Among other “lighter” reading, I am tacking two important, but formidable books: After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre and Sources of the Self: the Making of Modern Identity by Charles Taylor. It is good to have friends like Bill and Tim accompany me for both of these adventures.
Here’s a page from a recent read, though many times I am reading sections more than once (!) from Sources of the Self:
A few insights from one of our finest thinkers:
These are not just simple musings by a philosopher. Kass lives what he philosophizes. I saw that when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and attended a seminar that he taught on the Book of Exodus. U of C, as we call it, is all about the “life of the mind.” The approach to learning and arguing there is incredibly rigorous. It was there that I learned how to think critically, how to construct an argument, and especially how to take responsibility for that argument.
Kass makes a simple statement that contains profound wisdom and depth: “Lovers, we know, are face to face,” he writes. “Friends are side by side. What kind of ‘being together’ are we fashioning in cyberspace and on our screens?”
The article is here:
“May He support us all the day long, ‘til the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last.”
John Henry Newman
Most Christians, even if they read on a regular basis, will pretty much choose books that help them live the Christian life. Books extolling “how to” live the Christian life dominate the landscape of bookstores because that is what the market wants.
There is nothing wrong per se with giving practical suggestions for how to live the Christian life. In his terrific introduction to Puritan theology, J. I. Packer underscores how Puritan preachers gave many applications in their sermons.
Applying the truths of Scripture is critical to being a Christian who is growing. James 1:22-25 makes this crystal clear:
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.
The problem occurs when one’s reading is all about application. It is a problem, among other reasons, because we simply assume the author holds to a biblical framework. Sure the author may cite verses here and there, but are they handling Scripture responsibly? It takes biblical and theological discernment to determine whether that is the case.
What are the theological assumptions that the author holds? Those assumptions will inform how the author reads Scripture, and then makes his case for believers to apply his suggestions.
I am always on the lookout for thoughtful introductory books that help Christians think more carefully about their faith.
Gerald McDermott’s The Great Theologians: a Brief Guide is such a book. It covers eleven, perhaps the top eleven, most consequential theologians. The chapters are short, but meaty. The chapters are meaty, but accessible.
If you want to know more about the thinkers that are behind the “practical” books you are reading, McDermott’s book is recommended with gusto!
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.”
A good review of a book I know pretty well!