30 August, 2010

Wittenberg and the Sciences: Some Thoughts from the Field

By Stevin Gehrke

EO Wilson is a non-Christian biologist (an expert on ants) who also is known for his writing on the relationships between science and religion. In contrast to the so-called ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who find nothing of value in religion, Wilson believes that religion is an evolved behavior with natural selection advantages. He published a book in 1998 called Consilience to describe a need for the combination of knowledge from science, the humanities and the arts. Though he approaches the topic from a completely different set of foundational principles from Christians, I recently ran across some quotes from this book that resonated with me both as a regular reader of RenMus and as an engineering professor. The quotes below are taken from Wikipedia, which I’ve not had opportunity to verify (I’ve only read about the book, I’ve not read it myself), but I found it interesting that someone like Wilson echoes some of the concerns raised on this blog.

If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized. Even the attempt to accomplish that much is a worthwhile goal. Profession-bent students should be helped to understand that, in the twenty-first century, the world will not be run by those possessing mere information alone. Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

The quote opens with an intriguing statement that the study of the natural sciences can revitalize the liberal arts education. (As an aside, I have had a sense that is true and may make some comments along this line in a future post, but these ideas are quite fuzzy in my mind. But perhaps the readers of this blog can weigh in on this point in particular.)

To draw on my own experience, this “synthesis” of knowledge is the key goal of engineering education. The capstone senior courses in engineering (usually with “Design” or “Synthesis” in the titles) focus on teaching students how to integrate the knowledge they have gained in their other courses to solve a complex problem without a specific or single solution. While students have always tended to compartmentalize knowledge, engineering educators broadly believe that teaching synthesis of knowledge is an ever-increasing challenge in our courses. Most faculty have heard from students, with varying degrees of seriousness, “Why do we need to take classes [apart from earning the credentials for a job] when all the information is on the internet and quickly found using Google?” Wilson in this 1998 quote has concisely stated that the problem is not the ability to access information, but knowing what to do with that information – essentially, wisdom. But how can wisdom be taught?

Again, in Consilience Wilson also opines:

Every college student should be able to answer the following question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare? Every public intellectual and political leader should be able to answer that as well. Already half the legislation coming before the United States Congress contains important scientific and technological components. Most of the issues that vex humanity daily - ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty, to cite several most consistently before us - cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need. Yet the vast majority of our political leaders are trained exclusively in the social sciences and humanities, and have little or no knowledge of the natural sciences. The same is true for the public intellectuals, the columnists, the media interrogators, and think-tank gurus. The best of their analyses are careful and responsible, and sometimes correct, but the substantive base of their wisdom is fragmented and lopsided.

Here in the opening sentence, Wilson lays out a challenging question that I think most professors (never mind their students!) have some difficulty answering. Yet I agree that a clear answer is important to develop. Farther along in this quote, Wilson lays out some of the rationale for including a general education in the sciences as something important and in fact necessary for anyone who claims to be “well-educated” in any discipline, and for anyone who holds a position of responsibility and respect in society. It has been a constant aggravation in my adult life, as one educated in the natural sciences and engineering, to read and hear frankly ignorant statements made by the sorts of people described in the quote above, and extending to some theologically trained leaders in the church whom I greatly admire and from whom I have learned much. Even Wilson’s disparaging reference to “religious dogmas” (which I am sure he meant to apply to all religious teachings) can be accepted from an orthodox Lutheran perspective, when one interprets that phrase to mean any heterodox views strongly held without understanding or reflection.

Now, an education in science and engineering education doesn’t automatically produce great and wise leaders either. Although I reject the opinion I sometimes hear from colleagues in the liberal arts that education in these fields is only a step above a vo-tech education in auto mechanics and the like, it is true that engineers and scientists often fail to understand or anticipate the implications of their work. I try to bring up examples in my courses of cases where clever engineering solutions were rejected by society because a technological solution was not in fact THE solution (for an orthodox Lutheran, surgical abortions safe for the mother could be put into that category).

To be accredited, all engineering programs are required to have a liberal arts component in their degree programs, but in my opinion, these are not well-integrated into the engineering curricula across the US. Perhaps a Wittenberg education can provide the foundation for making better engineers and scientists as well as humanists?

[Graphic: Tycho Brahe, 1546–1601, shown with his instruments]

25 August, 2010

Wittenberg and the Sciences

Perhaps no more vexatious question, no question passed over in more silence, no question more [unpersuasively] pontificated upon, is that of the relationship between science and theology. The two don’t make easy bed-fellows. In fact, so the caricature goes, they’re more likely found sleeping in separate rooms, unwed. When the two do meet (Daniel Dennett, say, and Oral Roberts), it’s usually for an unsatisfying one-nighter in the alley behind the bar that both would rather forget, and it requires an ice-cold shower back in the safety of their own disciplinary apartment to wash off the filth. (Excuse the colorful image.) So it goes in the 20th and 21st centuries.

It has not always been this way. In Wittenberg, in fact, the sciences lived comfortably in what was at the time known as the Philosophical Faculty or the Arts Faculty, taken up by the master’s (M.A.) candidates and their teachers as the Quadrivium after they had successfully demonstrated mastery at the bachelor’s level (B.A.) of the other three arts. Indeed, there was no road to the higher faculties—to Law, Medicine, and Theology—but that that led through both the Trivium (B.A.) and the Quadrivium (M.A.). And in Wittenberg it is the case that by the mid 16th century, the humanistically-reformed curriculum that emerged was pointedly weighted toward the two elements that arose as central in the B.A. and M.A. curriculum: philology in the Trivium; science in the Quadrivium.

This historical fact and element of our intellectual heritage as Lutherans beckons us, it seems to me, to take the sciences seriously in the curriculum. But that raises hackles and comes with a set of questions that needs to be addressed before the sciences can find their home—not a place, but their home—in the curriculum of a Lutheran college radically dedicated to the Wittenberg way both intellectually and theologically.

Following are some of the questions that, at first blush, seem to be basic and preliminary to any further consideration:

Has so much scientific water flowed under the bridge since the 16th century that it is impossible today to make the sciences at home in a Lutheran curriculum?

Is there such a thing as a Lutheran approach to science? And if so, how does it differ from, how does it complement other views? How might it be regarded as better or deficient?

What need does the Church have of the sciences, if any? Put the other way around, what would be missing for the Church without the sciences? And are all sciences equal? Which are necessary, which are not?

What sort of philosophical or theological Weltanschauung is necessary to work under in order to have a healthy scientific community on a Lutheran campus?

Will 16th-century guide-posts be helpful or harmful in this discussion? If helpful, how can they be enlisted?

Can a science-less curriculum offer a responsible Wittenberg education?

Do the big quarrels, such as that between evolution and intelligent design, materialism and non-materialist views, matter? Do they drown out the healthy discussions, or do they create a context in which a healthy discussion may occur? Are they the only “going paradigms” that may be adopted?

In the coming weeks, I hope we can address this. I’ve enlisted the help of my friend, Stevin Gehrke, Professor in the School of Engineering at KU, pious Lutheran committed to classical, orthodox, confessional Lutheranism, and thoughtful interlocutor. Actually, this discussion finds its impetus in his proddings. Some things will get posted here on the blog. We can also use the Renascentes Musae Facebook page for less formal exchanges. If you have not yet joined us there, look us up, and welcome aboard.

But what’s your reaction, now, to this matter? Do you have any helpful things to say in addressing the questions above? Do you have other matters that you think can help the discussion along? Do you think that something like an intellectually and theologically rigorous and responsible science can be articulated from the Wittenberg perspective? Please weigh in!

[Image: Aritmetica; mosaic]

20 August, 2010

Rhetoric, Preaching, and...Homer

Wait! Shouldn’t that say: “Rhetoric, Preaching, and ... Paul,” or “... St. Augustine,” or “... John Chrysostom,” all of whom are stand-outs in Christian preaching? This would be understandable. It was certainly the reflex of Tertullian, and the radical reformers, Müntzer, Karlstadt, and others: Christian things for Christians; leave their own learning to the pagans.

But Melanchthon’s 1523 Encomium eloquentiae or Praise of Eloquence operates with an openness to the rhetorical tradition even of the classical pagans, or perhaps especially of the classical pagans. There, Homer, on the recommendation of Horace, Quintilian, Cicero; on the example of Solon, the just law-giver at Athens (fl. 596 B.C.), and Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens (561–525 B.C., with interruptions), who had the poems of Homer sung in their proper order and a text finalized—there, in Encomium eloquentiae, Melanchthon makes Homer the source and teacher par excellence of rhetoric, an art whose highest usefulness lies in understanding and proclaiming the Word of God. Homer remains the basic source for: the qualifications of a speaker, the arrangement of a speech, the capacity to argue and counter-argue, the ability to describe in persuasive detail; in short, all that is really needed for speaking, for rhetoric—indeed, for the proclamation of the Word.

But how does one “arrive”? How does one achieve the eloquence of Homer? First, one comes to grips with the humanist idea that the ancients are not museum pieces to be observed behind a glass case, but great works of art whose use in education is for them to be imitated. “No one doubts the perusal of good writers is very profitable. In truth, unless you add to this the habit of writing and speaking you will be able neither to understand with sufficient incisiveness their opinion, nor to conceive in your mind the fixed rule for judging and deliberating.” [Kusukawa & Salazar, 70]

Second, even in imitation one does not remain frigid and “scientific.” Indeed, deep and incisive reading is commended. The Encomium eloquentiae is exemplary in this regard (Melanchthon teases out of Homer what the untrained eye would miss; for example he notes that excellence of speech and excellence of mind are made tandem at Odyssey 9.367, σοὶ δ ἔνι μὴν μορφὴ ἔπεων, ἔνι δὲ φρένες ἔσθλαι, “You have both a form of words and an intelligence that are excellent.”) But even intensive and incisive reading does not lead to distance, but to proximity, so that “not only the mouth and the tongue, but also the heart, are shaped by the knowledge of good writers.” [Kusukawa & Salazar, 68]

As noted elsewhere in this blog, this is that business about the text interpreting the reader, not vice versa, the requisite attitude in the Wittenberg way for reading all great works, including and especially the Bible. Tuning the ear to the force of rhetoric in the Greats—Homer, Vergil, Herodotus, Thucydides—in turn allows the tuned ear to tune in to the rhetoric of Scripture, in short, to understand what Scripture, as rhetorical message, wants to say. Indeed, Melanchthon reasons, it was because of the West’s ignorance of classical antiquity from the end of the Carolingian Renaissance until what we now know as the Renaissance that the horrors and atrocities of scholastic theology came to be: “Unless these writings are studied, we shall have a posterity that is in no way more sane than past centuries, when the ignorance of writings had overthrown all human and divine matters. Indeed..., in time past, when God was sorely angered against the Church, writings were snatched away, and ignorance of holy things followed. For when God wanted to speak in our words, those who were inexperienced in the arts of speaking judged foolishly on the divine Word.... And since they had no writings from which to learn how to be wise, the charming men devised that foolish sophistry [note: scholasticism], and began to argue about fabricated compositions of words.... Does it not [now] seem that the [once] neglected writings have sufficiently avenged the affront?... Indeed, when the excellent Father [i.e., God the Father] had begun again to turn His attention to the wretched, and was going to give back to us the Gospel, because of His generosity He also restored [the classical] writings, by which the study of the Gospel would be assisted.” [Kusukawa & Salazar, 74–75]

So, yes! Let it be: Rhetoric, Preaching, and ... Homer! Otherwise you might end up with a theology worthy of the other Homer, and a preaching to match.

17 August, 2010

Grow and Thrive?

This recent cluster of articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education seems designed to make any faculty member or administrator at a small tuition-dependent college choke on her Captain Crunch at breakfast:

We may be tempted to scramble and see if a favorite institution is on the list. As I looked it over, a couple of simple observations came to mind:

1. There are a number of what we might describe as "prestigious" institutions on the list. This economy has clearly touched institutions that previously may have been considered "untouchable" by fluctuations in the economy.

2. Sadly, there are a number of Lutheran institutions on the list (Dana is now closed). It would be fascinating to analyze the stories of both those colleges on the list and those that have escaped that fate (so far). What variables, decisions, and serendipity combined to shape the stories of these institutions?

Another recent Chronicle article suggests that many believe a growth model is what will help small institutions endure in this changing world. Others recognize the danger of debt that makes such growth possible:

But as Dr. Bruss and others have so adeptly demonstrated, a clear confession of faith, a focused sense of purpose, and a persistent commitment to academic substance should trump the commercialism and marketing (and concomitant debt load) that tempt us in the contemporary academic arms race.

We're left with the challenge of determining how the small Lutheran college can remain small, faithful, and yet viable in a world in which many of the assumptions we have made about higher education are now untenable or unsustainable. This is the task that defines our time.

Bankrolling Academia--Or Bankrupting It?

A truth-telling op-ed piece on higher education financing appeared in The New York Times this week. In "Academic Bankruptcy," Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Religion Department at Columbia, tells a story of two academic institutions, his own and NYU, whose spending is prodigal even as sources for such spending seem to be drying up.

But the Columbia/NYU arms race is probably more a symptom of a systemic malaise in North American higher education than anything else.

In the face of this malaise, higher education the Wittenberg way is in a unique position to be able to do something radically counter-intuitive and, in fact, countercultural. A higher education the Wittenberg way doesn't require vast resources and can actually thrive with a leaner, meaner curriculum.

I was just doing a little number-crunching. A well-staffed, adequately-resourced Great-Books and radically-liberal-arts oriented curriculum can be put on the ground comfortably and cover annual costs necessary to run it (by which I mean underwriting instructional costs) at $10,000/year per student. If such an institution had a 15:1 student:faculty ratio, each faculty member would "bring in" $150,000 per year. Subtract $100,000 for a complete faculty package (salary + health insurance + retirement), and you're left with $50,000 for support functions per faculty member. In short, an institution with the physical plant paid off and a modest endowment adequate to maintain, manage, and run the physical plant, can deliver a bracing, intellectually-challenging, traditional, and rigorous education on the back of a bare-bones curriculum that focuses on what's necessary, not "what would be nice," at a quite modest cost.

This is the case that needs to be made to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. While programs that have the appearance of enhancing our appeal proliferate, the core has evaporated. And yet the core is precisely whence Lutheran higher education takes its energy and that for which it exists. Are there Lutherans of goodwill out there willing to support such an endeavor? Can a wealthy Lutheran businessperson, for example, look beyond narrow business interests and projecting himself or herself upon Lutheran higher education and come to the conviction that Lutheran higher education doesn't need the bandaids of new programming, but surgery to restore core health? I think so. I think this makes, well, business sense--and sense for the Church.

14 August, 2010

Studium Excitare: A Worthy Project

You'll definitely want to visit
Studium Excitare, an online journal whose spiritual epicenter is Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minn. Stud. Exc. publishes translations from the Lutheran Fathers' German and Latin works, including such 17th-century greats as David Hollaz and late-19th/early-20th century giants of North American Lutheranism K. Georg Stöckhardt, G. Adolf T. F. Hönecke. The translations are on the whole quite well done, with very little Deunglish and overly Latinate English, which makes the production of these pieces eminently usable. The journal is certainly doing its part to raise the profile of often long-forgotten figures who have important things to say to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America today.

To the editors of and contributors to Studium Excitare: Well done!

13 August, 2010

Melanchthon and the “Tradition” of Natural Law

At the risk of greatly oversimplifying things, Christianity has treated pagan antiquity in one of two major ways. On the one hand, the pagan antiquities have a long and noble history of coming in for heavy weather in the realm of Christian thought (think: Tertullian). On the other hand, Augustine, for example, thought of the heritage of pagan antiquity as “Egyptian gold,” something to be appropriated by the Church for its purposes. More recently, C.S. LewisAbolition of Man elaborates his understanding of the natural law (whose clearest distillation is found in the divine Decalogue, Ex. 20) and its representation within not only the cultural tradition of the West, but also of the manifold cultures of the world. Abolition of Man, in other words, represents something of an apologetic for the Christian use of pagan source material.

Within the cacophony raised by Luther’s screeds against Aristotle and pagan philosophy (which he regarded—rightly—as having been misappropriated by scholastic theology) it is difficult to hear anything but a Tertullian-esque stance. But if you listen more closely, you can discover that the situation on the ground in Wittenberg was much more nuanced. Even as Luther was dropping some of his juicier anti-Aristotle comments, his colleague Philipp Melanchthon was working out a theory for the inclusion of the pagan humanities in the Wittenberg arts/philosophy faculty. His ability to do so was opened up by nothing less than Luther’s coming to clarity, in the early 1520s, on the Scriptural distinction between Law and Gospel. Now, with some qualification, the Law could be seen reflected and taught in antique pagan ethics, literature, and philosophy (so Melanchthon).

But how did this come to be? Melanchthon offers a tradition-theory for the presence of the natural law in the pagan works of the West:

[Homer] says, “Ill deeds do not attain to virtue, and even a slow man catches up with a fast one” [Od. 7.329]—that evil deeds do not lead to success or have a good outcome, and that the wicked man, however fast he may be and however versed in deceit, is nevertheless caught, and even by one who is lame. There is no doubt that this kind of saying was first uttered by the holy fathers [i.e., the patriarchs] and transmitted to posterity. Then they were passed on from one to the other, one could say from hand to hand, and finally extended to the men by whom they were included in these written monuments [the classical heritage], so that, put in an illustrious and perspicuous place, they could be kept in the memory of all posterity and beheld with admiration. [“Preface to Homer,” Kusukawa & Salazar, 43; brackets 1, 3, and 4 added]

Herein Melanchthon supplies at least a partial answer to the question on the minds of many a Wittenberg student who had developed Luther’s venemous attacks on Aristotelianizing scholasticism into a self-chosen educational program that rejected all learning but the theological.

Why does pagan learning matter? Because it evidences God’s providential guardianship of His Law, so that, here on earth and among men, the pagan authors can and in fact do offer no little guidance for a proper life. Indeed, because God has made all His established orders holy by, well, establishing them (that of the Church, of the household, of the state), savvy living within those orders is also a holy thing. And the pagan authors can excellently serve this end. Egyptian gold, indeed.

[Graphic: The Blinding of Paul, epitaph for Veit Winsheim, who delivered “Preface to Homer;” City Church, Wittenberg]

09 August, 2010

Kilcrease on Faith and Reason

Readers of renascentes Musae will certainly be interested in Jack Kilcrease's disentangling of the sometimes conflicting, and nearly always mis-represented, data on the role of reason in the theological anthropology of the Wittenberg Reformation: whipping boy or useful friend? His post is aptly titled "Luther on Faith and Reason: A Primer."

08 August, 2010

Hierosylia--How Sad Can It Get?

Melanchthon had his Declamatio de studio linguarum [CR 11.231–9; cp. Kusukawa & Salazar 29ff.] delivered by Veit Dietrich in 1533 (the same Veit Dietrich credited with the Reformation-era “Gospel collects” that will be known to Lutherans of Scandinavian extraction). I recommend the entire declamation, but draw attention to a final flourish that Philipp, or Veit, leaves with the hearer. Here, the image of plundering the holy places, or hierosylia, expresses the outrageousness of a Church without her languages.
Has artes quas recensui obruere ac delere tristius fuerit quam solem e mundo tollere. Neque vero sine cognitione peregirnarum linguarum retineri earum possessio potest. Qua ex re facile iudicare potest, linguarum noticiam non esse leve aut vulgare Dei donum. Quae autem impietas, quod scelus est, tale donum, cuius usus tam late patet, aspernari, et divinitus illatum in has nationes rursus explodere atque eiicere? Leges publice atrociter puniunt sacrilegia; at maius sacrilegium est, Ecclesiam spoliare linguarum cognitione, quam aurea aut argentea supellectile. Haec enim coelestia dona Evangelio lucem afferunt, et verius sunt Ecclesiae supellex, quam ulla ornamenta aurea. Neque enim dubium est, quin ad hanc utilitatem Deus Evangelio addiderit donum linguarum, ut vocant, ut ad sacras literas explicandas conducant. [CR 11.238]

It would be sadder to crush and destroy the arts that I have discussed [trans. note: the useful arts to Church and state] than to remove the sun from the world; however, neither can possession of them be retained without the knowledge of foreign languages [trans. note: in the usage of this declamation, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin]. From this fact, one can easily come to the conclusion that the knowledge of the languages is not a trivial or mean gift of God. But what godlessness, what a crime, for such a gift to be shunted aside whose usefulness is so obvious and to cast it back and drive it out when it has been brought by dint of God’s disposing amongst these nations. The laws harshly punish acts of sacrilege in public; and it is a greater act of sacrilege to despoil the Church of the knowledge of the languages than of her furnishings of gold or silver. For these heavenly gifts shed light upon the Gospel and are the Church’s furnishing in a more real way than any golden decoration. Nor indeed is there any doubt but that God has conferred the gift of the languages, as they call it [cp. Acts 2; 1 Cor. 14], upon the Gospel for this purpose: to advance the explication of the Holy Scriptures. [trans. Bruss]

06 August, 2010

More on "Is It Time?"

Naomi Schaefer Riley has a nice analysis piece in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education on "The Lure, the Risks, of Starting a University." There is much to be learned here. Let me outline a few of the items:

• free tuition works--and works very well

• newly founded institutions must find a way to
(1) locate properly
(2) conceive of an institution that can achieve what it wants with the size of student body that it can expect
(3) conceive of an institution attendance at which is made for intrinsic reasons justifiable and desirable to students.

Question: does a radically liberal-arts oriented institution envisioned on the Wittenberg model make sense in light of these criteria that Ms. Schaefer Riley has identified? I think so, but I'd love to hear from others.