Thursday, April 29, 2010

Christianity & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas & Movements (Volume 3 – Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century)

Welcome to the world of philosophy

Christianity & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas & Movements (Volume 3 – Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century)
Authors: Alan G. Padgett & Steve Wilkens
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 388

As I read volume three of Christianity & Western Thought by Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens, I was haunted by a thought similar to the one that F. W. Boreham had when he shared a train ride with a well-known actor. Reflecting on his companion’s occupation, he writes, “Now if there was a world of which I knew absolutely nothing at all—a terra incognito—a realm that I had never invaded it was the stage.” Here, in this volume, I invaded the world of the philosopher and felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Though the authors serve as the most excellent of guides—incredibly conversant and at home in the world of philosophers and their thought—at times it was as if they were giving voice to ideas in a foreign language. It’s not their own words or thoughts that can be hard to decipher—they write clearly—; it’s the subject matter that can be challenging.

Fortunately, in their survey of philosophers in the march to postmodernity, they tell the story of their subjects, including a summary of their major works, which I found quite engaging. Even so, this works best as a reference that can be repeatedly consulted. As the authors continually show, western thought in the 20th century is widely divergent, which makes it hard to stay on track when reading this straight through.

This book, the third and final volume in the series, will be much easier for academics and those schooled in philosophical thought. Written from an unashamedly Christian perspective, but with scholarly detachment, this is not a book that will take the average Christian by the hand and make philosophy plain and simple. This is not a criticism of the authors, nor is it intended to discourage non-academics from giving this a try. It’s just an acknowledgement of the complexity of the material. The authors have done an excellent job of making it accessible. The patient reader of any background will find it rewarding.

I don’t know how many would share my perspective, but theology almost seems like child’s play compared to philosophy. It may be that I am just more wired for the former, and yet, one can quickly get over their head in theology and feel like they are in the outside looking in. This book focuses on philosophy and only touches on theology, but the two are far from strangers. The authors introduce individuals and thought that seek to answer vital questions and have implications for both disciplines: How can philosophy be scientific? What is human being? What about language and meaning? What about postmodernity?

Though some voices may seem nonsensical, it’s helpful to remember that each, in their own way, is trying to making sense of the world we inhabit. It’s important that Christians understand different worldviews if we hope to engage them meaningfully.

If like me you have an interest in books and search for them in places like thrift stores and garage sales, you will most likely come across books by Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and wonder who are these people? The thought of these influential figures is explored in detail in a chapter that delves more deeply into theology. The authors use the term “dialectical theology” to represent their movement, which registered “its discontent with theological systems that attempt to reduce Christianity to a series of timeless, logical truths about God.” Whatever one’s views of these men and their thought, this provides an account of their influence.

Is there such a thing as Christian philosophy? This argument is found in another chapter, which goes into Thomism, the thought derived from Thomas Aquinas.

Perhaps a little of the everyday applicability of philosophy can be seen in the authors’ summary of one philosopher’s thought on play and art: “When we are caught up in a great play, a musical performance or a moving film, we encounter the play of the artist in making a ‘world’ for us to experience; this is the manner in which art discloses the truth to us. In the play between the world created by art and our world, we see our life in a new way. The meaning of art, and so the truth that it mediates, come out of the dynamic play between art and spectator/audience.” Philosophy then can be a friend of theology when it helps, either directly or indirectly, to clarify meaning, mediate truth and enable us to see ourselves in new and better ways.

Even though I may get a little lost in the world of philosophical thought, anyone with an interest in this discipline will be well-served by this volume, and the series, if this volume is any indication.
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