Tag Archives: 1999

Getting it Wrong, but Still Learning

I already posted a brief excerpt from the huge undergraduate paper I did that turned out to be badly wrongheaded, but the simple truth is that without that work almost nothing I know or teach today would have been worked into me in the manner it now has.  I don’t want to sell short the real danger of exceeding all reasonable bounds in argumentative zeal and ending up in dangerous heresy; but I want to point out that riches to be gained by sustained engagement with the history of Christian teaching, and sustained effort to reason vigorously and rigorously about the faith, are hard to overstate.

And, really, when I read some of this today, I wish profoundly that there had been someone equipped with a solid understanding of patristic and medieval theology, and a Catholic approach to them, to sit down and talk with me about this work.  I am not sure I would have been responsive (though I would be strongly influenced by several explanations of Catholic understanding over the next few years).  At any rate, I would like to be that person for others on a similar path.

Here, then, some excerpts from near the end of “Original Sin:  Origin of a Doctrine,” that seem oddly similar to the decrees on Justification from the Council of Trent–an assertion both I and my interlocutors at the time would have regarded as an accusation!  We learn; we learn.

An excerpt on the role of Resurrection in Justification, as I speculated at the time:

If God were willing for the entire universe to simply annul itself by means of sin and death, then there would be no problem except the question of why God would create a universe, only to let it die. If any are to be saved, a just God must have some way to save them without simply commuting the sentence. This provision is in Christ, and in God’s infinite wisdom and eternal foreknowledge is made possible by the very curse which makes the universe just. It is just, and necessary to justice, that the natural consequences of universal sin be universal death; but the curse makes death a condition of human existence itself, hence itself contributing to sin. If no man lives in a cursed human body sinlessly and dies, then the curse is absolutely just and efficient, closely and directly relating the opportunity to sin, the sin and the result so as to provide minimal suffering and ambiguity. Death makes the universe as pleasant as it can be with sin in dominance. However, if one man in a cursed human body were to live sinlessly and still die, then justice would not only allow, but in fact require, that the curse be altered. The result is that, while death still results from sin in the world, there is now a new life as well, a resurrection from the dead. In that life, as in this, those who are obedient will be blessed with fellowship with God and their fellows; those who are disobedient will be cursed with that which they choose, separation from God and the natural consequences of continuing death in an immortal body.

It is finally the promise of the resurrection that is the distinctive hope of the Christian. This is the ultimate thing man is unable to do; no man can act when he is dead, much less create life in his death. God alone could provide the means by which men who in their sinfulness were already left for dead, who were naturally subject to the condemnation of death and who spent their lives earning that sentence, could be brought to life after their death. God alone could make it possible for sins to be expiated (by the justice of death for sin) and at the same time for salvation to be possible (by the justice of resurrection for Christ’s obedience, with eternal life for believers). God alone could at the same time punish and forgive, love and judge. God alone could exercise justice and mercy in such an absolute fashion that neither compromises the other in any detail. Man cannot solve this problem for himself; he cannot create new life; he is entirely dependent upon the grace of God, and must in faith submit to that which that grace demands of him in order to partake of that glory.

A footnote that shows that God was “breaking in” even where my arguments were colliding with each other in painful cacophony:

Of course, the actual course of action taken (resurrection of all men, with the promise of eternal life to those who believe and obey Christ) is only one of several possible courses that would still be just. Rather than resurrect all on account of the one unjust death, God could have a) caused the curse to be individual, rather than general or b) prevented Christ’s death. However, neither of these would have accomplished the assumed end, which is the salvation of sinners. Therefore, God’s plan of redemption, which includes the curse itself, is based in an economy of love, not natural necessity.

(Yes, I added that emphasis.)

And something still a little too close to semi-Pelagian, but on the way to agreement with the councils of Orange and Trent (a long road yet ahead):

Since justification means “to be made just,” and being just is a fundamental statement of man’s moral state, justification without moral change is a word without meaning. For God to act as if people were just without truly making them so is for God to be arbitrary, unjust and untruthful. There can be no movement toward a state of justification, or a state of always being just in one’s actions, made on paper. Justification must be a moral, rather than a forensic, change. Second, all of these notions are based upon and perpetuate the conception of moral qualities as substance, rather than volition. One cannot be given righteousness; one must be taught to live righteously, and must choose to do so. Nor is righteousness transferrable; it is irrevocably a quality of the man who acts righteously. Whatever can be understood of justification must be understood in these terms, or it is meaningless.

Justification, therefore, is a moral transformation identical with the act of faith in God’s promises. Abraham clearly exemplifies that, as do the “men of old” in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. To separate justification from faith is anti-biblical. Faith is made possible by God, Who perfectly performs His promises; the grounds, opportunity, understanding and even desire to act are provided by God. None of this is of man; nor is the substance of the Christian hope provided by man. Man cannot make himself alive after he is dead; man cannot reverse his own moral downfall; God must make this possible in Christ through His Spirit. Man, however, must exercise faith by ceasing to resist God’s Spirit, by ceasing to suppress the truth in his injustice and lawlessness. This is the great and eternal truth of the Gospel, one which must not be allowed to fade with time, regardless of the years of theories and traditions which have obscured it.

Two out of Three–on Milton and Education

Here’s a piece from what I more-or-less regard as the “capstone” of my undergraduate work, the single-author Milton course I took with Dr. Hotchkiss in Spring 1999 at The Master’s College (end of my senior year).  Among my classmates was Esther Chua, now the head of that department; and we had a remarkable class presentation and candidate conversation from Grant Horner, a first-rate Miltonist who was hired into the department after that year [profiles here].

So this piece has a couple points of interest, aside from the way that a strong interest in Milton and in both Milton’s and Locke’s contributions on education were to blend into my special interest in Rhet/Comp and in Nineteenth-Century British.  One point is that I concede a lot to Milton, here, that I would (perhaps obviously) now be unwilling to concede concerning scholasticism and scholastic method; and I likely introduce the conflated sense of “classical,” myself.  If you’re very careful, you can see the cognitive dissonance between the Deweyan construal of “liberal arts” that I was formed in and my habitual rejection of pragmatism starting to work out; note the way that the “instrumentality” of language is a cipher for an awful lot that remains unarticulated, here.  My critique of Milton’s paradoxical adoption of an anti-rhetorical stance is one I’ll stand by, though there’s a lot of nuance needed (at the time I had no conception of the way that a Renaissance feud between “rhetoricians” and “dialecticians” was reverberating, here).  Likewise my critique of his deferral of writing (with quite a few years more experience, I think the idea of writing, translation, target-language composition was pretty astute for an undergrad, if perhaps a bit obvious).  And of course you will see on full display the strong sympathy I felt for Milton’s dissenting position, even making “protect dissent” a primary aim for educators.

Most quizzical, for those who were formed classically before engaging Modern Western philosophy, will be the way I seem to regard as structural a distinction between “scholastic and Aristotelian” or “Peripatetic” and rabbinical modes of philosophical discourse and instruction.  Of course, I inherited Milton’s own prejudice against the scholastics, and at the time it was amplified by a sense that the Augustinian tradition was fundamentally wrongheaded and included the “too Catholic” part of Christendom, including most Reformed thought, and certainly including the heirs of Aquinas.  It would be a decade later before I could really approach Aquinas without a kaleidoscope of wrongheaded assumptions interfering with my reading, of course; for now, simply note that an anti-metaphysical stance pervades this work, and that it ends up totalizing the individual will in alignment with a Divine Will that instrumentalizes all else; all mediation is either fallenness or directly the occasion of recognizing and aligning with the Divine Will.  It’s a common but utterly soul-sucking mistake for modern Christians, and the more seriously and rigorously you try to live by any such ontotheological program, the more damage it will do to your mind.

Having happily survived, I offer you this interesting, prickly, and flawed little response to Milton’s Of Education.

Review Essay
April 24, 1999

Milton’s Of Education spells out an aggressive curriculum for youth from twelve to twenty-one years of age. Based in Milton’s own thirst for learning, and his understanding of the importance of language and classical literacy, the program of education is designed to create scholars of encyclopedic knowledge, moral vision and military acumen ideally suited to the revolutionary and utopian Puritan political milieu in which Milton moved and to which he was so passionately devoted.

Milton’s primary innovation against the education of his day is in privileging substantial reading in a language over linguistics and composition. He protests the “time lost . . . in a preposterous exaction, forcing the empty wits of children to compose Theams, verses, and Orations, which are the acts of ripest judgment and the finall work of a head fill’d by long reading, and observing, with elegant maxims, and copious invention” (980,1). Milton does not lack concern for the technical aspects of language use; rather, he believes that it is a waste to ask those who are only learning classical language and literature to begin writing and disputing in language they have not fully learned. In essence, he demands a literacy that is cultural, rather than merely technical. His Puritanical tendency for the practical also insists upon an instrumental view of language, so that “though a linguist should pride himselfe to have all the Tongues that Babel cleft the world into, yet, if he have not studied the solid things in them . . . he were nothing so much to be esteem’d a learned man” (980). In reaction against this abstract learning of language detached from the literature itself, Milton proposes that the student be given the “preparatory grounds of speech by their certain forms got into memory” and immediately “led to the praxis thereof in some chosen short book lesson’d throughly to them” (981). Milton is convinced that as the student is thoroughly educated in the literature, he will learn the language both more quickly and more profitably than otherwise.

In a similar rejection of the tedium of classical education, Milton dislikes the tendency to immediately give the student “Logick & metaphysicks” (981), before they have a thorough cultural literacy. Their grammar and life experience still inadequate, the student is expected to cope with the foundational issues of human thought, “to be tost and turmoild with their unballasted wits in fadomles and unquiet deeps of controversie” (981). In Milton’s view, these issues are not to be entered into without a thorough body of knowledge, polished linguistic ability (derived from long study of the classical literatures) and extensive life experience. Milton’s experience suggests to him that students thus taught to dispute before they understand content, causes many to lapse into “hatred and contempt of learning” (981).

Milton’s alternative, then, is to create an environment in which cultural literacy may be inculcated in students without oppressive and abstruse classical methods. He recommends that the school be a large house and its grounds, fit for about “a hundred and fifty persons” (981). These 150 are to include about twenty attendants and one master. The entire education would be conducted in this school, “not needing a remove to any other house of Schollership” unless to study for a profession (981). He then lays out in detail a progression through the classics, beginning with grammar studied and exercised with the moral books and proceeding (in proper Puritan fashion) as rapidly as possible to the practical studies of agriculture, physiology, natural philosophy, mathematics, rudimentary medicine and military science (982,3).

One further innovation finds its way into Milton’s program at this point: he suggests that studies of these subjects should be reinforced by conference with their contemporary practitioners, such as “Hunters, fowlers, Fishermen, Shepherds, Gardeners, Apothecaries; and in the other sciences, Architects, Engineers, Mariners, Anatomists” (983). This continuing evidence of a concern for the practical aspects of learning is an important component of the Puritan ideal which contributed so greatly to the growth of modern science (and, less favorably, to the trade-school mentality of the modern academy).

The continuing progression of knowledge (ethics, drama, politics, law, theology) eventually culminates in the study of poetry, by which Milton means primarily the epic, dramatic and lyric forms which dominate classical studies (and Milton’s own writing). Such a proper education “would make them soon perceive what despicable creatures our common rimers and playwrites be, and show them, what Religious, what glorious and magnificent use might be made of Poetry both in divine and humane things” (984). Only at this point would Milton begin the process of “forming them to be able writers and composers in every excellent matter, when they shall be thus fraught with a universall insight into things” (984).

While Milton goes on to describe the exercise (mostly military drill) of his ideal academy, the real argument of his essay is captured in his expressed desire that students be “fraught with a universall insight into things.” In the end, Milton’s great enemy is provincialism of all kinds. He opposes the disputatious provincialism of the classical academy, locked away from practical learning by their abstruse speculations. He opposes the provincialism of the English, who ignore classical learning from a mistaken (in Milton’s opinion) notion of their superiority to the Latin cultures. In fact, even though he emphasizes the Puritan ideal of practical learning, Milton opposes the Puritan tendency to suppress drama and other potentially immoral and subversive learning. Milton’s view is that a student, wisely guided, will come through the learning process with sufficient insight to reject the shallow wit which hides the immoral, and to value that which is of lasting worth. This is in accord with Milton’s views on freedom of the press as expressed in Aeropagitica, and is a theme explored in Paradise Lost.

Insofar as Milton seeks to establish a universality of insight, his plan is laudable; it has, however, some vulnerabilities. First, Milton’s reaction against the wastefulness of asking young students to write an endless succession of meaningless assignments causes him to postpone nearly all writing to the end of a man’s education. Yet writing, like reading, is a habit gained from long practice; and while Milton is certainly correct to state that writing of worth develops only when cultural literacy is already present, it cannot then be said that no one who is not completely educated should avoid writing until his education is complete. Milton’s hypersensitivity to the misuse of the classical languages causes him to overreach himself here; his school would fail without opportunity for the students to respond to, and record their advances in, the literature studied. A better suggestion might be to allow students to write their first compositions in the vernacular, proceeding to translations of their earlier compositions into the classical languages, and then continuing with original compositions as their understanding of the literature flowered. However, Milton is almost certainly right to react against the concept (still current) that all learning must be exhaustively documented by assignments, grade-marking and other busywork.

A further weakness results from Milton’s clash with the classical establishment’s abuse of logic and metaphysics. To be sure, taking students who have only at long last mastered the grammar of the classical languages, and expecting them to contribute meaningfully to the knowledge of metaphysics, would be a fool’s errand; and so Milton correctly values it. This flaw in classical education seems likely to have resulted from an environment of orthodoxy wherein scholastic philosophy and patristic theology (supplemented with Aristotelian cosmology) were to be learned and not challenged, however dialogic the actual teaching method may have been. In such a system, the foundational value of logic and metaphysics were in forming assumptions upon which all other learning could be based, rather than to cultivate rational inquiry and protect dissent. However, Milton’s solution is to banish rhetoric completely from the curriculum, and to eliminate the academic discipline of disputation. The harmful results of such an overreaction are apparent in the modern academy, where the absence of foundational emphases on logic and rhetoric (in the classical, not the postmodern, sense of the term). Whereas debate has a long tradition, extending at least to the rabbinic method among the Hebrews and the Peripatetic tradition in Greek philosophy, the more recent emphasis on teaching as solely an instrumentality for the conveyance of information. This method stifles dissent and banishes metaphysics and logic to the closet, as they are of marginal pragmatic value at best (except in the exceedingly dilute form of “critical thinking”). In the end, it leads to the trade-school mentality; learning is valued solely for its real-world value (easily measured by economists), and that which is not so measured is forced to either re-interpret itself or become extinct.

However vulnerable Milton’s thought in On Education may be at these points, it must be said that his presentation is generally quite good. His curriculum begins and ends with language and literature, and contains a wide variety of highly useful studies. Perhaps the ardent Milton critic should first attempt to complete the reading list contained in On Education; the project would undoubtedly rob him of his resolve to question Milton’s credentials–or if not his resolve, certainly his energy!

Grad School Writing Sample–Conrad’s Lord Jim

Perhaps the strongest point of interest in this piece, which I reworked from a paper I wrote in the Fall 1998 (my senior year at TMC), is that my rejection of Romanticism is beginning to take shape, here:

Writing Sample
Baylor Graduate School
Department of English
April 1, 1999

In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad presents a highly stylized image of a young romantic, trapped in his own dreams of heroism on the high seas, falling to cowardice on his first real temptation—a fate worse than death, according to many of his contemporaries. Given a shot at redemption, Jim makes good and exceeds all expectations in a remote post in the interior where no one has heard of his great failure. However, the intrusion of outlaws from “outside” his territory ends in a great fall; Jim loses the faith of his native followers and faces death at the hands of their leader. It is in voluntarily facing this death, when he could have escaped, that Jim finally lives up to the romantic ideal he has set for himself. Ironically, it is this death which fulfills the expectation which immediately followed his first act of cowardice. However, in view of all that had transpired since that first fall, the voluntary submission to an unnecessary and undeserved death seems tragic or even foolish. It is this apparent folly which Conrad examines through several character viewpoints. An analysis of the four major character views of Jim’s death yields a multifaceted insight into Conrad’s pessimistic evaluation of the hopes and dreams of men.

In opening the last phase of the account, that which deals with the circumstances leading up to Jim’s death, Conrad presents the reader with a new character. One of the hearers of Marlow’s tale which makes up the bulk of the story, this person (unnamed) is revealed as a former adventurer who, according to Marlow, “showed an interest in him that survived the telling of his story, though . . . [he] would not admit he had mastered his fate” (252). It is in response to this continued interest that Marlow sends a letter revealing all he has been able to find out concerning Jim’s unfortunate end. Marlow sets the tone for the entire ending in his letter, when he says, “The point, however, is that of all mankind Jim had no dealings with anyone but himself, and the question is whether at the last he had not confessed to a faith mightier than the laws of order and progress” (253). In this way, Conrad flags to the reader what the theme underlying Marlow’s narrative will be and, through the character of the unnamed hearer, foreshadows what the outcome will be.

The four primary character views on Jim’s death are those of Jim, “the girl,” Marlow and Stein. Jim believes his fall (abandoning 800 people on a sinking ship of which he was Chief Mate) has left him dead to the world of civilization, where he must forever be branded a coward. Even his achievements in the interior, which include reviving a failed trading post, destroying one enemy of his tribal friends and forcing another into submission, and maintaining peaceful and profitable order, cannot erase from his mind the blot of his failure to face death honorably. He swears never to leave the girl (his wife, by common-law at least) because he knows he can never go back to the world at large.

As a result of this view of his relation to the world, when Jim finds himself face-to-face with death once more he is unwilling to run, though the girl implores him to do so (309). Having failed to do his duty before through his cowardice, Jim now compensates by deliberately going to his death in order to complete the redemption of his self-image. From his viewpoint, his death is the heroic expiation of his sins against his romantic ideal, the act of heroism by which he validates all that he once believed to be true of himself.

The girl, however, is unable to see it that way. She sees Jim only as false to his promise to her; for, in serving his romantic ideal, he has abandoned her and failed to uphold his promise to her. She casts this up to him as they part, trying desperately to induce him to fight or flee, rather than deliberately go to face death. She calls to him as he leaves in an especially revealing passage:

‘Will you fight?’ she cried. ‘There is nothing to fight for,’ he said; ‘nothing is lost.’ Saying this he made a step towards her. ‘Will you fly?’ she cried again. ‘There is no escape,’ he said, stopping short, and she stood still also, silent, devouring him with her eyes. ‘And you shall go?’ she said, slowly. He bent his head. ‘Ah!’ she exclaimed, peering at him as it were, ‘you are mad or false. Do you remember the night I prayed you to leave me, and you said you could not? That it was impossible! Impossible! Do you remember you said you would never leave me? Why? I asked you for no promise. You promised unasked—remember.’ ‘Enough, poor girl,’ he said. ‘I should not be worth having’ (309).

Here Jim’s view and the girl’s come into direct confrontation. For her, his death is unnecessary and faithless, a sign that his word has always been flawed—as she has always feared. He, meanwhile, cannot escape the sense that he is already dead because of his previous cowardice. His view of himself takes precedence over her claims on his love and honor; she, sensing this, cannot forgive him—for he is impenitent.

Ironically, when the girl’s perspective is taken into account Jim’s redemption by facing death loses its redemptive quality; instead, it becomes a second failure. In the first failure, Jim fails to live up to his romantic ideal and, in so doing, also fails to discharge his duties honorably. In his death Jim also fails to discharge his duties honorably, this time in pursuit of the romantic ideals he had previously failed. The irony is that Jim never does learn how to behave rightly and honorably; he simply swings from one extreme of narcissism to the other, without ever getting the point. As Marlow says to the stranger, “Jim had no dealings with anyone but himself” (253). Never learning love or honor, Jim is doomed to a fate for which the girl cannot forgive him—she who has devoted her life to him can only bitterly condemn him for his faithlessness.

The third view, and probably the most impartial, comes from Marlow. In his view, Jim’s redemption is limited by Jim alone; while Jim achieves the ideal he sought, this is made tragic by its cost in terms of real human relationships. Because Marlow is Conrad’s major viewpoint character, he is fairly explicit about his views:

He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic. Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could he have seen the alluring shape of such extraordinary success! For it may well be that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an eastern bride, had come veiled to his side (312).

“That opportunity,” of course, is that chance to face death with stoic resolve which Jim had nurtured since his earliest days at sea—and which he had failed to take advantage of earlier. It is this glorious deathwish that, to Marlow, defines Jim; in an earlier passage, Marlow comments that “he had no leisure to regret what he had lost, he was so wholly and naturally concerned for what he had failed to obtain” (61). In the end, then, Marlow sees Jim likewise unconcerned with what he loses, in seeking to obtain that elusive glory which so concerns him:

We can see him, an obscure conqueror of fame, tearing himself out of the arms of a jealous love at the sign, at the call of his exalted egoism. He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiles wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied—quite now, I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us (312).

It is Marlow’s statement that Jim “is one of us” that sets the tone for the final evaluation of Jim’s behavior, and broadens the conceit of Jim’s “exalted egoism” to include, ultimately, all the hopes and dreams of humanity.

The final major character view of Jim’s death is that of Stein—which is not offered directly. Rather, Stein’s view is offered through the symbol of his butterflies, and through his position as a catalyst for Jim’s chance at redemption. Stein’s prophetic descriptions of Jim’s personality and needs are invoked at the very end of Marlow’s letter, which is the end of the novel: “Stein has aged greatly of late. He feels it himself, and says often that he is ‘preparing to leave all this; preparing to leave . . . ‘ while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies” (313).

The image of the butterflies is a universal image of the mortality of human ideals, introduced earlier in the account when Marlow first goes to Stein for help in understanding Jim. Stein rhapsodizes about butterflies, prompting Marlow to exclaim, “And what of man?” To which Stein replies,

Man is amazing, but not a masterpiece . . . Perhaps the artist was a little mad . . . Sometimes it seems to me that man is come where he is not wanted, where there is no place for him; for if not, why should he want all the place? Why should he run about here and there making a great noise about himself, talking about the stars, disturbing the blades of grass? (153-4).

In describing the experiences of his own romantic youth, Stein equates the finding of the butterfly he had seen in a dream—the prize of his collection—with the love of his wife and child, the support of his friends and the discomfiture of his enemies (156). Of them all, only the butterfly remains, a fact Stein notes in summary fashion:

‘Friend, wife, child,’ he said, slowly, gazing at the small flame—’phoo!’ The match was blown out. He sighed and turned again to the glass case. The frail and beautiful wings quivered faintly, as if his breath had for an instant called back to life that gorgeous object of his dreams (156).

To make the analogy clearer, Marlow describes Jim to Stein as a “specimen,” though “nothing so perfect” as a butterfly. Stein’s revealing reply is, simply, “Well—I am a man, too” (156-7). When Jim’s case is explained to him, Stein diagnoses it simply: “He is romantic” (157). Asked for a remedy, Stein says, “There is only one remedy! One thing alone can us from being ourselves cure!” (157). The implication is clear: death alone will deliver Jim from himself. As Marlow says, and as the reader senses, “The case which he had made to look so simple before became if possible still simpler—and altogether hopeless” (157).

The issue Marlow and Stein are consulting about, however, is not how to cure romanticism—which Conrad makes clear is hopeless. Rather, it is how to live out life with it; and this, Stein makes clear, is a matter of man’s ideals outracing his mortality. Man wants to be more than he can be, and so fights to remove himself from the “destructive element” that is the world about him—to be delivered into an ideal realm which transcends daily life.

In the end, then, Stein’s opinion of Jim is that he fails to submit to the destructive element—that, like a drowning man, he tries to “climb out into the air” rather than “make the deep, deep sea to keep you up” (158). The dream, like all human dreams, must be followed—while remembering that, like the butterfly specimen, it too will die. Only the appreciation for the ultimate emptiness of dreams makes the dreams worth pursuing—while man is trying to transcend them, to idealize them beyond the limits of mortality, he is drowning.

When these views are taken together, Conrad’s theme is clarified: Jim has not truly “confessed to a faith mightier than the laws of order and progress” (253). Rather, he has failed to realize the mortal limitations of all human dreams, and therefore failed to even manage the minimum standard of his self-image. Jim’s egoism prevents his attaining those objects of love, friendship and victory which are the content of the romantic dream. Instead, his idealization of the dream is self-destructive. Only Stein, the romantic who has given himself over to the dream and survived its destruction, has a handle on the depths of the romantic problem—and he sees it as the underlying tension in all men’s lives, the reason why older men like Marlow long to relive their youth in younger men like Jim, yet know that they can’t go back; and the reason why, the dream gone and Jim gone, Stein begins to age badly.

In the end, Conrad’s view is deeply pessimistic. Despite his accurate perception of Jim’s fatal egoism, the stubborn clinging to the romantic ideal of himself which destroys all he loves, Conrad continues to imply that this is perhaps the best humanity has to offer. The element in which those who survive must immerse themselves is the “destructive element” which drowns dreamers; at the same time, the dream must be retained in order for there to be a reason to swim through the sea and breathe the air of dreams. In the end, Stein’s butterflies are better than humanity; but those butterflies are dead, pinned in cases. They are static beauties, once alive but transient; and while the beauty remains, the life passes. To Conrad, the greatest hope allowed a man is to live out his life in the expression of a beatiful dream, then die without having given up the dream. While he condemns Jim for confusing the dream and the reality, he generalizes Jim’s egoism into a description of all human hopes—and so precludes any possibility of a hope outside man’s ego.

Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1965

Learning by Contraries

So let me dig back to 1999 for the first bit of Past Scholarship to post, here.

I will not be posting any links for this paper, and you won’t find it on any of my profiles or on my site (though if you search the Internet Archive you can find a *reference* to it).  I deliberately expurgated this document once I had matured enough to realize just how badly I had wandered into rank heresy in the middle of my explorations and controversies as I finished college.  This paper was originally titled “The Origin of Original Sin,” and was an attack on the Reformed understanding of Total Depravity that, in a terrible fit of overzealous argumentation, attempted to both attack that view as “too Catholic” and to demonstrate that there had been a swerve away from the true teaching that led to Augustine’s view of the subject.

As many of you will know was quite inevitable, I ended up having to start my criticism of what I mistakenly viewed as “corruption” in Church teaching with Justin Martyr, who was just barely too young to have known the last of Jesus’ own Apostles; and I more-or-less implicated almost all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church that I knew of in the “corruption.”  Somewhere in that process, someone less steeped in an anti-Catholic tradition might have realized that an interpretation of the development of Christian doctrine that supposed the Church was almost wholly overtaken in serious error on chief points of faith well before the canon of Scripture was thoroughly stabilized–before the Trinity and the relationship of Christ’s human and divine natures could be clearly defined–proved far, far too much.

In fact, eventually I came to see that this was too audacious–and, finally, that it was self-refuting. My return to a concern for confessional orthodoxy from this brief but intense period of error and excess took only a couple of years; my ability to move away from the dilemma of choosing one error or another on these matters, however, took longer to develop. My doctoral dissertation, completed in 2009, contains in part an extended meditation on original sin that is the recantation of these errors and the completion of the process of understanding that began with this Spring 1999 Independent Study and the deep dive into the Fathers that it occasioned.


I’ve carefully chosen an excerpt that does show my interaction with Scripture and my discomfort with what I understood of Reformed theology (which at that point was mostly American conservative evangelicalism overtaken by Dordtian Calvinism, the “TULIP” variety). I have quite deliberately avoided passages which contain obvious heresies, because there is simply no point in letting those arguments surface.

Here, then, a brief selection from “The Origin of Original Sin,” a polemical historical theology work of 100+ pages completed for an Independent Study course with Dr. Brian Morley at The Master’s College:

Chapter six of Genesis records the corruption of the antediluvian civilization. As humanity multiplied and those who walked with God (“sons of God”) intermarried with others, “the LORD said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh'” (3). God here identifies the fact that sinful humanity is rapidly effacing the influence of His Spirit.[An alternate reading clarifies the action here: “the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not rule in man forever, in his going astray he is flesh” (NAS Gen 3:3 note) (emphasis added).] In keeping with His promise of an ultimate defeat for the serpent and a Redeemer for man, God averted the disaster of an total suppression of truth by destroying all humanity except righteous Noah, who “found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (8). By the time God spoke to Noah, He had allowed sin to run to its extremity: verse five records that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Had Noah not been “a righteous man, blameless in his time,” the entirety of creation would have been annihilated (6-9). This passage provides dramatic testimony to the universal sinfulness of mankind, and for the pervasive effects of Adam’s sin. Once again, however, it must be noted that nothing in the passage implies that the sins of the antediluvian world were an inevitable result of Adam’s sin. In fact, Enoch and Noah are identified, without prelude, as persons who “walked with God” (5:22, 6:9). Later Scripture testimony will clarify that even these men did sin, and that it was “by faith” that they were righteous (Heb 11:5-7). For now, it is sufficient to realize that their righteousness and daily walk with God are recorded about them as facts in their own right long before theories of imputation became popular.

In chapter fifteen of Genesis, the Lord (through Moses) records a simple statement which forms the cornerstone of Biblical soteriology. Paul and James center their demonstrations of man’s responsibility in salvation on the declaration that Abraham “believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (6). While Paul’s use of this verse in the Epistle to the Romans has made it a primary source of imputation theory, it should be noted that here, in its actual context, it is simply a statement of fact. God accounted Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Paul quotes this in the course of a proof that justification is by faith, apart from works of the Law. James quotes it in the course of a demonstration that faith is not passive but active in man—and that true faith produces a moral change which does eventuate in right action. In light of the teaching that the reckoning here is an artificial process, God recording Christ’s merit in the place of Abraham’s, it should be observed that there is no reason to believe that a just and truthful God keeps a double set of books. If God accounts faith in His promises as righteousness, that accounting must be intrinsically true; any difficulties in interpretation of later teaching must not be allowed to vitiate this premise.

One passage frequently used to bolster the Reformed view of original sin is a statement from the book of Job that “man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward” (5:7). Indeed, this passage does appear to bear on this view of man and God. Eliphaz claims to have heard in a vision, “Can mankind be just before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (4:17) The ensuing revelation portrays God as arbitrary and beyond all moral standards, and man as too lowly to understand God’s purposes. Eliphaz continues in this vein on his own, arguing that suffering is universal and that God reduces man to helplessness before He will help him. Job is given no solution except to hope that God will finish inflicting pain on him and begin to bless him again. That this is all in accord with the Reformed view of man’s total inability and God’s absolute and arbitrary sovereignty must be admitted; that it is truth must be denied, based on the context. This is a recording of a false teaching arrived at on the basis of a vision that is at best a delusion; quite probably, it is in fact a demonic deception. Eliphaz relates the source of his insight as follows:

Now a word was brought to me stealthily, And my ear received a whisper of it. Amid disquieting thoughts from the visions of the night, When deep sleep falls on men, Dread came upon me, and trembling, And made all my bones shake. Then a spirit passed by my face; The hair of my flesh bristled up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance; A form was before my eyes; There was silence, then I heard a voice (4:12-16) (emphasis added).

Certainly, if one were to read this in a neutral context one would not class this as at all related to divine revelation; while God has used visions, there is no record of God revealing doctrine through nightmares! Some would appeal to the fact that Isaiah was troubled and trembled at the presence of God (Is 6:5). This can be readily dismissed, however; Eliphaz and his two friends are denounced as false teachers in the forty-second chapter of Job, where God says,

My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as my servant Job has . . . and My servant Job will pray for you . . . that I may not do with you [according to your] folly, because you have not spoken of Me what is right (7, 8).

Whatever the source of Eliphaz’s vision, it was not divine. The teaching he expounds so clearly, of the helplessness of man before the arbitrary sovereignty of God, is identified as falsehood by God Himself.