Book Review — The Passionate Intellect

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  • Hardcover: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (July 2010)
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    I recently had the opportunity to review Alister McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect. The book, subtitled “Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind,” explores the practice of Christian theology and its relevance to the modern church and to Western culture. It is based on lectures and addresses given over the course of several years by McGrath, a Christian apologist and theologian who has gained public recognition as a speaker and author. Dr. McGrath’s credentials as a former atheist and an accomplished academic theologian with doctoral degrees in molecular biophysics and divinity give him a unique perspective in discussions of science, atheism, and Christianity.

    The first chapters of The Passionate Intellect primarily discuss the functions of theology as an aid to faith and understanding for the individual and the benefits of theology for the Christian community. The combination of the academic writing style and the subject matter made this part of the book a difficult read; analysis of a field of study is, to me, less engaging than the field of study itself. However, McGrath communicates very clearly his passion for a relationship with God that transcends intellectual understanding. Theology for McGrath is not merely a dry study of the history or meaning of God’s actions in this world, but a pursuit that should “leave us on our knees, adoring the mystery that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.” He advocates a theology that is rooted in a personal desire to know God more deeply, is useful to the church, and that informs apologetics and evangelism. For the church as a whole, he argues that theology can hold the church to a dynamic orthodoxy, making religious truth accessible to a changing culture while remaining faithful to original apostolic teaching.

    From these first chapters, McGrath moves into a discussion of engaging with our culture. For me, McGrath’s strength lies in these subjects; he tackles the supposed conflict of science and religion, the implications of Charles Darwin’s ideas, and the “new atheism” with thoughtfulness and an impressive command of both history and the natural sciences. He criticizes the dogmatic assumptions inherent in the arguments of scientific atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins, who argue that good science is incompatible with religion. In this section, McGrath devotes a well-balanced chapter to the implications of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species for the Christian faith. In my opinion, the most fascinating chapter in the book follows the chapter focusing on Darwin. In chapter nine, “Augustine of Hippo on Creation and Evolution,” McGrath describes the conclusions that Augustine (354-430 A.D.) drew after much reflection and study of Scripture regarding God’s creation of the universe. Of course, Augustine was not responding to Charles Darwin or his work (Augustine predated Darwin by fifteen hundred years or so), but his conclusions are remarkably applicable to the current creation debate.

    The last several chapters focus on the new atheists’ metaphysical and sociological arguments, and their intellectual heritage. McGrath thoroughly addresses the new atheists’ assertion that “religion poisons everything,” a sound bite coined by Christopher Hitchens (2007) asserting that religion is responsible for most of the social ills in the world. This popular argument most commonly blames violence (particularly wars, terrorism, and abuse) on religion. The author dismantles the argument piece by piece, drawing from history, philosophy and sociological research to support his case.

    Alister McGrath is reasonable and meticulous when discussing the history and sociology of Christianity, enthusiastic about science, and passionate regarding the prospect of a life spent getting to know God. The Passionate Intellect is the product of a believer who expresses his faith with intellectual integrity and a remarkable command of the historical and scientific evidence. This book is a valuable resource for Christians seeking to clarify their thinking on the issues at the intersections of science, modern atheism, and Christianity. The Passionate Intellect is confirmation that a vibrant intellectual life is fully consistent with a deep faith in God.

    — Reviewed by Desmognathus.  A follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.  Desmognathus now blogs at Fish Nor Fowl.

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Does Religion Promote Dissension and Conflict?

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    It can, and sometimes does, but so does politics, ideology, race, and gender.  Atheists often caricature religion as the most corrosive force on earth, but as Alister McGrath points out, this is sociologically and historically naive.

    Suppose [Richard] Dawkins’s dream were to come true, and religion were to disappear.  Would that end the divisions within humanity and the violence that ensues from them?  Certainly not.  Such divisions are ultimately social constructs which reflect the fundamental sociological need for communities to self-define and identify those who are “in” and those who are “out,” those who are “friends,” and those who are “foes.”

    . . . . A series of significant binary oppositions are held to have shaped Western thought—such as “male-female” and “white-black.”  Binary opposition leads to the construction of the category of “the other”—the devalued half of a binary opposition—when applied to groups of people.  Group identity is often fostered by defining “the other”—as, for example, in Nazi Germany with its opposition “Aryan-Jew.”

    . . . . The simplistic belief that the elimination of religion would lead to the ending of violence, social tension or discrimination is thus sociologically naive.  It fails to take account of the way in which human beings create values and norms, and make sense of their identity and their surroundings.  If religion were to cease to exist, other social demarcators would emerge as decisive . . . [As they did, for example, during the French Revolution and in the Soviet Union.]

    Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, has made the significant point that religions were implicated in some human tragedies such as holy wars.  While rightly castigating these—a criticism which I gladly endorse—Shermer goes on to emphasize that there is clearly a significant positive side to religion:

    “For every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported . . . . Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.”

    — Alister McGrath, “Is Religion Evil,” God is Great, God is Good (IVP, 2009), 129-131.

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    Book Review — The Great Theologians by Gerald R. McDermott

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  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2010)
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  • The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald R. McDermott is an excellent resource for those who are interested in understanding how theological thinking has been influenced and molded by Christian tradition. In recent years, I have come to see how a theology student can benefit from studying historical theology. Of course, I don’t believe that historical thinking can play a magisterial role in place of Scripture. Yet, we can learn a great deal from those who went before us (including mistakes that they made), and better understand where we are today. Alister McGrath notes, “Part of our theological method must include an examination of the past to understand how we came to be where we are.” In other words, theology is not simply about giving priority to the Bible; it is also about valuing and interacting with the ideas scholars derive from their engagement with tradition. As Graham Cole summarizes, “Theological thinking is also historical thinking …. To ignore the past would be an immense folly.” Suffice it to say that McDermott’s book succeeds in answering these concerns.

    What distinguishes McDermott’s book from others and what I thought to be very beneficial is the format that he applies to each chapter. Each chapter starts with a biographical sketch of the theologian, telling a story about that theologian’s life, and then introduces main themes of that theologian’s thought. Then, McDermott zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that theologian and provides an analysis of it. I really appreciated this format. It helps me to see the bigger picture of how each theologian came to form his particular theological thinking, how he reacted to the theological trends of his day and how such events informed and influenced his view of Scripture, etc. As a result, it demonstrates the interesting journey of the theologian’s mind to his particular thinking.

    Another strength that comes from the format is that since the author keeps it uniform throughout the book, it was easier to compare one theologian to another. This is nicely done especially between Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the subjects of beauty, human experience (feeling) and reason in doing theology. To give another example, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues for the feeling of absolute dependence as the essence of religion (reacting to the Enlightenment), while Karl Barth turned attention to God’s self revelation in the Bible. Yet, Barth did not seem to exclude the significant aspect of human experience or feeling in doing theology, since his view of Scripture is that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for its readers. Interestingly, Edwards saw both feeling (affections) and thinking (cognition) as important aspects of religion. In my opinion, Edwards has the most balanced view on this important subject.

    An additional strength of this book is that McDermott did not neglect to include the viewpoints of contemporary systematic/historical theologians such as Alister McGrath and Timothy George. For example, McDermott cites McGrath in the section on Luther’s theology of the cross. This is an excellent example of how past theology can continue to influence contemporary theologians and how the interaction of past and present can further unfold God’s message of the cross.

    I enjoyed this book very much. One thing that I wondered before reading it was how he chose these eleven theologians. What were the reasons behind his selection? McDermott says that it was purely his personal preference. Whatever the reasons, I found it a good selection and I believe McDermott succeeded in accomplishing his purpose for the book: “I wanted to be able to provide a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians—so that any thinking Christian could get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each. . . . An introduction that could inform and provide a gateway to deeper study if so desired”(11).

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese.  Naomi is pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

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    William Lane Craig Debates with Daniel Dennett

    Here is audio of a debate of sorts between William Lane Craig and Daniel Dennett. Craig spends 45 minutes going over three theistic arguments in some detail: Leibnizian cosmological arguments, kalām cosmological arguments, and anthropic principle teleological arguments. Dennett responds for about 10 minutes. He seems impressed by Craig’s presentation, but objects that our intuitions (about causality for example) when taken to these conclusions, cease to be intuitive. I’m not sure that’s really relevant though, since the exposition of an intuition is never as obvious and clear as the intuition itself. At any rate, it’s obviously more plausible to affirm the principle of causality than to deny it.

    He also objects to the claim that abstract objects do not stand in causal relations. He suggests they can in a sense, but the sense he describes is clearly formal causal relations. The claim is that they cannot stand in efficient causal relations, and so cannot be appealed to as efficient causes.

    It ends with a couple of minutes of commentary by “Alister” who I assume is Alister McGrath since Craig’s CV includes “In Defense of Theistic Arguments” in the just-published The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue.

    (HT Quodlibeta)

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    Free Audio Resources for Theology

    The blog Undone has a nice collection of free audio resources in theology, including talks from notable theologians like Karl Barth, Gordon Fee, Stanley Grenz, Robert Jenson, Alister McGrath, and T. F. Torrance.

    (Via Faith and Theology)

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