Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Asking the Question about Christanity: a Critique of Academic Inquiry and a Diatribe
Asking a question like “is this book a Christian book,” merits many discussions. One has to identify what it means to be “Christian” in order to pontificate on the nature of the author's intention. Cultural issues become a forefront consideration; not only must the inquirer ask about the religious identity, he must compare it with a biblical basis. Certainly the question “is this a Christian work,” provides a thoughtful platform for a critically minded student, but it can also detriment the academic integrity of those asking, furthermore, work as a handicap in future assessments.
In “The Consolation of Philosophy,” Boethius uses many a pagan reference and characterizes aspects of life with the broad strokes of what is now known as “secular terminology.” What is meant by “secular terminology” is the implementation of non-Christan themes to describe a Christian world view. The Muse of Philosophy invokes Boethius, not a Michal the Archangel, and the happenstances of life are given face as Fortune and Fate. This, in comparison with his blatant use of Greek thought, is a minor faux pas and presents complications to the twenty first century Christian reader who picks up “Consolation,” scratches their head and asks, “Is this Christian?”
To be sure, this is a rude portrayal of what might be a very weighty question to consider. Except for the fact that it is asked, again and again. During the Beowulf readings the primary discrepancy -despite the unanimous love for the hero's nobility and the poem's overarching themes of morality- was that the Norse expressions of Christianity didn't seem “Christian.” The Kierkegaard conference betrayed the same aspects, and although Kierkegaard, like Boethius, was a self-professed Christian, he came under scrutiny of being “biblically Christian.” Which might be appropriate, considering the fact he possess philosophical and theological jibes at Christianity in the name of Christianity. However, the reiteration of this question, broadly used for multiple works not only seems stale, it betrays the overuse of a muscle sorely handicapped.
Namely, the muscle of asking academic questions. The ethics, if we must use this term to describe a healthy procedure, of academic inquiry vary from pedagogy to professor alike, and it cannot be said that asking from any religious premise invalidates a student. We cannot escape our cultural base, any more than the Anglo-Saxons of Beowulf's time could avoid conflating the story of Cain with Grendel's lineage. However, the very question illustrates our evangelical natures, which have been sculpted by an ever secularizing society which divides the religious from the world. Could this question be posed universally? I doubt that the readers of Boethius' time would challenge the Christianity of his piece, any more that Boethius himself challenged the idea that Fortune was good or bad.
Do we only question Christian legitimacy when the authorship's character comes into question, the ideas don't quite align with our versions of evangelicalism, or worse, when someone like Boethius borrows from Greek philosophers and uses “secular terminology”? Hardly anyone doubts C. S. Lewis' brand of Christianity, or the Christianized tones of authors like Schaeffer, Tolkien or Luther because they are blatantly obvious. We don't give a seconds pause after reading Calvin's “Institutes” to prod the deeper waters of if “is it a Christian piece.” In fact, for the question to be posed to them rubs us a ridiculously absurd. Yet we ask Boethius and Beowulf or any other piece of western literature borrowing the flavors of paganism and conflating it with Christian themes. We ask Kierkegaard, not because of his conflation, rather because he dares to critique, to present Christianity as existential. But Luther, Calvin and Lewis, who keep safely within the biblical realms of our twenty-first century perception of theological correctness are not interrogated on this level.
The distinction made begs the question about academic ethics. Are we asking questions to fit our understanding of Christianity? If the question “is this Christian,” serves to show the gap between our thinking and theirs, I suppose it serves to assist taking and putting on cultural lenses. We can't divorce ourselves from the fact that we are Christians coming out of a community of believers where the primary mode of thought is to discern whether Switchfoot's concerts appeal too much to the world or if they hold true to their Christian heritage. We can't help if we are scarred by the Church's aggrandized efforts to isolate its followers and dehumanize unbelievers. We can't help it.
But we can. The empiricist argument that you are what your culture makes you is all well and true, especially if you go to a Great Books college and understand the importance of judging a book, not by what you think it says, but what the historical framework thinks it says. However, if we are allowing empirical thought to dictate our questions to these people, (who were not aware that hundreds of years later a Great Books College would be judging its Christianity), we've allowed the scars of our Christian past to rape us of our intellectual aptitude.
To borrow Aristotelian language, the question “is this Christian,” might not be universal enough to ask in a Great Books setting. At least, not frequently. It might make for stimulating table talk, and in the end might be an inevitable thought posed by a young home schoolers intellectual “coming-of-age,” but it doesn't foster an ecumenical reading of Boethius. It merely makes us look at how narrow minded we are. If in the asking we come to realize that our twenty-first, americanized brand of Christianity perverts our academic diplomacy, then the asking was worthwhile. But if we keep using the question to understand the world around us, we are not asking works like Boethius and Beowulf to tell us who they are on their terms. We have only allowed a little self revelation to further handicap the greatest academic tool in our lunch box; the tool of inquiry.
Aristotle. Metaphysics. Trans. John Sachs. Santa Fe: Green
Lion Press, 1999.
Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2000.
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. London: Penguin