Tainted sources

I’ve lamented our cultural disinclinations to be able to listen deeply to good sources of information and inspiration that have nonetheless triggered some red flag for us religiously or politically. And I qualify my lament to only include good sources because I also think there is nothing wrong with washing our hands of sources that have so demeaned themselves to be wholesale distributers of unsupported nonsense. A person does well to not waste their time with trash. I’m here reserving my admiration for those who deeply consider actual well-prepared/researched presentations that call them beyond their own tribal and even religious boundaries.

To that end, I feel like I’ve landed on a treasure trove in the recently publicized series “Conversations at the Crossroads”. And this latest one in particular, an interview with author Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen who wrote a book about Nietzsche’s influence in America piqued my interest in her work as well.

Here is one teaser from the interview that I think illustrates the topic at hand.

Ratner and Barron affirm that the contemporary cultural air we breath here today in the U.S. is very Nietzschean, even if the common person would not be able to trace the genealogy of their own particular outlook. We are definitely living in a society that very much venerates personal liberty and “will to power” if you will, that I am captain of my own ship and I will be the one to decide or manufacture any “meaning” that works for me. It seems like a no-brainer that Nietzsche’s work is not a religion-friendly (much less Christian friendly) cultural force for us. And that conclusion has plenty of reinforcement from the fact that Hitler was heavily influenced by Nietzche.

But we reach a “slow down this train for a moment” point when Ratner and Barron discuss other influences going yet further back. It may surprise many (as it did me) to hear that Nietzche himself - a late nineteenth century German, was heavily influenced by - apparently inspired by none other than the American Ralph Waldo Emerson. One may wonder how you get from Emerson’s highly idyllic transcendentalism to “Beyond Good and Evil”, and Barron doesn’t lose the opportunity to connect a few dots about what happens when cultures try to bracket away the messier or seemingly less rational parts of religion as Emerson did. I’m not sure it’s accurate to accuse a transcendentalist of not believing in the transcendent. It would seem Emerson does, but in a very human-sourced way. But my point here is that before one raises their finger in judgment, there are other paths of influence to trace out as well. Apparently Emerson was quite the influence on Walt Whitman (… again … probably not to be found much on the shelves of most evangelical church libraries.) Our book-banning enthusiasts will nod knowingly at this point about how much mischief all this heterodoxy generates. And then we are led to consider a young man in the late 19th century who was in the throes of despair about life and even contemplating suicide. This troubled young man found Whitman’s work, had his mind opened up and brought back into the world of possibility - probably saving his life. That young man was G.K. Chesterton, whose later great works are now treatises within the canon of respected Christian literature. Chesterton went on to inspire luminaries no less than Lewis, Tolkien, and many others.

Apparently God is no respector of our puritanical preferences. Our genealogies are messy and full of strange bedfellows. The Spirit blows where it will and delights in showing itself precisely where we say in cannot be.

Are there other stories any can share tracing back through the history of ideas?


Only 11 minutes in but fascinating so far. Just got to the part where the bishop says the anti- intellectualism we find in American culture is also in the church. Sad because it wasn’t always so, in fact quite opposite. Needless to say this site is making great strides toward addressing that and I feel lucky to have stumbled upon it. I hope they’ll also address the aspect of church culture which seems incline many followers to leave the thinking to those who’ve been to seminary. But I wish there could be a wider movement toward embracing the the habits of mind so many of you here do.


So true. I knew you and others would appreciate pulling Chesterton into the genealogy of these ideas. But I think your point I quoted is one that often comes up here. What does God want from us? Would he have us hold tightly to concretisms distilled from scripture and nourish an inner certainty that can not think anew - or would He rather rejoice that we can trust our fully opened hearts and minds to reaffirm the truth? Certainty or faith.

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Your contrast there makes it clear that the latter holds your higher admiration - and I join you in that too. Having a solid rock, or a foundation that isn’t shifting sands would also be part of the scriptural narrative too, though. The extent to which this intersects with “certainty” could be discussed - but there must be enough certainty about it that you’re willing to put your weight on it, and build on it!

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That was so good I watched the whole thing. Very rare for me to make an hour long YouTube interview! The discussion about the intertwining of intellectual thought was excellent. I love when the Bishop talked about CK Chesterton being influenced by Whitman and saying the Holy Spirit can influence someone in so many different ways . For me it was William James which brought me back from the dark side for exactly the reasons they mentioned about him. I can also relate to the lament that “God is dead” of Nietzsche and this springing into finding a more fulfilling and authentic contemporary faith (from my personal perspective—not meant to call or insinuate different versions of faith are inauthentic if I disagree with them). I had to shed my old skin which was no longer tenable for me. I killed that God only to meet him again anew in greater glory, love and mercy through His Son Jesus on the Cross.


William James is a big gap in my own reading that I hope to fill some day. I keep hearing about him enough to know he must be a treasure trove of ideas. Do you have any recommendation for any first work of James’ that I ought to try as a good introduction? [I know they probably mentioned titles in this very interview and I should just listen again … that’s one thing I like about these discussions. They serve as springboards for people like me to go and check out more historical figures that I don’t yet know enough about.]

The Will to Believe. Should be available online.

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You definitely have a higher bar to clear than I. Leastwise the weight of that solid foundation has got to be a greater challenge.

I suspect something of a self-obliged modesty on your part there. One doesn’t reach their seasoned epochs of life without having engaged in substantial building projects along the way. And all of us alike will see our work subjected to life in such a way as to reveal what is straw, and what is gold. But more to the point, no work is done at all without the builder feeling some surety of footing, even if that surety should prove illusory at the end.

The question then remains: Is the architect of the straw edifice in the more enviable position as he is plucked from the flames of his labors that were attempted on the rock of his well-chosen foundation? Or will providence yet also find some way to redeem any of the superior golden craft that was doomed to be anchored on shifting sands? Perhaps it is in both cases that the entire focus of redemption remains on the builder rather than the work. But providence may have its own special economy that will not let either edifice be an entirely wasted effort.

I’m not sure how much my musings there engaged with what you were actually saying. But it was a long way of suggesting that any of us here are staring up at the same high bar.


Well, based on what others in this thread are saying about that video, I am definitely going to try to make time to watch it!

I definitely think this is true of American culture, and even of American Christian culture on some level.

I’ve never been terribly convinced by the whole “make your own meaning” stream of thought. I know that many thinkers have put a great deal of mental and linguistic effort into the endeavor. I appreciate this effort, but I suspect that if I were not Christian I would descend into Nihilism–the bad kind.

Yes, and I believe it’s a damning thing. Not in the literal sense, but it’s shameful because, as you said, this wasn’t always so, and shouldn’t be so at all.

Honestly, I believe that a great many Christians want it to be that way. It’s human nature. Study and the acquisition of knowledge, and of thinking through difficult questions, is not an easy endeavor.

I am so happy that you did. :slight_smile:


Nor I. Or not entirely at least. Barron often criticizes the “self-made” culture as having a stifling or imprisoning inward focus, in which we each pretend that we are the only (or at least the principal and directing) authors of “our own” story. We each decide what our own narrative is. I think his criticism is valid to the extent that anybody fails to concern themselves with any larger narrative in which they must also be an actor. Barron advocates that we focus on the large narrative that we all have in common and share in together. My only push-back for him is that I think we do each also have our own God-given “sub-narrative” that does get folded into the larger story, and that both can be acknowledged. I suspect he would agree with what I just said, actually. His objection is more directed against the deniers of the existence of any larger narrative beyond ourselves and even beyond our present culture.

I’m glad you aren’t there!


Yes you hit the nail on the head as to why I never spent any time on Nietzche. I am frequently reminded of how highly many people think of Nietzche, even today by Jordan Peterson. I think I have absorbed much of the good things he had to say from other existentialists, but then I have also been influenced by pragmatism which makes me wary of Nietzche because of the worst effects it has had on some who were heavily influenced by him. And I do consider the ability to abuse a way of thinking to be a factor in whether I think it is worthwhile.

Maybe the problem with Nietzche is that He was just too fast and we want to say slow down and be a little more careful.


I remember having one read-through of his “Beyond Good and Evil” back in my youth, and then setting that aside as “Beyond practicality or truth either one” and not giving it much further thought ever since except to recognize it as antithetical to anything Christians ought to stand for. So it fascinates me here (and other places too - including with Peterson) to hear Nietzche’s work spoke of with at least mixed respect by even some Christian luminaries. Their main thrust with him seems to be that his conclusions aside, he may well be skewering gods that need to be done away with. And his criticism of Christianity such as it has come to be may be something we need to hear still.

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And of course we would also say to Nietzche… Christianity ain’t dead YET! It is only in need of some rebirth and vitalization (perhaps after tossing some of the dead baggage). After all such predictions of its demise and a subsequent rebirth has happened many times.

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Loved it! And I see a lot more of his essays available at the same source I used.

Here is a paragraph of “The Will to Believe” that may grab interest here … followed by another as well.

Believe truth! Shun error!—these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true. I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life. Biologically considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity, and he who says, “Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys. He cannot imagine any one questioning its binding force. For my own part, I {19}have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world: so Clifford’s exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound. It is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound. Not so are victories either over enemies or over nature gained. Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

That one was long enough that I may save more quotations for a separate post later.


I like how William James contrasted two competing postures that we tend to adopt: (using my own words here to summarize that)

  1. Strong skepticism: the desire to never admit anything potentially false into the small set of things you are willing to believe. Or we have heard some today portray it as a moral fault to hold beliefs beyond what the evidence will support … or “belief should only be in proportion to the evidence.” This extreme conservative stance would almost certainly cause one to miss out on some or many true (and perhaps important) things just because the high evidential bar could not be attained.

  2. Willing venture: the desire to not miss out on possible truths even though a willingness towards acceptance will almost certainly mean that the many beliefs held will probably include erroneous beliefs too.

While the “hard” sciences of the enlightenment would seem to only favor #1 above, James does a good job of discussing how none of us (even while we’re doing science) can live exclusively there, despite the protestations of some that it is the only respsonible posture to adopt.


Here is yet another paragraph from late in that same essay linked above “The Will to Believe”.

I confess I do not see how this logic can be escaped. But sad experience makes me fear that some of you may still shrink from radically saying with me, in abstracto , that we have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will. I suspect, however, that if this is so, it is because you have got away from the abstract logical point of view altogether, and are thinking (perhaps without realizing it) of some particular religious hypothesis which for you is dead. The freedom to ‘believe what we will’ you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, “Faith is when you believe something that you know ain’t true.” I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto , the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider. When I look at the religious question as it really puts itself to concrete men, and when I think of all the possibilities which both practically and theoretically it involves, then this command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait—acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true[4]—till {30}doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough,—this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave. Were we scholastic absolutists, there might be more excuse. If we had an infallible intellect with its objective certitudes, we might feel ourselves disloyal to such a perfect organ of knowledge in not trusting to it exclusively, in not waiting for its releasing word. But if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell. Indeed we may wait if we will,—I hope you do not think that I am denying that,—but if we do so, we do so at our peril as much as if we believed. In either case we act , taking our life in our hands. No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another’s mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.


Hear! Hear!

Beyond peradventure, the aphorism “All models are wrong, but some are useful” is applicable.


Nicely put. Strong skepticism is appropriate to empirical claims but entirely too restrictive to subject claims involving meaning and values. Big fan of James.


That’s not unlike “An analogy is a three-legged horse.” :slightly_smiling_face: (Or is that “The three-legged elephant and the blind men”?)

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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