Book Review: The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers by Eleonore Stump

The Book
Stump, Eleonore. The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, 2016.

Stump’s volume The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers deals with a question that has vexed many for centuries: is the God argued for by philosophical theologians the same being in the pages of Scripture. Atheists will often answer: no. Some Calvinists also answer: no. And open theists frequently say no.

The Problem

It’s important when claiming that a contradiction exists between assertions to understand the meaning of the assertions. The three apparently contradictory assertions are:

  1. The God of the Bible is personal, dynamic, responsive, and active.
  2. The God of the philosophers is being itself (not a being and not a person), uncaused, and timeless.
  3. The God of the Bible is the God of the Philosophers.
Stump solves the problem with Aquinas

Stump uses the writings of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most widely read philosophical theist but also a prolific Bible commentator to show that these three assertions can be reconciled and that, indeed, it’s the understanding of God’s simplicity and eternity that can make sense of the Bible’s picture of God.

Her main picture of this is the book of Jonah. She observes that if the classical picture of God as the uncasued cause is true, it is difficult for many to see how the picture of God in Jonah could also be true. The Lord responds to Jonah’s prayers, changes his mind, has conversations with Jonah, and so-on. She responds to these charges by explaining Aquinas’ doctrines of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the individual Christian, God’s eternity, God’s immutability, and God’s simplicity.

Holy Spirit

For Stump it’s important to acknowledge that Aquinas believes in the Trinity as well as God’s eternity, immutability, and simplicity. What this means then is that Aquinas believes that the Holy Spirit is eternal, immutable, and simple. Aquinas taught that the Holy Spirit and the person of faith are in a relationship “close enough and intimate enough to be thought of as a uniting in love (49).”

After this she observes that one solution to the apparent inconsistence is to suppose that there are “two Aquinases.” But she points out that Aquinas’ writings don’t hold up to the charge of that he is guilty of “so great an inconsistency (55).”

So for Aquinas, the closeness of the Holy Spirit to the believer in time and the deity of the Holy Spirit indicate that he saw the personal God of Scripture and the God of the philosophers as one and the same being.

If in Aquinas’ view the Holy Spirit can have close personal, responsive relationships with human beings in time, what explanation of the attributes of God (immutability, eternity, and simplicity) make sense of this?

Eternity

Here, Stump argues that “nothing about God’s eternal knowledge of future events rules out human free will…(70).” Her argument is against the idea that God’s eternity (persistent timeless existence) precludes any coherent notion of God’s interaction with beings in time. She utilizes an argument from analogy using one of my favorite books, Flatland, to show how it is possible for time to be present to God all at once (62-63). I’ll leave it to her to explain it to you in the book.

She also uses the psychological concept of “shared attention” to explain what it might mean for God to be personally present with individual persons while being eternal in nature (71). God can also answer prayer “because of prayers” without answering them after the prayers or based on foreknowledge. I found that argument satisfying.

Immutability

Immutability is the doctrine that God does not change or is not caused to change. Stump shows how Aquinas’ understanding of this doctrine does not mean that God cannot respond to prayer or respond to different circumstances in time. Her analogy is that God can at time one (t1) tell Jonah that he will destroy the Ninevites in 40 days from (t1)  and 40 days from then (t2) keep them from destruction upon their repentance in one simultaneous (because of God’s eternal nature), complex (because the results are experienced in time by us) act of will (76).

Simplicity

The notion of God’s simplicity is, at its base, the idea that God is being. Or, as my friends and I concluded in high school, “God doesn’t just exist, God is existence itself.” Now, weirdly, my debate team friends and I didn’t find a problem between saying, “God is existence” and “God exists.” But many philosophers, for good reasons, find those two statements contradictory. One, for instance, is that if God is God’s own nature, it appears incoherent to claim that God can choose between “x” and “not-x.” Why? Because God cannot do other than what God does because God is God’s nature. Stump argues that Aquinas’ understanding of the intellect as always active allows for the idea that God can act because of knowledge which God comes to actively without being acted upon (thus being passive).

Implications

Stump’s reflections on the implications are really quite good. I’ll leave you with a few sentences:

  1. If God is eternal, then God’s having assumed human nature is not something characteristic of God at some times but not at others. It is something characteristic of God always. (100)
  2. The person who wept over Lazarus was God-God in his human nature but still God. And the grief that gave vent to those tears is also always present to God. If it were not so, there would be succession in God; and then God would be temporal and not eternal. (101)
  3. Perhaps more importantly, it [the doctrine of divine simplicity] provides a metaphysical grounding for an objective ethics because it can ground morality in God’s nature, as distinct from God’s will. (101)

Conclusion

The book was brief, pleasant, cogent, and helpful. I highly recommend it for anybody who wants to understand Aquinas, the relationship of philosophy to theology, or who wants to reflect upon God’s relationship to time.

Simplify: a review

Back in 2008, I saw a review for Simplify by Paul Borthwick over at Internet Monk, back before Mike Spencer died. I bought the book immediately. I found that despite it’s pricetag ($16.99), it contained a wealth of valuable information. It’s exactly what it says it will be. A book about the practical side of simplifying your life, especially with respect to finances and time. I read it as soon as I purchased it and starting applying its principles. My wife then read it (I lent it to her before we were even dating). And it has helped us to live rather simply. It’s principles are worth revisiting periodically. I was reorganizing my library (it must be done often because I always pull volumes off the shelf and lazily put them wherever I can reach), and saw it and reread it.

The downside to the book is that everything in it is available free in thousands of online articles or sites like Wiki-How. But the upside is that all of the useful information is available in one volume in a format which could easily be utilized for family reading time, church study groups, or accoutnability/holiness meetings with other Christians.

One of the funniest things about the book is that the author suggests it may not be useful on the back. As a sincere question it’s a helpful reflection. As a marketing piece, it’s genius.

Anyway, the book offers helpful advice for saving money, uncomplicating your life, and managing your time. I highly recommend it to read with your spouse, read before you get married, or to read as a sort of guide to subtle but helpful pathways out of bad habits.

4/5, highly recommend unless you’re willing to look this stuff up online.

Hedonism, Love, and Goodness

The things that shape who we are and how we think are pluriform and sometimes mysterious. This is especially so in the age of the internet stuff that may disappear forever after you read it. Every once in away, the Internet sends it back to you.

Around 2008-2009, I was quite depressed. And while I was still known for being a social butterfly at work and school, and many people even called me for advice (I remember distinctly two women with doctorates in psychology contacting me for relationship advice), I was languishing. There are probably three main reasons for this:

  1. Many of my friends had moved away, gotten married, or achieved opportunities I had never managed.
  2. I worked between 3-5 part time jobs to pay for grad school at any moment and so I got very little exercise or sun light. My academic nature and lack of sleep made it easy to substitute books for exercise. I also couldn’t afford a gym membership anywhere except a giant mega-gym that operated like a night club and prohibited squats, chalk, and grunting.
  3. I was lovelorn. During this time period, I fell in love, really hard, with two women. And because of that I felt like I had lost every ounce of the charm that had helped me make friends and ask girls on dates effortlessly before that. It was like I developed a speech impediment or a sudden physical handicap when I communicated with either of these women.

Essentially, because of certain failures of courage, mindset management, and personal care I found myself ignored by women right during the stage of my life in which I had, apparently, subconsciously decided to get married.*

Now, during this time, I had gotten really into reading Hans Balthasar, and I read his book Love Alone is Credible.

I searched online for any commentary on the book and found a quote on a blog [utterly devoid of theological interest in the academic sense], lost to the sands of time, “Never compromise on love. It’s the only thing that isn’t bullshit.” I’ve since found the blog through a retweet of the quote with a link to the 2008 post. It’s a great quote (the other material from the post varies in quality), and while the author clearly means erotic love, the point still stands. But, as any depressed person would do, I read other another post from the blog. The other post I read was about the author’s personal philosophy. That was relevant, since I was a seminary student working at a corporate coffee shop and therefore talking to atheistic armchair philosophers all the time. The author advocated a godless hedonism:

 

Imagine you had incontrovertible proof that there was no afterlife. No supernatural entities. No heaven or hell. No otherworld. No reincarnation. No forevermore.

No second chances.

Imagine there was no moral accounting after death of your actions on earth. No supreme being to judge your soul’s worth on the scale of divine justice. No reward or punishment. No appeal to omniscient authority in matters of good and evil.

There was only the endless black void at the moment death. The infinite silence. A complete surrender of your consciousness as the last pinprick of light extinguishes. All your thoughts, your feelings, your sensation, your memories… you… wiped away clean to merge with the great nothing.

How would you live? Given this proof of the finality of death, and of the expectation of nothing once dead, what is your personal philosophy?  

His answer to the thought experiment is this:

My answer to the philosophical question I posed above is hedonism. It is the only rational conclusion one can draw faced with the premises I presented. When there is no second life or higher power to appease; when our lives are machines — complex misunderstood machines cunningly designed to conceal the gears and pulleys behind a facade of self-delusional sublimation, but machines nonetheless — grinding and belching the choking gritty smoke of status-whoring displays in service to our microscopic puppetmasters… well, there can be only one reasonable response to it all. It makes no sense to behave any other way unless you never questioned the lies.

My own answer to the thought experiment is that if I try to imagine the world without meaning he described (advocated?), I come up blank. Why? If love isn’t bullshit, then there is meaning beyond the chemical soup and system of mechanical pulleys and levers he imagines us to be.

Indeed, if love bears the marks of a single aspect of live that isn’t bullshit, isn’t a lie, and is worth pursuing, then the matter of meaningless matter must be questioned. Is life actually meaningless or is this feeling of melancholy a salve for my own conscience? Perhaps the lie is that we’re just machines of no consequence in a heartless universe. If love isn’t bullshit, it’s implied that love is true and if there is truth, then perhaps beauty and goodness are real, too. This is an important implication, for if truth, goodness, and beauty are real, then it is perhaps the case that pleasures beyond the reach of mere pleasure seeking exist. Pleasure is a good, but what happens when the intellect attains to contemplation of goods beyond the mere stimulation of dopamine and serotonin? And what of beauty? Love entails beauty. If there is transcendent beauty, enjoying it may require that we move beyond the mere act of feeling pleasure in the moment.

Ultimately, if it’s true that love really isn’t bullshit, then the meaningless universe is opened to the possibility that there is meaning in the universe rather than artificially imposed upon it by our illusory consciousness (if you’re conscious of your consciousness being illusory, what is what of what?).

Love isn’t bullshit, but on the evidence of that, it appears that neither is the cosmos.

*Note: After I went through a fairly rigorous period of trying to improve myself, I did end up getting married and love, indeed, is not bullshit.

Book Review: The Mountain of Silence by K. Markides

Kyriacos C Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 2001).

Kyriacos Markides, a professor of sociology, spent several years studying mysticism and shamanistic practices in several monastic type communities. He’s written several books on these topics, this particular book is about his experiences with Father Maximos on Mt. Athos.

This book was recommended to me by O_Vivliothikarios on Twitter.

The Bad

The only bad thing about this book is that the kindle edition has no links to endnote content. This will likely change in an update.

One thing that is only relatively bad is that if you are familiar with church history or read the ancient fathers with any degree of thoroughness, many of the ideas that the book portrays as unknown or ignored will already be very familiar to you. But this is not really a flaw because the ideas were new to the author and will be new to 99% of the readers.

The Good

The narrative is engrossing. You want to know more about Mt. Athos, Markides, and Father Maxime the whole time.

The book also offers a great deal of spiritual counsel that, perhaps, many Christians, especially protestants, would be unfamiliar with. In the book you also get off the cuff answers to long standing theological problems and because they’ve rolled off the tongue of a theologians and mystic, the answers are fresh and memorable.

The best chapters are five, ten, and twelve through fifteen. Chapter ten is especially helpful as it discusses the monastic strategies for overcoming logismoi which is the Greek word for thoughts, but it came to mean much more. The most intriguing notion in this chapter is that prayer should not be used, in the moment, to overcome temptation. The reasoning is that it undermines the need for self-mastery, rational interpretation of our inner state, and a sort of resignation to external forces. More on that, here.

It’s worth mentioning the five stages of a logismos (124-130):[1]

  1. Assault – a thought enters the mind urging us to commit a specific sin. The best council is to literally ignore it or distract yourself. This is similar to Martin Seligman’s techniques.
  2. Interaction – at this stage the disciple interacts with the logismos, trying to reason with it, and perhaps entertains the possibility that it’s a good idea. This is not yet sin.
  3. Consent – This is, as it sounds, consenting to commit the act. This is sin, but not yet the same kind of sin as actually committing the act. The book has a great illustration of this principle.
  4. Captivity – This is when one succumbs to the logismos, puts it into practice, and therefore makes committing it easier next time. Think of it like driving a trail and creating wheel ruts.
  5. Passion – Finally, the action becomes an entrenched part of the personality that is difficult to part with and destructive to the self and to others.

The book is filled with other gems of this sort like the threefold path: catharsis, photis, and theosis, the strategies for overcoming sin, and nature of ceaseless prayer.

There are also some theological oddities in the book, especially in the chapter ‘Escape from Hell,’ but the certainly provide grist for the mill.

Conclusion

I highly recommend this book to anybody who wishes to understand ancient Christian spirituality, how to overcome temptation, or the Eastern churches. The biggest problem with the book is that some of the speculative theology might be confusing to new believers, but the fact of the matter is that the Bible itself is confusing, so it’s no big deal in the long run.

Footnotes

[1] It’s worth noting that Father Maximos’ discussion of the stages is has one less stage than the stages outlined in the glossary of the Philokalia.

Book Review Pt 1: The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis

This is part one of a multi-part review of The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis.

The Four Loves: Introduction

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Four Loves. London: Fontana, 1964.

In Lewis’ book on the kinds and nature of love he starts the book by distinguishing between Need-love (like a small child for its mother) and Gift-love (like a man working to leave a legacy for his family which he may never see). Lewis had hoped to write the whole book based on this distinction saying essentially that Need-love is bad and Gift-love is good and Christian. What he found, though, was that this is impossible (7).

Lewis points out that while it is true that the Christian’s spiritual health is gauged by his love for God, “Gift-love” for God is the exception. He uses the story of the publican and the Pharisee from Luke’s gospel to make the point. The observation holds, it’s when the Pharisee assumes that his gifts to God, even his grace inspired gifts (he thanks God for making him good) put God in his debt, that he finds himself unjustified before God. Offering God purely “disinterested love” is impossible because spiritual growth includes a growing “awareness that our whole being is one vast need; incomplete, preparatory, empty, yet cluttered, crying out for Him… (9).”

Lewis makes one more very valuable distinction in the chapter. He distinguishes between likeness to God (by nature) and nearness to God by approach. Likeness to God, by nature, is something which every created thing shares to one degree or another. Rocks have being, animals have life, angels have intellect, will, and immorality, mankind has will, rationality, and so-on. Nearness to God by approach is the intentional conforming of the human will to the divine will. Likeness to God is a fact of nature, Lewis observes and can be received with thanksgiving or not acknowledged at all. Nearness to God by approach is what grace enabled creatures must do (11). This is similar to what I’ve written elsewhere about positional vs progressive elements in the Christian life. One of the best observations Lewis makes in the book is that since human beings have the incarnation to look to, “our imitation of God…must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions. (11)”

 

Book Review: Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich

Introduction

Mike Cernovich is a civil rights lawyer, though I do not think he practices any longer. He’s considered a controversial figure. I don’t really care about that. A person could be utterly terrible, but it does not change the merit of their arguments or the truth value of their claims. I first came across Mike Cernovich a couple of years ago when I had found a study on ebsco about cabbage juice and heart burn symptoms. When trying to find more information about the constituents of cabbage and what it contains that might increase mucilage production in the stomach lining, I came across a blog called fit-juicer which cited the same article. While the site was clearly designed to sell his books on juicing, it had excellent recipes for juice (my wife brought a juicer into our marriage…I never would have considered one, but I’m glad we have it). Not only were his recipes tasty, but he typically cited scientific literature related to the consumption of juice or plant constituents in relation to the benefits he claimed for his juices. It was interesting. I literally went through his website using in-article links and never read the comments. I had no idea that the guy was a lawyer, a figure or controversy, or even his name.

Anyhow, well over a year later, I was working on a writing project (still am) and was looking for a more practical application of Carol Dweck’s mindset ideas that I had found in her book on motivation in education. In the process, I came across Mike Cernovich’s book Gorilla Mindset. It had a title that seemed cheesy, although most people want the things it claims to provide. I found, a preview on Scribd (or was it a pirated version?). After I looked through the exercises at the end of each chapter and saw how similar they were in design to the ones I was writing for something else, I went ahead and bought a kindle edition of the book. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the book. It didn’t merely provide a model for what I was trying to do myself, but it provided legitimately helpful insight into improving one’s life and happiness.

The Good

  • Cernovich writes in a terse, no-nonsense style that is easy to absorb and does not leave the reader with so much theory that they cannot act on the principles he explains. Example, when talking about the way you make plans in life, he writes, “Maybe this, maybe that, maybe I’ll be a contender. Mr. Maybe is the ultimate seducer. Mr. Maybe whispers honey in your ear.”
  • Cernovich’s advice on health is actionable and the mindset shift he offers on health makes sense. Particularly his comment that a sick body leads to a sick mind. While it is true that some bodily ailments cannot be changed through exercise/nutrition (I have a genetic bone disorder), it is true that nutrition and exercise can shift you into a more positive frame of mind about such things. Not only that, but when I lift weights regularly, I have significantly less chronic pain than I have after just two or three weeks out of the gym.
  • Each chapter has helpful and actionable exercises that one could actually do to improve himself or herself.

The Bad

  • The kindle version had several typos, he could have used an editor (or a better one).
  • I wish he had cited more sources…but getting his readers lost in secondary literature probably wouldn’t have helped them the way he intended to, so while this is a bad in relationship to my preferences as a reader, it is probably a good with regard to his goals as a writer.

Conclusion

I have nothing to say about Mike’s more controversial endeavors. But he’s a helpful writer and 9.99 for the kindle edition of his book Gorilla Mindset is a good price for people who struggle with being stuck in life, feeling ineffectual, or who have persistent and powerful bouts of self-doubt the prevent them from achieving a measure of emotional or moral happiness in life. I recommend his book.

Disclosure: I wrote this review after buying the book because I enjoyed it.

Review of Mindset by Carol Dweck

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

This is a review and appreciation of Carol Dweck’s book on mindset. The topic of mindset is important to me because I’m a teacher and I often struggle with my own sense of melancholy and of having a static self.
The negatives:
The worst part about the book is that Dweck never properly defines what mindset is. There is never a sentence or paragraph in which she says, “the technical definition of mindset is…” She associates mindset with beliefs (1) and a way of seeing the world (244). From reading the book I did manage to come up with my own technical definition of mindset: the beliefs, attitudes, and processes a group or individual uses to respond to the world around them.
The other part of the book I didn’t like is that it gives too many examples. I’d give a long list of evidence to prove this, but I’d be doing the same to you in my review. In all seriousness, I prefer things to go this way: explanation, evidence (enough to be convincing), followed by how-to. In some cases, the evidence given by way of examples makes the book too clunky. But I’m not the one who wrote an excellent book on mindset, she did!
A final negative is that Dweck leaves out a lot of information about the importance of IQ. While I suppose that most of the people reading the book would have an above average IQ, any book on the relationship of mind and achievement ought to mention the importance of IQ. I do see why she left it out: 1) she wants people to succeed, so supplying them with self-limiting beliefs is the opposite of her goal 2) it’s bad marketing to psyche people out of the lessons you intend to teach them.
The positives:
The key distinction Dweck makes is between a growth and a fixed mindset. The growth mindset is a set of beliefs, attitudes, etc, that tend toward personal growth and the growth and improvement of those around you. The fixed mindset is simply the opposite. Because these are beliefs, ultimately, about the self they have wide ranging implications. Dweck applies mindset principles to school, romance, friendship, business, coaching, sports, and parenting. If you read the book, the chapters that don’t directly apply to you can be safely skipped. The relationship chapter is particularly good. Recently my pastor told me that he was impressed by the ‘stoic culture’ my wife and I had developed for problem solving, fighting, and disagreement in general. While I hadn’t read Dweck’s book when we were trying to learn to approach life that way, the flawed mindsets she outlines in her book are roughly similar to the patterns we explicitly tried to avoid and the positive mindset she recommends is our own almost verbatim, “To me the whole point of marriage is to encourage your partner’s development and have them encourage yours” (160).
Another major positive for educators is that Dweck sees that education is not merely about information nor about social programming. Instead education is about training people to take ownership of their own learning while providing a nurturing atmosphere for the inevitable difficulties and failures they will experience (201-202). A good teacher provides extremely high standards and criticizes the students’ work with a view to improving it, not the students themselves.
I would suggest that the most powerful chapters in the book are “Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where do mindsets come from?” and “Changing Mindsets: a workshop.” These two chapters are really worth the price of the book.

Conclusion:
I highly recommend this book to teachers, parents, managers, and ministers. The positives far outweigh the negatives, especially because most people like having books with several examples included.

Review: The Curse of the High IQ

The Book
Clarey, Aaron. The Curse of the High Iq. , 2016.

This was an interesting book. I read it after a recommendation by Ed Latimore, who said that the author really helped him.

It was good, but I was frustrated by it for two reasons:

  1. It described a lot of my life experiences and so reminded me of them. This frustration was good.
  2. Sometimes it felt too nihilistic.

The Good

Ultimately, this book must be read by parents who suspect they have a gifted child.  All teachers ought to read it. Why? It so effectively describes the struggles had by those who are above average, that it could help mentors avoid wasting the time of their charges.

Gifted youngsters could benefit from the last two chapters on limiting greatness and solutions, they’re quite good.

Throughout the book, the author makes interesting observations about the broader economy (if more people were allowed to do computer jobs from home then the world would be a more efficient place in terms of fossil fuel use, employee happiness, and family stability).

The major negative to the book is the author’s anger at people he perceives to be stupider than himself, but he admits that he’s not religious. So if IQ, personal greatness, or economic impact are your heuristics for judging people, it makes sense to be frustrated at people you feel can’t keep up with you. Incidentally, the Bible teaches that one of the dangers of wisdom is being frustrated (Ecclesiastes 1:18 and Ecclesiastes 7:16)!

The book could encourage some cynicism. But many young people of high intelligence already feel trapped but they don’t think it’s because they’re being held back. They think it’s because they’re stupid or too easily bored or some other nonsense. This book can help them.

The Recommendation

The book does utilize foul language, watch out for that if that sort of thing offends you.

So I recommend it.

Quotables

“The second tragic loss is the fact that school measures CONFORMANCE not INTELLIGENCE.”

“Nihilism is a dark philosophy in that it makes you realize you may not only be mortal, but you won’t be immortal in the afterlife.”

“It doesn’t matter if history remembers you fondly, or remembers you at all. Just as long as you get to exercise your intellect and achieve your own personal standard of greatness.”

“As a parent of a high IQ child you need to convey precisely what being abnormally intelligent means and mentor them so they make the most of it.”

“The biggest waste of time for abnormally intelligent people will be their educations.”