Broadly speaking, reflection on the human condition can take one of two tracks: a logical, scientific analysis or an existential, experiential one. Approaches and methods that emerged during the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment have led to incredible insight into what kind of physical creatures we are. This mode of reasoning has also given us incredible knowledge of the universe in which we live. Physics, chemistry and biology have, in one sense, unlocked many mysteries about life in the cosmos. Analytic philosophy and logic has allowed us to communicate these discoveries with exceptional clarity, avoiding error.
However, this approach to the human condition is primarily interested in propositional statements, truth claims, about reality. It fails to acknowledge another fundamental feature of existence, namely, the first-person perspective or the “what-it-is-like” to be human (see Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?“). As such, the phenomena of experience cannot be reduced by a strictly logical and scientific analysis. There must be another approach that considers and wrestles with the perceptual, emotional, and psychic life of the human person. Because of this, various mysteries of existence must be answered through a different kind of analysis.
For the Christian pastor or priest, the need to understand each of these approaches and work within both is crucial. Every pastor must be able to articulate clearly through reason the propositional content of the Scriptures and the long history of theological statements and dogmatic judgements. Core doctrine must be defended logically and communicated with precision. However, to stop here would be a failure. For this mode of theology is only the guide to the deeper reality of God. As such, the pastor or priest must be well versed in an existential approach to the human condition: the “what-it-is-like” to be a Christian living in accordance with sound doctrine but also living in the world.
Two Must-Read Books for Every Pastor
Charles Taylor and Cultural Analysis
Regarding each approach, it is incumbent upon the Christian pastor to access the best possible resources available to him. Of course there are many such resources in the long history of the Church. Here, however, I want to recommend two recent books that can act as foundational resources for developing both a logical and coherent theology as well as an existentially powerful one. The first of these resources is Charles Taylor’s analysis of contemporary Western culture, A Secular Age.
In A Secular Age, Taylor tries to get at what he calls the background conditions to explain why our current cultural moment is the way it is. He is not creating a system by which we can defend Christian doctrine (or theism more generally). He is giving a more “continental” analysis of what has happened socially and culturally over the last 400 years. Taylor wants to explain the framework in which we even do philosophy of religion today (or anything else for that matter). This is an attempt to understand the “what-it-is-like” of culture in the WEIRD world (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic).
Taylor explains this project in the introduction:
We all see our lives, and/or the space wherein we live our lives, as having a certain moral/spiritual shape. Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity or 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.
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 5.
Taylor takes the reader through a detailed history of philosophy, science, literature and theology that brings us up to the present day. The value of Taylor’s work is not only in expanding the reader’s factual knowledge but in demonstrating how society is shaped through the subtle interplay between abstract thought and concrete events. Taylor is not interested per se in defending any particular theistic claims or Christian doctrines (Taylor is a Roman Catholic philosopher). Instead, he is laying out what he sees as a “grand narrative” or story of modern human history.
In doing so, Taylor references as many, if not more, poets, artists, and dramatists as he does major philosophical thinkers or scientists. He truly gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to explaining culture in the West. Thus, while there are encounters with some of the biggest names in modern analytic philosophy, e.g. Descartes, Taylor is more interested in the worldviews that arise via the Romantic poets like Schiller or existentialist philosophers like Nietzsche.
A Secular Age is indispensable for pastors and theologians who desire to grasp our cultural moment and speak powerfully into that moment. However, because Taylor is only doing cultural analysis, we need another approach if we are going to be constructive in our theology.
Craig and Moreland and Philosophical Foundations
In their tome, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, philosophers of religion William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland provide a rational substructure for a biblically-faithful Christian worldview. In this book the reader will not find many references to poets or existentialists. Even Nietzsche appears only twice in its 708 pages. This resources is not meant to analyze culture and only touches on the first-person experience (aside from when it is argued as evidence for defending certain metaphysical claims).
However, if one wants a foundation from which to construct and defend propositional statements that matter to historic Christianity, then there is hardly a better resource. Craig and Moreland explain the need today to be able to answer challenges from scientific skepticism and post-modernism using logic and reason:
The average Christian does not realize that there is an intellectual struggle going on in the universities and scholarly journals and professional societies. Enlightenment naturalism and postmodern antirealism are arrayed in an unholy alliance against a broadly theistic and specifically Christian worldview.
Christians cannot afford to be indifferent to the outcome of this struggle. For the single most important institution shaping Western culture is the university. It is at the university that our future political leaders, our journalists, our teachers, our business executives, our lawyers, our artists, will be trained. It is at the university that they will formulate or, more likely, simply absorb the worldview that will shape their lives. And since these are the opinion-makers and leaders who shape our culture, the worldview that they imbibe at the university will be the one that shapes our culture. If the Christian worldview can be restored to a place of prominence and respect at the university, it will have a leavening effect throughout society. If we change the university, we change our culture through those who shape culture.
Excerpt From: J. P. Moreland & William Lane Craig. “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.” Apple Books.
This is a different approach than Taylor, but equally necessary. Some have argued that the analytic approach to the Christian worldview is wrongheaded (see John Hughes, “Proof and Arguments” in Imaginative Apologetics, 3-11), saying that rational argumentation or Bayesian reasoning cannot be applied to theological claims.
However, this notion of excluding apologetical or evangelistic tools is unwarranted. It seems to me at least, as a former 82D ABN paratrooper, that one should bring every weapon to bear in a war, be it physical or spiritual. As such, I see no reason to denounce the analytic approach of Craig or Moreland, their predecessors Plantinga and Swinburne, or their successors (Koons and Pruss). The authors are explicit about the importance of analytic philosophy of religion:
If a person is sensate in orientation, then music, magazines filled with pictures, and visual media in general will be more important than mere words on a page or abstract thoughts. If one is hurried and distracted, one will have little patience for theoretical knowledge and too short an attention span to stay with an idea while it is being carefully developed. And if someone is overly individualistic, infantile and narcissistic, what will that person read, if he reads at all?
Books about Christian celebrities, Christian romance novels imitating the worst that the world has to offer, Christian self-help books filled with slogans, simplistic moralizing, lots of stories and pictures, and inadequate diagnoses of the problems facing the reader. What will not be read are books that equip people to develop a well-reasoned, theological understanding of the Christian faith and to assume their role in the broader work of the kingdom of God. Such a church will become impotent to stand against the powerful forces of secularism that threaten to wash away Christian ideas in a flood of thoughtless pluralism and misguided scientism.
Excerpt From: J. P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations
In sum, these two resources can help pastors tremendously. There is no reason not to know and to put to use all the tools available to us for evangelism to the lost and discipleship of the found. If Taylor helps us to understand why people think the way they do, then Moreland and Craig give us the best arguments for how we should think as Christians.
Addendum: An Exhortation by John Wesley
Some might object to this post in one specific way. After all, I have just recommended over 1400 pages of highly technical and dense material. Can one really expect a pastor or local priest to digest this all? I would argue, yes, we should expect it. Or, minimally, we should expect the effort. For this reason let me add to my suggestion an exhortation by America’s most prolific preacher of the Gospel, John Wesley.
In his 1756 Address to the Clergy, Wesley not only commends future pastors to the rigorous study of the Scriptures, in their original languages, as well as of history more generally, but also of the cultural heritage and conditions of man as well as the science of philosophy and natural theology:
On studying culture, Wesley exhorts us:
There is yet another branch of knowledge highly necessary for a Clergyman, and that is knowledge of the world; a knowledge of men, of their maxims, tempers, and manners, such as they occur in real life. Without this he will be liable to receive much hurt, and capable of doing little good; as he will not know either how to deal with men according to the vast variety of their characters, or how to preserve himself from those who almost in every place lie in wait to deceive.
On knowing the science of philosophy and natural theology he states,
Some knowledge of the sciences also, is, to say the least, equally expedient. Nay, may we not say, that the knowledge of one (whether art or science), although now quite unfashionable, is even necessary next to, and in order to, the knowledge of the Scripture itself? I mean logic. For what is this, if rightly understood, but the art of good sense? of apprehending, things clearly, judging truly, and reasoning conclusively? What is it, viewed in another light, but the art of learning and teaching, whether by convincing or persuading? What is there, then, in the whole compass of science, to be desired in comparison of it?
Is not some acquaintance with what has been termed the second part of logic (metaphysics), if not so necessary as this, yet highly expedient, (1.) In order to clear our apprehension (without which it is impossible either to judge correctly, or to reason closely or conclusively) by ranging our ideas under general heads? And, (2.) In order to understand many useful writers, who can very hardly be understood without it?
Should not a Minister be acquainted too with at least the general grounds of natural philosophy? Is not this a great help to the accurate understanding several passages of Scripture? Assisted by this, he may himself comprehend, and on proper occasions explain to others, how the invisible things of God are seen from the creation of the world; how “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork,” till they cry out, “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all.
Today, we have abundant resources available to follow Wesley’s guidance of understanding both culture and science and natural philosophy. We should use them in service of the Gospel, no matter how hard the initial task might appear.