412: 10 Important Voices on skepticism, science and spiritual challenges today

THIS WEEK, we’re giving you a treasury of important “voices” in the roaring debate on skepticism, science and spirituality. Lying beneath what otherwise might be dismissed as a rousing fireside conversation are urgent issues: Can religion help us make peace? Or is it a source of violence? Is faith the opposite of science? Or are these parallel pathways toward insight? In a rapidly changing world, how should faith shape our lives as individuals, communities and nations?
     COME BACK TUESDAY for a look at Reza Aslan’s important new book, “How to Win a Cosmic War.” And don’t miss our WEDNESDAY Conversation With Bart Ehrman about honestly coming to terms with conflicts within the Bible.
    TODAY, after carefully scouring new books on this theme, we’re highly recommending Ten Voices that are part of this debate—in which the world’s future hangs in the balance. We’ve already mentioned 2 of the 10: Reza Aslan and Bart Ehrman. Here are 8 more …


    It took a while for literary heavyweights like Terry Eagleton to join the fray. For a couple of years now, he has been jousting with outspoken atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (among others), but only in various lecture series not widely available. Now, Yale University Press has taken a series of Eagleton’s talks and, this week, makes it available in hardback.

    If you’re not familar with Eagleton, don’t take my word for it here at ReadTheSpirit, Google him and you’ll find him routinely described with phrases such as, “Britain’s most influential living literary critic.”
    Our readers always want to know: Is this a good book for general reading? Yes. For writers? Yes. For preaching? Yes. Teaching? Yes.
    For small group study? Now, on that one, I say: Yes and No. I’ll explain: For eclectic small groups, where members occasionally enjoy challenging nonfiction, this is a great choice. For most church-based small groups, though, you’re playing with fire when you read Eagleton. Yes, there are fun lines here where he skewers what he considers the sloppy work of “Ditchkins,” a “straw man” he attacks as a blend of Dawkins and Hitchens.
    But Eagleton isn’t an evangelical zealot. Far from it. Here he is turning his laser beam on contemporary faith: “It is most certainly Christianity itself which is primarily responsible for the intellectual sloppiness of its critics. Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive. … For the most part, it has become the creed of the suburban well-to-do.”
    The book is superb. Provocative. And, it’s easy to overlook this particular new book among the heaps of mystery novels and other best sellers at bookstores, so grab a copy now by clicking on the Amazon link.


    Any time we get a major new book on a hot issue by an Eastern Orthodox theologian—well, we’ve got to salute that. (We do have Orthodox readers here at ReadTheSpirit, so a quick aside to those readers: You’ll have to admit that most Orthodox work in bookstores today is inspirational, liturgical or historical—not like this new book.) Now, in the same week that Yale is publishing Eagleton, Yale also is giving us David Bentley Hart’s very thoughtful, “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.”

    Hart isn’t giving us a specifically “Eastern Orthodox” take on these issues, but you’ll see the influences here in his choices of examples. He’s an internationally known scholar of Christian history, theology and humanities—and that’s the perspective of this new book.
    The title tries to rev up the tone of the prose a little too much, I think, because this book isn’t nearly as snappy as Eagleton’s volume. In fact, it reads a bit like a professor setting out to write an important book. There are a few ponderous phrases here and there that are straight out of a classroom:  “One cannot really understand … without some knowledge of …”
    But there’s a substantial base of thought and analysis here that you’ll want to read, if you care about this debate. In less than 250 pages, Hart connects a lot of dots from the ancient pagan world to the birth of Christianity with stops in ancient Alexandria, the works of early church scholars and the writings of thinkers like Descartes and Nietzsche.
    Great for general reading and for preachers, teachers, writers. But for small-group study in a congregation? Likely not with this one. You may have trouble convincing everybody in the group to make it all the way through this one.


    Hands down, one of the best in this bunch for small-group study in congregations is Rabbi Wolpe’s 8-chapter, 200-page volume. A good sign of that tone are the endorsements by Mitch Albom and Rick Warren on the cover.
    Wolpe writes as a veteran preacher, teacher, group leader. His chapters are crisply titled: “Does Religion Cause Violence?” “Is Religion Good for You?” At 8 chapters, this book is perfect for a 2-month study. What I like about his book is that he breaks each topic down to nuggets a discussion group can chew on in their discussion. I didn’t find anything in the book that was a surprising new insight for people who have been following this unfolding debate. (If you want fresh insights and examples, check out David Bentley Hart’s more challenging text.)
    But Wolpe has organized the best arguments, examples and data in a helpful, enticing form. Do I agree with every argument Wolpe poses in this book? No, I found myself taking issue with several sub-chapters in his book—but that’s what makes for spirited conversation.


    Many readers have told me that, within this whole spectrum of arguments, they’re really most interested in the intersection of science and faith. At the moment, there are more good books related to this theme than I’ve seen in years, but readers often head directly to tried-and-true names (see the next item).
    Here’s a book you may completely overlook with intriguing insights and a voice that I quickly came to enjoy. Adam Frank is an astrophysicist whose pieces have appeared, over the years, in Discovery, Astronomy and Scientific American. He takes a number of interesting approaches to the science-spirituality debate.
    First of all, he says that it doesn’t need to be a debate. He argues that faith, or spiritual reflection, can be a parallel pathway of insight that can enhance scientific exploration rather than becoming locked into a knock-down, drag-out death match. Anyone who has read much about the life of Charles Darwin can see these twin pathways at work in his life, too, for example.
    Frank is an important voice who approaches the whole conversation from a different seat in our collective theater of voices. He’s also got a blog where he quickly taps out occasional thoughts. I’m linking you to one particular recent piece that gives a feel for his style.


    If you’ve been following this field in the past decade or so, then you at least know the name of the world-famous physicist, theologian and Templeton Prize winner. He’s written dozens of books and he’s a favorite of church groups that already have hosted discussions in this area.
    Check out his Wiki page if you want more background on his career, but today I simply want to let readers know that there are two new Polkinghorne books available.
    I’ve taught in many small groups over the years and here’s a great tip: If your group is most interested in science-spirituality issues, then ask half the group members to read Adam Frank and divide copies of Polkinghorne’s two new books among the other half of the group. I would enjoy sitting in that circle to hear what people say, equipped with these voices.
    “Questions of Truth: 51 Responses to Questions about God, Science and Belief,” by Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, is precisely what the title describes. What this format sacrifices in terms of engaging prose, it makes up in its sturdy Q&A format that addresses one set of nuts and bolts after another.

    For an overall glimpse of how Polkinghorne currently is synthesizing these thoughts, we turn once again to the Yale Press for “Theology in the Context of Science.” Polkinghorne has been teaching and writing for a general audience for decades now and, despite the “university press” on the spine, this isn’t a tough book to read. The ideas, though, are valuable as the scientist tries to describe principles of balance between these disciplines.


    Calling these three writers a “trio” is a stretch, because these three approach these urgent issues from distinctively different points of view.
    David Myers, the noted expert in psychology, writes a friendly rebuttal to new atheist voices. Michael Novak also weighs in against Dawkins, Hitchens and their friends—but from a distinctively different religious perspective. And Barbara Brown Taylor is less interested in squaring off for a debate than she is in exploring new ways for people of faith to engage our neighbors in the realms outside organized religion.
    We have published extensive pieces on each of them, so simply click on their names above to read more.

COME BACK on TUESDAY for a look at Reza Aslan’s new book on “Cosmic War.” And, on WEDNESDAY for a convesation with Bart Ehrman on his newest book, “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible.”


    This is a good time to sign up for our Monday-morning ReadTheSpirit Planner by Emailit’s
free and you can cancel it any time you’d like to do so. The Planner
goes out each week to readers who want more of an “inside track” on
what we’re seeing on the horizon, plus it’s got a popular “holidays”

    Not only do we welcome your notes—but our readers enjoy them as well. You can do this
anytime by clicking on the “Comment” links at the end of each story.
You also can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and other social-networking sites as well.
    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email