HT: Micah Mattix’s excellent email blast, Prufrock
Two “much food for thought” insights from the article above:
Adam Smith spoke of “the man of system” who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.” [Richard] Thaler and his benevolent friends are men, and some few women, of system. They hate the Chicago School, have never heard of the Austrian School, dismiss spontaneous order, and favor bossing people around—for their own good, understand. Employing the third most unbelievable sentence in English (the other two are “The check is in the mail” and “Of course I’ll respect you in the morning”), they declare cheerily, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.”
The great essayist Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950 that the danger is that “we who are liberal and progressive know that the poor are our equals in every sense except that of being equal to us.” The same may be said of Burkeans or conservatives, too. He also wrote that “we must be aware of the dangers that lie in our most generous wishes,” because “when once we have made our fellow men the object of our enlightened interest [we] go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”
From C.S. Lewis:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”
Collin Hansen is the author and editor of several books, the most noteworthy being Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Hansen is editorial director for The Gospel Coalition.
Hansen’s latest book is Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.
Moore: For those who are not familiar, tell us why an entire book is devoted to the work of Charles Taylor?
Hansen: Charles Taylor’s 2007 book A Secular Age might be the most ambitious work published in the last 10 years. He aims to account for nothing less than the decline of religion and rise of secularism in the industrialized West. The way he pulls together philosophy, history, sociology, and theology in order to tell the story makes him a fruitful conversation partner, even when we disagree about the conclusions. Nobody has been more helpful to me personally as I look behind and beyond the headlines to understand larger trends and factors that make evangelism and discipleship so exciting but also difficult today.
Moore: The philosopher, James K.A. Smith, has also written a book on Taylor. How is yours different than Smith’s?
Hansen: I’m thankful for Smith, who has helped me and many other of this book’s contributors understand the significance of Taylor’s project. Smith does a lot to translate Taylor, who’s not the easiest writer to understand. It can feel like you’re joining a conversation already in progress, and you don’t know if you’re welcome. Several of the contributors to our book, most notably Michael Horton, engage Taylor in more critical ways, especially as it relates to the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. And throughout the book we give more attention to applying Taylor’s work to a wide array of ministry scenarios, from preaching to discipling millennials to forming worship liturgies and more.
Moore: In your introduction you wrote, “We don’t yet know, then, whether the children of the “young, restless, Reformed” will imbibe more of the restless or the Reformed. (Emphasis yours) Would you unpack that a bit for us?
Hansen: I talked with a friend in ministry who instinctively understood one of my motivations for this book. He described his undergraduate years in a Reformed college. Everyone there had grown up Baptist but as a teenager shifted more Reformed in contrast to their parents and home churches. But then they got to this school, and they no longer stood out. Everyone else had the same story! So they searched for new ways to express their individualism: they dropped John Piper for N. T. Wright or converted to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Taylor would recognize elements of the secular “subtraction story” in this narrative. In an age of “expressive individualism,” just about anything can be co-opted for stylistic projection, even if for a time it looks like settled conviction. If the Reformed don’t dig into and catechize the riches of this biblical theology, then they’ll set up their children for another reaction in some unknown new direction.
Moore: Several of the contributors have important points of criticism with Taylor’s work. In that regard, I am thinking of Carl Trueman’s observation that the automobile may have more impact than Taylor appreciates: “Perhaps it is not so much Luther who created religious choice at a practical level but Henry Ford.” Carl says he is exaggerating there, but his general point remains. What do you think about Carl’s comment about the car?
Hansen: That’s one of the standout observations from the book. And as an appreciative reader of Wendell Berry, I couldn’t help but agree with Trueman. How can you practice church discipline if anyone can just leave your church and join another one down the road? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technology. What’s so special about your pastor’s preaching when you can watch someone better on television or listen to someone who tickles your earbuds via podcast? Why worry about sexual ethics if the pill and abortion separate intercourse from childbirth? Taylor has an unparalleled grasp on the philosophical factors, but he undersells the technological dimension to cultural change.
Moore: Let me ask this next question by invoking Yuval Levin’s masterful book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right. Levin makes the point that radicals like Paine are not going to be moved to reconsider why tradition is worth keeping unless they see its beauty. I would give us “Evangelicals” high marks on defending the Bible’s truthfulness, but very low marks on showcasing its beauty. Do you think Taylor has much to offer in this regard?
Hansen: Taylor doesn’t so much show us how to do it, but he at least reminds us of the opportunity before us, to showcase the beauty of Jesus Christ and his gospel. Let’s keep preaching and writing books like this one. But let’s also take up the challenge issued by Alan Noble in his chapter on the “disruptive witness of art,” and let’s appreciate what Mike Cosper captures about the longing for transcendence despite the “immanent frame.” We do not live in a secular age in the sense that our neighbors reject anything extra-sensory. We’re secular in the sense that we look to the self, not to outside authorities, for meaning. When we can stir the self to appreciate the beauty of the gospel, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sinners drawn from every tribe and tongue for everlasting praise, we see that our secular age still longs for hope and eternity.
Moore: What are a few things you would like your readers to gain from your book?
Hansen: First, I want them to see that secularism isn’t just a problem outside the church but our primary challenge for discipleship inside every Christian home. If we don’t catechize ourselves and our children in the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in God’s Word, the culture will catechize us in ways that undermine our faith. Second, I want them to know they can learn from Taylor without agreeing with him on everything. Certainly I would disagree strongly with his relatively positive assessment of Roman Catholicism before the Protestant Reformation. And third, I want them to see there is hope in our secular age. Even if we could turn back the clock, we wouldn’t want to. There are challenges to faith at the dawn of the information age, no doubt. But God is at work, if we will only look for him.
Moore: I regularly say that I had to write my books. And this continues to be true with the two book projects I am currently working on. Gathering from the tenor of your latest book’s content, it seems like you felt a high degree of compulsion to write How to Think. Is that true?
Jacobs: Yes, and true for this one more than for any other. When the Presidential election campaign and the Brexit debate really started heating up, I became more and more concerned by what was passing for debate on the issues and personalities involved. There was (there still is) a lot of shouting, and, above all, many people seemed absolutely determined to mischaracterize their political opponents’ views. It was as though not thinking had become a virtue. The more I reflected on how such an environment might have come to pass, the more clear it became to me that I needed to write this book.
Moore: In David McCullough’s fine biography of John Adams he mentions how the second president believed his son, John Quincy, must go overseas to get a complete education. How critical is it for our own education to interact with people from diverse backgrounds?
Jacobs: In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill stated the case in a way that, in my view, cannot be bettered. I would be foolish to use my own words when his superior ones are available:
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.
Moore: To what degree, if any, is careful thinking made more difficult by the ubiquity of social media?
Jacobs: It is very difficult to overstate how inimical social media are. All the major social networks want to keep us engaged with their site, and that means we need to be emotionally manipulated: to feel delight, triumph, rage, contempt, and to register those feelings instantaneously. And as long as we’re doing all that, we cannot think.
Moore: Does the unity and diversity of the trinity help us better think about important and complex matters?
Jacobs: If so, I’m not sure how! But I think the relational character of the very Godhead itself, the continual interplay-in-unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, should remind us that we, made in the image of that God, cannot be monads. In their lesser and limited ways, all healthy human communities, and especially the community called the Church, imitate the endlessly relational unity of the Triune God. This is why I argue in my book that you cannot “think for yourself” and shouldn’t even if you could: thinking is something we always do in response to other people.
Moore: You address the area of emotions and their importance to thinking. Many would not make that kind of connection. Why did you?
Jacobs: There’s a great deal of evidence now — the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has done a lot of it — that demonstrates that people who are unable to have proper and healthy emotional responses to the world make bad decisions. But wise persons have always known this. As C. S. Lewis comments in The Abolition of Man, the importance of training the feelings is central to much ancient thought, pagan and Christian alike: “St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.”
Moore: You’ve written a well-regarded book on C.S. Lewis’s imagination. Other than his native brilliance, what are a few things Lewis did that made him a great thinker?
Jacobs: That passage I just cited gives one indication! (His awareness of the need to touch people’s dispositions as well as their rational faculties explains his writing of fiction as well as apologetics.) But I believe the really key thing is this: Lewis, though raised in a Christian home, if not an especially devout one, became an atheist as a teenager and indeed for some years was quite assertive in his atheism, always feeling free to mock the simple beliefs of his friend Arthur Greeves. So when, at around the age of 30, he became a Christian, he was able to do so only after unstitching a garment of conviction that he had stitched up quite determinedly over a period of fifteen years. As a result, he came to know both atheism and Christianity from the inside. He was always in the position that John Stuart Mill, in the passage I quoted above, says that the genuinely thoughtful person must be in: knowing the strongest arguments of all sides in a dispute, and knowing them as though from the inside.
Moore: If you could wave a wand, what three books would you have every American read to equip them to be better thinkers?
Jacobs: I’m reluctant to make a list, in large part because, as I explain at length in my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I’m a big believer in reading at whim. But also, what you need to read depends on what you need to understand. So here’s a suggestion: Consider the people whose views you find especially appalling, but also appallingly popular. Find out what they read. Find out what books they believe are the most compelling accounts of their position, the ones about which they say, “This is it. This is what I stand for.” Now, go read all that. At the very least, you’ll sharpen your own thinking by having to articulate your own response to arguments you detest.
But beware: you just might end up changing your mind.
The following came to me in a burst of inspiration. Some will undoubtedly debate the inspiration part!
My nine word sentence that reveals much about evangelical America:
“Harry Potter is demonic, but Trump is King David.”
Actually, I refer to the similar ways their detractors speak of both candidates. And the detractors I have in mind are us Christians. By the way, I will not be voting for either, but I digress.
It is amazing to me how many Christians say if Hillary/Trump becomes president, x, y, and z terrible things WILL happen. Perhaps. But who knows the future except God, plus the history of revivals reminds us that God can do wonderful things in very dark times.
So fellow Christians here’s my message: Stop acting as if you KNOW the future. You don’t, and if you did, you might be very surprised what will occur.
Richard Bullard (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1984) lived on the same floor as me in Lincoln Hall (RIP). I did not get to know him very well.
I recently found out he’s become a teacher of Gnosticism.
A sad example of spiritual confusion on many levels.