The Meanings of our Words: Reviewing Anthony Thiselton’s “Doubt, Faith, and Certainty”

doubt faith and certaintyIs faith mainly intellectual assent or heartfelt trust? Does the presence of doubt signify unbelief, or is it a sign of honest, mature reflection? Will certainty always remain elusive? In Doubt, Faith, and CertaintyAnthony C. Thiselton takes up a host of questions like these for the sake of developing more nuanced and healthy ways of understanding these closely related theological concepts. 

Of course, crafting better definitions sounds like a rather dry exercise, and Thiselton does stray into the weeds at times, but for him it’s done out of a practical desire to provide some help and solace for those grappling with these concerns in real life. Though Thiselton seeks to address all kinds of readers in this book, some will most likely struggle with his writing style. At times it can be quite dense and technical, so nonspecialist readers shouldn’t be surprised if they happen to find themselves turning to a dictionary of philosophical terms every once in a while. The book’s structure is fairly straightforward, though, and his overarching thesis isn’t too hard to grasp:

This book carries a simple message. On doubt, it argues that while some degree of doubt in some circumstances may perhaps be bad, in different situations doubts may stimulate us to fresh thought and questioning. In fact, the message remains the same for doubt, faith, and certainty: none of these terms has a uniform meaning, or has a uniform function in life. They have a variety of meanings. (p.vii)

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There is Nothing Outside the Text: James K.A. Smith’s treatment of Derrida in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?”

whos afraid of postmodernismPinning down the essence of postmodernism as a philosophical movement can be an intimidating task. Engaging with it fruitfully from the standpoint of Christian thought can be even harder to pull off. James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, admits an awareness of these difficulties in the opening pages of his 2003 book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, which grew out of a set of lectures he gave at the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland.

Smith differentiates “philosophical postmodernism” from “postmodernity” as a cultural condition, arguing that in order to creatively engage with the latter, Christians must first acquire a good understanding of the former. Why? As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Ideas have legs.” Smith expands on this phrase, telling readers that, “Schaeffer offers what we might call a trickle-down theory of philosophical influence: cultural phenomena tend to eventually reflect philosophical movements” (p.20).

Of course, Christians have responded to postmodern philosophy with varying levels of hostility and enthusiasm. As Smith puts it, “To some, postmodernity is the bane of the Christian faith, the new enemy taking over the role of secular humanism… Others see postmodernism as a fresh wind of the Spirit sent to revitalize the dry bones of the church” (p.18). Continue reading