What Do William Gladstone and Little Big Man Have in Common?


I don’t get it, these coincidences with no significance always happening to me.

Allow me to illustrate from today’s events.

Around noon, I hefted my copy of Roy Jenkins’s biography of William Gladstone from the shelf, with the vague intention of reading some portion of its 698 pages. As if this would not be enough to occupy the few moments I could spare, it occurred to me that I might also refresh my memory of what Susan Wise Bauer says about reading biography, in her book The Well-Educated Mind.

Book Cover-Roy Jenkins-William GladstoneBook Cover-Susan Wise Bauer-Well-Educated MindBook Cover-Thomas Berger-Little Big Man

Not only had I forgotten what Bauer says about biography, I had forgotten that she doesn’t say anything about biography as such. Rather, she has a chapter on reading autobiography. And her guidelines are fairly specific to this sub-genre, with only limited application to biography in general. Still, my wandering eye surveyed the pages on autobiography. In there, she recommends several worthy examples. Among them is Mary Rowlandson’s The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration (1682). This autobiography Bauer calls a “captivity narrative,” as if this is a recognized sub-species of the genre. This was news to me, but it was plausible.

This evening—mind you, this was several hours later the same day—I was relaxing with a different book. I had ordered Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man and it arrived with today’s junk mail. Naturally, I began with the Introduction by Brooks Landon. It is mercifully short, so getting to the first page of the novel itself was relatively pain-free.

But now I come to the coincidence that occasions this post.

It was entirely coincidental when I read Brooks Landon’s opinion that this novel is “a literal model of the traditional ‘captivity narrative'” (page xvi).

There it was again—”captivity narrative”—twice in one day, with no recollection of prior encounters with the term. Certainly, the term is not (or was not) a part of my active vocabulary. So why, with no real familiarity of the term, did I encounter two uses of it in such a disconnected sequence of events, in two books, one a work of non-fiction and the other a novel—all within the space of a few hours?

What difference does it make? you ask. But that’s the point, you see. It makes no difference. It just happened. It was a coincidence of no consequence!

But coincidences often are thought to be consequential just in the nature of the case. And so it is doubly puzzling that inconsequential coincidences should happen so often.

In Memoriam—John Hick (1922-2012)


John Hick, the eminent scholar in the world of religion, died at the age of 90 on Thursday, February 9, 2012. Many will mourn the loss of this gentle man and incisive thinker. But we will also count ourselves blessed to have known him, and celebrate his work among us for so many decades of fruitful scholarship.

I first met John Hick in 1985 or 1986 following a lecture he delivered at the Claremont Colleges, in southern California. I had just written my M.A. thesis (for Gonzaga University) on his treatment of the problem of evil. When I shared this with him, he said he would be interested in reading it. After he had read it, he wanted to meet. So we scheduled a get-together at the colleges and talked about my project. I will always remember two things he said to me at this meeting. The first thing he said, once we got down to business, was that, in my exposition of his position, I had gotten it right. He added that this was unusual for critics of his various views. This put me at ease immediately. We may have met for an hour. Toward the end John asked me what plans I had for publishing my thesis. I had no plans. But John urged me to seek a publisher for it, and offered his assistance.

This was indeed an auspicious beginning to a long-term friendship with one of the world’s foremost religious scholars of the 20th century. It led, eventually, to the publication of my first book, Evil and the Evidence for God: The Challenge of John Hick’s Theodicy (Temple University Press, 1993), with an Afterword by John himself.

A few years later, John’s book, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (Yale University Press, 1989) was released. This book was the publication, in expanded form, of his Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 1986-1987. The book earned him the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Religion. Shortly after its release, the Claremont Graduate School hosted a major conference, with scholars from various places around the world present to discuss his sophisticated defense of religious pluralism. I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Southern California at the time, and I was surprised by the invitation I received, with John’s support, to participate in the proceedings and present a paper of my own.

In this way I was drawn into the discussion of religious pluralism. Shortly after I was appointed to my first teaching post at Taylor University (Upland, Indiana), Wheaton College issued a call for papers for a conference on religious pluralism. I sent a brief proposal for a paper evaluating John Hick’s position. Because it was one of very few proposals for a direct discussion of Hick’s important contribution to the topic, I was told, I was invited to deliver my proposed paper.

Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips, who had hosted the conference, eventually developed the idea for a book that was to be called More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (first published by Zondervan in 1995 and later reissued under the moderately abbreviated title Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World in 1996). Again, I was invited to participate, and I was asked if I might contact John Hick to request his participation, as well. He agreed. The two other contributors were Alistair McGrath and Clark Pinnock. Gary Phillips was co-author with me for a chapter we titled “A Particularist View: An Evidentialist Approach.” John’s chapter was called, sensibly and simply enough, “A Pluralist View.” The most illustrious contributor, of course, was John Hick. And it’s very possible that the book remains in print on account of his contribution.

These are the only projects in which I partnered, after a fashion, with John Hick. But we had many get-togethers over the years. Most of these happened during the years he was at Claremont, where he held the Danforth Chair in the Philosophy of Religion from 1979 to 1992. At other times we would meet when we happened to be at the same professional conference. The second most memorable occasion of our meeting was long after he had retired and I visited him at his home at the end of Seeley Oak in Birmingham, England.

John Hick was a brilliant communicator, in print and with a microphone. He was a gracious scholar who respected would-be scholars 40 years his junior. He was tenacious in defense of his many controversial positions, and friendly and tolerant toward those who disagreed. Always fair-minded and even-handed in his dealings with me, he marked my life in ways no other scholar of similar repute has (or could have), and he steered me in ways he would never have known.

John was Irenaean as opposed to Augustinian in his theodicy, a universalist and a pluralist in soteriology, a kind of Kantian anti-realist regarding the existence and nature of God—all things that I am not. But there are two reasons why he could not be ignored. First, he reasoned his way to his positions with great care and he could articulate them with great clarity. Second, he had begun his theological odyssey as an evangelical of more-or-less the sort that I am, but had gradually and in nearly step-wise fashion moved further and further away from this starting point in his career as a professing Christian. His kindness toward me would naturally count as a third reason to engage and evaluate his work with the same care that he exemplified as book after book flowed from his pen.

When I last saw John Hick, I suspected that we would not see each other again. He had ceased traveling across the pond, and I had no immediate plans to return to England. But we remained in touch over many years. I will miss his Christmas cards. And I will miss him.

For more on John Hick:

I wish to thank Fred Sanders, writer for The Scriptorium, who encouraged me to post about my experiences with John Hick. See Fred’s post here.

Henry Boynton Smith (1815-1876)


February 7

On this date in 1877, Henry Boynton Smith died in New York City, age 61. This theologian, who was born in Portland, Maine, studied at Bowdoin College and at Andover and Bangor theological seminaries. Later, he studied in Germany, getting to know Friedrich Tholuck and Hermann Ulrici at Halle, and August Neander and Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg at Berlin.

I have long had an interest in Tholuck (1799-1877) for his work in Christian apologetics as a German evangelical. Henry B. Smith lectured in apologetics at Union Theological Seminary during the academic years 1874-1875 and 1875-1876. His course of lectures was published in 1882 by A. C. Armstrong & Son.

Smith adopted a three-fold division of Christian apologetics:

  1. Fundamental Apologetics
  2. Historical Apologetics
  3. Philosophical Apologetics

His system is sophisticated and worthy of close study. He begins with the question whether the supernatural can be known (considering first general questions of epistemology) then moves on to “the proof of the Being of God” (p. 46).

Here is how he begins to address the question, “How can we know God?”

The very question implies some knowledge. Unless we had some conception of God we could and would nevermore ask, How can and do we know God? Unless man had some belief in God he would not ask, any more than an animal, Can you prove His being—can you demonstrate His existence?

The questions implies a need, a craving—seeks for an answer to a demand of our rational and moral being. This is the very least that can be said. There is a strong subjective belief—that is the starting-point; and the question is, Is there a corresponding objective reality? Are there sufficient grounds for full belief, binding on all rational and moral beings?

Hence the question is not at all about knowing some unknown thing, about proving the existence of a mere abstraction—as a theorem in geometry. It is as to the proving the existence of a being in whom, somehow, in some wise, we already believe. It is not going from the known to the unknown—but showing that there are valid and final reasons for a strong, universal, native, human belief.

—Smith, Apologetics: A Course of Lectures (1882), pp. 71-72

Later, Smith writes:

  1. As the starting-point show that man’s whole nature and man’s whole history prove the need to him of a God; that man by nature and reason is irresistibly prompted to seek for Deity, and cannot else be satisfied. This is not the proof of God’s being, but the basis of proof.
  2. That all the phenomena and facts of the universe (so far as known) demand the recognition of a God as their source and unity—a personal God, the necessary complement of the world.
  3. That man’s reason (a priori) demonstrates the existence of a real, infinite, absolute being.
  4. The combination of 2 and 3 gives is the result and proof.

In its ultimate philosophical principles the proof for the being of God consists of three arguments resting upon three ideas:

(a) The ontological argument, on the idea of being.

(b) The cosmological argument, on the idea of cause.

(c) The teleological argument, on the idea of design.

—Smith, Apologetics, p. 87

In chapter 4, Smith distinguishes between “the Supernatural” and “the Miraculous.” He develops the case for Christian miracles against pantheism and materialism, which both consider the impossibility of miracles to be an axiom. Not only are miracles possible, but on sufficient evidence, it is reasonable to believe that miracles have happened.

Smith says, “Besides having an adequate cause, miracles have also a sufficient end or object, and are never to be considered apart from, or dissociated from that” (p. 102).

Miracles are:

possible, if there is a God;

probable, if a positive revelation is needed; and

they have been [i.e., they have happened], if Christ and his apostles can be believed.

(p. 104)

Smith held that “Christian Apologetics is essentially Vindication. It seeks to vindicate, and in vindicating to establish, the value and authority of the Christian faith” (p. 118). His published lectures are a credit to his effort to do just that.

Note: It was also on this date, in 1664, that Gottfried Leibniz completed his master’s degree in philosophy.

 

Gottfried Leibniz

The Stimulus of Teaching


karl-barth_with-pipeWhy did Karl Barth’s productivity as a writing scholar diminish following his retirement from teaching? Some say it’s because the pressure to produce had run out [see here].

What T. H. L. Parker wrote is that Barth “lost the stimulus provided by the need to give lectures.” The key word here is “stimulus,” not “pressure.” Teaching is the ideal stimulus for scholars who write, especially if they teach graduate courses to gifted students. The stimulus of teaching can be likened to the frequent re-lighting of tobacco in a well-used pipe.

Presidential Leadership


So today is Presidents’ Day. We can’t all be in Washington, DC to visit the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, or the National Museum of American History. But there are interesting and edifying (or not) ways to memorialize the date and celebrate our presidential heritage. Some of these you can spread out over the week, others over a year—until the next Presidents’ Day.

  1. Visit the C-Span site for the Historians Presidential Leadership Survey for pages and pages of interesting facts and rankings. See also The American Presidency Project.
  2. Visit a presidential museum. We have two in southern California, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.
  3. us-constitutionReview U. S. Constitution guidelines for the presidency. Amazon has a nice paperback edition here.
  4. Have some fun. See if you can arrange pictures of the presidents in the chronological order of their administrations, at MIStupid.com. Do a word search puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle of the American presidents. There’s even a People’s Choice Presidential Card Game.
  5. Browse a pictorial reference book on American presidents. I recommend The American President: The Human Drama of Our Nation’s Highest Office.
  6. Select four presidents you’d like to know more about. Determine to read one substantive biography of each before next Presidents’ Day (15 Feburary 2010). Here are some recommendations: John Adams, by David McCullough; Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer; T. R.: The Last Romantic, by H. W. Brands; An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland, by H. Paul Jeffers; and, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Or you might select from The American Presidents Series, a stunning set of easily digested volumes. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the general editor writes, “It is the aim of the American Presidents series to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar. Each volume offers a distillation of character and career.” This is a great series for getting to know those forgotten presidents—James Buchanan, book-coverbenjamin-harrisonBenjamin Harrison, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Chester Alan Arthur, William McKinley, James K. Polk, Martin Van Buren. I have the volume on Chester Alan Arthur, by Zachary Karabell, and the one on William McKinley, who was assassinated, written by Kevin Phillips.
  7. Alternatively, read a book that compares presidents from an interesting vantage point. For this I suggest Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, by Michael R. Beschloss. Beschloss is the fellow you see interviewed so often about presidential history. He has several bestselling books to his credit.
  8. For the biographies of those who ran for the presidency and lost, I recommend They Also Ran, by Irving Stone.
  9. In the category of historical fiction, you might try something like The Shut Mouth Society, by James D. Best; The President’s Lady: A Novel about Rachel and Andrew Jackson, by Irving Stone; or, Never Call Retreat: Lee and Grant—The Final Victory, by Newt Gingrich. In the “alternate history” category, there’s 1901, by Robert Conroy, imaging the transder of power from William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt when Germany invades the United States. For speculative fiction involving presidential decision making during crisis, try Brad Thor’s novel State of the Union, or Absolute Power, by the bestselling thriller novelist David Baldacci.
  10. Identify a favorite non-living president and write down ten things you admire about him. Share these with a friend or family member.
  11. Pick a president you know little about, and see if you can learn ten interesting things about him. Try to identify skills or character traits you admire.
  12. Imagine a conversation with one of our past presidents. Who would you like to spend an hour with? What would you want to talk about? Write down ten questions you would ask? Do this with friends or family, and compare.
  13. Write an imaginary conversation between yourself and one of the presidents, or between three presidents who never knew each other (I did this in a blog post recently).
  14. Read select speeches of various presidents (for example, nomination and convention speeches, inauguration speeches, state of the union speeches, or speeches on important occasions—as when Reagan addressed the nation after space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch).
  15. Rent a movie. Here’s a list of some “presidential” films, of different state-of-the-unionposter1kinds and quality: State of the Union, The American President, Dave, All the President’s Men, Nixon, Jefferson in Paris, Murder at 1600, Absolute Power, Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, JFK, Young Mr. Lincoln, Wilson (1944, with Charles Coburn), Gabriel Over the White House, Air Force One, In the Line of Fire, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, The First Wives Club. Don’t forget about movies from The History Channel: JFK: A Presidency Revealed, FDR: A Presidency Revealed, and Nixon: A Presidency Revealed. Here’s the IMDB site for a listing of Ronald Regan’s movies. For a book on how Hollywood has portrayed presidents and their administration, see Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film and History.
  16. Watch past episodes of 24 and The West Wing.
  17. Write a blog post with your own suggestions.
  18. Post suggestions in the combox for this post!

Related posts:

Biography of Sarah Palin


Lot’s of people want to know about Sarah Palin, John McCain’s VP choice. Her biographer, Kaylene Johnson, must be pleased with the timing of her book, released in April.

Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment on Its Ear

159 pages/retails for $19.95

Books by Kalene Johnson

Related Posts:

On Biography


“The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes./. . . . The history of my stupidity will not be written./For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.” —From Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Account,” in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001

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