Briefly Reviewed: March 1984
The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God
By J.L. Mackie
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Author: James G. Hanink
Where might we now find the spirit of David Hume? Until 1981 that spirit arguably animated J.L. Mackie, late Reader in Philosophy at Oxford. Certainly Mackie, dubbed by Time as “perhaps the ablest of today’s atheistic philosophers,” speaks with Hume’s voice in this posthumous work. Even the “piety” of its title — The Miracle of Theism — is Humean irony, for Hume — that most skeptical of the great empiricists — in a polemic against miracles, archly concluded that “the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.”
Supposing that readers of the NOR do not read for the sake of insult, the question arises: why review The Miracle of Theism? Two answers, each sufficient, come to mind. First, God’s existence — and whether philosophical argument can show it to be either certain or probable — is of surpassing intellectual fascination. To be indifferent here is to be blind to a central inquiry of Western thought. Mackie, moreover does contribute (unevenly) to that inquiry. Secondly, the passions of philosophers shape, albeit gradually, the larger culture. If there is to be a Church Militant, there had better be a Church Intelligent. Humean skepticism dominates secular thinking about religion; its legacy must be confronted.
In recent years that legacy, to be sure, has been sharply addressed. Richard Swinburne, of England’s Keele University, and Alvin Plantinga, now of Notre Dame, have forged with great analytic rigor an apologetic that secular philosophers cannot dismiss. Mackie rightly takes them to be his chief opponents. And surely a strength of Mackie’s book is its range. He offers assessments of the theologies of Descartes, Berkeley, and (acidly) Hans Küng, of arguments from religious experience, and of forms of the classical ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. He also discusses competing natural histories of religion, the problem of evil, and several strands of fideism.
While only a sample of specifics is in order, two of Mackie’s recurring arguments are especially incomplete. First, against Swinburne he maintains that while the welcome existence of, say, human consciousness or of a universe at all is made more probable on the hypothesis that God exists, still God is so antecedently improbable that such evidence should not be rated too highly. Yet why God’s antecedent improbability is maintained is by no means shown.
Secondly, there is in Mackie the constant suggestion that an account of reality that precludes God is somehow simpler than one that does not. But his canons of simplicity seem arbitrary. Is there not more sheer economy in one God, than in a plurality of scientific laws taken as brute facts?
Finally, Mackie as moralist is also worrisome. We are assured that in embracing atheism we need have no moral hesitations. After all, we enjoy “a long tradition of an essentially humanist morality, from Epicurus to…modern writers…centered on the conditions for the flourishing of human life and stressing intellectual honesty, tolerance, free inquiry, and individual rights.” How, one wonders, would Mackie distinguish this tradition from the traditions, cogently delineated in Alasdair Maclntyre’s After Virtue, that have led us to the atomized and emotivist 20th century, a century where Rachel, as never before, has wept for her children?
Angels, Apes, & Men
By Stanley L. Jaki
Publisher: Sherwood Sugden
Review Author: Bryce J. Christensen
Stanley L. Jaki, a Benedictine priest with doctorates in both theology and physics, might well have taken the Apostle Paul’s charge to Timothy to avoid the “oppositions of science falsely so called” as an epigraph to this collection of lectures in which he cogently argues that the “science” frequently used to discredit Christianity is merely mislabeled speculative philosophizing resting upon dubious and demonstrably anti-scientific premises. Jaki demonstrates that the edifice of modern science built by such men as Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein could rest only upon a conceptual foundation provided by Judeo-Christianity.
Especially important for scientific progress is the doctrinal conception of man as a being whose nature is determined both by his body and his spirit. As Pascal expressed it: “Man must not think that he is on a level either with the brutes or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both.” Discounting corporeality and supposing themselves to be “fallen angels,” would-be scientists like Descartes, Kant, and Hegel lapsed into wildly conjectural Naturphilosophie, wholly untenable empirically. On the other hand are those who join Rousseau and Darwin in denying the ontological reality of the mind and therefore in viewing man as a “glorified ape”; they inevitably become utter skeptics about all mental conceptions, including mathematical formulae. To “conquer” natural phenomenon, the genuine scientist needs both an angelic mind to frame abstract equations and apelike hands to verify those formulations by touching the queer-shaped universe. Moreover, the discoveries thus made do not logically lead to the radical relativism of modern thought, but rather may suggest a return to the absolutes of the metaphysical tradition. (Jaki even reveals that Einstein came to regret that his achievement was known as the theory of relativity rather than the theory of invariance.) By restoring the scientist to his place “a little lower than the angels,” Jaki has performed an invaluable service.
One caveat seems necessary nonetheless. In his zeal to establish the harmony of modern science and Christian doctrine, Jaki at a couple points tries a bit too hard to apply the same epistemology to both. To “Christians who want a ‘definite’ proof” concerning man’s nature, he avers that “the only definitive answer to be had is the answer of perennial philosophy which is methodical realism” (italics added). In the same spirit he contends that “reason indeed can provide us with certainty about objects that cannot be seen, such as the soul and the universe — and God.” But is it simply to “methodical realism” and “reason” that the Apostle Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 when he explains that because “the deep things of God” are known only through the revelations of the Holy Ghost they must remain mere “foolishness” to the Greeks, a most philosophic people? The confirmed agnosticism of Einstein (conceded by Jaki) must also surely underscore the need for a transcendent source of truth.
Certainly, Christians have reason to rejoice in those gifts that make rationality and science possible, but we cannot forget the “more sure work of prophecy” (2 Pet. 1:19) upon which we ultimately depend.
Troubadour for the Lord: The Story of John Michael Talbot
By Dan O’Neill
Review Author: Patrick Lynch
One of the unfortunate pitfalls in Franciscan literature is the over-romanticized view hagiographers take of the 12th-century saint.
Dan O’Neill, a freelance writer and president of Messenger Communications in Bothell, Washington, has fallen into the same hagiographic trap in his biography of Secular Franciscan and contemporary Christian musician John Michael Talbot. The chronicle bears telling — a unique tale of a conversion from the fast paced world of rock ‘n’ roll to the contemplative world of a semi-monk. But O’Neill’s tendency to make his subject larger than life actually weakens the book.
One empathizes with the desire to outline Talbot’s life as a modern Francis. Talbot is sincerely following the saint. It is proper to celebrate his conversion to Christianity — first through fundamentalism and now Roman Catholicism. And one can share O’Neill’s hope that Talbot’s tour with his Protestant brother Terry will work toward ecumenism.
Talbot’s life deserves telling. His conversion, his desire for silence, his humility, and his personal reconciliation of Protestantism and Catholicism promise interesting reading, as does O’Neill’s description of Roman Catholicism’s attraction. The flaw in this biography is a tendency we all have: dehumanizing the living by trying to make them saints before their time. At 28, Talbot, as O’Neill admits, has an entire life ahead of him.
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