Monday, January 19, 2015

How to Live with Doubt

I was scanning the shelves in the philosophy section and came upon a little book on dealing with doubt. The book is How to Live with Doubt by Richard Wolff. The book is only 68 pages. The book did not contain any information about the author which saddens me. It would be interesting to know the author's background and why he wrote this book. The book is published by Key Press. I am not familiar with this publisher either.

I have been interested in the problem of doubt for a long time. I became a Christian when I was eighteen and later struggled with doubt as a new Christian at the University. Even though all my education was at secular, public universities, I really did not experience any professors who tried to destroy my faith as depicted in the movie, God is not Dead.

I have been a Christian for over thirty years and I have learned to deal with my doubts. It is not something I think about all the time. It does pop up from time to time. So I was interested in this little book and wondered what Wolff had to say.

The book is one long chapter, so it is more like a long essay. He covers many aspects of doubt in this book. He first defines it: "As commonly used, the word doubt means to be of two minds, i.e., to waver, to hesitate, to remain suspended between two alternatives" (9). Some of the questions Wolff seeks to answer in this book are "What is doubt? What is the difference between doubt and unbelief, or doubt and skepticism? Is doubt evil? Can it be constructive? Should it be eliminated? Could it be a method to ascertain truth? Is doubt intellectual or emotional, a sociological phenomenon or a psychological problem? Is it related to human imperfection or finitude and therefore unavoidable? Does faith always contain an element of doubt? Is certainty possible or must we learn to live with doubt?" (9). Different answers have been given to these questions based upon the person's point of view.

The author states that there are many different causes of doubts. "It can be viewed as part of the normal thought process, a natural condition of the mind, an essential part of growth. Doubt can also be traced to human instability, to the seeming contradiction which is in things, coupled with the fact that our knowledge is fragmentary. Doubt can be caused by disappointment or be rooted in a moral problem" (20). Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Many of these reasons can be seen in the book of Job. What Job saw and believed did not make sense. His friends said the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper, but that is not what Job saw. Do the wicked prosper in our day? I think we have to say yes. Do the righteous suffer. We will have to answer again. Does this make sense. No, it does not. One question I have is why do some when faced with evil continue to believe, while other turn away?

The author quotes from Tennyson on honest doubt: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than half the creeds" (37). One thinks of the man in the Gospels responding to Jesus, "I believe, help my unbelief." Wolff thinks "an element of faith is embedded in honest doubt" (37). He believes that unbelief is the problem of the unbeliever, but doubt is the problem of the believer. However, I think that doubt can be the problem of the unbeliever too. What if I am wrong? One could even say that truth is "presupposed in his very doubt." He is not indifferent to the truth. He wants to know the truth.

The author asks the following questions: "Should faith exclude doubt? Is the strong Christian a person in whom all doubt is removed?" (46). A. H. Strong stated that "true faith is possible without assurance of salvation" (46). In other words, just because we doubt does not mean we do not have true faith. "What saves us is faith in Christ, not faith in our faith, or faith in the faith" (46). Our salvation is not based on our feelings. Thomas Watson, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and John Calvin all states "this infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be a partaker of it" (48). I assume it is possible that he might never partake of it in this life or only for brief periods. Calvin thought that "faith is subject to various doubts so that the minds of believers are seldom at rest, or at least are not always tranquil" (48). Doubt just shows that we are human, finite beings.

What about certainty. Should we aim for certainty in our faith or absolute perfection. The author thinks "the search for absolute certainty leads to frustration. There is always room for doubt--or so it seems" (49). I think one of the reasons for my struggle with doubt is my search for absolute certainty. I want to me certain with my reason this is true. Faith and reason are both true. There are some things we can know by reason and other things by faith. The author notes, "the desire to prove things beyond the shadow of a doubt is another form of perfectionism and therefore doomed to frustration. If this attitude were adopted consistently it would lead to complete skepticism" (50). I think Wolff is right. I have found a sense of peace in not trying to achieve certainty. It is living by faith. It is accepting that I am not God, but a finite human being.

The author gives a warning to believers: "It is unfortunate that the expression of doubt in the Church is muffled through fear of ostracism. Such an attitude is not constructive and produces bitterness. How strange to be inquisitive in all areas of human endeavor, except in religion. Is not practical denial more serious than intellectual doubt?" (63). I think it is. It does no good to deny our doubts. It can be our friend as well as our enemy. Flannery O' Connor said "What kept her a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don't bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read."

An important question is how doubt relates to commitment. Doubt could paralyze action. What do we do when we cannot choose between two choices? What if the evidence is strong for both sides? We must make a choice. Faith presumes we have "considered the alternative." The author notes, "true, basic decisions can be made once for all, but they must be reaffirmed through daily choice. The radical decision to trust God demands renewed contact with God, and this dynamic relationship overcomes doubt" (64). Jesus says in the gospels, he who wants to do God's will must will to do his will. It is in living out the Christian faith that we receive daily confirmation that God is real.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Kierkegaard: An Introduction

E. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard: An Introduction. Cambridge UP, 2010. 206 pages. ISBN 978-0-521-70041-2

C. Stephen Evans is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor University. He has more than thirty years of experience both teaching and writing about Kierkegaard. It is a very difficult task to write a concise introduction to a complicated thinker like Kierkegaard. Evans does a good job of giving an overview of Kierkegaard's thought from a philosophical perspective. It is helpful that Evans is conversant with both the primary and secondary sources. He does a good job in letting the reader knowing how Kierkegaard has been interpreted by different scholars.

Evans goal is really not to summarize Kierkegaard, but to "remove some of the barriers to a genuine reading of Kierkegaard" (ix). The author organizes Kierkegaard: an Introduction around Kierkegaard's spheres of existence: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. These spheres can also be considered the path to "authentic selfhood." The aesthetic stage emphasizes immediacy, living on the surface. The ethical stage emphasizes duty, taking responsibility for one's life. The religious stage is seeing oneself before God. Merold Westphal has suggested that there exists a religious a, b, and c stage. The c stage is intersubjectivity.

The first two chapters give an overview of Kierkegaard's life and works, including his methods of indirect communication and his pseudonymous writings. He discusses the different interpretations of his use of this method. The next chapter discusses Kierkegaard's view of the self and Kierkegaard controversial idea of "truth is subjectivity." Throughout the book Evans tries to correct what he sees as misinterpretations of Kierkegaard. For example, he attempts to refute the ideas that Kierkegaard was an irrationalist and a radical individualist.

The last two chapters analyzes Kierkegaard's view of Christian thought and its application to the contemporary world. In the next to last chapter he shows how the Other is important to Kierkegaard's thought. He thinks this includes God, but it also include human persons. This is especially shown in Kierkegaard's Works of Love which emphasizes love of the neighbor. Evans includes an annotated bibliography at the end of the book for those who want to read more about Kierkegaard.

Evans successfully brings Kierkegaard in conversation with important themes in modern philosophy: virtue epistemology, antifoundationalism, postmodernism, existentialism, and others. He shows how Kierkegaard can add to these conversations. Evans does a good job in making Kierkegaard understandable to the general reader. It is hoped that readers of this book will go on to read Kierkegaard and other works about him. Kierkegaard can be an important source for discussing ideas that are important to living. It seems that Kierkegaard's ideas are not outdated at all. I find him to be an excellent conversation partner.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Principles for Reading

I was skimming through a book on teaching reading in the primary grades, Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. In this book they provide principles that would be applicable for all ages. Here are some of the principles:

1. Students learn by reading continuous text.

This principle is usually highlighted in discussions between electronic reading vs. print. There is all kind of speculation about what disjointed reading does to our brain. I know that I enjoy reading a whole essay in one sitting and follow the logic of the argument to its conclusion. The authors state that it is essential that we "spend the bulk of time reading continuous text." For one thing, this develops our ability as readers. We can always become better readers.

2. Students need to read high-quality texts to build a reading process.

Mortimer Adler used to say that some of the books we read must be above our heads. We must exercise our thinking muscles because it is only through exercise does a muscle grow. How many people sell themselves short by reading low-quality texts. The authors stress that students must have "high-quality" experiences with text. They talk about "landmark books." These are books that stay with us long after we finish reading them.

3. Students need to read a variety of texts to build a reading process.

Different types of books exercise different parts of our brain. We should read fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry history, philosophy and other types of literature. We are called on in life to read all kinds of texts well.

4. Students need to read a large quantity of texts to build a reading process.

This principle is complementary to reading high-quality texts principles. We become better readers by reading. The more we read the better we get. The more we read the more background we bring to the texts we read.

5. Students need to read different texts for different purposes. 
 We bring different purposes to our reading. Sometimes we read purely for pleasure. Other times we read to learn how to do something. Sometimes we read to learn about a particular topic or in preparation for writing a paper or teaching a class. It is a skill to be able to vary our reading based on our purpose.

6. Students need to hear many texts read aloud.

This is something we have practiced with our kids since they were born. It is a false idea that we should stop reading aloud to our kids once they are able to read themselves. We should continue to read aloud all our lives. It creates a community of learners. It saturates our lives with a world we can discuss. Hearing a text read aloud can also improve our experience of a text.

7. Students need different levels of support at different times.

For example, "to effectively process a more difficult text, your students will require the support of small-group instruction." Mortimer Adler was fond of saying that the Great Books should be studied with a group. How much greater it is to read a great text in conversation with others. They will see things you do not see and vice-versa.

8. The more students read for authentic purposes, the more likely they are to make a place for reading in their lives.

Reading needs to be integrated in one's real life. We do all kinds of reading in life. We can read based upon our own interests. We read because we want to know something. We read to continue our education. Reading is not something we just do for school. One of the saddest statements I ever hear from an acquaintance was that he would never read another book after he graduated from college. Education should not turn us off to reading and learning. Education can ruin us as learners.

9. Students need to see themselves as readers who have tastes and preferences.

We must allow students to choose their books based upon their interests. Samuel Johnson said he would let a student read any book that engages his attention. He said you have done a great deal when you brought him to have entertainment from a book. He will go to better books later. It is important that students get pleasure from reading books. Of course, there are even greater intellectual pleasures from reading high quality books.

These are some principles that can guide our reading. We can even use them to teach others.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Thomas Aquinas, Mortimer Adler, the Great Books, and Critics

I am rereading a book that I love by Arvin Vos, Calvin, Aquinas, and Contemporary Protestant Thought. I am also reading Peter Kreeft's new book, Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from ST. Thomas Aquinas. This new book is a good companion to Kreeft's Summa of the Summa. I am a great admier of Thomas Aquinas and have been reading him for several years.

In my morning reading of Vos's book I came on a passage from Aquinas that was quite interesting. Aquinas distinguishes knowing Gog from reason and faith. Vos argues that Protestants falsely accuse Aquinas of saying reason is superior to faith. Instead, Aquinas argues for the superiority of faith. WE know much more about God from faith through revelation than we know through the human intellect. A second way faith is superior is that it is more certain than reason. This is because the origin of the revelation is infallible. Another distinction is that reason knows God from His effects.

This brings me on to the point I want to emphasize. Aquinas said that the path of the philosophers is cumbersome with many errors. This is just to say that philosophers are finite knowers.  Aquinas says in this passage that there are very few issues that Philosophers are in agreement. I find this interesting since this is a complaint to reading the Great Books.  A typical complaint is that the authors of the Great Books disagree with each other and the reading of the Great Books lead to relativism. This is a strong argument and has some justification. On the other hand, the disagreements help you to see the different sides of the issue. It also brings you into a conversation that been going on for at least 3,000 years.

It is interesting that Aquinas makes this comment about the disagreements about philosophers and how he organizes the Summa Theologica. He could have wrote the Summa as an exposition of  sacred theology. Instead, he did something different. He introduces different questions people ask about theology. For example, was revelation necessary since we can know something about God based on reason. He lists different answers and objections to the thesis he will argue. He responds to the objections. Personally, I think it is a better educational experience the way he did it.