2020 In (The) Books
Books that helped us shape and deepen our understanding of contemporary philosophical issues this year.
I’m recording this in December 2020, which means that like every created thing, this challenging, weird and unprecedented year is finally coming to an end. For many of us, year end is a time to look back and reflect on highlights and positives. I know – this can be particularly tough after a year like this. I feel privileged, in that I wasn’t catastrophically affected by the situation. I hope that’s your case too, and I hope that even if you were hit hard, you’re able to find something positive looking back on this year.
Today I want to celebrate one small win and share it with you. You see, I didn’t have more free time through the pandemic. If anything, I worked a bit more than usual, and felt a bit busier, but I’m not complaining – again, I feel privileged. Despite the lack of time, this year I decided to spend more time reading books compared to previous years, and today I want to look back on that and highlight books that I find useful to frame the type of conversations I’ve been starting here.
But first, I’d like to talk a bit about book reading in general. I think this is a great era to learn. We have so much content available and so many ways to consume it. There’s hours and hours of video out there, whether it’s general platforms like YouTube or Vimeo or IGTV, or specialized ones like RightNow Media. We also have podcasts, which I’m obviously passionate about. And of course, there’s the Web. My browser tells me I read about 10 to 20 articles every day, on various topics, and that doesn’t include what I read or watch at work.
But in my opinion, none of this wealth can replace the book format. There’s a breadth and a depth that books afford that is hard to parallel in any other medium. And there’s nothing quite like getting lost in a book. An Ipsos survey commissioned by Indigo about a year ago showed that the average Canadian reads about 6 hours a week. This can go up to about 9 hours a week if they join a book club. A third of us actually read two or more books at a time. We pick up the reading habit even more during the winter, and I suspect we’ve also been reading more through the pandemic. In terms of full books read every year, I couldn’t find conclusive data, but it seems that 4 to 12 books a year is a reasonable range.
I used to be somewhere in there, but I was a bit religious when it came to reading books, and over time it caused me to read less of them. Here’s what I mean: I had a rather strict protocol to read books. I would only read one book at a time, cover to cover, in a single reading session. Unsurprisingly, as life went on it became harder to do this, and as a result, I was reading less and less books. But last year, I adjusted a few things and I think I came back closer to the average. Nothing to boast about; just right in the middle. And today, I want to tell you about some of the books I read this year that were helpful in shaping my answers to some pressing questions that are being discussed around us.
I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist
And I want to start by comparing two books. Let’s say that one’s old and one new. They both shed light on popular areas of debate between Christianity and other worldviews, but in very different ways and with different takeaways. The first book is titled I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, and you can get a sense of the style right from that title. It was published in 2004 by Norman Geisler, who passed away just last year, and Frank Turek, and it’s a classic Christian apologetics book, which is to say, a book written to defend the Christian faith through a logical and structured argument framework.
Its central argument is that while objective reality exists, no worldview can provide completely certain knowledge about it. All that we think we know is essentially a probability. Let me step out of the book for a second to give you an example of that. Consider a bag with a hundred marbles in it. You draw out the first 98, and they’re all white. What can you say about the remaining marbles? Just that there’s a high likelihood of them being white. But you could be wrong. So everything we know resembles a legal verdict, which is to say, we know it to be true beyond reasonable doubt.
So the main point of the book is that across multiple worldviews, Christianity is the one that presents the least doubts and requires the least assumptions; the least “faith”, if you will, whereas other worldviews require you to make sweeping assumptions and to accept significant gaps. Hence the title, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.”
The book offers Geisler’s signature “Christianity from ground zero” step-by-step argument. This begins with asserting that truth exists and it’s knowable; that we can agree on what is reality. Then it asserts the existence of a theistic God, analyzing the beginning of the universe and the origin of life. And from there it moves on to discussing morality; there needs to be a universal Law Giver if we are to have a universally valid moral code. And it goes on to discuss miracles, the life and deity of Jesus, and ultimately the inerrancy and truth of the Bible.
Of all that, I would like to zoom in on the discussion on the origin of the universe, because thinking through this and researching beyond the book, I realised it gave me a very nice articulation of an idea which I’ve long held, which is that all of us are creatures of faith. Now, let me explain what I mean by that. You see, the question of origin – where do we all come from – belongs to philosophy; but over the last few decades, science has attempted to own it. If we move further back in time, until a little over a century ago, if you were a scientific materialist, you would argue that the universe was eternal and immutable. In fact, as recently as 1980, prestigious astronomer and educator Carl Sagan said, “the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
However, when Einstein was working on his general theory of relativity, he made an unsettling discovery: the universe was expanding. And initially, the technology wasn’t there to empirically validate this theory, to conduct experiments to confirm it or dispel it. But as technology advanced, this aspect of relativity was confirmed: the universe is expanding. And as it expands, it kind of leaves a trail, almost like film, like the frames in a movie. So the universe is not immutable, and it is unlikely to be eternal. Like I’ve said before, these corrections are not a failure of science, but the hallmark of good science. Science develops a paradigm, and as it learns more, it either adjusts the paradigm or shifts to a better one.
So scientists who had a materialistic viewpoint, instead of becoming disappointed, they became really excited, because if they could play this film in reverse it would reveal the origin of the universe and allow them to explain it through natural causes. So then, what happens when you play the film of the universe expansion in reverse? Well, eventually you reach a point known as a singularity, a combination of mathematical conditions that are impossible or unexplainable, at least under our current understanding of matter, energy, and time. Imagine all the mass in the universe concentrated in a point with zero dimensions, essentially an infinitely dense point. From that setup emerges the whole universe. This is what’s known as the Big Bang. Which is a fascinating bang, because it’s a creative explosion. If it would have been too violent, particles would never have combined into stars and galaxies and planets. But if the bang was too mild, gravity would have caused everything to collapse back into a singularity.
In any case, the Big Bang poses a dilemma. Either it represents the origin of the universe, and current science can’t explain what came before; or it doesn’t represent the origin of the universe, and current science can’t see what came before it. Whichever explanation you accept, you end up with no materialistic answer to the question of origin. And whatever approach you take from here, you can only believe it beyond reasonable doubt; you will need faith.
For instance, you could believe that at some point we will have an updated scientific paradigm or framework that will let us pierce the veil behind the Big Bang, and some people think this is coming with string theory or quantum mechanics. That’s an entirely reasonable assumption. After all, Einstein did that for gravity and many other aspects of classical physics with his theories of relativity. He upgraded the framework or the paradigm, giving it greater explanatory power. In other words, a better ability to explain, model, and reason about phenomena that the previous framework didn’t handle well.
Chances are you’re listening to this on your phone. As recently as 70 years ago, the idea of a programmable, portable and wirelessly connected computer was a pipe dream, similar to Jules Verne’s novels 70 years before that. And yet, here we are, exploring space and listening to podcasts over 5G. That’s what science does. So it’s reasonable to expect that science may one day see further in the past before the Big Bang. It’s reasonable to expect it; however, it is not certain that it will happen. And even if it does, there is no guarantee that it will provide a purely materialistic answer to the question of origin; it may simply move or push the problem earlier in time.
So whether you believe that a supernatural Being created the universe, or that someday there is a chance we find an authoritative explanation within the natural realm, the reason we can sleep sound at night at ease with what whatever is our origin theory, is faith. We believe one of these things to be true beyond a reasonable measure of doubt.
For the sake of time, I won’t give you the similar argument that the book makes about Darwinism as a materialistic origin theory of life. I think Darwinism is a great theory within its boundaries. But when you try to play it backwards and use it to explain the origin of life, you soon find yourself having to fill in all sorts of gaps with philosophical, almost dogmatic assumptions.
This book is fun to read. It’s sharp, peppered with funny anecdotes of memorable debates by the authors and other popular thinkers on both sides of these arguments. There is much to enjoy in this book if you want an explanation of the Christian world view that goes beyond “because the Bible says so,” whether you’re a believer or not.
Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture
The second book I want to tell you about is very different. The title is “Post Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture,” by Gene Edward Veith Jr. This book was published in 2020, and it’s something of a follow-up to the author’s 1994 book “Post-Modern Times.” The book is very American-centric, and some of the arguments may not resonate or be acceptable to mainstream Canadians, particularly when it comes to arguments around social and cultural standards. However, I will focus on its more general ideas, which I found to be on point, applicable to our environment, and largely uncontroversial.
Its key premise is that what we would call Western civilizations have abandoned its Christian worldview roots, moving into modernism and then post-modernism, both of which the author collectively calls “post-Christian”. However, he finds that:
Post-Christian ways of thinking and living are running into dead ends and fatal contradictions.
This will not lead back to a predominantly Christian society; that is not the expectation. But it’s probably going to lead to a so-called “post-secular” world, where Christian viewpoints will nonetheless be highly relevant and acceptable.
There are three highlights from this book that I’d like to share with you. My first highlight is the story of German philosopher J.G. Hamann, a contemporary and a friend of Imanuel Kant and a respected brilliant mind. His philosophy is making something of a comeback, through the work of Jurgen Habermas and other contemporary philosophers. Hamann wrote what probably is the soundest refutation of Kant’s work, but further he foresaw this so-called “post-secular” worldview which, again, some modern thinkers believe will follow the current post-modernist wave.
My second highlight from the book is the point that postmodernism has actually brought with it a new interest and receptiveness around spirituality. Like modernism, postmodernism rejects traditional authorities and systems, including the mainstream religions and church practices. However, unlike modernism, postmodernism actually fosters spirituality as a manifestation of a personal definition of reality. And I can see elements of this in the way people today attempt to infuse their personal rites and events with their own spiritual elements. You just need to look at births, weddings, deaths; there’s a strong desire to make them transcendental, to add something else, even if it’s of a personal kind and not as part of a larger congregation.
The book points out that the current disdain for organized religion is not the rational atheism that modernists hoped for. Instead, it’s much more similar to the paganism and animistic religions of ancient civilizations, and Christianity has proven to be a good fit for these inclinations in the past. This is interesting to me, because as you might have picked up, I’m a big fan of dialogue and common ground, but not a big fan of postmodernism; and the idea that postmodernism is receptive to spirituality means that if I come to a postmodern public square with a Christian worldview, it won’t be accepted as absolute truth, but it may be accepted as part of my perception of reality, which at least allows conversations to start.
My final highlight from this book deals with the effect of these transitions from modernism to post-modernism to whatever comes next on government, politics and citizen rights. Here the book connects again with Hamann, through Habermas. Whereas pagan and animistic societies tend to make gods out of their rulers, many of the ideals that underpin our modern democracies and the rule of the law that we so cherish and protect are directly derived from a Christian worldview.
As you can see, this book deals very directly with contemporary politics, cultural and social elements. It’s a very interesting read. It’s similar in some ways to the previous one, in some of the core tenets it poses, but the tone, the style and the ways and areas in which it goes deep are different. Fascinating read.
A God of Many Understandings: The Gospel and Theology of Religions
The third and last book I want to tell you about is “A God of Many Understandings: The Gospel and Theology of Religions,” a book by Dr Todd Miles, who’s a lecturer from Western Seminary. Now, for full disclosure, I didn’t read this book; I was exposed to it. What I mean by that is that earlier this year, I took an online course with Dr. Miles, and he based the content of the course off of his book. So I haven’t quite read it, but from everything I’ve been able to see so far, the contents of the course do follow the contents of the book very closely.
Dr. Miles wrote this book in 2010, and its title is a reference to a prayer that was made during Barack Obama’s first inauguration; the prayer was addressed to “O god of our many understandings.” So the book explores common ideas and conceptions that people have about religion in general, getting at them from a Christian perspective. As such, it’s not so much a survey of different religions or specific religions, but more about religious understandings or perceptions or worldviews.
For example, it addresses universalism. Some people say, “If God’s good, if God’s love, there’s no need to worry too much about how we live this life, because ultimately a God of love will save everyone – salvation is universal.” So the book addresses that from the perspective of the Christian gospel and the Bible. Another idea it goes into is the idea of pluralism – All religions are trying to get at the same thing, all religions will lead to God, all of the ways up the mountain lead to the summit. So the book also discusses in depth the biblical perspective on that worldview. And then there’s the idea of inclusivism. Why should we consider Christ to be the only means of salvation, the only path to God? There must be other ways within Christianity, or maybe even without. So the book covers that as well. I would recommend this book if you’re curious about some of these assertions, and what is Christianity’s answer to them.
Final Reading Tips
Now, like I said earlier, I’m basically an average reader. My goal here is not to boast, but simply to motivate you to seek more of the rich learning experiences that only books can provide. And along those, lines I want to finish with a piece of advice from Tony Reinke, the communications director at Desiring God. Tony is probably best known as the host of the popular John Piper podcast “Ask Pastor John,” but he is an author and speaker on his own right. And he wrote an article titled “How to Prioritize Reading”. And the advice he gives is… Read more than one book at a time. This is something that I already said I don’t do, and a third of Canadians do, so maybe I should just go join that minority; maybe they’re onto something. But seriously, his argument is that you may like to read specific genres or topics at different places and times throughout your day. So by starting several books in parallel, you actually end up reading more, because at any given time you always have something in progress that suits your mood for that time and place.
I hope that these notes inspire you to add more books to your content diet. I certainly plan to do so myself. And I would love it if you could drop me a note over Twitter, Instagram or Gmail with your must-read books going into 2021. I will be sharing some of those as well over social media as the year wears on.
As usual, I appreciate your time and attention very much.