To wax hippie and postmodern for a moment, this is a “journey” of a post, more than a philosophical one. Every year I go back and forth between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. This seems to correlate with my reading of Barth.
Ultimately, I don’t care which school is right. They are tools, not goals. Which one advances the kingdom better? Which one gives a better picture of God (oops, Wittgensteinian slip)?
And I don’t have a good answer. But maybe I can point out strengths and weaknesses and show where the church can be spiritually bettered.
To navigate modern discussions, you have to deal with Hegel. Plain and simple. This doesn’t mean you are a “liberal” or a “pantheist.” It just means you are doing responsible scholarship. And it means you have to engage a certain vocabulary (the “Other,” “positing,” etc). Nothing wrong with that but not necessarily easy.
One of the advantages is that Continental Philosophy seems to merge easily with other disciplines, like literature. This gives it an immediate relevance that analytic philosophy seems to lack. On the other hand, I am not always sure I know what they are saying.
Analytic philosophy is clear, precise, and similar to doing mental exercise. I just feel sharper when I am done reading guys like Plantinga. And I didn’t always know that analytic philosophy of today is not the same thing as of earlier generations. Earlier analytic models thought reality (or clarity or meaning) was obtainable simply by asking the question, “Well what do you mean by that?” Ask it enough and you arrive at meaning (or get punched in the face).
The more dangerous implication is that things are truly knowable only in the abstract and not in systems of relations. This is deleterious for Christian theism.
But even guys like Ayer realized that was a dead-end.
After the Plantinga revolution, Christian philosophers started using many of the tools of analytic philosophy, without necessarily committing themselves to earlier conclusions–and the results are often amazing. See especially Plantinga’s Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom, and Evil.
One of the problems, though, is that analytic guys are perceived (whether this is fair or not) as having a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to the history of doctrine. I will come back to that point.
Biola and Calvin College: Can They Meet?
I single out Biola and Calvin as two respective representatives of the above tradition. Biola boasts of luminaries like JP Moreland and William L. Craig. The “Calvin tradition” is represented by James K. A. Smith. And both streams have done outstanding work. Even more, analytic guys like Moreland are able to tie philosophical analysis in with the “spiritual disciplines” movement, Renovare. Here is great promise but also great danger.
This is the brainchild of Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. On a practical level, much of it is quite good. The idea that bodily disciplines break bad habits is just good, practical psychology (I got accused by a powerful Gnostic Magus on Puritanboard of denying the gospel for that sentence).
But…there is almost zero discernment in these guys. They will take handfuls of Pentecostal, Quaker, Catholic, and Reformed spirituality and just mix ’em together.
Nevertheless…My prayer life improved from following Moreland’s advice.
Calvin Cultural Liturgies
James K. A. Smith has found himself the sparring partner of what is known as the “Biola School.” Smith’s thesis–which I think is fundamentally correct–is that we aren’t simply “brains on a stick.” We are embodied and liturgies, to be effective, must engage the whole person. (I also got accused of denying the gospel on Puritanboard for that statement. )
We will come back to that statement.
Smith, however, takes his apologetic in a different realm. While I agree with Smith that “postmodernism” doesn’t just mean “Denying absolute truth” (what does that statement even mean?), I fear that Smith’s cultural applications do not escape the worst of postmodern, low-brow culture. Further, Smith is weak on the doctrine of the soul (in some of his cultural liturgies books he uses “brain” when he should be saying “mind”).
Is that evident at Calvin College? Rumors abound that Calvin is gutting some of its biblical language programs, and Calvin has invited homosexual speakers in the past. Make fun of Vineyard and Biola all you want, but I don’t think that has happened.
It is not that Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project is wrong. I think much of it is quite insightful and I eagerly await his volume on Augustine, but I am nervous where the applications are going.
To be fair to Smith, though, and to Continental Philosophy, they have been more attentive to the history of philosophy (and perhaps, history of doctrine)
I do see some areas of overlap with Smith and Moreland
- Both believe in Jesus’s Kingdom Power for today
- Both believe in the body’s importance in spiritual disciplines
What should we do?
In the end, I side with Moreland. We need analytic philosophy’s discipline and precision. While both Smith and Moreland believe in Kingdom Power and bodily disciplines, the latter’s “cultural” applications are far more responsible.