Thursday, March 31, 2011

Come, Let Us Reason

That is the title of my latest entry on The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
The God of Christian theism is the Source of Reason. St. John calls the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, a Greek term from which we get the word “logic.” Within the greatest commandment is the instruction to “love the Lord your God with all your. . .mind” (Matt 22:37-JB). St. Peter commands believers to “always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have. But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience” (I Peter 3:15-16). St. Paul commands the Church in I Thess. 5:21 “to think before you do anything. . .”

When explaining the Christian faith on Mars Hill, St. Paul shows a better than average knowledge of his opponents’ philosophies and beliefs. In his dispute with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, St. Paul quotes from the Greek poet Epimenides (Acts 17:28a) and from the Phainomena of Aratus (Acts 17:28b), both of which are non-Christian sources. But this was the brilliance of Paul’s apologetic. Taking the time to study and understand the philosophical systems of his intellectual adversaries, Paul sought a common ground with his non-Christian audience so that he could share the Christian story with them.

Continue reading>>>

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My letter to UNLV President Neal Smatresk in support of the UNLV philosophy department

As many of you may know, the state of Nevada is feeling the brunt of the current economic downturn. For this reason, the state's institutions of higher education are being forced to make deep budget cuts. Among the cuts proposed by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)  is the elimination of its philosophy department. Below is the letter I sent last night to UNLV President Neal Smatresk. I cc'd it to the chancellor of the university system (Daniel Klatch) as well as each of the members of the Board of Regents. Those interested in offering their support for UNLV's philosophy department should go here.  What follows is my letter:
March 29, 2011

President Neal Smatresk
Office of the President
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
4505 S. Maryland Parkway
Las Vegas, NV

Dear President Smatresk:

I am an alumnus of UNLV (B.A., 1983), and a proud graduate of its philosophy program. I am also a former full-time UNLV faculty member (Lecturer, 1989-1996) as well as a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas (1978). Many of my family members, including my parents, still reside in southern Nevada. I am presently a tenured full-professor in the philosophy department at Baylor University.

I am writing to encourage you not to eliminate UNLV’s philosophy department. Although I understand and appreciate the economic realities that a university president in your position must confront, I want to make a case that philosophy may be a university’s most important discipline. First, philosophy teaches students how to think critically for the sake of the common good. When I was on the faculty of UNLV, we were responsible to teach one of the most important core courses offered by the university, “Reasoning and Critical Thinking.” Unlike other disciplines in which one is taught how to think about a particular subject, in philosophy we teach students how to think about thinking. I cannot tell you how many of my former UNLV students have told me how important that course was for their work in a variety of fields and endeavors including law, medicine, business, law enforcement, and even home schooling!

Unfortunately, as the academy has become more fragmented, the study of critical thinking has diminished, largely based on the mistaken belief that one can study a university subject without learning how to, or what it means to, reason well. Not surprisingly, a groundbreaking and unprecedented study by New York University sociologist, Richard Arum, has concluded that college students are not learning to think critically.  Published earlier this year in the book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Arum “followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.”  The study found that “forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called ‘higher order’ thinking skills.” It seems to me that UNLV should help lead the way in resisting this trend. Minimally, this should mean keeping its philosophy department.

Second, the questions that are the most contested in the public square are at bottom philosophical ones. Whether it is the distribution of state resources for education, protecting the environment, the nature of liberal democracy, or the relationship between faith and reason, how one should think about these questions depends on what understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful is most rationally defensible.  The fact is that no other discipline in the academy has the conceptual tools and resources to address these questions in as rigorous and clear a way as does philosophy. Thus, to eliminate the philosophy department would be tantamount to saying to the community that the university and its members are qualified to discuss virtually anything except those things that are the most important to our common life.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration.  If there is anything I can do to assist you or the university on this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Francis J. Beckwith, MJS, PhD
Professor of Philosophy, Baylor University

Friday, March 25, 2011

Chris Castaldo on Purgatory and Rob Bell's Love Wins

Evangelical Pastor and former Catholic, Chris Castaldo, nicely corrects those who have opined that Rob Bell's recent musings on hell are not unlike the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. You can read Pastor Castaldo's comments here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Today would have been my father-in-law's 91st birthday

Joseph A. Dickerson, Jr. died in May 2006 at the age of 86. Today would have been his 91st birthday. My wife, Frankie, still misses him, as she misses her mother, Peggy, who passed away in January 2010. At 5:30 pm today at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Waco, Mass will be said for the repose of Joe's soul. What follows is the eulogy I delivered at his memorial service:

Monday, March 21, 2011

I just made Satan's blog

It's a hell of an entry.

Roger Olson on "Evangelical AND Catholic"

My esteemed colleague, Professor Roger Olson, has written on his blog some interesting and thoughtful comments about Evangelicals and Catholics. He writes:
Over the last 50 years many notable evangelical thinkers have converted to the Roman Catholic Church (or to some independent Catholic church of which there are many; here I’m concerned mainly with those who have converted to the RC Church).  Think of Tom Howard, evangelical professor at Wheaton (and I think Gordon), who converted to RCC and wrote a book about his conversion called Evangelical Is Not Enough (1988).  Think of Peter Kreeft and, most recently, my own colleague Francis Beckwith.  But there are many more than never get noticed.

You can read the rest here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How Political Correctness Makes Us Dumb

That's the name of my latest essay on The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
The other day I was lecturing in my critical thinking class on the difference between arguments and explanations.  An explanation is an account ofsomething whose truth is not in dispute. So, for example, if you ask me why the Packers won the Super Bowl, I can give you several different answers. But the simplest one is this: they scored more points than the Steelers. We do not disagree as to whether the Packers were victorious. I am not trying to prove that. All I am doing is giving you a simple explanation as to why the Packers won. On the other hand, if you asked me why I think belief in God is rational because you doubt God’s existence and may want to believe, I can give you several reasons. If did that, I would be offering you an argument (or a set of arguments) for the veracity of a belief that is in dispute between us.

In class, I took an example from the textbook (Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic, 3.1e) and asked my students whether the following is an argument or an explanation: “Men pitch baseballs faster than women because they have more upper body muscle strength.” The right answer is that it is an explanation, because a reason is offered—“men have more upper body muscle strength”—in order to explain a fact that is not in dispute, “men pitch baseballs faster than women.” Or so I thought.

Continue reading>>>

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sects, Politics, and Religion: A review of Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics

That is the title of a review essay I just published in the April 2011 issue of First Things. The book is authored by Robert Benne of Roanoke College. Here's how the essay begins:
For some Americans, as for the Founding Fathers, the separation of church and state means that the government and religious bodies ought not to exert power over the other’s areas of legitimate authority. To others it means that religiously informed policy proposals may not become the laws of the secular government. So, on this meaning, a law that prohibits embryo-destructive research would violate the separation of church and state, since (it is assumed) such a law reflects a sanctity-of-life ethic derived exclusively from a theological tradition.

Notice that the latter understanding is concerned not with the actual content of the religious citizen’s policy proposal or with whether or not he has offered a cogent, rationally defensible argument. This metaphysical exclusionary rule bars these proposals without regard for the quality of the cases offered for them. Their secular contraries are not subjected to this philosophical apartheid, even though they offer answers to the same questions and rely on beliefs no less contested than their so-called religious counterparts.

Continue reading>>>

Friday, March 11, 2011

Powerful words: Romans 12:9-21 and the Christian life

Have you ever had this happen? You read a passage of Scripture that you had read many times before, but this time it hits you like a ton of bricks. This is what happened to me tonight when I read this passage from the Book of Romans (12:9-21):
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Boy, do I have a long way to go....

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Carl Trueman on Rob Bell's use of Luther

(HT: Justin Taylor)

The ever interesting Carl Trueman provides a nice online tutorial on how to read Martin Luther. Trueman, an historical theologian at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, explains how Rob Bell's use of a Luther quote in his recent book does not deliver what Bell thinks it does.  You can read it here. What follows are Trueman's concluding remarks:
Popular books written for popular consumption are vital in the church; and Bell is to be commended for seeing that need. Further, when such books simply put forth an unexceptionable position, there is no real necessity for any scholarly apparatus; but when they self-consciously present themselves as arguing for significant or controversial paradigm shifts, the author really does need to cite sources. This is crucial because such citation allows the reader to engage in a conversation with the matter at hand. Indeed, the failure to do so actually prevents the reader from checking such for herself. In short, such an author does theology by fiat, adopting a dictatorial and high-handed approach which precludes constructive dialogue, whatever “conversational” rhetoric the author may use to describe his intentions. The message is not one of dialogue; it is rather ‘Trust me: everyone else is wrong, though I am not going to give you the means to judge their arguments for yourselves." That kind of approach lacks any real critical or dialogical integrity.

Building arguments on theological soundbites, especially from the works of prolific and sophisticated theologians such as Luther, is surely very tempting in today's instant internet age. We all want our fifteen minutes of fame but none of us want to spend any more than fifteen seconds doing the grunt work necessary to achieve it. Yet, like a lady of easy virtue, such an approach may have immediately seductive charms but ultimately proves a rather cruel mistress for the would-be historian. It also says much (and none of it flattering) about the competence of the editors at Harper, that they did not seize on this elementary error and correct it. Checking sources, especially when they seem to say something unexpected, is surely the most basic task of both author and editor.

The book will, of course, sell many copies, far more than anything I will ever write, I am sure. But then so did Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code; and that was a book with which, from the safely controversial content to the sloppy historiography, Rob Bell's latest offering would appear to have much in common.

Read the whole thing here.

I still think there is something about Bell's project that is commendable (as does Trueman, for that matter). But I also think that there are limits to what one can accomplish in "retrieving the ancient sources" if one at the same time wants to distance oneself from those ancient sources that are not agreeable to influential pockets of our 21st century Western culture. Thus, you have the phenomenon of those, like Bell, who speak of embracing the Great Tradition but only on their terms. So, they celebrate the accoutrements of liturgy but reject the authority that the ancient Church believed the liturgy requires. Incense, chanting, candles, and altars are fine; but male-only clergy with the authority to make theological judgments of a binding nature on moral matters that would embarrass your friends at the tattoo parlor or at the MLA convention are out of the question.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Rob Bell may be on to something

A couple of days ago I posted a smart-alecky entry about the controversy surrounding Rob Bell and his alleged belief in universalism, suggesting (by means of humor) that perhaps his celebrity is just another passing, naval-gazing, fad on the saw dust trail that is American Evangelicalism. But after I received a stinging rebuke from an Evangelical friend (who would have undoubtedly gotten my humor if I were a middle aged blonde woman with dreadlocks), I took some time to read up on Pastor Bell and find out about his congregation, Mars Hill, and their beliefs. Although I think "Mars Hill" is a weird name for a church (my own preference, if you're into biblical geography and artifacts, is Lazarus' Tomb or Herod's Platter), I think they may be on to something. If you read the beliefs section of the Mars Hill website, you will discover a "narrative theology" that is not the Henry- Emerson-Fosdick-as-hipster caricature that one would be led to believe if one just read certain Reformed blogs (that shall remain nameless, though one rhymes with "Godspell competition"). 

As a Catholic, I have no dog in this fight. But as a self-described Evangelical Catholic, I see in Pastor Bell's beliefs a longing for historical continuity with the ancient church and its practices as well as a winsome, intelligent, and attractive manner that is welcoming without at the same time compromising the core of Christian faith. Given the history of Protestantism, I understand the concern on the part of many traditional Evangelicals who see this as the first step toward the liberalizing of that movement. And Bell's project may very well drift in that direction. But his desire to reach back into the Christian past to retrieve something that has been lost is a pretty Reformed sentiment, whether in Geneva or in Trent. (If, of course, Bell is a universalist, the Catholic Church parts ways with him on that doctrine).

Albert Mohler, Catholicism, and Hell

(HT: Joe Carter at First Things)

On his blog, Albert Mohler, Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, addresses the issue of Hell in Christian theology. He writes:
Liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have modified their theological systems to remove this offense. No one is in danger of hearing a threatening “fire and brimstone” sermon in those churches. The burden of defending and debating hell now falls to the evangelicals–the last people who think it matters.

I can't speak for Liberal Protestantism, but I do know something of Catholicism, and on its theology and practice Dr. Mohler is completely mistaken. In fact, in January my pastor, Fr. Timothy Vaverek, delivered three weeks of Sunday homilies on "last things," including quite a strong message on the existence and nature of Hell. And I know for a fact---knowing many priests and Catholic lay leaders around the U.S.---that the fate of one's soul is a topic about which they do not shy away.  And as we began to enter the Lenten Season, I noticed the increasing number of my fellow parishioners, and those at other parishes that I have visited, standing in line for Confession, a sacrament that presupposes the existence of Hell. For in order to avoid it one may need to go to Confession.

Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mince words about Hell (1033-1037; notes omitted):
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."

Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire," and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!"

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few."

Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where "men will weep and gnash their teeth."
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance":

Father, accept this offering
from your whole family.
Grant us your peace in this life,
save us from final damnation,
and count us among those you have chosen.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

John Piper on Bob Dylan

(HT: Bill Gann). Writes Piper:
In 1979 Bob Dylan recorded the song "Gotta Serve Somebody." For those who listen with biblically informed ears the refrain echoes Paul and Jesus:

Paul: "You are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness" (Romans 6:16).

Jesus: "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Matthew 6:24).

Dylan's refrain:
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,
You're gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

This is one of the truest songs Dylan has written. John Lennon was so angry with it that he wrote an obscene counter-song, "Serve Yourself," which was so bad, Yoko Ono published an apologetic explanation of it in 1998.

To celebrate Dylan's getting this truth so right, I have written new lyrics, not because they are better, but because they are updated for my religious world.

If you'd like to read it, and you don't know the song, it might help to have the tune in your head as you read the new lyrics. You can listen to it here:

Continue reading>>>

Or We Can Be Philosophers: A Response to Barbara Forrest

That is the title of an article of mine that is forthcoming in the philosophy journal, Synthese. It is, however, now available online prior to its appearance in print. (It may be downloaded by individual purchase or if you or your institution has a subscription).  Here is how my article begins (references omitted):

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Will Herberg's 1949 "Commentary" review of Paul Blanshard's notorious "American Freedom and Catholic Power"

There is much that those of us in 2011 can learn from Will Herberg's important 1949 review of Paul Blanshard's famous (or infamous) tome, American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949). Long before Christian conservatives were called "American Taliban" by secular progressives, and long before the United States had to wrestle with controversies surrounding its Muslim citizenry, American Catholic Christians were confronted by a truly vile form of bigotry and suspicion that was embraced by both elite and popular culture. Catholics were labeled by those like Blanshard, who called themselves the "true Americans," as enemies of the very idea of America and the rights, liberties, and alliegences that this nation requires of itself and for its citizens to uphold.  Appearing in the August 1949 issue of Commentary, I reproduce Herberg's scathing review in its entirety.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Apostolic Succession

That's the title of my latest piece on The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
In 2007, when I was prayerfully thinking about returning to the Catholic Church, there were four theological issues that were deal breakers forme: justification, penance, transubstantiation, and apostolic succession. I have already discussed penancetransubstantiation, and justification. Here, I offer a brief account of how I became convinced that the Catholic Church is also right about apostolic succession.

Catholicism holds that if a Church claims to be Christian it must be able to show that its leaders – its bishops and its presbyters (or priests) – are successors of the Apostles. This is why the Catholic Church accepts Eastern Orthodox sacraments as legitimate even though the Orthodox are not in full communion with Rome.

Continue reading>>>

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Guest post on Life Training Institute blog

I recently entered the fray at the Life Training Institute blog, making a case for prolife incrementalism in response to a comment post by Rebecca Kiessling. My post may be found here.