Friday, April 30, 2010

When Athens Met Jerusalem

When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought by John Mark Reynolds
Read: 1/10/10-3/30/10
LibraryThing tags, if I had put this on LibraryThing: Philosophy, History, Theology 

Here ends my little marathon of book reviews. For the moment. I was trying to review all the books I finished reading in March. This is the last one. Well, there were a couple others, but I decided they weren't quite worth reviewing. I only finished reading five books in March -- "finished" being the key word -- I may not read as much these days as I have at certain other times in my life, but I haven't backed off that much.

Melanie gave John and me this one for Christmas, for which I must thank her profusely. Everyone must read it. Everyone. Kind of like The Discarded Image, only... more obviously structured, and easier to understand, I think. You know: just like it, only different.

It is, as the subtitle states, an introduction to classical and Christian thought. Why should anyone care about that? Because of the world we live in, for starters. The entire preface is worth quoting, especially for my purposes of urging you to run out and get this book ("do not pass GO"), but for now I'll settle for one paragraph:

"Anybody who lives in a place with a Christian heritage, even if that heritage lies mostly in the past, needs to understand the relationship that developed between Christian ideas and Greek philosophy. To do that, one first needs to understand the development of Greek and Roman thought. Christian theology has shaped and is still shaping many places in the world, and it was the Greeks who contributed a philosophical language to Christianity."

He adroitly handles both the objections of the non-Christians who doubt Jerusalem has anything beneficial to offer and of the Christians suspicious of Athens who think reason may be an enemy of faith. In fact, he shows that faith and reason flourish best together.

For those who already knew that, that's far from all Dr. Reynolds has to offer. This would be a good book to read after Love Your God with All Your Mind, because whereas that book mostly argued for the place of intellectualism in spirituality, When Athens Met Jerusalem actually goes with you on that journey. Arguments for faith and reason are there so you will trust your guide. Speaking of journeys, that reminds me of a good quote at the end of the book (hey, it's non-fiction, I've got to take advantage of the lack of spoilers):

"Christianity is so complete and so utterly true that it is a severe temptation to give up on mental growth. And yet God has not seen fit to give Jerusalem a complete guide to everything. Christians do not yet live in paradise. There is still a vital role for philosophy.

God delights in allowing his children to grow into his image by thinking as he thinks, with liberty based on his absolute freedom. Knowing revealed truth leads to better questions, not to the end of questions. Stagnation and mere repetition of the truths of revelation risk making this good thing the enemy of natural, God-created, human development."

Obviously a section more directed at the Christians, but being one of them, I loved it. It's one of the better descriptions I've read of the relationship between special and general revelation.

But his introductory material isn't just about persuading you that it's safe to listen to him because faith and reason are good friends; he also argues that our culture at this point in history is in trouble, and neither Athens nor Jerusalem are healthy without each other. There's an urgency to his message. And, I'm afraid, I must quote at length, I just like it too much:

"Christians must act quickly, for Athens and Jerusalem are dying and each needs the other to thrive. Athens has been sacked by secular barbarians who chain rationalism to materialistic science. Science can do useful things, but it knows nothing about truth, goodness and beauty. Science cannot subsume virtue to its limited methods, so it must deny the existence of virtue if scientists wish to control all knowledge.

Athens, the rational mind, does not by itself have the resources it needs to deal with the most important things. The ancient Greeks knew this, which was why so many of them were eager to embrace Christianity. We are learning the same lesson again, the hard way. The fashionable cynicism called postmodernism is merely the tired realization that rationalism without faith ends up destroying its own foundations.

Jerusalem, too, is sick. Its inbred residents, who cannot even do the sort of classical theology that produced their own creeds, sit in their ghetto talking only to themselves. Ironically, her ruling class is often composed of absentee landlords. They live in Athens and only show up in Jerusalem to collect their tithes. These rulers reject the creeds, since Athens has rejected both the religion and the classical thought behind them, but cannot substitute much of anything in their place."

All that said, after a rather quick introduction he gets into the meat of the book: a walk through the history of classical philosophy; starting with the pre-Socratics, taking a little more time with Socrates, lingering over Plato, continuing with Aristotle, and finishing with the neo-Platonists and the other schools of thought which led to Paul at Mars Hill. It's really quite a linear book for Dr. Reynolds. But of course, unlike authors of textbooks on the history of philosophy, he doesn't pretend not to have opinions of his own. Which is really quite advantageous, when it comes to getting any kind of a grasp on the connections and relationships between ideas. I don't know how you can do that without evaluating, sifting through the fabric of history...

The chronological structure does make his opinions and the message of the main body of the book a little harder to summarize, though. Except for maybe, Read Plato. That's what I'm going to do. Several times over, if I take his advice. And then I'm going to read this book again.

“For many readers the first experience with a serious book is reading a textbook. They learn, or are even taught, to skim to get to the main idea. Whatever the merits of this strategy for reading books written by committees of corporate educators, it is absolutely the wrong way to read Plato. These dialogues have no filler, no fluff. They are the unique, sometimes eccentric but always brilliant fictional inventions of a first-rate mind.”

That third sentence is such a great line.

Then, in an explanation of Aristotle's four types of causes: “A Chinese factory worker is the efficient cause of the original pink flamingo, but the minivan is the efficient cause of the squashed pink flamingo.” It's good to have that cleared up, eh?  Sorry, it made me smile.

Okay, just one more favorite, then we're out of here: Aristotle erred, but he did so because of a rational induction based on a large set of observations. Humans had been observing the heavens and keeping careful records for hundreds of years. Aristotle could induce the fact of change in the heavens since they move, but he also sensibly induced the eternality of the heavens since they seemed stable over all of human history. In 1572 a supernova shocked scientific Europe not because it was a change in the heavens (as even some college texts teach), but because this change seemed to be a birth or destruction of an object in the heavens. Aristotle was wrong.” Shock of shocks, a textbook misunderstanding human reactions to a historical event! And in astronomy?!  No!


Melanie said...

You're welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed it so much! ^__^

Yes, you should read lots of Plato. And I should read still more Plato. Do you have access to a copy of the Red Book? Plato is exceptionally readable, you know. Any junior higher ought to be able to read him. Of course, read him in a way which does justice to all the depths of his brilliance... well, no doctor of philosophy could really be expected to do that!

As to Aristotle's four causes... that flamingo is brilliant. He has passed this philosophy of dealing with difficult topics on to all of us. In our session on Aristotle's Metaphysics, Dr. Jenson (I think it was him) refused to let us use any boring examples. So our discussion of the four causes involved a hypothetical cow which was catapulted through the air from the Sutherland parking lot and landed in the middle of our classroom. Or "cow-apulted," or "cattle-pulted," depending on who you asked...

Marcy said...

The Red Book? Now I'm confused. By Jung? I don't see any such thing by Plato... mer. I have a copy of a collection of Great Dialogues of Plato, and I think John downloaded some Plato, and there are more used copies of Plato I could get with my book allowance at the store. When the time comes.

Heh, you remind me of Lewis' prologue to Athanasius. That's the way of the Great Books, eh?

Heh heh. Yes, that's the way to do it. I'm a little surprised you didn't catapult a cat, but I suppose a cow works. "Cattle-pulted," she says, shaking her head. You know, there's a scene in Wonderfalls involving pink (What other color would they be? Ooh! I want a black lawn flamingo!) lawn flamingos. It is amusing, as are many things on Wonderfalls. But not all.

Melanie said...

The Red Book is what we Torrey folk call the office-recommended copy of the Complete Works of Plato. It is large and red. :)

Yeah, I remember that prologue. It was very true. Like most of what Lewis writes. :)

I am very glad Dr. Jensen did that for us... otherwise my memory of that session would just be of plowing through Aristotle, and that is... less fun. Oh, Aristotle truly is hard to read. This is because all his actual dialogues were lost when the Great Library of Alexandria burned and all we have left are his lecture notes... They tell us he was really proud of his style, too... alas, it was lost.