A BRIEF HISTORY OF THOUGHT: A Philosophical Guide to Living – Luc Ferry (2011)

0062074245_lA Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry is a fascinating account of the history of western thought.  Ferry begins by answering the thorny question, “What is philosophy?”  One of the answers that emerges has to do with the so-called quest for salvation.  Ferry brilliantly surveys the history of philosophy and presents various answers to the question from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, and concludes by examining the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger.  Ferry demonstrates how Christianity dominated and displaced Greco-Roman pagan thought and played a key role in the history of ideas.

While Ferry does not accept the conclusion of historic Christianity at the end of the day, his honest and open-minded treatment of the dominant philosophical questions is commendable and encouraging.  Strawman arguments are nowhere to be found in this work.  At play is an author who is honestly wrestling with ideas and assessing the facts as he sees them.  The broad sweep of historical thought that he presents is very helpful.

GODFORSAKEN – Dinesh D’Souza (2012)

Dr. Dinesh D’Souza serves as the President of King’s College.  He is also a prolific writer.  His newest work, Godforsaken picks up the theme of human suffering and the problem of evil.  It is clear from the outset that the author is familiar with the various attempts to resolve the so-called “Achilles heel of the Christian faith.”  Unconvinced by the typical atheistic approach to the problem, D’Souza’s goal is to provide an answer that is both rational and practical.

The author begins by admitting the problem of evil.  Both unbelievers and believers wrestle with this age-old problem.  Both respective groups approach suffering with completely different perspectives: “While the atheist merely uses suffering to confirm disbelief in God, the Christian who is suffering feels betrayed by God.  The atheist is intellectually triumphant – See, I told you there is no God! – while the Christian is heartbroken … godforsaken.”

In a surprising twist, D’Souza argues that Christians and atheists seem to be the most perplexed with the problem of suffering.  He demonstrates how Muslims refuse to question the plan of their god.  Hindus and Buddhists assume suffering as a normal part of life.  But Scripture argues in the opposite direction: “In contrast with the Eastern religions, which treat suffering as either illusory or deserved, the Bible portrays suffering as very real and unequivocally bad.”

D’Souza’s approach to the problem of evil appears to be unique.  He argument is essentially this: “God is the divine architect, the Cosmic Designer … [He] wanted to create conscious, rational agents who could understand his creation and also freely relate to him.  Given God’s objective to make humans, God constructed the universe not in the best possible way, but in the only way that it could be constructed.  In other words, God chose the sole option available to produce the result that he wanted.”  D’Souza labels his defense the “Only Way Argument.”  The author is totally unconvinced by the traditional approaches to theodicy.   Our task is to determine if  his approach is any better.

D’Souza’s theodicy is based on the philosophical notion of  free will.  As such he rejects all forms of determinism, even so-called soft-determinism.  The author shows his hand in chapter five: “If God truly has foreknowledge, how is it possible for us to choose differently?  If God knew at the beginning of Creation that at a given point in time, I am going to write this book, then it seems that I cannot choose at that particular time to write a different book instead.”  This notion, otherwise known as libertarian free will is the standard Semi-Pelagian notion that has crept into the church  and has gone largely unchecked.

D’Souza hints at a compatibalistic understanding of free will – where God has comprehensive foreknowledge of free choices, yet allows the creature to make a meaningful free choice (although he does not use the term).  But he rejects what he calls a “halfway concept of free will” and argues that such a notion is “hardly satisfactory.”  Hence, he rejects the biblical notion of compatibalism.

Chapter six sets out to answer the question, “Why did God create a lawful world – that is, a world conforming to discoverable and predictable laws?”  Again, the answer is centered exclusively on the free will of man.  There is no hint of God’s will of decree in D’Souza’s answer: “No wonder there is so much evil in a world where evil is determined not by God’s will but by human choice.”

The author seeks to answer the age-old question, “Why are there natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, and other forms of natural suffering?”  His answer relies on scientific data that points to an old earth, which in the final analysis argues for a universe that is billions of years old.  Pain and suffering which is a part of the warp and woof of the universe is not only a fact of life, it is as the author posits, “built into the fabric of nature’s laws … With regard to what we can discern by reason about the only world we can really know, pain and suffering are inextricably bound up with the good.”

D’Souza continues his argument by pointing to the Anthropic principle or the  so-called “finely tuned universe.”  In other words, certain conditions need to be met for human life to flourish (which is the essence of his theodicy).  He holds that “evil and suffering are inextricably bound with the structure of creation.”  The author concludes, “When we consider that God has so finely tuned the universe in such a way as to allow us the freedom to take up our own cross and follow him and also, through that suffering, to draw closer to the divine, the suffering itself can be rendered sublime.”

Dr. D’Souza is a fine writer.  He clearly articulates his views and has a tremendous grasp on the history of intellectual thought and understands the dominant arguments that are emerging from the so-called “new atheists.”  While I appreciate his efforts, his arguments at the end of the day, remain mostly unconvincing.

The first glaring weakness with Godforsaken is an approach that appears to render the Scriptures as secondary.  He admits, “It is written by a professed Christian, yet its purpose is to examine the problem of evil and suffering not primarily on the basis of revelation or sacred authority but on the basis of reason, science, and experience.”  While his approach is understandable, he jettisons the very basis of his hope.  Surely, he starts off on the wrong foot.

The second weakness is a radical commitment to libertarian  free will.  Indeed, the entirety of the book leans on the frail fabric of free will.  And in typical libertarian fashion, the free will of man is pitted against the absolute sovereignty of God.  For example, the author essentially argues that God lacks comprehensive foreknowledge.  “Think about it,” says D’Souza.  “If God truly has foreknowledge, how is it possible for us to choose differently” (p. 85).  The author borrows the libertarian musings of Boethius: “No longer do we have to worry that God, in knowing the future, is in some sense controlling the future.  God is omniscient, but this does not prevent free creatures from making their own choices that God knows about but does not dictate.” Apparently, his prior commitments have clouded his biblical judgment.  He appears to posit a “take it or leave it” mentality.  Either there is libertarian free will or there is  no free will whatsoever.  That is to say, if there are any restrictions on free will; if one does not have the ability of contrary choice, it follows that free will totally evaporates.  This “all or nothing” mentality fails to take into account the biblical position of compatibalism; the view that presents a God who ordains everything that comes to pass and allows creatures to make free choices.

Since the author does not distinguish between God’s will of command and God’s will of decree, he falls stumbles at another point that concerns suffering.  For instance, he posits this crucial point: “Just as man’s use of free will can produce results that were not part of God’s plan or purpose, so the necessary structure of the universe can result in miseries that were also not intended by God” (176).  One wonders where the cross of Christ fits in this confusing scheme.  Surely, the most wicked event is the crucifixion of Jesus, the unjust punishment of the only innocent man in the universe.  Yet it appears as if God is taken off guard.  It appears that something may have happened that he never planned.  And all these things occur to safeguard a commitment to libertarian free will.   This kind of logic must be immediately discarded in universe that is sovereignly controlled by God!

Third, while the author waits until the end of the book to address his beef with Reformed theology, the juices of anti-Calvinistic bias are simmering and quite frankly, render the “stew” unsavory.   For instance, he falsely caricatures the Calvinistic notion of double-predestination and in the process he charges God with sending people to hell who had no intention of going there.

D’Souza minces at a God who may offer grace to some but withhold it to others.  He writes, “I find this concept of God extending grace to some while keeping it from others to be unworthy of God.  It is an idea not lacking in justice, perhaps, but certainly lacking in benevolence.”  He continues by laying his soteriological cards on the table: “… The point seems to be that God has given to every person the grace, which is to say the ability, to decide either way.”  These arguments are nothing new.  Arminians have been advancing the “prevenient grace” argument throughout church history.  What is disturbing is – why is the argument posed here?  What does this have to do with undermining an atheistic worldview?

The author is obviously knowledgeable and seeks to tear down the stronghold of atheism and provide a satisfying answer for the problem of evil.  His writing is engaging.  He is fair-minded and congenial.  He offers several fascinating insights but his reasoning, in the final analysis appears to fall short.  Instead of unifying the tension-points of faith and reason that have been at odds since the days of the Enlightenment, he actually escalates the war that pits reason against faith.

2 stars

SHOULD CHRISTIANS STUDY PHILOSOPHY?

“Who am I and what is my purpose?”  “How should I live and how can I determine right from wrong?”  “On what basis can I answer these questions?”  “What is the truth?”  And, “Who is my final authority?”  Questions like these do not have simple answers.  Rather, they demand deep thinking and philosophical spade work.

A person committed to veritas et lux (truth and light) will commit himself to a rigorous study of philosophy.  What is the value of such a pursuit for a follower of Christ? Consider two important motivations for studying philosophy.

Learn to Develop Discernment and Guard Against False Ideas

The first benefit of studying philosophy is to become acquainted with dominant systems of thought.  As a result, one is able to develop discernment when faced with false ideas. J. Gresham Machen, a 20th century evangelical and champion of the Christian faith writes,”False ideas are the greatest hindrance to the gospel.  We can preach with all the fervor of a reformer and even win a straggler here and there; but if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or world to be dominated by ideas that, by their very logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a hopeless delusion, then we do damage to our religion.

Becoming familiar with philosophical systems will take time and effort but will be worthwhile in the long run.  We must first be aware of ideological errors before we can confront these false ideas.

Learn to Think Hard and Evaluate Propositions

The second benefit to studying philosophy is to develop thinking skills and proficiency in evaluating propositions.  Everyone has an opinion about something in our culture.  Our task is to consider each assertion in light of God’s Word.  We are called to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).  C.S. Lewis adds, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”   As we take captive every thought captive, we press good  and God-centered philosophy onto the hearts and consciences of our opponents.

Carl Henry writes, “If modern man, the conqueror of outer space, does not make up his mind, he will vacillate intellectually to a gypsy’s grave.”  May God grant the church renewed resolve and discernment in these difficult days.  May we stand boldly and courageously for the truth of God’s Word.  May a love for propositional truth  define the essence of our Christian lives.   And may we remember afresh that truth is ultimately found in a person, namely, Jesus Christ of Nazareth!

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

– Jesus (John 6:35)

THE GAGGING OF GOD – D.A. Carson (1996)

The Gagging of God seeks  to equip Christians to be intelligent, culturally sensitive, and to remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In general the book argues that philosophical pluralism (also coined religious pluralism) may be the most dangerous threat to the gospel since the rise of the Gnostic heresy.  Thus, the central purpose of this 569 page tome is to think through how Christians should responsibly confront contemporary philosophical pluralism.

The author lays the foundation at the beginning of the book by distinguishing between empirical, cherished and philosophical pluralism.  One the chief arguments is that confessional Christianity cannot wholly embrace either modernity or postmodernity, yet it must learn lessons from both; it must vigorously oppose many features of philosophical pluralism, without retreating into modernism.

The book is divided into four parts.  Part one discusses hermeneutical issues that have tremendous bearing on the whole postmodern discussion.  Indeed, “all the challenges” writes Dr. Carson, “arising from postmodernism and philosophical pluralism are connected in some way with hermeneutics, how we interpret things.”  He proceeds to specifically discuss the various approaches of deconstruction and it’s influence even among evangelical churches.

Part two details religious pluralism which insists that all assertions of worldview and outlook that make exclusive truth claims are necessarily wrong.  The author’s primary concern in this section is communicating that a grasp of the Bible’s plot line is of utmost importance.  It is crucial for believers who seek to share the gospel to understand the puzzle pieces that form the mosaic of redemptive history.  The author, further argues that communicating the gospel must be bold, yet must be communicated in a spirit of humility.

Part three answers the question, “How can Christians live in a pluralistic culture?”  Aspects of government, religious freedom, law, education, economics and ethics are discussed with appropriate Christian responses to the dilemma that is confronted in culture.

Part four deals with pluralism in the evangelical camp.  Most interesting,  is the author’s discussion of communicating the gospel when the church itself is immersed in pluralistic thinking.  Again, Dr. Carson stresses the importance of starting from the beginning and nailing down the turning points in redemptive history in order to have maximum evangelistic success.  Further, he stresses the primacy of biblical theology and helpfully adds, “The good news of Jesus Christ is virtually incoherent unless it is securely set into a biblical worldview . . . A world both biblically illiterate and sold out to philosophical pluralism demands that our proclamation of the gospel be a subset of biblical theology.”

The Gagging of God is a phenomenal book.  The author presents a clear and scholarly look at pluralism and how the Church can effectively evangelize in a culture that has largely given up on absolutes and biblical truth.  The author writes with precision and wit and stimulates readers to pursue this subject further.

Dr. Carson writes, “Postmodernism defines itself most clearly in terms of what it isn’t – and that inevitably means a critique of the past.  It has nowhere to go, for it has no vision of a transcendent reality pulling us onward.”  Here lies the great opportunity for Christians committed to the evangelistic endeavor, namely, to express truth revealed in Scripture and communicating the “God who is there and who is not silent” with bold conviction and love.

Carson’s work is probably not for everyone.  But if you love apologetics and worldview issues, it will be a key resource on your book shelf and will influence and encourage you in countless ways.

5 stars

THE VERITAS CREDO

Cultivate the Christian mind and worldview (Matt. 22:37)

Understand a unified view of truth and a biblical epistemology (John 14:6)

Lead prisoners out of the darkness and into the light (John 8:34; Eph. 2:1-10)

Tell the truth by engaging people with love and boldness (Acts 17:30-31)

Undermine worldly ideologies (2 Cor. 10:5)

Recognize cultural trends and false worldviews (Col. 2:8)

Equip the Saints for the work of God’s kingdom (Eph. 4:11-16)