Perhaps it was because I am reading Eric Metaxas’ excellent book Amazing Grace that the words of the hymn Amazing Grace (John Newton, the ex-slaver-Christian-convert likely influenced William Wilberforce to work to eliminate the slave trade) struck me so forcefully at the Good Friday service at my church The Meeting House in Oakville.
It was the lines:
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
It struck me how often this sequence of “ grace teaching my heart to fear” followed by “and grace my fears relieved” is followed.
The fear of the crucifixion … was followed by the joy of the resurrection
John Newton’s fear that his sins were too great to be forgiven … was followed by the joyful revelation that grace is greater than all his sin
The Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus had to endure the fear of blindness … until grace restored his sight and gave him a new mission [Acts 9]
When Peter, James, and John fell on their faces, terrified at the transfiguration … Jesus touched them and said “rise and have no fear.” [Matthew 17:1-13 ESV]
When Isaiah in his vision of the LORD was compelled to cry out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” … one of the seraphim touching Isaiah on the mouth with a burning coal was able to say: “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” [Isaiah 6]
For me this pattern of “grace teaching my heart to fear” followed by “and grace my fears relieved” is important. The first step teaches how dangerous my current state is and how insufficient I am to rescue myself, while the second proves that my rescue is taken care of by someone who loves me. All I have to do is give my honest permission.
I have previously published my review of Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Back to Virtue. In this post I wanted to provide a more personal view of how the book changed or perhaps broadened my thinking. At one point, Kreeft talked about how Christianity brought together the best of what Hebrew, Greek, and pagan thought and tradition had to offer. This is depicted in the diagram below (reworked to capture my own musings on this important idea from a similar diagram in the book).
The Hebrew Foundation
If one reads the New Testament, one can’t help but notice how Christianity is grounded on, and grew forth from Hebrew history, revelation, and practice. All of the very early Christians were Jewish. The Old Testament is cited again and again in the New. Even the Christians called out of Greek and pagan backgrounds were steeped in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. When Paul spoke in 2 Timothy 3:16 about “all scripture,” he was primarily referring to the Old Testament.
Jesus had to be born into Jewish society because they had a high view of God: his Oneness and His creation of the world out of nothing. Had Jesus been born in Athens, as pantheists and polytheists, they would have happily put Jesus alongside Zeus and so missed the whole point of the incarnation. The shocking incredulity of the Jewish mindset to the incarnation was absolutely necessary for us to get the message and import of what was taking place.
This Hebrew ground or environment for the incarnation did not come without cost or loss. As far as I can tell from my reading, the first century Jewish people were remarkably free of idolatry. A by-product of this achievement was a complete lack of development of some of the arts such as sculpting and painting because they were too closely associated with idol worship. Kreeft helped me realize how this temporary omissions were build back in to the Christian community after the significance of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ were recognized.
The Greek New Testament
The use of Koine Greek (the lingua franca of the Mediterranean and Middle East) as the language of the New Testament had profound consequences. Not only did it bring the Good News in the common language of the Roman Empire, but it could make use of the nuances of language and thought brought into Greek by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. So for example it enabled the distinction between the old nature (flesh – sarx) from body (soma), drawing a clear distinction between Gnosticism and Christian teaching by putting a high value on the body as well as the spirit (Gnosticism values only the spirit). It also made God-guided reason an important way of testing truth claims and made reason an integral part of understanding teaching.
When viewed as a religious system, pagan polytheism was simply a branch of pantheism. But pagan practice had given rise to stories, plays, and poetry that showed a wonderful imagination and a longing for truth. Here again, it seems to me Christianity was able to keep the good. Much if not all of the ancient literature was preserved by the Church as the Roman Empire collapsed and the anarchy of the Dark Ages replaced it. The use of imagination as an engine of the written arts and also of science has played a significant role and life of the church.
So What Does This Mean to Me?
Kreeft’s analysis and synthesis has allowed me to see a number of things in a new way. Here are some of them:
1. God is always working toward the summum bonum, the greatest good.
2. Sometimes because of our weakness and frailty, we miss out on some things as the Israelites did as they were learning to avoid idolatry and so gave up some of the arts. These temporary omissions are part of our growing process.
3. In the end all genuine good comes from God and we as his people are not wrong to seek it. You cannot go far wrong if one truly seeks the good.
4. My own Christian walk is founded on my personal interaction with the Lord Christ through His received word and His Spirit. Imagination and reason play an important role in that interaction.
Note Added on “Reason”
In The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Kreeft points out the differences in the way the word “reason” was used by Aquinas and how it’s used by modern philosophers. Aquinas and other ancients used reason to denote knowing, judging, as well logical processes such as inductive and deductive analysis. Modern philosophers, according to Kreeft, tend to use it only in the third sense.
This is another thoughtful book from Peter Kreeft with many valuable insights. Of particular significance to me was his observation (and my realization) that our society speaks of “having values” rather than “pursuing virtue.” This crafting of our language supports the subliminal indoctrination that channels us into believing or even espousing the idea the “the good or what is right” is not a real quantity like the natural laws but rather is made up or invented by people. Kreeft calls us back to pursuing virtue and abandoning the relativism that plagues us with moral equivocation. He sums up this idea by stating that society cannot long exist without virtue and virtue cannot long exist without religion.
A second important insight for me had to do with the strands of thought and practice that were brought together in Christianity. He argued that as Christianity built on it’s Jewish foundation, wrote it’s ideas using the Greek language and gradually brought more and more gentiles under it’s wing, it brought together three strands: conscience from Judaism, reason from the Greeks, and imagination from the pagan gentiles to craft the fabric of the faith.
Having said that, I will read this book over and over again because of the powerful and significant ideas it advances. I am less enthusiastic about the writing style. Kreeft often uses short sentences and the ideas do not flow well but rather come out like a machine gun barrage. I overlook the stylistic deficiencies because of the content.
Effective communication means not only speaking and writing cogently and precisely but also developing an understanding of how our words will be perceived by the listener or reader. Words are filtered or perhaps interpreted through the Worldview of the listener.
Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew have written an interesting book on Worldview subtitled An Introduction to Christian Worldview. In order to understand their points it’s useful to begin with a description and history of the key term “Worldview” detailed in their work.
Goheen and Bartholomew in Living at the Crossroads (LATC) trace the concept of Worldview back to Kant’s Weltanschauung, a term which was developed further by the idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Weltanschauung, or Worldview is denoted as a comprehensive and cohesive set of beliefs that underlie and shape all human thought and action.
In other worlds, to use a metaphor, Worldview is the set of glasses through which we see the world. Often, as glasses, if they have been on long enough, we don’t even realize they color everything. This realization is important from two perspectives:
- If you are speaking to someone with a different Worldview, communication will be difficult because the very words themselves will be re-translated by the Worldview.
- If one seeks to minimize one’s bias, it is important to understand one’s own Worldview and how it colors what one hears and reads.
Now although we all have a Worldview, I do not at all insist that all Worldviews are equal. It matters a great deal how closely the Worldview mirrors reality and since Worldviews are often contradictory at points, it is unreasonable to believe they all map into reality equally well.
I share Goheen and Bartholomew’s Christian Worldview and it was interesting to me to read how the Christian Worldview intersects and reacts to two other Worldviews currently prevalent in the West: Modernism and Postmodernism.
In Chapter 6 they trace the rise of Modernism through Reformation and the development of modern science from its Christian roots to the point where by the end of the eighteenth century is firmly based on confessional humanism. This transformation is summarized in one graphic and Modernism is based on four principles (page 91):
- Faith in progress
- Faith in reason
- Faith in technology
- Faith in a rationally ordered world
To my mind, these four faiths of Modernism also point to the great weaknesses of this perspective:
- How do we define progress? Progress becomes things we can measure: Gross Domestic Product, Average Income, and Life Expectancy. These are important, but are these the most important?
- Reason is very important, but what assumptions do we bring to reason and what concepts of right and wrong do we bring to reason?
- Science and technology are two-edged swords. They can give us polio vaccines and hydrogen bombs. Is our capability outstripping our ability to control our self-interest and quest for dominance? Where do our restraints come from?
LATC tackles Postmodernism in Chapter 7. Goheen and Bartholomew point to Jean-Francois Lyotard and his “incredulity toward metanarratives” (page 109) as a defining characteristic. He and other Postmodernists are saying that Worldview defines everything. In other words reason must be distrusted when it comes to defining reality. LATC quotes Kenneth Gergen: “We are not dealing here with doubts regarding claims about the truth of human character, but with the full-scale abandonment of the concept of objective truth.” One of the few things Postmodernism shares with Modernism is their hostility towards Christianity. After that they are opposites.
- Postmodernism can never completely vanquish or obliterate Modernism because Postmodernism doesn’t really work at any level that touches on reality. It may claim the sympathies of many, but eventually in public discourse, data and reasoned argument will still win out. So Modernism will not disappear.
- Although Christians (and presumably people of other Faiths) are able to participate in government at some level, Modernism will not let them be fully enfranchised since key political issues such as education of our young will always exclude their heart felt input. This is shown in the following figure. We can vote, but real choices we care about will never be on the ballot.
In summary, I would rate this book a 3 stars out of 5. I’m glad I read it, but it did not become part of my “go to” library.
If you have read this book, I’d love to hear from you and find out what you thought.
Thanks for reading,
A Note on the Kazmaier Rating system
4-5 Stars: I will read this book over and over again.
3-Stars: I’m glad I read the book, but am unlikely to read again. If I do read it again, I’ll bump it up to 4 Stars.
2-Stars: I wish I hadn’t read the book.
1-Star To my mind this book is so poor, I’m stupider now for having read it.