Archive | Philosophy

Summa Philosophica | Peter Kreeft

The cover of Kreeft's Summa PhilosophicaIn the second half of the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote his famous Summa Theologica which became one of the most influential works of Western literature. He wrote the Summa not for advanced students, but (according to the preface) “for beginners.” In Summa Philosophica, Peter Kreeft has followed the form of Aquinas and produced a book for beginners to get started in philosophy.

Kreeft’s Summa contains 110 “short books,” or summaries of various philosophical questions such as “Whether time is infinite?” and “Whether organized religion has done more harm than good?” Each article follows the same form:

  1. The question is written in a yes or no format beginning with the word “whether.”
  2. Multiple objections to the argument are offered.
  3. The author’s own position is stated beginning with “On the contrary.”
  4. The author’s position is argued beginning with “I answer that.”
  5. Each objection is addressed.

Kreeft’s sense of humour is evident throughout the book. The “Preliminary Note,” for example, reads:

Dear Prospective reader, If you’re wondering whether this book is worth your time to read or your money to buy, don’t read the long, dull Introduction first. Browse through the book itself. (vi)

My favourite bit of humour comes at the end in the section entitled “Meta-Philosophical Evaluation of All of the Above” (245). I don’t want to spoil the surprise so I’ll save the body of this section for you to discover.

This is not a book to be read through in a few sessions—rather, it’s worth taking the time to read each summa slowly. Often times I read back in the article, reviewing the objection before reading Kreeft’s response.

While each summa is logically argued, I found myself disagreeing with a number of his replies. For example, in “Whether there is a double standard for good for states and individuals?” (201 ff.) Kreeft offers the objection that Christ both taught and practiced nonviolence (202). He answers the objection by stating that “when Christ taught nonviolence He was addressing individuals … and taught this as a counsel of perfection, not a universal command of justice” (203). This, of course, is the standard Roman Catholic view of the Sermon on the Mount—that Jesus taught a two-level ethic. I heartily disagree with this view! Many of the statements in Kreeft’s responses could merit their own summa!

Kreeft’s intelligence and ability to turn a phrase is in full display. Consider his argument “Whether all persons are beautiful?” (221 ff.). In response to the objection that some people are evil and that Hitler, for example, is “uglier than a hyena” (221), he responds by reminding us that the image of God “remains even when defaced, like a great painting beneath layers of dirt. Great evildoers are morally ugly only because they are ontologically beautiful” (222).

Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica is a book like no other. It’s both interesting and instructive to reflect on article by article. Not only are the questions themselves interesting, the style of argumentation is a good way to hone your logic skills.

—Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012).

Violence | Slavoj Žižek

The cover of Žižek's ViolenceAs I write this, Hamas is lobbing rockets into Israel and Israel is returning with air strikes and a ground offensive. As I write this the Ukranian government is trying desperately to reclaim sovereignty over the East which is increasingly controlled by pro-Russian militants. Somehow during this outbreak of violence, a passenger jet was shot down killing 298 passengers and crew. Violence is alive and well in our world.

For Žižek, this explosive “subjective” violence is only the violence we see on the surface. Below the subjective violence is objective violence, the violence inherent in language which influences our thoughts and attitudes. Also below subjective violence is systemic violence—the effect of living in our modern economic and political systems. Any understanding of what’s happening in the world today must take into account all the causes of violence.

Žižek (as you might expect) has many profound things to say about the subject, complete with regular references to Marx, Hegel, and Lacan. He wanders through many diverse cultural and political landscapes. He tackles the problem in the Middle East with an accusing look at the Germans (who, in his mind, offered restitution to the Jews by giving away someone else’s land). He looks at the uproar over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. He delves into Alfred Hitchkcock’s films. He even considers the shaming of prisoners in Abu Ghraib This is one of the joys of Žižek—you never know where he’s going next.

My difficulty with this book was that  Žižek almost always takes a contrarian view. After a while it feels like he plays devil’s advocate just for the sake of being different—as if it was a game. He takes a radically counter-intuitive idea then tries to argue for it. His arguments are inventive and brilliant, but they’re far from infallible. Take for example, the prisoner abuse photos that came from Abu Ghraib. For Žižek, this obscene act of shaming was more like an initiation ritual into American culture. It was a hazing.

Žižek’s Violence is an intellectual, political, and cultural look at the violence that permeates our world. You can agree or disagree with him, but you can’t stay neutral.

—Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008).

Dynamics of Faith | Paul Tillich

The cover of Tillich's Dynamics of FaithFaith is a big word which points towards an even bigger concept. In the New Testament, faith stands for a deep trust and belief. In Dynamics of Faith, Tillich offers his take on this concept. Put succinctly:

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned (1).

This, of course, is an expansion on the New Testament’s idea of deep trust and belief in a person—Tillich’s faith comes from a philosophical viewpoint which engages all religions. While Christian faith in the person of Jesus Christ falls under his definition of “being ultimately concerned,” so do many other faiths, even secular and national faiths.

Dynamics of Faith is a very thoughtful book which deserves a careful reading. There are elements on every page to evaluate theologically.

Tillich does a fine job at clearing away some of the misunderstandings of faith. Faith is no mere “act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence” (31), nor is it “the feeling of unconditional dependence” (38) à la Schleiermacher.

Another strength of this book is Tillich’s acceptance of doubt as part of faith. Consider this argument (that has been picked up today by Peter Rollins):

If faith is understood as belief that something is true, doubt is incompatible with the act of faith. If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it. It as a consequence of the risk of faith (18).

What a powerfully pastoral idea! Doubt could actually be part of faith rather than an enemy of it.

My biggest problem with Tillich’s argument came with his separation between the ultimate and other fields of study. When explaining potential conflicts between faith and science, history, and philosophy, he strongly asserted the need to keep these realms separate:

Science has no right and no power to interfere with faith and faith has no power to interfere with science. One dimension of meaning is not able to interfere with another dimension (81-2).

Of course, if you understand the incarnation as the hypostatic union between God and humanity, then dimensional interference is precisely what happened!

Dynamics of Faith was published in 1957. Now, over 50 years later, it is still a good way to spark meaningful theological discussion and thought on one of the biggest theological categories in scripture.

—Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1957).

Deathbird Stories | Harlan Ellison

The cover of Ellison's Deathbird StoriesThe warning at the start of the book set the tone well (xii):

It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This not is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole.

The first story was troubling enough to make me question whether or not I should have bought the book. Ellison lacks the restraint that most human beings come by instinctively. I suppose, when writing a book about all the gods people follow today (the gods of the freeway, the coaxial cable, the paingod, the god of neon, the rock god, the god of smog and even the god of Freudian guilt), you should expect trouble.

I tracked this volume down through after learning it was the inspiration behind Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys. The concept that a god is only alive insofar as he or she is worshiped is a fascinating idea to explore. Gaiman explored it with brilliance while Ellison used it as the lietmotif in this collection of short stories.

From a Christian perspective, Deathbird Stories invites some interesting thoughts about the nature of belief and modern forms of idolatry. These hallucinatory tales show idolatry for what it is—unfortunately, without offering any solution.

—Harlan Ellison, Deathbird Stories (New York: Bluejay Books, 1983).

Insurrection | Peter Rollins

Strip away all comfort and joy you have ever received from your religious life and what are you left with? According to Rollins, nothing less than the most authentic way to live.

In Insurrection, Rollins uses the death and resurrection of Jesus to describe how we can live an authentic life. When we participate in the crucifixion on Jesus, all of our religious crutches are knocked away from us as we feel the despair of doubting God’s very existence. It’s only then that we can truly live.

Rollins is a great story teller and writer. He has a winsome way of using anecdotes to help you see everyday events differently. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, hearing the stories, and thinking through Rollins’ argument, I couldn’t help but disagree with his main premise.

For Rollins, unless you come to a crisis point where you receive no religious consolation, you’ve never truly lived the crucifixion and resurrection life. I know many people—myself included—who, despite times of doubt, receive equally genuine comfort from the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is no existential crutch!

For Rollins, people who claim to be well are unable to admit that they’re really sick. People who claim to be happy are secretly in despair. While that’s certainly true for some people, you can’t paint every follower of Jesus with that brush.

The Miracle of Mindfulness | Thich Nhat Hanh

A couple years ago I found myself sitting in the back seat of a truck beside a person I met the night before while bumming a ride back to my van after an semi-aborted canoe trip. After learning I was a pastor he asked, “what’s your view on meditation?” I know the answer I was taught in Bible College. Christian meditation is a filling of the mind with scriptures, where Eastern-style meditation is a wicked emptying of the mind where who-knows-what can enter. My back-seat companion convinced me to look into things a little further. The Miracle of Mindfulness is the result of that conversation.

This short and simple work describes the fullness of life available to us when we slow down and notice everything around us. And we start to take notice by following our breath. It’s really that simple. Slow down, breathe deep, and focus on every breath you take. The world opens up before you. Since most of our lives are spent reacting to stimulus around us, and stress has become an epidemic, this is some good advice.

I should comment on the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity. I know many Christian readers see nothing good in other world religions. In my view, other world religions are human attempts on the basis of natural revelation to understand the divine. Why should we not learn where there’s wisdom to be found? As they say, all truth is God’s truth.

I was encouraged by Thich Nhat Hanh’s respectful tone whenever he spoke of Christians. I’ve started to integrate small breathing exercises into some of my morning devotions. It’s amazing how seven deep breaths will clear my mind to receive God’s Word.

Of course, there were parts of this book more directly related to Buddhism that I found difficult. The selection of Buddhist Sutras at the end, and some of metaphysical views on human nature were misguided.

Following the breath, while not an end in itself, is a good means to experience eternal life in God’s multifaceted creation.

The Stranger | Albert Camus

  • The Stranger © 1946
  • Translator: Stuart Gilbert
  • Vintage: Random House
  • 155 pages

Have you ever dreamed that you committed murder only to awake in a panic about the consequences? The Stranger is a short, simple, and strangely disturbing philosophical novel of casual murder and its consequences. I mentioned dreaming because as you read the work, you almost get the impression that the main character is dreaming his way through his life and crime. It feels too casual to be real.

This novel gripped me in a couple different ways:

  1. The apathy and lack of engagement in life on the part of the protagonist echoes the way we live life on the surface today. Camus nailed that attitude over 60 years ago.
  2. The protagonist’s atheism, especially as it clashed with the prison chaplain’s worldview, forces the reader to contemplate death and the afterlife. I found it profound that a clash with religion (even to reject it) was the major cathartic moment in the killer’s life.

This novel deserves its fame. If you want to reflect on life as you live it, The Stranger will get the gears spinning.

Sarte for Beginners | Philip Thody & Howard Read

I’m no philosopher, but I love these “Introducing . . .” or “. . . for Beginners” books. They’re full of drawings that help you remember the key points of a person’s philosophy without needing a degree to get started.

Sarte, as most of you already know if you’re looking this up, was a French existentialist who protested the French occupation of Algeria and believed socialism was the answer to the oppression of the working class. He believed strongly in human freedom, but not in a positive way. Humans are free because they are always one step removed from experiences—they always have a choice in their response to circumstance. Sarte believed that humans always wish they could live the experiences directly, without being one step removed.

If there are any philosophers out there reading this, feel free to correct me. The preceding paragraph is merely my summary of a beginner’s book on a brilliant thinker. For those looking for an introduction to his life and works, this book will get you thinking.

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