Some of you may be familiar with Steve Shives series, “An Atheist reads..” where he reads a theological book from an atheist perspective and basically refutes most of the main points. It’s a great youtube series supplemented by notes, that you can find on his page here: www.stevelikestocurse.com
My wife recently picked up “Letters from a Skeptic” and I decided that I was interested enough in this type of thing to do this myself. I’m no youtube video maker though so I decided to use my blog to discuss the books ideas. So without further ado, let’s start with a brief summary of the idea of the book, and then I will jump into the preface and the inviting letter from Greg Boyd.
The book is by noted theologian Gregory Boyd and his father Edward. It is a collection of correspondences between the two in which Boyd tries to answer his father’s skeptical questions about God and Christianity. It’s an excellent idea for a book in that atheists and skeptics can find most of their contentions addressed, and theists can find most of the hard questions they are likely to hear from atheists.
In the end, Greg ends up converting his father after 3 years of letters.
I do think the title of the book should have been “Letters to a Skeptic” since Boyd initiates the conversations and subsequent letters, but that may just be nitpicky. It’s not as if his father went out of his way to say, “hey answer all these questions for me” and then sent him a bunch of letters. Like I said, that’s just a nitpick.
Onto to the preface.
The book starts out by Greg, who wrote the preface, describing his father as “exceptionally intelligent, intensely skeptical” and “very strong-willed”. While I do think it’s sweet of the man to compliment his father, I can’t help but get the feeling that all of these complements have an undercurrent of ego riding under them. “I convinced the most brilliant, hard-headed, intensely skeptical atheist! Therefore, Christianity is true!” At the very least they reek of pandering.
This is even more odd when later in the book, in the first chapter even, Edward admits to being uneducated in philosophy and not firm in his beliefs. More on that later.
Greg continues by giving a history of he and his father’s previous discussions and giving us some of his insight into how his father felt about religion. That he harbored resentment towards church, and never showed openness to the gospels, etc.
He talks about how he felt led to open up the dialogue through letters. “what did I have to lose” he says.
I actually really appreciate Greg’s approach here and his reasoning. I think opening up a dialogue with people you disagree with, specifically loved ones, can teach you how to be caring and loving while disagreeing with someone. I think also that it takes some gall to put your belief system up to scrutiny and I actually respect that.
While I appreciate the approach, I don’t appreciate the reason for it. Dialogue’s shouldn’t be only for convincing other people that you’re right and they are wrong. It should be open that both sides are capable of being wrong, and that if Greg held a belief that his father showed to be unreasonable or that Greg did not have evidence or reason for believing it, that he would be willing to change or accept that he held it on faith. I somehow doubt that Greg has this willingness to change when approaching his father with this, or that he has any intention of changing his mind at all.
Later Greg says,
“There, is of course, always a spiritual dimension in an unbeliever’s resistance to the Gospel (2 Cor. 4:4), and reasons are never in and of themselves enough to convert an unbelieving heart.”
As an unbeliever, I completely disagree, obviously with the notion of a spiritual dimension, but more importantly to the idea that reasons alone aren’t enough to convince us. This is utterly ridiculous. Reasons alone ARE enough to convince someone to believe something. Reasons are the only method, other than threats, that are enough to compel anyone to do anything. A lack of reasons is why I became an atheist. This is an arrogant attitude and implies somehow that unbelievers are ignoring good reason, or are spiritually stunted or possessed in a way that does not allow them to see the truth. Provide me good reason and I will believe.
Also, Greg says
“This correspondence is an illustration of how the intellectual and spiritual elements of an unbeliever’s resistance to the Gospel can go hand in hand, and how a person can address both of these elements simultaneously”
I wonder how Greg intends to illustrate the spiritual elements of his father’s resistance, and how he addresses those spiritual elements. I have a feeling that we’re only going to see the intellectual side of things.
The rest of the preface is just explanation of the editing process of the letters, and how editing of the letters he and his father wrote were crucial to making a coherent, clear, organized and thematically consistent book. Understandable, but one does wonder exactly what might have been removed. I wonder if anything that made Greg’s arguments appear weak was removed after the conversion of his father? This is just speculation on my part, but it would not surprise me. I will give Greg the benefit of the doubt though, and read it as if the letters are intact content-wise.
The last part of the preface is just “thank you’s” so I will move on to the letter from Boyd to his father. The “Invititation: To Dad, with Hope”
I don’t have much to say about this that hasn’t already been said in the description of the book and the preface analysis. It’s a genuine letter to his dad to reach out and offer him a chance to challenge his son’s beliefs and have his son try to field some of the tougher questions of Christianity.
Boyd ends the letter with this:
“Having one’s faith challenged –whatever faith one holds — is always a good thing. If it can’t “stand the fire,” a faith isn’t worth holding — whether it is Christianity or atheism.”
This is a sentiment that I very much agree with, and it’s pleasant to hear from the side of theism. Often theists lean on the fact that faith should be unshakable or unmoving, but Boyd offers a view of faith that is potentially “not able to withstand the fire” and “not worth holding.”
I respect this view, and I hope that you do too. I am not sure if Boyd is just playing lip service to this idea because in the preface he said he was led to “share the Christian faith” with his father. This is slightly different than opening up the discussion in order for both sides to be tested. So I am curious as to which one of these is his true motive, or is it possibly a combination of both? Maybe it changed over the course of the 3 years. I am not sure at this point, but I bet we will have a better idea of Greg’s motivation once we get into some of his reasoning.
That’s it for now. Next time I will be dealing with the 1st official section of the book titled “Part 1: Questions about God.” Each part is broken down into multiple correspondences about distinct issues. I am not sure how many of these issues I will be able to tackle per blog post. It seems like 2 may be the limit, but they are pretty short so we’ll see.
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