Sunday, 19 October 2008

Learning from the past: George Marsden responds

A guest-post by George Marsden (responding to my recent post)

Since this has been an interesting ongoing discussion, I guess it would not be out of place for me to clarify what I said. Below is the text of what I said on the point in question. I did not use the core and husk image, but rather said that in a tradition there are some ideas that have shone through in a tradition in many times and places but these are sometimes “intertwined” with outdated social and political views of a particular time and place. Example: the beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love being intertwined with the belief that the Pope is the Antichrist. A brilliant exposition of the former resonates today, but a brilliant exposition of the latter does not.

These lectures were about what we can learn from Jonathan Edwards today. In my two biographies of Edwards (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards), I adopted just the stance that Ben cites from Rowan Williams. But in these lectures I was attempting something different. So my thanks to Ben for his good comments which I basically agree with, except with respect to what he thought I was trying to say. Here is what I said:

“What can we expect to learn from someone whose views on many important subjects seem so bizarre, outdated, and perhaps even offensive? Probably in this place [i.e. Princeton] where there is an appreciation for the long-term Christian heritage it will not take extensive argumentation to answer this question. If we excluded from our mentors all those who held views on some social or political issues that to many today seem bizarre or offensive, we would have to dispense with just about everyone in the history of the church as well as all the biblical writers and stick with just the wisdom of the very recent past and our own contemporaries – which is a truly depressing thought.

“Second, as I think will also gain general assent here, theologians present a special case. Theologian work within traditions and, although traditions are shaped and modified by historical contingencies, they also (by the nature of the case) contain elements that transcend the faddish outlooks of particular times and places. Hence they contain insights and challenges to our own assumptions and outlooks, just because they offer rays of wisdom that have shone in many other times and places.

“Nor is learning from the greatest proponents of a tradition an all or nothing enterprise. In our specific case of Edwards and the Reformed version of the Augustinian tradition there are some emphases – such as the eternal flames of hell, or God’s eternal decrees to election and reprobation – that some Reformed and other Christians today find very off-putting. But I think it is also most important not to be so off-put by these dimensions of the outlook of a great expositor or a tradition that we miss the truly grand insights of that expositor. As I said, I don’t think that point will require much argumentation at this seminary, where there is already appreciation for the likes of Edwards or Calvin, even among those who are not strictly Edwardseans or Calvinists.

“But beyond that, I want to argue that we can also gains some valuable insights and challenges to our culture and or cultural assumptions from the likes of Edwards. In order to do so we need to be alert to be able to sort out the lasting insights of the great minds of the past from the non-essential assumptions of another era with which those perennial truths may be intertwined. Learning to do that is, it seems to me, one of the great values of studying history. We try to understand another era not to simply dismiss it as curiously different and inferior to our own, but to be able to takes its peculiarities into account so that we can learn from its greatest thinkers.

“In fact sometimes we can gain some great insights from the profound thinkers of the past about our own times just because they lived in times so different from our own. Listening to them in their own contexts may have an effect similar to refreshing insights that we might gain from living for a time in a foreign country.”

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