A PostHope Hope: a book review

Can Hope survive  with the collapse of epistemology certainty? Is God necessarily existent for spiritual experience? Can the nihilism of our age open us up to the possibility of grace? Phenomenologist and deconstructionist John D. Caputo wrestles with these questions and more in his intellectual memoir, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim). The book is a spiritual autobiography of sorts, but it only reveals the broad contours of Caputo’s life, focusing on the development (or deconstruction?) of his thoughts on God, faith and certainty.

Hoping Against Hope by John D. “Jackie” “Brother Paul” Caputo

Caputo was raised in a devout Catholic family. He spent four years as a De LaSalle monk,  before his illustrious career as a philosopher and theologians (thirty-six years as professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and professor of philosophy of religion at Syracuse University for seven years). In Hoping Against Hope he gives voice and personality to these various stages of his intellectual development. As a child Caputo was an altar boy in pre-Vatican II Catholicism who had memorized the Baltimore Catechism. Caputo refers to this younger self  as “Jackie.” “Brother Paul,” is the monk Caputo who grew callouses on his knees in an attempt to learn prayer and had a love for the mystics. The professor, “John D.,” is the the philosopher who’s tongue was loosed by Jacques Derrida (the other Jackie) and the French Postmodernists.

Caputo writes:

My life as a philosopher gas taken place in the distance between theology and philosophy. Like everyone else, however far forward I thought I moved, I was always circling around my origins. I soon found that the audacity of the philosophers who “dare to think” according to the Enlightenment motto, fails them when it comes to theology. There they panic, in fear of contamination. They treat the name of God like a terrible computer virus that will corrupt all their files, or like a real one, like the Ebola virus, where the odds of recovering are against you. So, mostly at the beginning of my professional life, when “John D.” stepped forth and responded to the title “professor,” while telling Jackie to stay at home, I was worried that they would say, “This is not philosophy, this is just his religion.” But my religion is between me and Brother Paul and Jackie and several others. How can they know anything about that? (104-105).

With the Continental Philosophers, Heidigger, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotoard, Levinas, and others, Caputo thoroughly rejects the narrative of the Christian tradition and the official line of the Roman Catholic church. He dismantles dogma, expresses his antagonism toward  the afterlife and a God that is either ‘ the Prime Punisher and the Royal Rewarder (64). He also regards the arguement between atheism and theism to be wrong-headed. With a Zen-Koan-like-air he proclaims, “God does not exist. God insists” (114). He gives fresh and unique interpretations of scripture and imagines the textual variants he wishes to one day uncover. Caputo’s thoughts run far a field from classic Christian orthodoxy.

But his project isn’t wholly negative. Caputo upholds active service to the poor and marginalized and the non-religious religion of love. He says his idea of nihilism is stolen from the mystics and he employs insights from Miester Eckhardt and Marguerite Porete (both mystics ran a foul from official church teaching). What Caputo proposes is a religion of the Rose–“The rose is without why; it blossoms because it blossoms; It cares not for itself, asks not if it’s seen” (27). He brings this verse from Angelus Silesius into conversation wiht Lyotard’s religion of the smile and posits a nihilism where all of life is received as a gift  (with or without a giver), where all of life is received without condition (181).

As an intellectual memoir/spiritual autobiography I give this three stars and thought it was an interesting read. I especially loved the ‘short nocturnal dialogue’ where Caputo imagines a dialogue with himself at his different stages of faith and intellectual development. I appreciate how Caputo’s postmodernity leads him to pluralism and relativism without the need to posit an underlying universal faith in God.  However, I am unconvinced by Caputo’s theological vision and see his radical (or weakness) theology as incompatible with the Christian gospel of grace. I was aware of Caputo before reading this book, so wasn’t particularly surprised by what he says here.  I have read him before and have seen him lecture. I find him fascinating. I also find it ironic that I received this book from Cross Focused reviews. If Caputo mentions the cross at all (and I don’t remember that he does in this book), it is clearly not his focus. Anyway, I received this book in exchange for my honest review. ★★★

Philosophy for Christians (and other non-philosophers): a book reveiw

Mark Foreman knows that philosophy has an image problem. There are lots of reasons for this. Some assume that philosophy is reserved only for the ‘super intelligent (16)’. Other people only begin their study of philosophy late in their academic development (16-7). Some dismiss it for having no practical import and can’t see what possible benefit it has for them (17). Among Christians,some regard philosophy with suspicion, especially in light of Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.”

Mark Foreman, associate professor of philosophy and religion at Liberty University has written a helpful introduction to the discipline of philosophy. Prelude to Philosophy: an introduction for Christians is written with two audiences in mind. The first is an academic, undergraduate context. This book is a ‘prelude’ or ‘prolegomenon.’ The chapters of this book are intended to help orient newcomers to the task and tools of philosophy. The second audience Foreman envisions are skeptical Christians who wonder if philosophy has any value, at all.

While there are no formal ‘parts’ to this book, only chapters, the material roughly divides into two sections. The first four chapters provide an introduction to philosophy while the final three chapters describe the ‘tools of philosophy.’ The first part of the book begins with a chapter describing what philosophy is. Foreman gives the working definition of philosophy as ‘examining life.’ He describes the characteristics of the philosophical task, and compares philosophy with other disciplines (philosophy is a second order discipline focusing on methodology rather than concerned with direct action or observation).

Chapter’s two and three focus on the benefits of philosophy in general(chapter two) and for the Christian in particular (chapter three).  Foreman sees several benefits of developing a ‘philosophical mindset.’ He sees philosophy as important for bringing clarification and consistency to our thinking. The discipline of philosophy is also important for cultivating a consistent worldview. Despite the passage from Colossians cited above, the Bible has nothing negative to say about philosophy. Reading that verse in context, we find it isn’t commenting on philosophy in general, but the vain, human tradition which led the Colossians astray(79). In fact, much of what the Bible says elsewhere commends a philosophical mindset as beneficial for proper biblical hermeneutics, theology, apologetics, polemics and evangelism.  Chapter four gives an overview of the divisions of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology), and the types of questions that philosophers try to give a reasoned, consistent answer to. These include: ethics, aesthetics, religion, scientific methodology, ethics, etc.)

In what I would call part two of the book (chapters 5-7), Foreman switches gears from describing philosophy and its benefits to giving readers a glimpse of the ‘tools of philosophy.’ Chapter five describes basic logic, chapter six identifies various informal fallacies (not exhaustive but a good taste of how logicians parse arguments), chapter seven imparts principles which will help readers analyze arguments. I hadn’t had a logic course since college, so I enjoyed brushing up on the elements of argument.

An epilogue describes the seven virtues of a Christian philosopher. These include: love of truth, diligence, intellectual honesty, fairness and respect,  intellectual fortitude, Epistemic humility and teachableness. To my mind,  the treatment Foreman gives these virtues is too brief. I would have enjoyed a full volume exploring the value of these for Christian philosophers and apologists (as well as Christians in general).

This is a good introduction to philosophical thinking.  I think the people who would most benefit from this book are Christian college students (perhaps at a Christian college) who are engaging in the discipline for the first time. Foreman envisions this book being used as a supplementary text for an intro philosophy course. I think that it would be great for that context. Foreman writes accessibly and interestingly. General readers who wish to explore philosophy will also benefit from how Foreman orients readers to the discipline. I do wonder if Christians who look askance at philosophy would even read this book (and, so be moved by Foreman’s argument for philosophy’s value), but if they do, they will find Foreman an engaging and accessible author, who makes his case biblically (and rationally). I give this book four stars: ★★★★.

Thank you to InterVarsity Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Take a Shot and You’ll Be Stoked: a book review

Mitch Stoke's Shot It is no secret that since the twin towers fell just over ten years ago, certain atheists have gotten louder and much more forceful in their opposition to religion. The late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, are dubbed the four horseman of the new atheism and have set to work showing up religious believers for their lack of evidence, failure to reckon with modern science, and the manifold ways that religion drives war, injustice and cruel acts (like Sept. 11, for example). In the face of such vitriolic opposition what are believers to do? Does belief in God even make sense?

Mitch Stokes has written a thoughtful book aimed at bolstering the faith of ordinary believers by augmenting their beliefs in God with some of the thoughtful arguments provided from Christian philosophy. Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, Stokes was an engineer before earning a masters in religion at Yale under Nicholas Wolterstorff, and a Ph.D in philosophy at Notre Dame under Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. If these names ring a bell then you know that Stokes has a good academic pedigree, but this is not a book of academic philosophy. Rather it is meant to present the insights of Christian philosophy at a popular level.

Stokes organizes his book into four sections (3 parts with an intermission between Part One and Two). In Part One, Stokes tackles the conjecture that belief in God is irrational by demonstrating that neither Christians and atheists simply trust the evidence, but have to accept certain facts as ‘basic beliefs.’ The motto’follow the evidence’ in bequeathed to us from the Enlightenment, but it is impossible for us to only believe what we have personal evidence for. Rather we accept certain things as basic. Christianity can be ‘rational’ and not reliant solely on evidence for faith in God. In fact, according to Scripture it is the Spirit that reveals Himself to us and not our reading of the evidence.

In a short intermission, Stokes lays out what you can expect or not expect from an argument. He doesn’t think that you can argue an atheist into the kingdom of God (not the purpose of this book) or dismantle every argument but does see the importance of argument for intellectual engagement and giving believers confidence that there are actual reasonable supports for the faith.

In Parts Two and Three, Stokes engages the two main arguments against the existence of God from athiests: the challenge of science and the challenge of evil. He argues that science no where disproves God and that the inference for design may be made from many findings. He challenges the claims of purely naturalistic evolution. He argues that the existence of evil is due to human freedom and that God’s ways transcend our own (he might have good reasons for allowing evil that we don’t understand from our vantage point).

I really enjoyed this book and thought that it would be accessible to a general audience (though not necessarily an easy read for all). I think that Part One, where Stokes dismantles evidentialist claims. I think his weakest section is part three where he tackles the problem of evil. I generally agree with his conclusions but he introduces the problem of evil as a cosmic problem (the existence of parasitic wasps observed by Charles Darwin) but then seems to restrict most of his discussion to human evil (in two short chapters!). I think he should have unpacked this problem a little more.

That being said, I think this book is welcome apologetic resource for Christians who are perturbed by the claims of the New Atheists and other antagonists.

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.