on September 2, 2010
I eagerly awaited this book, A Place for Truth, edited by Dallas Willard, and I immediately set to devouring it. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and its presentation of Christian Truth but thought that it displayed weaknesses in certain places.
The title, A Place for Truth, comes from Harvard University's motto, "Veritas," which is Latin for "Truth." This volume is a collection of 15 presentations made before the Veritas Forum, a group originally started at Harvard to help restore to the American university its age-old character as "a place for truth." The chapters in the book reflect the oral nature of the original presentations, which helps make the articles relatively easy to read (considering the complexity of the topics) which but also presents certain limitations. Because of the blend of learning and readability, I find A Place for Truth to be a very welcome book. It is a book that is simple without being simplistic, profound without being indigestible, and which asks and answers some of the most important questions of life for all. One of the unexpected things I experienced in the book was the large number of narratives that were included as a means of presenting Christian Truth. This is a book well-suited to our postmodern age.
The first three chapters focus on arguments that focus on Truth itself, and they help set the tone and direction for the remainder of the volume. Chapters 4-6 relate to Faith and Science, Chapters 7 and 8 to Atheism, Chapters 9-11 on Meaning and Humanity, Chapter 12 on the Christian Worldview, and Chapters 13-15 on Social Justice.
Overall, it was immensely encouraging to read chapter after chapter of intelligent Christian (most actively engaged in teaching at universities and all of them highly educated) from a variety of universities speaking convincingly and intelligently about Truth and especially Christian Truth. A Place for Truth is a book that can and should be widely read. While containing the thought of Christian intellectuals, the chapters are, for the most part, very readable, largely because of the oral nature of the original presentations. It makes an excellent introduction for Christian college students who want to learn more about how to integrate their faith with their learning, and I can even see it being used in Christian high schools. The educated Christian laymen will also benefit from this book, as well as pastors who might want to read a collection of brief works on relevant contemporary topics. One of the audiences I think the book might serve best is those who are not Christians but want to see a more articulate and informed Christian mind at work.
The chapters, however, are not of equal value or quality. Of the three chapters addressing Truth, I found the one by Tim Keller, "Reason for God: The Exclusivity of Truth," to be the best. In fact, it's one of the 3 best chapters in the entire book. Richard John Neuhas' chapter was not particularly enlightening, while the chapter by Os Guinness presented a lot of good material but, it turns out, too much for so little space. Keller, in his chapter, does a masterful job of presenting 5 ways that people today tend to deal with the exclusive truth claims of religion in order to avoid them. It is a primer on how modern and postmodern people want to do away with Truth, and Keller provides brief but powerful arguments against each of the 5 attacks on Truth.
The 3 chapters on Faith and Science each contain much helpful material, but each has its own weakness. Collins' chapter spends too much time dealing with background and biography and is not as focused as it could have been, while the exchange between McGrath and Helfand (Christian and atheist) involves an interchange that works better when there is a lot of time and not only a few pages to deal with such complex issues. Ross' is a fascinating chapter that weaves scientific thought into the story of his conversion to Christ.
Vitz's look at the Psychology of Atheism is fascinating and deals with the theory of the defective father as a cause of atheism but is a fairly limited look at the psychology of atheism. Dallas Willard's chapter on "Nietzsche Versus Jesus Christ" is one of the 3 best chapters. In explaining Nietzsche's philosophy, Willard not only explains much of the foundation for contemporary secular thought but also a stinging indictment of an ostensibly Christian culture that isn't very Christian. If you want to understand more about why modern and postmodern man thinks and acts the way he does, Willard's chapter is as good a place to start as any.
The other chapter that I found to be one of the 3 best was the one by N.T. Wright, "Simply Christian," which is an executive summary of his new book by the same name. "Echoes of a Voice," deals with kinds of evidence for the God of the Bible; "Staring at the Sun," is about talking wisely about God; and "Reflecting the Image" concerns how to be a genuine human being. Wright says a lot in the little space allotted him.
I found many of the remaining chapters less valuable (though still worth reading), either because they were on a relatively narrow topic (such as the chapter on Can Robots Become Humans?) or because they didn't go as deeply into the subject as they might have (such as Sider's chapter on "The Whole Gospel for the Whole Person"). Poplin's chapter, "Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love" is a fine reflection on the love of Mother Teresa but the title is sensationalist and not very relevant to Poplin's discussion. The one other chapter I thought wonderfully provocative and joyful was Begbie's "The Sense of an Ending," which artfully presents the Christian story in an unusual way: the sense of ending we expect in music.
While containing some weak spots, A Place for Truth is, on the whole, a wonderful introduction to how Christian Truth can be brought with power to a dying world which is dying nowhere more than at its universities. Here is an outline of the chapters in the book so the reader can more easily apprehend the scope and sequence of A Place for Truth.
1. Is There Life After Truth? - Richard John Neuhas
2. Time for Truth - Os Guinness
3. Reason for God: The Exclusivity of Truth - Timothy Keller
Faith and Science
4. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief - Francis Collins
5. The New Atheists and the Meaning of Life - Alister McGrath and David Helfand
6. A Scientist Who Looked and Was Found - Hugh Ross
7. The Psychology of Atheism - Paul C. Vitz
8. Nietzsche Versus Jesus Christ - Dallas Willard
Meaning and Humanity
9. Moral Mammals: Does Atheism or Theism Provide the Best Foundation for Human Worth and Morality - Peter Singer and John Hare
10. Living Machines: Can Robots Become Human? - Rodney Brooks and Rosalind Picard
11. The Sense of an Ending - Jeremy S. Begbie
12. Simply Christian - N.T. Wright
13. Why Human Rights Are Impossible Without Religion - John Warwick Montgomery
14. "Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Social Justice" - Mary Poplin
15. The Whole Gospel for the Whole Person - Ronald J. Sider
You can find out more about the Veritas Forum at their website.
on April 26, 2011
At the top of the book's back cover is stated: "Many today pursue knowledge and even wisdom. But what about TRUTH?" And in the Introduction is said (p.17): "If we indeed 'have' the truth, which is what knowing means, then we have the right (and perhaps even the responsibility) to act..."
A slight inconsistency: if the first statement cries for truth, not merely knowledge, how can in the second statement truth (more accurately, awareness of truth) be equated with knowledge? The two are indeed acceptable as equal, but the universally pressing question is, what is the truth? It doesn't only concern the similar question by Pilate, but any certainty about any subject.
In this book it is somehow accepted by most authors that there is a "Christian Truth", and they proceed in corresponding apologetic that that is indeed The Truth and there is no other. It not only makes me feel uncomfortable because I am a Jew (though not a practicing one), but the great emphasis on truth, on knowledge, is usually confined to rigorous pursuits like science, logic, or metaphysics (notwithstanding late philosophical squabbles about the reality of truth).
Accordingly I must take the book's heavy support of one dogma with a considerable grain of salt, although I am by no means averse to the question of a supreme being, having myself reached theistic conclusions by way of reason and experience. This avenue, while in conformity with the universal ways of gaining knowledge, is downgraded by many in the book as of little value. One author, N. T. Wright, states (p.241): "To prove something you have to accept some sort of framework of reference" which one cannot be "assuming to be absolute". He adds: "If there is a God, and if this God is worth talking about with that word God--then this God must be greater than all our frames of reference".
No one claims that God is not greater than any frame of reference, or any other form in which we talk about God. We avail ourselves of these forms, by which we can gain knowledge of matters outside them. And the frames of reference, the methods, by which we gain knowledge are certainly ones we want to be absolute. We make mistakes in science and elsewhere, but our aim is to find ever more reliable means. Accepting an idea on faith alone does not outweigh these.
It is understandable nevertheless that in a search of spiritual certainties, which are difficult to acquire, one gravitates toward established institutions, and is willing to accept them in totality in absence of other firm groundings. But the danger of wide-ranging dogmas is well known, and in my own view it is possible to have a general comprehension of a benevolent higher power, and even look up to wisdom contained in the bible or other expression of religious creeds, all viewable as God-inspired, without rigid adherence to every word.
This is not to take away from numbers of good observations in the book, with my best appreciation going to Rosalind Picard. She has (p.205-6) a wonderful analogy concerning what science does and does not know: "Imagine that aliens discover instructions to build a radio. They find all the parts, put them together and it looks like a radio...and they turn it on... Music comes from a radio... They think they've figured out how music works... The aliens use words like 'emergent' to explain this. (When you hear scientists use a word like 'emergent', ...the way that actually translates literally is 'we haven't a clue how it happens.')...So even if someday we can...produce machines that function like humans, ...it doesn't mean we have fully understood what it means to be human. Reproducing some functionality is not the same as understanding the waves of music, or the waves of life."
She responds (p.210) to Rodney Brooks--who says he has a "completely different way of interacting with [his family], ...which is not part of [his] scientific view. So [he has] multiple views [he operates] under every day"--with: "I don't just call those multiple views, I call those inconsistent views" (considering his scientific one). Dr. Picard also notes (p.208), somewhat in agreement with Berkeley: "You also mentioned there's no evidence for spirit... I've been thinking about how experience is evidence... I think we often forget that human experience really is our ultimate judge of whether something is true or not."
She adds to these profound observations: "I'm curious, too, about your view that we're just this collection of biomolecules that evolution produced, and typical of this view is that evolution operates with random mutation, natural selection. So there's no purpose, there's no meaning, there's no free will" (p.211)... "And instead of me just feeling awe and thinking Why do I feel awe for purposeless, [random], directionless, meaningless stuff, I think, Wow, maybe this is pointing me to this great Mind that exists...I think there's a purpose behind that" (p.213).
This thinking is well justified. We are not just a "collection of biomolecules", "purposeless, random, directionless, meaningless stuff". Our bodies function with well known direction, purpose--namely that of preserving itself. We all know, the medical profession in particular, that we have various systems, the nervous system, the digestive system, etc., which in cooperation with the rest of the body are directed toward the goal of the body's preservation. This purposeful forest is completely overlooked in the search for the particulars in the trees, for the biomolecules in service of those purposes.
on September 23, 2010
I basically agree with Charles Erlandson's assessment of this book in his review, but would like to suggest that there is a fourth "best chapter": Mary Poplin's "Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Social Justice." I almost skipped that chapter because of its title, but I'm glad that I didn't.
Mary Poplin gives a very personal description of how two months with Mother Teresa in Calcutta changed her worldview and her life, and the Q&A at the end of the chapter give six extensive and thoughtful answers that describe how you don't have to go to Calcutta to find your purpose in life.
on May 24, 2012
The Veritas Forum began back in 1992 as a way for Christian students at Harvard University to explore questions related to the search for truth through a series of lectures and Q&A sessions. Two decades later, this project has expanded dramatically, with events at more than 100 universities around the world. This book is a collection of transcripts of some of the best talks in the series.
Authors/speakers include Christians from across the Liberal-Conservative spectrum (such as Tim Keller, N.T. Wright, and Francis Collins), as well as many atheists (such as Peter Singer and David Helfand). The lectures cover a broad range of topics, from theology to philosophy to music. As with any collaborative effort, there were strong and weak chapters, but each served as excellent discussion-starters for my Tuesday morning reading group!
Video and audio clips of each chapter/lecture can also be found free online. My personal favorites were the chapter by Jeremy Begbie ("The Sense of an Ending"), which "uses music and theology to explore the fundamental truths of how we understand our place in the world", and the debate between Rodney Brooks and Rosalind Picard ("Can Robots Become Human?"), who dialogue about what it means to be human, and whether we will one day be able to create life from non-life in a godlike manner.
This is not a book that will appeal to everyone, but if you are interested in exploring these sort of hard questions (and getting a very wide range of influences that will force you to think for yourself), this is something you'll enjoy.
on January 9, 2011
Theological books aimed at the academic crowd are often written over the heads of the average reader (myself included). A Place for Truth, however, does not fall into that trap, aided by the fact that each chapter was first a speech and the content delivered verbally.
Originally presented for The Veritas Forum on Harvard campus, this book represents almost two decades of talks and lectures from some of Christianity's leading thinkers. Topics range from atheism to faith and science, from social justice to the Christian worldview, and they are addressed by such notables as Os Guinness, Tim Keller, Francis Collins and N.T. Wright. Tim Keller's chapter, "Reason for God: The Exclusivity of Truth", was a personal favorite despite the fact that I'd probably read every word before already in his book by the same name.
Overall, this book handles some weighty material in a much more accessible way than one might expect from the presenter's pulpit at Harvard. I, for one, would not be disappointed if The Veritas Forum and these subsequent printed volumes continued for decades to come.
Despite all the advances in knowledge, universities, with their reliance on science, at best deal uncomfortably with questions about truth and meaning. In 1992, inspired by Harvard's motto, Veritas (truth), a small group of Harvard Christians led by Chaplain Kelly Monroe hosted a weekend of lectures and discussions at the university that explored some of life's most important questions. That first Veritas Forum was the impetus for more than 100 universities in the US, Canada, the UK, France, and the Netherlands for holding their own forums.
Being hosted by Christians, their purpose, as summarized in part of their mission statement, is no surprise: "We seek to inspire the shapers of tomorrow's culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ."
The book features presentations on a range of topics from leading Christian thinkers with varied backgrounds. The late Richard John Neuhaus, Os Guinness, Timothy J. Keller, Alister McGrath, Hugh Ross, N. T. Wright, Dallas Willard and Ronald J. Sider are among the contributors. Each chapter identifies the forum location, date, subject and speaker(s). Sometimes the format is a debate that provides a Christian and a secular position. Pete Singer represents the latter in debating, "Does Atheism or Theism Provide the Best Foundation for Human Worth and Mortality?"
This volume brings together the best Veritas lectures. It's a delight to read such highly developed and civil arguments. Non-Christians open to a faith perspective will most likely appreciate the winsome tone and the thoughtful basis for Christian conviction. Since the presenters were addressing general audiences, the material in most cases is easy to follow and not too technical.
The openness and frankness is astonishing. Where else in our society can you find this kind of dialog? It's a shame that rational discussion about these topics is generally not tolerated in public settings.
The Veritas Forums are obviously meeting a need in our culture that secular institutions are unwilling or unable to address. The campuses serving as hosts deserve credit for facilitating these valuable events.
Some of the speakers include their personal stories of conversion, which provides context for their thought. One of the more dramatic is given by Mary Poplin in her talk, "Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Social Justice." Her quest for meaning led her to India to work alongside Mother Teresa. What this radical professor learned gave her the desire to become a Christian.
One may not agree with all of the ideas. Francis Collins supports a non-literal reading of Genesis in his attempts to reconcile creation and science. Ronald J. Sider's holistic approach to the gospel is a challenge to find the right balance between evangelism and social action. Regardless of one's persuasion, communication of the logic and reasoning behind the various views makes this rewarding.
Pilate famously said to Jesus, "What is truth?" However he may have meant it, this book is an excellent resource for wrestling with that question and all its implications. More often than not, it succeeds in pointing the way toward personal discovery.
Might this book even encourage a love of the truth? That is something that all can aspire to gain. If this book like the forums that it represents nurtures that in the hearts of readers, it will provide a valuable service.
on March 21, 2011
A Place for Truth is a thick book, both in size and substance. The book - edited by Dallas Willard - is a collection of writings and speeches from the Veritas Forum. For those unfamiliar with Veritas, (the Word Veritas is used in several mottos of early American Higher Education - specifically, Yale, and Havard and means the pursuit of truth). Their Forums are university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life's complicated, essential, and germane questions about the Christian faith. Typically the forums are held at larger institutions and they bring in "big" names from Christian Scholarship and/or ministry.
The book as a whole is wonderful, but there are some chapters that stand out to me. "Simply Christian" is a wonderful chapter by N.T. Wright, which is an abridged version of his book of the same title. "The Sense of an Ending", is Jeremy Begbie's " is a wonderful re-imagination of the Christian story through the means of music. Tim Keller's chapter, "Reason for God: The Exclusivity of Truth" is also an excellent argument for Truth - regardless of if you agree or not.
If you take more in by reading it, is worth buying this book and reading through it. If you are one who does better by listening, I would advise you to read the book as a companion to listening to various forums (some are on their website and others can be found in iTunes or somewhere else on the web).
The book isn't one to take on at one time. The chapters - while working as a collective - are rich enough to be read individually and marinated upon.
on November 14, 2010
A Place for Truth is a collection of oral presentations in university settings by notable scientists and scholars under the auspices of The Veritas Forum, whose stated mission is to "engage students and faculty in discussions about life's hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life". The speakers are primarily Christian, and in a few instances they are in dialogue with secular colleagues. They also engage in Q&A with the audience members.
The greatest value of this book is to present critical thinkers who have synthesized science and faith into personal worldviews that the reader can understand and respect, even if he doesn't necessarily agree.
Perhaps the best-known speaker is Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project. As a scientist who became Christian as an adult, he summarizes his science/faith belief: "Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created our universe 13.7 billion years ago, its parameters precisely set to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time. God's plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that plan included us, human beings. After evolution, in the fullness of time, had prepared a sufficiently advanced neurological `house', God then gifted humanity with free will and with a soul. Thus humans, at that point, received this special status, which in biblical terms is `made in God's image'. We humans, having been given those gifts, used our free will to disobey God, leading to our realization of being in violation of the moral law. And thus, we were estranged from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement."
Other speakers address the near-universal scorn for Christianity on the campuses of major universities, their own emergence from secular academia into men and women of faith, and the need to engage the academic community at the intellectual level regarding the great issues of life.
Rodney Brooks and Rosalind Picard, both of whom specialize in advanced robotics, debate the question of whether humans are essentially robots or something beyond.
Jeremy Begbie of Duke Divinity School explores the parallel between the tension of musical composition (home - away - Home) and the Judeo-Christian narrative.
Mary Poplin, self-described radical Marxist and radical womanist, relates her discovery of Jesus through the door of Mother Teresa's ministry to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.
Alister McGrath and David Helfand take opposing views on "the new atheists", especially as represented by Richard Dawkins.
All of the Christian contributors (about fifteen total) have an outward focus on how believers should be engaged in the world for social equity and justice through the principles that Jesus lived out. This is not a collection of abstract thought, but is a combined force of some of our best minds as they come to grips with the question that was enunciated years ago by Francis Schaeffer, "How should we then live?"
on October 23, 2010
The survey of this book by the Amazon reviewer Charles Erlandson is excellent and so I won't duplicate his work here with a couple of exceptions. A Place for Truth is a collection of lectures and debates/dialogues on various issues including the nature of truth, faith and science, atheism, social justice and more. The helpfulness of each lecture/dialogue will depend on the particular questions you have. The first three essays are especially good because they lay the groundwork of the importance of objective truth and the consequences that come with rejecting it. The essay by Os Guinness argues persuasively that the alternatives to rejecting truth or handling it carelessly are destructive and dangerous. Keller's essay is also among the strongest as he surveys the five most common responses to the exclusive truth claims in religion. Those five are 1) hoping it away, 2) outlawing it away, 3) explaining it away, 4) arguing and condemning it away and, 5) privatizing it away. He ends with noting that the media says the mindset of those who say "they have the truth" is fundamentalist to the core and lies beneath the terrorism we find manifested today. Get rid of that belief and problem solved. Guinness says his wife provides a better response. She said, "Fundamentalism doesn't necessarily lead you to terrorism. It depends on what your fundamental is. Have you ever seen an Amish terrorist? . . . If your `fundamental' is a Man dying on the cross for his enemies, if the very heart of your self image and your religion is a Man sacrificing and praying for his enemies as he died for them, loving them--if that sinks into your hearts--it's going to produce the kind of life that the early Christians produced."
Another strong chapter for me was by Francis Collins. I've long been aware of his book The Language of God but I have never read it. I've been reading so many writers who support Intelligent Design and critics of Darwin that it was different to see a Christian author who is so firmly behind evolution. He states, "In fact, the bottom line is that DNA tells us incontrovertibly that Darwin's theory was right on target. . . I think it's fair to say that here in 2009 nearly all serious biologists see evolution as so fundamental that you can't really think about life sciences without it." The essay is clear, concise and provides some brief criticisms of intelligent design. Christians who are struggling with reconciling faith and science may find this essay very helpful. Those who disagree, like me, can still benefit from it.
Three of the chapters are dialogues. Alister McGrath and David Helfand discuss the new atheists and the meaning of life. McGrath interacts almost exclusively with Richard Dawkins and provides some insightful criticisms. Hefland's response was a major disappointment. The ensuing Q & A session covered a mix of topics and seemed to go off topic more than once. The second exchange was between Peter Singer and John Hare on whether theism or atheism provides the best foundation for human worth and morality. Singer's case against theism was a tired rehearsal of old arguments such as the problem of evil with an emphasis on natural evil and animal suffering. He marshals the Euthyphro dilemma as if no Christian philosopher has bothered to respond to it. So where do our moral instincts come from? According to Singer evolution provides the answer. And, he says, though this does not make them right it is where they come from. Hare's response, while helpful, I think missed a crucial point. I wish he had pressed Singer on how objective values can be possible given the truth of evolution. (The essay by John Warwick Montgomery, "Why Human Rights are Impossible without Religion", chapter 13, hits the nail on the head.) This is exactly the first question from the moderator to Singer. He asks, "On what basis can we judge those desires given by purposeless Darwinian evolution? You suggest using the Golden Rule, but who chose to apply that?" Singer's response amounts to little more than his assertion that we have to do what's best for everyone. Once this is decided "we ought to be able to agree on what we ought to do." If this doesn't land us in a miry muck of ethical subjectivism I'm not sure what will. Singer will startle some when he says that Jesus is not "the most admirable life one can imagine." Why not? Two things really. Jesus cast a bunch of demons into pigs and the cursing of the fig tree. Why would Jesus drown the poor pigs? And what does Jesus have against fig trees? This later act is deemed as "very petulant." Jesus scores low marks on animal rights and the environment.
The final essay I want to comment on is one by Mary Poplin entitled "Radical Marxism, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Social Justice." To be quite honest I wasn't expecting much from this essay but I was pleasantly surprised. Poplin describes her early teaching career as one characterized by radical feminism, womanist theory and post-Marxism. Her own personal spiritual life was a conglomerate of eastern spiritualism like Zen Buddhism. She also "frequented nightclubs [and] experimented with alcohol and drugs." As she began to explore Christianity she was intrigued by Mother Teresa and so she wrote to her in 1995 and asked she could come and spend some time with her. When she returned she attempted to write about her experience from a secular humanistic position by found that every time she tried to write it she found herself "lying about who she [Mother Teresa] was." She began to look back and ask herself questions like "Was Christianity as oppressive as I had been taught? Where was the evidence?" In the face of Calcutta her theories began to evaporate. And this tidbit of knowledge was a complete surprise to her: "It's wonderful that Oprah Winfrey and Starbucks are digging wells for clean water in Africa, but my student from Ghana tells me that the Catholics were digging wells for clean water in Africa in the 1500s? (Sic) Where were all those stories when I was going to school?" This was a powerful essay in more ways than one. The Q&A session is equally compelling. The first questioner asked if one could do the work of Mother Teresa "without following Jesus." Poplin responds that the work is monotonous and that from her experience what she has found is that "after the initial enthusiasm wears off, there's nothing there to keep them going." Poplin says the motivation which lies beneath Mother Teresa and others like her is the power of the Holy Spirit. The remaining Q&A is engaging as it is enlightening and should not be skipped.
There's something for everyone is this volume and I hope it gains a wide reading.
on October 6, 2010
This is a good compilation of Veritas Forum lectures. The talks were carefully transcribed and much of the spirit of the actual events comes through. Having attended a number of forums myself I was happy to find that the chapters did a remarkable job of 'living up' to the lectures. It was nice to see, for example, some of the interesting and relevant exchanges during the Q&A session of the Caltech Forum featuring Francis Collins make it into the book. The obvious drawback is that talks cannot always be translated into book-form without remainder. I absolutely love Jeremy Begbie's talk 'The Sense of an Ending' but an essential part of his talk is participating in the music he plays. That being said the book is unique and much of the energy of the forums are captured in the book. The topics are provocative and the lectures come from top-notch thinkers that are important aids in everyone's search for Truth.