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Being Human

Being Human

Surviving Death

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In this extraordinary book, Mark Johnston sets out a new understanding of personal identity and the self, thereby providing a purely naturalistic account of surviving death. Death threatens our sense of the importance of goodness. The threat can be met if there is, as Socrates said, “something in death that is better for the good than for the bad.” Yet, as Johnston shows, all existing theological conceptions of the afterlife are either incoherent or at odds with the workings of nature. These supernaturalist pictures of the rewards for goodness also obscure a striking consilience between the philosophical study of the self and an account of goodness common to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism: the good person is one who has undergone a kind of death of the self and who lives a life transformed by entering imaginatively into the lives of others, anticipating their needs and true interests. As a caretaker of humanity who finds his or her own death comparatively unimportant, the good person can see through death. But this is not all. Johnston’s closely argued claims that there is no persisting self and that our identities are in a particular way “Protean” imply that the good survive death. Given the future-directed concern that defines true goodness, the good quite literally live on in the onward rush of humankind. Every time a baby is born a good person acquires a new face. ~ Publisher’s Description

Jonah Golberg on Avatar

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Cameron wrote Avatar, says Podhoretz, “not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.” What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts. Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na’Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers. I’m certainly one of those cranky right-wingers, though I probably enjoyed the movie as cinematic escapism as much as the next guy. But what I find interesting about the film is how what is “pleasing to the most people” is so unapologetically religious.

Forever Separated Lovers

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A while back Bradley Monton invited his friend and colleague, Nicole Hassoun, to post an incipient sketch of an argument against the existence or goodness of the Christian God. The basic thrust of her concern is as follows: "Perhaps I have the story wrong, … but it seems to me that several things are true of love. First, if I love someone, I cannot believe that that person deserves eternal suffering. … Second, when someone I love is hurt, that hurts me. I could not be perfectly happy if someone I loved was suffering for eternity. I cannot even conceive of such a thing. But then it seems there is a problem. For, I could be saved while someone I love is not saved. Then I could be perfectly happy in heaven while a person I love is burning in hell. But if I love someone, I cannot even think this is possible. So I should not, if I love, believe in this kind of Christianity. It could not be right unless my love would disappear at the gates of heaven (or some such) and why, I wonder, would that be? Wouldn´t it be better if heaven had my love in it? Wouldn’t I be happier in love?" My own cursory, and incipient, response follows…

R.C. Sproul on Protagoras and Humanism

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Protagoras, probably the most influential Sophist in Athens, is frequently described by modern historians as the "father of humanism." His famous maxim, "Homo mensura," declares that "man is the measure of all things," of the existence of things that are and of the nonexistence of things that are not. ¶ From a biblical perspective, of course, the honor of being the first humanist does not belong to Protagoras. Indeed, it is accorded not to a man, but to a serpent whose maxim was "Sicut erat Dei," "You will be like God" (Gen. 3:4).

Mordecai Roshwald on a Religious Yearning

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In much later years, I came to comprehend, and even to share, a not clearly defined religious yearning. The notion that humanity, like other animals, lives only in order to perpetuate the species seemed senseless. There had to be some meaning in the perception of truth, of right, of beauty, of love, of compassion, of quest for these and other, ostensibly unnecessary yearnings of the human link in Evolution. What the meaning was I could not tell, but I could not erase or disregard it. Indeed, I was glad that I could not!

Atheism: A Brief Insight

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Is a life without religion one without values or purpose? Julian Baggini emphatically says no. He sets out to dispel the myths surrounding atheism and to show how it can be both a meaningful and moral choice. He directly confronts the failure of officially atheist states in the twentieth century, and presents an intellectual case for atheism that rests as much on reasoned and positive arguments for its truth as on negative arguments against religion. Julian Baggini is editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and the author of several books on philosophy. He has also written for a variety of newspapers and journals, including the Guardian, the Independent, and New Humanist. ~ Synopsis

The Case for God

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A fascinating journey through Western civilization’s ongoing attempts to understand and explain the concept of God. Celebrated religion scholar Armstrong (The Bible: A Biography, 2007, etc.) creates more than a history of religion; she effectively demonstrates how the West (broadly speaking) has grappled with the existence of deity and captured the concept in words, art and ideas. Beginning in the majestic caves of Lascaux, Armstrong explores how religion became a meaningful part of prehistoric societies, and the ways in which these societies passed down their practices and ideas in the earliest forms of art. The author then moves on to early monotheism and its rivals, offering a brilliant examination of ancient Greek views on religion and reason, which laid the groundwork for so much of Western thought. Looking at the early Christians and Diaspora-era Jews in tandem, Armstrong delves into Talmudic study and midrash, as well as Christian adaptations of theological concepts. Throughout the book, the author argues against religion as an abstraction, noting that it most truly exists in practice. "Faith . . . was a matter of practical insight and active commitment," she writes. "It had little to do with abstract belief or theological conjecture." Nevertheless, scholars have always attempted to define and "prove" God, and Armstrong admirably outlines the best of them through the centuries, including Origen, Anselm, Pascal and Tillich. Armstrong claims that the "warfare" between science and religion is a myth perpetuated by those with axes to grind. Likewise, the modern atheist movement, "death of God" theology and even fundamentalism arise from extremists who see religion as correct doctrine,not correct praxis. Though mostly focused on the West, Armstrong maintains a global perspective, masterfully weaving in her solid understanding of the world’s panoply of faiths. Accessible, intriguing study of how we see God. ~ Kirkus Reviews

Moral, Believing Animals

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What kind of animals are human beings? And how do our visions of the human shape our theories of social action and institutions? In Moral, Believing Animals, Christian Smith advances a creative theory of human persons and culture that offers innovative, challenging answers to these and other fundamental questions in sociological, cultural, and religious theory. Smith suggests that human beings have a peculiar set of capacities and proclivities that distinguishes them significantly from other animals on this planet. Despite the vast differences in humanity between cultures and across history, no matter how differently people narrate their lives and histories, there remains an underlying structure of human personhood that helps to order human culture, history, and narration. Drawing on important recent insights in moral philosophy, epistemology, and narrative studies, Smith argues that humans are animals who have an inescapable moral and spiritual dimension. They cannot avoid a fundamental moral orientation in life and this, says Smith, has profound consequences for how sociology must study human beings. ~ Product Description

Desiring the Kingdom

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Malls, stadiums, and universities are actually liturgical structures that influence and shape our thoughts and affections. Humans — as Augustine noted — are “desiring agents,” full of longings and passions; in brief, we are what we love. James K. A. Smith focuses on the themes of liturgy and desire in Desiring the Kingdom, the first book in what will be a three-volume set on the theology of culture. He redirects our yearnings to focus on the greatest good: God. Ultimately, Smith seeks to re-vision education through the process and practice of worship. Students of philosophy, theology, worldview, and culture will welcome Desiring the Kingdom, as will those involved in ministry and other interested readers. ~ Product Description

The Recalcitrant Imago Dei

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Materialistic naturalism has, for some years, been the received wisdom in philosophy, as well as amongst much of the educated public. Many serious philosophical arguments have been brought against this ideology, but usually in a series of separate controversies. Professor Morelands great service is to bring all these objections together, whilst adding his own original contributions, in a very effective anti-naturalist polemic. He shows us that the materialist world picture cannot accommodate the most basic phenomena of human life: It has no place for consciousness, free will, rationality, the human subject or any kind of intrinsic value. Materialism does not disprove these human realities, it is simply incapable of accounting for them in any remotely plausible way. I would add to the list of its failures that naturalism lacks even a coherent account of the physical world itself. Professor Moreland makes a very good case for saying that, as a serious world view, naturalism is a non-starter: more traditional, theistic philosophies fare much better in the face both of the phenomena and of argument. ~ Howard Robinson, Central European University

Charles Taylor on Moments of Fullness

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Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity of condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more what it should be. This is perhaps a place of power: we often experience this as deeply moving, as inspiring. Perhaps this sense of fullness is something we just catch glimpses of from afar off; we have the powerful intuition of what fullness would be, were we to be in that condition, e.g., of peace or wholeness; or able to act on that level, of integrity or generosity or abandonment or self-forgetfulness. But sometimes there will be moments of experienced fullness, of joy and fulfillment, where we feel ourselves there.

N.T. Wright on the Echo of a Voice Calling

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We glimpse, for a moment, a world at one, a world put to rights, a world where things work out, where societies function fairly and efficiently, where we not only know what we ought to do but actually do it. And then we wake up and come back to reality. But what are we hearing when we’re dreaming that dream? ¶ It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all. The voice continues to echo in our imagination, our subconscious. We want to go back and listen to it again, but having woken up we can’t get back into the dream. Other people sometimes tell us it was just a fantasy, and we’re half-inclined to believe them, even though that condemns us to cynicism. ¶ But the voice goes on, calling us, beckoning us, luring us to think that there might be such a thing as justice, as the world being put to rights, even though we find it so elusive. We’re like moths trying to fly to the moon. We all know there’s something called justice, but we can’t quite get to it.

Alan Jacobs on Doing Bad Things

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Any moderately perceptive and reasonably honest observer of humanity has to acknowledge that we are remarkably prone to doing bad things — and, more disturbingly, things we acknowledge to be wrong. And when we add to this calculus the deeds we insist are justified even when the unanimous testimony of our friends and neighbors condemns us — well, the picture is anything but pretty.

Metametaphysics

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Metaphysics asks questions about existence: for example, do numbers really exist? Metametaphysics asks questions about metaphysics: for example, do its questions have determinate answers? If so, are these answers deep and important, or are they merely a matter of how we use words? What is the proper methodology for their resolution? These questions have received a heightened degree of attention lately with new varieties of ontological deflationism and pluralism challenging the kind of realism that has become orthodoxy in contemporary analytic metaphysics. This volume concerns the status and ambitions of metaphysics as a discipline. It brings together many of the central figures in the debate with their most recent work on the semantics, epistemology, and methodology of metaphysics.

A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith

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John Rawls never published anything about his own religious beliefs, but after his death two texts were discovered which shed extraordinary light on the subject. A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith is Rawls’s undergraduate senior thesis, submitted in December 1942, just before he entered the army. At that time Rawls was deeply religious; the thesis is a significant work of theological ethics, of interest both in itself and because of its relation to his mature writings. “On My Religion,” a short statement drafted in 1997, describes the history of his religious beliefs and attitudes toward religion, including his abandonment of orthodoxy during World War II. The present volume includes these two texts, together with an Introduction by Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, which discusses their relation to Rawls’s published work, and an essay by Robert Merrihew Adams, which places the thesis in its theological context. The texts display the profound engagement with religion that forms the background of Rawls’s later views on the importance of separating religion and politics. Moreover, the moral and social convictions that the thesis expresses in religious form are related in illuminating ways to the central ideas of Rawls’s later writings. His notions of sin, faith, and community are simultaneously moral and theological, and prefigure the moral outlook found in Theory of Justice. ~ Product Description

Ronald D. Moore on the Message of Battlestar Galactica

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And this is the key moment of the finale, [Baltar] realizing the connections. Baltar is the man who has been thinking about and talking about God from the very beginning. Since the moment that Caprica Six said “God is Love” and Baltar dismissed her belief and mocked her belief. There is a direct connection between that moment and here where Baltar in the finale realizes, truly realizes, there is a different, there is another hand at work here, that there is something else going on, that there is a greater truth, that there is really something to this idea of destiny, that there is really something to this notion that he is a player in a grander play, and that he has to fill that role. I was really intrigued by that and I really wanted that to be a part of what happened at the end…

The God Question

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A leading evangelical thinker offers this brand–new way of addressing life’s most important questions: Does God exist, and can we know Him? J.P. Moreland, distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, abandons traditional didactic apologetics and entices skeptics and dissatisfied believers into a conversation about the emptiness and anxiety so many feel today. He invites them to the abundant life Jesus offers but that so few seem to be experiencing. Moreland shows that people are created by a benevolent God and given a life–enhancing purpose. He empowers readers to… overcome obstacles to faith, including questions about science and religion; embrace an enticing view of Jesus and the kingdom of God; and, replace unhelpful images of God with the truth. Readers will find practical and effective ways to experience intimacy with God, an effective life of prayer, and a confident hope in life after death. ~ Product Description

Dennis R. Danielson on Copernicus and Scientific Superiority

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In the hands of some, the myth of earth’s dethronement appears more than a mere anachronism or disinterested misunderstanding. For when Fontanelle and his successors tell the tale, they are openly “very well pleased” with the demotion they read into the accomplishment of Copernicus. But a trick of this supposed dethronement is that, while purportedly rendering “Man” less cosmically and metaphysically important, it actually enthrones us modern “scientific” humans in all our enlightened superiority. And often it insinuates, without warrant, that scientific advance is inevitably accompanied by an abandonment of the quest — a quest that may encompass what is sometimes called religion — to grasp humankind’s possible purpose or significance within the universe as a whole. By equating anthropocentrism with the now plainly untenable geocentrism, such modern ideology dismisses as nugatory or naïve the legitimate and still-open question about the role that earth and its inhabitants may play in the dance of the stars. Instead it offers, if anything at all, a role that is cast in exclusively existential or Promethean terms, with humankind lifting itself up by its own bootstraps and heroically, though in the end pointlessly, defying the universal silence.

Thomas Nagel on Cosmic Reconciliation

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Analytic philosophy as a historical movement has not done much to provide an alternative to the consolations of religion. This is sometimes made a cause for reproach, and for unfavorable comparisons with the continental tradition of the twentieth century, which did not shirk that task. That is one of the reasons that continental philosophy has been better received by the general public: It at least tries to provide nourishment for the soul, the job by which philosophy is supposed to earn its keep. ¶ Analytic philosophers usually rebuff the complaint by pointing out that their concerns are continuous with the central occupations of Western philosophy from Parmenides onward: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethical theory. Those topics have been pursued in a great tradition of works that are often technical and difficult, and that are not intended for a broad audience. The aim of that tradition is understanding, not edification.

Materialism and Its Discontents

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The clear facts of consciously valued experience and of freely chosen purpose, the intelligibility and elegance of the deep structure of the physical world, the visions of transcendent value in art, the categorical demands of duty and of the search for truth, and the testimony of so many to a felt power making for goodness and uniting the mind to a higher selfless reality of wisdom and bliss – all these things the materialist has to consign to illusion. May it not be that it is the materialist who is refusing to see what is there?

Eric Reitan on a Meaningful Universe

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Everything we care about — and, more significantly, everything we should care about — is something the universe of “blind physical forces” just doesn’t care about. A materialist view of reality turns morality and goodness into the idiosyncratic concerns of a single species that might never have existed (and if we hadn’t, the universe wouldn’t have cared a whit). When we are gone (as we will be), the universe will once again just be a world of meaningless facts and events. The world of things without life, without personality, without a capacity to care — this, according to the scientific picture endorsed by Dawkins and Stenger and others, is the ultimate reality. ¶ Juxtaposed against this picture, there is the hope that the essence of the universe is characterized by something else — what Martin Luther King called “a loving purpose.” It is the hope that there is something fundamental that eludes empirical investigation and which is essentially on the side of goodness. In such a universe, the moral agent who cares about the good is in tune with the fundamental truth about the universe in a way that the sociopath is not.

Eric Reitan on Sam Harris and Equivocation

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In The End of Faith, Sam Harris raises equivocation on the meaning of "religion" to a high art, wraps the ambiguity in mellifluous prose, plays up our fear of religious extremists, launches stinging attacks on Christian fundamentalism, and then lets the force of rhetoric do the work of implicating all religion in the impending demise of human civilization. His message is simple: humanity is headed towards Armageddon, and the blame lies as much with your Aunt Ruth, who faithfully drives to her United Methodist Church every Sunday to sing hymns and pray and listen raptly to Pastor Jim, as it does with Al Qaeda fanatics.

Eric Reitan on Schleiermacherian Piety

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By "feeling," Schleiermacher didn’t mean some rush of emotion, but rather a kind of primal experience — or, perhaps better, a way of experiencing. He called it the feeling of piety, and in the Speeches he tried to describe it as the awareness of "the Infinite in the finite." … Sometimes, instead of "feeling," he used the term "self-consciousness," although it is clear that what we are conscious of in our experience of piety is not our isolated ego but the self in relation to something beyond us.