The phrase “subjective truth” is an oxymoron. If something is a truth, then it is simply true and we can leave out the word “subjective.” If we have a string of words that do not express a truth (e.g. “Oh yum!”), then we may want to use the word “subjective” but we can leave out the word “truth.” Consider ordinary cases where someone might say that a truth is “subjective”:
- Alex’s favorite color is green.
- Joe prefers vanilla ice cream to chocolate.
- Adam received a B on his history final.
Supposing that it really is the case that Alex’s favorite color is green, that Joe really does prefer vanilla, and that Adam really did receive a B, all three of these sentences express simple truths. These are simple facts about the world, the same world that we all live in. If (1) is true, then there is a person named Alex and he really does have a preference for the color green. The fact that Alex has a friend who prefers purple does not alter the truth of (1) at all, it simply makes a completely different proposition true:
- Alex’s friend prefers purple.
What is more, Alex’s friend does not make (1) half-way true or “kinda” true. Propositions (1) and (4) are both simply true, and their truth is completely compatible with one another just as much as the truth that “four and six makes ten” is completely compatible with the truth that “two and two makes four.”
I always chuckle inside when I hear someone saying that the doctrine of the Trinity originated in 325 AD at Nicea. Sometimes they even suggest that it was only after Christianity fell under the sway of evil emperor Constantine that anyone ever thought that Jesus was God and that the whole thing was politically motivated. While it is true that some of the more developed Trinitarian language and technical distinctions were worked out much later, after centuries of careful reflection and debate, the basic outlines of Trinitarian doctrine are in the pages of the New Testament. Scripture set the axioms, and as Christians talked, the logical requirements of these axioms became clearer and the theological language necessary to express these requirements began to develop.
During a recent study of St. Justin Martyr, I was surprised at just how far this development had gone by the time Justin lived (100–165 AD). Our main source for his thought is his Dialogue with Trypho, in which he imagines himself attempting to convince a Jew named Trypho that Jesus is the Messiah by relying solely on the scriptures that Trypho accepts. Because of this goal, we do not hear much from the New Testament and very little about the Holy Spirit. Instead, the glimpses we get into Justin’s trinitarianism come when he attempts to demonstrate that several passages of the Hebrew scriptures speak of both God the Father and God the Son and that we should identify this latter person with Jesus Christ of Nazareth. While I appreciate Justin’s exegesis, we can set to one side the difficult questions that have to do with whether or not Justin is getting the Old Testament right. Instead, I want to simply draw attention to the clarity with which several core Trinitarian ideas are stated in the first half of the second century.
This weekend I preached a sermon introducing the book of Acts at Lexington Christian Fellowship and Jessamine Christian Fellowship. I focused on four themes that all have to do with the extension of Jesus’s redemptive mission through his disciples. See below for the text I used (you can find the audio here).
I’m giving a talk at the Athens and Jerusalem Conference in Lawrenceburg KY on Saturday, April 7, 2018 at 4:00 PM. The talk is titled “Platonic versus Christian Conceptions of the Self.” I plan to go through several key texts from the Phaedo and the Phaedrus in which Socrates makes it clear that the person, e.g. Cebes or Simmias, is identical with the soul rather than the soul–body composite which he calls “the human being” (ὁ ἄνθρωπος). This is in contrast to the standard Christian view that understands the person to be identical to the total soul–body composite and essentially human. Everyone is invited to join in, and the whole conference looks like it will be fun for anyone interested in the interplay between classical and Christian thought.
A few weeks ago, I gave a teaching overviewing the book of Job at Lexington Christian Fellowship. You can find the audio for the teaching here, but I thought I would make the text available as well.
During one of our discussion groups over the Screwtape Letters, I was arrested by a passage where Uncle Screwtape appears to be quite the Christian personalist:
To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense.1
Obviously, he’s got the whole thing twisted around backwards and inside out, but his understanding that good and evil are grounded in the relationship between the self and another reveals a personalistic understanding of love.
Frequently people say that love is willing someone else’s genuine good. While I think this is certainly an essential part of it, I believe that this definition does not get the essence of love quite right. Instead, I have learned from Christian personalist thinkers like Karol Wojtyła (see his magisterial Love and Responsibility) that love involves the free gift of one’s very self to another. If you’re interested, I’ve compiled a number of scriptures that I believe support this deeper definition of love here. This comes out as Screwtape loathingly describes God’s attitude in contrast to his own:
One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself— creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.
The opposite of this is not hate or malice, but rather Augustine’s libido dominandi, the lust for gaining power over another, which Lewis insightfully describes here as a kind of eating or absorption. This attitude does not primarily seek another’s harm so much as his subordination to one’s own self. This contrast, I believe, is at the very root of the difference between good and evil, the divine orientation versus the demonic, which Lewis summarizes with his special way for stating profound truths in perfectly apt and direct English:
We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (MacMillan, 1961) §8. ↩
I have been listening to a bunch of Jordan Peterson’s podcasts recently and asking myself, “How is it possible that I can encounter in this man such profound insights that harmonize with everything I know about reality while at the same time I encounter profound disagreements that reflect a chasm between my worldview and his?” For one thing, he is not an ideologue. His intellectual honesty leads him to reflect deeply upon the actual data of human experience and this cannot but lead to genuine insight. At another level, however, I think that both the contact and the gap between his understanding of the world and my own comes from a difference in the way we understand the idea of λόγος.
From what I gather (I welcome anyone who knows Peterson’s work better than I to correct me), Peterson thinks of the λόγος as an idealization of human consciousness. In one lecture he likens the relationship between the λόγος and being to that between a spotlight and what it shines on. The catch is that he seems to think the spotlight somehow brings into reality (at least a certain kind of reality) the coutures of what it reveals. I take the idea to be something like that of the German idealists: structures like temporality and causality arise as the necessary conditions of conscious experience. The organization of the world we inhabit does not emerge independent of the organizing activity of our own consciousness.
By contrast, I understand the λόγος not at intelligence but as intelligibility. By this I mean that the λόγος represents the structure of order and pattern in the world which both exists independent of human consciousness and makes intelligent human consciousness of the world possible in the first place. Human consciousness is not the λόγος but it is λογικός, that is, receptive to the λόγος.
I see this difference as related to the difference between realist phenomenology (e.g. the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand or Karol Wojtyła) and the various forms of phenomenology that are ultimately idealist or constructivist. Both take the structures of lived experience seriously, and this is why I think that I find so much congenial in Peterson’s work. By starting with the datum that things do have meaning for us we stand on one side against flat-footed empiricism or cynical nihilism. Since we are both taking seriously the structures that we encounter in experience and since his experience cannot be all that different from my own, it is not surprising that we believe many of the same things about life and that he gains insights that blow me away as deeply correct. The difference comes because I believe that the structures revealed in human consciousness are capable of disclosing to us something about the structures of the world independent of human consciousness. Furthermore, this relationship is not accidental because I believe that the transcendent Λόγος himself both creates the world with its structures of intelligibility and created us so that we would be (at least partially) receptive to these structures.
I just finished reading all the Narnia books to my kids and ran across this little bit from the professor Digory Kirk—my lifelong role model—towards the end of The Last Battle:
Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream…It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!
Of course, if you have ever taken my ancient and medieval philosophy class you will know that I try to resist the urge of thinking of the material world in Plato as a copy of some higher material world populated by the Forms. That is to say, the Form of White (if there are Forms of sensible qualities for Plato) is not a perfectly white object up in Platonic heaven. Rather, it is no color at all since it is not an object that can be seen.
That being said, I think Lewis rightly latches onto several key features of Platonism in the Narnia books that historically have had and ought to have had a grip on Christian thinkers and we see coming out in a particularly lovely way in this section of The Last Battle: (i) there are gradations of being, i.e. such a thing as being more or less real, (ii) our familiar world is not the most real, (iii) but that does not make it altogether something to be despised either, since what we find good and beautiful in this world is a reflection or echo of something deeper and more real, (iv) even though this world is good, we should not mourn its final loss because all that is good and beautiful in it is preserved at a higher level. If you ever catch me saying that I am a Platonist (I do on occasion) it is usually these features which I, like Lewis, mean.
The person both as a concept and as a living reality is purely the product of patristic thought.1
The first half of this claim is the main concern of my current book project, but the second half is more interesting, although it requires a little explaining. I take Zizioulas to mean that, although we are individual humans automatically, being a fully fledged person is something we must grow into as we come into deeper and deeper communion with God, so the “living reality” of being a person must come from Christianity. But can we really say that this living reality is “purely the product of patristic thought”? As much as I like the Fathers, this doesn’t seem quite right. Perhaps better to say, “purely the product of the Faith expressed in patristic thought”?
John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 27. ↩
If you look at the organs of opinion in Britain and Europe, and at the institutions such as universities, in which the self- consciousness of European societies is expressed and developed, you find almost everywhere a culture of repudiation. Take any aspect of the Western inheritance of which our ancestors were proud, and you will find university courses devoted to deconstructing it. Take any positive feature of our political and cultural inheritance, and you will find concerted efforts in both media and the academy to place it in quotation marks, and make it look like an imposture or a deceit. And there is an important segment of political opinion on the left that seeks to endorse these critiques and to convert them into policies.1
Surely our ancestors did many vile things, but just as surely they did many noble things. The psychology that persistently obsesses over the former and refuses to look at the latter must be some kind of self-hating neurosis. But it’s the way to get an A in “social studies.”
Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative (Bloomsbury, 2014), 40. ↩