Review: How Reason Can Lead to God

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How Reason Can Lead to GodJoshua Rasmussen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Argues for a “bridge of reason” that leads us to God, based on the foundation of reality.

I’ve never believed that one can prove the existence of God. At the same time, I believe it can be shown that faith in God is reasonable, rather than contrary to reason. I also would acknowledge that some propose that it is reasonable that there is no God. All I’ve ever been able to commend is that the sincere seeker of truth weigh these reasons, and act upon whatever is persuasive to them.

This is a book that lays out a reasonable argument in the form of a “bridge of reason.” The image is important because the author would argue that reason rests upon a foundation and the nature of the foundation both makes sense of our reason and is persuasive of the existence of a God at the foundation or source of all.

First of all, he argues for the self-sufficiency of reality and that this foundation meets nine possible objections. This self-sufficient reality is eternal, that is it never came into existence but is the source of all that exists. The tools of simplicity, explanatory depth, and uniformity point to a “purely actual” foundation that is a unity without gaps or limits. Furthermore, this foundation explains the existence of mind, matter, morals, and math (that is, logic or reason). Indeed, this foundation may be argued to be the perfection of these from which all derives, and hence a perfect foundation.

Rasmussen then considers problems with this foundational theory. The greatest, as in almost every argument for the existence of God is the existence of evil. Here, he argues for the possibility of God having good reasons for the existence of evil, particularly as a result of the creation of “kingly creatures” able to govern their own lives with the possibility of ruling badly. He devotes a chapter to this objection, and then an additional chapter to eight other objections.

He finally pulls all of this together through an argument from limits that points to the existence of perfection. He states:

Here is an idea: perfection–by the light of its simplicity and positivity–points to its own possibility (i.e. consistency). Something cool follows: by the logic of possibility, perfection must be instantiated. In this way, perfection points by its own nature, to its instantiation.

He works out this argument step by step in more or less non-technical but closely reasoned language. A person with training in logic will especially appreciate Rasmussen’s presentation, and perhaps also pick it apart! Certainly those who question the existence of reality, or our capacity to perceive reality beyond ourselves would have difficulty with his argument. However, I suspect they also have trouble with existence, because they act as if other minds, and other objects exist.

I am not a philosopher but it seems to me that he does something fairly novel. His is neither a cosmological or ontological argument for the existence of God. It is something like a Cartesian argument from reason, yet focuses on the foundation of existence that our capacity for reason is based upon.

One question I had was around his argument for the self-existence of the “blob of reality” at the foundation of all. I’m not quite sure of how Rasmussen distinguishes God and created reality. It seemed at least possible that his argument could give warrant for panentheism, the idea that all is in God, an idea not considered within orthodoxy by many Christians.

Rasmussen does not contend for this and I think he does a service both for skeptics, and for apologists in proposing yet another line of reasoning rooted in reason itself and our common experience, for the reality of God. I’ll be interested to see how his ideas are received among philosophers, and how he continues to develop his “bridge of reason.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Cultural Apologetics

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Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted WorldPaul M. Gould, foreword by J. P. Moreland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.

Summary: Contends that in our disenchanted post-modern world, the apologist needs to engage in a culturally aware apologetic that appeals to goodness, truth, and beauty.

One thing anyone engaged in Christian witness for any length of time in a western cultural setting will tell you is that the landscape has changed. While the message of the gospel has not changed, the culture in which the message is shared has. Paul Gould’s one word description of that change is “disenchantment.” From a world shot through with the presence and majesty of God, the embrace of materialism and naturalism as all-encompassing accounts of the world results in a sense of the absence and irrelevance of God, and a culture that is sensate, focused on the physical senses, and hedonistic, focused on our desires. I found this intriguing, particularly considering the growing fascination with dystopian apocalypses, and conversely,  with fantasy and alternate worlds, that might suggest a longing for re-enchantment or despair of its possibility.

Gould contends that in this context, there is still a place for apologetics, but not that of past generations, focused exclusively on rational evidences, although these still have a place in Gould’s proposal. Gould contends for what he calls as cultural apologetics. By this, he means the “work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying (italics in text).”

The author believes that a cultural apologetic that does this appeals to a universal longing for truth, goodness, and beauty. It is an apologetic that appeals to the longing of truth through reason (voice), that appeals to the longing of goodness through conscience, and that appeals to the longing for beauty through the imagination. The aim of this to foster the awakening of desire (satisfying) and a return to reality (truth) that constitutes a “re-enchantment” eventuating in the decision to trust and follow Christ.

Gould focuses a chapter each on imagination, reason, and conscience, employing C.S. Lewis’s approach of both “looking at,” and “looking along,” the latter considering the reality to which truth, goodness, and beauty point. The chapter on imagination draws upon Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care (reviewed here), that makes the case for how beauty may open the hearts of people to faith, exemplified in Masaaki Suzuki’s recognition that the music of Bach is a kind of “fifth gospel” that has led to interest in or the embrace of Christianity among many Japanese. The chapter on reason contends there is a case to be made for recovering the lost art of persuasion and sounds at first glance the most conventional of the three. However, Gould moves beyond classic arguments to appeal to the plausibility structures and sacred cores of one’s hearers. The appeal to conscience addresses the longings for goodness, wholeness, justice, and significance and seeks to demonstrate in practice and examples how Christianity has made the world a better place and why that is so.

Addressing barriers to belief is an important part of this approach. It includes the internal barriers of anti-intellectualism, fragmentation, and unbaptized imagination within the Christian community. It also involves the external barriers of the belief that science disproves God, that objects to the exclusivity of Jesus, that believes God is not good, and considers the ethic of the Bible archaic, repressive, and unloving. Gould offers brief responses to each of these barriers and then describes the “journey home” from initial enchantment through disenchantment to re-enchantment as we join the “dance of God.”

One of the things I appreciated about this work amid the strains of anti-intellectualism in significant swaths of evangelicalism was the affirmation of intellectual leadership. He writes, “If we are to be strategic in our cultural apologetic, we must work to cultivate Christian leadership and a Christian presence within the halls of the academy. The perceived reasonableness and desirability of Christianity depends upon how effectively we accomplish this task” (p. 143).

I also appreciate the integrated appeal to goodness, truth, and beauty. It seems that we often prefer one of these to the inclusion. If reasoning about truth alone is not helpful, abandon it for beauty or goodness. Gould recognizes that to be human means we long for all three. Also, the posture of culture care, as opposed to culture clash assumes that people are drawn by desire rather than overcome by arguments.

Finally, Gould reframes rather than retreats from the apologetic task. It seems to me that this is vital in an age where many are not merely indifferent to Christianity but vigorously opposed, and willing to make a case against the Christian faith. He reframes apologetics in a way that challenges the church to live into its heritage: to abandon trivial banality for a rich artistic imagination, to abandon a slovenly anti-intellectualism for vibrant intellectual engagement, and to abandon moral compromise for a fragrant goodness. It seems to me this would be good both for the church and the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Faith in the Shadows

Faith in the Shadows

Faith in the ShadowsAustin Fischer (Foreword by Brian Zahnd). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Explores how one may live a life of faith in Christ in the midst of doubts and questions.

Austin Fischer was a pastor who struggled with doubts and feared they might lead him to abandon his faith. Then he came to this pivotal realization:

“People don’t abandon faith because they have doubts. People abandon faith because they think they’re not allowed to have doubts.”

In this book, Fischer explores how it is possible to be a Christian for whom doubt is the path to a deeper and more honest faith. He begins with the mistaken notion that faith requires certainty, and the misbegotten quests for the proof that answers every question and defenses of hyper-literal readings of the Bible. So many who go down that road leave the faith when certainty fails them. Instead, Fischer invites us to be “ants on a rollercoaster” who throw up their hands “in equal portions of terror, bliss, and surrender.”

He observes how Job teaches us to doubt by telling God the truth about our doubts. In the end, he was commended by God as speaking rightly of him. Fischer writes of evil, not as a problem, but as a crisis, and of a God who is there on the gallows who fights back against evil. He writes of Jesus who forgives sin, heals disease, casts out evil, and conquers death. Rather than starting from sovereignty and the glory of God that makes evil a problem, he begins from the freedom God gives and the love of God, that bids us resist evil. He explores the times when God is silent, and offers no easy answers but simply waiting, with the hope that Christ waits with us.

He then turns to a trenchant critique of fundamentalism, drawing heavily on Mark Noll’s work in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind about the intellectual retrenchment and rigid ways of reading scripture that developed. He argues this simply gave people more ways to lose their faith. He explores the challenges science has posed, particularly when it dismisses the idea of God, moving from a method to a metaphysic. He argues that the real place where people often have the most problem is with stuff–affluence that gives us the luxury to consider God superfluous, in a way rare among the poor.

He deals with hell, in which he agrees with a congregant that he believes in hell, but is not happy with it. He explores the idea that the love of God is wrath to those who hate God and heaven is hell to them. Paraphrasing Barth, he claims that “anyone who does not hope for universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass.” Ultimately, Fischer argues for the priority of the way of love in dealing with our doubts, that our love for the beauty of Jesus means “we would rather be wrong about him than right about anything else” and living in curious wonder rather than certainty.

There is so much that seems right about this book (perhaps because Fischer agrees with my own way of thinking in so many ways!). Working among graduate students and faculty, I’m surprised how many that are resistant to Christian faith came from very fundamentalist backgrounds and concluded that because they could not attain the certainty required, that they could not be Christians. I’ve witnessed the incredible relief of students when it was affirmed to them that they could doubt and still be Christians and that doubt didn’t preclude faith, especially when one believed enough to voice one’s doubts to God. I also prefer the approaches of resisting evil to debating it as a problem, and proclaiming the gospel rather than speculating whether all will be saved in the end.

Most of all, I loved the insight that faith is not the absence of doubt but the presence of love. It tracks with my own experience of watching doubting folks remain in community, continuing to care for each other, continuing to learn with each other from scripture, praying with and for each other, and moving to a deeper place of faith.

This book is classified as an apologetics book. It is, but not the sort you would expect. It doesn’t give answers that “demand a verdict” even though it explores some of the toughest questions Christians face. It offers instead reasons for hope in Christ in the midst of a messy world, and ways to live one’s faith when God is silent and doubts impose. For most of us, this may be the most necessary apologetic of all.

Review: An Introduction to Christian Worldview

an introduction to christian worldview

An Introduction to Christian WorldviewTawa J. Anderson, W. Michael Clark, and David K. Naugle. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A work designed for classroom or personal study, defining the idea of worldview and its importance, delineating the Christian worldview and responding to critical objections, and outlining and critiquing other major worldviews according to criteria established in the first part of the book.

I was first introduced to the idea of worldview in the summer of 1974 during my collegiate years. I heard an early presentation of the ideas that would form the core of James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door (now in its fifth edition). These gave me a critical tool as a student studying in a public university. Sire’s seven basic worldview questions helped me read critically the different texts of my courses and discern the different ways of seeing and engaging the world reflected in those texts. Not only that, I found I could apply these ideas as I watched films, or advertising, or engaged with different-believing friends. Worldview helped me understand why people would talk past each other on issues like abortion or sexual ethics. As you can see, “thinking worldviewishly” was, and still is, a powerful tool in my “intellectual workshop.”

This new work, designed to serve as a textbook for a college-level course on Christian worldview, builds on the work of Sire and others. It is organized in three parts. The first introduces the whole subject of worldview, dealing with definitions and what the authors consider the four major worldview questions that are important to answer:

  1. What is our nature?
  2. What is our world?
  3. What is our problem?
  4. What is our end?

The authors go on to discuss how worldview operates in our lives. They discuss confirmation bias, experiential accommodation, and how worldview shapes our pool of live options. They note circumstances under which we adjust our worldview or even convert, noting that this is more likely when our worldview assumptions are unexamined, which leads to a discussion of the benefits and pitfalls of worldview study. The final chapter in this part focuses on the critical work of worldview analysis–how worldviews hold up under scrutiny. Three criteria are developed:

  1. Internal consistency: logical coherence.
  2. External consistency: evidential correspondence.
  3. Existential consistency: pragmatic satisfaction.

These criteria are then applied to analysis of both the Christian worldview and the other major worldviews discussed in the book.

Part two focuses on the Christian worldview. First it is considered narratively around the story of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification, with a preliminary discussion of revelation. Then, using the four worldview discussion questions noted above, Christianity is discussed propositionally. One thing I noted, which may be a defect of the four question schema, is that significant space under “what is our nature?” is devoted to God’s nature. Certainly this is necessary to understand our nature, but it suggests that a prior question, like Sire’s “What is prime reality–the really real?” may be an important one to ask. I found this so with the other worldviews as well. The third chapter in this part then uses the three criteria of worldview analysis to critique Christian belief. Numerous possible objections are considered, particularly that of the problem of evil, and responses are given.

Part three then considers western and global alternatives in two chapters with a propositional description of each worldview using the four worldview questions followed by use of the three analytic criteria on each worldview. The western worldviews considered are deism, naturalism, and postmodernism, and the global alternatives are Hinduism and Islam. It was striking to me that 125 pages are devoted to the Christian worldview, and less than 100 to the other five considered in this book. Far more space was spent both in outlining the Christian faith, and responding to possible critiques. It might have been interesting to have a response from proponents of these other worldviews to the critiques of those worldviews, as was the case in the objections raised to the Christian worldview. That would “keep it real.” Space limitations may have come into play and the authors may have deemed it more important that Christians be able to understand and defend their own worldview.

The conclusion challenges people to embrace a consistently Christian worldview, rejecting various “worldlyviews”:  scientism, hedonism, consumerism, blameism, apatheism, dogmatism, universalism, functional atheism, and conformism. This list acknowledges the growing realization that worldviews, as they discuss in the beginning, are not mere matters of propositions but also the orientation (conscious or not) of the heart.

This work incorporates several elements that make it particularly useful as a text. Sections conclude with reflection questions on what one has read. The end of each chapter includes as “mastering the material” section identifying key learning objectives for the chapter, a glossary of terms possible term paper topics from the chapter, and a core bibliography for the chapter. The text includes occasional sidebars illustrating concepts from film or contemporary culture.

This work is clearly designed as a text for a “worldview academy” or Christian college course on worldview. I think it could also be used individually or in a collegiate ministry or adult education context. It is a valuable work in helping students identify the “unexamined,” both in terms of Christian faith, and other worldview assumptions and heart orientations intermixed with these. While I would add a question on prime reality, the four questions and three analytic criteria are clear and memorable. For those who would teach or lead courses, I hope either written materials or live representatives of other worldviews might engage the critiques of those worldviews in this book. This happens all the time in graduate student education, and the Christian student will be better prepared for this eventuality if they are exposed to it as undergraduates.

Consciously examining one’s worldview, learning to think critically about worldviews, and think Christianly, and bringing Christian assumptions to all of life have been a powerful influence in my own life. A resource like this, far more systematic than my initial exposure to these ideas (a talk drawing on a seminar Sire had given before his book was first published) can’t help but equip students to think rigorously about these matters. Hopefully this will bear much fruit in discerning reading, viewing, and acting, and in engaging the views of others.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Our Deepest Desires

Our Deepest Desires

Our Deepest DesiresGregory E. Ganssle. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Makes the case that Christian faith, truly understood, is most congruent with our deepest human longings.

Gregory Ganssle believes that one of the most important questions we can ask is “what sort of person should I be?” and two other related questions: 1) what sort of person do I want to be? and 2) what sort of person am I becoming? These get at our deepest desires and commitments, the vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful toward which we aspire to live. In this book, Ganssle makes the argument that some of the basic human longings common to many of us are most congruent with the Christian faith. It is not that those who are not Christians, and Ganssle especially has atheists in mind, cannot embrace and pursue these longings. He argues that in fact they do, despite the fact that these longings are often dissonant with an atheist or materialist worldview, whereas they are consonant with a Christian worldview. He does not argue that this shows that Christian faith is true or that this “proves” Christian faith, but only that Christian faith is consistent with our deepest longings. He says, “There are many people who think that Christianity is false; I want to help people see that they really want the gospel to be true.”

Ganssle looks at four types of longings that he believes are consonant with the Christian story. The first is our value of persons and longing for relationship, that he sees grounded in a God who is personal and relational, the triune God, whose relationships are marked by submission and self-giving. The second is what might be called the problem of goodness, that we want goodness, even when we are faced with evil, that goodness seems somehow primary, that we want to be thought of as good, and and that goodness is good for us. The gospel is a story that grounds goodness in God, that accounts for our rebellion against it, and enables us to be what we long for.

We also long for and are drawn to beauty. We have a deep impulse to create things of beauty, that mirror the Creator. We long for beauties beyond what this earth offers in ways that suggest we are made for another world. And finally, we long for freedom, to live consistently with our sense of our best self, and the gospel proposes we are set free by truth, by a truth-shaped life, and enabled to live freely in the face of death because of hope. Ganssle concludes by proposing that if this case seems to make sense of our longings, then the next step is to determine whether the Christian faith is true.

What I like about this is approach is that he explores aspirations that are common to most or all of us. He raises what is a genuinely important question–how do we explain these aspirations? Are they just an artifact of our evolution and can they be explained in purely material terms? While he proposes that Christian faith is the best explanation, he recognizes that some may conclude differently and that each must decide what makes the best sense of our longings for love, goodness, beauty, and freedom.

His book poses a challenge for Christians as well. Does the kind of people we are becoming reflect the loving, good, beautiful, and liberating story we proclaim. Do we value people above programs–all people? Do we love goodness so passionately we pursue justice where it is lacking? Are our communities places that both celebrate beauty and evidence our hope in the beauty of the new creation? Are we consciously working to undo the personal and systemic evils that bind and limit people? In short, are we story-shaped people who find the fulfillment of our deepest longings in the story we proclaim? That, it seems to me, may be our most powerful apologetic.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Paradoxology

Paradoxology

ParadoxologyKrish Kandiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Argues that the seeming contradictions that leave many questioning the truth of Christianity are actually the points where Christian faith comes alive and addresses the depths and complexities of our lives.

My hunch is that many of us are looking for an “easy” button when it comes to matters of faith. I’ve heard people say, “just give me the simple truth, the simple gospel.” In one sense, they have a point. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) is indeed simple enough that I understood and believed it as a child.

Yet on a closer look, even this familiar verse is not so simple. God has a Son, appearing both one and more than one. Are God and Son equal, and if so what does it mean that one is begotten? God loves the world but doesn’t seem to treat his son very well. God loves the world, and yet the idea is out there that some may perish who don’t believe.

These and many other questions and seeming contradictions arise as we read the pages of scripture, and I suspect you can easily add to the questions I’ve noted, which are drawn from just one verse. For some, these have been sufficient grounds to dismiss Christianity altogether. Others mouth pat answers they were taught in Sunday school, such as “God works in mysterious ways.” Some of us just try not and think about these things at all.

Krish Kandiah takes a different approach. He honestly admits these apparent contradictions, or paradoxes, and contends that it is in the wrestling with these, that we discover a faith deep and wide and full enough to take in the complexities and contradictions that in fact are the stuff of life. He does so through a survey of thirteen paradoxes that we encounter in the pages of scripture. The chapters are as follows:

    Introduction
1. The Abraham Paradox: The God who needs nothing but asks for everything
2. The Moses Paradox: The God who is far away, so close
3. The Joshua Paradox: The God who is terribly compassionate
4. The Job Paradox: The God who is actively inactive
5. The Hosea Paradox: The God who is faithful to the unfaithful
6. The Habakkuk Paradox: The God who is consistently unpredictable
7. The Jonah Paradox: The God who is indiscriminately selective
8. The Esther Paradox: The God who speaks silently
9. The Jesus Paradox: The God who is divinely human
10. The Judas Paradox: The God who determines our free will
11. The Cross Paradox: The God who wins as he loses
12. The Roman Paradox: The God who is effectively ineffective
13. The Corinthian Paradox: The God who fails to disappoint
Epilogue: Living with Paradox

He begins with one of the narratives I have always wrestled with, the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. He explores this thoughtfully and from many angles, acknowledging the difficulties in this passage, looking at what reasoning faith must look like for Abraham, and the larger purposes of the God who will give his only Son in this same place, in fulfillment of the promises he has made to Abraham. His answers are not easy ones, but plausible, and mirror ones I’ve come to in a life of wrestling with this passage.

I will not attempt to summarize each of the chapters. He deals with Job, and God’s “active inactivity.” He explores the ultimate paradox of God incarnate, how Jesus could be both fully God and human, and the challenging case of Judas, and the paradox of choice and determinism. I found his discussion of Jonah fascinating as he explored the paradox of God as both indiscriminate and selective. He summarizes his discussion of Jonah and God’s care for the Ninevites as follows:

“The Jonah Paradox teaches that God is both highly selective and simultaneously indiscriminate with his love. In his desire that everyone is given opportunity to come to him, to love him and to love his people, God set up a chain reaction — one that falters or stutters at times, but carries on regardless, all down the centuries. Starting with Israel, he sent his people into the world to share in word and deed the good news of his grace and forgiveness, the gift of his Holy Spirit and the challenge of his coming kingdom. Sadly, time and again the chain is broken because of our indifference, hoarding of grace, fear or laziness. When we hold back we betray our God-given identity as ambassadors, prophets, light, salt, stewards, trustees, and co-workers with Christ. But as we have seen from Jonah, God is not held captive by our unwillingness to join in his mission. We are to have confidence in a God who will not be ultimately frustrated from offering his grace to a dying world by the inactivity of us, his church. But we will have lost the opportunity to join God’s family business of bringing reconciliation” (pp. 179-180).

I appreciated his chapters on Romans and Corinthians and the exploration of why both individually and collectively, we fail to live up to the ideals of holiness and love of the gospels. A former pastor, speaking generically, used to like to say, “the best of men are men at best” (a quote variously attributed to General John Lambert, A. W. Pink, and J. C. Ryle, with Lambert’s being the earliest instance). Kandiah makes a similar point that we are still in process between the “already” and the “not yet” of our calling, and are unfinished works.

He concludes with the idea that no book about paradoxes will resolve these paradoxes for us, but only give plausible explanations. These may only be understood as we live into them, which no book can do for us. He reminds us that what all these paradoxes have to do with is a relationship between us and God, and should we wonder that if human relationships are complex, that this one is even more? What Kandiah’s book does is offer hope that the embrace of paradox is a path to be preferred to suppression or suspicion, opening our lives up to a reality that is richer and fuller, rather than narrower and smaller.

 

Review: The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain

The Problem of PainC. S. Lewis. New York: Harper Collins, 2015 (originally published 1940).

Summary: Lewis’s classic work exploring the existence of suffering and pain and how this is possible in a world made and sustained by a good and omnipotent God.

There is some sense a reviewer has when reviewing books like this to feel the mere “poser” and to be simply tempted to say, “read Lewis!” But that would be a very short review! So what I might do is simply suggest a few reasons why we might read Lewis on this subject.

One is that while the experience of suffering, even as Lewis acknowledges, requires of us fortitude when we ourselves face it and supportive sympathy when we walk along side friends in the midst of this, there are other times when we must take the larger view and ask “why pain and suffering?” And here, Lewis begins to help us because he observes that this is alike a question for the theist and the materialist. Particularly as we witness both the ravages of disease and the inhumanity of people against each other, it seems that this is a monstrous assault on our sense of the good. The fact that the central figure of Christianity suffered at the hand of evil himself is not in itself an answer to this question but only poses another–why this death?

Some of what Lewis does that is quite helpful is define terms. Omnipotence does not mean that God is able to do what is impossible because of who he is or what he has decreed, to do. For God to be good does not require that he make us happy. We must at least allow that suffering may not be contrary to a God who loves us and seeks our ultimate good.

He also helps us take a hard, and uncomfortable look at human wickedness, in itself, the source of much suffering and pain. We are fallen creatures, not simply by the fault of another but by our own active perversity.  We often minimize the “crooked timber” of our own lives even as we displace the focus onto God.  Pain, at least has the function of shattering our illusions that all is well, and we are sufficient in ourselves. It also calls us into the belief that holds onto God when there is no benefit in doing so.

He takes on the idea of hell, and perhaps most helpfully says that his aim is not to make the doctrine tolerable, for it is not, but to show that it may be moral, despite the objections raised. He observes that most of us do want to see retributive punishment and that we would find great offense in God forgiving one who remains unrepentant in great wickedness. He notes that eternal may be something different than an endlessly prolonged time. He also cautions against literal interpretations of vivid imagery.

His final chapters consider the question of animal pain and heaven. On animal pain, he cautions that there is much that we do not know about this, nor for that matter the ultimate destiny of animals. On heaven, Lewis observes that whereas hell is privation, heaven is the fulfillment of those deepest longings that we reach for and never quite grasp, that filling of a place in us that nothing has ever filled that being in the presence of God at last fills utterly and beyond measure.

The group with which I discussed this book had one quibble with Lewis. He states that when we reach the maximum of pain, the pain of another does not add to the sum total of the pain. While this may be true at a physical level, we did wonder about the emotional pain we experience when we witness the sufferings to others, particularly those inflicted by human cruelty. It also raises a question about the suffering of Christ. Was the pain he experienced as sin-bearer of humanity (if we believe this) any greater than bearing the sins of just one person? There was something in the way Lewis framed this that was unsatisfying, even if logically true.

This summer, the group I mentioned will probably be reading A Grief Observed, where all of Lewis’s ideas are tested in the crucible of the loss of his wife Joy. It will be interesting to see if this changed his thinking in any way, or to what extent his ideas helped him. Stay tuned!

Review: Jesus Behaving Badly

Jesus Behaving Badly

Jesus Behaving BadlyMark L. Strauss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Explores some of the disturbing acts and statements of Jesus, that actually reveal his counter-cultural message and mission.

A number of years ago I was leading a Bible discussion with a group of students on Mark 7:25-30, where a Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to drive a demon out of her daughter. He answers her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). A student in the group commented, “I understood everything that was going on until Jesus opened his mouth.”

I suspect he wasn’t the first person to read the gospels and, and instead of finding “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” discovered challenging Jesus, disturbing and troubling. Mark L. Strauss has written this book for those who don’t find everything they encounter in reading the gospels easy to swallow and wonder how a person could possibly give their ultimate allegiance to a Jesus who says and does such disturbing things.

The instance I cite is just one of those Strauss explores in chapters that explore whether or not Jesus spoke in revolutionary or pacifist terms, was loving or angry, a scorched earth prophet cursing fig trees and killing a herd of pigs. Was he a works-oriented legalist demanding the rich sell all to attain heaven, a hell fire preacher (Jesus says more about hell than anyone in the Bible), an anti-family crusader who speaks of hating one’s parents, a racist (as in the passage above), a sexist, and an anti-Semite? In the end was he a deluded prophet of the end time who ended up a decaying corpse?

Strauss goes behind the scenes as it were, and explains the background and intent of some of Jesus most puzzling acts. He doesn’t “explain away” these things, but rather brings out the radical implications of who this Jesus is. While offering various ideas about hell that Christians affirm, he upholds the idea that God won’t just ignore evil and leave it unpunished. He points out that his word to the Syrophoenician woman was the diminutive of dog, softening the insult, yet provoking the woman to answer him in kind, and win, not only the argument (the only one who ever did and a woman at that!) but Jesus’ commendation and the deliverance of her daughter. He offers plausible interpretations of the end times sayings that demonstrate that Jesus did not get it wrong, and good reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

The book is a great one to give to the skeptic or seeking person or even the believer who is troubled by these things. Strauss’s discussions reveal a considerable background in biblical scholarship (he is a professor of New Testament) and yet very readable and easily understood.  Here is a sample, in his discussion of Jesus harsh words and conflicts with the religious leaders:

    “It becomes clear in this context why Jesus responded in such a forceful manner. He believed that his coming was the center point in human history, the climax of God’s plan of salvation. There was no plan B. His mission was to call Israel to repentance and faith in preparation for the kingdom of God. Anyone who opposed this message stood in defiance of God. Jesus said, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30//Lk 11:23). When the leaders of Israel rejected Jesus, he had no choice but to reject their authority and to publicly denounce them. He calls them ‘blind guides’ because, from his perspective, that is what they were. They were leading God’s people astray and missing out on God’s plan of salvation–the climax of human history.”

Strauss puts this out to his readers both forthrightly and yet gives them space to consider for themselves whether he has made his case. He acknowledges that not all will buy it, which I think for many is winsome. He deals with liberal scholars like Albert Schweitzer, and debunking critics like Bart Ehrman, whose work and television appearances may have swayed some.

The book includes a study guide which can be useful for both individuals and groups discussing the book. The season leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday sometimes leads to discussions about the significance of Christ. This is a timely book to make sense of a Jesus, who, as Rebecca Pippert describes him in Out of the Saltshakercould be both “delightful and disturbing.”

Review: Fool’s Talk

Fool's Talk

Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Guinness argues for the recovery of the lost art of persuasion that combines good apologetic work with evangelism and is aware of the many people Christians address who are not open to their message.

This is a book that Os Guinness has been preparing for a lifetime to write. Throughout his life, Guinness has been presenting the Christian faith in the public square, not only with the interested but also those who are not, those who would oppose or are disinterested in the Christian message and worldview. The book reflects a summation of the lessons he has learned and his urgent sense that the pressing need for Christian witness today is a recovery of the lost art of Christian persuasion. We know how to proclaim and we know how to protest. But do we know how to persuade those with whom we differ, engaging both minds and hearts?

He contends that often we settle for mere technique, whether that be “canned” evangelistic presentations, or “canned” arguments for the faith. This often is not enough because such approaches assume the interest of the person with whom we engage. Yet to persist in the work of persuading is urgent for those who love God because our enemy seeks to rob God of glory either by questioning his existence or by impugning God with the blame for humanity’s problems.

He argues that we take the approach used by Erasmus in The Praise of Folly, becoming the “holy fool” a kind of court jester representing the kingdom of heaven pointing out the follies of unbelief, and perhaps at times following the holiest fool of all, the Lord Jesus. [Having read and reviewed this biography of Erasmus recently, my interest is piqued to read In Praise of Folly!] He then plunges into considering the anatomy of unbelief, and how often it is ultimately not simply an intellectual incapacity to believe, but a heart-driven unwillingness to believe because of what this would mean for one’s life.

This calls for different forms of persuasion depending on the person. It may mean the turning of tables on them, pressing them to the ultimate conclusions of their beliefs (for example, “relativizing the relativizers”), if they are a person who prides themselves on consistency. For others, less consistent, it may be exploring the disturbing “signals of transcendence” that point to a reality other than can be explained by their worldview. The challenge is bringing a person to a place of facing the inadequacy of the belief they’ve embraced to be willing to consider something different.

The latter chapters consist of several warnings for the advocate of Christian faith. One is the “know-it-all” attitude that is not characterized by a humility before truth. Another is hypocrisy in one’s life where one’s claims and one’s character fail to match up. And finally, he warns of the ways we may betray the faith. The four step process of embracing an assumption of modern life as superior, abandoning all that does not square with this, adapting whatever faith is left around this, and finally assimilating into the culture. What Guinness points out is the danger in our efforts to engage with the culture, that if we are not clear on what must be central and unchanging, that we will make fatal compromises.

Perhaps the most significant idea here, and one worth further development, is this idea of the “holy fool.” As Guinness observes, there have been some, like Erasmus, G.K. Chesterton, Pascal, Muggeridge, and Lewis, who with wit, humor, and incisive argument point out the weaknesses and follies of others while commending by persuasion and a kind of winsome humility the transforming nature of Christian faith. Such an approach takes both truth and people seriously, engaging heart and mind, not with canned approaches or sterile arguments, but warm-hearted persuasion that gives people reasons for heart, soul, mind and strength to love God more than all else.

One might ask, “where is God in all this?”, and at points this seems like a book on the Christian rhetorician’s art, and this alone is all that is needed. What Guinness reminds us of, is that while the Christian communicator always is dependent of the work of God in those with whom they communicate, the person may often only become aware of this as they come to the place of commitment. He writes, and with this I’ll conclude:

     “Intriguingly, this fourth stage of the journey is often when God’s presence becomes plain for the first time. The wholehearted step of faith of the new believer is far more than simply his or her own step. At one moment a seeker making her commitment knows as she has never known anything before that she is more responsible for the step of faith than for any other choice in life, and that she has never been more fully herself than in taking it. But the next moment she knows too that the One she thought was the goal was all along the guide as well. She knows that she has not so much found God as that God has found her. All the time the seeker thought she was seeking, but actually she was being sought, for God can only be known with the help of God. ‘The hound of heaven,’ as the poet Francis Thompson called God, has tracked the seeker down” (p. 248).

 

 

Review: Grand Central Question

Grand Central QuestionGrand Central Question, Abdu H. Murray. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Every worldview addresses the fundamental “why” questions of human existence and the author contends that the worldviews of secular humanism, pantheism, and Islam each have a “grand central question” and that the grand central questions posed by these worldviews find their deepest and most satisfying answers in the Christian gospel.

Abdu Murray grew up as a Muslim, trained as a lawyer, and spent years questioning the beliefs of those around him–atheist, Christian, pantheist–until he was confronted with some questions of his own that led to a his embracing the Christian faith.

In this book, Murray begins with the important and costly search for truth, acknowledging that this could lead to great loss–of respect, of family, even of life–and leaves us with the question of what the truth is worth for us. He then explores the idea that every worldview in some way addresses some basic questions including:

  1. What explains existence? Or is there a God?
  2. Is there an objective purpose and value to human existence?
  3. What accounts for the human condition?
  4. Is there a better life or salvation from our present state?

He contends that each of the belief systems–secular humanism, pantheism, and Islam–is particularly concerned with one Grand Central Question that receives the greater emphasis in that system. For secular humanism, it is the question of the basis of human dignity when there is no God. On what can the inherent value of humans be grounded? For pantheism, it is the question of how do we escape (and explain) suffering? Finally, for Islam, it is the question of the greatness of God, and how one might worship a great but unapproachable God.

In three sections, Murray expands upon the central question for each worldview, showing how the worldview attempts to address this, the shortcomings of those explanations and why he believes the Christian gospel provides the most cogent and satisfying explanation. For the secular humanist, simply asserting the intuition of our worth may not be enough if we come up against superior beings considering us expendable. Appealing to fine-tuning arguments of design, Murray proposes the grounding of our worth in God as his image bearers.

Likewise, pantheism argues for the elimination of desire as the basis for the escape from suffering. Yet this does not do away with the reality of suffering. Christian faith speaks of a God who enters into our suffering, and rather than trying to deny or transcend its existence offers meaning in suffering as well as an ultimate deliverance from it.

Finally, and perhaps especially valuable because of the author’s own prior beliefs, is his exploration of Islam. He particularly explores the idea of “God is greater” and proposes that the very things Islam denies are in fact what offer the greatest possible God, a God who is One not only as we are but uniquely one essential deity in three persons, a God whose love arises from the eternal relations of the three, and a God who may be approached in worship because he approached us in his Son. Furthermore, this Jesus did not have a substitute die on the cross, hardly a sign of greatness, but died as the substitute for humanity.

He concludes with the proposal that the Christian gospel does not address one Grand Central Question but provides answers that address the range of questions about human existence that intellectually satisfy and can spiritually transform.

I appreciated the idea of a “grand central question”, although I wonder if proponents of these worldviews would be comfortable with this rubric. His discussion showed evidence of many dialogues with people who hold the views he is addressing, but I wonder if the book would have felt more authentic if he had dialogue partners from these three “worldviews” responding to his proposals.

I think what set this book apart was the sensitive and insightful exploration of Islam, including his narrative of how careful study of the Qur’an actually led to his examination of the gospels. I hope he will write further on Muslim-Christian engagement, which seems so important and needed in our day.