as a liberal bias is not ultimately going to be helpful, I don’t think. I think we can assume more often than not that people take certain positions in good faith and with good intentions (although by their fruits shall ye know them, of course). Kicking against the goads of a perceived liberal bias isn’t going to change anything; what might change some things — and more importantly, what might change some minds and hearts — is providing well-reasoned persuasive arguments for alternative theoretical understandings, and doing so within the context of a genuine Christian witness. At times that may very well mean having to be a witness in the sense of “martyrdom,” but it’s hard to deny that that can be necessarily part of the deal.

Which reminds me — I still have more to say about Foucault. I haven’t forgotten about that, and I’ll talk about that reasonably soon.

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Things you think about when you’re trying not to fall

This morning was the first frost in Bloomington, Indiana — or, at the very least, the first at our house. This is a relatively early first frost; I’m more accustomed to it staying hot until sometime in November, at some point during which God hits a switch and the temperature drops fifty degrees in a week. Given that my ancestors, centuries ago, were roaming the frozen wastes of Scandinavia wearing fur loincloths and swinging battleaxes, and that I’ve inherited their programming to stay perfectly comfortable in cold temperatures while wearing shorts and a t-shirt, as well as having to face the unpleasant corollary that above 75 degrees Fahrenheit I tend to be very uncomfortable no matter how little I’m wearing, I am very, very, very much okay with an early frost. The nice thing about cold weather is that you can always put more on. Hot weather… well, not so much. There’s only so much you can take off. (And trust me, you’re thankful for that — very very very thankful.)

What I emphatically don’t like is getting to the top step of my front porch on my way out to the car and realizing, in rapid succession, a) the first frost has arrived very much unannounced and b) I need to grab onto something very quickly. I am not one normally given to quoting John Mayer, but gravity, stay the hell away from me. Otherwise, I will be in repair (again).

For those who have asked — I do not, as of yet, have any information on the outcome of Fr. John Peck’s 16 October meeting with Metropolitan Gerasimos. All I know is that Fr. John is still listed here on the Prescott Orthodox Church website as the priest. Once I hear something I will post it (if I can).

A couple of links to pass along — Anna passed along the article “Keeping the End in View” by James R. Payton, Jr., over at Christianity Today. Prof. Payton, a Protestant, is also the author of Light From the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition, a book which I have not yet read myself, but I have heard Orthodox say that it is a better introduction to Orthodoxy than some books by Orthodox authors. (One hopes that he has less in common with Daniel Clendenin than with, say, Met. Kallistos Ware.) The article is an examination of the Orthodox Christian understanding of “theosis,” comparing it to how Protestants understand conversion, justification, and sanctification as “phases” of salvation. In general, Prof. Payton treats the Orthodox position quite favorably, but there are two points I’d like to mention.

In Orthodox teaching, “image” and “likeness” are not the same: the first is gift, the second, goal.

This is a matter of some imprecision; it’s not called “Orthodox teaching,” it’s called “the Greek language.” εἰκών and ὁμοίωσις are the words in question, and as even a cursory examination of their entries in either Liddell-Scott or BDAG shows pretty quickly, these are different words with related-but-different meanings, and authors do not use them interchangeably. This has nothing to do with “Orthodox teaching” except insofar as Orthodox teaching reflects how the Greek Fathers use the words. “Policy” and “law” are English words which have related but ultimately different meanings, for example. If a German author wrote that “In American politics, ‘law’ and ‘policy’ are not the same…” it would be a similar situation. It’s an issue of what the words mean, not an issue of how they’re treated by a particular group of people.

While evangelicals can learn from the Orthodox, it is fair to note that Orthodox believers can learn from us, too. The Eastern presentation of salvation can smudge the distinct steps of salvation. Justification and sanctification often get folded into the broader concept of theosis, and they become so blurred that Orthodox believers often don’t know what to make of the terms. They would be well served by an explanation of how the steps of salvation as presented in apostolic teaching fit into the larger package of divinization.

While appreciating Prof. Payton’s open-minded, open-armed approach and thus being willing to lay aside concerns about how patronizing this paragraph might be, I will suggest that he fails to mention that the issues he brings up are addressed by the participation of the Orthodox Christian in the sacramental life of the Church. I assume he knows this, and that this is a concept which probably will sail right over the heads of most CT readers, so I can understand why he doesn’t go there, but ultimately the picture he paints is misleading.

I would also direct your attention to the paper, “Approaching the Educated Person in the Post-Christian Era” by Abp. Lazar Puhalo (ret., OCA). I don’t necessarily agree with every point, but I think it’s worth reading and discussing. I might have more to say about it later.

Current reading: The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, by George H. Nash. Whether one agrees with everybody he describes or not, the story he tells is fascinating. I may have more to say about this later.

By the way, I’m considering participating in NaNoWriMo for purposes of finishing a first draft of a particular writing project of mine. I’m not sure I’d quite hit 50,000 words, but I’d have a draft finished finally, after four years of picking away at something.

I’ll wrap this up for now by saying that my application for West European Studies has been submitted, and that now it’s just a matter of my letters of recommendation rolling in. Hopefully I’ll know something soon. In the meantime, another option has come up in terms of a departmental home, and the person who suggested it did so unprompted. I don’t want to say much more about it for the time being. For right now I’ll just say that I’m flipping two coins, West European Studies and this other possibility, and we’ll see what comes up. Maybe both will come up heads, in which case I’m decidedly not opposed to leaving IU with more rather than less. Maybe both will come up tails, and I really will have to leave here with 30+ worthless graduate credits. We’ll see. Meanwhile, a near-annual conversation with a particular faculty member about said options has led to this person dubbing me a “professional applicant.” I suppose he/she isn’t wrong.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be prepared for the frost.


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