Jan Hus (c. 1373–1415) is one of my heroes. He was a Czech religious reformer and a forerunner of the Reformation. He modeled pious intellectuality―under great duress.

At ten years of age, Hus was sent to a monastery. Not long after, he was sent to Prague to study, because he was clearly intelligent. In 1393, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Prague. Three years later, he got a Master’s degree and began to teach at the university. Hus became Dean of the philosophical faculty in 1401 and was designated a candidate for the Doctor’s degree in theology. In 1409, he was elected Rector. He was also ordained as a priest and was well-known for his theological writing and preaching. In addition, he introduced improvements to writing in his native language.

Hus was appointed a preacher at the newly established Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. He taught in Czech, so that listeners could understand. In 1401, he discovered the English Reformer, John Wycliffe, and he was deeply impacted by his theology. Hus translated and distributed his works, even though they were condemned by the Church. Hus embraced Wycliffe’s teaching about the primacy of Scripture. He echoed his criticism of the papacy and his demand for reforms concerning indulgences and clerical corruption.

The religious and social context in the Czech lands was very complex and tumultuous. Political and nationalistic intrigue occurred between the Czechs and Germans. Both wanted to control territory, wealth, and religion. Both struggled to dominate the university. Both curried favor with the Pope(s) and church hierarchy. And both rejected intrusive reform or upheaval brought about by Wycliffe and Hus.

Hus Memorial, Prague

The Catholic church was torn by dissent. During Hus’s lifetime, three Popes vied for supremacy. Each appealed to political, religious, and educational leaders for support. Clerical leadership abused and demeaned the lower clergy. The Church imposed onerous taxationwithin their lands and possessed enormous wealth. Bribes were paid for favors and power. Indulgences were marketed to finance ungodly agendas. Ecclesiastical offices and privileges were sold.

Meanwhile, Hus’s influence grew steadily through his teaching, preaching, and writing. He spoke out against corruption and the use of force by the Church. As a result, he drew the ire of Church leadership. They ordered him to stop preaching and spreading Wycliffe’s heretical ideas. Hus refused and continued his ministry.

When he was pressured to affirm unacceptable doctrines at the university, he declared, “Even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me, I would never accept the recommendations of the theological faculty.” When he was invited to the Council of Constance to defend his views, he said that he would repent―if convinced from the Scriptures.

Though he was promised safe travel the Council, he was betrayed, arrested, and condemned to die at the stake. Before his death, he reportedly prophetically declared about future Reformers, “You may kill a weak goose, but more powerful birds, eagles and falcons, will come after me.” When asked a last time if he would recant, he said, “God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.” As he breathed his last, he prayed, “Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on us!”

Hus taught with intellectual integrity, pastoral empathy, and zeal. He produced instructional materials in Czech for priests and laymen. Výklad víry, for instance, is an “Exposition of the Faith, of the Ten Commandments, and of the Lord’s Prayer.” As you read the following statement from this text, consider how Hus loved God with his mind. He demonstrated that sometimes intellectual piety is costly and dangerous:

Thus, faithful friend, search for the truth, listen to the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, tell the truth, keep the truth, defend the truth until death; for the truth will set your free from sin, from the devil, from the death of soul and from death eternal.

Think, as well, how this admonition applies to us even today.

(For more information about Jan Hus click here.)

My Vision for Anglo-American College (Prague, 2018)

I served as the Interim President of the Anglo-American College (now a university) in Prague, Czech Republic, from November, 1999 to February 2001. AAU is a private, secular university founded in 1991, after the fall of communism. I was a missionary with Global Scholars in Prague from 1995 to 2003. In 2018, I visited the university and delivered these remarks entitled “My Vision for AAU.” Below is an excerpt. This site is dedicated to thinking Christianly, so perhaps these comments to a secular, intellectual audience are interesting and relevant.

Perhaps it is difficult for you to imagine what a pleasure it is for me to be here in Prague again. So many important developments occurred in my life and for my family here.

I taught first in September, 1995 – 1997. I served as President from 1999 – 2001. At this time I became a Founder of the Anglo-American College and the Anglo-American Institute For Liberal Studies. I continue serving on the Founders Board of AAU.

It is a great honor for me to address you today, to share company with people whom I respect, and to share the history of AAU. I hope that I might present a few ideas that could be useful as you develop the long-term trajectory of this school. I will talk briefly about memory and identity.

Institutional Memory
I believe, also, that institutions can forget their past and in this way lose their identity. I have several observations about institutional memory and identity that might be useful as you envision the future. In my thinking my three ideas are interrelated.

The first is the now, old fashioned term, liberal arts or even humanities. There is something intrinsically valuable about learning the past and the ideas of great thinkers. Wisdom from our forbears hinders our pretensions in the present.

I remember joking with my business and humanities students. I told the business students that they had a brain but no heart. I told the humanities students that they were all heart but no brain. Liberal arts, carefully conceived, promote humility and healthy skepticism, a big heart and broad mind.

I have remarked that it would be a shame if AAU produced only soulless technocrats or lifeless bureaucrats or greedy businessmen and women. I am quite serious about this. If AAU produces mostly profit-motivated entrepreneurs, they might advance globalization and their own fortunes, but they might not model integrity or benefit society.

This is why I have urged that programs about social entrepreneurism be established at AAU. I have proposed an annual ethics symposium and required ethics courses in each field. It would be a pity if AAU graduates gain the whole world, but lose their souls.

The second is cultural history, worldview, and religion. When I taught here, I offered courses like comparative religions, comparative worldviews, the Bible as literature, history of Christianity, intellectual history, and business ethics. At that time students were interested in the big questions in life. They were sometimes stunned to learn what the Bible said or what Islam or Hinduism taught, for example. They were amazed to learn about the positive influence of religion in the public square.

At the beginning of a course they would sometimes ask: “Professor, what do you think about this or that”? But, I often said: “What is more important is what you think.” They did not know how to think, but at least they were curious.

Specifically, I think that AAU should encourage Czech and Slovak students to reconnect with their famous Christian forebears, Jan Hus and Jan Amos Komenský. AAU should also urge its European students to re-examine the religious influence upon European culture.

I think, also, that AAU should teach students to think about basic worldview questions, like: Where did I come from? Why I am here? Where I am going? An unexamined life really is not very worthwhile.

The third is dissidence. When I began here, many of my students and their parents had participated in the Velvet Revolution. They were hungry for change and rightfully skeptical of the former controlling narratives. But, is that the same today? Or, are most people no longer thinking at all, except about the next party or short-term pleasure? Are they simply following the story lines laid out for them and playing their part in globalization and consumerism? Is this why AAU exists: to develop this kind of person?

I want AAU to encourage healthy dissidence. I want foreign students to discover Václav Havel, in particular “The Power of the Powerless” and “Letters To Olga.” I want all students to question and push back against the controlling narratives today.

I hope that AAU students resist the trivialization of popular culture promoted so eagerly by consumerism. They should resist the manipulating messages of the consumer matrix: “I shop, therefore I am.” They should resist the distortions produced by social media. They should resist the transforming power of “McWorld,” the unholy alliance of McDonalds and Disneyworld.

I urge AAU to push back against secularization in modern Europe. There is so much to learn from the spiritual and religious legacy of Europe. It is wise to ponder the impact of Christianity and Judaism upon law, human rights, political philosophy, health, the arts, etc.

Back in 1998 I wrote an article about my students for the “New Presence” magazine entitled “My Atheist Students — So-Called.” I found that many atheists and agnostics here embrace a variety of implicit religions. I doubt that this is much different today.

When we lived here, my wife bought me a picture that she felt represents the struggle of religion in this country.  I urge AAU to foster intellectual hospitality that permits students to question the reigning paradigms of naturalism and secularism that squeeze spirituality out of life and the public square.

I do not believe that AAU can or should clone the state educational system’s values, method or message. But, neither should it sell its soul to the highest, foreign bidder. AAU is a distinct, independent entity — almost a verb. We should not forget.

I hope AAU will foster creative dissidence. Promote integrity and social entrepreneurism. Value the liberal arts and encourage students to think about the meaning of life. I suspect, would be education with a difference. This would be AAU.

The Intelligence of Trump Supporters (Guest Blog)

Dr. Elmer J. Thiessen

My wife and I went to Stratford (Canada) for the first time after the pandemic, enjoying a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. During the intermission we couldn’t help overhearing a conversation behind us, comparing Donald Trump to Richard III. Though somewhat sympathetic with this comparison, I was dismayed about what I heard next: “The supporters of Trump must all have very low intelligence.” Fortunately, the performance of the play resumed and the conversation had to end.

There is an arrogance here which is worrisome. We are the intelligent ones, and anyone who supports Trump just doesn’t measure up. This kind of comment also commits the Ad-hominem fallacy. It involves attacking people rather than the views they hold. And where is the evidence for this claim? I’m sure the range of intelligence of Trump’s supporters is roughly the same as that of the population at large. And I happen to know that some of Trump’s supporters even have Ph.D.’s.

This is not at all to say that there isn’t some justification for comparing Trump to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III. Both are the epitome of wicked, ruthless, narcissistic, manipulative, and power-hungry leaders. How can anyone still support Trump when there is growing evidence that he was directly responsible for the insurrection on Capital Hill? So I am not at all a fan of Donald Trump and can’t understand the level of support he still enjoys. But I believe it is a mistake to claim that Trump supporters have low intelligence. What then are some alternative explanations for the division of opinion on Trump and his supporters?

For one, the strong divide between Trump supporters and critics is due to differing interpretations of what he does and what is happening in the U.S.A. Here we need to distinguish between facts and interpretations of facts. Sadly, Trump himself often failed to make this distinction when he talked about “alternative facts.” There can be no alternative facts. Facts just are what they are. But there can be alternative interpretations of facts.

This raises the additional question as to how we can evaluate competing interpretations of facts, or the worldviews that underlie competing interpretations. Evaluating alternate interpretations and worldviews is a complex affair, and I believe most people, including philosophers, have not paid sufficient attention to this epistemological problem. While we can’t resort to simplistic appeals to facts or scientific verification, there are criteria to determine when one interpretation is better than another. For example, we need to ask which interpretation is better able to account for all the facts. Simplicity, elegance and explanatory power are additional criteria.

There is another explanation as to why there is such strong disagreement about Trump and so many other issues. Rather than questioning the level of intelligence of those we disagree with, we need to remember that intelligence can become twisted. Our thinking can be corrupted. The Bible declares that all of us are sinful by nature. Sin also affects our minds. Thus, Jesus talks about eyes that do not see and hearts that don’t understand (John 12:40). Paul talks about thinking becoming futile, and hearts being darkened (Rom 1:21).

Here it is most important to note that this problem of warped thinking applies to all of us. Both the supporters and the critics of Trump suffer from minds that twist the data. Both have a tendency to be biased in looking at the facts. Both are in danger of being closed-minded. Both are prone to intellectual arrogance.

So what is the solution to this epistemic problem which is of course much broader than divided opinions about Donald Trump? It won’t help to engage in more argument. Nor will more education solve the problem. Instead, we need to focus more on the complex problem of evaluating interpretive frameworks. We need a better understanding of what is involved changing one’s worldview.

But ultimately, we need to face the fact of sin which corrupts our thinking. We need conversions of the heart which will lead to conversions of the mind. It is only such conversions that will allow us to cultivate the intellectual virtues which are so necessary in a climate of growing polarizations. We need to be people who genuinely love the truth, who are open-minded, who approach the other with an attitude of intellectual generosity, and who always demonstrate intellectual humility about the convictions they hold.

Four Books About Idolatry

There are many useful books about idolatry, but in this blog I recommend four for your consideration. Each of these books describe the misdriection of mental capacity to unworthy objects and causes.

First, you should begin with Greg Beale’s We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. The book is an examination of the Old and New Testaments concerning what, how, and why idol worship occurs, as well as its impact. Though the title might sound academic, the text is quite readable and interesting. Beale writes:

What do you and I reflect? . . . God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. . . . What people revere, they resemble either for ruin or restoration.

Second, read Jacques Ellul’s The New Demons. The chapter titles tell you what the book is about: Post-Christian Era and Secularization, The Sacred Today, Modern Myths, Secular Religions: Current Religious Attitudes, Secular Religions: Political Religion, and Coda for Christians. His analysis of secular religions and political religion is profound and prophetic. He described two mistakes the church has made:

1) Constantinism: an orientation toward wanting to win over to Christianity the rich, the powerful, the control centers . . . . 2) The cultural mistake: the incorporation into Christianity of all the cultural values. Christianity becomes the receptible for all the civilizations of the past, the establisher of culture and a synthesis of the philosophies.

Third, read Tim Keller’s popular-level book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. The book is a pastoral discourse on the many idols that define popular culture in the West. Keller writes:

An idol is something we cannot live without. We must have it, and therefore it drives us break rules we once honored, to harm others and even ourselves in order to get it. Idols are spiritual addictions that lead to terrible evil.

Lastly, read Christopher Wright’s “Here Are Your Gods”: Faithful Discipleship in Idolatrous Times. The book begins with description of idolatry in the Bible (like Beale, but simpler). The second section is especially relevant: Political Idolatry Then and Now. The third section is God’s People in an Idolatrous World. Wright says, “idolatry is a very important topic in the Bible — much neglected by contemporary evangelical Christians, partly because we ourselves are unconsciously involved with and sometimes dominated by the false gods of the people around us.” He also asks:

Can there be a sustainable future for a civilization and culture that is built on historic violence and bloodshed, that systemically increases poverty and inequality, that sets nation against nation, that corrodes the foundations of marriage and family, that desecrates God’s creation, and that devalues to the point of meaningless the very concept of public truth?