The Human Condition
J.R.R. Tolkien on Fairy-Stories said...
Tales from the Perilous Realm (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt: 2008), pp. 314-5.
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many question, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.
Unknown on Pessimism and Despair said...
"A Dramatic Inferno" in Nation (July 6, 1912). Cited in Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life.
If there were in the world a sincere and total pessimism, it would of necessity be silent. The despair which finds a voice is a social mood, it is the cry of misery which brother utters to brother when both are stumbling though a valley of shadows which is peopled with — comrades. In its anguish it bears witness to something that is good in life, for it presupposes sympathy. ... The real gloom, the sincere despair, is dumb and blind; it writes no books, and feels no impulse to burden an intolerable universe with a monument more lasting than brass.
Christian Smith (Oxford University Press: August 26, 2009), 172 pages.
What kind of animals are human beings? And how do our visions of the human shape our theories of social action and institutions? In Moral, Believing Animals, Christian Smith advances a creative theory of human persons and culture that offers innovative, challenging answers to these and other fundamental questions in sociological, cultural, and religious theory. Smith suggests that human beings have a peculiar set of capacities and proclivities that distinguishes them significantly from other animals on this planet. Despite the vast differences in humanity between cultures and across history, no matter how differently people narrate their lives and histories, there remains an underlying structure of human personhood that helps to order human culture, history, and narration. Drawing on important recent insights in moral philosophy, epistemology, and narrative studies, Smith argues that humans are animals who have an inescapable moral and spiritual dimension. They cannot avoid a fundamental moral orientation in life and this, says Smith, has profound consequences for how sociology must study human beings. ~ Product Description
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (1864), Part I, Sect. VII, VIII.
Dostoevsky's unprecedented short story, Notes from Underground, is a philosophical treatise of striking originality, considered by many to be the first existentialist novel. In the early nineteenth century, with the remarkable successes of science in controlling nature, social and political theorists began to conceptualize human persons as just one more cog in the Newtonian "world machine". As such, it was thought, human society could likewise be controlled through social engineering, ensuring its proper functioning toward desired outcomes. In this excerpt, Dostoevsky voices his revulsion toward this mechanistic view of humans, renouncing the notion that humans can be relied upon to act in the predictable, law-like fashion that characterizes the physical world. On the contrary, we humans are radically free, often acting irrationally and self-destructively for no other reason than to assert our independence from custom, convention, and social pressure. The larger story, from which this excerpt is taken, recounts the inner dialogue of an isolated and contemptuous civil servant whose quest for vengeance against perceived slights leads him to alienate himself from all others. Though this "Underground Man" is of an especially unseemly sort, Dostoevsky takes it that his irrational rationalizations will resonate with the reader's own inner thoughts, and will thereby undercut the deterministic, materialistic view of man current in his day. Dostoevsky's protest on behalf of free will remains a spirited rebuke to the standard narratives of human events that defer only to human psychology and instinct geared toward self-interest. ~ Nathan
The Tragic Sense of Life (Courier Dover: 1954), pp. 110-11.
A rabid mania for originality is rife in the modern intellectual world and characterizes all individual effort. We would rather err with genius than hit the mark with the crowd... This violent struggle for the perpetuation of our name extends backwards into the past, just as it aspires to conquer the future; we contend with the dead because we, the living, are obscured beneath their shadow. We are jealous of the geniuses of former times, whose names, standing out like the landmarks of history, rescue the ages from oblivion. The heaven of fame is not very large, and the more there are who enter it the less is the share of each. The great names of the past rob us of our place in it; the space which they fill in the popular memory they usurp from us who aspire to occupy it. And so we rise up in revolt against them, and hence the bitterness with which all those who seek after fame in the world of letters judge those who have already attained it and are in enjoyment of it.
John Rawls with Thomas Nagel, Joshua Cohen, and Robert Merrihew Adams (Harvard: Mar 31, 2009), 288 pages.
John Rawls never published anything about his own religious beliefs, but after his death two texts were discovered which shed extraordinary light on the subject. A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith is Rawls’s undergraduate senior thesis, submitted in December 1942, just before he entered the army. At that time Rawls was deeply religious; the thesis is a significant work of theological ethics, of interest both in itself and because of its relation to his mature writings. “On My Religion,” a short statement drafted in 1997, describes the history of his religious beliefs and attitudes toward religion, including his abandonment of orthodoxy during World War II. The present volume includes these two texts, together with an Introduction by Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, which discusses their relation to Rawls’s published work, and an essay by Robert Merrihew Adams, which places the thesis in its theological context. The texts display the profound engagement with religion that forms the background of Rawls’s later views on the importance of separating religion and politics. Moreover, the moral and social convictions that the thesis expresses in religious form are related in illuminating ways to the central ideas of Rawls’s later writings. His notions of sin, faith, and community are simultaneously moral and theological, and prefigure the moral outlook found in Theory of Justice. ~ Product Description
J.P. Moreland (SCM Press: Jul 31, 2009), 224 pages.
Materialistic naturalism has, for some years, been the received wisdom in philosophy, as well as amongst much of the educated public. Many serious philosophical arguments have been brought against this ideology, but usually in a series of separate controversies. Professor Morelands great service is to bring all these objections together, whilst adding his own original contributions, in a very effective anti-naturalist polemic. He shows us that the materialist world picture cannot accommodate the most basic phenomena of human life: It has no place for consciousness, free will, rationality, the human subject or any kind of intrinsic value. Materialism does not disprove these human realities, it is simply incapable of accounting for them in any remotely plausible way. I would add to the list of its failures that naturalism lacks even a coherent account of the physical world itself. Professor Moreland makes a very good case for saying that, as a serious world view, naturalism is a non-starter: more traditional, theistic philosophies fare much better in the face both of the phenomena and of argument. ~ Howard Robinson, Central European University
"Battlestar Galactica Episodes 421-423 Commentary" (March 23, 2009: 1:27:00)
And this is the key moment of the finale, [Baltar] realizing the connections. Baltar is the man who has been thinking about and talking about God from the very beginning. Since the moment that Caprica Six said "God is Love" and Baltar dismissed her belief and mocked her belief. There is a direct connection between that moment and here where Baltar in the finale realizes, truly realizes, there is a different, there is another hand at work here, that there is something else going on, that there is a greater truth, that there is really something to this idea of destiny, that there is really something to this notion that he is a player in a grander play, and that he has to fill that role. I was really intrigued by that and I really wanted that to be a part of what happened at the end...
Strength to Love (Fortress Press: 1982), p. 20.
At times we need to know that the Lord is a God of justice. When slumbering giants of injustice emerge in the earth, we need to know that there is a God of power who can cut them down like the grass and leave them withering like the green herb. When our most tireless efforts fail to stop the surging sweep of oppression, we need to know that in this universe is a God whose matchless strength is a fit contrast to the sordid weakness of man. But there are also times when we need to know that God possesses love and mercy. When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance. When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through life's dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.
Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein (Penguin Group: Feb 2009), 320 pages.
A groundbreaking discussion of how we can apply the new science of choice architecture to nudge people toward decisions that will improve their lives by making them healthier, wealthier, and more free. Yes, there is such a thing as common sense—and thank goodness for that. At least that's this reader's reaction to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge, an engaging and insightful tour through the evidence that most human beings don't make decisions in the way often characterized (some would say caricatured) in elementary economics textbooks, along with a rich array of suggestions for enabling many of us to make better choices, both for ourselves and for society. ~ Benjamin M. Friedman of The New York Times
J.P. Moreland (Harvest House: Jan 1, 2009), 272 pages.
A leading evangelical thinker offers this brand–new way of addressing life’s most important questions: Does God exist, and can we know Him? J.P. Moreland, distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, abandons traditional didactic apologetics and entices skeptics and dissatisfied believers into a conversation about the emptiness and anxiety so many feel today. He invites them to the abundant life Jesus offers but that so few seem to be experiencing. Moreland shows that people are created by a benevolent God and given a life–enhancing purpose. He empowers readers to... overcome obstacles to faith, including questions about science and religion; embrace an enticing view of Jesus and the kingdom of God; and, replace unhelpful images of God with the truth. Readers will find practical and effective ways to experience intimacy with God, an effective life of prayer, and a confident hope in life after death. ~ Product Description
Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion's Cultured Despisers (Wiley-Blackwell: Dec. 3, 2008), pp. 20.
By "feeling," Schleiermacher didn't mean some rush of emotion, but rather a kind of primal experience — or, perhaps better, a way of experiencing. He called it the feeling of piety, and in the Speeches he tried to describe it as the awareness of "the Infinite in the finite." ... Sometimes, instead of "feeling," he used the term "self-consciousness," although it is clear that what we are conscious of in our experience of piety is not our isolated ego but the self in relation to something beyond us.
Joel B. Green (Baker Academic: July 1, 2008), 240 pages.
Are humans composed of a material body and an immaterial soul? This view is commonly held by Christians, yet it has been undermined by recent developments in neuroscience. Exploring what Scripture and theology teach about issues such as being in the divine image, the importance of community, sin, free will, salvation, and the afterlife, Joel Green argues that a dualistic view of the human person is inconsistent with both science and Scripture. This wide-ranging discussion is sure to provoke much thought and debate. Bestselling books have explored the relationship between body, mind, and soul. Now Joel Green provides us with a biblical perspective on these issues. ~ Product Description "If you think nothing new ever happens in theology or biblical studies, you need to read this book, an essay in 'neuro-hermeneutics.' Green shows not only that a physicalist (as opposed to a dualist) anthropology is consistent with biblical teaching but also that contemporary neuroscience sheds light on significant hermeneutical and theological questions." ~ Nancey Murphy
Nathan Jacobson » Reflections on Christopher Hitchens' god is not Great.
Right out of the gate, Christopher Hitchens' god is not Great is at once colorful and poignant, a great pleasure to read. It's also clear that it benefits from the accounts and extravagant details of Hitchens' many assignments as a journalist in exotic ports of call. Before I read any further, I'm recording how I now see the problem Hitchens addresses: the pervasive ugliness and evil in the name of God and religion. As I read, I want to consider how well my current take on this undeniable reality can bear the weight of Hitchens' experiences, insights, and arguments. The title (God is not Great) and subtitle (How Religion Poisons Everything) of Hitchens' volume are immediately provocative. If, in the end, I'm going to be persuaded that religion ruins everything it touches, is it then rational to conclude that God is not Great? Or, just that religious people suck? Is there a non-sequitur here? And, is all religion malignant? Or, might there be some rare strains of benign or even benignant religion? As it stands, if I had tackled the subject in book form, I'd have titled it: Humanity is not Great. How People Poison Everything. Considering the evident fact that human evil, both the trivial and the atrocious, is found in all places and at all times, I'm inclined to think that the blame should be pinned first and foremost on me, myself, and I... and on you as well. The problem with people manifests itself in every human context, whether religious or irreligious. I believe that any judgment on the impact of religion, for well-being and ill, hinges crucially on one's appraisal of the human condition more generally. So, let's begin there...
Terry Eagleton (Oxford University Press: June 2008), 144 pages.
The phrase "the meaning of life" for many seems a quaint notion fit for satirical mauling by Monty Python or Douglas Adams. But in this spirited Very Short Introduction, famed critic Terry Eagleton takes a serious if often amusing look at the question and offers his own surprising answer. Eagleton first examines how centuries of thinkers and writers — from Marx and Schopenhauer to Shakespeare, Sartre, and Beckett — have responded to the ultimate question of meaning. He suggests, however, that it is only in modern times that the question has become problematic. But instead of tackling it head-on, many of us cope with the feelings of meaninglessness in our lives by filling them with everything from football to sex, Kabbala, Scientology, "New Age softheadedness," or fundamentalism. On the other hand, Eagleton notes, many educated people believe that life is an evolutionary accident that has no intrinsic meaning. If our lives have meaning, it is something with which we manage to invest them, not something with which they come ready made. Eagleton probes this view of meaning as a kind of private enterprise, and concludes that it fails to holds up. He argues instead that the meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical but ethical. It is not something separate from life, but what makes it worth living — that is, a certain quality, depth, abundance and intensity of life. Here then is a brilliant discussion of the problem of meaning by a leading thinker, who writes with a light and often irreverent touch, but with a very serious end in mind. ~ Product Description
Knowledge of God by Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley (Blackwell: May 2, 2008), pp.1-3.
According to classical theistic belief — classical Muslim and Jewish as well as Christian belief — first of all there is God, the chief being of the universe, who has neither beginning nor end. Most important, God is personal. That is, God is the kind of being who is conscious and enjoys some kind of awareness of his surroundings (in God's case, that would be everything). Second (though not second in importance), a person has loves and hates, wishes and desires; she approves of some things and disapproves of others; she wants things to be a certain way. We might put this by saying that persons have affections. A person, third, is a being who has beliefs and, if fortunate, knowledge. We human beings, for example, believe a host of things... Persons, therefore, have beliefs and affections. Further, a person is a being who has aims and intentions; a person aims to bring it about that things should be a certain way, intends to act so that things will be the way he wants them to be... Finally, persons can often act to fulfill their intentions; they can bring it about that things are a certain way; they can cause things to happen. To be more technical (though not more insightful or more clear), we might say that a person is a being who can actualize states of affairs. Persons can often act on the basis of what they believe in order to bring about states of affairs whose actuality they desire. ¶ So a person is conscious, has affections, beliefs, and intentions, and can act... First, therefore, God is a person. But second, unlike human persons, God is a person without a body. He acts, and acts in the world, as human beings do, but, unlike human beings, not by way of a body. Rather, God acts just by willing: he wills that things be a certain way, and they are that way. (God said "Let there be light"; and there was light.)
Philip Yancey on Pain said...
"That Hurts", Books and Culture: A Christian Review (May/June 2008, p. 32)
Theologians blithely attribute pain to the Fall, ignoring the marvelous design features of the pain system. Every square millimeter of the body has a different sensitivity to pain, so that a speck of dirt may cause excruciating pain in the vulnerable eye whereas it would go unreported on the tough extremities. Internal organs such as the bowels and kidneys have no receptors that warn against cutting or burning—dangers they normally do not face — but show exquisite sensitivity to distention. When organs such as the heart detect danger but lack receptors, they borrow other pain cells ("referred pain"), which is why heart attack victims often report pain in the shoulder or arm. The pain system automatically ramps up hypersensitivity to protect an injured part (explaining why a sore thumb always seems in the way) and turns down the volume in the face of emergencies (soldiers often report no pain from a wound in the course of battle, only afterwards). Pain serves us subliminally as well: sensors make us blink several times a minute to lubricate our eyes and shift our legs and buttocks to prevent pressure sores. Pain is the most effective language the body can use to draw attention to something important.
"A Beautiful Mess", We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. (March 18, 2008) track 12.
And what a beautiful mess this is ¶ It's like picking up trash in dresses ¶ Through timeless words, and priceless pictures ¶ We'll fly like birds, not of this earth ¶ And times they turn, and hearts disfigure ¶ But that's no concern when we're wounded together ¶ And we tore our dresses, and stained our shirts ¶ But it's nice today, oh the wait was so worth it.
Essays on the Powers of the Human Mind (1788), Chap. 1.
This moral liberty a man may have, though it do not extend to all his actions, or even to all his voluntary actions. He does many things by instinct, many things by the force of habit without any thought at all, and consequently without will. In the first part of life, he has not the power of self-government, any more than the brutes. That power over the determinations of his own will, which belongs to him in ripe years, is limited, as all his powers are; and it is perhaps beyond the reach of his understanding to define its limits with precision. We can only say, in general, that it extends to every action for which he is accountable.
James K.A. Smith on Original Sin said...
"Lost in Translation: Versions of the Fall", in Books and Culture (Nov/Dec 2007).
Mulhall persistently takes it that the doctrine of original sin specifies that the desires of humans are sinfully perverted "by virtue of their very condition as human." In a favorite turn of phrase, Mulhall repeatedly emphasizes that humans are "always already" errant, corrupted, and misdirected. To be human, then, is to be "essentially" sinful, "sinful simply by virtue of being human." But this is decidedly not the orthodox doctrine of original sin. Rather, what Mulhall give us is an all-too-common Gnostic rendition of it (one which, admittedly, evangelical Protestants are sometimes prone to confuse with the real thing). This is to read the Bible as if it began with the third chapter of Genesis. The paradox is that an orthodox understanding of original sin does not posit sin as properly "original"; that is, it does not regard sinfulness as coincident with being human and finite. And when such a misunderstanding of original sin is coupled with some hope of redemption, we find the contorted philosophical acrobatics that Mulhall finds in Heidegger and Wittgenstein: redemption from this condition of fallenness requires redemption from being human. What is consistently lacking in these secularized or formalized versions of the Fall is the distinct nuance of the Christian vision, viz., the ability to imagine the world otherwise. Without the prior goodness of creation, there is no Fall. Our present condition is "not the way it's supposed to be," as Cornelius Plantinga so aptly put it.