Thursday, December 18, 2014

Kierkegaard's Concept of Faith

Merold Westphal, Kierkegaard's Concept of Faith. Eerdmans, 2014. 284 pages. ISBN 9780802868060

Westphal's KIerkegaard's Concept of Faith seeks to show the different aspects of Biblical faith according to Kierkegaard by looking at five books of Kierkegaard--Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Sickness unto Death, and Practice in Christianity-- and three pseudonyms. Westphal does a thorough job of analysing these texts to help the reader understand the different aspects of Kierkegard's views of Biblical faith. The book is intened for both the beginning and advanced student of Kierkegaard. The main text is for the beginning reader. The footnotes act as a second conversation with the advanced student. I was quite surprised how well Westphal was able to make Kierkegaard's ideas understandable to the reader.

Westphal is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Fordham University. His books have won awards from many organizations. He has published widely on Kierkegaard and Hegel. This is helpful since Kierkegaard's writings are a response to Hegel and his followers. Westphal is able to make this background conversation clear. Westphal and C. Stephen Evans are two of my favorite interpreters of Kierkegaard. They are both very knowledgeable about both the primary and secondary sources concerning Kierkegaard. Both have been writing about Kierkegaard for about forty years. One gets informed about the scholarly literature on Kierkegaard just by reading their works.

Kierkegaard's Concept of Faith is divided into three parts, based on three pseudonyms, Johannes Slentio, Johannes Climacus, and Anti-Climacus. The reader will learn a lot about Kierkegaard's writings through reading this book. The book is also enjoyable to read and understandable to the beginning reader of Kierkegaard.

Westphal in this book illustrates the different aspects of faith expressed in Kierkegaard's writings. The first aspect discussed in chapter one is "faith is the task of a lifetime" (18). This is a denial of the Hegelian view that faith is easy and quickly accomplished. One sees throughout the book that Kierkegaard's thinking is not an either/or but a both/and. For example, faith is both a task and a life-long quest. It is not something we can finish, then go on to another. It is also a critique that we do not go beyond faith to philosophy as Hegel thought.

Other aspects of faith are: Faith as trust in divine promises and faith as obedience to divine commands. Westphal also critiques certain views of Kierkegaard in this book: Kierkegaard was an irrationalist and an extreme inidividualist with no place for community in his thought. I enjoyed reading this book and help me to have a better understanding of Kierkegaard.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Natural Theology and the Reformed Objection

Laura L. Garcia, "Natural Theology and the Reformed Objection." In Christian Perspectives on Religious Knowledge, eds. C. Stephen Evans and Merold Westphal, 112-133. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Laura Garcia's essay, "Natural Theology and the Reformed Objection" is a response to an influential paper presented by Alvin Plantinga, "The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology." Garcia defines natural theology as "the attempt to demonstrate certain truths concerning God's existence and nature, operating from premises that are knowable by any rational person independently of divine revelation" (112). This tradition goes at least as far back as the thirteenth century with Thomas Aquinas if not earlier. The Catholic faith have argued for the compatibility of faith and reason since its beginning.

Garcia notes that Plantinga gives at least four reasons for rejecting the project of natural theology:

" (1) Philosophical proofs are not the actual source, for most believers, of their assent to God's existence and his natural attributes; (2) such proofs are unnecessary for believers to be rationally justified in their beliefs about God; (3) the project of natural theology succeed (or, less contentiously, has not succeeded to date); (4) philosophical proofs are an improper source of religious belief, since they will lead to a faith that is unstable and wavering" (112). In a surprise move, Garcia claims that those who argue for natural philosophy do not necessarily disagree with Plantinga's assertions. She states that in this essay she will try to show how Thomas Aquinas "would accept both (1) and (2) without hesitation" (112). She thinks that Aquinas would think that (3) has succeeded in some sense. An example would be the writings of Aristotle. This seems even to be supported from Romans 1 where Paul says that the divine is seen in what has been made.

In addition, she notes that "it is a dogma of the Catholic faith that the existence of God can be known with certainty from created things" (113).

She thinks the real objection lies in (4).

She shows how the proponents of natural theology is not the adversaries in this dispute. Garcia writes:

"I believe the crux of the Reformed objection to natural theology can be found in item (4), the claim that it leads to an unstable and wavering faith, that it will leave the believer susceptible to doubt and to the fluctuating tides of human opinion. Instead, believers are supposed to hold fast their faith, to resist temptations to doubt, to believe with a kind of assurance or certitude" (113). She goes on to say that the true adversaries to the Reformed objection are the evidentialists and positivists. She believes that Plantinga's project is "an attempt to preserve this assurance of faith and to show how it can be rationally justified even in the absence of compelling evidence for what believers hold" (113). Not everyone will agree with Garcia's conclusions. However, I think it is good to understand the other side in disagreeing with them. Protestants have misinterpreted Thomas Aquinas for a long time. It is good that Catholics and Protestants are talking to one another.

Garcia does a good job in addressing the objections of Alvin Plantinga. I do not know if he would necessarily agree with her that his objections are addressed. She does show that there is common ground between Aquinas and Plantinga. It seems to me that one can be both Reformed and a Thomist. The important thing is that both sides accept that faith is rational. As she says, it is the positivists and the rationalists that disagree.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Faith and Reason: Three Views

Faith and Reason: Three Views edited by Steve Wilkens; with contributions by Craig A. Boyd, Alan G. Padgett and Carl A. Raschke. IVP Academic, 2014. 185 pages. ISBN 978-0-8308-4040-3

What does faith have to do with reason? What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? This question has been asked repeatedly since Tertullian asked it 1800 years ago. Faith and Reason: Three Views seeks to answer this question through the contributions of three Christian philosophers. Carl A. Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver defends the "Faith and Philosophy in Tension" or faith against reason view. Alan G. Padgett, professor of systematic theology at Luther seminary defends the faith seeking understanding view. Craig A. Boyd, chair of the core curriculum and general studies at St. Louis University defends the synthesis of faith and reason view. Steve Wilken, professor of philosophy and ethics at Azuza Pacific university is the editor of the book. He does a good job in introducing the different views and showing at the end of the book showing where the authors agree despite their differences. In defending their views, the authors engage some of the leading Western thinkers: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Kierkegaard.

The first view presented is the faith and reason in tension view by Raschke. He received his Ph.D from Harvard University. He is the author of The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (2004) and other works. He makes a surprising assertion in the first sentence: "Christian Faith and Philosophy for the most part have been in tension for most part have been in tension for most of the last two thousand years" (35). Is this really true? It seems doubtful. Why would he make such an assertion. He follows with: "Ever since early Christianity spread beyond Roman Judea during the first century, the tension between faith and philosophy have remained largely resolved" (35). He seems to using these assertions to make his case of faith against reason. Raschke accuses Aquinas of simply baptizing the thought of Aristotle. This seems to be a distortion of Aquinas's view.

The second essay presented is Padgett's faith seeking understanding view. This view is similar to Boyd's synthesis of faith reason. The main difference, according to Boyd, is that he sees that "reason can play an important role as an antecedent to faith" (15). Padgett's focus is on the relationship between philosophy and theology. He believes in the autonomy of each discipline. He writes, "So far I have been arguing that the character of informal reasoning and the nature of academic disciplines suggest that while some principles of good reason will be found across the disciplines, each tradition works out its own specific standards of good thinking in the quest for truth" (104). He argues that Christian scholarship can be "excellent scholarship" and that Christian theology can learn from other disciplines, but must be allowed to do its own work. This view sees faith as foundational to thinking about the faith. Faith comes first.

The last view presented is the synthesis of faith and reason by Boyd. This might be the strongest essay presented. The author thinks the relationship between faith and reason is similar to the relationship between nature and grace. This idea is that grace perfects nature. It does not destroy it. The author defines his different terms and characterizes three types of reason. Boyd seems to side with the Catholic tradition of Thomas Aquinas about the relationship of faith and reason. I see the biggest difference between Boyd's view and the other is how complete was the fall. The other views seem to accept a total corruption or a total depravity; while, Boyd seems to support the Catholic view of a wounding of nature, but not a complete destruction.

All three authors make a strong case for their view of the relationship of faitha nd reason. This discussion has been going on since Tertullian's famous remarks about what has faith to do with reason. Those interested in this debate will be helped by this book.




Friday, December 5, 2014

Separation of Church and State

Frank Lambert, Separation of Church and State: Founding Principle of Religious Liberty. Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2014. ISBN 9780881464771

Was the United States founded as a Christian Nation? Did the Founders set up a wall of separation of Church and State? How do we interpret the first amendment which has two parts: no establishment and free exercise. Frank Lambert in his new book, Separation of Church and State attempts to answer these questions and others. Lambert is a respected historian who has authored other books on religion in American life: The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (2003) and Religion in American Politics: a Short History (2008). Lambert was motivated to write this book because he thought some authors were distorting the historical record of what actually happened at American Founding in regards to the separation of Church and State. Lambert notes, "To today's most vocal Conservative Evangelicals, separation of church and state is a myth perpetrated by latter-day liberals. However, that position is undercut by evangelicals of the Revolutionary Era who fought hard for the doctrine of separation as a constitutional safeguard of religious liberty" (12).

The first chapter is a critique "of the Christian Right who are unanimous in demonizing 'academic historians' as tools of secular and liberal perspectives" (13). This was my favorite chapter of the book. IN this chapter he discusses the methods of historians and show how the Christian Right historians distort history. He examines the writings of David Barton, Timothy LaHaye, John Eidsmoe, and others. He charges that "rather than pursuing a systematic and comprehensive investigation of the nation's founding that begins with probing questions, the Christian Right historians start and end with preconceived answers" (33). Lambert finds that the qualifications and practices of these "historians" are severely deficient.

The "remaining" four chapters analyses the historical record in regards to the claims made by the Christian Right historians. Chapter two explores the historical documents to see if America was founded as a Christian nation. This is a popular question currently. Some evangelical historians have argued that it was not. The author argues that "Puritans did indeed establish Christian states, but delegates to the Federal Convention of 1787 chose to ignore them in favor of a secular frame of government" (64). The author thinks that "Christian Right historians conflate English settlement of North America in the early seventeenth century with the establishment of the republic in the late eighteenth century" (64). In other words, the Puritans in New England, in some sense, set up a Christian state; the American founders at the Federal convention did not establish a Christian nation.

Chapter three examines the claim "that present-day 'secularists' and 'liberals' have distorted the place and importance of religion in America's past" (14). In this chapter he examines the historical documents that records the history of the Great Awakening. The author has written other books on the eighteenth-century revival known as the Great Awakening. He examines about the Enlightenment at this time. He shows how the religious record shows America to be "both deeply sacred and deeply secular" (15). This phenomenon continues to puzzle non-Americans.

The last two chapters examines the concept of separation of church and state. Chapter 4 looks at the place of religion in the state constitutions and chapter 5 examines separation of church and state in the federal constitution. The author shows how separation of church and state has not harmed religion but has made it more vibrant. We have the paradox that America is both secular and religious.

Frank Lambert in his book, Separation of Church and State shows himself to be an excellent historian. He shows how Christian Right historians writings fall short of the standards of historical scholarship. They do not deal adequately with the historical sources and in some cases distort it. They show themselves to be motivated by a political agenda not the seeking of truth. This book is intended for generally educated reader who is not a specialist in American history. This book is recommended for those interested in this important topic.



Reading the Philosophers

I had an interesting conversation with a friend at a Faculty/Staff dinner. WE were talking about reading and I mentioned that I did not take a philosophy course in completing three academic degrees,. My friend was completely shocked. She knew I read philosophers regularly. I probably read philosophical books more than any other kind of books. How did this happen?

I guess we can blame it on C. S. Lewis and some authors. I began reading Lewis in college. I fell in love with his work. I read many of his works several times. Then I read the secondary literature on his work. This is when I stumbled on the work of Peter Kreeft. I began not to read only what he wrote about Lewis but all his works. I read certain works of Kreeft repeatedly. Kreeft led me to atleast three other authors: Thomas Aquinas, James V. Schall, and Josef Pieper.

My first big introduction to Aquinas came by reading Kreeft's Summa of the Summa. I have read this book multiple times. I have also read Pegis's and other anthologies of Aquinas's writings. Reading Aquinas changed my life.

I think of Father Schall as my teacher. He is now over ninety and recently retired. I never tire of re-reading his works. The first book I read by Schall was Another Sort of Learning. Reading Schall has also changed my life. I can never repay the debt I owe to him.

Two other author that have influenced by thinking are Josep Pieper and Mortimer Adler. I have read their works repeatedly. I find myself having similar interests as Mortimer Adler. He has taught me to become a better reader. All these authors have taught me the importance of the life of the mind. AS Father Schall says there are rich pleasures that go with the life of the mind.

These are some of the authors that called me out to pursue philosophy, or the love of wisdom. I never tire of reading the great philosophers and thinking about the truth of things.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Reading for Pleasure

I often read books for intellectual and spiritual growth. Other times I read to support my work as teacher and librarian. Sometimes I like to read just for the pleasure of reading. Recently, I decided I needed to read a book just for pleasure. I picked up a book I had read before that I enjoyed reading. The book is Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Berry is one of my favorite writers and I have read many of his books. Jayber Crow is an interesting story. It tells the story of a young boy orphaned at ten and sent to an orphanage. During a revival meeting he accepted a call to the ministry. To receive training for this calling he go to a theological school. After being at the school one year he leaves the school and return to his original home before being orphaned and becomes a town barber. In some sense he lives out God's calling as a barber. This story resonates with my own story. I too soon after conversion felt a call to ministry. I attended Louisiana College, a Baptist institution, to prepare for the ministry. After one year I decided to return home and study at a state university. After receiving my B.A. I attended New Orleans Baptist Seminary. After being at the seminary for one term I decided the ministry was not for me. Instead, I returned to the state university to pursue a graduate degree in History. That was twenty four years ago. From hindsight I believe I made the right decision.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

An Introduction to Kierkegaard

Peter Vardy, An Introduction to Kierkegaard. Hendrickson, 2008. 109 pages. ISBN 978-1-59856-345-0.

I had been reading E. Stephen Evans' introduction to Kierkegaard. I found it somewhat dense in some spots. I had already read Peter Kreeft's new book on Socrates and Kierkegaard. I enjoyed it. It was mostly an overview of Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments. I decided I needed an introduction to Kierkegaard for a beginner. I found Peter Vardy's An Introduction to Kierkegaard just what I needed. He does an excellent job of explaining Kierkegaard to a beginner. It probably helps that he has been teaching Kierkegaard to undergraduate students for 25 years. Vardy is Vice-Principal of Heythrop College, the specialist Philsophy and Theology college of the University of London. Other books authored by Vardy are The Puzzle of God, The Puzzle of Sex, The Puzzle of Ethics, and Being Human.

An Introduction to Kierkegaard includes eleven chapters. Topics discussed in these chapters are Kierkegaard's life, faith and reason, truth, stages of life, ethics, love, dialogue with other religions, and Kierkegaard's criticism of the institutional church. Vardy states that Kierkegaard has influenced him "more than any other thinker" (ix). This introduction does not treat Kierkegaard's works exhaustively. He does well as providing a basic overview of Kierkegaard's thought. It is an excellent book for one just beginning to read Kierkegaard.

Vardy argues that if Jesus is God certain things follow: "The truth that is revealed in Jesus' life is not like that of Gandhi or Socrates;" the supreme importance of the incarnation as a "decisive event in human history;" for an individual to accept the message of the gospel "is not like acquiring one more piece of information;" (This is Walker Percy's argument in his parable, "The Message in the Bottle") the moment when accepts the incarnation and decides to take it seriously the Eternal Truth that Jesus brings will be decisive" (12). In other words, the incarnation is not like any other event. In it the eternal entered the temporary. E. Stephen Evans does an excellent job explaining these thins things in his commentary on Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments which I was reading at the same time I was reading Vardy's introduction to Kierkegaard.

Two other points that followed from the incarnation argued by Vardy are that "KIerkegaard . . . equates error with sin" and sin is not the opposite of virtue. If Jesus is God and we do not recognize the fact, then we are in error. Hardy thinks that this "is to assert the primacy of human reason and to refuse to accept a revelation that goes beyond reason" (13). In addition, "if someone moves from refusal to accept that Jesus is God to an acceptance of this, then this is a move from error to truth, from sin to faith" (13). There are many ways that Christians see the relationship between faith and reason. Three major ways are faith against reason, the synthesis of faith and reason, or faith above reason. Kierkegaard seems to argue either for faith against reason or faith above reason. Some argue that Kierkegaard is an irrationalist, but this does not seem to be the case. This relationship between faith and reason has captured my attention for over thirty years. I have been studying how Aquinas and Kierkegaard understand this relationship. Are there positions diametrically opposed? Can they be reconciled? This is something I am trying to find out in regards to the writings of Walker Percy.

An Introduction to Kierkegarrd by Peter Vardy does a good job in providing a concise overview of Kierkegaard and his thought. It is a good place to begin reading about Kierkegaard. He provides a recommended reading list for those who want to go further. The book is well-written and easy to understand. One does not need prior knowledge of Kierkegaard to understand it.