New Books in Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics – January 2013

 

God & Morality: Four Views – Edited by R. Keith Loftin (InterVarsity, 2012) **

Is morality dependent upon belief in God? Is there more than one way for Christians to understand the nature of morality? Is there any agreement between Christians and atheists or agnostics on this heated issue?

In God and Morality: Four Views four distinguished voices in moral philosophy articulate and defend their place in the current debate between naturalism and theism. Christian philosophers Keith Yandell and Mark Linville and two self-identified atheist/agnostics, Evan Fales and Michael Ruse, clearly and honestly represent their differing views on the nature of morality.

Views represented are 1) naturalist moral non-realist, 2) naturalist moral realist, 3) moral essentialist, and 4) moral particularist.

 

Reason & Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (5th ed.)  Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (OUP, 2012)

Reason and Religious Belief, now in its fifth edition, explores perennial questions in the philosophy of religion. Drawing from the best in both classical and contemporary discussions, the authors examine religious experience, faith and reason, the divine attributes, arguments for and against the existence of God, divine action (in various forms of theism), Reformed epistemology, religious language, religious diversity, and religion and science.

Revised and updated to reflect current philosophical discourse, the fifth edition offers new material on neuro-theology, the “new Atheism,” the intelligent design movement, theistic evolution, and skeptical theism. It also provides more coverage of non-Western religions–particularly Buddhism–and updated discussions of evidentialism, free will, life after death, apophatic theology, and more. A sophisticated yet accessible introduction, Reason and Religious Belief, Fifth Edition, is ideally suited for use with the authors’ companion anthology, Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Fourth Edition (OUP, 2009).

 

God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with PainEdited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr. (InterVarsity, 2013)

The question of evil—its origins, its justification, its solution—has plagued humankind from the beginning. Every generation raises the question and struggles with the responses it is given. Questions about the nature of evil and how it is reconciled with the truth claims of Christianity are unavoidable; we need to be prepared to respond to such questions with great clarity and good faith.

God and Evil compiles the best thinking on all angles on the question of evil, from some of the finest scholars in religion, philosophy and apologetics, including

  • Gregory E. Ganssle and Yena Lee
  • Bruce Little
  • Garry DeWeese
  • R. Douglas Geivett
  • James Spiegel
  • Jill Graper Hernandez
  • Win Corduan
  • David Beck

 

 

From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of our Ethical Commitments – Angus Ritchie (OUP, 2012)

From Morality to Metaphysics offers an argument for the existence of God, based on our most fundamental moral beliefs. Angus Ritchie engages with a range of the most significant secular moral philosophers of our time, and argues that they all face a common difficulty which only theism can overcome.

The book begins with a defense of the ‘deliberative indispensability’ of moral realism, arguing that the practical deliberation human beings engage in on a daily basis only makes sense if they take themselves to be aiming at an objective truth. Furthermore, when humans engage in practical deliberation, they necessarily take their processes of reasoning to have some ability to track the truth. Ritchie’s central argument builds on this claim, to assert that only theism can adequately explain our capacity for knowledge of objective moral truths. He demonstrates that we need an explanation as well as a justification of these cognitive capacities. Evolutionary biology is not able to generate the kind of explanation which is required–and, in consequence, all secular philosophical accounts are forced either to abandon moral objectivism or to render the human capacity for moral knowledge inexplicable.

From Morality to Metaphysics

 

Mappings the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of EverythingGerald Rau (InterVarsity, 2012)

What are the main positions in the debate over creation and evolution? Why do they disagree? Can the debates about origins and evolution ever be resolved? Gerald Rau offers a fair-minded overview of the six predominant models used to explain the origins of the universe, of life, of species and of humans. He aims to show the contours of current debates both among Christians and between Christians and non-theists.  He accomplishes this by not only describing the options on origins, but by exploring the philosophical assumptions behind each and how evidence is counted corresponding with each model.  He also notes the limits of a scientifically gained knowledge. Readers will not only become better informed about the current debates on origins but better thinkers about the issues at stake.

 

** Descriptions provided by the publishers.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Advertisements

The Missing Links – January 13, 2013

 

  • A number of insightful responses to the controversy over Louie Giglio and the presidential inauguration.  For example, Joe Carter writes, “as the Giglio incident reveals, no amount of good works can atone for committing the secular sin of subscribing to the biblical view of sexuality. . . . Anyone who has ever spoken about the issue—or at least has not recanted from believing what God says about homosexuality—is to be treated as a bigot.”

  • Jonathan Morrow writes on “The God Gene, Neuroscience, And the Soul.”  As Francis Collins wisely observes, “Yes, we have all been dealt a particular set of genetic cards, and the cards will eventually be revealed. But how we play the hand is up to us.”

  • Bob Prokop on the extreme measures many skeptics demand as evidence for Christianity. “Some, like Loftus, have quite specifically demanded to see stars arrange themselves to spell out Bible verses, or some such nonsense like that.”

Enhanced by Zemanta

Misunderstanding Faith

File:Hypnotist and blindfolded woman with angels on stage.jpg

A mistake made by some Christians and most skeptics is believing that religious faith, or faith in God, is blind faith.  But biblical faith is not a leap into the dark, but a leap toward the light.  As Greg Koukl nicely summarizes:

“Faith [on this mistaken view] is religious wishful thinking, a desperate lunge in the dark when all evidence is against you.  Take the leap of faith and hope for luck.  Curiously, none of the biblical writers understood faith this way.  Jesus tells his naysayers, ‘Though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me’ (John 10:38 NASB, emphasis added).  Peter reminds the crowd on Pentecost that Jesus was ‘a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22 NASB).

“Paul writes that the evidences from the natural world for God’s eternal power and divine nature ‘have been clearly seen,’ so much so that those who deny Him ‘are without excuse’ (Rom. 1:20).  Later he says that if we believe in a resurrection that didn’t really happen, we have hoped in vain and ‘are of all men most to be pitied’ (1 Cor. 15:19 NASB).  No religious wishful thinking here.

“So let’s set the record straight.  Faith is not the opposite of reason.  The opposite of faith is unbelief.  And reason is not the opposite of faith.  The opposite of reason is irrationality.  Do some Christians have irrational faith?  Sure.  Do some skeptics have unreasonable unbelief?  You bet.  It works both ways.”

Is God Just a Human Invention, Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Kregel, 2010, p. 30 (Kindle edition)

Enhanced by Zemanta

Book Review – The Quest for the Trinity

    I recently attended a session on the doctrine of the Trinity. As we walked out of the classroom, one student, confused and frustrated, said, “Can anyone tell me what ‘person’ means?” The doctrine of the Trinity is undoubtedly one of the most challenging doctrines for Christians. The dense concepts of the doctrine such as diversity-in-unity and unity-in-diversity or the classical language of Greek ontology (e.g., ousia and hypostasis) present challenges to many Christians who want to understand this doctrine. As a result, the doctrine of the Trinity has often been eclipsed by the doctrine of God. Indeed, the doctrine was perceived as illogical and useless, especially during the 19th century. Yet, the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity is immense because it is the basis of our Christian belief and has implications for all other doctrines of Christianity.

    The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012) by Stephen R. Holmes is a timely and helpful resource. Holmes’s approach to this important issue is unique and goes against modern trends in Trinitarian studies. One might have expected that Holmes would argue how the modern Trinitarian doctrine has overtaken the accounts of the earlier tradition (e.g., person over substance, communion over monarchy) or praise the implications that modern trinitarian theologians draw out of the doctrine (e.g., the Trinity as a model of human society, the Trinity as a model of ecclesiology, etc.). In much of contemporary writing on the Trinity, the focal point is modern trinitarian theology rather than the tradition.

    But Holmes takes the opposite position and contends that modern trinitarian theology fails to be consonant with the tradition. He argues, “I see the twentieth-century renewal of Trinitarian theology as depending in large part on concepts and ideas that cannot be found in patristic, medieval, or Reformation accounts of the doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 2). To support his claim, in chapter 1, Holmes introduces several modern trinitarian theologians and examines their ideas about the Trinity, starting with Karl Barth. In so doing, he delineates how the doctrine has become detached from the traditions (e.g., in the concept of personhood, the relation of God to the creation, etc.). In chapter 2, Holmes examines the Bible and argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is supported by scriptural evidence.

    From chapter 3 to chapter 7, Holmes provides historical presentations of the development of the doctrine. In chapter 3, Holmes focuses on early patristic developments in the doctrine and examines the ideas presented by Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian. In chapters 3 and 4, Holmes examines the debates in the fourth century concerning the divine essence and nature. In chapter 5, Holmes dedicates nearly the entire chapter to Augustine. Augustine is perhaps the anchor of Holmes’s trinitarian theology. Holmes closely examines De Trinitate to explore Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, while attempting to defend him against charges brought by recent scholars (e.g., the late Colin E. Gunton and Robert Jensen) on the ousia-hypostasis distinction and vestigial trinitatis. In chapter 7, Holmes surveys the medieval doctrine of the Trinity on issues of how to understand unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity among the persons of the Trinity.

    Chapters 8 and 9 record developments in anti-Trinitarianism. In the sixteenth century, a small group of Christians began to question the doctrine of the Trinity. By the beginning of the 19th century this view had become widespread. As a result, the doctrine was considered useless orthodoxy: “Persons and nature [were] no longer meaningful or useful terms” (p. 190). Hence, the “doctrine of the Trinity stands in need of re-narration” (p. 190).

    Yet this “re-narration” has appeared in modern views of the Trinity in which God is no longer metaphysical, but moral and personal. Neither is God immutable; on the contrary, this personal God acts toward the creation for the ultimate goodness of the world. Yet, Holmes finds this modern movement of a personal God troubling because the modern concept of person clearly shows diversion from the traditional teaching of the Trinity. He states, “The practice of speaking of three ‘persons’ in this sense in the divine life, of asserting a ‘social doctrine of the Trinity,’ a ‘divine community’ or an ontology of persons in relationship’ can only ever be, as far as I can see, a simple departure from the unified witness of the entire theological tradition” (p. 195). Thereby, Holmes concludes that modern trinitarian theology fails to remain in the tradition.

    I appreciate Holmes’s viewpoint very much, and I share some of his concerns (e.g., over divine simplicity, the divine essence, and personality). Yet, I am not sure if I am ready to write off what modern trinitarian theology has accomplished since Barth. The bottom line of the debate in this book seems to me, after all, the same familiar debate over ousia vs. hypostasis. Holmes is a Western theologian. Just as the Western church formulates the Trinity with an emphasis on God’s essence (ousia), Holmes’s theology starts with essence. But this view seems lacking in light of God’s subsistence as three persons, being in communion. To be a person is to be more than an “individual intelligent substance” (p. 195). As the late Colin Gunton argued, God is a being in communion; therefore, He is relational. And this God has relation to His created world through the two hands of the Father, namely the Son and the Spirit. If so, it is imperative to understand this personal aspect of the trinitarian God. The task that is given to modern theologians, as Holmes also argues, is to develop the concept of person while remaining faithful to the tradition. For a thought-provoking treatment of the Trinity that challenges the status quo, I highly recommend this book.

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

    Enhanced by Zemanta

Book Review – Delighting in the Trinity

Author Michael Reeves tackles what is perhaps at once the most familiar, most complex, and even the most puzzling Christian doctrine: the Trinity.

He begins by acknowledging that even the words “God is a Trinity” evoke stiffness, a dogma that seems irrelevant. In contrast, he points out, “God is love” brings out warm feelings, something most can relate to, and want to.

And then he says it: “God is love because God is a Trinity.”

Reeves states his overall theme early: “Christianity is not primarily about lifestyle change; it is about knowing God.” And this current flows through the book. What is this God like who invites us to know Him? And what difference does it make that He is a triune God rather than a single-person god?

Comparing the Lord God of Israel to single-person deities is one of the most interesting aspects of Reeves’s work. It is true that because we are used to fitting “God” into our own expectations, the idea of “Trinity” or a “triune” being is awkward at best. We prefer the single-person deity as an entity much easier to understand. Yet a comparison of other gods and the Lord God of Israel reveals some widely differing beings.

For example, according to the Qur’an, Allah “begets not, nor is he begotten”—a strikingly different being than one we know as Father. And God couldn’t be a Father without having offspring.

Marduk, in Babylon’s creation story, creates human beings so he and the other gods can have servants to rule over. Reeves invites readers to take this further. If a god is a solitary being, he has no one to love (in contrast to God the Father, who was loving the Son before creation); he can love himself, but that’s a selfish love. A single-person god must, by his essence, be all about self-gratification. How could a solitary deity be loving when love involves another? Remember that the Son in the Trinity came to serve others, to give up His live for many.

Reeves turns to Aristotle’s god. If being good involves being good to another, how can a solitary god be good when there is no one to show goodness to? Aristotle determines that the universe exists right alongside God, so he gives his goodness to it. But Reeves concludes that this reasoning means that for God to be himself, he needs the world. He’s dependent on it to be who he is; this god of Aristotle’s is good, but not necessarily loving.

If at this point you’re reminded of your freshman introduction to philosophy class, I encourage you to stay with it. Reeves is making the point that before creation, our triune God was neither lonely nor in need of gratification, for He was eternally loving His Son in the Spirit.

Since in a single-person god system, the god would have created beings in order to rule over and be served by them, sin would thus be about behaving and acting wrong. A single-person god might offer forgiveness, but not make us his children (because he wouldn’t be a father). This god’s beings might live under his protection, but he wouldn’t offer closeness.

The author returns to Allah, a single-person god. His only “companion” in heaven is a book, the Qur’an. This is a book, a word that is about him, just a thing. In contrast is our triune God—and this is a lovely truth beautifully expressed by Reeves—who gave us His Word, which is His very self: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He didn’t just drop a book from heaven, He came Himself. So the Father sends the Son, the Son makes the Father known, and the Spirit makes the Son known through Spirit-breathed Scriptures.

God invites us to know and love Him, not just live under His rule; if He did, then only outward behavior would matter. And because it is not outward behavior that is the problem, but what we desire—usually ourselves—the Spirit gives us new hearts.

Reeves continues on the theme of knowing this God who is bursting with fullness and sharing and fellowship, and asks who could prefer a leaner, stripped-down version, i.e., the single-person variety who offers a dull version of religion. And later in the book he reflects on the type of God he’d want to emulate. Would it be a self-contemplative one like Aristotle’s? a cruel deity? Or a triune God to whom love and relationship are central to His being?

The author comments on Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in which He requests that His followers “may be one as we are one.” What is oneness? To a single-person god such as Allah, oneness means sameness. He says, “the once diverse cultures of Nigeria, Persia, and Indonesia are made, deliberately and increasingly, the same.” But oneness for the triune God means unity. Jesus is praying that His followers be united, but not all the same.

I’m not sure I agree with this contention, but it’s an interesting point.

Reeves’s explanation of God’s wrath is one of the best I’ve read. He says that prior to creation, when the Father was loving the Son, He was never angry—there was nothing to be angry about until Adam and Eve sinned. Anger toward evil is how a God who is love responds to evil: because evil harms us, the created beings He loves, responding with anger is the only possible way He can respond. Most explanations of the wrath of God start and end with His holiness (which isn’t wrong), but this one looks at it from the aspect of God’s love.

The author touches upon the evergreen topic of those who just don’t believe in any god, but believes that the antitheists’ problem is not with the existence of a god, but with the character of the god they presume. He said that those who don’t believe often describe the deity they don’t believe in as cold, selfish, greedy. And, Reeves allows, “if God is not a Father, if he has no Son and will have no children, then he must be lonely, distant, and unapproachable; if he is not triune and so essentially unloving, then no God at all just looks better.”

A book titled Delighting in the Trinity must by its essence be a little ethereal; after all, no one can physically see these beings. And is such a discussion useful, or is it just something Christians talk about over coffee or in conjunction with that intro to philosophy class? Does it matter? Let’s consider the book’s subtitle: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. Interesting. Different. Intriguing. Not a book about doctrine per se, but a true introduction to what makes Christianity different from any other belief system: its triune God.

For the very bones of the Christian faith are the greatest commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. These suit a triune God and His outreach to us, His sharing of Himself. It makes becoming like such a God a “warm, attractive, delightful thing.”

I recommend this book without qualification. I didn’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions, nor was I easily able to follow everything he wrote, but his contentions are well expressed, and his treatment fresh.

Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

Enhanced by Zemanta

New Books in Theology, Philosophy, & Apologetics –November 2012

Christian Confidence: An Introduction to Defending the FaithChris Sinkinson (IVP, July 2012) **

Philosophy, archaeology and science are hot topics in Christian circles, perplexing many believers about how these issues relate to faith. Fortunately for us, Chris Sinkinson has investigated these areas and gathered historical Christian perspective. The result is this accessible introduction to apologetics, which enlightens minds and inspires confidence.

Christian Confidence is a one-stop shop for anyone desiring to engage thoughtfully and persuasively in the difficult conversations surrounding faith in the twenty-first century. This book will deepen your understanding of Christianity and empower you to present the case for faith convincingly, credibly and cleverly.Chris Sinkinson has achieved something rather remarkable here. In just a few hundred pages he looks at the craft of apologetics from almost every angle. He examines the history of apologetics, methodology, key figures in the discipline and the most important arguments. And he does all this with wit and terrific style. One of the best introductions to apologetics I have seen.” (Craig J. Hazen, founder and director of the graduate program in Christian apologetics, Biola University, and author of Five Sacred Crossings)

book cover

 

The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit TrailsRandal Rauser (IVP, October 2012)

In the real world, we don’t usually sit in lecture halls debating worldview issues in systematic arguments. Chances are that we’re more likely to have haphazard, informal conversations over a latte in a coffee shop.

Meet Randal Rauser, a Christian, and Sheridan, an atheist. Over the course of one caffeinated afternoon, they explore a range of honest questions and real objections to Christian faith. Do people hold to a particular religion just because of an accident of geography? Is believing in Jesus as arbitrary as believing in Zeus? Why would God order the slaughter of infants or send people to hell? How do you know you’re really real, and not just a character in someone’s book?

Their extended conversation unfolds with all the rabbit trails, personal baggage and distractions that inevitably come in real-world encounters. Rauser provides substantive argument-based apologetics but also highlights the importance of apologetics as a narrative journey. As we get to know Sheridan, we better understand the personal history that drives his atheism and the issues that motivate his skepticism.

“Rauser’s dialogue brings the best tools of philosophical thinking within the reach of thoughtful believers and skeptics alike. His representative in the conversation knows when to stick to his guns, and when to admit to uncertainty and fallibility. His atheist counterpart is no straw man–he knows his Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens. Rauser has the philosophical chops to cut through a lot of rhetorical nonsense, but he also has the intellectual honesty to face up to the genuine difficulties confronting his faith. This enjoyable book is a model of candid, winsome, thought-provoking apologetics.” (Dean Zimmerman, professor of philosophy, Rutgers University)

book cover

God and NecessityBrian Leftow (Oxford University Press, Nov. 2012)

Brian Leftow offers a theory of the possible and the necessary in which God plays the chief role, and a new sort of argument for God’s existence. It has become usual to say that a proposition is possible just in case it is true in some “possible world” (roughly, some complete history a universe might have) and necessary just if it is true in all. Thus much discussion of possibility and necessity since the 1960s has focused on the nature and existence (or not) of possible worlds. God and Necessity holds that there are no such things, nor any sort of abstract entity. It assigns the metaphysical ‘work’ such items usually do to God and events in God’s mind, and reduces “broadly logical” modalities to causal modalities, replacing possible worlds in the semantics of modal logic with God and His mental events. Leftow argues that theists are committed to theist modal theories, and that the merits of a theist modal theory provide an argument for God’s existence. Historically, almost all theist modal theories base all necessary truth on God’s nature. Leftow disagrees: he argues that necessary truths about possible creatures and kinds of creatures are due ultimately to God’s unconstrained imagination and choice. On his theory, it is in no sense part of the nature of God that normal zebras have stripes (if that is a necessary truth). Stripy zebras are simply things God thought up, and they have the nature they do simply because that is how God thought of them. Thus Leftow’s essay in metaphysics takes a half-step toward Descartes’ view of modal truth, and presents a compelling theist theory of necessity and possibility.

 

 

Brain Wars: The Scientific Battle Over the Existence of the Mind and the Proof That Will Change the Way We Live Our LivesMario Beauregard (HarperOne, April 2012)

“The brain can be weighed, measured, scanned, dissected, and studied. The mind that we conceive to be generated by the brain, however, remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume, and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet it is as real as neurons, neurotransmitters, and synaptic junctions. It is also very powerful.”
—from Brain Wars

Is the brain “a computer made of meat,” and human consciousness a simple product of electrical impulses? The idea that matter is all that exists has dominated science since the late nineteenth century and led to the long-standing scientific and popular understanding of the brain as simply a collection of neurons and neural activity. But for acclaimed neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., along with a rising number of colleagues and others, this materialist-based view clashes with what we feel and experience every day.

In Brain Wars, Dr. Beauregard delivers a paradigm-shifting examination of the role of the brain and mind. Filled with engaging, surprising, and cutting-edge scientific accounts, this eye-opening book makes the increasingly indisputable case that our immaterial minds influence what happens in our brains, our bodies, and even beyond our bodies. Examining the hard science behind “unexplained” phenomena such as the placebo effect, self-healing, brain control, meditation, hypnosis, and near-death and mystical experiences, Dr. Beauregard reveals the mind’s capabilities and explores new answers to age-old mind-body questions.

Radically shifting our comprehension of the role of consciousness in the universe, Brain Wars forces us to consider the immense untapped power of the mind and explore the profound social, moral, and spiritual implications that this new understanding holds for our future.

“Mario Beauregard shows convincingly that the materialistic philosophy of the 19th century is an impoverished framework incompatible with contemporary science, from physics to psychology. The concepts he develops in Brain Wars are required reading for scientific literacy in today’s world.” (Bruce Greyson, M.D. Research psychiatrist, University of Virginia. Co-author of Irreducible Mind )

 

A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to RawlsStephen P. Schwartz (Wiley-Blackwell, June 2012)

A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: from Russell to Rawls provides a comprehensive overview of the historical development of all major aspects of Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Beginning with the seminal works of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, Stephen P. Schwartz covers the foremost figures and schools of analytic philosophy, including, in addition to those already mentioned, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Kripke, Putnam, Rawls, and many others. As well as presenting arguments put forth by individual philosophers, Schwartz traces the various social and political influences that helped shape analytic philosophy as it evolved over the last century. Topics considered include the emergence of logical positivism and its critics, ordinary language philosophy, Wittgenstein’s self-critical philosophy, the American neo-pragmatists, analytic ethics, late-20th-century developments, and future directions.

A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy offers illuminating insights into the origins and 100-year evolution of the dominant force in Western philosophy.

“Stephen Schwartz’s A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy provides an engaging, non-technical historical introduction to central themes in analytical philosophy, the dominant approach to philosophical issues in the English-speaking world since the onset of the 20th century.  Schwartz illuminates topics for novices and specialists alike by tracing their sources to pressing disputes among mathematicians and scientists as well as philosophers. The book, captivating in its own right, will prove especially useful when read alongside targeted original sources. There is nothing else quite like it.” (John Heil, Washington University in Saint Louis)

 

** Descriptions and endorsements are provided by the publishers.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Book Review – Between Babel and Beast

Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective by Peter J. Leithart (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) is a thought-provoking book for Christians who want to be the light and salt of the world today. This volume is a follow-up to his previous book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2010). For those who read Defending Constantine, this book presents us further opportunity to catch a glimpse of Leithart’s dynamic, yet rather unconventional mind on the very important topic of cultural engagement. For those who have not had a chance to read Defending Constantine, you can find my review here.

In part 1, Leithart presents a survey of biblical accounts of empires, from the pre-flood cities of Cain and Lamech to the fall of Babylon in Revelation. What underlies this survey is his conviction that “Politically, the Bible is a tale of two imperialisms” (the Abrahamic and Babelic empires) (p. xi). To some extent this part is a presentation of an “empire-centered” hermeneutic: The entire framework of Leithart’s interpretive process is centered on “empire.”

Leithart holds that after the long succession of empires beginning with Babylon and ending with Rome, Jesus as the Son of Man received the kingdoms of the earth (e.g., Persian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman) and as the Ancient of Days gives them to His faithful disciples. Hence, He is imperium-in-se who replaced the ancient system (Israel in empire) with a new, “Abrahamic empire” which marked the end of “Israel-in-Empire, οικουμηνη.” And the embodiment of Jesus’ Abrahamic empire is none other than the church. It is no longer the earthly empires that protect God’s people from destruction. “Instead, the church as the fifth empire keeps its doors open day and night so that kings from across the sea will be able to enter and pay homage to the Son who reigns from Zion” (p. 51).

In part 2, Leithart examines “Americanism,” which he defines as “the fundamental theology of the American order, a quasi-Christian, biblically laced heresy” (p. xii). While part one is a biblical presentation of empire, part two is a historical presentation of empire—how Christendom, “God’s imperium,” lost its metapolitical framework of Christian politics to secular politics over the centuries and how this contributed to the birth of “Americanism.”

Leithart argues that “God’s American Israel” was a phrase that was a “fundamental paradigm to help early American settlers understand their role in God’s history” (p. 67). The Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that they were the modern-day Israel who were led by God to an unknown land for divine purposes. Their mission therefore was to serve and advance the Kingdom of God as bearers of freedom and justice. Consequently, the distinction between Christianity and their political agenda (freedom and justice) became fuzzy. America soon began to use its military power to impose its philosophy on the world. In the end, Leithart concludes, “Early in our history, we did not have the power to impose our will on the world. But as our power increased, Americanism was there, able to impel a Babelic form of imperialism” (111).

In part 3, Leithart examines how America succumbed to Americanism and “freely consort[ed] with beasts if it [would] serve our political ends” (p. xiii). Attention is given to political and military dealings and economic policy in the 20th century to argue that America stands between Babel and beast. Leithart’s words are alarming. He states, “Babel-like, we believe we have brought history effectively to its conclusion: American democracy is everyone’s tomorrow. Babel-like, we want everyone everywhere to confess with one lip our American creed of liberty, democracy, and free markets. Babel-like, we are anxious until everyone looks like us . . . until we can force most everyone to play by our rules” (p. 134).

In conclusion, Leithart calls for a repentance of being Americanists. American churches should “teach and preach from a de-Americanized Bible, one that understands that the imperium of the church [“Jesus is an imperator” and the church is “God’s imperium”], not American hegemony, fulfills the hopes of Israel” (pp. 151-152). He argues that the church should not discourage Christians from participating in government or the military. Yet, the church should encourage Christians to participate in a way that changes America and turns her resources and power to justice, charity and peace.

Although I appreciated Leithart’s scholarship and presentation of this important topic, a few questions need to be raised. I am not certain about Leithart’s three types of world empires: Babel, Beasts and Guardians of God’s People. Leithart argues extensively that the Babylonian, Persian, and Roman empires fit into this last category, Guardians of God’s People—though he admits they were not this exclusively. Yet, as the Bible attests, God can use even the evil of the world to advance His Kingdom. As God used the ravens to feed Elijah, which were considered by the Israelites to be an unclean and detestable bird, God can use the most detestable thing in the world to bring glory to Himself.

Further, while I am in basic agreement with Leithart that God can use empire (along with other human institutions) to advance His kingdom, I am not certain I would agree with Leithart that empire is the ideal vessel to achieve this end. As mentioned above, God can use the most detestable thing to accomplish His purposes. In fact, Jesus called some of those who prophesied in His name “evildoers” (Matt 7:21-23). In this sense, Leithart’s concepts of an Abrahamic empire, the church as God’s empire and the fifth empire may be an oversimplification of admittedly complex biblical accounts of historical empires.

In my view the real gems of this book are found in parts 2 and 3. Leithart’s warnings to American Christians are shocking: “What if America is herself locked in the ancient logic, the satanic cycle? What if Americanism, increasingly detached from the checks and balances that orthodox metapolitics provides us, has left us prey to the same sacrificial dynamics as Islam” (p. 81)? I grew up in Japan where imperialism ruled about 100 years. For me at least, America is the country that heroically ended Japanese imperialism that contributed to two world wars and resulted in the exploitation of other Asian countries. But, the same America is the country that brought devastation and indescribable human suffering to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus I agree with Leithart that “America stands ‘between Babel and beast’” (xiii). Yet, I believe that Leithart’s message can also speak to Christians around the world—after all, we human beings are so easily blindsided by our own good that we often overlook our own evil in pursuing our goals. How easily we imprison the prophets. I appreciate Leithart’s challenging warnings, and therefore highly recommend this book.

— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Enhanced by Zemanta