379 Testimony

All I know about sailing I learned by reading Rick Kennedy’s latest book, Winds of Santa Ana:  Pilgrim Stories of the California Bight (Eugene, OR:  Wipf & Stock, c. 2022).  But I learned much more than how to steer a boat, for the book is a wide-ranging meditation on history and theology and what it means to be a thoughtful Christian.  I first read it as a manuscript worthy of scholarly attention.  My second reading was devotional, perusing short sections each day to meditate and pray.  As Donald Yerxa says:  “Kennedy is not only a gifted academic historian, he is also a pilgrim-sailor with the head of a philosopher, the heart of a Christian mysticism and the soul of a poet.  These traits are wonderfully on display in this imaginative and enchanting book. . . .  Winds of Santa Ana nurtures the spiritual imagination.  It is a book for those longing for a thicker description of nature, the past, and life than the reductive methodologies of the modern academy offer.”   

The California “Bight” is the California coast extending from San Diego north to Santa Barbara.  “The cartography and collective histories of this coast and the islands it embraces point to a unifying character, a cultural identity, and underlying ecology.”  Knowing it intimately, Kennedy says:  “It is hard to be an atheist here.  Notions of purposeless have to struggle in a place so beautiful.  The California Bight is distinctly revelatory, sacramental, and hopeful” (p. 1).  Reared in California (admitting that while he lives in San Diego where he teaches at Point Loma Nazarene University “Santa Barbara has my heart”),   Kennedy loves the Bight and named the sailboat he acquired in 1979 “Pilgrim.”  Early on he loved to sail off the coast of Santa Barbara and he “spontaneously and willingly accepted my position in the world.  I am a child of this coast, these islands, and these waters.  The Mexican Californios called themselves Los Hijos del Pais, Children of this place.  Sailing across the Santa Barbara Channel I embraced my home.  I am a child of this coast and these islands, Un Nino de la Costa y las Islas” (p. 115).  

At the same time he read two of St Bonaventure’s works—The Life of Saint Francis and The Soul’s Journey into God.  These 13th century classics became for him “a pilgrim manual for life in general and sailing in particular” (p. 3).  (Years later he acquired a bigger boat and named it Boethius, signaling his love for the author of The Consolation of Philosophy, who “understood the Creator as the whole fullness of boundless life” (p. 37).  Reading St. Bonaventure (the patron saint of Ventura, CA) and “sailing in the Santa Barbara Channel, I found myself becoming a type of Protestant-evangelical-Franciscan-pilgrim-sailor-ecologist” (p. 3).  With Bonaventure he thinks:  “Every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal wisdom.”  So carefully observing and pondering the natural world enables him to consider what it all ultimately points to, what it reveals about God and man.  Still more:  the art of sailing is an “intricate craft that entangles persons, boat, wind, water and sky in ways that reveal there are no sharp distinctions between the physical and spiritual, the visible and invisible” (p. 8).  

Sailing along the California Bight brings one face-to-face with the reality that it “is a wilderness only superficially civilized.  The whole of sailing, if one is willing to accept it, is a wild conversation with creation, and through creation with the Creator.  I like sailing alone, but as a pilgrim-sailor on Boethius, I never feel alone when sailing” (p. 18).  He sails expecting to hear from the birds and fish, the details of the coast, the shifts in the wind, and the history of the place.  “Sailing is an obedience-skill.  The goal is not to triumph over the elements.  The goal is to find one’s proper place within them.”  Accordingly:  “Wisdom is not marching to one’s own drummer.   Wisdom senses when to submit and when to assert, when to be passive and when to act, when to add on sails and when to shorten, reef, and hunker down.”  Importantly:  “There is no sailing ‘my own way.’  There is only submission to the music of the spheres” (p. 83).  

While sailing along the coast Kennedy ponders the significant role religion has played in Southern California.  He writes warmly of the Catholic missions—this is a “crusader coast” and her residents are inevitably “entangled in Spain’s best sense of itself as a missionary empire,” and the chain of Spanish missions established by Father Junipero Serra have left important vestiges of Catholicism along the coast.  Various Protestant churches have also flourished therein.  More than a century ago Fundamentalists such as Lyman Stuart laid the foundations for both the Fundamentalist movement and what ultimately became Biola University.  The Evangelicalism that emerged following WWII was deeply influenced by Fuller Seminary, and Campus Crusade got its start in a Sunday school class in Hollywood Presbyterian Church.  Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel helped inspire the “Jesus People” who shaped a whole generation of young believers in the 1970s.  Deeply read in Church history, Kennedy finds much to praise in the movements rooted in the California Bight.  In fact:  “To live on the California Bight is to be constantly evangelized.  Christian history, patron saints, stories of signs and wonders surround us” (p. 87).  Still more:  “That the Southern California coast seems to have an outsized role in the global history of the twentieth-century Christianity fascinates me” (p. 180).  

Winds of Santa Ana is a deeply personal, profound work, rooted in the importance of Testimony.  It’s also an illustration of a gifted historian’s concern to get at the Truth of history where autobiography and historical analysis intersect.  In the words of a mutual friend, Kay Harkins:  “To sail into the waters of Rick Kennedy’s memoir, Winds of Santa Ana, is to voyage with a most affable, engaging captain.  Part philosopher, part sage, part poet, Kennedy approaches his audience as a friend in his invitation to apprehend rich interior and exterior seas and landscapes.”  

              * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Whereas Rick Kennedy recently pondered historical and philosophical issues evident to him while sailing in Winds of Santa Ana, he’d earlier found equally valuable lessons while mountain climbing. In Jesus, History, and Mt. Darwin: An Academic Excursion (Eugene, Oregon: WIPF & STOCK, c. 2008)—which I re-read while preparing this review—he invited readers to join him in thinking about the disciplines of history and theology while hiking in California’s Sierra Nevadas.  The book is by design a very personal account:  “Back in the 1970s, I learned to love university life.  I eventually became a professor of history.  I started out a Bible-trusting Christian and have not lost my faith.  This book is about the reasonableness of biblical Christianity in universities.  By reasonableness, I mean the warranted credibility, if not the persuasiveness, of Christian claims about ancient history” (p. 1).                                                              In  the mountains Kennedy sought to differentiate “natural history” from the “ancient history” Herodotus and Thucydides pursued.  Too often “natural history,” following the lead of Charles Darwin, has disdained biblical accounts, inferring that since “the creation of new species did not need God, then it is best to assume that God was not involved” (p. 1).  Darwin’s theory may very well illuminate certain aspects of natural history, but it should never displace Christian history, for there’s “a sharp, ineradicable difference between studying pre-historical rocks and human history preserved in documents.”  Throughout his distinguished career Kennedy has sought the proper way to research and reason, to think and write and teach history—especially as it comes to bear on the Christian Tradition.  In fact:  “For Christianity, history is primal” (p. 1).  Relying on history as a way to understand important truths leads us to Aristotle, who insisted we learn about the past from witnesses just as truly as we learn biology by examining specimens in laboratories.  “For Aristotle, jurisprudence and history were awkward disciplines that depended on listening to and reading outside sources” (p. 31).  His views on this were set forth in his “Topics.  This tool in the Aristotelian pocketknife is crucial for Christianity’s place in modern universities and was part of Aristotelian thinking most used by New Testament authors—especially Luke and Paul” (p. 32).  Kennedy shares John Henry Newman’s view:  “Is not the being of a God reported to us by testimony, handed down  by history, inferred by an inductive process, brought home to us by metaphysical necessity, urged on us by the suggestions of our conscience?”                                                                                                Above all historians listen!  They’re not novelists or politicians interested in imagining how things might be.  They’re not mathematicians, following the logic of their intuitions.  Historians must try to see what’s written in documents, listening to testimonies concerning what happened in days gone by.  “Jesus, in Luke 8:18, told his disciples to “consider carefully how you listen.”  He wasn’t endorsing skepticism as did Descartes, looking for reasons to doubt what’s written.  He, like Aristotle, “believed truth is stronger than error” and that it carries with it a certain persuasive quality.  “Truth is not beyond human nature,” he said,  “and men do, for the most part, achieve it.”  We rightly believe what we hear when it’s reasonable, not when it’s beyond disproof.  We rightly believe things actually happened because trustworthy witnesses say so.  “In practice, historians have to trust more than doubt.  In practice, historians, especially ancient historians, can’t rely on doubting.  Historians have to be close listeners” (p. 68).                                             This means Christian historians must acknowledge they don’t have “the knife-blade precision of controlled, repeatable experiments or the screwdriver leverage of geometrical demonstrations.  By the high standards of scientific precision or by high  standards of philosophy, we don’t ‘know’ historical people—be they Jesus or Caesar Augustus—really.  However, by the practical standards of history, we know about Jesus as much, probably more, than we know about most ancient people, even Caesar Augustus” (p. 69).  Too many “biblical” scholars, seeking to locate the “historical Jesus,” end up creating a Jesus who looks very much like themselves!  That’s because they lack the humility to actually listen to Him as revealed in New Testament documents.  They fail to live up to the dictum of Cicero, who insisted historians must, above all, tell the truth.  “For Cicero and Roman education in general, the historian is rooted in reported facts, actual chronology, real geography.  The historian is not a novelist, is not even a public-policy advocate.  The historian is a truth-teller whose speech is plain and purpose clear” (p. 77).                   Christians are blessed to have truth-telling historians in Church history who give them good reason to trust the New Testament.  Consider Eusebius, the first great historian who wrote The History of the Church in the 4th century.  “Historians of ancient Rome are still amazed by the breadth and quality of Eusebius’ analysis of ancient texts and collation of ancient chronology.  Eusebius relied on primary sources such as Polycarp, who in the 2d century testified that he “was not only instructed by apostles” but also talked with “many who had seen the Lord.”  Eusebius was one of the great scholars in the Roman Empire:  a Christian who ‘regarded the Bible as key to a correct understanding of human history’” (p. 80).   A few decades later Clement of Alexander talked with and took notes of what old men remembered, preserving “the true tradition of the blessed teaching straight from Peter, James, John, and Paul, the holy apostle, son receiving it from father.”  He and other scholars persuade Kennedy that “Our Bible is strong.  It is probably the most scholarly cared-for collection of texts to come to us from the Roman Empire” (p. 80).                       

In an interesting aside, Kennedy cites sentences from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow wherein an elderly man said:  “History grows shorter.  I remember old men who remembered the Civil War.  I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old.  It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ.  Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light of the manger at Bethlehem.  So few remembers could sit down together in a small room.”  Eyewitnesses record what they saw.  Their accounts are considered trustworthy and are passed down through the generations.  There is every reasons to believe rather than distrust them.  So Kennedy concludes:  “A good and true story can be easily carried over hundreds of years by just a few people who want to tell a true story.”  Reports of miracles—and the absolutely essential miracles for Christians, the Resurrection—merit initial belief rather than skepticism.   Reasonable folks can rest easy when taking as true what has been “delivered to the saints.”            

            * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *                                 

The importance of Testimony that underlies Rick Kennedy’s very personal, meditative works (Winds of Santa Ana and Jesus, History, and Mt. Darwin), was set forth in a thoroughly scholarly work entitled A History of Reasonableness: Testimony and Authority in the Art of Thinking (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, c. 2004).   He considered “the deep traditional issues of testimony and authority in the art of reasoning” and segued into a discussion of their historical development.  To rightly reason on the basis of testimony and authority is no minor matter!  From Aristotle on, thinkers and teachers concerned with education took seriously the role of testimony and authority.  And inasmuch as Aristotle set forth many important definitions and distinctions in his Topics, we may take him as “The Philosopher” standing at the heart of the “classical tradition” so central to Western Civilization.                                                                             There’s a marked difference between what we “know from within ourselves and what we learn from others” (p. 13).  Gifted children quickly become proficient in mathematics, seeing clearly what simply must be true.  An adolescent can become a world-class mathematician or chess master, but few would want him to be the nation’s president!  That’s because the things we learn from others, such as history and wisdom, must develop throughout a life rightly lived and are learned through dialectic and rhetoric rather than logic and geometry.  “Aristotle ingeniously created an intellectual device that served this and other purposes. He called it topics” and it became basic to “the liberal arts curriculum for two thousand years” (p. 13).  Much that we learn, Aristotle insisted, comes from others by way of testimony and authority.  It is a form of “social” knowledge and is essential for “social” creatures such as ourselves.  Throughout the past, a multitude of thoughtful human beings have discovered truths regarding God, man, and the cosmos that we can quickly appropriate by believing them, accepting their authority.  He advocated the “a pattern of writing about testimony from the perspective of honest people giving and receiving the best information available to them” (p. 16).   Influential educators (especially Cicero and Quintilian in ancient Rome) simplified, synthesized and prescribed the principles set forth in Aristotle’s Topics.  Then Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, Boethius, and Cassiodorus, preserved this tradition of carefully evaluating and trusting testimony and authority; their works were used in schools throughout the Middle Ages.  During the Reformation, Luther’s close associate Philipp Melanchthon “reached deeply into the works of Aristotle, Augustine, and the best Medieval theologians in order to strengthen not only the role of dialectic as the foundation to all aspects of the liberal arts curriculum but also as the foundation of  Christian reasonableness in general” (p. 117).                                                                                                   Things changed, however, when 17th century thinkers such as Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes charted new methodologies more amenable to the budding scientific approach that was concisely summed up in the newly-established Royal Society’s motto, “Nullius in verba” (On no one’s word).  Bacon specifically sought to dismiss Aristotle’s “common sense” philosophy, and Descartes endeavored to confine all knowledge to mathematical strictures.  Thus Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (along with Newton a co-founder of calculus) could imagine settling “all disputes” through “computation” (p. 197). In the hands of David Hume, this approach easily led to the denial of most all testimony—especially when applied to miracles.  Important textbooks, notably The Port-Royal Logic, certainly tried to maintain a balance between truths discerned mathematically and truths delivered through historical witnesses.  And gifted disciples of Aristotle, such as John Henry Newman, eloquently upheld his views and emphasized “the reasonableness of Christianity.” But during the past four centuries the measured rejection of Aristotle’s Topics is quite evident.  Consequently, C.S. Lewis’s lament in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (“Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”) describes the plight of modern education. Philosophers following Immanuel Kant reduced knowledge to what can be subjectively discerned. The autonomous self stands alone, determining what is true, or good, or beautiful. In America, John Dewey insisted one learns singularly through personal experience, through “doing.” Reflecting the influence of such thinkers, today’s teachers promote “Critical Thinking,” encouraging even the youngest scholars to stand defiantly alone and decide for themselves what is true or good or beautiful for them. Rarely are they taught to trust authorities or historical testimonies or “common sense” traditions.                         In the book’s final paragraphs Professor Kennedy reflects on his own intellectual pilgrimage.  Growing up in California in the 1960s, he embraced the bumper sticker philosophy: “Question Authority.”  Throughout his many years in school, culminating in his doctoral studies, he was urged to become an independent, “critical” thinker. Historians, he learned, were to be ever-vigilant, doubting rather than trusting sources, of “good teachers who modeled what they did not preach” (p. 310).  So he began to appreciate the wisdom of pre-modern thinkers such as Aristotle and Augustine.                                                                                           * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *                                                Marvin Olasky, for nearly 30 years the editor of World magazine, offers us an instructive testimony in Pivot Points: Adventures on the Road to Christian Contentment, A Memoir . (Phillipsburg, N.J.:  P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition, c. 2024).  Reared in a nominally Jewish home, he rejected religion  soon after his his bar mitzvah and considered himself an atheist while in high school, where he found himself enthralled with journalism.  Off to Yale for undergraduate study, he wrote for the campus newspaper and joined like-minded rebels protesting the Vietnam War.  Having tread Lenin’s What Is to Be Done, he first aligned himself with leftists and ultimately  made “the worst decision of my life,” joining the Communist Party USA.  After various adventures and a failed marriage, Olasky decided to study for a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan before pursuing further journalistic goals.                                            

But unexpectedly, everything changed!  “Suddenly, without warning, on an ordinary day, figment becomes fact.  New thoughts bombard my brain:  What if Lenin is wrong?  Why am I sure that God does not exist?  Why have I turned my back on him? . . . .  For eight hours I sit in that chair, unwilling to move.  Every hour brings a glance at the clock and surprise that I am still stationary.  It’s hard for me to convey the strangeness, the otherness, of this experience.  No drugs, no dreams, just sitting in the chair, hour after hour, suddenly thinking Marxism is wrong.  At three o’clock I’m an atheist and a Communist.  At eleven p.m. I’m a believer in a God of some kind.  Hardly born again, but no longer dying.  At eleven, finally, I stand up, go outside, and wander around the cold and dark campus for the next two hours, trying to make sense of those eight hours.  . . . .   Years later I read in the Westminster Confession of Faith that God ‘is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call [some] by his Word and Spirit out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ” (pp. 52-53).                                                                                               

In time, Olasky and his wife Susan moved to Texas, where he has taught journalism at the University of Texas, becoming a tenured professor in 1987.  They and their children are active in a local church and work together supporting pro-life endeavors.  He also wrote “a book, Prodigal Press, that begins a long march to reform journalism.  I see opportunity for a middle road between an ‘objectivity’ that pretends neither God nor natural law exists and a subjectivity that exalts individual opinion and deduction over facts on the ground and induction” (p. 77).  His opportunity to implement his philosophy came when he became editor of World, endeavoring to bring a Christian perspective to the news.  He also wrote The Tragedy of American Compassion, arguing that churches do a better job in caring for the needy than the government.  This brought him to the attention George W. Bush, who asked him to serve as an ill-fated advisor in his administration.  Looking back, Olasky’s profoundly “grateful that God exists and Christ’s resurrection is a reality that provides hope as death approaches” (p. 160).  Readable and worth reading!