Socrates Walks into a Wall

This is the first in a 3 part series on the relationship between Socrates and Lutheran theology.


Tell me, Socrates, are you in earnest, or only in jest? For if you are in earnest, and what you say is true, is not the whole of human life turned upside down; and are we not doing, as would appear, in everything the opposite of what we ought to be doing? – Callicles, Plato’s Gorgias, 481

Even though I spend a lot of time reading things that others may find boring (trout taxonomy, comparative Latin and Greek grammar, etc.), there’s one subject for which I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm: philosophy. Admittedly, philosophy is a very broad category, and so more specifically, it’s the philosophical classics that bore me to tears: Aristotle, Kant, Hume, etc. That said, I am 27 episodes into a series of podcasts called The History of Philosophy Without any Gapsa medium that I find more palatable. 27 episodes puts me squarely in the realm of Plato, and it’s gotten me thinking about a question that intrigued no less a Lutheran than Søren Kierkegaard. The question is: What’s the difference between Socrates and Jesus? Now, I’ll come back to that question in the next couple of posts, but for today, I’d like to highlight the one dialogue of Plato that I think every pastor needs to read.

The dialogue is Plato’s Gorgias. And most of it is as boring as his others. But, at line 481, Socrates encounters an opponent that stonewalls him: Callicles. Socrates is trying to convince Callicles that people ought to pursue virtue. Callicles, on the other hand, counters that virtue is simply a convention; might ought to make right. The substance of their argument is food for thought, but even more so, it’s the way that Callicles argues against Socrates ethics that elevates it into the required reading category. Callicles denies all common ground between Socrates’ “virtue” and his “might makes right.” Every time that Socrates tries to get a chain of logic going that will force Callicles into admitting the need for virtue, Callicles bursts it by denying Socrates terms. In the end, Callicles finally grows frustrated and refuses to continue, and so Socrates is left talking to himself (for a long period of time).

The take away for pastors (and Christians in general) is getting rid of the illusion that ethics are A) self-evident and B) founded on logic upon which all people will agree. Callicles shows that Socrates is only persuasive if he can get people to agree with him on foundational principles. But an opponent who denies those principles can’t be corralled. In the same way, pastors need to realize that many of the things that they hold to be moral and ethical “no-brainers” are not founded on self-evident or irrefutably logical principles. Christianity is not simply the best ethical system that all people will agree with once it’s adequately explained. There’s something more going on here. What that something is, I will explore in the next couple of posts.

Beware the Third Peacock on the Left

In his book, Irrational Man, William Barrett referred to theodicy as the great tragicomedy of philosophy. In The Third Peacock, Robert Farrar Capon tackles the subject, with a special emphasis on the comedy.

I am a big fan of Capon’s work (a line from his book Bed and Board gave this blog its name). His wit and his ability to toe the line of absurdity make him a dangerous theologian to tangle with. In The Third Peacock, he takes on the usual attempts to explain evil in the world, and finds each one lacking. In their places, he takes his readers on a theological journey where necessity is replaced by adventure and logic is replaced by love. For those involved in the day to day work of pastoral care, The Third Peacock is worth reading for the way in which Capon’s writing knocks down the tired cliches that tragedy continually drags forth. That’s not to say that Capon provides his readers with an easy one-liner to replace the cliches. Instead, he guides his readers into really thinking about God, His creation, and suffering.

The Third Peacock isn’t only useful to spur thinking on the problem of evil. In fact, the seventh chapter, entitled “The Hat on the Invisible Man,” is pure ecclesiological gold. As a capstone to his argument, Capon lays out one of the best short definitions of the church that I’ve ever read. He slyly rebukes proponents of the church as principally a well-spring of social service and calls for a return to a ministry of Word and Sacrament that takes seriously the reality of Christ’s presence. It’s masterful stuff, and at only 119 pages, it can be read in two or three days. If you’re a pastor, The Third Peacock is ignored at your own peril. If you’re not, it’s enjoyable enough to be read anyways.

Niebuhr’s Notebook

During my time as an intern pastor, I’ve been reading memoirs written by other pastors, in an effort to learn about what has changed in the pastoral ministry and what hasn’t. The first that I’ve read comes form the pen of Reinhold Niebuhr.


In 1929, shortly after moving away from Detroit, Reinhold Niebuhr published Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, excerpts from his journal during his time as a pastor in Detroit. As a piece of history, Niebuhr’s writings are well worth the time, though as a reflection of Niebuhr’s views of the ministry, they are more depressing than anything else.

As a history of Christianity in the 1920’s, Niebuhr’s journal deserves to be read by all pastors. For one, reading Leaves will lead the observant pastor to a Ecclesiastes 1:9 moment. If not for his constant references to “industrialists and Henry Ford,” Niebuhr could have written his book within the last ten years. The concerns of Niebuhr for the working poor and societal inequity have not gone away. His criticisms of fundamentalists and the social gospel are repeated by pastors all the time. On a personal level, the concerns that he voices over pastoral visitation, preaching, and his relation to his parishioners continue to resonate with the pastoral life today. A reading of his book should serve as necessary medicine to both the pastor who longs for the “good ol’ days” and the pastor who thinks that they’ve arrived at something revolutionary.

But, today’s echoes of Niebuhr’s concerns also point to the depressing side of his book. Within the pages of his journal, one can trace the beginnings of the slow decline of mainline Protestantism. Niebuhr’s book points to the fact that mainline Protestantism (and its children, the Social Gospel and the Emerging Church) have been beating the same drum for almost one hundred years now. Thoughts of the intrinsic goodness of humanity, societal reform and the “ethics” of Jesus dominate Niebuhr’s writings. His main concern is to change his parishioners into instruments for social change and to give them a greater social consciousness. Niebuhr’s concerns are repeated over and over in pulpits today; the problem is that Niebuhr had demographics on his side. But even as his church grew, in his moments of clarity, when he describes his conversations with Jewish and socialist leaders, Niebuhr wrestles with the realization that his preaching may render his brand of Christianity superfluous.

Almost a century later, pastors should continue to read Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. As a snapshot of mainline Christianity in the 1920’s, it is informative. As a book of pastoral theology, it’s tired, and ought to be put to bed.



The Funniest Fly Fisherman You’ve Never Heard Of

Because I’m not much of an ice fisherman, the season winds down for me in November and starts back up in May. While I’ll get out during warm spells in January or February, I spend most of the intervening six months prepping: fly-tying, cleaning equipment, and reading. One of the beauties of fly-fishing is that it’s inspired a lot of people (myself included) to put pen to paper. And so, in the dead of winter, there’s always something to read. Sometimes, I’ll read strategy, like Ray Bergman’s Trout, or science like Bob Behnke’s work. But none of them bring me the same enjoyment as reading Ed Zern.

Today, December 13th, is Ed Zern’s birthday. Zern wrote during the heyday of Madison Avenue advertising, and in addition to being vice-president of an ad agency, he wrote for Field and Stream, edited their fishing content and was president of various fly-fishing organizations. He was a successful guy, and most of that was because he was plain funny. His writing is satire at its best, concise and cutting right to the inner contradictions of fly-fishing as a past-time and an obsession. Sadly, time has not been kind to his memory; his books are all out of print and he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia article. But, if you or a fly-fisher you know is in need of a good laugh this winter, hop on Amazon or head down to a used bookstore and search for Zern, Ed. You won’t be disappointed.