Preamble

I begin by expressing appreciation to Professor Nichols for reading my essay and writing a response. I trust that the engagement between us will bind us in a common pursuit for a viable approach to Christian university education and more generally serve to stimulate our mutual interest in developing a Christian philosophy (although Nichols seems to demur on granting me that interest). I have been asked to respond to his paper and I do so happily.

The Nature of our Disagreement

Whatever aspirations we may share, at bottom it needs to be acknowledged that there is a major disagreement between Nichols and myself. I believe it is helpful to point out the nature of our disagreement at least as I perceive it. If it were simply about how to read the history of philosophical thought, or Mennonite higher education, or the writings of some scholar, or the logic of a particular argument, then it would be relatively clear how the matter could be resolved. But I perceive the issue as much more systemic and total than that. In fact, in my view the difference between us is precisely of the nature that someone like Descartes cannot help us resolve because it is essentially a debate about the adequacy of Cartesian foundationalism itself. I believe that the difference between us could only be resolved by a process that would result in one or both of us coming to see things very differently. In other words it is a matter of seeing; a matter of perspective! I simply do not cut up the intellectual world, or the mind, or for that matter "philosophy," in the same way that Nichols does. I used to, but I have come to see things otherwise. I freely admit that I do not know all that goes into the complicated process of getting people to change perspectives, but I have become convinced that it is much more than the application of the rules of objective cognitivism or rationality such as Nichols proposes. For example, what if Nichols is wrong (and contrary to the way he casts me, I can speak about knowledge claims being wrong) about the only alternative to Enlightenment objectivism (his language) being cognitive relativism (again his language)? If he is, then an entirely different analysis is required in order for him to understand and indeed critique my points. This is in fact my counterclaim to his paper: categories that simply do not exist for Nichols are needed in order for him to see what I am doing. This means that he inevitably defaults me into positions I simply do not adhere to. It is because of my alternative convictions that I interpret the Christian educational enterprise differently from Nichols. So I despair of attempting to convince him of my position, and could certainly never do so on Cartesian logic. Does this mean that the engagement between us is useless or hopeless? Not at all, or I would not have consented to write a response. But its use lies not in attempting to convince the other on the basis of a common perspective but on testing the utility of the perspectives themselves. And that test has to do with which perspective can more adequately account for the content of the Christian faith.

Some specifics

It is important to spell out the issue more fully. I will do so under four headings:

  1. I do not dismiss Christian philosophy nor do I "disparage" philosophy. The charge that I (and along with me Mennonite schools in general) consider Christian philosophy unimportant within a Christian university tends to be the import of much of what Nichols writes. On the contrary I would advocate as he does that a Christian university should have a thriving philosophy department but I suspect our philosophy programs may look somewhat different. Moreover, I would hope that all departments should be asking hard philosophical questions within their disciplines. (By the way, Canadian Mennonite University does offer both 3-year and 4-year majors in philosophy and that in partnership with the two public universities in the city. So not only do we take philosophy seriously, but there is structured engagement with philosophy in public institutions. While I do not recoil at "home turf" language like some might, I nevertheless agree with Nichols that Christian university education should not be isolationist.) It seems that Nichols has a rather narrow view of what Christian philosophy is and anything that deviates from it is excluded by definition. In other words, if philosophy is not "modern philosophy" in the sense that it assumes foundationalism, or one could say, universal rationalism, then it collapses into cognitive relativism and hence is certainly not Christian and perhaps not even philosophy. But why should the analysis go that way? Certainly much of what happens in Christian universities and indeed in philosophy departments at public universities in the Western world is not so characterized. Let me give just one example of a prominent Anglo-American Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, who I suppose on Nichol's account would also be guilty of the charge of not taking philosophy seriously. MacIntyre argues qua philosopher that what is wrong with much of current philosophizing is precisely that it accepts the exclusiveness of the Enlightenment universalist/relativist dichotomy.1 He pushes relentlessly that Nietzsche is not the only alternative to the failure of the Enlightenment project. What he advocates instead is the notion of a tradition-based rationality. Moreover, he suggests, such a notion requires a rethinking of the nature of the university. (See his last chapter in Three Rival Versions.) To reconceive a university on the basis of a tradition-based rationality requires that the focus of the curriculum change from one where unfettered reason by each professor reigns supreme as Kant envisioned it in his essay "Was ist Aufklaerung?" to the whole institution working in tandem at advancing the best argument of the tradition. In fact, the argument is the tradition. On this model it is traditions themselves that are at stake, not only disconnected individual arguments, as important as they might be, or a universal epistemological system. And the Enlightenment is but one such tradition which itself must be evaluated. Logic there will still be but here its task will be to present the tradition itself in the most convincing manner, not in ignorance of other traditions, but on the basis of the telos of that tradition. This is more akin to the university of the Middle Ages than to modern universities. But what then of engagement between competing traditions, I hear Nichols asking? Engagement will take on a unique form. Engagement takes the form of counter perspective--witness--and the test is which of the competing traditions can more convincingly explain and persuade.
  2. What persuades, especially with regard to matters of the Christian faith? The Anglican theologian John Milbank, and his "Radical Orthodoxy" colleagues, speak of the importance of the notion of gift in the understanding of the Christian faith and suggest that regarding the Christian faith there are no givens, there are only gifts, given and received. This alone implies that foundationalism distorts the Christian faith. People do not come to a gift-oriented Christian faith through logical persuasion because it is a faith. This does not mean that logical persuasion is irrelevant since all kinds of matters within the faith need to be sorted out. But to teach the faith as if it were a conclusion to a logical argument is to mis-teach it. The Christian faith is something that we receive as gift and hence entry into the faith is via "transformation of the mind" or conversion. This does not imply that we should avoid careful philosophical refection on such matters. Of course we should not. But the nature of the debate is one where the content of the faith itself--via sacred texts, traditions, worshiping people, etc.--shapes the argument, not abstract rules of logic. This is not a violation of the rules of logic, it only means that their givenness is not the most important matter. To make rules and procedures as important as Descartes to Kant and their followers have done is to run the danger of shifting the debate onto something other than the faith itself. That in a nutshell is my response to Nichols. I am not interested in convincing the atheist of becoming a Christian on the basis of her own logic. That, in fact, strikes me as an oxymoron. To become a Christian as I read the Christian texts requires conversion--all the way down, if you like. It requires Christian logic. And explicating that is what "Christian philosophy is for." And that is why we need Christian universities.
  3. Non-constantinianism. On my view, the heresy of Constantinianism is especially powerful in demonstrating the paucity of the kinds of claims Nichols wants to make. What I mean is that when the church and the empire married, the inner logic of the Christian faith gave way to the demands that the faith had to make sense to everyone. And so expedience, realism, universality, and the like all became key watchwords. All had universal or so-called objective appeal at the expense of Christian particularity. The Christian faith had to make sense to the world on its, i.e., the world's, logic. There went much of the content of the faith itself: discipleship, ecclesiology, pacifism, and so on. While serious theologians from Augustine to the late medieval period were not able to abandon the Christian faith to such forces, it took the Jesus-less Deism of the Enlightenment to complete the task. To embrace the agenda of Deism as the defining characteristic of the Christian faith strikes me as problematic beyond words. It may in fact be an appropriate starting point for a religious epistemology, if there be such, but that may have very little to do with the Christian faith. If the latter is not intimately linked to the teaching and the way of Jesus I fail to see by what stretch it could then be called by his name. I cannot imagine that Nichols is seriously suggesting what I am critiquing here so I will not continue. I must confess that Nichols' reference to non-constantinianism is altogether puzzling to me.
  4. The nature of Christian philosophy. Nichols identifies "the most difficult challenges to our belief" as the problem of evil, the existence of God, religion and science, technology and ethics, logical positivism, freedom and divine foreknowledge, to name some. It is not hard to see why these issues are important to him because much of this is the philosophical agenda that has its roots in Enlightenment epistemological concerns. Given their track record of centuries of debate without resolution I suspect they are in principle not resolvable on Enlightenment logic. Moreover I frankly find them quite uninteresting. My contention is rather that while I do not think it unimportant that these matters be addressed, they are by no means the most serious philosophical challenges for us. What is far more challenging, because it is far more strange to the modern mind, it to unpack the logic of gift in a world that does not understand such a thing, or to articulate how a commitment to Jesus' teaching on non-violence can be made credible in today's violent world, or to develop an imagination that makes intelligible the conviction that God is acting in this world. I could easily go on. At bottom, today's most profound challenge is how to study philosophy in an institution (Christian university) whose conviction it is that Christology and ecclesiology precede epistemology and axiology and ethics. To ask it this way implies that the very debates about technology and ethics and the problem of evil, and epistemological method, get recast from the very beginning in ways that make their formulations themselves Christian. Christian education is not primarily about the world asking the questions and Christians giving the answer. Unless Christians radically subvert the questions themselves in ways that make them genuinely Christian very little Christian education is going to happen.

The upshot of my response is obvious--I am not convinced. I categorically refuse the choice I am presented with by Nichols response, between an epistemological relativism and an Enlightenment foundationalism. And that makes all the difference to how I envision the Christian university enterprise. What is perhaps most interesting, given Nichols analysis, is that it was my seven years of formal study in philosophy, not my subsequent training in theology, that has fired up my stubbornness in this regard. The options that Nichols presents us with, as I see it, are Deism or nihilism. I want a university where students across the disciplines are taught that such a choice is bogus.