Poetic Knowledge Entry: Contentiousness – Simply Convivial

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My thoughts to contribute to the Poetic Knowledge Book Club:

The IHP professors were fond of paraphrasing a statement of Cardinal Newman’s that while it is possible to train youth in the rigors of formal philosophy, what one often gets as a result, without the prior humanizing of the poetic mode, are disputatious young students, not unlike Bitzer, the prize pupil of Gradgrind, who knew on command all the facts about a horse but did not know what a horse is.

This sentence, given as an aside almost in chapter 6 and not developed, struck me, and I’ve been thinking about it and wanting to get back to it.

Now, the statement might be a Catholic’s, and the subject might be philosophy, and the analogy might be a fact-spewing student, but I immediately recognized the type as one that is unfortunately common in the Reformed culture. Doug Wilson’s term for them is “thunder puppies,” and I’ve been in numerous conversations where parents with young children are not quite sure either about the classical school thing or the catechism thing or the NSA scene or some such thing — because they have seen and known argumentative, ungracious, contentious students. If the quote could be adapted for this subculture, it would read something like this:

While it is possible to train youth in the rigors of formal theology, what one often gets as a result, without the prior humanizing of the poetic mode, are disputatious young students, not unlike Bitzer, who knew on command all the doctrines of grace, but did not know what grace is.

So I was struck by the fact that Taylor, then, had a solution to this problem. We have decided not to give up solid instruction, and have hoped to give the instruction without the arrogance that can so easily accompany it, and to attempt to nip in the bud forms of arrogance, but I’ve been rather in a “wait and see” mode to see if one can be solid and well-trained early and not go through the phase of arrogance, hard-headedness, and, most especially, contentiousness. It’s like the middle-school logic stage, but never grown out of, and from what I have seen and heard, it seems to especially thrive in [some] seminaries. And, all to often, it seems to either resolve itself by going soft and mushy or by getting even more pointed and turning to extremes like one has to have one’s theological beliefs perfectly accurate and pin-pointedly precise in order to be saved. Because I believe the problem is in our hearts and not in the Bible or the doctrine, we hold fast to the sound doctrine we have received, praying our children (and ourselves!) will avoid this common pitfall.

Then, here comes Taylor, saying that poetic knowledge is the key to combatting that spirit of disputation.


Taylor says two things here: the shall-we-call-them “successful” students of philosophy/theology are the ones who have poetic knowledge and that this poetic knowledge came first and, I believe we can extrapolate further that for them, the poetic mode continues to be one in which they function comfortably, even while undergoing the rigors of precise logic and argumentation.

And if we are including theology in this principle, which is exactly what I’m doing, then I think it’s important to note that the essential “poetic mode” of theology is a personal relationship with and saving knowledge of Christ. That is first. That is primary. That is the cornerstone. That never goes away. That is never outgrown. And what does not function to deepen that relationship and knowledge is easily turned to mere mental cannonfodder to use in argumentation with “less educated” opponents.

Theology, without love, without wonder, without worship, is a gonging cymbal. Let us not be nor raise gonging cymbals!

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