Friday, November 11, 2011

The Predicament of Belief: Preface


Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp have written a powerful book about science, doubt, philosophy, and faith that I hope to show is well worth a read.  The Predicament of Belief is currently available through the publisher at Oxford University Press, but it will also be released on Amazon within a few days - so go get yourself a copy and read along with my posts!  I'll be blogging through each chapter over the coming weeks if all goes as planned.  This first short post will cover the preface to get us into the major sections of the book.

Clayton and Knapp (hereafter abbreviated C&K) begin by pointing out the difficulties for religious persons who are also committed to science today.  The New Atheists (Dennett, Dawkins, etc) have inspired a new generation of aggressive atheists.  Secular scientists and philosophers often argue for a meaningless universe.  On the other side are conservative religious persons who are content with their faith, more-or-less trying to ignore the philosophical and scientific challenges of our day.  The space between these two extremes often gives birth to agnosticism from those who disagree with both sides.  Such agnostics may still be spiritual in some vague sense, opting for radical apophaticism combined with ethical and practical emphases.  

C&K seek to move beyond these options, but they plan to do so by honestly and rigorously working through the most challenging arguments against religious belief rather than merely providing an apologetic defense of faith.  What beliefs must be rejected in the light of what we know, taking full account of the best knowledge of our day, and what beliefs might be kept?  To what degree of certainty can we still hold to certain religious beliefs?

They also seek to go beyond the typical liberal responses that too quickly jettison major beliefs of the Christian faith in favor of slippery mystical language about "new being" and substituting dogmatic commitments to liberal politics for dogmatic commitments to orthodoxy.  Such liberal religious persons tend to leave out any close critical scrutiny of the basic assumptions that lead them to such a position.  C&K seek to investigate those assumptions, as we will see.

The predicament of belief then refers to all of these types of factors that challenge religious persons today.  The grounds for doubt today they confess "are deep and serious."  Theologians ought to be able to respond to such reasons for doubt - and be willing to do major restructuring of theological positions if necessary.  While orthodoxy may serve as a guideline for such restructuring, it will probably need to be challenged as well.

All of this seems like bad news to many Christians, but C&K are convinced that there are compelling reasons to affirm certain Christian beliefs about God and the Christ-event, even if they must now be transformed to some extent.

They conclude by admitting that hard skeptics and conservatives will probably not be persuaded by their arguments.  But this is not their intended audience: "Our arguments are not aimed at those who are happy to remain at either extreme, but are offered as guidance for those who wish to go where reason and experience may lead."  The book is the result of over two decades of research from the authors, so be prepared to wrestle with some serious theological challenges. 

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