DISREGARD OR DESPAIR? C.S. LEWIS AND ALASDAIR MACINTYRE ON MODERN THEOLOGY

In typical fashion, Nietzsche unleashed the hammer of his polemic on the stand-in figure of George Eliot: in getting rid of God Eliot had nonetheless clung to Christian morality. Nothing could have disgusted Nietzsche more, and he duly fulminated against all she stood for, however unfairly, in righteous indignation. His sharp criticism, delivered in Twilight of the Idols (1888), consisted of the claim that you could not get rid of God and yet retain Christian morality. To fail to see that they were necessarily interconnected was a failure to discover the sickness from which Europe was suffering. For Nietzsche it is quite clearly all or nothing, even if we might wonder today about whether or not Nietzsche successfully shed his religious skin as fully as he hoped. Nevertheless, the “revaluation of all values,” the project to which Nietzsche returned again and again in his mature work, was precisely the attempt to do what he accused so many of his contemporaries of failing to do. It is why Nietzsche eventually turned on both Schopenhauer and Wagner. In order to breathe the aristocratic mountain air of healthy overmen he insisted that one has to leave “flatland.” The Dionysian doctor offers Zarathustra as the philosophical pharmakon. Continue reading “DISREGARD OR DESPAIR? C.S. LEWIS AND ALASDAIR MACINTYRE ON MODERN THEOLOGY”

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”

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.

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CARICATURES AND THUMBNAILS: STEPHEN GREENBLAT AND CHARLES TAYLOR

A younger, bushy-browed Charles Taylor stands holding a pinhow many angels are dancing on it? A cartoon depiction of this scene accompanied the review of Taylor’s Sources of the Self by Bernard Williams in the New York Review of Books. It is both cheeky and telling. In the review Williams makes clear his appreciation for Taylor’s learning, and for the scope of his narrative, but, in keeping with his usual style, Williams isn’t buying it (see: the “Feuerbach principle”). I don’t really want to comment on Williams’ review of Taylor so much as the image which accompanied it. Continue reading “CARICATURES AND THUMBNAILS: STEPHEN GREENBLAT AND 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”

OUR ETHICAL PUZZLES: READING CHARLES TAYLOR

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 donejust 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 themnot 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”

CONVERSATION AND COMMITMENT: READING JÜRGEN HABERMAS

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”

FAITH AFTER RELIGION: READING RICHARD KEARNEY

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”