Welcoming Justice - A Review

John Perkins will be remembered as a significant figure in the 20th century, mainly because of his practical work toward racial reconciliation and community development. Perkins is a man who has had every reason to reject the pursuit of reconciliation, and yet has doggedly invested his life in those efforts.

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Charles Marsh is a professor at the University of Virginia, whose book God’s Long Summer offers several biographical accounts of the Civil Rights movement, especially how the faith of its supporters was essential to their motivation and its prosecution.

IVP has recently issued an expanded edition of Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community that combines the practical experience of Perkins with the historiography of Marsh. It is framed in light of ugly rise of white supremacy, especially through the Alt-Right. Marsh’s preface to this new edition specifically frames it in like of the riots and violence at Charlottesville in 2017.

This volume speaks to people in two directions. Marsh, a moderate theological revisionist, speaks to the need of the work of the Civil Rights movement to continue. He notes that faith has been a central part of that movement, and should remain at the center of it. His plea functions most clearly to entice those in the majority—those who are tempted to ignore or minimize to continue pursuing racial justice–to remain engaged and faithful. Perkins, who is theologically evangelical, communicates both the need for patience and continued engagement by the offended, as well as the possibility of work toward racial reconciliation by the theologically orthodox. In other words, Perkins offers a reminder that one does not have to abandon historical doctrines of the faith to pursue justice.

As a textbook for action or a firm theological foundation for a movement toward racial justice, this book falls short. There is evident discontinuity between the theology of Perkins and Marsh, which leads to a somewhat garbled message. However, as an example of the ability to cooperate for a common cause despite theological differences, this is a very helpful book. The succinct volume functions largely as an artifact of collegial co-labor.

Although not earth shattering in its intellectual heft, this brief book fills a distinct need. Given the increasing polarization between racial, political, economic, and religious tribes, the cooperation of these men and the similar message they share is a reminder that a great deal can be done in this world despite our disagreements.

It is certain that there is a great deal left to do with racial reconciliation. I am hopeful that Welcoming Justice falls into the hands of readers that need to hear the message that unity is possible without unanimity, that the pursuit of a just society is a way to honor Christ, and that this issue is altogether too important to be ignored.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Between One Faith and Another - A Review

It is difficult, at times, to understand different perspectives on the compatibility of religions. Or, perhaps to be clearer, I might say that it is hard to understand without caricature other people’s ideas about religions.

For example, for those raised on conservative Christian teaching, there is no question that Christianity is incompatible with dozens of others world religions. We have heard this asserted from pulpit, lectern, and printed page so often that it is clear to us that Buddhism conflicts with orthodox Christianity in ways that are irreconcilable. Truths are black and white. We can be absolutely certain of most things. The law of non-contradiction reigns supreme. This is the perspective on religion known as exclusivism.

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And yet, many hold to the notion that all religions are somehow leading people to climb the same mountain, though via different paths. Though Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, some suggest that his illumination shines through the teachings of other world religions such that all provide a functional path to God. In its most benign forms, this perspective on religion teaches that there is some truth in all religions, and therefore no conflict between them in the absolute core. One might make progress toward salvation (whatever that means) as a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. This view is often called inclusivism.

There is a third perspective on religion, which is called pluralism, that argues we just don’t know which of the religions has the truth (if there is one), but that all may have a piece of the truth. Those that propound this view typically trot out the illustration of blind men feeling different parts of the mountain, an image which Lesslie Newbigin and others have helpfully identified as arrogant presumption of omniscience on the part of the speaker. This perspective often entails a sort of agnosticism, which asks the believer to wait and see before making final commitments.

In didactic texts, whether of the form used for indoctrinating children through Fundamentalist Christian worldview courses or those used to influence college sophomores in a world religions course, these perspectives are often presented triumphalistically. The pastor shows how the god of Mohammed is really vastly different than the God of Paul; the political science professor dons a head scarf and asserts that the two deities are really the same without understanding the basic theological issues; the tired, uninterested arm-chair philosopher argues for pluralism because he really wants people to stop arguing and killing one another over religion. These approaches and their related variants often tend to dismiss alternative perspectives without increasing understanding.

For those interested in understanding better the relationship between inclusivism, exclusivism, and pluralism, Peter Kreeft has written a new book, Between One Faith and Another: Engaging Conversations on the World’s Great Religions.

Summary

I was initially skeptical of this volume, because it is written in the form of a dialogue (or really a trialogue), which is not my favorite form of philosophy. I am also aware that Kreeft is a committed Roman Catholic who converted from evangelical Christianity, so he has a distinct perspective on the issue; I wondered how well he could represent the perspectives in this format.

My doubt, however, was ill-founded. Kreeft has produced a volume that will help people from all three perspectives to understand the others better. This is because, as Kreeft admits in his introduction, he has sympathies with each of the three characters and their perspective. Kreeft dealt the cards fairly when assigning roles and allowed the dialogue to unfold relatively naturally, without cheating arguments by exposing only flaws or highlighting only strengths.

The volume is a conversation between two students over the content of a world religions course. The atheist/agnostic rationalist is an exclusivist, seeing all the conflicts between different religions. He argues that not only do they conflict with one another irreconcilably, but that they are therefore all wrong; this the is character that sees the fatal flaw in all religions. He is the extremely rational college student who likes to blow the whistle on logical fallacies; sort of like your average Christian homeschooler, but without the background knowledge of Adventures in Odyssey.

The second main character is also a fellow student with the exclusivist, she is the inclusivist who believes that we’re all climbing the same mountain. She rightly notes the moral similarity between most world religions and, sometimes through an act of will, argues that religions have a common center and only conflict (or appear to conflict) in their practice. The rigorous logic of the exclusivist seems over harsh for this theologically liberal Christian.

These two characters engage in a Socratic dialogue after class, since both of them come off with understandable disagreements with the Professor. This is, perhaps, the most unrealistic aspect of the entire book: two people with different worldviews engaging in thoughtful dialogue over a long period of time. However, if the reader suspends disbelief, this is a helpful heuristic tool.

True to reality, Kreeft allows the debate between the inclusivist and exclusivist to wander afield and get mired into the predictable conflict over logic, non-contradiction, and compassion. However, here he inserts a third character, the pluralistic professor who tries not to present his view in class (and perhaps actually lacks a clear view) but simply presents the different religions with their strengths and weaknesses. This professor functions as a plot device to referee the debate when the students get off-track and caught in do loops of circular argument.

Analysis and Conclusion

Overall, the conversation is engaging and informative. There were several points along the way that Kreeft’s dialogue made me laugh out loud because he naturally inserted humor in an otherwise potentially dry discussion. The content of the conversation is relatively natural in its flow, though Kreeft thankfully cleaned up the rhetoric and expression of the speakers to make the debate more precise and linear than would be likely in a real, human conversation.

There are points throughout the volume that the reader is left a bit frustrated, since there is no clear hero, no matter the reader’s perspective. It's a good sort of frustration, though. The inclusivist, exclusivist, and pluralist all score points and all get scored on. At times, each is infuriatingly mired in his or her thought process. However, the characters do develop over the course of the volume, as they each accept the validity of the others’ viewpoints where appropriate. None of the characters “convert” to another perspective, though the rough edges are certainly worn off in several cases.

This is, in short, an example of the sort of conversation that should be happening in society, especially in higher education, but which too rarely occurs. Between One Faith and Another raises more questions than it answers, but that would make this a useful text for multiple audiences.

As a parent of a homeschooler, this is the sort of text that I might consider using in a high school world religions course. It covers many of the basic facts of various world religions, but gets to the more basic (and often ignored) question of how we should deal with the variety of religions.

This volume would be useful in a comparative religions course in a religious or non-religious higher education setting, because Kreeft does well at being even-handed throughout the conversation.

For the casual reader, like me, this volume is truly enjoyable. The conversation moves along, the content is clear and helpful, and the reader’s character is formed by sympathizing with people with whom one would otherwise naturally disagree. This is worth reading, even if simply for the enjoyment of it.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

More than Enough - A Review

Most of us live in this world unaware of how wealthy we are. We have much more than what we need. As people in the United States, or even much of the so-called developed world, we have more resources available than royalty in previous ages.

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Lee Hull Moses seeks to address this condition and provide a Christian approach to living in our state of wealth. Her book, More than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess is an attempt to navigate through the tangle ethics of a global economy, with a myriad of decisions each day. This book is focused on showing how Christians should live in light of their situation.

Moses is Senior Minister of the First Christian Church in Greensboro, NC. The congregation she leads is part of the left-leaning United Church of Christ. A liberal approach to Christianity significantly colors the volume, and helps to explain where she lands in so many ways.

The volume is comprised of thirteen chapters, in addition to an introduction and conclusion. In the first chapter, she begins by calling the reader to desire to live well as Christians; she wants her readers to delight in daily existence. Chapter Two offers the assertion that we (middle class Americans) have plenty and need to learn when to accept we have enough. The third chapter decries the complexity of living a simple life: it just isn’t as easy as the books usually suggest. Chapter Four is a lament for injustice in this world.

In Chapter Five, Moses uses two texts of Scripture to commend generosity and self-limitation to the reader. Zacchaeus and the rich young ruler represent this paradigm for her. The sixth chapter offers a confession of her own wastefulness and indulgences, like buying candy that she fears may have chocolate sourced by child slaves, and taking a vacation trip to Barcelona, Spain. Chapter Seven addresses the plague of stuff—too much of it, more of it than needed, and much of it never really appreciated. The eighth chapter speaks of the Sabbath, the theory of which Moses pulls from Walter Brueggemann, with a call to practice it in contemporary society.

The ninth chapter calls for people to pursue social justice, particularly to seek the good of neighbors. In Chapter Ten, Moses celebrates hope and finds energy for her pursuit of justice in the future reconciliation of all things. The eleventh chapter documents Moses’ work to increase government expenditures on social programs some see as necessary to bring about justice. Chapter Twelve calls the reader to delight in the good things in life, which is about where the volume began. In the thirteenth chapter, Moses discusses participation in Christianity—particularly the mainline denomination—and finding continuity and future meaning related to her God’s goodness. The conclusion ends with plaintively, with a statement that there is good and bad in the world, but she hopes it gets better.

There are several strengths to this volume. First, Moses avoids the trap of idealism all too common with volumes on the topic of social justice and excessive wealth. She recognizes that sometimes we make decisions that are considered by some to be less than good because we don’t have time to research more, drive farther for a product, or simply walk instead of driving. By including a confession of her own failings and the sometimes murkiness of her own decisions, Moses captures the complexity of life in our contemporary world. This makes he volume more convincing than some advocates of a certain version of social justice.

Second, Moses recognizes the very apparent reality that the United States is awash in wealth. Much of the perceived financial pressure middle class families feel is self-caused, as they pursue a lifestyle that is just a little beyond their means. Life really is more delightful if we desire less and delight in what we have. Additionally, her assertion that Christians should be exemplars for others living in contentedness on less than others is biblically sound.

Despite these strengths, Moses’ approach has some deficiencies. The most striking is the absence of a real gospel, of propitiation, of actual forgiveness of sin. Moses does define sin in the volume, but she describes it as human action that interrupts to flow of God’s love rather than an offense against a holy God. (52) The deepest weakness of this volume is that Moses senses her own guilt, but does not seem to understand that the solution to the guilt is not marching in the state capitol or buying so-called fair trade products, but in throwing herself on the mercy of God and receiving relief from her guilt through Christ. Instead of building her faith on the completed work of Jesus Christ, Moses claims, “The faith we affirm is built on the hope of a future reconciliation, a promise that the world will be made whole.” (97) This is vastly different than Paul’s claim that the resurrection is of first importance. We have to have the resurrection before we can have that future reconciliation.

The missing gospel is due as much to the absence of a real, personal God through the volume. It appears that for Moses the most significant relationships on earth are those between her and other humans. In fact, the entire volume reflects an attempt at self-justification by attempting to mitigate human suffering. Moses puts herself at the absolute center of her Christian experience, and seems to believe others should view themselves as the center of their own. Therefore, she does not ask whether what she does pleases an almighty, holy, personal God. Rather, she asks whether she’s done enough to assuage her guilty feelings about her wealth and privilege. The book is built on a foundation of what appears to be moral therapeutic deism.

The efforts Moses suggests to bring about equality of outcomes tend to be built on growing the government and forcefully redistributing wealth. Moses claims that the government’s role is to “make sure nobody gets left out or left behind.” This is a far cry from pursuing justice, which is what Scripture repeatedly affirms as the role of government. By calling the government to enforce equality, Moses is asking it to do something that it simply cannot do in concert with pursuing justice.

In addition to a questionable definition of government, Moses also falls prey to the popular myth of a zero-sum economics. She views her own consumption as morally dubious because she sees whatever she uses as taking away from others. This approach to economics is common, but is certainly not universally accepted. It is also undermined by the fact that the percentage of the world’s population living in poverty is declining, contrary to her assertion that the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” (43) While there is too much poverty in the world, Moses fails to recognize the vast improvements in human welfare that have been made possible very recently, and that many who own nearly nothing in this world’s goods are among the most wealthy.

This book holds out a great deal of promise. There is too much injustice in this world. There are structural biases in our nation that need to be addressed. Many times companies and politicians are motivated by selfish gain rather than the common good. Individuals and families waste too many resources and ignore too much evil in this world. The topic is a worthy topic.

However, Moses’ approach is unsuccessful because it lacks the potency of the gospel, which motivates the regenerate to do justice, and love mercy in this world. It is the gospel that should inspire Christians in the West to work toward economic systems that recognize the goodness of human contributions and the justice of protecting private property. It is the holiness of God that should enflame the hearts of the Church to action. What Moses offers is a motivation built on a feeling of sadness due to personal guilt. Thank God that he provided a way for so much more through the cross.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Thing Explainer: A Review

One of the cool things about studying science and engineering is finding out how things work. One of the neatest things about being a parent is teaching my kids about the wonders of the world--both natural and technological--around us. However, having done the first does not necessarily equip me to do the second. Randall Munroe’s recent book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words provides a partial solution.

In some circles Munroe is much better known for his internet comic xkcd, which boasts a lot of geek jokes. He’s also a former NASA roboticist, so he brings that background to the table, combining technical acumen with strong illustration skills to present a unique offering to the curious of the world.

The basic premise of Thing Explainer that many technologies are a mystery because of the terminology used to explain them and not because the technology is overwhelmingly complex. Munroe carefully diagrams 44 different things and explains them using only the 1000 most common words in the English language.

Among the objects explained are a nuclear reactor, elevators, weather maps, a tree, the U.S. Constitution, the USS Constitution, a human cell, a submarine and more. The list is long and varied and extends to many different types of interest.

I do not have the technical acumen to evaluate all of the descriptions and explanations that Munroe provides. However, having been a submariner, I can say that his diagram and explanation of a nuclear submarine is sufficiently accurate and informative. Also, having been an instructor at a commercial nuclear power plant, I will attest to the quality of his description of that technology. There are a few places where I could quibble, but generalizations are necessary and sometimes the differences between the modes of operation explain the apparent inaccuracies. Overall, I think that this book is remarkably accurate and informative.

Thing Explainer is entertaining. The diagrams are engaging. The level of detail is high so that as we flip through the volume it continues to delight with new discoveries. This is not a book that will be once read and quickly discarded. There are detailed explanations of the various labeled parts of all the diagrams, which give opportunity for reading and rereading. The adults in my house have both enjoyed reading this book.

The entertainment value extends to our children. My son (6) thoroughly enjoys looking at the pictures and as an emerging reader is able to figure out most of the words. The girls haven’t been as interested, but it’s there when they want it. This is a really great volume to have on the shelf for kids to pull out when they are bored or curious. I’m hoping that it inspires a growing interest in engineering for all of our children.

Munroe’s explanations are good, in that they reasonably accurately depict the function and operation of the various objects he is describing. This is helpful in breaking through the technical jargon into real understanding. The weakness of this approach, however, is that even if the reader understands the technology she will not be able to communicate with experts in the field. Since Munroe doesn’t give the actual names of the components, but uses roundabout ways to describe them (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile = Machines for Burning Cities), this means that someone can understand how something works and still sound silly when trying to explain it to someone else. Given the option, I’ll still use this as an introduction and a means to increase curiosity in my kids, but the approach brings its own limitations.

NOTE: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.