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Explaining Certain Biblical Proverbs :: A Hermeneutical Experiment

Knowing that the proverbs are not intended as absolutes but relative observational/experiential “wisdom,” the following is a snapshot of my naked and knee-jerk western, Christian interpretation of the proverbs I read in the Bible.  I have done this without the aid of study tools, and would be gladly corrected by those who have read informed and scholarly commentary or understand the Proverbs differently.  Without such aids, however, this is my hermeneutical tendency.  NOTE: I would also gladly agree that for anything touching on righteousness, Christ is intended as the “ultimate fulfillment” of such righteousness.  I have offered an example of how this might work in Proverbs 10:2.

:: PROVERBS CHAPTER 10 ::

Proverbs 10:1—“The proverbs of Solomon”

[this probably means Solomon collected these proverbs during his lifetime, not necessarily that he originated all of them]

Proverbs 10:2—“Ill gotten gains do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.”

[this probably underscores the deleterious nature of ill gotten gains, and the deep risk they involve, while also highlighting how the lifestyle of the righteous can often be the cause of their escaping execution/capital punishment by not being caught up in scandals or dishonest activity.  EXAMPLE OF HOW CHRIST MIGHT "FULFILL" THE PROVERBS: Christ would be the ultimate fulfillment of this, since his refusal to be caught up in temptations of the Devil caused him to deliver both himself and the church from the ultimate death, the second death, and has delivered them from the sting of death by accomplishing resurrection unto glory for himself and his body, the church]

Proverbs 10:7—“The memory of the righteous is blessed.”

[this means that the memory of righteous persons after their death is impressionable enough to leave a pleasant and honoring effect in the hearts of those who knew them]

Proverbs 10:9—“He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out.”

[this is probably a warning to those who pursue "ill gotten gains" that they constantly risk getting caught and punished with severe consequences.  NOTE: This should be enough to make those who pervert their ways naturally live in the constant anxiety of fear, NOTE: their conscience is never at peace anyway]

Proverbs 10:11—“The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life.”

[This probably means that those who live a righteous lifestyle have the ability (to lesser and greater extents) to impart helpful wisdom and inspiration to others through their ability to speak wisdom, give advise, articulate their perspective, and encourage others to live righteously]

Proverbs 10:12—“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.”

[This probably means that when a person hates another, they will find reasons to vent this anger and any small matter of conflict will become a contentious occasion.  They will even find petty reasons to argue and cause conflict, and you will be walking on egg shells around them.  Love works in the opposite way.  When you love someone, you find reasons to excuse matters of disagreement and conflict and find ways to overcome them.  You find ways to overlook or downplay their weaknesses and have a tendency to forgive their mistakes and sins against you due to your strong love of them.  NOTE: Neither principle is absolute, but relative.]

Proverbs 10:19—“When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”

[This probably just means that people who talk excessively usually have sinful attitudes and their abundance of words is usually owing to pride of opinion, self-absorption, or some other sinful root cause.  People who are righteous choose their words carefully and often hold back their opinion and perspective out of courtesy, consideration of another's time, desire to avoid having a unnecessary disagreement that would cause tension in a relationship, or any other number of virtuous causes or motives]

Proverbs 10:20—“The heart of the wicked is worth little.”

[This probably means that the ontological core of people whose loves are selfishly oriented (and therefore not having to do with the things of God) is not pleasing to, or valued by, God]

Proverbs 10:23—“Doing wickedness is like sport to a fool and so is wisdom to a man of understanding.”

[This means that the wicked actually practice and strive to get better at their evil endeavors, and the wise likewise practice and strive to get better at righteousness]

Proverbs 10:27—“The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be shortened.”

[this probably means that wicked people have more destructive habits in their life, and thus, all things being equal, are more prone to death.  Those who have a healthy fear of the LORD and his commands tend to have less destructive habits in their life, and thus, all things being equal, are less prone to death]

Proverbs 10:28—“The hope of the righteous is gladness, but the expectation of the wicked perishes.”

[This probably just underscores how the righteous have their hopes set on spiritual happiness in God and love of neighbor, while wicked people have their hopes set on things that will not ultimately fulfill the fullness of their spiritual core--e.g. material things, vain things, selfish things, revengeful things, etc.]

–__—-___—-______T h e o • p h i l o g u e

How Academic Research Benefits Christian Ministry and Education

The following is a brief reflection on research and its benefits for a vocation in Christian ministry or Christian education, written by Bradley R. Cochran.

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Love demands some apprehension of the good that is loved. … Accordingly knowledge is the cause of love for the same reason as good is, which can be loved only if known.” – Thomas Aquinas[1]

Although I have rarely seen or heard writing described as a tool for human development, my own personal development has been greatly shaped by my own writing. This is because writing involves research, research involves reading, and words have the power of influence. It is difficult to measure how great of an impact certain writings have had on my thoughts, and therefore my actions, at various stages in my personal development. For example, when I became a Christian at the age of twenty, it was prompted—at least in great part—by the words I read in the Bible. It seems hardly controversial to note that in the history of our Western culture, the words of the Bible have profoundly changed the lives of countless people.  Although not all Westerners would find this a happy situation, it would be naïve to deny that the Bible has historically had a powerful effect on Western culture, ethics, education, philosophy, politics, and therefore, people. Although the Bible is not the only collection of writings that have profoundly influenced people, it is a convenient example of how words—written words in particular—have the ability to change people.

After becoming a Christian in the Protestant tradition (where the Bible is venerated as the singularly ultimate authority for all matters of life and doctrine), I was immediately faced with the challenge of living out the teachings of scripture.  For me, this began my journey into research. In my own experience, then, research began not as an academic enterprise, but as a highly personal enterprise of spiritual formation. In trying to live out my faith, I began to search the scriptures and read Christian books in order to know how to think and act as a Christian.  My biblical research was, from the start, a matter of determining how to live.[2]

With the help of a mentor, the Bible, and research, I was able to satisfy most of my questions and live out my faith with a clear conscience. Therefore, although research may not always play a substantial role in personal development for everyone, such development continues to be my greatest reason for valuing research. This paper will be a brief reflection on the importance of writing and research in my own studies and in my vocational goals. Because I also have vocational aspirations to teach and also continue as an active Christian minister, I will also mention ways theological research and writing are helpful in teaching and Christian ministry.  Since in many ways I see my vocational goals as depending on my own personal development, I will seek to emphasize specific ways theological research and writing are important to my personal development.  I propose that the ultimate importance of research and writing in my own studies is for personal development, and this personal development turns out to be of greatest benefit to my vocational calling.

 

Points of Clarification About Research

Although the process of research and writing is relatively complex and involves numerous subtleties I will be unable to cover in this paper (e.g. limiting the scope of research, evaluating sources, developing an argument, etc.), there are a few key elements in the creative process that need clarification before I discuss the benefits of such research and writing.  First, there is research and there is academic research.  Research could be defined so broadly as to include finding a telephone number in a phone book, but this is not the kind of research I have in mind in this paper.[3] Academic research involves systematically finding sources that are most relevant to your question or research topic and reading books and articles relevant to your subject matter.

Research in an academic context is refined and has a more complex ethos and more clearly defined guidelines.  If I could describe the ethos in one word, it would be objectivity.  The goal of objectivity shapes the entire process.[4] For example, good research is not simply believing and regurgitating whatever you happen to read,[5] but reading broadly enough to engage different opinions that bring various evidences into view.  One must have some relatively objective way of evaluating the reliability, coherency, and prejudices of a given source.  Reading only sources one already agrees with is also poor research for the same reason: objectivity.  If one never reads the other point of view how will they come to know whether their own views hold up against counter evidence or argumentation?  Besides, this would take the fun out of research! The idea is this: the more evidence you examine, the more viewpoints you consider, the more objective your research report will be. It would be naïve, however, to think that research takes away all bias.[6] Yet the research process is designed to work against one’s biases and prejudices so as to help one grow toward an ever-increasing objectivity.  Developing critical thinking skills is crucial to the process for this very reason.

Secondly, apathy does not lead people to research, interest does.  There is no such thing as a disinterested researcher.  Perhaps researchers can be more or less interested, but something must move the will to desire to do research—even if it is imposed on them from a teacher as a dreaded assignment!  The most crucial part in the research process is determining a topic for research.  There are many guidelines for how to go about this, but the point I want to emphasize is this: contrary to popular belief, the heart as well as the head can drive good research.[7] The more passion I have for a topic, the easier it is to discipline myself to study hard and leave no stones unturned.  Furthermore, my choice of subject matter can determine how practical and helpful the research report will be to me and to others.  The judgment will inevitably involve some level of subjectivity, for different things are more important to different people, and the same things are important to a greater or lesser degree to the same people at different times.

The Importance of Research For My Own Studies and Vocation

If research did nothing else than provide the researcher with a greater agility with words, a broader vocabulary to draw from in her everyday speech, and a more confident tone of voice in her everyday interactions with people, this would be of weighty significance.  Yet this is precisely the sort of personal development I have found to be the result of research in my own life.  The constant grind of academia—reading books and articles, writing out one’s thoughts, questioning and answering questions—has the potential to rapidly develop one’s ability to communicate.  This has immeasurable relational (as well as vocational) benefits.

For example, when I used to have disagreements with friends over religious topics, the discussion would always escalate into an intense debate that put significant strain on our friendship (at least for the moment).  I did not know how to handle the skeptical criticisms of friends who questioned the direction of my life into Christian ministry and my religious beliefs.  After exposing myself to a wide variety of philosophical and theological opinions, observing how authors of books and articles kindly and eloquently disagreed with each other, and reading books that helped me better understand my own faith tradition, I found myself not only able to have discussions on religious and ethical topics without getting tongue tied or without causing a tense debate, but even able to impress those with whom I disagreed by how I could articulate their own thoughts with more force and clarity than they themselves could (before explaining why I disagreed with the same sort of force and clarity).

Research and writing fosters healthier written and verbal communication between human beings—and this can have benefits for vocational goals.  I have an edge in public speaking—whether a Bible study, preaching, or teaching—because I have plenty to say and craft my words more carefully.  Being able to articulate myself has resulted in greater success in vocational tasks (e.g. trying to counsel teenagers who have no guidance and are struggling with all sorts of life issues, making sure I understand my supervisor’s intentions by asking key questions, communicating the vision of my ministry to those who support it financially, etc).  Because communication fosters better relationships, research and writing better prepare me for my vocational goals.  This would be true regardless of my vocational calling, but is especially true in vocational callings that require high degrees of personal interaction and public speaking (i.e. Christian ministry and education).  In a teaching vocation, such articulation is the life-blood of one’s daily affairs.

Research and writing not only help me to better articulate myself, but they force me to inform my opinions and become aware of the strongest arguments against my own convictions.  This can be a grueling process that humbles the intellect.  It can be a disorienting thing too, if one comes to realize that the persuasive arguments and rhetoric she inherited from her tradition to defend her beliefs simply cannot stand the test of evidence and counter-critique.  It fosters humility on the one hand, and respect and appreciation for those with whom one disagrees on the other hand.  It is important for people in a vocation of Christian ministry to understand and appreciate those within their own faith tradition who disagree with one another about how they understand the Bible and practical questions of church life.  Pastors should have well reasoned arguments in support of their ethical and spiritual teaching that makes sense within that faith tradition.  For a teaching vocation, having one’s opinions well informed is simply the default expectation.  For my vocational goals, then, the habit of reading arguments for opinions you disagree with is vital.

Whether I am serving as a Christian minister or a teacher (and Christian ministry most often involves teaching), I will be bombarded with questions.  The more research and writing I have done in my field, the more likely I will be to answer those questions in a way that satisfies the questioner.  After doing so much study and research, I may know of several books that treat the very topics church members or students are interested in. I may not always have the answers to all of the questions students or church members might ask, but after having acquired the skill of research, I may be able to either point the questioner to a helpful book or research the question myself and e-mail the questioner a response to their question.  In short, I will be able to better minister and teach.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, 5 vols. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benzinger Bros., 1948; reprint, Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981.

Turabian, Kate. L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed. Revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and the University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Vyhmeister, Nancy Jean. Your Guide to Writing Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008.


 

[1] ST I-II.27.2

 

[2] I was answering questions like this: Should I follow through with my engagement to a woman who is not a Christian? Is it wrong for us to be sexually active outside of a marital context? Should I continue deep friendships with friends who influence me to continue in drug abuse and criminal activity? What church should I join (Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist)? What should I say to Mormon’s who knock at my door? Should I only listen to Christian music? What can I do to grow in my love for God and for others? What school should I attend? What should I choose for my college major? Is drinking alcohol wrong? Is it still acceptable for me to hang out at nightclubs as a Christian? Is it wrong to be angry with those who try to hurt me? Does being a Christian mean that I cannot defend myself when physically attacked?

 

[3] For example, Turabian’s manual considers the mundane task of “finding a plumber” research.  Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed., rev. Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and the University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 5.

[4] The goal of objectivity makes intelligible the various ways of defining research.  For example, Vyhmeister defines research as a “systematic search for adequate information to reach objective knowledge of a specific topic.”  It includes “careful investigation of all evidence.”  Nancy Jean Vyhmeister, Your Guide to Writing Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008), 1.

[5] This is why research is not simply “rewriting other people’s words and ideas into a neat description.”  Vyhmeister, Your Guide, 5.

 

[6] In this respect, I find Vyhermeister’s way of explaining research a bit naïve.  Does all research result in “objective knowledge”? The claim needs a great deal of clarification. Can one always be aware of their presuppositions as to neatly list them in their introductions? The very nature of some presuppositions escape our notice and others would be too mundane to list.  Deciding how to list one’s presuppositions is not as easy as she makes it seem.  For example, she presumes a great deal in her own book without listing them in her introduction.  Why is this?  Do researchers really have to steer clear of defending their own convictions and opinions?  This seems impossible.  Vyhmeister, Your Guide, 1,3,6. Turabian’s way of explaining research works much better.  “That is how a research report differs from other kinds of persuasive writing: it must rest on shared facts that readers accept as truths independent of your feelings and beliefs.”  Turabian, A Manual for Writers, 6.  This does not say whether these “shared facts” are true or false, only that they are “shared” and thus provide the grounds for persuasive writing.

 

[7] Cf. Vyhmeister, Your Guide, 2: “Research is done with the head and not the heart.”  The goal of objectivity does not, as she appears to think, rule out passion from the research process or the writing process.

Freedom for Excellence: Pinckaers Alternative to “Ockham’s Other Razor”

In our last post we looked at Pinckaers criticisms of Ockham’s Other Razor (i.e. William of Ockham’s notion of free will), which he calls “freedom of indifference.”  This post is Pinckaers description of what he thinks is a more accurate notion of human freedom: freedom for excellence.

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Pinckaers, Servais, O.P. The Sources of Christian Ethics, Translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995.

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Freedom for Excellence

Freedom for excellence is first illustrated as akin to a child learning to play the piano.  She must have some predispositions to learn—an attraction to music and an “ear for it” (354).  In this case, her predispositions enable her to develop the freedom to play beautifully after much discipline (355).  Progress is developed by regular exercise, or, a habitus (355).  The ability, in the end, to play with ease, compose new music, and delight oneself and all who hear, is the stage of maturity corresponding to freedom (355).  Similarly, the virtue of courage is “acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions” (356).  The author briefly mentions what he calls “the internal harmony of the virtues”—“true courage is worth little without wise discernment as to what should be done, and without self-control, justice, and generosity” (357).  A notion of freedom in this framework places predispositions and natural inclinations in service of freedom (rather than opposed to it, as with Ockham’s Other Razor), in fact enabling it (357).

The root of freedom is twofold: 1) a sense of the true and good and 2) a desire for knowledge and happiness (357).  These are the semina virtutum (the seeds of virtue).  Our natures are inclined to sense the virtues and give spontaneious praise to them, and this is the sequi naturam (follow nature) principle of the ancients and what St. Thomas calls the instinctus rationis (rational instinct).  “Far from lessening our freedom, such dispositions are its foundation.  We are free, not in spite of them, but because of them” (358).

The Stages of Development

Freedom for excellence “requires the slow, patient work of moral education in order to develop” (359).  The author takes us through these stages as he sees them.

Childhood corresponds to what we shall call the stage of discipline, adolescence to the stage of progress, and adulthood to the stage of maturity or the perfection of freedom. (italics added, 359)

The first stage is a delicate affair in which the moral educator must be neither authoritarian nor libertarian, but somewhere in between, making sure the “child” understands that the “discipline, law, and rules are not meant to destroy his freedom … Their purpose is rather to develop his ability to perform actions of real excellence by removing dangerous excesses” that “jeopardize his interior freedom” (360).  The student must experience the love of his teacher and the love of God (362).  This discipline “appeals to natural dispositions, to a spontaneous sense of truth and goodness, and to the conscience” (360).

The key characteristic of the next stage, the stage of progress is “taking one’s own moral life in hand, by a predominance of initiative and personal effort, by the development of and appreciation and taste for moral quality, and the deepening of an active interiority” (363).  In is in this stage that the virtues begin to form and take shape and the “adolescent” begins to find joy in the virtues themselves and develops strong dispositions for action (363).

The final stage is that of maturity (or “perfection” in the human sense of “complete,” 366).  This includes mastery of excellent actions and creative fruitfulness (366).  In this stage charity is “perfected” or matured such that the persons “chief concern is to be united to God and to find all their joy in him” (368).  Yet this joy passes from God to others so as to make their virtue beneficial for the community (367).  Pinckaers clarifies that this description in “stages” does not necessarily mean that in experience the process is perfectly “linear,” but involves a “certain dialectic” (372).  Also, one should not get the idea that once “maturity” or “perfection” is reached there is no room for growth (373).

Compared with Freedom of Indifference

Compared with the “delicate” process of moral education here, the “theory of freedom of indifference robs discipline and education of the profound, intimate rootedness they require.  Education becomes a battle; it can no longer be service or collaboration” (360).  Pinckaers attributes the cut-off point in moral education after only the first stage to the position found in the freedom of indifference (362).  Whereas freedom to do evil is essential in freedom of indifference, it is a lack of freedom in this model (376).  The reduced role of Scripture is also to be blamed on Ockham’s freedom of indifference (377).  Pinckaers concludes that freedom for excellence offers “a far better foundation for receiving revelation and grace, particularly through freedom’s natural openness to the true and the good” (377).

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