Reading Notes 7/14/2014

I’m nearing the end of Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’, and so far, the most interesting part has been his placing Jesus in the tradition of failed Messiah-kings (Wright cites Judah the Hammer, Simon the Star, Bar-Kosiba and Herod as examples of failed Messiah-kings, then shows how Jesus is the actual king who inaugurates both the new creation and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth (as it is in heaven). Interesting fleshing out of this idea. A lot of the book is fairly basic Wright themes – if you’ve read his weightier books, then this one will seem pretty repetitive.

I’ve been reading more closely Paul Tillich’s ‘The Courage to Be’, and aspects of it are very interesting. As far as a survey of various strands of existentialism throughout history, it’s a great book, but his theology, if you can call it that (it’s more of trading theology for ontology, and ontology of existential psychology) isn’t really worth much. He strikes me as fairly Wittgensteinian in his ‘theology’, which upon close examination, turns out to be more of a semiology than theology. So basically, he goes from theology to ontology, from ontology to psychology, and then from psychology to semiology. A note I found very interesting was his classifying Plato as existentialist, on account of (for Tillich) Plato’s philosophy ultimately showing that man is estranged from his essential essence.

I started going back over some of Brian Greene’s physics books – ‘The Hidden Reality’ and ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’, to learn more about inflationary cosmology. What a fantastic teacher of physics – it took a minute of reading, but he broke down IC in such an easy way that even I was able to grasp the broader principles behind it. His use of analogy and metaphor in place of dense mathematics is brilliant. I tried reading Susskind’s ‘The Theoretical Minimum’, and there was just too much math – for someone as terrible at math as me, that’s basically a non-starter.

Bruggemann’s ‘Old Testament Theology’ is continuing to be a solid, challenging book. I disagree with his methodology, almost in its entirety, but a lot of his conclusions and exegesis is pretty solid. His emphasis on the rhetorical nature of the OT as well as thinking of the OT in solely in the category of ‘witness’ is a very fruitful avenue. His flippant dismissal of Christian interpretations of the OT isn’t as fruitful, though. It’s odd (I mentioned this in an earlier post on this book) that someone so willing to interpret the OT along post-modern/critical lines (which is fine – I’m not one of those anti-PoMo Christians), which is a very foreign category to the OT, simply dismisses Christian interpretations (for example, the OT being a ‘pointer’ or ‘witness’ to Christ) as wrong.

Kenneth Kitchen’s ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’ is a tour de force of OT archaeology and interpretation. While the style is as engaging as the nutrition facts on a cereal box, the content is fantastic and the attention to detail is rigourous to a fault – I read through half a dozen pages comparing styles of architecture among ancient near eastern temples, grain prices, slave prices, etc. Great content, terrible style.

 

 

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Reading Notes 7/6/14

I received N.T. Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’ the other day, and it’s a great book so far. Wright’s popular works are for the most part pretty well-written, but they do tend to require a pretty full engagement with his more academic works to really make sense – i.e., he uses a lot of ideas he’s developed at length in more academic works without unpacking them in his shorter, more popular works, so there is the potential for confusion there.

Read an interesting essay by Edward Feser on the concept of ‘laws of nature’ as understood in the modern sciences – his thesis is that they are a theological formulation designed to replace the Aristotliean concept of ‘law of nature’ which was based on things like immanent essences and substantial forms – pretty interesting.  Read it here (still no hyperlinks, sadly): http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/07/carroll-on-laws-and-causation.html. If you’re itnerested in philosophy of science you’ll enjoy this article.

Any Lovecraft fans read this blog? I have the ‘Necronomicon’, a lovely best-of collection of his works. I prefer his short-medium length stories over his longer works personally. He’s quite adept at crafting an atmosphere of unease – and his use of old-thyme language and names lends a quasi-biblical feel to his stories. Personal favourites would be Innsmouth, Colour Out of Space, Dunwich Horror and most of the other shorter stories.

Book and Reading Notes 6/19/14

I’ve been reading Susanna Heschel’s study of Abraham Geiger, and it’s been a fascinating look into biblical scholarship in the 19th century as a whole, focusing on the anti-Jewish strains in Protestant theology of that time. Geiger’s re-conception of Judaism and the Pharisees is pretty interesting and was an effective way to combat the tendency to pit Jesus against Judaism.

I continue to read Nussbaum’s ‘Therapy of Desire’, and am making my way through a detailed account of Lucretius’ arguments against the fear of death. So far I’ve made it through Aristotelian, Epicurean and Lucretian arguments against everything from methodology, to love, desire, disgust, the good life, etc. Epicurus focuses on right belief as essential to the ethical good life, which is pretty interesting.

I just received Kenneth Kitchens ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, which I’m told is the best maximalist account of OT history in print, drawing extensively on both the archaeological and textual evidence.. I look forward to getting into this massive (over 600 page) study.

Along with that I got Gilson’s ‘God and Philosophy’, where, by way of survey of ancient Greek, Christian and modern philosophy, he tackles the question of God. I’ve skimmed thru this volume before but never read it in depth – but it’s Gilson, so you know it’s going to be good. Gilson might be one of the best philosophers I’ve read – his command of the sources and knowledge of the history of philosophy combined with his penetrating insights yield some of the deepest philosophical writing out there.

I continue to slowly make my way through ‘Second Foundation’, and continue to enjoy in a way I’ve enjoyed very few other works of fiction. Asimov is a master of dialogue, no doubt about it. The universe of the Foundation is as good of a fictional world as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth – speaking of, I need to get the two new Tolkien books (Arthur and Beowulf) that have come out.

Reading Notes 5/31/14

I’m two-thirds of the way done with ‘Second Foundation’, and it just keeps getting better. I don’t remember the last book I read that I thoroughly enjoyed so much – during a long day at work, I read about seventy pages without a break and didn’t even notice it until it was time to go home. I’m not looking forwar to finishing the series – but thankfully I bought ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and borrowed ‘The Gods Themselves’, from the library. Crisis averted.

Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’ has proven to be a fairly challenging book. Aspects of it are brilliant – for example, his analysis and critique of the formative powers of social media. I’m a bit less impressed by one of his major themes, which is a critique of ‘intellectualism’, or the idea that we as humans are primarily knowing agents, or rational agents. I understand that it’s not a scholarly monograph and that it’s more geared towards the on-the-ground beliefs of people, but at the same time, who really thinks that we are purely and only passive receivers of (say) sensory data, academic or otherwise? Smith lays a lot of blame at Descartes feet – all fine and good, but there isn’t any quotation of Descartes, no real argument – just a kind of critique of some kind of Cartesian-ism. He doesn’t offer much by way of argument, which is fine by itself – not everything has to be supported by deductive arguments – but at some point, it’s be nice to see something more substantive than ‘We’re not primarily intellectual creatures’, supported by a Merleau-Ponty quote and an anecdote from a movie.

His overall point, however, runs something like this (this is a necessarily rough breakdown): We need to move past ‘worldview-ism’, past cultivating a way of merely looking at the world. Imagination is a kind of perception of the world and a means by which we constitute the world – therefore, we need to sanctify our imagination (imagination for Smith, ‘…that preconscious, emotional register on which we percieve the world and that, in turn, drives or “pulls” our action.’ p. 158). We do this by immersion in the Story in the liturgy, by which our imagination is sanctified, realigned, rightly ordered, etc. Nothing to really argue with here – though I’ve been struck by the similarity between Smith’s project and Aristotelean ethical thought. It would have been interesting to see him engage a bit with that side of the ethical tradition, because there’s really a lot to draw on there. 

Overall, the book is solid – some of the existentialist language I don’t buy into fully (lots of ‘being-in-the-world’) and it feels like at points he really should have just said ‘Go read Merleau-Ponty and you’ll get what I’m saying’, (lots and lots and lots and lots of quotes from Merleau-Ponty) but it’s a solid piece of philosophy/theology.

I found Nussbaum’s discussion of emotions in Aristotle quite interesting – Aristotle argued that emotions require certain beliefs and to that extent can be rational or irrational, true or false (Smith would disagree with this, as a side note). The centrally important thing, however, is the belief(s) that the emotions are based on. A correct view of the good life is essential to Aristotle’s ethical project:

‘Emotions, in Aristotle’s view, are not always correct, any more than beliefs or actions are always correct. They need to be educated, and brought into harmony with a correct view of the good human life. But, so educated, they are not just essential as forces motivating to virtuous action, they are also, I have suggested, recognitions of truth and value. And as such they are not just instruments of virtue, they are constituent parts of virtuous agency: virtue, as Aristotle says again and again, is a “mean disposition” (disposition to pursue the appropriate) with “with regard to both passions and actions”. What this means is that even were the apparently correct action to be chosen without the appropriate motivating and reactive emotions, it would not count for Aristotle as a virtuous action: and action is virtuous only if it is done in the way that a virtuous person would do it. All of this is a part of the equipment of the rational person of practical wisdom, part of what practical rationality is. Rationality recognizes truth; the recognition of some ethical truths is impossible without emotion indeed, certain emotions are centrally involved in such recognitions.’ (‘The Therapy of Desire’, p. 96)

Reading Notes 5/26/14

Finally finished ‘Foundation and Empire’. Oh em gee. That ending was great. The Mule is a brilliant character, and I really didn’t see his big ‘reveal’ at the end of the story coming. I’m going to start ‘Second Foundation’ tonight, and very much cannot wait.

I got Nussbaum’s ‘Therapy of Desire’ the other day – it’s a massive study of Hellenistic ethics, which is something I got interested while reading Wolterstorff’s criticism of eudaimonistic ethics in ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’. I love reading books like this – books in which a real scholar does real scholarly work without being pretentious. I’m about 45 pages or so in, and her handling of the subject is masterful – she’s a scholar who has truly immersed herself in Hellenistic ethics, and it shows. 10/10.

I also got James K.A. Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’. The first part of the book is basically constructing a liturgical anthropology and phenomenology of perception as well as a ‘theory of practice’ based on the whole person over against what Smith calls ‘intellectualism’ or the idea that all man is is a thinking thing. Lots and lots and lots of interaction with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which is cool, because he’s not someone with whom I’m familiar with except for the name and that he’s French. Big focus on the roles of habit and narrative in how we perceive and constitute the world.

Reading Notes 5/23/14

On a whim, I started reading an excerpt of Kripke’s ‘Rules and Private Language’. Actually, it wasn’t a whim, I was reading Wittgenstein and remembered that I had a volume on philosophy of language which included Kripke. Anyway, it’s the excerpt where he breaks down his ‘plus and quus’ argument, and it’s pretty interesting, and surprisingly well-written and readable. It reminded me of Hume, actually, only with language instead of causality, and then lo and behold, he compares his skeptical argument to those of Hume. This was the first time I’d read Kripke, and I was quite impressed by how enjoyable it was. I realized, however, that I need to purchase ‘Philosophical Investigations’.

Over this last week I reread Timothy Ferris’ ‘Coming of Age in the Milky Way’ which is a history of astronomy and cosmology, from ziggarauts to string theory. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and certainly ranks as one of the most accessible history/exposition of science volume I’ve read – Ferris can break down complex ideas in a way that is purely delightful reading. His expositions of quantum physics in the latter parts of the book are probably as good as you’re going to find anywhere, and I found the chapter on Darwin to be an outstanding breakdown of Darwin, the man, and his ideas. In my opinion, the greatest strength of the book is the detailed and anecdote-filled accounts of the lives of the great scientists – Ptolemy, Archimedes, Kepler, Brahe, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, Gell-Mann, etc – which, to repeat myself, are purely delightful. Please, buy this book.

I also re-read Jaki’s ‘Road of Science and the Ways to God’ – which is my personal favourite book on science/metaphysics/philosophy of science. Jaki is a penetrating thinker, leading you from China, to Greece, to Copenhagen and back again as he examines all the major developments in the history of science. The medievals, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Fichte, Hume, Kant, Newton, Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Comte are all decisively critiqued, some ruthlessly, some less so, as Jaki argues for moderate realism – of all the books I own, this is my number one.

Gilson’s account of Ockham and nominalism in ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’ is brilliant – I highly recommend purchasing that book, if only for that section and the breakdown/critique of Kant, which remains the best exposition of Kant I’ve been able to find.  As an account of metaphysics, this volume ranks as one of the greats.

Reading Notes 5/11/2014

I started reading David Bentley Hart’s article on Anselm’s ‘Cur Deo Homos’, and he makes an interesting case for reading Anselm in a much more patristic light, instead of the typical way he’s understood (in terms of merit theology/trangression/honour). Hart notes similarities in Athanasius, though, and that’s fairly interesting. Hart argues that Anselm, once some of the language barriers are overcome, is drawing from the themes of recapitulation to make his own argument – with lots of neoplatonism as well. I’ll read it a bit more in depth, but so far it’s an intriguing take on a well-worn topic.

I’m reading, one chapter per night, through Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘dogmatics’ – ‘Man is Not Alone’ and ‘God in Search of Man’, and I’d like to do a bit of systematizing along the way. Those two books are fantastic works of philosophy – the latter being one of the best books on religion/philosophy I’ve ever read. It’s safe to say that Heschel’s philosophy of Judaism has had a profound influence on my own spiritual development.

Wright’s book on justification remains one of my favourites. His exegesis of Galatians, while brief, is superb – though the brevity has no doubt been the reason for much of its criticism. His framing of the doctrine around the Abrahamic promises is absolutely on point, as is his insistence that the problem surrounding the occasion of Galatians is the ethnic identity of Israel. I pretty much regard this aspect of the NPP as firmly established.