Intellectual Hospitality or Rescuing What Belongs to Us? - Richard Mouw
I join my voice of gratitude, as the other speakers have for the support of the Templeton Foundation and especially for the CCT and Biola University for deserving that support with these wonderful gatherings and particularly this one today. It’s an honor to be here. In an oft-cited passage in his treatise on Christian doctrine, St. Augustine encourages Christians to make free use of the ideas of what he calls heathen thinkers.
In doing so he said we can follow in the spirit of the example of the people of Israel when they were leaving Egypt. While the Israelites were compelled to flee from the Egyptian’s pagan idols and oppressive practices. Am I too loud? They also had the wisdom to take some valuable things with them from Egypt. Mixed with all of the wickedness of Egyptian religious practices were, these are Augustine words, “vessels and ornaments of gold and silver and garments, which God’s people appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use and not doing this on their own authority but by the command of God”. \
The same kind of appropriation Augustine holds for matters of the mind. When those who, and I’m quoting him here, “when those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have developed thought that we, that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but we’re to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. The deliverance’s of these thinkers”, he says, “contain gold and silver which they did not themselves create, but they dug out of the mines of God’s providence which everywhere are scattered abroad. Therefore” Augustine goes on, “when the Christian rightly separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, we ought to take these God given items with us in order to put them to a Christian use”.
There’s some wisdom in this counsel from St. Augustine. Certainly he’s right to remind Christians that there’s much of value to be gained by looking for good things to be found in the ideas produced by non-Christians. But it’s also troubled me for the way they depict how we are to appropriate those positive elements in the works of heathen thinkers. When we discover something good in what they have produced, he says, “We Christians are to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it, just as the Israelites seized valuable things from the Egyptians as they fled the land in order to put that to proper use”.
I’ve no quarrels with the behavior of the children of Israel while they were fleeing Egypt. They had suffered greatly under their Egyptian oppressors and they rightly saw much of the wealth of Egypt as having benefited from their own slave labors. Furthermore, I’m sure that under the godly leadership of Moses they exercised some good judgment in deciding what they could legitimately appropriate to their own use as a people dedicated to the service of God, who is the ultimate owner of everything in the creation.
When it comes to the realm of ideas, however, I question whether we can go very far in making proper use of the Exodus imagery. If, for example, we come across a helpful intellectual insight in, say Plato’s writings, can we legitimately say that the insight is in Plato’s unlawful possession and that we have every right as Christians to think of ourselves as seizing it, reclaiming it from him as we claim it for our own use as servants of the true God? Consider as a case in point this passage, a favorite of mine, from Plato’s Meno where Plato depicts Socrates as leading his friends in a discussion of how we are to understand the nature of virtue.
After several attempts on their part to come up with an adequate account, each of which Socrates exposes as insufficient, his friends become discouraged. They’ve been looking for a unified definition of virtue they complain, but instead all they’ve come up with is, at best, a swarm of virtues. Socrates responds by encouraging them to keep at the task.
The human soul, he says, is immortal. These are his words. Having been born many times, born again many times. Because the soul has seen all things that exist whether in this world or the world below, the human soul actually possesses a kind of suppressed knowledge of them all, he says. His friends should not give up then, but they should press on in the assurance that this is his, I think delightful phrase, all nature is akin. Which means, he says, that the philosophical quest can lead to success, “if a man is strenuous and does not faint”.
Now this passage clearly expresses some decidedly non-Christian thoughts. Reincarnation is not a Christian teaching. Nor is coming to know something actually a recollecting of what we learned directly in a previous disembodied mode of being where we contemplated eternal forms. What Plato means by the affirmation that all nature is akin is quite different from what I mean when I confess with the author of Colossians, that all things hold together in Jesus Christ. But I still find this passage spiritually inspired because God is the creator of all things and because he watches over every sparrow as well as over his human children.
The assurance that all nature is akin strikes a positive chord for me in my deep places. In the words of apostolic hope that Socrates offers though his disciples, points me to a similar kind of confidence for the Christian intellectual journey. In acknowledging my gratitude for this passage authored by Plato, I do not think of myself as seizing something that is in his unlawful possession. Indeed it’s important for my gratitude for what he says that I see it as something rightfully owned by Plato.
I can find similar messages of encouragement in uniquely Christian writings. But it’s precisely the fact this his comments inspire me in the context of his thought, his non-Christian conviction, that they stimulate a special kind of appreciation in my heart and mind. I would not receive the encouragement in quite the same way if I were to come across exactly the same words, all nature is akin in say Habakkuk or I Timothy or Martin Luther. Another attractive thing about this passage for me is it’s literary value. Plato is a wonderful writer and in these words by Socrates to his friends Plato has put together some fine sentences.
They express his philosophy well and they show how his philosophical perspective can inspire and motivate. In all of that what Plato says, in this instance, comports well with the over all literary development of this particular dialogue. So to put it bluntly, I don’t want to seize this from Plato. I see no need to rescue it from his possession. I want him to keep it. I like the passage precisely because it is an expression of Plato’s gifts, gifts for which I thank the God who created him and blessed him with talents which Plato had put together with such excellent use. In saying all of that about this passage in the Meno, I’m not in any way meaning to ignore the ways in which I disagree with Plato from a Christian point of view.
He’s wrong about some matters that are of eternal importance. My assignment as a Christian scholar is to do what I can to help the Christian community to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. But I must not do that in a way the encourages Christians to denigrate the accomplishments of non-Christian thinkers. I’ve often found it helpful, especially in addressing orthodox reformed audiences, to point to the example of John Calvin in this regard. On several occasions Calvin expressed appreciation for the contributions of non-Christian thinkers. Before his evangelical conversion Calvin had studied law.
He’d cultivated a special gratitude for the insights that he found in Seneca’s writings. In his institutes, Calvin explains the theological basis for this positive regard for what he calls the admirable might of truth shining in the works of pagan thinkers. By explaining that, these are his words, “that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness can still be clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts”.
Indeed, Calvin insists, to refuse to accept the truth produced by such minds is, and these are his words, “to dishonor the Spirit of God”. I see no reason why Calvin would not endorse the comments I made above about the passage in Plato’s Meno. Plato’s nicely expressed thoughts about the quest for virtue are an exhibit of the ways in which a pagan thinker can produce something that is, in Calvin’s words, “clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts”.
In recognizing this we honor the workings of God’s Spirit beyond the boundaries of the Christian community. I don’t think I’m violating the spirit of Calvin’s way of making his point by insisting as I did with reference to the passage in the Meno, that the Spirit of God gave these gifts to Plato. It’s not that Plato was somehow simply channeling words and thoughts that the Spirit was transmitting through him, as if Plato were a rather sophisticated version of the ventriloquist’s puppet while the Spirit was mysteriously at work in Plato’s intellectual endeavors.
Plato did not produce the good things to be found in his dialogues in spite of himself. Those good things were genuinely Plato’s. We can be grateful to the Spirit for what he empowered Plato to accomplish. We can also admire Plato for the talents that he put on display in those creative efforts. My motivation for belaboring these matters is to counter what I often come across as some, or for me at least, distasteful habits of mine and the evangelical community regarding what can or cannot be learned from engaging non-Christian thought and more generally from the broader cultural contributions of unbelievers.
The worst case scenario, of course, is the refusal on the part of some Christians to see any value at all in engaging the intellectual cultural accomplishments of non-Christians. But if we do get to the point where we find it impossible simply to deny any value in those accomplishments, we often resort to the kind of assessment that we see in Augustine’s Egyptian imagery. Anything worthwhile in the thoughts of unbelievers is there in spite of those who have those thoughts, they are unlawful possessions of truth and goodness and beauty.
I do need to acknowledge that there’s at least one biblical reference that someone might use in support of Augustine’s seize it from the enemy approach. II Corinthians chapter 10, verse five, the Apostle commands us to take captive every thought, to make it obedient to Christ. I don’t think, though, that the writer here is suggesting that the thoughts with which we struggle in our intellectual endeavors are often ones that we must rescue from the unlawful possession of unbelievers, thereby making them our own by a kind of taking captive retrieval.
The capturing here is not so much a transaction between intellectual agents, so that for example taking an idea away from Plato’s elicit possession and capturing it for my own use. But it’s more a kind of intra-self process where within myself I struggle to understand an idea properly, to clarify it, to refine it in way that it serves the cause of truth as I understand it as a Christian. One obvious benefit of this intra-self process of clarifying and refining our understanding of the ideas we receive from others is the opportunity the process affords for the cultivation of some key intellectual virtues such as patience, endurance, and even courage.
I’ll focus here though specifically, as everyone else has, on intellectual humility. Many of us who have been active in inner-faith dialogue have been helped by Leonard Swidler’s well-known Dialogue Decalogue. You can look that up online. It’s a terrific little piece of work. Where he sets forth 10 principles for constructive inner-faith engagement. I’m not gonna examine here the particulars of his 10 commandments with their accompanying commentary, but it’s instructive to reflect briefly on some of the intellectual dispositions that Swidler’s kinds of principles point us to in thinking about intellectual humility.
The need for a spirit of learning looms large in Swidler’s account. We need to approach perspectives different from our own, Swindler insists, with a humble desire to learn from others. Understandably, this does not come easily for evangelicals, especially when topics have to do with explicit religious beliefs. One of the factors that has inhibited traditional Christians and especially evangelicals, from freely engaging the ideas of others in a spirit of learning from those ideas is a factor pointed to by the 19th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, I had to get a little bit of Dutch help by someone here, who was a younger colleague of the great Abraham Kuyper.
In his reformed dogmatics Bavinck criticizes the way that, and these are his words, “in the past the Christian study of religions was pursued exclusively in the interest of dogmatics and apologetics”. “The founders of non-Christian religions”, this him yet, “like Mohammad, were simply considered imposters, enemies of God, accomplices of the devil”. Bavinck argues that this assessment is no longer tenable. In more recent times, he says, “those religions”, he says, “have become more precisely known”.
Mohammad’s teachings have become more precisely known. Especially through the insights offered by history and psychology. Then Bavinck offers this theological verdict. Also among pagans, says scripture, there is a revelation of God and illumination by the logos in a working of God’s Spirit. That’s a Trinitarian formula there, a revelation from God. An illumination by the logos and a working of God’s Spirit, in Mohammad. One important emphasis in these comments by Bavinck is the way he’s appealing to a rather robust divine revealing that supplements the all important content of biblical revelation.
Bavinck is going beyond here the generic conceptions of natural theology and general revelation, by proposing a dynamic involvement by the members of the Trinity in the particularities of other religious perspectives. The Holy Spirit is involved in the work of Mohammad. There may be very specific ways he’s suggesting, that the members of the Trinity, he mentions both the logos and the Spirit, may be actively at work in the spiritual quests of a Buddha or a Confucius. The second important emphasis in Bavinck’s comments is his insistence that it’s not enough to approach non-Christian religions simply within the confines of dogmatics and apologetics. Not that it’s misguided to develop a systematic account of the central truths of biblical religion or to defend those truths against those who reject them.
These are non-negotiable for those of us who are committed to the cause of the Gospel. But for a proper understanding and assessment of say Islamic teaching, Bavinck is saying, we cannot proceed, his word, “exclusively” with dogmatic or apologetic questions in mind. When the main question is whether a consistently Muslim worldview can point us to how a person can enter in to a saving relationship with the one true God, an evangelical has to give a negative answer.
If, however, we can bracket the dogmatic and apologetic focus on issues about whether Muslims, as Muslims, can be saved, then we’re free to evaluate this or that particular Muslim teaching in terms of whether it illuminates reality. We may well find many good and true elements in the Muslim worldview. Indeed we might even find things in the Muslim understanding of spiritual reality that can enrich, perhaps by calling our attention to spiritual matters that we may not have thought about clearly, that can enrich our own Christian understanding of religious truth.
To be sure, it’s a little easier to bracket the salvific questions when we move away from explicitly theological matters. I can express great appreciation for passages in Plato’s dialogues or I can commend Freud for a specific insight in his Civilization and Its Discontents without raising the question in my mind about whether either Plato or Freud has gone to heaven. What’s important for all of these kinds of cases, though, is the willingness to learn and even to admit that we have misunderstood these perspectives in the past.
Truthfulness is a key biblical ideal and it is a sin to bear false witness against our neighbors whether they are Muslims, ancient Greek philosophers, or Viennese psychoanalysts. The closely related humility related theme in Swidler’s Decalogue is empathy. The ability to see things from the point of view of the persons we are engaging is crucial for better understanding. Here’s how Swidler puts it. Each participant needs to describe her or himself. For example, only a Muslim can describe what it really means to be an authentic member of the Muslim community.
At the same time when one’s partner in dialogue attempts to describe back to them what they understood of their partner’s self description, then such a description must be recognizable to the described party. If you’re gonna say what Muslims believe, a Muslim has to recognize his or belief in what you are articulating. That’s the end of the quoting Swidler. Empathy is experiencing the feelings and concerns of others as if they were your own. Seeing other perspectives from the inside, as it were, can be a special challenge for a Christian, but it’s an important challenge. Indeed it may be that we Christians have special advantages in nurturing the necessary kind of empathy, the humble awareness of our own sin can lead us, as Simone Weil once put it in a delightfully blunt manner, can lead us to contemplate our stupidity. Incidentally, that’s from a wonderful essay by her called School Studies. You can find it online.
It was that same awareness of our capacity for sinful stupidity that I think John Calvin had in mind when he stressed the need for the cultivation of a humble spirit. I’ve always been delighted, the reformer wrote, with the words of Chrysostom who said the foundation of our philosophy is humility. This is still Calvin. Still more with those of Augustine, and then he quotes Augustine, “as the orator one asked, what is the first precept in eloquence, answered delivery”. “What is the second?” “Delivery.” “What is the third?” “Delivery.” “So if you ask me in regard to the precepts of the Christian religion I will answer first, second, and third, humility”.
You’ve got Calvin and Augustine on your side and if you could just get Luther in there you’d be in wonderful shape as I’m sure Martin would agree. We know that we’re finite creatures. God is God and we’re not. Which means that we fall far short of omniscience. The cognitive defects that stem from our finitude are even more greatly exaggerated because of our sinful rebelliousness. This means that what might at first glance to be our radical disagreement with a certain point of view might upon humble reflection require a confession that we have born false witness against our intellectual neighbors. My own intellectual efforts within the evangelical community, I’ve made much of the truth telling mandate.
One example that I’ve used often is a brief exchange with counter cult speaker whose lecture on Mormonism I had attended. Some of the things he said about Mormon teaching did not fit with what I’ve learned from extensive dialogue with Mormon scholars during the past two decades. When I approached him afterward with the intention of gently suggesting that he might want to probe more deeply on a couple of key points he abruptly cut me off telling me we don’t have time for all your polite stuff. Our job, he said, is to warn against false teachers.
Since during his talk he had spoken much about our Christian battle for the truth, there was an obvious irony in his response to me. How can it be that we don’t have the leisure to be accurate about what our opponents actually believe when the cause that we’re fighting for is the truth? If we’re to be bearers of the truth then we do need to pay attention to the polite stuff of making sure that we’re being accurate in representing the views of others. That seems to me to be a minimal requirement in Christian intellectual engagement. But that is a minimal requirement.
When we attempt to honor it, we do make steps in cultivating the virtue of intellectual patience, which is no minor achievement. There’s more however. Avoiding falsehood is a good thing, but also gaining truth is a significant added value. This is where I found Bavinck’s particularizing emphasis so helpful.
In engaging non-Christian thinkers it’s certainly important to be sure we have understood their views accurately, but it’s also important to ask what they have to teach us, or even more accurately what we can teach ourselves by seriously wrestling with the overall patterns of their thought. Here I’m convinced that it’s not enough to do the Augustinian thing of asking what ideas they may have in their possession that we can rescue for our own use. We must engage them. The individuals who cultivated these ideas.
It’s important for us to understand how they as individuals came to formulate these ideas. It’s crucial to see how these ideas fit into their larger patterns of life and thought. It’s instructive to study also how they express those ideas, looking at the sentences they construct and the imagery they employ. One of the many passages that I continue to be inspired by in the writings of my good friend the late Lewis Smedes is his testimony about an encounter with God that he experienced when he enrolled in an English composition class shortly after he transferred to Calvin College after some unhappy years studying at the Moody Bible Institute. In the first day of that class Smedes wrote, and now I’m quoting him at length, “The professor introduced me to a God the likes of whom I had never even heard about, a God who liked elegant sentences and was offended by dangling modifiers.
Once you believe this where can you stop if the maker of the universe admired words well put together? Think of how he must love sound thought well put together. If he loved sound thinking, how he must love a Bach concerto. If he loved the Bach concerto, think of how he prized any human effort to bring a foretaste be it ever so small of his kingdom of justice and peace and happiness to the victimized people of the world. In short, I met the maker of the universe who loved the world He made and was dedicated to its redemption. I found the joy of the Lord not at a prayer meeting, but in English composition 101”. In reading Plato or Freud it’s a good thing to be on the lookout as we assess their ideas for some elegant sentences and for words well put together.
Then it’s a good thing then also to celebrate these accomplishments as gifts from God to them. Again Bavinck, “we can approach these thinkers with the legitimate expectation that we can find in their endeavors the results of a revelation of God and illumination by the logos and a working of God’s Spirit”. Another Christian writer from whom I have drawn inspiration in this regard is Simone Weil. I frequently quoted this piece of council from her. Christ likes us to prefer truth to Him, she wrote. To prefer truth to Him, she wrote. Because before being Christ he is truth. If one turns aside from Him to go toward the truth one will not go far before falling into His arms. Some folks have worried a bit when I have cited that.
This happened the last event that we had here, I quoted Simone Weil and several people came up with a worried look on their face. It’s a nice thought they say, that when we walk into the unknown we can go in confidence that we can’t go very far without meeting the embrace of Jesus, but can’t that kind of confidence also set us upon dangerous paths that might even lead us away from Jesus. Don’t we at least need to hear a word of warning about the possibility that when we mean to go toward the truth we’re actually moving toward the snares of falsehood? The answer of course is yes, we do need that word of warning. The concern is legitimate.
It’s an extremely important one. I have no doubt that I’ve often gotten myself on to shaky intellectual ground when I’ve forgotten about the dangers associated with that warning. But I also know that we, and especially we evangelicals, have often missed out on some important opportunities to receive significant intellectual gifts, missing out also on the occasions to cultivate some important intellectual virtues when we have failed to nurture an adequate sense of where the arms of Jesus are waiting for us in our intellectual journeys. Thank you. [audience applause]