Here's a Thought

Home » 2013 » October

Monthly Archives: October 2013

Suggested Sources for Inquiring Atheists and Thinking Christians

In the past decade, I’ve taken a lot of time to read and digest much of the anti-Christian or anti-theist polemic on the market. This has been a very rewarding experience. I have particularly enjoyed John Loftus’ “Why I Became and Atheist” and Daniel Dennett’s very clever “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” More than any books, however, the greatest challenges to my own convictions have come from the many atheist and agnostic pals that have enriched my walk to Zion, if they’ll please pardon my inserting them into my own pilgrim’s progress.

Of course, while nothing replaces face to face conversation, it is worthwhile to lend a hand to the other side and suggest some texts which might help them see why I find the case for Christianity and against agnosticsm or atheism quite convincing. Of course, depending on the particular query at hand, one could recommend a whole bibliography. There are many wonderful works that treat issues like Christian faith and biology, physics, neuroscience, Old Testament morality, Old Testament archeology, the plausibility of certain miracle claims, etc.

However, I present the following resources to any who might be interested as the best attempts to get at “the big picture” within which all the particular debates take place. And, since even this list could be overwhelming, I’ve decided to go with a “book recommendation” tradition and limit the number of suggestions to  5 – though with a preface. To wit…

This may be obvious to some and counter-intuitive to others, but I think the most powerful thing any person considering the Christian faith can do is to read the Bible with an openness to being surprised. Sit down, pray (if you can), and listen. Get rid of all the science and Bible debate. Stop trying to find the “mean” Old Testament versus so that they can be posted on Facebook. Stop giving the “I heard it all in Sunday school and read it when I was a teenager” excuse. I did to, and my grasp of it is far different now. Sit down and read it with new eyes. Maybe you’ll walk away unpersuaded. But you won’t walk away exactly the same if you give it the time. Guides are helpful here. Dillard and Longman’s intro to the Old Testament is quite helpful. Carson and Moo’s intro to the New Testament is similarly helpful. And there are myriads of sources to get at the myriads of particular questions, but sit down and try and grasp the big picture. Why was this written? To whom was it written? What is it trying to say in its own cultural context? Most polemical treatments that are contra-Bible are about as hermeneutically nuanced as anti-Obama FB posts or the usual Fundamentalist treatment of scientific sources. You know the drill: Quote something scary out of context with no sense of the larger picture. Freak out and go on a rant. Feel great that you’re super awesome for not being duped into believing this crap. Have contempt (and let’s be honest, a little gladness) that everyone else is super-dumb for not being as cool as you. Or, for the more sophisticated, you reflect on how “conditioned” or “genetically prone to x” human creatures are (you, of course, being the exception) as an attempt to cloud an oversimplified judgment in artificial nuance. We’ve all done it. But, that’s three shame-on-you’s (and me’s)! Read the Bible. Seriously (!) – and seriously.

Onto the secondary sources list of 5.

1. “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor. More than any book I’ve read, this book puts the modern debate over faith, reason, science, and Scripture into a context which is overwhelmingly illuminating. No other author has grasped (in as nuanced and subtle a fashion) the precise flavor and common environment within which all who are having this debate actually live. And this is true for believers and unbelievers. If you digest Taylor, then your approach to these issues can only be “pre-Taylor” and “post-Taylor.” And what is most fantastic, I think this can only lead to a greater mutual understanding, and the calming of nerves that so rarely accompanies conversations over this topic. Taylor is tough slogging (not a particularly linear writer), but it is well worth your time.

2. “The One and the Many” by W.J. Norris Clarke. Modern man is skeptical of metaphysics, particularly of the Thomistic variety. Well, let a good Thomist push back. Clarke’s book is thrilling and (what is more) well-written. If his case for the rationality of metaphysics does not persuade you, it is unlikely that anyone’s will.

3. “The Last Superstition” by Edward Feser. Feser is sometimes a jerk and he will likely offend you. What is more, I would not be surprised if he was excited to be described in such a manner. But if you can grow some thicker skin, this is good stuff. It is smart and fun. In my judgment, Feser has written the best polemic against the new atheism. The sections on metaphysics, philosophy of mind, the relationship between faith and science, are all wonderful. Take and chill pill and let Feser take his best shots.

4. “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by N.T. Wright. The blazing center of the Christian faith is the event of the resurrection of Jesus in space and time. No other book defends the historicity of this event like Wright, with a sensitivity to all of the theological, philosophical, biblical, and historiographical questions that it entails. You can disagree with Wright,but you can’t dismiss him.

5. “Our Reasonable Faith” by Herman Bavinck. This is a summary of his magisterial “Reformed Dogmatics,” which has also been recently released in an abriged form from its English translation. If not Bavinck, perhaps Horton’s “The Christian Faith” or its abridgement, “Pilgrim Theology.” It is blatantly obvious in most anti-Christian polemic that its critics very rarely perceive the “big picture” of Christian belief and practice (i.e. “the gospel”). Bavinck and Horton are excellent guides for explaining the Christian faith as a whole. How does reality relate to the gospel? How does the gospel relate to the Christian doctrine of God (Trinity), revelation, to the history of the church, to modern issues, etc. Each author is also very sensitive to the manner in which the Christian faith has developed through time (church history) and the manner in which essential Christian claims relate to our modern philosophical, existential, technological, and cultural situation. So take your pick, but you’ve got to see the big picture of Christian belief. Of course, one cannot always fault non-Christians for failing to see this. Many Christians themselves fail to see “the big picture” and instead focus on isolated bits of belief. Still, you’ve got to reject the best presentation of a thing, and here it is.

I could easily recommend more. How could one fail to mention Augustine’s “Confessions,” C.S. Lewis, Aquinas, or (getting dear to my heart) John Frame’s matchless texts on epistemology and the Bible? Alas, this is the problem of limiting one’s self to 5. Of course, these 5 assume a certain audience with certain issues. I cannot help that. I belong to that audience, obviously. In any case, if you want to “get” the Christian faith and explore what makes it persuasive to a modern person, I think the above is a handy guide.


Don’t Put it in Neutral!

In several recent books and articles I’ve read, I’ve noted several invocations of an apparently problematic thing called “neutral” reasoning. Presumably, “neutral” (as opposed to biblical, Christian, confessional, etc) reasoning can lead to all sorts of wrong conclusions. But let us pause for a moment to consider what this qualifier really means with respect to “reasoning.” Traditionally understood, a claim just is reasonable or it is not. An argument is cogent or it is not. From this perspective, the addition of “neutrality” as a qualifier is just a category confusion.

Rather, the object of critique seems to be the neutrality or lack thereof of reasoners (i.e. intelligent persons). The only cogent way to read this qualifier is to say that what is being criticized is a psychological posture of “neutrality” with respect to an object under consideration, presumably with the possibility that such neutrality can give way to commitment by a process of reasoning. And certainly, here, one can criticize many positions of neutrality. We ought not to be “neutral” with respect to many common-sense notions or to the Word of God in Scripture.

The object of critique might also be an implicit assumption that a position of neutrality is impossible with respect to certain (and in some views, any) objects under consideration. But in the relevant sense, this seems preposterous. Surely experience confirms that there are persons who are genuinely willing to consider the claims of the Christian faith even while they remain uncommitted to them. Inasmuch as these truths are evaluated to be good, we can infer that the Holy Spirit is at work in someone’s heart. However, it is even more relevant to note that the above anxiety tends to confuse moral and epistemic neutrality. I have known people who accepted the claims of the Christian faith and self-professedly hated them. This is also the position of the demons and of the great “unbeliever” himself, Satan. And this is not to mention the sad truth concerning Christian hypocrites, who believe certain propositions held forth to them in the gospel, but who do not (in a manner unseen to us) evaluate those truths as “good for them” in a way that constitutes Christian belief. Certainly this sort of epistemic neutrality is rare (given the darkening power of sin over human cognition), but it is not impossible for the unbelieving reasoner. The essential tension between belief and unbelief is moral, not epistemic. The latter is common, but is a more of a common effect of the real essence of sin (which is a matter of will). Indeed, it is precisely here (in the demons, for instance) that we see sin at its darkest – a persuaded mind which willfully fails to evaluate Reality as “good” and good “for me.” That latter bit, so emphasized by Luther, really is the essence of faith – the evaluation of God’s word not just as true (!) – but as good and good “for me.”

But let us imagine that one was “neutral” with respect to these things. What if someone stood at a critical distance from the voice of God and evaluated it by reason operating from a position of “neutrality.” Would reason all of the sudden become a false guide? The answer, if Christianity be true, is that reason would absolutely not be a false guide. It would not be a sufficient guide, to be sure. Many essential Christian doctrines are not derivable from reason, but they are certainly not contrary to reason. Both the universal laws of reason and scandalous particularity of Christian claims simply cannot be in conflict if they participate in a singular Reality. And that, they certainly do.

Of course, qualifications need to be made. This is not to deny that one can start from false premises and come to false conclusions. But here, the failure is not a failure of reason, but a failure of premises – none of which (qua reality) are defensible according to reason. And, it is worth noting again that this does not mean that reason is omni-competent. Reason is a tool and gift, but it is limited. It cannot mislead, but it can be unfit to lead. And finally, it is important to state that there are realities which transcend our capacity to reason. This is not to say that such realities violate reason, but that they just are the sorts of objects which transcend our capacity to reason about. Once again, this is not a violation of reason, but a transcendence over reasoners and reason themselves. There are many examples of the former. Perhaps God alone is an example of the latter.

This point is important to make lest we fail to feel the pressure of reasoning carefully…lest we easily cover a multitude of “reasoning” sins with a rhetorical wave of the hand. In truth, adding adjectives to the word “reason” does not make up for a failure to reason well. And most importantly, if common rules of reasoning and the particular claims of Christianity both participate in the same Reality, then we don’t need to worry about the Boogeyman adjective as though the qualifier “neutral” would give us a sort of reasoning which might mislead. Indeed, we can reduce our opponents’ arguments to failures of reason or to unreasonable premises.The Jesus Christ who entered into our history at a particular place in time is also the one Lord of all creation – with the regularities, laws, and spontaneous symmetries that render it reasonable to the fittingly fashioned human consciousness. And so the jocular injunction is in fact an expression of Christian virtue: “Let’s be reasonable.”