I am a history and literature teacher. To be specific, I am a high school and junior high history and literature teacher. To get even more specific, I have a junior high understanding of the world. Frequently, I hear people talk about their desire or ability to “get a Ph.D. and teach in college.” I don’t believe in such a world because, even with my 8th grade perspective, I read scholars. Most people sitting in an audience listening to a great pianist or to Ricky Skaggs playing a mandolin should not think that with 3 months of lessons, they could be the ones on the stage. Completion of a freshman level college course, or even the teaching of such a course (which I am doing now), do not a serious scholar make.
I am in the audience. One thing I have learned is when to applaud. Concerning history and literature, I can not only applaud, but also lean over and comment to whoever is sitting next to me. For example, I could say “That was a good explanation of isolationism, but more needed to be said about Wilson’s foreign policy before World War I” or “Bret Lott may not call himself a Southern writer, but Jewell definitely reflects lots of the same themes as other 20th century Southern authors.”
Philosophy is a different matter. I don’t even dare applaud, unless those sitting near me applaud. But I am confident in applauding Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen. This book is both an historical survey of the key philosophers who appeared during different historical eras and an explanation of the views and issues of philosophy. Philosophy as a field of study is a vital subset of the study of Western Civilization. (I don’t doubt the existence of non-Western civilizations and philosophies. I just know almost nothing about them. And we are in the stream of Western Civilization.) This book uses a series of ficticious letters between a girl named Abby and a boy named Percy. Abby is attending a Christian university, while Percy attends a secular university. Like all young couples in love, they discuss philosophy courses in their letters. The point of the book and this approach is that it contrasts the difference between a Christain approach to philosophy from a secular approach. Certainly there is common ground and common sources that are read; however, at many points, and certainly at the presuppositional level, the two approaches to philosophy (and one could add any other subject) differ. Because of the increasing skepticism and despair in Western culture and thought, many philosophers after the French Revolution lost confidence in philosophical answers. The quest for meaning in a grand or universal sense became a quest for meaning in a personal sense. By that, I mean many philosophers sought ways that the individual could cope with a meaningless, purposeless universe. Novels, drama, poetry, art, and music followed more modern philosophies (as they always do) in seeing a disjointed, cruel, hopeless universe.
The Dutch Christian scholar Groen van Prinsterer posed the key question: “Can Christianity, after the French Revolution, be revived in order to have a salutary effect on the direction of western culture?” The French Revolution is all too often claimed as kinfolk to the American Revolution. There were similarities, just as there are similarities between a novel and a car repair manual. The revival of Christianity after the French Revolution occurred. It has often been marginalized to focus on the soul rather than the culture. Groen van Prinsterer was not doubting as he raised the question. In fact, he did some major work in applying Christianity to Western Culture.
Christians often expect to read or hear about yet another cultural defeat in one area or another. (I even suspect some Christian friends of truly enjoying the Obama Administration because its actions feed their fears.) “Things are getting worse and worse.” All too often premillennial Christians are able to build bigger and better facilities because of their conviction that the end is near. Postmillennials are usually not a very hopeful lot either. There is an increasing cultural divide. The anitithesis, a favored word of Francis Schaeffer, is becoming more clear. But the story is merely not one of Christian retreats and holding actions.
Time magazine reported an amazing trend in 1980. They said that “a quiet revolution in thought and arguments that hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers…but in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almight from fruitful discourse.” In other words, the philosophy departments in many universities had been infiltrated. The scholarly writings among philosophers, not usually not outside the academy, were including an alien group. Christians are storming the ramparts of philosphy. (The history in the book Christian Philosphy clearly points to this having happened numerous times before.)
The two major Christian philosphers highlighted in the book are Alvin Plantinga, described as the “world’s leading Protestant philosopher of God,” and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Both Plantinga and Wolterstorff have roots in Dutch Reformed theology and culture. Both are heirs of Abraham Kuyper. This book, which devotes 2 chapters to the work of Plantinga and Wolterstorff, contrasts “Reformed epistemology” with the more continental (European) “Reformational philosphy” of Herman Dooyeweerd. The philosophy of Dooyeweerd gets its own chapter.
All in all, Christian Philosophy is instructive and challenging. “Introduction” doesn’t mean easy or overly simplified. This is or ought to be a college introductory text. It is fun and informal, but yet very challenging. The two authors, Bartholomew and Goheen, have previously written two other introductory books. They are Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story and Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview. Both books are now high on my wantlist.
Postscript: The book Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers, edited by Kelly James Clark, contains great accounts by Plantinga and Wolterstorff regarding their spiritual and academic journeys. Both were students at Calvin College and both studied under Harry Jellema, a forerunner of the renaissance in Christian philosophy.