Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 74 (June/July 1997): 60-64.
Religion, Science, and Naturalism. By Willem Drees. Cambridge University Press. 314 pp. $59.95.
Among philosophical naturalists, there are what one might call the mean ones and the nice ones. Mean ones, like Tufts professor Daniel Dennett, sternly inform us that natural causes explain everything and that religions are thus either dangerous falsehoods or quaint residues of earlier evolutionary stages that belong in "cultural zoos." Nice ones likewise insist on the sufficiency of natural causes but they brightly reassure us that religion is still a wonderful thing—a tapestry of symbol and metaphor that enriches our lives, as long as we’re not naive enough to think it is actually true. Willem Drees is a nice naturalist. A philosophy professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, Drees argues that naturalism does not require us to deny the existence of a transcendent God. But it does require us to deny that God has acted in the world or that we can know much about Him. "Such a philosophical concept of God is fairly empty," Drees admits, reducible to a vague sense of "gratitude and wonder." We’re welcome to fill in the details from our own particular religious tradition, but we must understand that, like all traditions, it arose through "a long evolutionary process" for strictly functional reasons. The concept of God is a human construction, a regulative idea giving force to our values. Drees is to be commended for his clear-sighted grasp of the drastic stripping-down of religion required to fit the naturalistic grid. But his book also reveals the contradiction at the heart of naturalism—for naturalism cuts both ways: it implies that science, too, is a product of evolution and hence not true but merely functional. As Drees writes, "Our epistemic capacities arose because they were advantageous to our hominid ancestors." But in that case it is not clear why religious believers should feel compelled to redefine their beliefs to conform to what naturalistic scientists decree.
— Nancy Pearcey
The Turn of the Millennium: An Agenda for Christian Religion in an Age of Science. By Jeffrey C. Sobosan. Pilgrim Press. 264 pp. $16.95.
This book is an example of something we’re sure to see often as the year 2000 approaches: a book with the word millennium in its title that has nothing to do with the millennium. The title seems strictly a sales pitch, since the content is little more than a manifesto for Jeffrey Sobosan’s environmentalist version of process theology. A Catholic theologian and follower of Whitehead, Sobosan teaches a radical redefinition of Christian doctrine. The "old tradition that Jesus was ransomed for our sins" he rejects as "theologically repugnant." He suggests replacing it with "the idea that plants and animals are always being ransomed to our well-being"—which inspires "a eucharistic (thanksgiving) ethics." And he calls for repentance for the sin of "species-centrism." Well, what did you expect from someone whose last book was titled Bless the Beasts? Sobosan’s prose is weighed down with brooding, self-indulgent introspection. One section concludes by apologizing that the issues discussed are perhaps "not what any other reader might consider the most important or intriguing in the book; that is quite possible." "But they are what come to my mind as of this writing, and in offering them I too am not just the writer but a reader of the book." Reading this kitsch is like dipping into a teenager’s diary.
In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History. Edited by R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas. InterVarsity. 330 pp. $17.99 paper.
In this well-constructed collection, many of the leading evangelical philosophers undertake the arduous task of philosophically justifying rational belief in miracles. The book first presents philosophy’s case against miracles, with famous selections from David Hume and Anthony Flew arguing the epistemological absurdity of the miraculous. But rather than allow that case to triumph—requiring, for believers, a denunciation of philosophy—these evangelicals undertake in fourteen articles a systematic apology for belief in miracles. Standout chapters include J. P. Moreland’s case for "theistic science," in which he points out the flaws in "methodological naturalism," the contention that science requires events explicable only by natural laws. Stephen Davis contributes a marvelous essay on the intellectual respectability of the idea of a timeless and immaterial God acting in a timebound and material world. Altogether, this useful volume is an impressive display of the best sort of intellectual work now emerging in the evangelical world.
— Brad Stetson
The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought. By Neil Gillman. Jewish Lights. 336 pp. $23.95.
In modern times, most Jews—or at least most non-Orthodox Jews—have abandoned any belief in personal immortality and come to suppose that it plays no role in Jewish faith. In The Death of Death, however, Neil Gillman argues that the afterlife is an integral and indispensable component of Judaism’s worldview. Gillman, a Conservative rabbi and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, traces the historical development of the Jewish understanding of death and the hereafter from its primitive state in the Torah, through the first prophetic glimmerings of personal and collective resurrection, all culminating in the rabbinic canonization of "the world to come" (olam ha-bah) in the Talmud and the liturgy. Gillman relates the world to come to a host of theological issues, such as exile and return, chaos and order. There are the two competing views of the hereafter: the philosophically conceived immortality of a discarnate soul, and a theologically conceived immortality of a personal soul in a resurrected body. Gillman makes a strong case that some form of bodily resurrection provides the truer and more authentically biblical account of human destiny. An enormous amount of learning and analysis has been packed into this relatively short study. Though the subject matter is often complex, the exposition is consistently lucid—the mark of a superior teacher. While some traditionalists may be uncomfortable with the author’s heavy reliance on the vocabulary and categories of religious naturalism, even this feature of the book may end up serving the cause of bringing nonbelievers into a deeper faith.
Five Challenges for the Once and Future Church. By Loren B. Mead. Alban Institute (Washington, D.C.). 100 pp. $12.25 (+$3.90 s/h) paper.
The author, an Episcopalian, recognizes that the mainline/oldline churches are a field of dry bones, but wants to instill confidence that, as with Israel in its Babylonian captivity, these bones can live. One must hope that he is right.
In the Lion’s Den. By Nina Shea. Broadman & Holman. 126 pp. $9.99 paper.
This little book belongs in every parish library. In the churches and in the political arena, the momentum builds to address in a decisive way the persecution and martyrdom of Christians around the world. In the Lion’s Den is a handy and reliable guide to what is happening right now—and to what can be done about it.
Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment. J. J. Goldberg. Addison Wesley. 422 pp. $25.
An interesting but finally unsatisfying examination of a potentially explosive subject. On the one hand, the author triumphantly exults in the fact that "Jews have really arrived," exercising an influence in American life dramatically out of proportion to their small numbers. On the other, he is defensively nervous that non-Jews might think there is something odd about that. Surprisingly, he assumes that Jews have something very much like a dual loyalty between Israel and the U.S., and notes approvingly the dominance of Jews in public offices pertinent to determining U.S.-Israel policy. Goldberg uncritically assumes that abortion, the exclusion of religion from public life, and related issues are "Jewish causes," and is stunningly indifferent to the perception that a little more than 2 percent of the population may be on a collision course with the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of their fellow-citizens. The author has little interest in Orthodox and other religious Jews apart from their role in hindering or augmenting the assertion of "Jewish power." He laments the fact that there are almost no nationally recognized Jewish leaders today, and concludes on the note that American Jews are "there to be led"—presumably to gain more "Jewish power." Goldberg dismisses contemptuously the Jewish figures associated with Commentary and other neoconservative enterprises as little more than anti-liberal reactionaries. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League says the book "is an informative and provocative must-read for an understanding of the issues, institutions, and individuals that define the community." Perhaps his personal friendship with the author explains the blurb (Mr. Foxman is treated favorably throughout), but one must hope he is wrong. Jewish Power intends to be provocative, as the title suggests, but is in the end a superficial and mischievous treatment of a subject deserving the careful and dispassionate attention of Jews and non-Jews alike.
Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen. By Jervis Anderson. 418 pp. HarperCollins. $30.
Bayard Rustin, who died at age seventy-five in 1987, was one of the more colorful figures of the civil rights and other movements for social change in the last half century. Prodigiously articulate, musically gifted, incorrigibly playful, and promiscuously homosexual, Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his justly famous "I Have a Dream" speech. But Rustin’s activism goes back decades before that, beginning as a militant pacifist with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In his last years, Rustin angered the black establishment with his tempered criticisms of affirmative action and, most particularly, his vigorous defense of Israel and opposition to black anti-Semitism. Jervis Anderson worked with Rustin and offers a eulogy that, while repeatedly alluding to his extravagant and sometimes outrageous ways, fails to convey both the exuberance and complexity of the man. Bayard Rustin is, nonetheless, a valuable document for the study of the social turmoils of recent American history. Usually in the second tier of leadership, Rustin knew everybody and wielded an influence with King and the civil rights movement far beyond that of black leaders better known to the general public. Religiously, it seems this most unquiet man never abandoned the "quiet way" of his Quaker beginnings in Pennsylvania.