The Books that Shaped Us (Part 1)
We at The Worldview Bulletin are readers, admirers, collectors, and writers of books. Books play an indispensable role in our lives and we know their power to educate, encourage, and inspire. In this month’s Roundtable, we consider the books that have had the biggest impact on our lives and pass them on to you in hopes that you can benefit from them as well.
I’ve read a number of breakthrough books in my life that have brought nourishment to my soul and illumination to my mind. Some came earlier on: books in theology (J. I. Packer’s Knowing God) and biblical studies (commentaries by John Stott) as well as history (Paul Johnson’s Modern Times). Others have come along later: books in spiritual formation (Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines) as well as biography (George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals)—and so on. But here I’ll mention a breakthrough book in philosophy—William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument.
In the fall of 1985, I embarked on the pursuit of a Master of Divinity degree at Trinity Seminary in Deerfield, Illinois. During that first semester, because I couldn’t get in to the required Church History I class with the historian John Woodbridge, I took a philosophy elective instead with Stuart C. Hackett—“Religious Epistemology”—a class that inspired me to take on an additional M.A. degree in Philosophy of Religion.
Of course, Hackett had been Craig’s professor at Wheaton College, and Hackett’s book The Resurrection of Theism was a breakthrough book in Craig’s own philosophical development. Furthermore, Hackett’s Resurrection of Theism book contained what came to be called the kalam cosmological argument: it reasons to the existence of God from the impossibility of an infinite temporal regress of events. Here is the argument itself:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its beginning.
The argument further breaks down into the following disjuncts, which point to a personal cause of the universe:
Disjunct A. The universe either began to exist or it has always existed.
Disjunct B. If it had a beginning, the beginning was either caused or uncaused.
Disjunct C. If the beginning was caused, it was either personal or not personal.
Put into a flow chart, it looks like this:
Being new to the world of analytic philosophy and having begun to read slowly through Frederick Copleston’s nine-volume History of Philosophy, my squeaky philosophical wheels seemed to gain some traction after two trimesters of philosophy behind me. During my third academic trimester, I had to write a philosophy of science paper for Bill Craig—also at Trinity Seminary at the time—on the question of the infinite and the infinitesimal. This got me into exploring the kalam argument in earnest. Craig’s book introduced me to rigorous philosophical argumentation that also incorporated scientific discovery, mathematical categories, historical context, and theological insight.
As I read the kalam book in Trinity’s Rolfing Library, my excitement grew. As never before, I sensed I was tracking with philosophical reasoning at a new level. The structure of the kalam argument made sense, and it had further the support of Big Bang cosmology and the second law of thermodynamics. The experience was invigorating and stimulating, and my faith was greatly encouraged through this bracing exertion of mind.
As it turned out, this philosophy of science paper eventually developed into my M.A. thesis on the kalam cosmological argument: “The Impossibility of an Infinite Temporal Regress of Events.” That too was an invigorating exercise. My summer hours between my second and final seminary years involved full-time, night-time security guard work—ideal for a seminary student. Those shifts were filled with rich contemplation, fascinating research, and a developing philosophical writing style.
Though my Ph.D. dissertation work at Marquette University focused on the moral argument—an argument I’ve attended to over the past 20 years or so—I was gratified to come full circle with the kalam cosmological argument recently. I was the lead editor (with Bill Craig) of a two-volume anthology on this argument—one focusing on the philosophical supports for the argument, and the other on the scientific (The Kalam Cosmological Argument, Volume 1: Philosophical Arguments for the Finitude of the Past; The Kalam Cosmological Argument, Volume 2: Scientific Evidence for the Beginning of the Universe).
As I look back on the importance of Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument book and the special place it had in my own philosophical formation, I give thanks to God for this and related beneficent influences in my life.
In this month’s Roundtable discussion, we were asked to answer the following question: which book (besides the Bible) has most influenced you as an apologist or Christian philosopher? I’m going to read the “or” as an inclusive “or” and give you two books, or rather, two authors, that have most shaped me both as an apologist and a philosopher (while those two roles overlap, they are distinct). I’m going to share the book or books that entered my conscious awareness first upon reflecting on this question. There are so many books, and so many authors, for which I am indebted.
When it comes to the book that has most shaped me as a Christian philosopher, my answer is J. P. Moreland’s book Universals. It’s not that the book is the most rigorous or convincing or interesting philosophy book (sorry J. P. — but I do think it has all of those features to a high degree). Rather, it made an impression since it was my first real analytic philosophy book ever read. I read it during my first semester in graduate school at Talbot School of theology in J. P.’s metaphysics class.
The book did three things in me. First, it gave me permission to pursue rigorous philosophy as a Christian. Philosophy is about pursuing the truth about the world and that takes real intellectual work. And sometimes we might not see the connection between some high-level technical issue (such as the problem of universals) and our faith. But of course, they are there. It’s important to study the fundamental concepts in philosophy so that we can make connections between the truths we discover and the story of God. (As it turns out, I eventually did my dissertation on what I now call the Problem of God and Abstract Objects. That topic is a direct application of the ideas discussed in J. P.’s book.)
Second, reading Universals evoked in me, like all good philosophy, a sense of wonder. I can remember reading about properties (being green, being bald, being wise) and relations (being taller than, being the father of, being to the left of) and then walking around at Laguna Beach in Southern California and looking with fresh eyes at the green tree, the blue ocean, and the world around me. I was full of wonder: the world is much more mysterious and beautiful and sacred than I realized. Philosophy begins in wonder and sets us on a quest to discover the answers to our questions.
Finally, the book helped me see the world more clearly. I learned, by the light of reason, that there is more to reality than the physical. There are abstract objects—properties, numbers, relations, sets, propositions, and more—and they hook up to concrete things like tables, horses, and humans in all these interesting ways. I now realize that there is a deep and long Platonic Christian tradition, and I think this is the right way to go. The universe is a sacramental universe pointing beyond itself to the divine, and I have come to see that seemingly mundane and tangential debates in philosophy help us see and make sense of the world around us.
When it comes to the book that most shaped me as an apologist, I’m going to cheat: not one single book, but rather the works of C. S. Lewis. In writing my own book on apologetics called Cultural Apologetics, I found my inspiration from Lewis’s writings, as well as his life. One essay, in particular, found in a book called On Present Concerns, is called “Talking about Bicycles.” That essay unlocked Lewis for me. Using a bike as an illustration, Lewis discusses the four stages we go through with pretty much everything: unenchanted, enchanted, disenchanted, and re-enchanted. This schema is a major theme in my own work, and I thank Lewis (and Tolkien and others who hail from a more enchanted age) for the insights.
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