My Most Important Book
Over the forty years of my career as a Christian theologian I have written twenty books; all have been published by major publishers in the U.S. and then around the world (including the University of Beijing Press, China). One of my books sold 90K copies in one South American country. Sometimes people ask me which book I am proudest of and which I think is my best book. These are difficult questions; the answers shift from time to time.
However, when I sit back and ponder which of my books I think is most important for both Christians and non-Christians it is, hands down, Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story published by Zondervan last year (2017). And yet it has not received a lot of attention and I attribute that partly to the rather bland title. My preferred title was “Narrative Biblical Metaphysics: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story.” Of course, I’m no marketer and that title would probably have run off many potential buyers—including professors who the publisher and I hope will adopt the book as a text for basic Christian philosophy courses.
Why do I think Essentials is my most important book? Simply this: My experience tells me that many Christians know the basics of Christian doctrine (e.g., the Trinity) but do not realize that the Bible itself contains the elements of an entire fundamental world perspective—what Emil Brunner called a “Christian philosophy” (philosophia Christiana). Without being aware of it, they often adopt from popular culture or some encounter with a philosopher (e.g., in a university course on science) a world perspective, a view of reality itself, ultimate reality, alien to the Bible and alien to anything recognizable from Christian history as Christianity.
This phenomenon really came to my attention when the so-called “New Age Movement” became popular; it was a mixture of many different worldviews and philosophies as well spiritual techniques. Many Christians rejected the esoteric, even occult, spiritual techniques but soaked in and embraced elements of some esoteric philosophy such as New Thought (which I have blogged about here several times)—“mind over matter.” Some embraced elements of Asian-based philosophies about the nature of ultimate reality such as the “Oneness” of all things.
I realize that examples are always helpful, so I’ll offer just one of many I could recount here in this regard. During the height of the New Age Movement I became aware of a European esoteric thinker who claimed to be a Christian but was really a gnostic in his worldview. His followers founded many organizations and institutions and labeled them “Christian.” I labeled them “esoteric Christianity.” At heart, foundation, core, the teachings were and are gnostic. These followers of the European gnostic “Christian” thinker founded a system of private schools that became wildly popular and I met many Christians, even evangelical Christians, who were enthused about the schools and sent their children to them. When I wrote an article exposing the underlying spiritual-philosophical-theological worldview of the curriculum and pedagogy as gnostic, not authentically Christian, I received angry phone calls and letters—from Christians.
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One of my purposes in writing Essentials was to demonstrate especially to Christians (but also to interested non-Christians) that Christians need not borrow a worldview from secular or pagan sources; the Bible itself contains a distinctly Jewish-Christian philosophy of ultimate reality (metaphysic) that may share some common ground with other ones but is itself revealed. I don’t like to say it’s “hidden,” because there was no intentionality to hide it on the parts of the biblical authors; I prefer to say it is implicit because all the biblical authors assumed it as they wrote.
One quotations that I use in the book and that I’ve long known and that also served as a catalyst for writing the book is by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who famously said that (paraphrasing) while Buddhism is a philosophy searching for a religion, Christianity is a religion searching for a philosophy. I can’t speak for Buddhists; I’m sure many disagree with him about that. But as a church historian-historical theologian of Christianity I became convinced he was wrong. Christianity is a religion based on a philosophy or including a philosophy. (By “philosophy” Whitehead clearly meant especially “metaphysics”—that branch of philosophy that investigates and attempts to express the nature of ultimate reality behind the appearances.)
The book, Essentials, was conceived by the publisher on the basis of a series I wrote and posted here about faith-learning integration. I decided to combine that charge with a long-held but delayed interest in writing a book conceived in my mind when I was a graduate student. During that time my main professor, a Baptist philosopher, challenged us, his students, to investigate and read two particular Christian theologians who had been working on what he and they called “biblical metaphysics.” Now, many, perhaps most, people would think those two words together form an oxymoron. The Bible is a narrative; metaphysics is speculative philosophy. Traditionally Christian thinkers have borrowed metaphysics from pagan or secular sources. French Catholic thinker Claude Tresmontant and American Protestant thinker Edmund Cherbonnier argued vociferously, separately, that the Bible contains its own unique revealed metaphysic and that it has always been a mistake for Christian theologians and philosophers to borrow extra-biblical metaphysics “lock, stock and barrel” and use them as foundations for or the glue holding together Christian doctrine.
Years and years ago I filed away those two names and intended someday to write a book about the subject. Tresmontant and Cherbonnier became largely forgotten; I never forgot them. During my research for the book that came to be titled Essentials of Christian Thought I read everything I could get my hands on by these two men and many others who thought along the same lines including Abraham Joshua Heschel and Emil Brunner. (The latter, surprisingly, wrote a book of Philosophy of Religion from a Protestant Perspective; it is almost entirely unknown!)
Essentials of Christian Thought may not be the best title for the book I wrote, but I don’t know what title would really indicate its contents and purposes and at the same time attract readers. It’s not a book of Christian doctrine per se; it’s a book that attempts to explicate the fundamental (not fundamentalist) biblical world and life perspective—ultimate reality, the meaning of life, human existence and the human condition, reasons for hope, etc., etc. It’s not a book of apologetics because no defense of the biblical metaphysic is offered; it is about helping especially Christians realize that they need not and should not borrow a world and life perspective from extra-biblical sources even though, at times, such can help answer questions about reality and life the Bible does not even implicitly answer.
Ironically, it is often the case that an author’s favorite book, or the one he or she thinks is most important, is the one even his ardent readers ignore. I hope that does not turn out to be the case. C. S. Lewis was asked which of his many books was his personal favorite. His answer surprises many people: Til We Have Faces. Who has even ever heard of it? His least favorite book, or the one he struggled the most with, was one of his best-selling books: The Screwtape Letters. My best-selling book (I think) is Finding God in the Shack (IVP). It’s not the book I’m most proud of even though I don’t at all regret having written it.
Essentials of Christian Thought is available in paperback and in audio version. I also created, together with the publisher, a video series of talks based on the book. All three, I am told, occasionally go on sale and can be purchased from the publisher at greatly reduced prices.
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