Thursday, January 27, 2005

Budziszewski, Part I

J. Budziszewski is a professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also an outspoken Christain, and sometimes he writes books with titles like How to Stay Christian in College.

He currently has this essay up over at Charels Colson's Breakpoint site. In it he provides some guidance for students afraind of losing their faith while attending a secular university.

A couple of excerpts caught my eye:

In these senses the problem does all come down to worldview. And yet in another sense it doesn’t. Christianity holds all of the intellectual cards. I am convinced that the traditions of Christian faith knock the theories and philosophies of the secular university hollow. Our heritage is not rationally inferior; it is rationally superior. Take naturalism, for example, the common university ideology that “nature is all there is.” Try asking someone who holds this view, “Why is there something, and not rather nothing?”, and he can only change the subject. Or take postmodernism, another common university ideology, which preens itself on its “suspicion of metanarratives.” This mouthful refers to its conviction that nobody ever gets the Big Story right and that every explanation of anything is merely a fiction camouflaging some group’s interest in power. Try asking a postmodernist why he makes an exception for his Big Story, the story about nobody ever getting the Big Story right. Then try asking him what grab for power his explanation of things camouflages—could it be that postmodernists have power interests, too? Though I have often asked these questions, I have yet to hear a straight answer.

I know from experience that a lot of Christians think this is a pretty nifty little argument. For me it represents the total lack of seriousness so prevalent in works on Christian apologetics. I mean, do I really have to point out to a smart guy like Budziszewski the obvious flaw in his argument?

I am a naturalist in the sense Budziszewski has in mind. Ask me why there is something instead of nothing and I will not change the subject. I will tell you simply that I don't know the answer to that question.

But what answer does Christianity offer that is any better? That something exists because God created it? That is no answer at all. You have simply pushed the question back one step. I have yet to meet the Christian who has any decent answer to the question, “Why is there God instead of no God? Where did God come from?”

I carry no water for postmodernism, but Budziszewski's silly criticism is enough to make me give it a second look. It reminds me of the old canard, “If you're such a skeptic, why aren't you skeptical about skepticism?” His caricature of postmodernism is so divorced from anything anyone actually believes that it is difficult to respond to it.

As for Christianity holding all the intellectual cards, allow me to demur. Surely that statement requires more of a defense than a brain-dead criticism of naturalism, followed by a caricature of postmodernism. It looks to me like Budziszewski is more interested in lampooning views he disagrees with, not engaging them honestly.

Later he writes:

The reasons students find it difficult to keep faith in college are much the same as the reasons other Christians have found it difficult to keep faith in other times and places. These temptations are endemic to a fallen world, and the university is no exception.

He goes on to list three reasons:

The first such reason is the search for sensual pleasure, and college provides no shortage of time to seek it.

The second reason many students lose their faith is the distraction of possessions—of “stuff” and the desire to acquire it.

The third reason many students lose their faith—and the one with which I am most familiar—is what John’s letter calls “the pride of life.” We don’t want God to be God; we want to be God ourselves, each of us the center of his universe. Paradoxically, the students most in danger from this infection are the ones least in danger from the other two—we call them “the best and the brightest.” Their form of pride of life is pride of the intellect. Full of intellectual pride themselves, many professors regard it as a virtue, not a vice, and think they are doing a favor by encouraging it.

Budziszewski devotes a paragraph to each of these proposed causes.

Taking reason three first, am I the only one who finds this creepy? It sounds to me like he is saying that if you give serious consideration to the various truth claims Christians make, and conclude that there is no good evidence to support them and ample reason to reject them, then it is you, and not the evidence, that is defective. This is textbook religious arrogance. It is all the evidence you need that Budziszewski was winging it before when he talked about Christianity holding all the intellectual cards.

As for the other reasons he gives, I'm sure they all have their role to play. But he has overlooked the most important reason people often lose their faith in college. It's not that they are constantly being attacked by left-wing professors. It's not they get corrupted by the party atmosphere on college campusses. And it's not that they find themselves coveting their neighbor's possessions.

The main reason is that for most students college is the first time they find themsleves interacting freely with a large group of people that is culturally and religiously diverse. And after you spend some time interacting with happy, smart people with very different religious beliefs from you, you begin to wonder about certain things. It starts to dawn on you that the only reason you profess the religion you do is because of the influence of your parents and your upbringing. And if you are possessed of even the smallest level of modesty it becomes a little hard to believe that your parents were the ones who had it right and everyone else's parents had it wrong.

Faith in irrational things can only survive in a community of believers. Budziszewski admits as much when he writes:

Like all Christians, college students need to humble themselves before God, spend time with Him in prayer, study His Word, tell others about Him, and show mercy to those in need. But it’s hard to do all those things by yourself, isn’t it? I have good news for young Christians. God has not left you all by yourself. He has provided the Church. Seek out your partners in the faith and meet with them often. Humble yourself and pray and study and tell and show mercy, yes, but don’t do it just by yourself; do it with your brothers and sisters in Christ. God made us social beings; that’s why we respond so readily to peer pressure. Peer pressure is good if it’s the right kind of pressure from the right kind of peers. Your true peer group is the fellowship of the saints, the household of God.

There you have it. Surround yourself with people who think like you do and use that as a shield against those who think differently. Intellectual cards indeed.


At 3:04 PM, Blogger Ethan said...

I spent 15 years at UT Austin. I enjoyed my colleagues and miss many
of them. What I don't miss was the appalling spectacle of academics on the
university payroll embracing the cause of anti-intellectualism as their own.
Prof. Budziszewski is not alone.

At 4:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, contrary to the good prof's hopes, it may be that kids come from families where the prevailing "worldview" was that any seeking of sensual pleasure was considered sinful -- and kids get a lot of cognitive dissonance when they discover they don't feel to be in league with any great evil force if they enjoy a glass of fine wine, or if they enjoy a smooch with an attractive other.

And then, when the cognitive dissonance is at a high, some literature prof introduces them to the Song of Solomon, and they realize that those who claim Christianity holds all the cards, have been withholding information about just what cards there really are. Nobody in their church mentioned that book before.

In ancient times, religious leaders understood they didn't understand everything, and they supported, encouraged, and pushed advances in science in the pursuit of knowledge. Islam encouraged mathematics and geography, better for trade. Christianity encouraged mathematics and astronomy -- to better figure the times of the moveable feasts, and good for trade.

Now people claim to follow those tradition, but say they know all that is necessary to know. It appears to me some wisdom has been lost over the ages.

It's not that kids lose faith while in college. It is that some kids understand the faith they were told was good to have, is not the faith it was cracked up to be.

Ed Darrell

At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, maybe it's just that Budziszewski understands the simple principle that anything that has a beginning (namely, the universe)does not come from nothing. Nothing comes from nothing. Since the universe came to be, something must have caused it. That something must be a First Cause, an uncaused cause. The naturalist thinks that something (the universe) came from nothing, which seems pretty absurd.

At 2:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally know Budziszewski myself. I took his course in the Constitutional Debates in government, and read many of his books. He got his PhD from Yale and was a nihilist during his time in college, (also dropped out because he found out there's no such thing as a proletarian University), so what he has to say lends some credibility.

I think some of your arguments such as Where did God come from? is asked because those facts are already based on premises, first knowledge, and what you already know. Thus, he moves to the second level of arguments.

But if you read his book, How to stay Christian in college, he explains the theology of God in the first chapter, and also talks bout how everyone has faith, etc.
happy reading!

At 1:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to respectfully say that the author of this article indulged in some "caricatures" himself when he claims that all Christians are only Christians because their parents were. Whoosh. The melodic rustle of a vague generalization.

Also, addressing the author's last point, if part of the Christian faith were to seperate onself from humanity, there would be another interesting storm of controversy. Spending time with people who agree with you is not shutting oneself off from those with oppossing viewpoints. If this were so, then we could condemn members of an art club for not being with the members of the math club.

At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since I love to respond to posts that are over a year old, I'll note that a) Budziszewski is a bit of a fruitcake; b) your arguments against him are pretty lame; c) your social-psychological observations about why people lose their religion in college are generally true.

Budz. tends to write for a Christian audience. Since he doesn't need to make very good arguments to be persuasive, he just doesn't. He did a much better job in his earlier work, which was written for academics and political philosophers (e.g., The Resurrection of Nature -- not entirely satisfactory, but neither is very much philosophy.)

That said, your arguments against his basic cosmological argument are pretty poor. The basic cosmological argument is supposed to go: 1) everything which has a beginning must have some cause; 2) the universe had a beginning, and so had a cause; 3) there cannot be an infinite regress of causes; therefore either a) the universe was caused by something which had no beginning and no cause or b) the universe was caused by something which was caused by something which was caused by something which...was caused by something which had no beginning and no cause.

I do not see how one can accept the three premises of the argument without accepting the conclusion. Each one of them is questionable. Hume famously questioned the first one, but I think most of us could agree that he was a sophist (in this respect at least). Others would question 2, despite the 'big bang' (which is, anyway, a defeasible scientific theory), since the big bang theory plainly does not account for the existence of the basic 'stuff' (whatever the hell it was) that went bang and turned into the universe as we know it. Still others would question 3 on various grounds, particularly since we can have no idea about how causation worked before time, which presumably began with the beginning of the universe.

One might, of course, accept the argument and retort with the objections that you listed in your post. But the argument posits some sort of uncaused being with causal powers -- to ask what caused it is like asking about the parts of an indivisible particle. It does not follow from this argument that we know anything else about the being in question. We do not need to be able to say anything else about the being in order to be justified in inferring its reality. But we might wonder what else should follow of a being that is uncaused and apparently exists outside of time and space. On the basis we can argue towards a conception of what that being is like.

But why identify it with God? Well, without any additional reasons to believe in the revelation of God in traditional monotheism, nothing about the cosmological argument would lead us to identify the uncaused cause as God.

In other words, you don't need to rely on silly arguments against the cosmological argument. You can accept it as a plausible argument without joining a religion, because it by itself does not give us any reason to believe in the special claims made by any of the religions at all. It would, however, make a nice part of a series of cumulative arguments designed to support religious faith. Even the faithful admit, though, that the full content of their religion cannot be established by reason alone.

More interesting than the cosmological arguments from the origin of the universe are cosmological arguments based on the idea of necessary and contingent existence; these are arguments that succeed, if they succeed at all, even if the universe had no beginning. I recommend Brian Davies' The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. There are few more sensible philosophers of religion writing today.

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