“NO RELIGION”

According to the most recent census information, released this past week, nearly 30% of Australians have “no religion.” Understandably, that statistic was front and centre in much of the Australian news. The most recent available information for Canada comes from 2001, in which about 17% of Canadians reported that they had no religious affiliation. In 2001 that number was basically the same for Australia. Presumably Canada can expect similar census results in the near future. Continue reading ““NO RELIGION””

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”

HISTORY, ATHEISM, COMMUNITY

Consider the brief “history” of atheism as outlined in a recent post by a member of an atheist group in Tucson, Arizona (update: the link is now broken). Here history is construed as the presentation of facts across time; to tell the history of atheism quickly all that is required are the names, dates, and arguments of various figures presented in chronological form. Although the post raises questions about the certainty with which we can establish certain historical facts, what we get is a straightforward chronology and a series of minimally interpretive bullet-points. The purpose of the sketch seems to be to trace doubts about the divine throughout the whole of human history. Continue reading “HISTORY, ATHEISM, COMMUNITY”

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”

AN EVANGELICAL MIND: READING MARK NOLL

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”

A GRAND STORY: READING PETE ROLLINS

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”