Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: March 1984

Briefly Reviewed: March 1984

The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God

By J.L. Mackie

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 262

Price: $11.95

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

Pages: 128

Price: $4.50

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

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 148

Price: $9.95

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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