The Enemies, and Friends, of the Humanities
Why Deconstructionists Defended the Canon
Mark Bauerlein – 8/21/14 – http://www.firstthings.com
A funny thing happened when Michael Novak brought Herbert Marcuse to lecture to his students. It was the early-1970s when campus rebellion had entered its darker phase, and Marcuse was an idol of the Movement. His theory of “repressive tolerance” served as an essential touchstone for protest, and his volatile mix of Marx and Freud seemed an edgy, relevant style of intellectualized activism.
Novak was a provost at SUNY-Old Westbury, a new experimental college in the state system caught up in all the higher-ed fads of the day. Students lounged barefoot in class and showed contempt for all authority, including that of the faculty and administrators. Younger professors indulged them, refusing to impose a set curriculum and questioning the appropriateness of grades. Sentimentality for the Vietcong was widespread.
Hearing students cite Marcuse while decrying bourgeois society, Novak thought it a good idea to bring Marcuse to campus for a day of discussion and lecturing. But the admiring conversation he expected to witness didn’t occur. Instead, Novak recounts in his 2013 memoir Writing from Left to Right,
After mingling with the students, he was affronted and disgusted. At his lecture he set aside his prepared notes and instead described the severe Prussian discipline of his own education: the classics he had to master; the languages he had to learn by exercises and constant tests. His theme was that no one had any standing on which to rebel against the past—or dare to call himself a revolutionary—who had not registered the tradition of the West. (p. 107)
“Can you hear me now?”
I was recently having a conversation with a seminarian. He was writing a paper on the “New Interpretation” of Paul, and so I asked him about the “old interpretation” of Paul, you know, the one that fueled the Protestant Reformation and that has served the proclamation of the church and the faith of many Protestant Christians for more than 500 years now. And he just stared at me as if I had grown a second head, or was speaking in tongues without an interpreter. Apparently it had never occurred to him that a “new” interpretation implies the existence of an “old” interpretation. He apparently missed class the day that it was explained that a “new” interpretation is by definition a reaction to and a corrective of an “old” interpretation that has been determined by its critics to be defective in some or several ways. And as we parted I thought about the Herbert Marcuse story that I excerpted for you above from the journal First Things. A notable critic of the conventional wisdom himself, Marcuse was nevertheless impatient with people who imagined themselves to be critics like him but without having first done the hard work of understanding the delivered canon, the “registered tradition.” Before you can criticize something, you’ve got to take the time and make the effort to understand it on its own terms.
It is unarguably irresponsible, both spiritually and intellectually, for us “old” interpreters not to know that the “new” interpreters are there or what it is that they are saying. The image of an ostrich with its head in the ground comes to mind. I have a number of colleagues, people whom I consider to be my spiritual allies and friends in the traditional interpretation camp, for whom this is the perfect description. They sit comfortably behind the lines engaging in what E. Stanley Jones once called “long-distance dueling.”
We have shelled each other’s positions, or what we thought were the positions, but there has been much smoke and confusion and not a little un-Christian feeling. (Christ at the Round Table – 15)
But it is equally irresponsible to promote the conclusions of a “new” interpretation without taking into account the existence of the “old” interpretation, or acknowledging that there is an “old” interpretation that many thoughtful believers continue to regard as being valuable and valid. The failure of both camps to treat the interpretation of their counterparts with respect reduces the theological enterprise to empty “straw man” exercises.
The first “rule” in interfaith conversation is to let your conversation partner tell you what it is that he or she actually believes rather than you presuming to tell them what it is that they are supposed to believe based on what you have read about their religion in a book. Only when people of faith have been accorded the right of speaking for themselves and had their interpretations granted a “good faith” assumption – the acknowledgement that they are just as serious as you yourself are about wanting to know who God is, and what it is that God does and wants – can a real dialogue begin. As it is, many of the theological conversations that I observe and overhear have participants who are perfectly content with that “long range dueling,” firing salvoes and launching broadsides against the imagined positions of those who hold the opposite interpretation, or worse, acting as if the field has already been cleared and that there is nobody “over there” to talk to, or, worse, that is worth talking to. A grievous example of this was in play during Holy Week in what I saw people do with the postings at the Patheos “Head to Head” site as part of their “Engaging Easter” coverage (http://www.patheos.com/Topics/Patheos-Head-to-Head.html). They explained their purpose –
At Patheos “Head to Head,” our writers enter into timely debate, expressing opposing viewpoints about current controversial issues. Our main discussion section creates an elevated environment where writers engage in civil discourse – seeking to better understand the issues and each other.
What a good and responsible approach to theological conversation! And it worked brilliantly! The “Head to Head” began with Michael Bird, an Evangelical theologian from Australia, staking out the ground that most of us “old” interpreters occupy quite comfortably and conscientiously (“Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?” – March 30, 2015 –http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2015/03/why-did-jesus-die-on-the-cross/). This was followed the next day with Mark Sandlin, a Progressive Christian thinker and writer, laying out the argument that most “new” interpreters would find meaningful (“God Did Not Kill Jesus on the Cross for Our Sins” – March 31, 2015 – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thegodarticle/2015/03/god-did-not-kill-jesus-on-the-cross-for-our-sins/). And then, what followed over the next few days were a series of rejoinders and follow-ups in which these two articulate and intelligent interpreters advanced the conversation, each one challenging the other’s interpretation while clarifying their own. It was a model of how respectful theological conversation can take place.
But on many of the web pages and in the blogs of so many of my friends, this “Head to Head” became something else altogether. My progressive “new” interpretation friends and colleagues linked to Sandlin’s article exclusively with no reference to Bird’s article, or to the conversation in which they were engaged. They placed their “imprimatur” on the essay that reflected their already settled viewpoint without alerting their followers to the fact that there was an intelligent counterpoint essay that should be read as part of the responsible theological conversation that was underway and of which the essay was a part. My traditional “old” interpretation friends and colleagues were no different. They linked to Bird’s article exclusively with no reference to Sandlin’s essay and with no respect for the conversation.
Come on. We’re better than this… especially as Disciples.
At the ordination of a friend some 40 years ago Dr. Jim Duke, the church historian at Brite, said that if a Disciple entered a room with two doors, one labelled “the truth,” and the other one labelled “the search for the truth,” that the Disciple would always pick “the search for the truth” door. I really liked this image when I heard it. Sadly, I’m not sure that it still “fits.” DBS+