Who Needs the Humanities?

Anyone who ministers the Word of God, for one.

Simon During, “What Were the Humanities, Anyway?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 31, 2020.

During takes up the conversation on the state of the humanities in universities today. The situation is not encouraging.

Edwards insisted that knowledge of man – his thoughts, ways, creations, and works – was second in importance only to the knowledge of God. In this he was following Calvin and other Christian humanists from earlier generations. Humanistic studies – literature, art, poetry, history, and so forth – should play an important role in the life of those who serve in the ministry of the Word. During doesn’t touch on this, but his overview of the state of the humanities helps understand why this is so.

During explains that the different disciplines considered among the humanities or liberal arts are being flattened into one category, and in the process, a great archive is being neglected, as science takes the commanding role at the center of all that matters.  

He offers several ways of defining the humanities as a kind of starting point for tracing their history and recovering their archive and its potential for helping to move truth forward:

The humanities as defined by their objects: “On this view, the humanities are usually concerned not with what is natural or divine but with what the human species has created.”

The humanities as united in a single purpose: That purpose has been typically considered as “a will to improvement and enlighten-ment.”

The humanities as disciplines distinguished from science and religion: “The humanities, unlike the sciences, routinely produce knowledge that is not testable and rulebound, while, unlike religion, they do not claim to be supernaturally empowered, and they are constitu-tively wary of revealed knowledge’s authority.”

The humanities as entailing a particular ethos or set of dispo-sitions: Here he emphasizes the commitment of humanities to  truthful-ness and interpretations.

The humanities as disciplines devoted to critique and construct-ion.

During insists, “the humanities, never contained by a single approach, are becoming increasingly disunified in their methods and expressions, in ways that make their history’s complexity and variety more apparent. At the same time, they are also merging — or flattening.“

He believers that a “commitment to truthfulness” can connect the humanities to science, in a common pursuit, so that even the humanities become a kind of “science” by identification. That doesn’t sound to me like a good idea, since we need the humanities – following the lead of Scripture – to  serve as a check in keeping science from its inclination to scientism.

During firmly believes the humanities still have a role in human and social wellbeing: “The humanities can also be viewed as accreting knowledge and competence, as slowly developing their own institutional bases and channels of communication, and, in doing so, as helping to build the larger society and culture. In that way, they are not contemplative — rather they instrumentalize themselves.”

That is, the humanities can contribute to building a better society, if only by helping to build better people. He has a point, but such a hope is best realized – as Augustine, Columbanus, Calvin, Edwards, and countless others demonstrated – within the larger framework of the Kingdom of God.


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