Sunday, 18 July 2010

Paul Helm on fashion in philosophy and theology

I link to Paul Helm's blog anyway, but in a quiet moment you could do much worse than read his latest blog post :

[...] Even the fact that logical positivists are well-nigh extinct on the planet – and this is what it took me a long time to see – is not due only to the pressure of argument, and perhaps not due mainly to that pressure, but rather to the working of the Athenian factor. This is the fact that it is typical of philosophers, and not only of philosophers, but of proponents of other academic disciplines too, and of human nature more generally, to look, beyond the arguments, for something new. There is academic tiredness. Positions become well worn, and then worn out. There is nothing more to say: no papers to write, no seminars to be arranged, the topic, or issue, or person is played out, exhausted. Here’s the paradox. While the Oxford trio are passé, historical figures, philosophers such as Leibniz, say, or Thomas Reid, or Thomas Aquinas, dismissed by the trio, are now actively read and discussed.

People make their careers, as they make their fortunes, by being, accidentally at the right place at the right time, with their thesis topics and their book proposals. It’s that that has taken me some time to realise.

As I say, fashion affects us Christians, not only in academic life, but more generally. There’s much more that could be said. In all facets of life we are all prone to the influence of pressures of all kinds, and among these is the working of the Athenian factor. To become aware of this, sensitised to it, is, I believe, to win half the battle to limit its effects. But how, besides this, should we deal with it? I’m afraid that that must be a topic for another time.

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  1. Yes, I came across this yesterday and enjoyed it - as I do most of Paul's posts, even if I don't understand them all.
    On a related point, from my university studies of literature, I recall how big Marxists and existentialists (Sartre, Brecht, Camus etc) loomed a generation ago, who also imagined they had killed the Beast of Religion. How do they read now with post 1989, post 9/11 eyes?
    As a rider to Paul's remarks, I've never read J. L. Austin, but Vanhoozer deos use his ideas a fair bit in 'Is there a meaning in this text?'

  2. Does anyone actually read Bultmann any more? The Germans were giants in the land in the days when I went to theological college. No more.

  3. Bultmann is a good illustration of theology following after and/or dialoguing with philosophical trends. I imagine he's not widely read today, given the revolution(s) in Pauline studies, and the challenges to Gospel studies and form criticism that people like Bauckham have brought. But his historical scepticism is still fundamental to liberal theology.

  4. I think this kind of thing often manifests itself in Christianity particularly with so-called "moves of the Spirit". Such things are talked up by prominent leaders as the 'a new thing' - often to justify their own ministries.

    The truth I suspect is more tedious and that most Christianity is in fact rather humdrum with God dealing day by day and individually with people's lives and conforming them to the image of his Son.

    Not glamorous perhaps but vitally important.

    Chris Bishop

  5. Enjoyed Helm's post just as much as when I first heard his talk some weeks ago. Reminds me of my impulse, about the time Moultman's "Theology of Hope" became popular, to start a "Theology of the Month" book club. Thought I could cash in on theological fads and make my fortune. Sounds like I wasn't far wrong.

    Victoria, Canada

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