Book Reviews

Over the last few days I’ve managed to read a couple of books, which has been an achievement, as it’s quite a while (perhaps 10 or more months) since I’ve  properly finished a book. I comment on these here largely for my own future benefit, in case I decide to try to work out what I think about these things in more detail.

The first was “Knowing with the Heart – Religious Experience and Belief in God”, by philosopher Roy Clouser, and the second “The Secular Trend in New Zealand” by the late historian of free-thought Jim Dakin. They both contributed to my thoughts about responding to unbelief in NZ, but other than that are not related.

Clouser’s view fits within the framework of “Reformed Epistemology” (by my reckoning), but I found it more objectionable than most of the RE material I have read, albeit with many interesting and useful insights; while I do not accept the main argument, I think there is much to learn from the book.  Over 177 pages it traverses six chapters, and I’ll summarise some of the points of interest. One point to note is the book’s style, as it is in the form of a dialogue, with the position of the author argued in the form of blocks of text interspersed with astute questions from a hypothetical interpreter. I thought the questions were generally on point, and this style of an open quest is commendable.

The first chapter argues for a particular conception of what is a “religious belief” – that is, a religious belief is one which is concerned with that which is thought to be “non-dependent”. This makes beliefs such as “materialism” essentially religious in nature, an interesting conclusion and one that I think is fair enough.

The second chapter discusses types of religious experience, and argues that most religious experiences are not weird or of a hyper-spiritual nature. Religious experience can include things such as visions and miracles, but is not restricted to such things. The core of what makes an experience “religious” is not that it is strange, but instead that it involves non-inferentially recognizing truth about the divine. I agree with the gist of this chapter as well.

The third chapter argues that there is such a thing as “self-evident knowledge”, and that it is necessary for further reasoning to take place; it is the ground required for rational argumentation. This chapter does not discuss the specific place of religious belief, and I am sympathetic to the epistemology proposed (I don’t have a compelling alternative anyway).

The fourth chapter argues that belief in God established through religious experience is in a similar situation to self-evident axioms such as “the axiom of equals” (the idea that everything is equal to itself).

The fifth chapter discusses some objections to belief in God, notably the argument from evil. Clouser argues that, in a nutshell, because God doesn’t have moral duties to us (the moral characteristics we associate with Him are not, as traditionally considered, intrinsic to His nature, but instead inhere in the relationship he has with creatures and are a result of free choices concerning His ordering of creation) He is not obliged to prevent all suffering, and we should be amazed at His choice to freely enter into relationship with fallen human beings. This is a very interesting account and response to the problem of evil (PoE), which I am not sure what to make of, but I am sympathetic to it given previous thoughts I’ve had in response to the work of Marilyn McCord-Adams.

The sixth chapter sums up and discusses what happens to those of other religions; Clouser advocates an inclusivist position, which I find untenable, although it seems probable that other views could also be made to fit with something like the epistemology he advocates.

There are a few minor quibbles I had, including his claim that faith in the New Testament is always expressed in terms of “sight”; I would argue it is often talked about as “hearing” instead. The main difficulty I have with the book is its repeated rejection of arguments for God’s existence (part and parcel of “presuppositionalist” approaches to apologetics which this proposal is related to, although often more muted in accounts within the reformed tradition, including reformed epistemology). I think this misunderstands the nature of faith and the biblical witness concerning evangelism, and it also forces Clouser to treat arguments against God’s existence less charitably than I might and/or to develop the alternative approach to the PoE sketched above. If I manage to become better informed about the epistemological issues I hope to write more about it. This book didn’t attempt to respond to the classical arguments for God’s existence (I would advocate  as reasonably strong, for instance, forms of the moral argument, cosmological argument, fine-tuning argument, and historical argument from the resurrection), it simply asserted that all such arguments fail. I am fairly sure that this, particularly in the case of historical arguments, would surprise St Paul and others from amongst the biblical authors. I am also concerned with the prioritisation of “experience”, read as the personal experience of autonomous agents; I doubt that this is a genuinely biblical approach. It is also asserted that no-one is ever converted by argument – I disagree, inasmuch as I think that arguments can often be part of the causal chain leading to people’s conversion; but even if it were true it wouldn’t follow that arguments were of no use to Christian faith.

In summary, this is a far more sophisticated account prioritising “experience” than that found in most churches today (with most churches in NZ also prioritising or elevating experience), and it has an interesting basis in some strands of Reformed thought, however while incorporating some helpful suggestions for sceptics and their Christian friends, nonetheless it has the potential to fuel concerning trends and I think it provides only one facet of what will be required in future persuasive presentations of the gospel.

That review ended up longer than hoped for, so now I will write just a sentence or two on “the secular trend in New Zealand”, a short book intended to play up the increasing role of secularism in the New Zealand populace, in politics, and particularly in education. In reading this short book I was often slightly amazed to see the strength of the opposition to secularism which has been apparent in NZ’s history; frequently it seems it has only been a small group of secularists who have opposed moves to strengthen the position of religion in NZ schools and public life. The history presented was of course rather one-sided, and the role of Christian intellectuals was ignored; perhaps I will explore this more in future. While we are not and I don’t think have ever been a “Christian nation” in the way some conservatives would like to think,  secularism of the anti-religious type has, as far as I can tell, never been particularly strong in New Zealand either. Even national secular organisations have never (according to this book) topped a roll of over approx 1250; there are, by contrast, numerous individual churches with larger weekly congregations than this number. I hope to look further into recent research on religious trends, but I am fairly hopeful, and think that if the charismatic renewal of the last few decades in NZ, along with an increased emphasis on issues of social justice, could be supported by a renewal of the life of the mind, more emphasis on sound evangelical theology, and adequate public responses to the claims of hard-core secularists, then the church would be in a good place and very much ready to fight demographic trends which are too often labelled as inevitable.

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