One of the common complaints against traditional evangelicalism is that it has been held captive by a distinctly Western approach to rationality that eschews mystery and narrative. The central target of this complaint is the “Enlightenment,” with its emphasis on reason to the detriment of revelation. Shane Hipps’ first book seems to walk down this road, though there are countless others.

As the emerging church conversation has focused on the nature and role of truth, the epistemological effects and aspects of the Enlightenment have been pretty well worn over (though I see John Franke’s latest will probably restart that conversation for a while). But as I have continued to read about the period, I have become convinced that it’s deepest impact was not on our theory of truth and its relationship to rationality, but rather on our concept of our relationship to nature. And unlike the Enlightenment’s focus on rationality, that aspect of the enlightenment has largely been ignored by evangelicals.

But consider the words of Joseph Priestley, an 18th century chemist:

Nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable, they will prolong their existence in it and grow daily more happy. . . the end will be glorious and paradisiacal beyond that our imaginations can now conceive.

Or Descartes in his Discourse on Method:

 

For by them [notions respecting physics] I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and in place of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical philosophy, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.

The rationality of the enlightenment might have been propositional, and it might fail to be incorrigible and its foundations indubitable. But that wasn’t what was most problematic about it: for Descartes, the goal of rationality is subordinated to the end of mastering and possessing nature. It is a “practical philosophy” that Descartes is after, not a speculative one. The French philosopher (don’t hold it against him) Jacques Ellul calls this, I believe, “technical rationality”–it is rationality toward the truth, but only for the sake of the pragmatic results that the truth brings about.

For Descartes, truth was a means and not an end. But for his heirs, the truth was dropped and a principle of “good enough” was adopted in its stead. And it’s easy to see how that would happen, if the goal is in fact the mastery of nature and not the knowledge of it.

I suspect that only a robust concept of ‘nature’ as having some sort of internal organizing principle, and consequently some sort of intrinsic ends (i.e. teleology), could prevent this sort of rationality from devolving into a strictly utilitarian posture toward the world. And if Darwinism has had any impact, it seems to have destroyed the possibility of natural kinds existing in nature that might limit our technological mastery of it. These two ideologies have combined and created the crises in bioethics on the one hand, and the crises in sexual ethics on the other. And meanwhile, post-modernism has sought to undercut the abstract notions of ‘truth’ and ‘rationality,’ leaving us only with pragmatism. If it works, do it. And as Ellul points out, the rule of technical rationality is that if it can be done, it must be.

If this is correct, then it simply means that the transition away from a linear, linguistic notion of rationality toward images and mystery that Hipps describes isn’t a revolution, but rather the inevitable outgrowth of the particular understanding of the relationship between rationality and nature at the Enlightenment. The problem with Enlightenment thinking, on this count, isn’t that it’s too rational–it’s that it’s not rational at all, as it is divorced from the natural laws which are tied to the structure of the created order and which ought guide thought. Once nature is mastered and possessed, there is no natural kind there to prevent it from being altered according to our whims. Rationality is, on this score, unbounded by anything except our wills.

This story about the Enlightenment opens up, I think, the possibility of reflecting about new ways in which we might be captive to the Enlightenment. Specifically, I wonder whether we have adopted of a pragmatic notion of rationality where what we think is subordinated to the ends it produces. To use a popular example, we tend to think that the missionary impulse is enough justification to engage in something like online church. But our imperatives–our missional impulse–must be chastened and directed by the very real indicatives of theology. If they are not, then we render ourselves lords and possessors of the nature of the church, a problematic result indeed.

One more potential implication: evangelicals, in our adoption of technology, need to recognize that we are taking the fruit of a sickly tree. The ideology that undergirds technological production in our era is not neutral, but is grounded in an impulse to subordinate the whole world to our whims and wills. Churches should think seriously about being technological refuges, places where we can escape the principality and power that is technocentricism and adopt–if only for a few hours–a different way of being human. That younger evangelicals continue to be drawn toward Rome, Canterbury, and Constantinople is indicative of the fact that we want an alternative to this paradigm, while many churches are unwittingly perpetuating it.

For individuals, it means technological asceticism is perhaps the most important discipline for our day. I say “perhaps” if only because I continue to think that no discipline helps us see our need for new life more than fasting does (when accompanied by meditation on Scripture). But the technological paradigm is the ruling paradigm, and it is the paradigm that we as Christians have been least attuned to. Unplugging, turning off, and sitting in our rooms in silence will free us to use technology, but to use it well. For as Calvin puts it, all things are ours, but to serve us and not to lord over us.

(Cross posted at Evangel)

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

27 Comments

  1. Likely (IMO) you’re best post yet. I’ve had trouble following your trails lately, but I suspect that’s more about where I’ve been than your thoughts themselves. This reminded me, though, why I follow the blog and often point others to the prolific MLA.

    I’m surprised you didn’t include the statistical irony of technological advancement, however. There are more than a few stats that would argue strongly against Priestly’s assumption that over time, we who have embraced the enlightenment’s focus, would live more easy and comfortable. (i.e. ever rising suicide rates, ever increasing use of antidepressants/anti-anxiety/antipsychotic drugs, ever increasing rates of broken families and single parent/no parent children, global disease rates, global ethnic conflict, global border conflict).

    If enlightenment based humanism and naturalist philosophy saw a world of ever increasing moral awareness and human welfare, then it saw wrong.

    DJ|AMDG

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  2. Spent a little bit longer on this post than normal eh? (LOL)

    “The problem with Enlightenment thinking, on this count, isn’t that it’s too rational–it’s that it’s not rational at all, as it is divorced from the natural laws which are tied to the structure of the created order and which ought guide thought.”

    As a fellow brother in Christ and academic (of sorts) I feel the need to challenge you on this passage. Readers of this blog, would you be surprised to learn that this passage sound strikingly like a certain G.K. Chesterton?

    Furthermore, would you be surprised to learn that that future research will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mr. Anderson has located a never-before-published manuscript by him and is simply selecting passages from this work and posting them here for the supposedly noble purpose of “educating the Church”?

    In all seriousness Matt, do you really expect me to believe this post is possible without the Inklings? It’s so good that I’m not quite sure what to do, exclaim for joy at your literary coming of age or start sniffing around for the original text that you must be quoting/representing/channeling.

    So good, so good. Would that you were always so spot on! Even so, I think you should think about publishing this post in print to keep it from being buried in the sea of techno-forgetfulness.

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  3. In his book, The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society, Murray Jardine argues that the significance of the 1650-1850 time frame is technology which enabled man to literally reshape the world. In ages past, the earth, the ground, rivers, and the sky were all fixed points from which men reasoned that there must also be fixed moral and ethical points. But when technology came along that conquered the fixed nature of nature, man’s conception of morality, ethics, and teleology changed as well.

    I would like to argue that a similar shift in ontology will happen with the online world.

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  4. DJ,

    Thanks for the overly kind words. I’d love to hear more feedback, too, about what you haven’t liked or followed in my recent stuff. The only way guys like me improve is when people like you tell us when we suck. : )

    I think you put the irony of modernity quite well. I didn’t go in that direction because, well, I was tired and had spent too long on the post already. : ) Plus I’m a terrible statistics guy. I think they’re valuable, but I don’t have much of a system for collecting them and so am always having to look them up. But don’t be surprised if future posts don’t pick up on the theme and expand it, as more and more of my reflections are turning in this direction…at least for now! : )

    Best,

    Matt

    Reply

  5. Christof,

    Thanks for the humorous and kind words. You are exactly right: I spent WAY too long on this post, which is why it’s nice to have a few comments for the trouble.

    matt

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  6. John,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve got Jardine sitting on my shelf at home–I have skimmed it in the past, and after I wrote this I thought I should probably go back to it for a more critical interaction. Thanks for mentioning it. From your summation, it sounds a little too technological determinist for my tastes–the ancients and medievals had technology too, but their ontology guided its use.

    I’d be curious to know more about what you think the effects of being online have on ontology. My own take is that whatever happens will be the organic development of (broadly) modern ontologies, and stay within their framework. That’s the irony of “post-modernism” to me–it’s not an escape from modernity, but a restatement of its problems (at least I think it is).

    matt

    Reply

  7. On evangelicals and the Enlightenment: http://bit.ly/2p3WxN //I’d love some feedback on this.

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  8. I feel like you are taking a hit at the online church and the current technological ecstasy taking over the Evangelical church. If that isn’t your position, then I need to read even closer.

    I agree that more young people are escaping back to more structured examples of church (i.e. Church of England, Lutheran, Catholic) but I wouldn’t say that technology has much to do with that. Instead I would say that the overall unstructured culture that the younger generation grew up in (i.e. divorce, single family households, sex, drugs, etc.) has them clinging for a semblance of knowing what they are going to get.

    Growing up Catholic, I can still go to a mass, after not going for years and go through the motions. In a sense, I have often yearned for the familiarity of the structure of the Catholic church. We enjoy attending an institution that will give us structure because we can trust in that. Evangelical and even worse, Charismatic churches have not done a good job at establishing structure and boundaries in their foundation leading to woundedness and mistrust in the long run. (Shockingly Charismatics use 1 Corinthians to back up their use of spiritual gifts but do not take into account Paul’s writings on order and structure)

    I wouldn’t say that reforming back to a disciplined life of meditation, quiet times, fasting, etc is the answer because that can simply become reformed legalism. I believe recognizing the need to live in Christ and drawing into His intimacy will help develp the spiritual disciplines naturally, while allowing the freedom to not depend on a structured church like Catholicism or Lutheranism. The key downfall of Evangelicals is lack of discipleship and mentoring. Instead they depend on self-help messages that do nothing for a good spiritual foundation.

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  9. […] Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy writes: […]

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  10. Matt,
    Yes, Jardine’s argument is definitely more nuanced, and I too try to avoid deterministic views of technology while still arguing that is an important part of the equation when it comes to how cultural operates and changes over time.

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  11. yooper,

    I have yet to meet any thoughtful Evangelical whose conversion to Catholicism was prompted or necessitated by a desire for ‘structure’ or some such.

    I would direct you to the excellent and irenic posts and discussion over at Called to Communion.

    As the great patron of this blog commented, “The difficulty of explaining “why I am a Catholic” is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” Now Chesterton is an imperial intellect who converted after a long period of study and reflection and did so at the height of his perceptive powers; if you have never engaged fully, and honestly, his reasoning then really, I can see no intelligence in your speculations at to why evangelicals convert.

    Best,
    I.J.

    Reply

  12. Yooper,

    Thanks for the comment. As I said on Twitter, my main target isn’t necessarily online church, though I think it could head in that direction quickly and online church may be an instance of this ideology infiltrating the Church. There are other ways in which we live this out.

    I agree with you that many people are looking for a sense of rootedness and groundedness in their lives, and that does provide a lot of people a strong impetus to move toward Rome, Anglicanism, etc. I’ve written some about that in the past. But I don’t know why it should be an either/or–either we need structure or mentoring and discipleship. Can we have both? That’s what I want. Give me liturgy and relationships, structure and freedom. They are not necessarily incompatible, at least where the Spirit is present and animating the Church (give me Charismaticism, too!). : )

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  13. IJ,

    “Now Chesterton is an imperial intellect who converted after a long period of study and reflection and did so at the height of his perceptive powers; if you have never engaged fully, and honestly, his reasoning then really, I can see no intelligence in your speculations at to why evangelicals convert.”

    As a point of argument, Chesterton’s reasoning (and, in fact, the truth of Catholicism) is separate from the reasons why many evangelicals convert. The one is a theological question–the other a sociological and psychological. Reading Chesterton isn’t required to have an informed opinion on why people are converting to Rome.

    Hope you’re well!

    Best,

    matt

    Reply

  14. Well I.J., there is no sense in commenting on your argument because you not have ostracized Protestants by saying “Catholicism is true.” Which is ridiculous and arrogant at the least.

    The statement by Chesterton doesn’t give credence to Christ but instead to a system, which is no better than saying Gnosticism was also a system worth living for.

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  15. yooper, ones does well to take Chesterton over you in this matter. To dismiss him only reveals your misinformation. To say that what he affirms is “ridiculous and arrogant” is, to be frank, approaching the apogee of foolishness. BTW I can’t discern your meaning in your first sentence above. Perhaps you meant there is no sense commenting because by quoting Chesterton I HAVE ostracized Protestants? But this would be a false deduction, the Catholic Church does not claim that Protestants, necessarily, do not have the means of salvation. And yes, the claim is an offense, it always has been, as Augustine and Aquinas and a host of others well knew, it follows necessarily from the claim of her Lord.

    matt, I am well thanks, and no doubt what you say is true, that is why I characterized the evangelicals that I am speaking of as thoughtful. People do all kinds of things for all kinds of ‘reasons’. For example most people I know that have left the Catholic Church have done so for all the wrong reasons.

    Thoughtful evangelicals who convert do so because they think the Catholic Claim is true.

    Reading Chesterton is only necessary to have an informed opinion on the important, and therefore interesting, reasons why many thoughtful evangelicals are converting to Rome, the theological ones. It is a foolish thing to make a Profession of Faith and enter into full Communion with the Catholic Church, where one solemly vows that he believes everything the Catholic “Church proposes for belief” without believing it. It is to say the least, uninteresting. To ‘convert’ for other reasons is simply to become Catholic in name only and not really convert at all. So those who are converting, and this by definition, (instead of simply attending or calling themselves Catholic or whatever) are all doing it because they think it is true.

    Best,
    I.J.

    Reply

  16. BTW Matt, I do not intend to highjack this thread, I only itended to comment as a correction to what I preceived as an unfair characterization by yooper. Your post is too important and thoughtful to veer from its main line and I hope to comment on it in the future. I applaud you for your insight and need to think more on your veracity of your proposition.

    Warmest Regards,
    I.J.

    Reply

  17. “on the” not “on your” ;)

    Reply

  18. […] Orthodoxy: The Enlightenment and Evangelicals by Matthew Lee […]

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  19. Matt says: “The rationality of the enlightenment might have been propositional, and it might fail to be incorrigible and its foundations indubitable. But that wasn’t what was most problematic about it: for Descartes, the goal of rationality is subordinated to the end of mastering and possessing nature. It is a ‘practical philosophy’ that Descartes is after, not a speculative one.”

    And also: “For Descartes, truth was a means and not an end. But for his heirs, the truth was dropped and a principle of ‘good enough’ was adopted in its stead. And it’s easy to see how that would happen, if the goal is in fact the mastery of nature and not the knowledge of it.”

    As a matter of understanding Descartes, I’d have to say that maybe this is right. And as a matter of tracing our problems back to Descartes, I’d repeat my first answer.

    It seems a bit uncharitable to say that Descartes’ goal is the mastery of nature rather than knowledge of it. In the first place, it’s not clear what Descartes means by “nature” in the passage from the Discourse. On the face of it, it looks like “nature” means “the physical world.” But of course Descartes did not think that knowledge was limited to the physical world. He thought that there was a spiritual/intellectual world and moreover that the only thing truly worthy of the name “substance” was God. What’s more, as a rationalist, Descartes thought that our knowledge of the physical world did not come through the five senses. Knowing the true essence of a physical object requires an act of clear and distinct perception. All this to say that our knowledge of nature may be ordered to our use of nature, but that doesn’t mean that all knowledge is a matter of usefulness.

    Secondly, to say that Descartes is after a practical philosophy but not a speculative one is not quite right. Or, if it is right, then I think the same point could be made about Aquinas. For Aquinas, our knowledge of God is useful for organizing our practical life. Similarly, Descartes thinks that the principles that direct our practical life are derived from clear and distinct perceptions of substances/innate ideas (i.e., the speculative part of his theory). This doesn’t mean (for Descartes or Aquinas) that the speculative is merely for the sake of the practical.

    So why not say that for Descartes, as for Thomas, the correct speculative philosophy is necessary for the correct practical philosophy, but this doesn’t mean that the point of having the correct speculative philosophy is merely having the correct practical philosophy in order to manipulate nature.

    One last note about “truth”: as I read the Meditations, truth depends on clear and distinct perception. The latter concept is in some sense prior to the first.

    (After rereading my comment, I’m not sure any of this makes sense.)

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  20. Matt said: “But our imperatives–our missional impulse–must be chastened and directed by the very real indicatives of theology. If they are not, then we render ourselves lords and possessors of the nature of the church, a problematic result indeed.”

    Are you suggesting that reasoning from “we want to do x” and “we can do x” therefore “we should do x” is a problem rooted in Enlightenment thought?

    Reply

  21. […] the intersection of faith and technology, Four Questions for Technology from the Biblical Story The Enlightenment and Evangelicals evangelicals, in our adoption of technology, need to recognize that we are taking the fruit of a […]

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  22. Gary,

    Great questions. I’ve got even better answers (heh) but I’ve been sidelined by a discussion about post-evangelicalism at Evangel and…the GRE’s, which I take tomorrow.

    I’ll try to get a response up after I’m done tomorrow.

    matt

    Reply

  23. Gary,

    Thanks for your patience. I’ll answer comment number 20 first: I don’t think that’s a feature of Enlightenment thought per se, but rather the fusion of Enlightenment thought with Darwinian naturalism. I confess I’m operating on the assumption that the modern technological project is different than previous periods in various ways, and it seems like this impulse is one of them.

    As for Descartes, your points are well made.

    I should temper my point by saying that Descartes clearly has multiple goals that he’s going after. Hence, I might point to my first line (rationality is subordinated to mastery) as governing the interpretation of the second. I would be happy to amend the second claim to read, “It is a “practical philosophy” that Descartes is after as a final end, not a speculative one.”

    It seems a bit uncharitable to say that Descartes’ goal is the mastery of nature rather than knowledge of it. In the first place, it’s not clear what Descartes means by “nature” in the passage from the Discourse. On the face of it, it looks like “nature” means “the physical world.” But of course Descartes did not think that knowledge was limited to the physical world. He thought that there was a spiritual/intellectual world and moreover that the only thing truly worthy of the name “substance” was God. What’s more, as a rationalist, Descartes thought that our knowledge of the physical world did not come through the five senses. Knowing the true essence of a physical object requires an act of clear and distinct perception. All this to say that our knowledge of nature may be ordered to our use of nature, but that doesn’t mean that all knowledge is a matter of usefulness.

    As for “nature,” I agree that it’s not clear what he means by this. But what’s clear is that he thinks our theory renders us “masters and possessors” of it. Don’t you think that disposition represents a pretty marked difference from Aquinas’ practical philosophizing?

    Hence, I shouldn’t have said stated that speculative philosophy was MERELY for the sake of practical philosophy. But I’m not comfortable equating Descartes’ practical philosophy with Aquinas’. It strikes me that for Aquinas, we don’t exist in a “mastery or possessive” relationship toward nature at all. We are stewards, but not lords.

    So, my response would be that while speculative philosophy might not “merely” be for the sake of the practical, the differences between Aquinas and Descartes make me think that Descartes doesn’t have the metaphysical resources to chasten his heirs from turning it in that direction–especially when it is allied with Darwinian naturalism.

    One further question: even if this my analysis isn’t ultimately true of Descartes, isn’t it fair to say that the sort of relationship to nature that I attempted to describe is pervasive among the Enlightenment thinkers?

    To clarify some of my questions at this point, allow me to list them:

    1) To what extent is Descartes’ influenced by Scotus, Ockham, and the voluntarist tradition?
    2) What is Descartes’ teleology? Does he have one?
    3) What does Descartes mean by nature?
    4) What is the relationship between nature and rationality for Descartes?

    Matt

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  24. Matt,

    Agreed that Descartes agrees with Francis Bacon’s goal of mastering nature. But I don’t think that Descartes’s inability to chasten his heirs from turning to mastery of nature is metaphysical. It’s theological. (If those can be separated.) He doesn’t talk about the steward/lord distinction. Maybe he should have, but he was a philosopher and not a theologian.

    But, as you know from following the “Thomas Says” series, Thomas does allow us to use nature. That’s his explanation of why it’s permissible to kill plants and animals: the imperfect is for the use of the perfect.

    On your question about whether the mastery of nature is a pervasive theme among Enlightenment thinkers: I have difficulty answering questions like that. On the one hand, the consensus view says yes. On the other hand, what is the Enlightenment without Descartes? If Descartes doesn’t hold position X, is it still possible to say that X is pervasive among Enlightenment thinkers?

    On your specific questions:
    (1) I don’t know.
    (2) The standard view is that Descartes has no teleology. I don’t know whether that’s correct or not. I suspect it is.
    (3) I think nature = substance.
    (4) If nature = substance, then nature is reason’s object; clear and distinct perception of substance = foundation of everything for D. A possibly weird implication of my view: God = nature (or, better, God = what’s best designated by “nature”) because God = only true substance. Descartes says finite substances aren’t substances strictly speaking.

    Reply

  25. Gary,

    Thanks for your patience with me on this. I’ve been lost in the world of Calvin and natural rights in a desperate attempt to get grad school applications out the door.

    That said, I’m not ready to let Descartes off the hook for talking about the “mastery” of nature by suggesting that the only grounds to prevent the problems are theological. If “nature” equals substance, but those substances have no internal teleology, then there’s nothing intrinsic to nature that prevents it from being improperly manipulated.

    It seems like while both Aquinas and Descartes are okay with “using” nature, Aquinas’ notion of the created order and its Aristotelian teleology establish different limitations on the range of permissible uses for nature.

    What’s more, it seems like the proper object of reason is, in both cases, different. If you’re right that there are no finite substances, and if substance is reason’s object, then the proper objects of knowledge are not material particulars but something else. That’s a rather disembodied notion of ‘reason,’ and one that Aquinas would be at odds with (I think).

    Is there anything intrinsic to the nature of material objects that would ground or prevent complete and utter manipulation of them? I think for Aquinas there is–namely, their own internal teleology. My understanding of Descartes’ notion of “reason” is interrelated with this, I think.

    Best,

    Matt

    Reply

  26. My, my, all this intellectual posturing, and where has it left us? Jacques Ellul, as someone has pointed out calls this, “technical rationality”–i.e. a rationality toward the truth, but only for the sake of the pragmatic results that the truth brings about.

    However, I am not even sure there is much at all that is pragmatic about extrapolating a theology out of one’s notions about nature without first basing nature solidly in the hands of the Creator. Suggestive theology has always lead—and always will lead to either Jean Buridan’s ass (where agnosticism takes over because a decision can not be made) or a with a God with the nature of a chameleon that can and does disguise Himself in a forest of possibilities.

    Enough, with the likes of Descartes those folks! The bottom-line is, did what they say square solidly with truth. If not, then let’s move on. My strong feeling is that at best, they had very little to offer as a pragmatic paradigm for living anyway. My bets are on Jesus Christ when it comes to that.

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  27. […] aired some of my own suspicions about his philosophical program around here, which has brought some chastisement from my friend and fellow writer Gary […]

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