Asking the Wrong Question, and Missing the Point

Been reading a lot of philosophy lately – of both the secular and theological kind. So a new question struck me recently, maybe not a new question for you, but it has raised a series of related questions in my mind. I always seem to be better at asking questions than providing answers. Anyway, if you have any profound insights, please feel free to comment.

My observation which led to a question is this: I wonder if the reason the church is losing members, and is having the related issue of paralysis of evangelism, is because we are asking the wrong question. What I mean is, if we confront people with the wrong existential question, no matter how correctly they answer any other question, in the long run it really will not matter. This takes some unpacking, but stay with me for a little while and let me at least try.

Unless I am just flat out crazy, it seems to me that the Bible is totally unconcerned with proving that God exists. It simply takes for granted that God exists, that He is a personal God, that He is vitally interested in the creation He created, redeemed, and will at some point in time, completely renew. In fact, I will venture that until the time of the Enlightenment, it was assumed by virtually every culture that there was a god. Whether that god could be considered the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob might be debated, but with the exception of some far-Eastern religions, the existence of a god was never even questioned. So, if I am correct, all the ink that is spilled and the breath that is expelled trying to “prove” God exists is utterly a waste of time. For one, it cannot be done (otherwise, faith would be replaced by some laboratory test or other) and two, even if you could “prove” God exists, all you have done is expend a tremendous amount of energy to arrive where the Bible begins, “In the beginning God. . .”

A far more vital question relates to the historical existence and truthfulness of the claims of Jesus: that Jesus is the Son of God and that he lived, was crucified, was resurrected, and will return. Here again, however, at least for those of us living in the 21st century, these questions must be answered by faith. We cannot interview those who stood by the tomb of Lazarus, those who tasted the water turned into wine, those who stuck their heads in the empty tomb. “Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” is therefore a legitimate and probing question. Sadly, however, “belief” in Jesus as the Son of God has been so watered down in our culture that quite literally any belief can qualify as belief in Jesus as God’s messiah. You can be a white supremacist, devoted follower of cultists such as Joseph Smith, or card-carrying member of the LGBTQ cohort and still proclaim to be a believer in Jesus as the Christ. Logically, and not just theologically, that is just impossible, but the use of logic went out the window decades ago.

So, it seems to me, that the question that is the ultimate question is this: “Will there be a supreme and final judgment that will separate the righteous from the evil, the right from the wrong, the blessed from the cursed.” I offer as evidence the fact that when both John the Baptist and Jesus started their ministries, their primary message was, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” They did not say, “believe in God,” or “yo, dudes, Jesus is da man.” They said “repent.” As in, judgment is coming, you better get right with God.

My second piece of evidence is what might arguably be called Paul’s first letter to any of his fledgling congregations, 1 Thessalonians. He wrote in 1:10, “. . . and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” While Paul is at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ to come (1 Cor. 15!), the existential question Paul seeks to answer is this – what does it matter? If there is no judgment to come, then what does it matter if Jesus is God’s messiah or not? Jesus could just as easily be God’s messiah (the Christ) if there is no judgment forthcoming. Clearly, the coming judgment was a primary, if not the primary, question.

Stated somewhat differently, if there is no coming judgment, it really does not matter what we believe! We can believe in God, or a god, or no god. We can be a racist or promote racial equality. We can follow Joseph Smith or Jim Jones or David Koresh or Joel Osteen – or nobody. We can be straight or gay or male or female or change what we think we are with the change in weather. It simply does not matter – we will all just vaporize at the moment of death, or all go to heaven, or something in between. God then simply becomes another deism, Jesus as the Christ becomes another prophet or guru, and our life on earth is utterly, totally, and completely meaningless.

On the other hand, if there is a coming judgment, then biblical truth really does matter. Then it really does matter what we believe God to be. It really does matter if we submit to the Lordship of Jesus. It really does matter whether we reject religious imposters. And it really does matter how we express our love for all races, how we express our solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, and yes, even how we express our sexual natures. It really does matter if we accept the biblical teaching regarding morality and ethics, and yes, it really does matter that we obey both the weightier matters of God’s law as well as the lighter matters – so long as we correctly differentiate those distinctions (Matthew 23:23-24, Romans 14).

In short, the impending judgment is what will ultimately give our present life meaning. As far as the kingdom of God has been revealed, our life has meaning here and now. The ultimate revelation of what our life on this earth means will be made clear when we see the new heaven and the new earth.

This is not to suggest that we begin with the question of the judgment. Every person and every situation is different. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to evangelism and sharing the gospel of Christ. Some people need to see the reality of God. Some need to be confronted with the lordship of Jesus. Some need to even understand the authority of Scripture. But if we never get around to pressing the issue of the judgment, if we never get around to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” we will never be successful in leading people into that kingdom.

I could be soaking wet, mostly wet, or maybe just a little damp. But the question has caused me to re-orient my own preaching and teaching. I hope it helps you focus as well.

Book Review – “Philosophy: A Christian Introduction” (James K. Dew, Jr. and Paul M. Gould)

Philosophy: A Christian Introduction, James K. Dew, Jr., and Paul M. Gould, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 254 pages.

Long time readers of my blog might have picked up on a habit that I have – I love to recommend books. With only very few exceptions, every book review that I post has the same bottom line, “buy this book.” Even if I disagree with one or more of the salient points that the author(s) make, I like to read books, ponder books, argue with the authors of books, and to be challenged and provoked by books.

Sadly, I’m going to have to break my custom here.

It’s not that this is a bad book, or one that I disagree wholeheartedly with. It’s just that the book does not accomplish what it sets out to do. And that is really sad, because there is a genuine dearth of books written for the neophyte in philosophy, and especially a book that attempts to tackle the thorny issue of relating philosophy to Christianity.

The authors here begin by saying the right things, and I was excited to believe that maybe I had found a source to share with those who might be looking for a true Christian introduction to philosophy. They admitted that books, and university courses, in philosophy can become overwhelming, confusing, and obscure. They regret that, and believe it does not have to be that way. In the introductory chapter they indicate that their book will bridge the gap between secular philosophical studies and a Christian worldview.

In my estimation, and this is purely my response, I just believe they fall into the first category, and fail to deliver on the second promise.

Regarding the first comment. If a book is going to be an “introduction,” the authors need to assume that the reader knows little or nothing about his, her, or their subject. These authors devote a mere 10 pages to an introductory chapter on philosophy, then immediately jump into the subject of epistemology. “Okay class, I’m going to spend 10 minutes discussing the basics of anatomy, then we are going to all participate in a cardio-vascular operation.” No overview of major philosophers, no quick, down-and-dirty discussion of philosophical schools of thought. Just dive into epistemology, and then run head-long into a section on metaphysics. The third major section is even more head-scratching for an “introduction” – and that is a section on the philosophy of religion. That topic would be fine if it were a concluding chapter (or maybe a brief section), but the last section of the book is devoted to ethics. The general outline of the book just makes no sense to me. My response to this book is, if you already know something about philosophy, it might be valuable. But, then, if you already know something about philosophy, why read an “introduction”?

Also related to my first comment, the authors fall into the obscure, confusing and overwhelming trap of most books on philosophy. Their chapters on “Properties and Universals” and “Particulars” are just mind-numbing. The attempt to make such obscure topics relatable by the introduction of Rosie the chicken was commendable, but even that attempt ended up falling flat. In my opinion (and I am not a professional philosopher, as this review reveals), these topics were just way too complex and advanced to discuss as in-depth as these authors attempted to do. These chapters illustrate perhaps more than any that the authors over-shot the understanding of their assumed audience by a wide margin.

Second, if you put “A Christian Introduction” as the sub-title of your book, then I expect a thorough Christian response to the topics you discuss. In this book there is only the thinnest veneer of a Christian reaction, and even that is limited to a Reformed theology. Although this is a weakness throughout, in one chapter the lack of any biblical, and in this regard, New Testament  response, is glaring. That chapter specifically deals with “The Possibility of Life After Death.” You would think, after a general overview of the theories of life extending beyond death, that there would be at least a cursory mention of 1 Corinthians 15. You would be sadly mistaken. After giving grudging credence to the idea that cannibalism might be a legitimate threat to the idea of a resurrected body, the authors do not even mention that the apostle Paul specifically rejects the idea of a reconstituted human, physical body in the resurrection! We will have bodies, Paul makes clear, but  what those bodies will consist of Paul makes no effort to define. What he does reject is the reconstitution of our present, physical, human body. This is not the only time that the authors fail to incorporate biblical teaching regarding the topic at hand (the Hebrew concept of nephesh, for example, in the discussion of the soul), but I will argue it is the most egregious.

I’m just sad to say that, with so much potential, and with such a huge need for a book with this intention, it just fails on so many levels. We – the uninformed masses – need a book that introduces the leading framers and topics of philosophy and at the same time builds a bridge between those topics and the Christian worldview. Maybe that introduction is out there and I have just not found it. As well intentioned as this volume is, this is not it either.

For what it is worth, by far and away the best volume I have found to date giving an easy (or at least easier) to understand overview of philosophy, is C. Steven Evans magnum opus, A History of Western Philosophy. (See my review here Book Review – A History of Western Philosophy (C. Stephen Evans) At almost 600 pages long it does not fall into the category of an “introduction,” but it is written on a far more accessible level, and covers the basic fundamentals of philosophy much more completely than Dew and Gould’s book. Also, without overtly attempting to do so, Evans provides a much more comprehensive Christian appraisal of the topics he discusses, something that Dew and Gould fail to do, even though their volume expressly claims that is one of their goals.

I really, really, do not like being negative about a book. I strive to find the positive even in books where I disagree with the author(s). As I have stated many times, I can learn very little new from someone with whom I already agree 100%, so it is not that I just disagree with these authors. But, the book makes two significant promises – one, that it is an introduction to philosophy, and two, that it includes a Christian response. On the first promise the book just becomes too obscure and confusing, and on the second, it just whiffs.

Book Review – A History of Western Philosophy (C. Stephen Evans)

A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism, C. Stephen Evans (Downers Grove: IVP Academic Books, 2018), 585 pages.

Not too very far in my past I was blessed with the opportunity to be an instructor at the university level (personal rant here – a Professor is one who has attained a level of tenure and is a title bestowed by his or her peers. An instructor is one who instructs. I was an instructor, not a professor!!) One course that I was assigned was the subject of Philosophy of Religion. I have always been quasi-interested in the field of philosophy, and this course whetted my appetite to understand the intersection of philosophy and religion as no other assignment might have done. Alas, I was utterly adrift as to what to use as a text, and the text that was suggested to me was an anthology of writings, not an explanation of the topic of Philosophy of Religion. The first time I taught the course was an absolute disaster (as far as I was concerned, and I apologize profoundly to my students who were subjected to my ignorance!). The second time revealed some improvement, but not much. What I needed was a brief, yet as thorough as possible, treatment of the major strands of the field of philosophy. What I needed, in brief, was this book – sadly not published until long after my instructorship days were concluded.

In many respects, C. Stephen Evans has pulled off what I consider to be a minor miracle. He summarizes the vast ocean of material in the field of philosophy, and manages to do in a relatively brief (if 585 pages can be called brief) amount of space. In my estimation he also does this in a very readable and understandable manner – something that is critical for my decidedly less-than-prodigious ability to understand philosophical concepts. In other words – Evans wrote in a way that I can understand him. That, my friends, is truly a five star, two thumbs up recommendation for this book.

The book is arranged with 24 chapters, each chapter focusing on one (or sometimes two or three) major characters/writers in the field of philosophy (Socrates left no writings of which we are aware). All the “biggies” are discussed – Socrates, Plato and thus and such until he concludes with Friedrich Nietzsche. The outline is basically chronological, although he does break at one point to cover one time period from two different angles – European (Continental) and British. Each chapter discusses how the particular philosopher under discussion accepts or rejects previous philosophical movements, and then goes on to provide a brief explanation of that philosopher’s contribution to the field of philosophy.

(By the way, if you are wondering, his explanation of why he stops with Nietzsche is brilliant! I was wondering why he did so, and it is because he does not feel that it is possible to evaluate which of the 20th century philosophers will be critical enough to the future of philosophy to effectively evaluate them. Any evaluation, he believes, is for a future volume, one that I personally hope he writes. But, he does not want to view 20th century philosophers from the vantage point of “history” quite yet.)

There are, to be sure, some drawbacks to the author’s methodology. First, it is truly impossible to summarize the philosophy of Socrates, Augustine, Spinoza, Kant, or Marx in 25-30 pages. Yet, given this limitation, Evans does a remarkable job of maintaining his “meta narrative” (to borrow a philosophical term) throughout the book. Second, (and this is a criticism I have of virtually every “summary” type book regarding philosophy) – the authors of such summary style books are so educated, so well versed in their topic, that they can (and do) understand their characters in a manner deeper than they are able to summarize. Thus, they may write what they think is an acceptable summary of the thinking of Leibniz, but in a subsequent chapter they refer to an obscure (or not fully developed) aspect of Leibniz’ philosophy as if the reader fully understood Leibniz, and especially in my case, I don’t fully understand Leibniz’ philosophy. However, I must quickly add that this is a minor quibble, and in no way is meant to be a negative criticism of the value of this book. It simply is a consequence of what the author attempted to accomplish – provide a summary of a character’s philosophy and relate it to later philosophers’ writings.

Among all the positive attributes of this book that I could mention, perhaps the one that stands out to me right now is the fact that Evans writes from the position of a Christian philosopher, and he relates the contributions of each major character in terms of Christian thought. His favorite philosopher is Soren Kierkegaard, and his exuberance concerning Kierkegaard, and his explanation of Kierkegaard’s methodology, has kindled a real desire in me to read more of Kierkegaard’s writings (I only own one of Kierkegaard’s books). I offer just one snippet of Evan’s concluding chapter to illustrate his perspective:

The reason religion cannot be completely divorced from philosophy is that philosophy is done by human beings, and human beings are incorrigibly religious . . . If Christianity is true, then humans were made in God’s image, and their intended destiny is to have a relationship with God. If humans are deeply religious by nature, it is hard to see how philosophy can be sharply segregated from religion, or why it should be. (p. 577)

Now, to be sure, Evans view of Christianity differs from mine. He will make dogmatic statements that I do not necessarily agree with (he repeatedly refers to “original sin” as a universally held Christian belief, something that I do not ascribe to). But – show me a book in which I agree with everything the author says, and I will point out that book is one that I wrote.

As a deeply personal aside here, one of the real joys that I discovered in this book is that it helped me understand more of the background to one of my favorite theologians – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and he never references Bonhoeffer once (boo!). Bonhoeffer’s two academic dissertations were written in response to a number of the philosophers discussed by Evans – Kant, Fichte, Husserl, and to a degree, Heidegger. What slowly dawned on me as I read these chapters is that in addition to being a brilliant theologian, Bonhoeffer was a profound philosopher. Maybe that one reason I find Bonhoeffer so challenging – and so valuable even almost 75 years after his death. Statements like, “Only those who believe can obey, and only those who are obedient can believe” are not only deeply theological, they are profoundly philosophical. Bonhoeffer was doing (albeit without consciously attempting to) what Evans described as what Kierkegaard was trying to do – speak to his culture in a way that they could hear the message of Jesus without being beat over the head with it. Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer were both attacking what they believed to be a dead church – so it is not surprising that their methods might have been so similar!!!  Maybe not, I’m not that much of a Bonhoeffer scholar, and he was clearly writing as a Christian scholar and pastor. But, the parallels between Bonhoeffer’s theology and philosophy became crystal clear to me through the pages of Evans’ book.

If you are interested in philosophy, especially if you do not consider yourself a professional philosopher and if many of the major philosophers are difficult to understand, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The cumulative length of the book is prodigious (the afore mentioned 585 pages), but the chapters themselves are 25-30 pages on average, and, once again, Evans writes to non-specialists. This is a very accessible book for philosophical neophytes like me.

Buy this book, brew yourself a big pot of tea (or coffee if you prefer) and give yourself a real treat. You will not regret investing in yourself – and hopefully grasping a little greater understanding of yourself and your world.