NEOLIBERAL JESUS: READING JAMES CROSSLEY

Is all history political? In at least one sense, yes. If we take this statement to mean that all history-writing is political, then it is so because historians write from a particular perspective and so their arguments, however critical and objective, still belie a political orientation of some kind. Some scholars think objectivity is possible, others do not, and much depends on how we understand the historian’s methodological process. To me there is no “ideology free” approach to the past, but there is a distinctive set of practices and a community which constitutes critical history, and which distinguishes it from things like communal memory. But I think both critical history and communal memory are political, in a broad Aristotelian sense. When I approach the topic of atheism in early modern Europe, I’ve done so governed by the norms and practices of critical history, but I still do so in ways shaped by an ideological framework that is itself informed by my personal history, by my beliefs, and by my own social, cultural, and political context. Continue reading “NEOLIBERAL JESUS: READING JAMES CROSSLEY”

ATHEISM’S ORIGINS: READING NICK SPENCER

Nick Spencer begins Atheists: The Origin of the Species with a fairy tale. The story he recounts is an abbreviated version of the tale championed in nineteenth-century Europe whereby progress in scientific understanding banishes ignorance and with it the pseudo-knowledge peddled by priests. In other words: progress followed science, and science displaced religion. The trouble with this story is that it contains, at best, a merely partial truth. Any airtight or global connection between scientific progress and secularization has been massively challenged in recent years by a wide range of scholars in many different fields. Continue reading “ATHEISM’S ORIGINS: READING NICK SPENCER”

THE EVANGELICAL IMAGINATION: READING MOLLY WORTHEN

American evangelicalism is anti-intellectual. Such a view has enjoyed fairly wide currency since Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In Apostles of Reason, Molly Worthen attempts to correct this view, but not by rejecting it outright. She shows how American evangelicals have been engaged in a range of intellectual projectsinstitutions, magazines, bible schools, etc.albeit ones often at odds with the prevailing norms of secular academies. Even anti-intellectualism is an intellectual project, then, and Worthen roots this loose program in what she calls the “evangelical imagination.” Three elemental concerns unite evangelicals: how to repair the fracture between spiritual and rational knowledge, how to assure salvation and a true relationship with God, and how to resolve the tension between the demands of personal belief and the constraints of a secularized public square. Continue reading “THE EVANGELICAL IMAGINATION: READING MOLLY WORTHEN”

AUGUSTINE’S MANTLE: CHRISTIANITY AND HISTORY

How do we recognize the hand of providence? All historians have to confront this question in some form. Considered in literary terms providence is a trope, one emplotment of structured explanation amongst many. In the attempt to understand and explain the past historians offer scholarly stories in which evidence is intentionally collected, critically evaluated, and discursively represented. Historians tell contested stories. Continue reading “AUGUSTINE’S MANTLE: CHRISTIANITY AND HISTORY”

FIELD OF PLAY: READING ROBERT BELLAH

Has triumphalism been defeated? That’s a purposefully ambiguous and potentially self-contradictory question. It may be safe to say that it has been seriously challenged, but you don’t have to listen to the news for very long before you hear narratives of political, cultural, or religious triumph aired from New Delhi to New York.

In his magnum opus sociologist Robert Bellah offers a playful yet powerful response to triumphalism. Religion in Human Evolution ends with a consideration of the biological and cultural capacities acquired in human societies up to the Axial Age. These capacities were the result of extended cultural elaboration and accumulation. As stated in the book several times, “Nothing is ever lost.” Continue reading “FIELD OF PLAY: READING ROBERT BELLAH”

OUR FRACTURED AGE: READING CHARLES TAYLOR

Since Sources of the Self Charles Taylor has contended that ours is a fractured world. The world in question is that of the North Atlantic, including Europe and North America. The world in question is also a worldview in that Taylor has examined what he takes to be the trajectory of the moral and mental background of North Atlantic culture over the past 500 years. Varieties of Religion Today suggests that the history of this world can be characterized by a “reform master narrative” and uses William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to flesh this out Continue reading “OUR FRACTURED AGE: READING CHARLES TAYLOR”

LIVING THE STORY OF BELIEF: MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S “GILEAD”

Consider a quote from the The Varieties of Religious Experience: “This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it.” Here William James attempts to describe the varieties of religious experience and in doing so approaches his topic in a way that frames religion in terms that continue to resonate with readers today. Charles Taylor made the same point in Varieties of Religion Today. For James religion is a matter of the heart more than the head. Religious apologetics and theology are not doomed for James because they are irrational, rather they are superstructures, elaborate abstractions derived from a more primordial existential feeling. Continue reading “LIVING THE STORY OF BELIEF: MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S “GILEAD””

CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT: READING ALISTER MCGRATH AND BENNO VAN DEN TOREN

What is the best way of defending the Christian religion today? And do we really need yet another apologia in the form of an intellectual argument? Both Alister McGrath and Benno van den Toren are alert to these questions. Mere Apologetics and Christian Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue make clear that an intellectual defense of the beliefs of the Christian religion divorced from an account of its practice can no longer be sustained as an “answer” for today’s world. And both authors appeal to what they call our current postmodernity as evidence of the need to frame Christian apologetics in a compelling story, one that clearly presents the truth of the Gospel in a sensitive way and addresses the whole person in their own context. While these two books address themselves to all Christians, their confessional viewpoints are not difficult to determine. Both authors are writing from the Protestant perspective, and where McGrath invokes C. S. Lewis and Anglican evangelicalism, van den Toren invokes Karl Barth and the Dutch Reformed tradition. Continue reading “CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT: READING ALISTER MCGRATH AND BENNO VAN DEN TOREN”

THE POLITICS OF SECULARISM: READING CHARLES TAYLOR

I can remember a time when “secular” was a dirty word. Growing up in an evangelical home secular meant, primarily, secular music: the kind of music which was forbidden because it was by, of, and for “the world.” To my well-meaning parents, the secularism of secular music was a slippery slope which might cause me, like Christian of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to get caught up at Vanity Fair instead of proceeding onward in my heaven-bound journey. It took me quite a while before I realized that the word secular had far more than a negative meaning. To judge by the fears expressed on certain North American news outlets, though, there are still many today who see secularism primarily in terms of a subtraction – a perceived hidden agenda which intends to strip Christian believers of their capacity to express their beliefs publicly.

Continue reading “THE POLITICS OF SECULARISM: READING CHARLES TAYLOR”

ATHEISM’S MODERN HISTORY: READING GAVIN HYMAN

“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 Protagorasthe sophist of Plato’s dialoguescould 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”