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CLXXVII

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

There are no true paradoxes in Christianity because the God of the Bible is a God who cannot lie.  Therefore, no real contradiction can be so about Him (or anything He made).  But the richness and the depths of Christian truth are shown by the number of seemingly incompatible realities it manages to pull together into a harmony greater than the sum of its parts.

 

CONJUNCTION

At the fulcrum of the Cross

A host of concepts meet:

The Profit hidden in the Loss,

The Victory in Defeat.

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

The Acceptance, the Rejection;

The Worship and the Jeers;

The Freedom in Election,

The Ecstasy in Tears.

Crucifixion-Glass

The Mercy and the Justice;

The Human, the Divine;

Pilate;  Judas;  Jesus–

The broken Bread, the Wine.

LambVictor

 

The Maker of Orion,

The Victim of the Scam;

The Meekness of the Lion,

The glory of the Lamb.

aslan narnia snow winter

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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CLXVII

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

The theological phrase “the noetic effects of sin” refers to the impact sin has had upon the mind.

The Essence of Sin

The Essence of Sin

THE NOETIC EFFECTS OF SIN

It was too much of reason to expect

The world’s foundations to be excavated

By efforts of unaided intellect.

Finite mentalities could not reflect

Ideas so infinite and elevated;

It was too much of reason to expect.

Still less would so far fallen minds elect

The Truth; it never could be venerated

By efforts of unaided intellect.

Still, their attempts could by no means be checked;

But though they strove and studied and debated,

It was too much of reason to expect.

Each time they thought they knew, their thoughts were wrecked;

Once more the subtle Quarry had evaded

The efforts of unaided intellect.

So why then would so few of them inspect

What in the Bible God himself had stated?

It was too much of reason to expect

From efforts of unaided intellect.

 

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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LESSONS FROM BULGARIA

Visiting Bulgaria this summer was an education in the legacy of communism, which brings death and oppression wherever it gains a foothold. Francis Schaeffer analyzed it well in HOW SHOULD WE THEN LIVE. Communism has to bring oppression because it imposes an economic regime that is not rooted in reality and destroys natural incentives.  The only way you can achieve an artificial equality of economic result is by force—and those wielding the force will not participate in the forced equality.  Power tends to corrupt, and the absolute power required for the dictatorship, not of the proletariat but of the self-appointed elite acting in their name, corrupts absolutely.  These outcomes are not avoidable; they are coded into the DNA of the system by its very nature, and not all the good intentions in the world can avoid them.

Cathedral in Sofia

Cathedral in Sofia

The results in Bulgaria were unmistakable. What was built before the communist regime was villages that looked like English country villages from the Cotswolds, only with red-tile roofs rather than thatch, and cities that looked like European elegance–central Sofia could be Vienna, with Romanesque Orthodox churches instead of Gothic Catholic ones.  These are both environments in which human beings could live with dignity.  What was built during communism was universally ugly and dehumanizing:  Orwellian factories (empty) and worse than Orwellian high rises (crammed full), sprouting like a cancer on the outskirts of the cities. The contrast was stark.  The photos below were taken when those buildings were new.  They were bad enough then.  Imagine them covered over now by a half century of grime and neglect.

Communist Neighborhood

Communist Neighborhood

What was left behind after the Marxist regime fell was cynicism. I was surprised when the Evangelical pastors in Sofia asked me to talk on PostModernism, thinking it a Western problem. No, they said, they had their own version of it, a result of people knowing they had been systematically lied to by the communist government for two generations. The resulting cynicism about truth has opened the people to a philosophy that denies determinative meaning to texts. The genesis of their cynicism about meaning is different from ours, but the results are the same.  Preaching the Good News that personal Truth has entered our history becomes harder when there is no concept of truth; discipling Christian converts into the meaning of the Text which records that revelation becomes harder when there is no concept of objective meaning. It is what Schaeffer described as the loss of “true truth,” now on the steroids provided by Post-Modern “theory.”

CommunistBuildings4

It is no coincidence that Post-Modern scholars often also tend to be Marxists. Both systems have no place for any objective truth to which their results must be submitted; both subordinate truth to their social agendas, which become self-justifying. Evil supports evil and attracts it. The connection was hard to miss in that former Soviet satellite. And the damage takes generations to heal.

Preaching in Varna

Dr. Williams Preaching in Varna, Bulgaria

Have no truck then with these two allied philosophies and yield them no quarter! They are both straight from the Pit.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.  Order from the Lantern Hollow Press estore, https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/!

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 Redemption of Meaning: Freedom with Respect

Ah.  This is a wall of text.  Again.  I’ve tried to cut it down.  I really have!  I’m sorry, but bumper-sticker discussions just aren’t my thing….

Over the past few weeks we’ve struck both horns of the philosophical modernist-postmodernist dilemma when it comes to reading and writing.  We are told we must either submit ourselves to the tyranny of the author or accept some form of relativism in order to enjoy the free play of the mind.  Thankfully, I strongly believe that this is a false dilemma.  There are other, better ways to answer the questions posed to both reader and author, ways in which we can indeed allow for freedom of an even more awesome sort than the purest relativism can offer without having to ask the author to commit suicide in his/her own text.

Part of the issue here is with postmodern philosophy itself.  In the absence of  knowable truth-claims, it needs something to define itself:  something to animate its worldview.  Philosophical relativism is one such point (of many, but a significant one).  Another, thanks to Michel Foucault, is power.  In the words of Lord Voldemort (very much a thoughtful philosophical postmodernist), “There is no good and evil, only power, and those too weak to seek it….”  For a notable slice of culture (particularly the academics) that has absorbed postmodern thinking, power theory translates into the idea that in the absence of right, wrong, and reason, people are justified in doing whatever is necessary to get others to accept their point of view.(1)  The false dilemma of the author-tyrant and the freedom of postmodernism is one manifestation of this.  It is designed to control the debate and predestine our choice:  Accept a specific point of view or you must admit yourself a slave to another.(2)

If we refuse to let ourselves be defined by someone else’s dilemma, though, a whole new world begins to open up.  Meaning, and our ability to convey it, is the wardrobe through which we step.  The fact that authors can imbue a text with meaning is what gives readers a chance to transcend their own limitations.  It draws us outside ourselves and gives us the raw materials we need in order to create wonderful things.  The problem is, as postmodernists have argued, can we realistically accept even the idea of “meaning”?

Christians in particular have a good philosophically consistent case for their belief in meaning because it is grounded in a transcendent cause:  God Himself.(3)  We think and communicate because, simply put, God Himself does.  To further J. R. R. Tolkien’s idea of the sub-creator, we become, in effect, “sub-communicators.”  God possesses the ability to imbue language with meaning and so does the human race, being made in His image.  Therefore, quite literally, words and symbols take on meaning because we give it to them.  We are able to communicate those ideas from one mind to another (albeit in imperfect imitation) because God can do so.  If we can give meaning to language, then authors have a reason to think that they can say something in a text.  The author has a chance to really mean something.

(Of course, we are not God.  We are not even little gods.  We cannot even begin to expect to do any of this absolutely, as God does, and any time we try it will be only a poor copy.  As authors and artists, we can create a mountain, as God did–but who has ever seen a mountain in a painting or a story that compares to actually walking one?  As good as our imitations may be, the Real thing is better.)

Going a step farther, as God does not force Himself on His creations, authors cannot force themselves onto their readers.  His truths are there for us to engage, but He doesn’t just write them wholesale over our brain matter.  He expects each of us will approach Him on our own and we will come to our own conclusions.  He even gives us the freedom to come to the wrong conclusion.  Authors relate to readers in exactly the same way.  Authors can put profound meaning into their prose for readers to discover, they can make it as easy as possible for people to see it, but they don’t have the ability to force anyone to understand or accept it.

I doubt our context is as unique as these guys…

When it comes to readers, it is very true that each person has his/her own unique context that radically affects the process of reading.  Postmodernism is 100% correct on that point.  This means of course that every person who comes to a text will have a his/her own individualized reading experience and also his/her own particular difficulties in identifying the author’s meaning.  This is similar to the fact that every believer who interacts with God has his/her own story to tell.  That experience in reading is as valid as the author’s in writing, but it doesn’t follow that since it is the former therefore obliterates the latter.  On the contrary, it would not be possible without it.

All of this points to a compelling dynamic growing from the collision of innovative thoughts that, while resembling elements of modernism and postmodernism, is far bigger than both.  In an ideal world, authors emerge as creators who imbue texts with original, knowable meaning.  Readers bring their own life experiences to the text, each person’s context like no other.  Each reading is therefore relative, but not to itself, as postmodernism implies.  It is relative to the primal meaning of the text, but flavored by the identity of the individual reader.  This is an important distinction, because the powerful, even life-changing result of a reading is created by the union of the author’s meaning and the reader’s specific context.  It is not simply a case of the reader forcing his/her own meaning onto a passive piece of prose.  As a result, the reader’s insight is every bit as valid as the author’s meaning because it is separate from that meaning.  It rises above the text and becomes something new without having to redefine the initial intent.

What results is an mutually beneficial experience–entirely original without denigrating anyone.  The author is respected and owed a debt of gratitude by the reader, who would likely never have had that particular experience without picking up that specific book.  The reader fully realizes the effects and truth of his/her context and they enable the reader to create something one-of-a-kind and (hopefully) beautiful every time a fresh text is read.  Ideas and feelings come into existence no one else would ever have been able to create, not even the author.

Saying it is one thing; knowing it first-hand is another.  Try thinking this over as your read your next book.  Give the author his/her due and search out the intended meaning as best you can.  Take that meaning, mix it into your own context, and watch something remarkable and even magical happen.  Then, consider sharing that experience with others by taking up the pen yourself to share your insights.  Become a link in the chain of literature that stretches even into eternity, providing someone else the chances to create that you were afforded!

 newrule

(1) Now, I have no doubt most regular people influenced by postmodernism have never thought it through to that extent and are, to the best of their ability, quite honest and open–but the movement that sparked their worldview puts it quite differently.  I know I’ve seen more and more of it in the media and in “scholarship.”  Facebook virtually drips with it–just dare to say something un-PC and watch what happens.

(2) Another falsehood modernism began and postmodernism conveniently leaves unchallenged in this case is the idea that the only valid answer is a recent answer.  Once we accept that premise, we arbitrarily close ourselves off to the wealth of information and wisdom that preceded whatever is “current”.  Of course, since the postmodern era (or the post-postmodern one) is the only “new” worldview on the block, we are expected to look there for our answers.

(3) It is beyond the scope of this article to argue for God’s existence–that doesn’t imply that I think doing so is unnecessary.  If you can grant me that hypothetically or at least are willing to allow for meaning and communication as coming from another source, the rest of the article might be of use.

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect