Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions edited by Dallas Willard (IVP 2010).
A Place for Truth is an interesting collection of essays originally presented as a series of talks at various universities through the Veritas Forum. The goal of the series was to reintroduce the pursuit of the “big questions” into American universities so that they can again become “a place for truth.” Whether the forums themselves accomplished that broader purpose, the book certainly raises and explores a variety of interesting truth questions. Since the material was originally presented orally to a general, and largely undergraduate, audience, the chapters are relatively brief, introductory, and easy to follow. So, if you already have a background in any of the subjects covered by the various essays, you will likely find the material disappointing. But, if you’re looking for a readable introduction to a number of interesting questions, this would be an interesting place to start.
The book has been organized loosely around six main themes:
1. General questions related to truth itself (chapters 1-3)
2. The relationship between faith and science (chapters 4-6)
3. The adequacy of atheism (chapters 7-8)
4. The nature of humanity and the pursuit for meaning (9-11)
5. The Christian worldview (chapter 12)
6. Issues related to social justice (chapters 13-15)
This divisions, however, are fairly loose. It’s best to read each essay as a stand-alone piece on some aspect of “truth,” rather than as part of any intentional structure or organizing motif.
Like any collection of essays, the strength of the book lies in its best essays. And, several essays really stand out. Without question, my favorite was Jeremie Begby’s piece on “The Sense of an Ending.” Begbie builds on the idea that the ending of a story is what “gives the whole story a unity, gathering the strands together, resolving the discord and dissonance into…a ‘grand temporal consonance'” (216). He then reflects on tension and resolution in music, before diving into postmodernism, metanarratives, and the importance of “living with a sense of God’s ending” (228). The essay serves as an argument for the power of an eschatological imagination for theology and life today.
Dallas Willards’ essay, “Nietzsche versus Jesus Christ” was also well worth reading. Willard begins by discussing Nietzsche in relation to constructionism, phenomenalism, modernism, and truth, showing how the Nietzschian vision has thoroughly shaped contemporary perspectives on these issues. He then argues that the heart of the debate between Jesus and Nietzsche is the issue of truth and “its relationship to human freedom, well-being, and fulfillment” (163). And, of course, he concludes by arguing that it is only in Jesus Christ that we find a valid and satisfying account of these issues.
Tim Keller’s essay on “Reason for God: The Exclusivity of Truth” offers a nice summary of strategies that people use to reject exclusivity and why those strategies don’t work. He also makes a helpful distinction between “propagandist” secularism (i.e. imposing a secular worldview on everyone) and “procedural secularism” (i.e. creating a neutral space for public discourse).
And, Paul Vitz gave a fascinating essay on “The Psychology of Atheism.” Basically, he uses the pscyhological arguments many people use to explain why people believe, and he turns them around to discuss the psychological reasons that have for not believing. I’m sure no atheist would find his arguments convincing, but believers don’t find pychologized accounts of their faith convincing either. Turnabout is fair play, as they say.
Since the strength of the book rests in its best essays, it should come as no surprise that its weaknesses lie in the opposite direction. And, many of the essays in the book suffered from three general flaws that hindered their usefulness for me.
Os Guiness‘ lecture, “Time for Truth,” made the mistake of trying to cover too much ground in a relatively short essay. As a result, I felt that he just skimmed the surface, never touching down long enough to say anything really interesting or compelling.
Stemming from the originally oral nature of the presentations, several of the chapters involved a give-and-take between thinkers on opposite sides of an issue. While I like this approach in general, I didn’t think that the chapters afforded adequate space for either party to develop his/her ideas. Instead, the reader is left with some interesting thoughts that do little to advance her understanding of the issue. And, I was particularly disappointed by the essay on “Can robots become human?” That chapter title caught my eye right away, but the bulk of the chapter is devoted to a moderated dialog between the authors that I didn’t find terribly interesting.
Finally, two of the essays, Hugh Ros and Mary Poplin, took an entirely narratival approach to their argument. While some readers will probably find their personal stories compelling and engaging, I had a difficult time seeing that they contributed much to the issues at hand.
Having identified these three areas as weaknesses in the book, however, I’m sure that many others will find them to be strengths instead. There is a place for cursory overviews, give-and-take dialog, and personal narrative. For me, though, these chapters fell fairly flat.
Before concluding, I should comment on a few more of the essays. Several were difficult for me to classify as either strong or weak. That’s because these essays were just solid explanations of arguments that a particular author has been making for quite some time. In this category I’d put those essays by Richard Neuhaus, Francis Collins, N. T. Wright, Ron Snider, and John Montgomery. Since I was very familiar with these authors and their arguments, I found it difficult to get interested. But, if these are new ideas/authors for you, I’m sure you will see them differently.
In the end, A Place for Truth contains several outstanding essays that are definitely worth reading, several solid essays that provide excellent introductions to key arguments, and a few essays that I found less interesting/compelling, but that might impact a someone else quite differently. If you’re looking for good, short essays on contemporary truth issues, this one is worth considering.