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The Predicament of Reading Clayton & Knapp

I first became aware of the writings of philosopher and theologian Philip Clayton just this year. He is mentioned several times in the footnotes of F. LeRon Shults (excellent) book The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology: Wolfhart Pannenberg and the New Theological Rationality. Clayton's name came up quite a bit. And, I was surprised, because, at the time, I had never heard of him. So, I did a little exploring. You see, it seemed strange to me: here was this theologian who had studied under Wolfhart Pannenberg and who had been writing books with titles that were right up my alley — titles like The Problem of God in Modern Thought and Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective and Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action — and I had never heard of him. Clearly, I had some catching up to do.

And, then I found out he was a United Methodist. That seemed all the stranger.

And, then I found out that he taught at Claremont. Oh, that explained it: Process Theology. That's why I’d never heard of him.

I have studiously ignored Process Theology all these years. My knowledge of it is fragmentary — mostly coming from it's critics. I've read a few articles by John Cobb. I didn't like them. The God of process thought always seemed to me like a strange fit with the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I did once attempt reading an introduction to process theology. But, I gave up quickly — and without regret. It had always seemed to me an unpromising line of thought, and the book (what little I read of it) gave me no reason to think differently.

Well, it looks like I need to re-examine my long-standing refusal to consider this line of thinking.

I received in the mail a copy of Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp's new book The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, Faith.

This was sent to me by way of Philip Clayton and the kind folks at Homebrewed Christianity. I appreciate the gift.

Homebrewed Christianity is putting together a blog tour of the book. Thus, they hope, in sending me the book, that I'll blog about it.

So, I’m doing it now. And, I think I will do some further writing in the future. This is the first, but I may very well write more about this book as I go along.

The predicament is my own resistance to the school of thought from which this comes. While I am fascinated by the interface between science and Christian faith and appreciate writers like Pannenberg and Polkinghorne, I am a bit repelled by a project that (1) comes out of the very heart of Process Theology (Claremont School of Theology) and (2) advocates something the authors are calling
Christian Minimalism (which sounds too much like watered-down Christianity: the kind of Christianity from which the United Methodist Church has been dying).

Well, I'm about 38 pages into this book and it is great. Just based on what I have read so far, I would recommend this book to anyone who is struggling with the philosophical issues of Christian faith. It is written in an engaging style, and it appears to me that the authors are hoping this book will have a wide readership.

These are deep waters philosophically. So, this is not for everyone. Nor will everyone be inclined to agree. But, this is a well-written, engaging response to the major contemporary objections to the Christian faith. It seeks to respond to the objections to faith in a way that gets past the usual polemics of theism vs. atheism.

I appreciate the authors' irenic and polite tone. At one point they write:

We respect those for whom the traditional Christian claims seem to need no defense or who believe that the objections can be easily answered by the various forms of Christian apologetics. But it seems to us, as it does to many others, scholars and laypeople alike, that there are strong and sometimes compelling reasons for doubting whether some of the traditional Christian claims are actually true. (Page 3).

So, their goal is to state the major contemporary objections to the Christian faith, and then defend a minimal set of Christian beliefs which, they feel, still commend themselves to all thinking people.

They say:

In the long run, we think, it would not make sense to act in accordance with a set of claims one really saw no way at all of evaluating or confirming. As we suggested a moment ago, for a Christian to adopt such a religious "policy" (so to speak) would be inconsistent with the very religion she was trying to practice. For if that religion claims anything about the ultimate reality on which our existence depends, it claims that this reality has made something of itself known, and in such a way that human beings can respond to it. (Page 20).

So, yes, I am reading this book. And, while I have only begun, I can heartily recommend it to anyone who is thinking about these issues. It is brief (184 pages, but that includes extensive notes and index), well stated and interesting.

Please bear in mind, though, that I'm reading several other books at the same time (as I usually do). I don't know when I will finish this one. And, I want to go slowly and give it some thought as I go.

I doubt that I will write a real review of this book (just because I almost never do). But, I will probably be reflecting on the themes and ideas this book raises as I go along. There are plenty of great quotes already in the first several pages I have read.

I close with the publisher's blurb:

Does it make sense - can it make sense - for someone who appreciates the explanatory power of modern science to continue believing in a traditional religious account of the ultimate nature and purpose of our universe? This book is intended for those who care about that question and are dissatisfied with the rigid dichotomies that dominate the contemporary debate. The extremists won't be interested - those who assume that science answers all the questions that matter, and those so certain of their religious faith that dialogue with science, philosophy, or other faith traditions seems unnecessary. But far more people today recognize that matters of faith are complex, that doubt is endemic to belief, and that dialogue is indispensable in our day.

In eight probing chapters, the authors of The Predicament of Belief consider the most urgent reasons for doubting that religious claims - in particular, those embedded in the Christian tradition - are likely to be true. They develop a version of Christian faith that preserves the tradition's core insights but also gauges the varying degrees of certainty with which those insights can still be affirmed. Along the way, they address such questions as the ultimate origin of the universe, the existence of innocent suffering, the challenge of religious plurality, and how to understand the extraordinary claim that an ancient teacher rose from the dead. They end with a discussion of what their conclusions imply about the present state and future structure of churches and other communities in which Christian affirmations are made.

And, I would love to hear from other people that are reading this book.

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