A friend pointed me to this post here, an eloquent first-person account of childhood Christian faith shredded by the pseudo-wisdom of American higher education. The post is well written, and not without sturdy analytical spirit though searching and self-focused. It was for me anyway reminiscent of youth ministry, and it matches other accounts of the predatory ethos of secular humanities, especially ‘comparative’ anything. Sorry to say but this is standard fare.
It is often supposed that the anti-Christian ravings of the wisemen of the world begin as frank but humble inference from the obvious, and are from perfect innocence fanned into scorching flames of righteous indignation by the unholy offense of religious truth claims. This is a beautiful story, and a lucrative one, too, leading straight to philosophical respectability and the fear of weaker peers, and in some cases to tenure and a fat salary, too. Behold, thy reward.
But the story is entirely false. Consider this familiar example. In a magnificent achievement of philosophical rigor and intellectual prowess, Kant banished the supernatural from the realm of experience and knowledge, effectively defining the supernatural into non-existence. But the Kantian dichotomy that fathered ‘comparative religions’ and reduced theology to ‘God-talk’ begs the biggest question. It begins with the assumption that Christianity is false—that the world of sense-experience has nothing to do with God and that God’s own creation is his ontological peer (but Ps 19:1-6, Rom 1:18-32); that man’s primary consciousness is void of the voice of his maker and that no true witness is born from within his heart (but Ps 51; Rom 1:32; 2:14); and of course that the human mind is just as Kant imagined it to be, or even that there is such a thing as ‘the human mind’, a hypothesis naturalism cannot sustain. David called this foolishness of the heart (Ps 14:1); Paul called it idolatrous suppression of the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18-23) and the helpless state of the sinner’s mind apart from the regenerating work of the life-giving Spirit of the risen Christ (1 Cor 2:14; Rom 8:7).
Kant’s godless phenomenalism proves itself, which everyone can admire. We not only admire it, we empathize. An essential complement to growing in the knowledge of God is growing in knowledge of yourself; and for every sinner—so, for every human—that is a profound double disincentive.
Calvin declares the mutual involvement of self- and God-knowledge in the opening of his Institutes:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves.” For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, led by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God. The miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward.
A few sentences later, Calvin’s account takes an interesting turn:
. . . we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves. For what man in all the world would not gladly remain as he is—what man does not remain as he is—so long as he does not know himself, that is, while content with his own gifts, and either ignorant or unmindful of his own misery?
Tracking faithfully with Scripture, Calvin understands knowledge of the self to be naturally and necessarily wrapped up with knowledge of God. By ‘knowledge’ he surely means pre-critical self-consciousness—immediate, non-inferential, non-propositional acquaintance. Geerhardus Vos says that the Bible thinks of knowledge in terms of personal communion, as a man ‘knowing’ his wife, rather than Greek episteme or Cartesian subject-proposition relation.
Calvin then begins to develop an implication of the sound theism basic to image-bearing self-consciousness. If man is not at peace with God, truth is not his ally, and the domestic production self-congratulatory righteousness is his primary occupation: “because all of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself abundantly satisfies us,” and an empty image of truth, too, offers rest for the tireless suppressor. There is a dreadful, ineradicable sense that, as Calvin says, “man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.” True theology is awful.
From the nature of the case, thoughts not captive to Christ have all and every reason to mock and impugn Christian witness. That is neither observation nor prophecy; it is simply a matter of definition. Unbelief is suppression of the insuppressible, often with a zeal and sophistical display that boggles the mind and troubles the young believer. Sinful longings may even squander Christian fruit at close range: “Many a man instead of learning humility in practice, confesses himself a poor sinner, and next prides himself upon the confession; he ascribes the glory of his redemption to God, and then becomes in a manner proud that he is redeemed. He is proud of his so-called humility,” writes J. H. Newman. But be assured that subjective refusal to decrease so that Christ may increase proves no objective truth false.
Self-vindication is of the universal nature of sin. It is the particular pastime of philosophers and intellectuals to deride the foolishness of the cross, preaching, and the wisdom of God from atop their own high places and babbling towers, their own thought-dramas marshalled to bully the innocent crucified servant-Son. But ‘philosopher’ is only an office; ‘accuser’ is his name. Unbelief has every reason to lie, mislead, and confuse, but also to feign innocence and virtue. Unbelief is a counterfeit economy, where all are privy and complicit. To hear at the end of the day, or the lecture, or the hour, that Christian claims are obscene, violent, fantastical, laughable, false, or merely unlikely, is the biggest non-surprise of all.
Kant’s phenomenalism changed systematic theology. In some corners, the change ended in improvement. Theologians are still today carving theological clarification with methodological tools sharpened through conflict with the liberal heresies seeded by Kant in the womb of historic Protestantism. But even Kant had his predecessors: though she knew God’s decree that taking the fruit was sin leading to misery and destruction, Eve deferred against God’s Word to her own judgment which in boldfaced lie she chalked up to appearance alone. She sought self in self-assertion, meaning in autonomous decision, and freedom in becoming and will to power. Existentialism is disobedience writ in the bold print of continental philosophy. It doesn’t preach self-assertion for no reason.
It is unfortunate that Hetty arrived at Princeton with a theology so eminently unprofitable and defenseless; and the blame for her invitation to disarray should be shared without bias. I suspect that an undue centrality of revivalistic high, which stunts faith-maturity with a vengeance, and is ever a lure to youthful ministries released by cultural divide from their parents’ faith on the one hand and from the historic church on the other, may be among her theological ills. But I can only guess.
As another theologian noted, no single doctrine of the Christian faith has been allowed to stand unassailed; so every point of doctrine must be defended as soon as it is taught. It is naïve, therefore, and unfair, unfaithful, even unloving, to ‘church’ Christ’s people into theological impotence and then to send them among wolves. In some cases, these ill-preparers are the wolves already among us (Acts 20:29-30). The correct response has been, from the garden and still today, to shrink not from declaring what is profitable, the full counsel of God, Christ according to the Scriptures (Acts 20:20, 27; 1 Cor 15:3-4).
Stories like this one sadden me. And though they are common, I am not commonly sad. The church is to blame; elders and pastors are to blame; seminaries are to blame, and theologians. Even poor Hetty carries a fair share, unless she avails herself of some decent theological literature, the counsel of saints better equipped, and the depths of Scripture with renewed vigor. But I don’t lose hope because Scripture shows from the beginning that unbelief will take just the forms in which Hetty finds it. There is nothing new under the sun. And anyway, the Word of the Lord endures; he is enthroned; and the gates of hell will not prevail.