Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What's the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian?

What's the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian: A Guide to What Matters Most, by Martin Thielen. Louisville, Kentucky: WJK, 2011. 157 pages. ISBN: 978-0-664-23683-0

Reviewed by John E. Shaffett

The title of the book can be misleading. It seems to be encouraging a compromising faith. I do not think that is what the author is trying to do. Martin Thelen in What's the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian is attempting to distinguish between what is essential to the Christian faith. He actually got the title from a friend who was an atheist. This atheist eventually came to faith in Jesus Christ. Thielen's friend, however, had many obstacles to overcome to hear the true message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part discusses"Ten things Christians Don't need to Believe." These are barriers are obstacles to non-believers becoming Christians. They might also be things that cause people to leave the faith. Some of the issues discussed in this part are suffering, evolution, status of women, social justics, last things, other religions, inerrancy of scripture, and homosexuality. These are issues that divide Christians. For example, the author gives three different responses to homosexuality: nonwelcoming and nonaffirming; welcoming and affirming; welcoming but nonaffirming. The author seeks to take a middle position between the right and left on the majority of issues discussed in the book.

The second part of the book is the weightiest. It seeks to describe what is essential to the Christian faith. The author describes the "Ten things Christians do need to believe." This part major theme is who is Jesus Christ and what is our relationship to him. Issues discussed are Jesus' identity, priority, grace, life, death, resurrection, and other topics. The last chapter is interesting: "Do mainline Christians believe in being saved"?
The author says they do. The author makes three points about salvation: it is a lifelong process; we are saved by God's grace; salvation requires a human response. Thielen believes that some believers are saved instantaneously; others are saved gradually.

Some Christians will disagree with Thielen's conclusions in part one, but it will be helpful to see different responses to controversial issues of our day. Most Christians will affirm what the author has to say in part two. The presentation is basic orthodox Christianity. Thielen believes in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He believes Christians have an eternal hope because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What's the Least I Can believe and Still be a Christian is recommended for all Christians. It would be also a good book to give to non-Christians.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cicero's On Old Age

Cicero, "On Old Age" in Cicero: Selected Works. Translated with an introduction by Michael Grant. Penguin Books, 1971.

I recently had my students compare and contrast Cicero and Caesar. I was quite surprised how the posts indicated that the students thought Cicero to be a minor player on the world stage compared to Caesar. Why was that? I assume since Caesar was a military hero he was seen to be more important. In contrast, I see Cicero to be a major player and more influential in the long term. Cicero was a thinker, a statesman, an orator, and writer. One of the more important contributions of Cicero was making Greek philosophical thought available to the Latin world. In addition, Cicero was a man of broad learning and this is clearly present in his great essay, "On Old Age."

Why would one want to read an essay on old age? I would suggest just a few reasons. Life is a series of stages. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. To live life most fully at every stage, it helps to know our end or to prepare for it. It also helps to know that we are mortal and we must prepare for the end. Understanding our end helps us to prepare for it.

Americans are obsessed with a youth culture. You have rock stars in their sixties are still trying to live as they are still twenty. You have Hollywood stars having surgery after surgery to give them the appearance of youth. You have young people not prepared for the future. Knowing our end helps us to live most fully in the present.

"Old Age" is a dialogue between Cato and two young admirers. Cato basically acts as Cicero's mouthpiece for his views on aging. Cato tells his friends that there are four reasons people see old age as an unhappy time. First, because we are less active. Second, we have less physical strength. Third, it takes away from us physical pleasures. fourth, because it is so close to death. Cicero addresses each of these issues and show how we can have a different perspective and see that old age as a time of happiness.

Cicero gives the example of a pilot sailing a ship to show that old age is not an end to activity. The pilot uses intelligence to sail the ship. Life is not all about physical strength. The mind is a muscle and it can grow with exercise. Many great thinkers remain active till their last days. Mortimer Adler was intellectually active till his last days. Cato notes, "So old age, you see, far from being sluggish and feeble, is really very lively, and perpetually active, and still busy with the pursuits of earlier years. Some people never stop learning . . ." (223). This is so true. We can keep on learning our whole life. This is an important reason for a broad liberal arts education. It provides the foundation for a life-time of learning and enrichment.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Adventures in Unfashionable Philosophy

Adventures In Unfashionable Philosophy
By James W. Felt, S. J., University of Notre Dame Press, 2010, 274 pp., ISBN 978-0-268-029029, $35.00 (paper).

Reviewed by John E. Shaffett

This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:
Catholic Library World, Sept 2010, Vol. 81 Issue 1, p.57.
Adventures In Unfashionable Philosophy by James W. Felt is a collection of essays written over a period of forty years. The title gives a good indication what the book is about. The essays “unashamedly pursue metaphysics in the classical but now rather unfashionable sense” (vii). 

James W. Felt, S.J., at Santa Clara University for 41 years, retired in June 2006. He specializes in metaphysics, especially that of St. Thomas and Alfred North Whitehead, as well as epistemology and the philosophy of scientific knowing. He has published many essays and four other books : Making Sense of Your Freedom, Coming to Be: Toward a Thomistic-Whiteheadian Metaphysics of Be-coming, Human Knowing: A Prelude to MetaPhysics, and Aims: A Brief Metaphysics for Today.

The essays included in this volume resonate with the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead. Some of the major themes addressed are enriching the thought of Thomas Aquinas through modern scientific thinking; critiquing the thought of Whitehead; analyzing metaphysical methods and conclusions; “the relation of possibility to actuality;” the relationship between time and experience; and “epistemological realism.”  The essays are arranged in chronological order, starting from his earliest essay, On Being Yourself (1968) and ending with Know Yourself (2007).This arrangement allows the reader to see the evolution of Felt’s thought. Each essay includes an abstract indicating where it was originally presented, its purpose, its level of difficulty, and whether the author still agrees with the position taken in the essay. These abstracts will be very helpful to the reader in understanding the essays and the evolution of Felt’s thought.

Most of the essays range from mildly to moderately technical; only a few are quite technical. Readers are not acquainted with the thought of Whitehead and Thomas will have a more difficult time understanding the essays. This book will be especially valuable to the reader familiar with Whitehead and Aquinas. Adventures In Unfashionable Philosophy will be an excellent companion to the other books published by James W. Felt.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Seeking the Truth of Things

Seeking the Truth of Things: Confessions of a (catholic) philosopher
By Al Gini, Acta Publications, 2010, 109 pp., ISBN 978-0-87946-43108, $14.95 (paper).
Reviewed by John E. Shaffett

This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:

Catholic Library World, Mar2012, Vol.82 Issue 3, p.224
Who am I? Is there a meaning to Life? How should I work? What is my responsibility to others? These questions and others are addressed by Al Gini in his new book, Seeking the Truth of Things. Gini is professor of Business Ethics and chair of the Department of Management in the School of Business Administration at Loyola University of Chicago. He has also “resident philosopher” on National Public Radio.
In his senior year in college, Gini informed his parents that he would not be going to medical or law school; instead, he would be going to graduate school in philosophy. His parents did not take it well. His father yelled at him and his mother looked at him in disbelief. Gini’s father told him, “After getting great grades and setting up yourself for a real career, you’re going to throw it away on a frou frou degree in philosophy” (9). It took his father several years to accept his decision. Gini remarks that after forty years of studying and teaching philosophy, he has no regrets; however, his father was right about one thing, lawyers make a lot more money than philosophers.
Seeking the Truth of Things is part memoir and part instruction on the important lessons Gini has learned teaching philosophy. For example, he explains his method of teaching philosophy: “Over the past forty years or so, I’ve tried to challenge my students . . . to be respectfully disrespectful of the ideas of others. I’ve encouraged them to dissect and debate wisdom of all kinds . . . I’ve urged them to make up their own minds” (11). Instead of teaching philosophy systematically or historically, Gini practices a Socratic approach to philosophy. Speaking of Socrates, Gini says that to Socrates, “philosophy was a way of life, a way of approaching and seeing the world, a way of thinking” (21). Socrates did not leave us a “series of answers” but a method for asking questions and a way to seek wisdom.
Seeking the Truth of Things is an enjoyable book to read and it has much to teach us. The chapter on work is worth the cost of the book. It is especially relevant at a time of high unemployment. This book is written for the general reader and not for specialists in philosophy. However, philosophers would get much benefit from it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Doubting and Christian Belief

Alister McGrath, Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2006. pp. 155. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3352-8.
Reviewed by John E. Shaffett

Do all Christians struggle with doubt? Is it a sin to doubt? Why do Christians struggle with doubt? Alister McGrath notes, "It's surprising how many Christians prefer not to talk about doubt. Some even refuse to think about it. Somehow, admitting to doubt seems to amount to insulting God, calling his integrity into question" (13). This seems to be true. I have met Christians who think it is a sin to doubt or question God. For example, recently in a church service a church member stood up and told the pastor that the main point of the book of Job is not to question God. Huh! This statement was puzzling.

McGrath, in contrast, does not think it is a sin to question God. He asserts that it is actually an opportunity to grow in the faith. That is why the subtitle is Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith. The author claims that doubt "is not skepticism;" it is not "unbelief;" doubt "often means asking questions or voicing uncertainties from the standpoint of faith." Doubting is written mostly for young believers, especially college students who will have questions and challenges in the early years of their Christian faith. It emphasizes dealing with intellectual difficulties or doubts, not really emotional and psychological doubts. A good book on the emotional issue of doubt is Dealing with Doubts by Gary Habermas. His book is out of print, but an electronic version of the book is available for free. http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/dealing_with_doubt/dealing_with_doubt.htm

Doubt is not really an academic book; it is written more for a popular audience. It is pastoral sensitive. It is a retreat oriented type of book. It will not answer all the questions a reader might have about doubt, but it provides much helpful advice. The author makes some good points about cultivating spiritual disciplines to help with doubt. For example, McGrath instructs the reader to "spend time developing your understanding and knowledge of the Christian faith. It is by feeding your faith that you can starve your doubts to death" (124). This is good advice, but I do not know if you will literally starve your doubts to death. McGrath argues for the importance of apologetics with a twist. Apologetics is basically about answering unbelievers' questions about the faith. The author thinks this is important, but he thinks apologetics is also important because "it will help us answer our own questions" (149).

Doubt is a good book for Christians to read who struggle with doubt or know others who struggle with doubt. McGrath takes a balanced view between seeing doubt as evil and those who praise skepticism. This book will help Christians to grow up in their faith.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Soul Surfer

Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on Board by Bethany Hamilton with Sheryl Berk and Rick Bunschuh. New York: MTV Books/Pocket Books, 2006. 222 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4165-0346-0.

When Bethany Hamilton was thirteen years old she was attacked by a tiger shark which left her with only one arm. Bethany's dream was to be become a professional surfer. It now looked like this dream was destroyed forever. Even more important, she almost lost her life. Bethany had lost about 60% of her blood before making it to the hospital. She easily could have died. The medical team noted that it was her ability to keep calm probably saved her life. How was she able to remain calm in this traumatic situation? Bethany says it was largely her faith in God that sustained her through this time.

There is also a movie about her life that is also titles Soul Surfer starring Hellen Hunt as her mom and Denis Quaid as her dad. I actually watched the movie before reading the book. The movie is an "uplifting," and "entertaining" film. My whole family enjoyed it. The movie, however, leaves the viewer with many questions. How did Bethany develop this faith? What has her life been like since the accident? A little of the post-accident life is covered in the film. In the DVD there is an excellent documentary on how Bethany has gone on to become a professional surfer. The book is a good complement to the movie.

Why read the book? Why watch the movie? This is a heart-warming story. It shows how God can bring good things out of bad events. God has used Bethany to be a positive role model for expressing one's faith in the public. Her story teaches us how to have faith in difficult circumstances. So go ahead and rent the movie, pop some popcorn and enjoy. If you are interested in getting a fuller picture of the event, find a copy of the book and hopefully your faith will be affirmed. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reshaping Ecumenical Theology

Reshaping Ecumenical Theology: The Church Made Whole?
By Paul Avis, T&T Clark, 2010, 209 pp., ISBN 978-0-567-19433-5, $34.95.

This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:

Catholic Library World, Sep2011, vol. 82 Issue 1, p40-41, 2p.

Has the ecumenical movement reached a dead end? Paul Avis says no. He believes the movement can be revived and moved forward. He explains how this can be accomplished in his new book, Reshaping Ecumenical Theology: The Church Made Whole. Paul Avis is the General Secretary of the Council for Christian Unity and Canon Theologian of Exeter and a long-time leader of the ecumenical movement in the Anglican Church in England.

Avis emphasizes and celebrates the diversity and unity of Christianity and the Church. He does not ignore the difficulties facing the ecumenical movement in the modern day. He asks the question: “when does multiplicity become fragmentation?” (p. viii). Avis thinks that the fragmentation of the church is a scandal to the non-believing world. He believes all Christians are called to work for the unity of the church. He believes this unity is both physical and spiritual. Most people think that spiritual unity of the church is enough. For example, all Christians are spiritually baptized into one body of Christ. Avis accepts this, but he does not think this is enough. The church must also work for physical union too. He says that “the spiritual cannot flourish without the structural” (p.44). He notes that the Church’s “existence is patterned on the Incarnation: divinity is embodied, united with humanity” (p.44).

Avis shows where the ecumenical movement has failed and where it has succeeded. For example, Avis notes that “ecumenism clearly needs to take more seriously … the huge diversity of Christianity that is reflected in the churches — a diversity of spirituality, worship, theology and organization” (p. viii). This would be a helpful correction in the ecumenical movement. It would make it much stronger than it has been in the past. By adequately dealing with the differences, the substance of Christianity existing in multiple traditions would be more clearly shown. On the other hand, Avis believes that all Christians are to work for the unity of the church. He understands the ecumenical movement as “a quest for the mutual understanding between churches” (p.62). This unity is provided for us in Christ and the Holy Spirit; but is also something we must do. Avis notes that this is “both a gift and a task” (63).
The chapters include materials that Avis has presented on other occasions that he has “rewritten, expanded and corrected extensively” (p. ix). It also includes new material that presents ideas to move the ecumenical movement forward. This book is an excellent introduction to the ecumenical movement. It helps to see where the ecumenical movement has been and how to move it forward.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Life of the Mind

James V. Schall, The Life of the Mind: On the Joy and Travails of Thinking. Wilmington, Del. : ISI Books, 2006. 214 pp. ISBN: 1-932236-89-7.

This is probably my third time reading this book. One might ask why would a person keeps reading a book when there are so many other books to read. All I can say is that I keep reading books that keep teaching me and The Life of the Mind continues to teach me about truth, wisdom, and beauty. James V. Schall is a great teacher and he makes the permanent or essential things clear and attractive.The author draws from many of the great thinkers odf Western Civilization: Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, the Bible, Samuel Johnson, and many more.

There are many great essays in this book. In "On the Joys and Travails of Thinking," provides an overview of an important book which provides instruction on pursuing the intellectual life, The Intellectual Life by A. D. Sertillanges. Schall observes, "An intellectual life, a contemplative life, is filled with activity, but activity that is purposeful, that wants to know and to know the truth" (4). In other words, we must have a desire for truth and a plan to discover it.

"Books and the Intellectual Life" teaches the importance of having a personal library. Samuel Johnson advised James Boswell "to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time" (8-9). It is important to have access to the books when we have need of them. I believe there is a close connection between books and the intellectual life. It also helps to own the books so we can write in them.

Schall in "The Liberal Arts" notes "The question of a proper education follows the question of what to read" (24). The author sees a close relationship between reading and learning. Why a liberal arts education? Because it provides you with the tools for a life of learning. Education is a life-long task. Schall asserts that a liberal arts education is not a "major." Instead, it is "rooted in the kind of intellectual  eros that we find in Plato, in the wonder that according to Aristotle stimulates all thought, in the drive to know what reoriented the life of the young Augustine when he read Cicero." This knowing is an end in itself.

There are many other excellent essays in The Life of the Mind. For example, in "On the Taking Care of One's Own Wisdom," Schall instructs us, "The books we read, the liberal arts themselves, are ultimately designed to teach us to be wise" (44). The pursuit of wisdom is a life-long endeavor. Reading books about ultimate things will help us in this pursuit. Especially, books like The Life of the Mind.