Faith Seeking Understanding: A Conversation with David Marshall

Posted on 12/12/12 1 Comment

About a year ago I received an emailed invitation from David Marshall, theologian, apologist and author of several books including The Truth Behind the New Atheism (Harvest House, 2007)  to contribute an essay to an exciting new book he was editing called Faith Seeking Understanding: Essays in Memory of Paul Brand and Ralph D. Winter. It didn’t take much arm twisting for me to agree to join such an exciting project, especially when I heard the stellar line up of scholars contributing to the project.

Now that Faith Seeking Understanding is available I thought it would be a good time to invite David Marshall over to The Tentative Apologist for an interview to share his thoughts on this exciting book. So here it is.

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RR: David thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I’d like to start with two questions, one relating to the title and the other to the subtitle. Let’s begin with the subtitle which reads “Essays in memory of Paul Brand and Ralph D. Winter.” Who were Paul Brand and Ralph Winter and what prompted you to solicit a collection of essays in their memory?

DM: That’s a big question. I’d like to say they were friends. A lot of people saw them as mentors, and as heroes. One snapshot by which one might try to “grasp” such a storied life as that of Dr. Paul Brand is to say that C. Everett Koop, perhaps the most famous American doctor of recent years, once said that when he thought about whose life he would like to live had he not been born C. Everett Koop, the man who came most often to mind was Paul Brand. Paul was a hero to doctors because he made discoveries about the nature of leprosy, pain, and rehabilitative surgery that helped millions of people. He was a hero to Christians like my grandmother partly because of his collaboration with Paul Yancey in writing much-loved books about the human body and the Christian faith.

When Paul and Margaret “retired” to West Side Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where my parents met almost 60 years ago and my father was an elder, we had the chance to get to know the couple socially. The qualities that struck everyone who met them were kindness, curiosity, humility (Margaret was also an accomplished eye surgeon), and humor, to which their brand of humility was closely allied. Paul was never too smart to ask questions, and listen to your answer. Paul Brand remains for me, and I hope he will become for many readers, a model of how a Christian should integrate science, faith, and the examined life. He’s also one of the people I’d most like to talk to again.

Ralph Winter founded the US Center for World Missions, a program called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, and a bunch of other institutions that have touched lives around the world, I think mostly for the better. Ralph was a kind of genius in his own way, earning degrees in engineering, linguistics, anthropology, math, and theology from schools like Cal Tech, Columbia, Cornell, and Princeton. In a missions world in which a “Four Spiritual Laws” approach to cross-cultural evangelism was too often accepted, Winter stood out as a renaissance intellectual, a “missions without borders” kind of guy who put “Holy Spirit” back in the word “holism.” What struck me about Winter, as with Brand, was a quality of humble curiosity, a willingness to ask tough questions and to stand correction, to offer bold solutions but put up with frank rebuttals. He lived out a life in service to the Gospel of Jesus, but he remained a kind of “Christian skeptic” at heart.

RR: I’ve just got to press you a bit on that provocative phrase, “Christian skeptic”. Can you explain what you mean by that?

DM: Gladly, and this bares on our question. Isn’t it rather remarkable that people of a particular frame of doubt — atheists — seem to have monopolized that term lately, grasping onto healthy doubt as if it were their sole birthright? Our mutual friend, John Loftus, for instance, has a bright, shiny new on-line sect boldly calling itself SIN – “Skeptic Ink Network.” John has written an appeal asking for new writers, who share the following approach to reality: “A salon for a diverse group of voices applying critical perspective and analysis to important questions in philosophy, secularism, science, and the paranormal . . . SIN is also an inclusive community for those who share the value that an evidence-based worldview is critical to the health and flourishing of human society.”

I think all the contributors to Faith Seeking Understanding are fond of evidence, as a matter of fact. We think the Gospel of Jesus is, in truth, an “evidence-based worldview,” and this is a fairly good precis of what I find us doing (in part) in that book: “applying a critical perspective and analysis to important questions in philosophy, secularism, science, and the paranormal,” though we talk on cultural and history for good measure. But “diverse” as SIN may be — as I have no doubt the SIN of our atheist friends is exceptionally diverse — it is a salon wholly lacking in voices of a theistic turn of mind, from which I intuit that its members presume the idea of a “Christian” and a “skeptic” are somehow at odds.

I am immensely fond of two great sayings, one from the Chinese theist Confucius: “To know what you know, and know what you don’t know, this is knowledge,” And the second from the English Catholic, Gil Chesterton: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” From which I take it, that a true, intellectually balanced and hungry skeptic, can be one who knows as well as knows that he does not know. He “knows when to hold ‘em, knows when to fold ‘em” in the sphere of ultimate truths, and has blundered upon Reality that can be grasped with his whole soul, mind and strength, or that grasp his soul, and in finding them (however tentatively, however agonizingly) and doubting himself, is so much the more justified in calling himself “skeptic.” This, I take, to be the sense of Anselm’s great phrase, “faith seeking understanding.” Or as Martin Luther might have put it, between mugs, “Love God, and SIN boldly.”

RR: I certainly agree with your objection to one group of people appropriating a concept like skepticism for themselves! Now one of the things you said is that all the contributors to Faith Seeking Understanding share a concern for evidence. Can you say more about this common orientation, perhaps in reference to the metaphor of moutain climbing with which you open the book?

DM: Well, Rodney Stark is one of the most eminent and influential sociologists of religion in the world today.  And he got that way by sifting through mountains of data, and generating a good bit of it himself, together with colleagues, and then setting forth detailed theorums and hypothesis by which to explain the data of human religions, in many pathbreaking books, over sixty years.  And when someone like that says, “I wrote myself back to faith,” you have to take that seriously.

The book also includes contributions from Don Page, a top-flight quantum physicist and cosmologist, Ben McFarland, who works with cells, and Guillermo Gonzalez, whose study of exoplanets and Galactic Habitable Zones was published as a cover story in Scientific American, among others.  Even Alvin Plantinga, who has argued that Christian faith may be rationally warranted even without evidence, has often argued that in fact there is quite a bit of good evidence for God.

What does this have to do with climbing mountains?  I begin the book by talking about a boy in Medieval Italy named Anselm, who dreamed he met God at the top of one of the towering Alps surrounding his home town.  Later he actually did have a kind of divine encounter a lot like his dream, when he left home and, with some hardship, crossed the Alps into France.  As one of the great philosophers of the Middle Ages, Anselm often spoke of “faith seeking understanding.”

Those of us who live in mountainous places know that climbing is hard work.  And often you begin below the tree line, and aren’t immediately rewarded for your work with a view of anything.  I took my boys to the Grand Tetons this summer, and almost had to drag the younger one through the trees up 3000 feet of vertical.  But when we got to the top — wow!  The view was spectacular.  And there was a lake to swim in, cool and refreshing at 9500 feet above sea level, with granite crags rising all around.

That’s what Christian faith is like.  I don’t know if you agree with this or not, but it seems that every ultimate worldview must contain elements of circularity, must rest on perhaps unprovable axioms.  But there are feedback loops, and the destination we reach proves or disproves the wisdom of the path we have chosen, or that has chosen us. There is nothing unreasonable about faith: it is not enough to credulously accept whatever sounds good, which is what the Bible calls “idolatry.”  But commitment to faith involves risk and hard work.

Christian faith will take you to a place where you can see further — that’s what warranted faith tends to do, whether in one’s mind, the senses, other people, or in God.  But life and the calling of faith can be a slog, attaining heights from which our surroundings begin to open up.  The climbing is hard work, during which we often catch only furtive glimpses of the country we seek — if we’re lucky.  We climb by faith — reasonable faith — but one goal of the journey is greater vision.

RR: You certainly paint a beautiful picture David. And since I lived in Vancouver for several years and hiked most of the mountains in the area, I certainly resonate with it. I can also say that the essays of this book, like the various mountains in a range, are rich and diverse with untold insights for the reader. Speaking of which, what kind of reader do you see buying this book? Would it work for a university student? A small group leader? A pastor?

DM: You don’t expect an objective answer from me to that question, do you?  “Buy copies for long-lost second cousins!  Your old gander!  Your racing hounds!  As emergency ballast for your bathyscaphe!”

But seriously, more so than my sole-author books, I do think a broad spectrum of readers will enjoy Faith Seeking Understanding.  Contributors were asked to conceive of the audience as intelligent, reasonably well-read, but not specialists in their particular disciplines — philosophy, theology, quantum physics, biochemistry, sociology of religion, anthropology, Chinese or Indian culture, what have you.  So yes, I do think it’s a great book to give a daughter going off to college next fall, a missionary or pastor, or (I’m hoping) an intellectually-curious non-Christian friend who could use a “soft-sell” account of how Christians try to align their faith to the great questions of our time, couched in the lives of people I hope the reader will grow to like.  I am tempted to think of it as a universal Christmas present. :- )

RR: As a contributor I must admit my own bias, but I believe that this is a first-rate volume. You’ve done a marvelous job of collecting an exciting list of first-rate scholars who wrestle with a dizzying range of topics. What I really appreciate about the book is the way the essayists render their ideas accessible to the general reader through vivid illustrations that occasionally verge on the poetic. And this leads me to the inevitable questions: how much does Faith Seeking Understanding cost and where can we get a copy?

DM: Thanks much, Randal, I really appreciate your letting people know about this book, as well as your own thoughtful contribution to it.

Here’s the slightly bad news.  Faith Seeking Understanding is not available in your local bookstore yet, nor even (until about February) on Amazon, in the normal way.  At the moment, it’s easiest to buy it directly for about $13 plus shipping from the publisher, William Carey Library.  (Some contributors also have copies available for direct purchase, and I can still guarantee pre-Christmas delivery within the US.)  This is, admittedly, a bit eccentric these days, and may prove a slight inconvenience for some readers. But if you’re the kind of person who misses Mom & Pop stores, glares angrily at Walmart trucks as  they speed past to standardize the world, and wonders where the local bookstore went, here’s your chance to strike back at the Amazon Empire and help jump-start a new cult classic at the same time. :- )

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To read more from David please check out his blog “Christ the Tao” available here: http://christthetao.blogspot.ca/)

Also check out these blurbs on Faith Seeking Understanding from two outstanding scholars.

“What makes the collection especially fascinating tha valuable is the individuality and particularity of the stories–a concrete testimony to the fact that the Christian intellectual life takes many forms.” — Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University and senior research fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia

“David Marshall has gathered a really distinguished array of contributors, who have all thought deeply about faith in its global context, and the different essays work wonderfully together. The book makes a splendid memorial to two truly great individuals Paul Brand and Ralph Winter.” — Philip Jenkins, Emeritus Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities, Pennsylvania State University

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  • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

    Congrats to both of you!