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Good Morning Nanty Glo!

Wednesday, January 19 2005

Jon Kennedy, webmaster

Our original reality show

Continuing our quest for the roots of what makes American political and social ideas, especially in religion, unique in the world, I want today to move our focus on to Common Sense Realism as the philosoply that bridged the politics of the American Revolution and the religion of the newly emerging evangelical Protestant movement, especially in the colonial and frontier world of the 1700s and the 1800s. To return to the book I've been citing in this quest, author Nancy Pearcey summarizes this philosophy in these passages:

In nineteenth-century America...Scottish realism became immensely popular. It was applied to virtually every discipline.... What exactly did it teach? Thomas Reid said all knowledge begins with those things we cannot help believing because of the very way the human mind is constituted (self-evident truths)....

You might say that Common Sense realism is not so much a philosophy as an anti-philosophy—because it actually describes the experiential knowledge that forms the raw material for formal philosophy. Using the image of a plant, Reid said philosophy "has no other root but the principles of Common Sense; it grows out of them, and draws its nourishment from them." Common Sense is the pre-theoretical experience that provides the starting material for our theories in philosophy, science, morality, and so on. The role of philosophy is to explain why it is possible to know the things we already know by experience.*

So to drive this home, "common sense" is "pre-theoretical," and Pearcey is saying that "pre-theoretical" is synonymous with "experiential." Most of what we know is what we've experienced, or what that we feel is true because the "testimony" of experiences we've had. In the revival religion of the Great Awakening, a dramatic conversion was often the most formative event or experience in the life of the one who lived it. It was true for ever after because nothing other than an intervention of the eternal God could cause such depth of feeling, outpouring of emotion and devotion.

This brings us back to our discussion before the beginning of the Christmas series, on theoretical thought. I came up with maybe a dozen ways of defining theoretical thought and what it is not, but hadn't set it against "experiential" naive perception, in which position it is seen quite clearly.

Last time I also quoted an illustration of the influence of common sense realism on the emerging popular religious movements of the time. Pearcey introduced "John Leland, one of the most popular and controversial Baptists in the early nineteenth century [early 1800s]" and added: "Leland's rejection of religious authority led him to insist that the simple and the ignorant are actually more competent than the learned clergy to read and understand the Bible: 'Is not the simple man, who makes nature and reason his study, a competent judge of things?'"

In this we see an anti-intellectualism that may have begun as a misinterpretation of what the originators of "Common Sense Realism" intended, but it's a misinterpretation, a bending of the idea, so to speak, that seems inevitable in the proposition that "the beginning of wisdom is in everyday common sense," which is what the philosophy is saying, at least in some of its sources and some of the time. Many times in my adult Christian life I've wondered and discussed with others who've wondered, "if Harvard and Yale and Princeton started out as bastians of Christian teaching, how were they so thoroughly redirected so that now their major emphasis is radically other than and opposed to Christianity?" "How could they have ever once been Christian?"

I now think at least a major factor in "losing" these original great centers of learning in early America can be attributed to common sense philosophy. The philosophy and its preacher-popularizers made anti-intellectualism so highly regarded that anything as sober and high-falutin as Harvard or Yale was no longer highly regarded by the "democratic evangelicals" who became the great majority of the American population by the end of the Great Awakening and the end of the American Revolution.

I'm surmising from Leland's statement and many others I've heard in my own lifetime made by people influenced by thinking like his, that the common Christians were quite ready to let such institutions go. The Methodists, the Baptists, the evangelicals of many smaller sects and the huge cross-section of "rugged-individualist Christians" affiliated with no sect, would eventually regret those losses, and try to build their own alternatives to the great universities, but for over a century it was a mark of middle American right-mindedness to hold that such "rarified thinking" as the universities promoted was a generally unnecessary fringe on the social fabric.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy 

*Total Truth, Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, Nancy Pearcey, Crossway Books, 2004, pages 311-312.

A complete index of Jon Kennedy's Jonals for 2001 - 2005

Classic Hollywood Squares, 3

If you remember The Original Hollywood Squares and its comics, this will bring a tear to your eyes. These great questions and answers are from the days when "Hollywood Squares" game show responses were spontaneous! Peter Marshall was the host asking the questions, of course.

Q. According to Cosmo, if you meet a stranger at a party and you think that he is attractive, is it okay to come out and ask him if he's married?

A. Rose Marie: No, wait until morning.

Q. Which of your five senses tends to diminish as you get older?

A. Charley Weaver: My sense of decency.

Thought for today

Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God; nor be, nor suffer it, if I can avoid it.

Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758,  
leading light of the Great Awakening

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