“Yes to God? For many believers, this has not been obvious for a long time. No to God? Neither has this been obvious for a long time to unbelievers.” Hans Küng, Does God Exist?
Atheism has a long and fascinating history. In ancient Greece, as Diogenes Laertius informs us, men such as Diagoras of Melos, Theodorus of Cyrene, and Protagoras—the sophist of Plato’s dialogues—could be described as atheists for statements or actions which implied an impious incredulity. Recent scholarly work, however, immediately qualifies this statement: as the entry for “Atheism” in The Classical Tradition points out, it isn’t clear if these three ancient Greeks were atheists in today’s sense of the term. Arguing about the nature of the gods was unquestionably a staple of ancient thought: in Cicero’s De natura deorum, Diagoras, Theodorus, and Protagoras are mentioned as examples of men who did not seem to believe in the gods. Moreover, coherent theories explaining the origins of the gods were readily available to ancient Greeks and Romans. This included relatively well-known theories such as Euhemerism, the assertion that the gods were little more than heroic men who had been deified. But is such an explanation of the origins of Greek polytheism easily translated into our understanding of atheism? Continue reading “ATHEISM’S MODERN HISTORY: READING GAVIN HYMAN”
Nearly 20 years ago Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a clarion call for evangelical Christians to re-examine their attitude towards the life of the mind. Noll wanted to understand why contemporary evangelicalism seemed to ignore the life of the mind in preference for a more affective faith, and how this fact could be explained historically. In so doing Noll also alerted readers to the sometimes sophisticated intellectual life of evangelicals in the past. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind extends these aspects of the Scandal’s aims by outlining more concretely the resources upon which evangelicals might draw in order to cultivate the life of the mind as an integral part of their faith. Continue reading “AN EVANGELICAL MIND: READING MARK NOLL”
Pete Rollins writes what is basically an engaging form of deconstructionist theology under the aegis of someone who wants to effect practical change in the Christian church. How (Not) to Speak of God, The Fidelity of Betrayal, and The Orthodox Heretic are short, punchy, and demanding works of philosophical theology done within the context of and for practicing Christians today. The crux of the matter, at least for a historian like me, lies in the background story which gives Rollins’ parables, paradoxes, and jokes their meaning and force. And this story is basically the story deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida have put forward, where the history of western philosophy is bedeviled, among a series of other spectres, by the something called the metaphysics of presence. Continue reading “A GRAND STORY: READING PETE ROLLINS”
In The Bible Made Impossible Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith makes an impassioned argument for a move beyond evangelical biblicism and theological liberalism. Biblicism is a package of beliefs and practices about the Bible which emphasize its “exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” The main thrust of Smith’s book is directed towards this package and the fact that evangelical adherence to biblicism has done nothing to prevent or even address what he calls pervasive interpretive pluralism. In other words, biblicists may share their biblicism with one another, but they ignore the fact that they radically disagree about an enormously wide range of beliefs and practices central to the Christian religion. Continue reading “BEYOND BIBLICISM: READING CHRISTIAN SMITH”
Should religion be monitored in our politics through a separation between the public and private sphere? Is such a division even possible? Do liberal constitutional democracies depend on this division? In A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Shape the Common Good Miroslav Volf addresses these and related questions, challenging the idea that religion should retreat or be restricted to the private sphere, diagnosing where religion malfunctions when it does, and outlining what an engaged public faith might look like for and from a Christian perspective. Continue reading “FAITH IN PUBLIC: READING MIROSLAV VOLF”
In his book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? John Fea explores the history of Christian nationalism, the relationship between Christianity and the American Revolution, and the beliefs of several of America’s founders. The most interesting and original part of the book shows that there have always been significant figures in American history, often on opposing sides of the political spectrum, who have said that America was founded as a Christian nation. Fea also provides a conventional account of the American Revolution which highlights the defence of that political action within arguments that he says did not depend on “traditional Christianity.” And he summarizes the beliefs of several prominent American founders like Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and John Witherspoon, who held a range of differing views on the relationship between church and state. Continue reading “THINKING HISTORICALLY ABOUT CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM: READING JOHN FEA”
In 1667 Richard Allestree, a prominent clergymen in the Church of England, wrote a lengthy work entitled The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety. As he surveyed the world around him, he was convinced that England was a country which had, for its sins, experienced the wrath of God’s providential judgment. In 1666 a massive fire had burned down a substantial part of London. Fire was and is a potent symbol; it signified the holiness of God (burning bush, Pentecost) in both its beneficent and judicial forms – God was a consuming fire in more ways than one. For Allestree the solution to the problem was evident, as the rest of his title makes clear: An Impartial Survey of the Ruines of Christian Religion, Undermin’d by unchristian Practice. Continue reading “EVANGELICALISM’S FUTURE: READING DAVID FITCH”
When we face a difficulty or a problem we often attempt to take stock of our situation in order to come to a solution. But taking stock can itself be a complicated process, and there are many ways to disagree about how this ought to be done—just what are the relevant factors? And it isn’t difficult to endow this kind of reflection with an ancient, prestigious lineage: even Aristotle admitted that “all questions are hard to decide with precision” (Nicomachean Ethics IX.2). This rather simple way of characterizing philosophical puzzlement is, I think, an appropriate description of what Charles Taylor has been doing for the duration of his philosophical career; he has repeatedly attempted to make the stakes in any given debate clearer so that a more robust philosophical argument can be made about them—not unlike Aristotle himself. This way of grappling with contemporary problems is on offer once again in his aptly named collection of essays, Dilemmas and Connections. Continue reading “OUR ETHICAL PUZZLES: READING CHARLES TAYLOR”
One of the most important living philosophers has turned his attention to the relationship between faith and reason. In doing so, Jürgen Habermas has continued to fulfill his exemplary role as a public intellectual committed to the practice of reasonable communication as a model for politics. Given what some have called the “return of religion” to the public sphere, Habermas’ contribution is sure to be widely-discussed. It also deserves a wide hearing among North American Christians. Continue reading “CONVERSATION AND COMMITMENT: READING JÜRGEN HABERMAS”
In a world that is being transformed by access to information, it can be hard to appreciate the power of words, to appreciate what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur referred to as the “efficacity of speech.” Moreover, that very abundance can also make listening to the Christian message more difficult for those of us intent on doing so. There are, it seems, an endless array of voices clamoring for our attention.
In a collection of essays entitled History and Truth, Ricoeur uses the phrase “efficacity of speech” to refer to the clarifying role that language, written or spoken, can play in relation to the central themes of our culture. In the same essay he also acknowledges, as a Christian, the central importance of remaining a “listener to the Christian message.” For it is as a listener that the power of words can change the human heart. He calls this “the refulgent core of our preferences and the positions we embrace.” Continue reading “FAITH AFTER RELIGION: READING RICHARD KEARNEY”