The Problem of Evil with Tawa Anderson

In this article, I interview Dr. Tawa Anderson about Christian apologetics. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Assistant Director of the Honors Program at Oklahoma Baptist University. He co-authored An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World which released in 2017. Anderson frequently speaks on issues concerning Christian apologetics, worldview, and philosophy for churches, seminaries, universities, and schools.

See my previous interview with Dr. Anderson on Christian Apologetics here.

Or, see my previous interview with Dr. Anderson on Christian Worldview here.

Thank you to Dr. Anderson for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

What is the “problem of evil”? And what makes it a problem?

The ‘problem of evil’ as traditionally held is an argument against the existence of God based on the existence and/or prevalence of evil and suffering in the world.  In its classic form, as articulated by Epicurus, David Hume, or J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil suggests that if an all-powerful and all-good God exists, there should be no evil in the world.  Why?  Well, as the argument goes: (1) if God is omnipotent, he has the ability to prevent evil; (2) if he is all-loving he desires to prevent evil; and (3) if he is omniscient, he knows how to prevent evil.  If the God of Christianity exists, then, he wants to, knows how to, and has the ability to prevent evil.  Given the presence of evil, then, it would seem that God cannot exist.  It would seem, then, that evil presents a ‘problem’ for Christian belief!

I should note, however, that every worldview, not just Christianity, needs to account for the evil and suffering that exists in the world. There are two sides to the broad worldview problem of evil: first, defining and grounding evil; and second, explaining how evil fits coherently within the overarching worldview.

Many people consider the free will defense as a decisive victor against the logical problem of evil. Could you briefly outline the defense and explain why you do or don’t agree on its impact?

The freewill defense, as articulated by Alvin Plantinga, suggests (broadly) two things.  First, if God creates free-willed creatures (like human beings), then he cannot determine that they will use their freedom to always choose ‘good’ rather than ‘evil.’  After all, if God determined that they use their freedom only for good, then they would not be truly free at all.  Hence, even an omnipotent God cannot create free-willed creatures who only do good. 

Second, it is possible (I would argue likely) that God was committed to creating free-willed creatures who (a) would freely do more good than evil and (b) could know and worship him freely.  Hence, it could be that God created human beings with free will, knowing that we would use our free will to cause evil (even tremendous evil on occasion), but also know that it is better to have free-willed creatures who sometimes go wrong, than to have no free-willed creatures at all.

If this is the case, then God has a morally sufficient reason for creating free-willed creatures who cause evil.  Yes, God has the power/ability to prevent evil—but only by not creating free-willed human beings at all.  Yes, God has the prima facie desire to prevent evil—but that prima facie desire is overridden by his desire to create free-willed creatures who will frequently choose to love and serve him.

It is the consensus of contemporary philosophers that the free will defense has conclusively rebutted the logical problem of evil.  That is, there is no logical contradiction between the presence of evil in the world and the existence of God.  I tend to concur with this assessment—Plantinga and others have demonstrated the consistency of God’s existence with evil.

We should note, however, that the logical problem of evil is only one version of the problem of evil. Even if it is defanged, there are other aspects of evil in the world that can cause problems for the Christian faith.

Although the logical problem of evil may have appeared on the debate stage, it seems most people approach evil from a place of emotion. How should Christians engage people that see evil as a natural sign that God does not exist?

There are three versions of the problem of evil: logical, evidential, and existential.  We’ve already talked briefly about the logical problem of evil.  What you’re talking about here is what I call the existential (or experiential) problem of evil.  It seems to me that this is actually the dominant expression of the problem of evil. 

For most people, evil and suffering do not pose an abstract philosophical problem.  It’s not that they think about the attributes of God, and think about the existence of evil, and come to the rational conclusion that God and evil are inconsistent.  Rather, it seems to me that most people question the goodness or existence of God when they experience (or observe) significant evil and suffering in their lives (or in the lives of loved ones).  We encounter someone who hurts us terribly—through physical or psychological abuse, or abandonment, or betrayal.  We experience intense physical suffering—disease, sickness, injury.  We suffer exquisite emotional pain—the death of a beloved friend or family member.  And we wonder why, if God loves us, would God permit this to happen.  If God is all-powerful, surely he could have spared me from this evil and suffering.  So when we encounter evil and suffering personally, we are led to question God’s goodness, and perhaps even his very existence.

It is important to emphasize that people who encounter the existential problem of evil do not need philosophical answers to philosophical questions.  Instead, they need personal comfort and love.

In terms of engaging people who see evil as a sign that God does not exist, I suggest a couple of things.  First, remember that every worldview needs to account for the problem of evil.  Why is evil objectively evil?  And why does it exist?  It is fair to require Christianity to deal with the problem of evil; but it is also fair to require someone who uses evil as a reason to disbelieve in God to account for the reality and existence of evil.  So, for example, if someone uses evil as a reason to reject the existence of God and becomes an atheist; then we should ask them how an atheistic worldview can explain the objective reality of evil.

Second, Christians need to do a better job of presenting the full reality of a biblical worldview.  It is a tragedy that so many people in contemporary Western society believe that God is supposed to be like our personal genie—providing us with health, wealth, and happiness (sugar, spice, and everything nice).  But Scripture does not give us any reason to expect such a peaceful and pain-free life—at least, not on this side of death and resurrection.  A faithful biblical worldview will expect there to be pain and suffering in this life—we live in a world beset by the fall, in which humans perpetrate evil, and there is no reason to expect our lives to be exempt from the suffering.

How should local churches teach, preach, and counsel their people on issues of evil?

As mentioned above, churches need to teach the full breadth of the Christian worldview, particularly emphasizing the reality and impact of the Fall.  There is a desperate need to recapture the biblical notion of lament, and the biblical expectation of suffering in this life.

In addition, it would be helpful to be pro-active and pre-emptive in our preaching and teaching on evil and suffering. It seems to me that the contemporary church is frequently reactive: we preach and teach about evil after events like 9-11. Far better, it seems to me, that we preach and teach about evil six months before 9-11. We need to help prepare our congregations to face the evil and suffering that will inevitably come to them by presenting the fullness of the biblical teaching.

You’ve given an argument before for God’s existence from evil. Can you explain your motivation behind that argument and when you find it useful? Is there a time when it may not be the right approach?

In fairness, I consider the argument for God based on evil to be a purely intellectual exercise.  Here’s how it works (in short).

  1. ~(~PE) It is not the case that there is not a problem of evil. That is, there is a problem of evil.
  2. ~OEכ~PE If there is no objective evil, then there is no worldview problem of evil. If there is no objective evil, then worldviews need not explain, ground, or accommodate evil.
  3. ~(~OE) Combining 1 and 2 (via Modus Tollens), therefore it is not the case that there is no objective evil. That is, there is objective evil.
  4. ~OMVDכ~OE If there are no objective moral values and duties, then there is no objective evil. The understanding here is that objective evil requires an objective moral standard, such that acts (or intentions) that violate (or fall short of) the objective moral standard are objectively wrong (or evil).
  5. ~(~OMVD) Combining 3 and 4 (via Modus Tollens), therefore it is not the case that there are no objective moral values and duties. That is, there is such a thing as objective moral values and duties.
  6. ~Gכ~OMVD If there is no God, then there are no objective moral values and duties. This part of the argument is far too involved to defend briefly here; but simply put, it seems to me (and many other philosophers, theists and atheists alike) that the only way to ground the existence of objective moral values and duties is in the existence of a transcendent moral divine being (i.e., God). Hence, if there is no God, there are no objective moral values and duties.
  7. ~(~G) Combining 5 and 6 (via Modus Tollens), therefore it is not the case that God does not exist. That is, God exists. If you start with the ‘worldview problem of evil’ (Premise 1), or even if you start with the existence of objective evil (Premise 3), then you arrive at the conclusion: Therefore, God.

I find this approach to the question of evil and God most helpful with people who are abstractly raising evil as a reason to reject Christianity.  I think it is profoundly unhelpful in responding to the existential problem of evil, or in ministering to those who are hurting.  But it poses a robust challenge to those who want to maintain the reality of evil in the world while simultaneously avoiding God.

I also think this argument can be helpful in reinforcing the faith of believers, whether they are struggling in the presence of evil and suffering or just wavering in their faith.

Thank you again to Dr. Anderson! Look for my other interviews with Tawa Anderson here.

Christian Worldview with Tawa Anderson

In this article, I interview Dr. Tawa Anderson about Christian worldview. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Assistant Director of the Honors Program at Oklahoma Baptist University. He co-authored An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World which released in 2017. Anderson frequently speaks on issues concerning Christian apologetics, worldview, and philosophy for churches, seminaries, universities, and schools.

See my previous interview with Dr. Anderson on Christian Apologetics here: Christian Apologetics.

Thank you to Dr. Anderson for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

Two years ago, you and your co-authors published An Introduction to a Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World. Could you explain what “worldview” is? What a “Christian worldview” is? And why you chose that subtitle?

We define worldview as “the conceptual lens through we see and interpret the world and our place within it.” Worldview is like a set of glasses that we wear, through which we view and interact with reality. If we wear pink-colored glasses, the world looks pink (even if it’s not); if we wear the wrong-prescription lenses, the world will look very distorted. So having the right set of glasses is important—it helps us to see the world the way it really is.

The subtitle of our book was chosen as an indication that a Christian worldview is, ultimately, a pursuit of God’s perspective on reality. Christians recognize that God alone has a true and accurate understanding of life, the universe, and everything—our goal is to chase after God in relationship, but also in understanding. If God sees reality truly, then we want to see the world the way that God sees the world, so that we also might understand reality truly.

A Christian worldview, broadly put, is one which embraces the biblical contours of Creation – Fall – Redemption – Glorification, places the Triune God at the center of reality, and embraces Scripture as the inspired and authoritative self-revelation of God to His people.

If our worldviews are really so pervasive in how we interpret things, then how can we ever reach consensus? How could we ever get people to see things “our” way?

We talk about worldview impacting people in four ways: confirmation bias, experiential accommodation, the pool of live options, and life motivation. Confirmation bias describes our tendency to look for and accept information or arguments that agree with or support what we already believe. Experiential accommodation is the process of interpreting new data or experiences in a way that fits with our existing worldview. The pool of live options is the set of possible explanations that our worldview will permit. Life motivation describes the way that our worldview encourages us to behave and react.

With respect to those first three worldview influences, we can see how people with different worldviews will generally fail to reach consensus, and why it seems nearly impossible to get people to ‘see things our way’. Our very fundamental worldview means that we see the same data, but interpret that data in very different (perhaps even contradictory) ways. Within my Christian worldview, for example, the sudden remission of Aunt Martha’s cancer will readily be interpreted as an answer to concerted desperate prayer; but within my sister’s non-Christian worldview, such a miraculous interpretation of events is outside the pool of live options—there will have to be some other explanation.

With a plurality of competing worldviews, and the strong influence that worldview has upon us, how can we pursue consensus?

The first step, I think, is promoting worldview awareness—we need to be aware of the impact our worldview has upon us when interacting with other people. When are my worldview presuppositions causing me to dismiss someone’s position or arguments? Do I reject this piece of data for good reason, or simply because it doesn’t fit with my pre-existing understanding?

But, of course, it doesn’t help much if we are aware of our worldview influences but other people are not. Hence, it is important to try to educate people broadly about the existence and influence of worldview presuppositions—not in a way that challenges people to re-think their fundamental commitments, but rather asks them to become consciously aware of their worldview.

Why should Christians think through their own worldview and those of others?

We confess that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6), that Christ has come to “testify to the truth,” (John 18:37) and that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). So, it seems, truth has a central role in a Christian worldview. Hence, a Christian should be in constant pursuit of truth in his or her own worldview. Obtaining an increasingly true worldview will bring us closer to a full knowledge of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The only way to obtain an increasingly true worldview is to subject our worldview to rigorous, conscious, and logical self-examination. We talk in our book about three “worldview truth-tests” that can help us adjudicate the accuracy of our worldview (and those of others): internal consistency (logical coherence), external consistency (evidential correspondence), and existential consistency (pragmatic satisfaction). Applying these tests to worldview components can help us apprehend truth more accurately.

How has studying Christian worldview changed your relationship to Jesus?

Probably the most fundamental impact has been my increasing awareness that I do not possess the full truth. I have always known this in some sense, but I have generally been overly confident (and dogmatic) about particular stances or beliefs that I hold. There are two sides to this.

First, many of those beliefs end up being secondary within a Christian worldview—not unimportant, but not central to the faith. In our textbook, we differentiate between “Core,” “Secondary,” and “Peripheral” worldview beliefs, and note that what identifies overarching worldviews (like Christianity, atheism, Islam, Buddhism) are Core beliefs. Worldview study has helped me to more clearly (I think) identify the core tenets of the Christian faith—those beliefs, attitudes, loves, and behaviors which are central, and without which there is not an authentic Christianity. Gary Habermas likes to crystallize core Christianity around the deity, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I think that’s helpful, but prefer to think of the ancient creeds (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed) as fuller articulations of essential Christian doctrine. I have had a tendency to make secondary things ‘hills to die on,’ and I feel that as I grow in worldview awareness (and hopefully Christian maturity), I am less likely to make mountains out of molehills. For example, there was a time in my Christian life when I would have held that someone who embraces theistic evolution has left behind orthodox Christianity. Today, while I still reject the modern Darwinian synthesis (random mutation and natural selection as a sufficient explanation for the diversity of biological life), I recognize that someone can be an authentic orthodox Christian and embrace divinely-ordained evolution as the means of God’s creative activity. The issue of how and when God created are secondary; the doctrine that God created is primary (core).

Second, my growth in worldview awareness has helped me better identify the perspectival nature of human knowledge. Other people who are just as intelligent and well-meaning as I am come to radically different worldview conclusions. They, like me, are triply f’ed-up: we are all finite, fallen, and fallible. Hence, I cannot claim to have a monopoly on truth, and neither can they.

How has studying Christian worldview changed your relationship to those around you?

Four things to say here.

First, with respect to non-Christians who hold different worldviews, I think I have become more gracious. I am able to enter into their worldview, and understand why they might see the world the way that they do. This does not make me any more likely to believe that their fundamental worldview is true, but it does help me to understand who they are and why they stand where they do. In turn, this helps to build bridges between my worldview and theirs, such that I can (Lord willing) help them consider the winsomeness and truthfulness of the Christian worldview.

Second, with respect to non-Christians who claim that their worldview is obviously true and Christianity is obviously false, I think I have become more stringent. It pains me to see people who are so blinded to the possibility that they could be mistaken, and who seem to mock those who would embrace the ‘ridiculous superstitions’ of traditional religion.

Third, with respect to fellow Christians who think differently than I on secondary or peripheral issues, I have (again) become more gracious. I have a long ways to go here, and I know that in the past I have hurt fellow believers by arguing too vehemently about secondary issues. The biblical appeal for unity within the body of Christ requires that we accurately identify the core of Christianity, such that we fight for that, and never fight over the secondary issues. I’m getting there, but clearly am not there yet.

Fourth, with respect to people who profess Christianity but reject the historical core of the Christian worldview, I have become less patient. I would join the late Ronald Nash in appealing for ‘honesty in advertising’. If one is going to reject the objective existence of the Triune God, reject the inspiration and authority of God’s self-revelation in Scripture, reject the objective divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, reject the historical resurrection of Jesus on the third day, reject the notion of Christ’s death on the cross atoning for sin, and reject belief in life after death—then that person has no more right to call themselves a Christian than I have to call myself a black woman.

Thank you again to Dr. Anderson! Look for more interviews with Tawa Anderson and others in the near future! If you missed his interview on Christian Apologetics, you can view it here: Christian Apologetics.

Christian Apologetics with Tawa Anderson

In this article, I interview Dr. Tawa Anderson about Christian apologetics. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Assistant Director of the Honors Program at Oklahoma Baptist University. He co-authored An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World which released in 2017. Anderson frequently speaks on issues concerning Christian apologetics, worldview, and philosophy for churches, seminaries, universities, and schools.

Thank you to Dr. Anderson for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

Could you please define and briefly explain “apologetics”? What are its purposes and goals? How does it relate to Christianity?

Apologetics, in general, is the reasoned defense of a particular position, belief, or worldview. An apologist provides evidence and arguments for their stance. Christian apologetics, then, is the explanation and defense of the Christian faith, in fulfillment of the Apologetic Mandate in 1 Peter 3:15 (Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have).

There are, I think, four primary purposes/goals of Christian apologetics, which can be related to the thrust and audience of apologetics. There are two thrusts of apologetics: positive and negative (or offensive and defensive). Positive apologetics sets forth reasons to believe that Christianity is true, while negative apologetics responds to objections (or doubts or questions) that others have with respect to Christianity. There are also two audiences for apologetics: evangelistic and devotional. Evangelistic apologetics focuses on those outside the Church and seeks to provide reasons for them to consider the claims of Christ. Devotional apologetics focuses on those within the Church and seeks to strengthen them in the faith.

1. Positive evangelistic apologetics seeks to give non-Christians reasons to believe that Christianity is true: this is the evangelistic function of apologetics.

2. Negative evangelistic apologetics seeks to respond to the doubts and objections that skeptics bring against the faith, providing them with reasons to not disbelieve in Christianity: this is the pre-evangelistic function of apologetics.

3. Positive devotional apologetics seeks to give Christians reasons to continue believing that Christianity is true, providing them with more confidence and boldness in holding and sharing their faith: this is the discipling function of apologetics.

4. Negative devotional apologetics responds to the natural questions and doubts that arise in the minds of believers, providing reasons to not start disbelieving in Christianity: this is the preservative function of apologetics.

So, in summary, I think apologetics serves as pre-evangelism, evangelism, discipleship, and preservation.

As Western civilization becomes increasingly post-Christian, there will be an increasing need and call for strong apologetic ministries of all four types. Christians find their beliefs under intellectual and social attack at every turn, and need to be able to see strong rational and evidential defenses for the core tenets of orthodox Christianity.

What led you to study apologetics?

I had the privilege of serving for seven years as the English Pastor at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church. Our congregation was nearly all younger than me (and I was young at the time!): junior high, high school, and university students. These were predominantly sharp and thoughtful young men and women, who had lots of questions and doubts about Christianity. They would also bring friends to the church who were not Christians, and these friends would also have lots of good questions about the faith. I also served as part-time chaplain at the University of Alberta, where I would meet and talk regularly with dozens of college students with, again, lots of good and deep questions about life, the universe, and everything.

In the context of ministry, I was basically ‘forced’ into apologetics. The Holy Spirit made it clear to me that it was my responsibility as their pastor to walk alongside people amid their questions and doubts, and seek to help them find reasonable answers to the questions and resolutions to their doubts. So as they would ask questions, I would read and study in order to help them answer those questions. I found the process, frankly, both exhilarating and exhausting. I loved mentoring and shepherding young adults with serious questions and doubts—the answers I found were not always satisfactory to them (or to me), but the process of questioning and seeking was very rewarding.

So while serving as pastor and chaplain, I fell in love with apologetics, and became convinced of the necessity of apologetics in contemporary ministry.

Eventually, that love led to a calling back to school, to pursue a doctorate in philosophy and apologetics.

You are currently writing a book on apologetics. What material do you hope to cover? And what has been your approach to the topic?

The book I’m currently writing is intended to be an accessible lay-level introduction to apologetics. I am primarily focused on positive apologetics—that is, presenting reasons to believe that Christianity is true—which will hopefully resonate with Christians and normal people (those who are not Christians) alike.

My approach to positive apologetics is known as the ‘classical’ or ‘two-step’ approach. The first step is providing evidence and arguments for the existence of God (the classical God of western monotheism—omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent). The second step is providing evidence and arguments for the deity, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—the central historical and doctrinal claims of Christianity specifically.

I should mention that I do not believe the evidence and arguments for God or for Christianity to be what philosophers would call demonstrative (or conclusive). That is, the reasons I present do not arrive with 100% certainty at the truthfulness of the conclusion. I don’t think that any apologetic arguments can do that—for Christianity or for any other position or worldview!

What role do you think apologetics plays in belief formation?

In general, I think apologetics plays a relatively minor role in bringing people to Christian faith. William Lane Craig draws a helpful distinction between knowing and showing that our faith is true.

Craig argues that most of us know our faith is true primarily via ‘the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit.’ That is, we come to faith in Christ through experiencing the redemptive power of Christ in our lives. Oftentimes, however, apologetics lurks in the background of that personal experience. For example, in my own life, my conversion to Christianity was very immediate and experiential—God reached down and grabbed a hold of me, convincing me directly of my need for a Savior. But in the two years prior to my conversion, I had four Christian friends who were answering questions I had, and providing reasons that I ought to consider Christianity. In terms of conscious awareness, their apologetic and evangelistic efforts did not play a part in my coming to faith; but behind the scenes I have no doubt that they were instrumental in paving the way for me to come to the cross of Christ.

Thus, again, in terms of coming to faith, or (in Craig’s words) knowing that our faith is true, apologetics plays a more minor role.

But when it comes to showing that our faith is true, apologetics is front and center. If we are going to share our Christian faith with those outside the walls of the church, we need to be able to identify good reasons and evidence that supports the truthfulness of Christianity—and this is increasingly important as society continues to move in a post-Christian direction.

Furthermore, while apologetics may have relatively little to do with becoming a Christian in the first place, I think apologetics is essential in remaining a Christian, particularly in a hostile post-Christian culture.

In what ways do you think local churches ought to promote apologetics?

In every way possible. First, church leaders must always be cognizant that there are non-Christians in their midst, who will not just take their word for things. Skeptics need to be given reasons to consider the faith, arguments that support the contention that Christianity is true. Second, church leaders (pastors, preachers, teachers, etc.) must also recognize that the most difficult questions and doubts may exist in the hearts and minds of the most faithful Christ-followers in their midst. So, taking these first two pieces together, we must always preach and teach with the awareness that there are people with doubts, questions, and objections who are listening.

Third, because of that, we can and should cultivate a church culture of openness, where it is safe to share one’s doubts and questions and thoughts. We as church leaders should never feel threatened or attacked when people in the congregation (Christian or not) ask difficult questions—the questions are out there anyway, and it is far better if they can be asked and answered in a healthy, faith-nurturing fashion by church leaders.

Fourth, we need to live a life of constant growth and study, seeking answers to people’s questions and resolutions to people’s doubts. That will mean reading works by snarky skeptics, honest doubters, wavering disciples, and confident apologists. If people in our congregation are reading Richard Dawkins, we should read Dawkins to be familiar with his thoughts and arguments, and we should read Alister McGrath (or others) who respond forcefully to Dawkins.

Fifth, there are tremendous apologetics resources available, in print, online, via video, etc.—we can and should make these resources available to folks as readily as possible, so that they have the means of seeking answers to their own questions and resolutions to their own doubts. The long-term goal should be discipling a congregation of confident apologist-evangelists, who are solid in their faith, who grasp the rational and evidential foundations for orthodox Christianity, and who are passionate about defending and sharing that faith in the public marketplace.

What advice would you give someone interested in apologetics who’s unsure of where to start?

I’ll mention a few very helpful resources that can get someone started in apologetic equipping.

First, in print, the series of books authored by Lee Strobel are accessible, and provide very helpful introductions to major questions while also pointing readers in the right direction if they want to dive more deeply into particular subjects. The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, and The Case for Easter are particularly helpful.

Second, for online apologetics ministry, the cream of the crop is http://www.apologetics315.com – an apologetic clearing-house which has helpful articles as well as links to apologetic ministries around the world. You can find literally everything there!

Here are a few more helpful suggestions:

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity – excellent communicator with some persuasive arguments.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God and Making Sense of God

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition – also his website, http://www.reasonablefaith.org

Thank you again to Dr. Anderson! Look for more interviews with Tawa Anderson and others in the near future! If you liked the content, please like this post and leave a comment. To receive updates when more interviews are released, subscribe to the blog with your email.

Review of On the Road with Saint Augustine

In his newest monograph On the Road with Saint Augustine, James K.A. Smith introduces the patristic theologian, philosopher, bishop, and—most importantly for this work—a spiritual traveler looking for home. Before reading this book, a warning is in order. This book is not a biography. It is not a historical theology. It is not a contemporary philosopher’s attempt to anachronistically claim Augustine as the first existentialist. It is not an academic book or a devotional for new Christians. It is not a postmodern apologetic for Christianity. It is not a gospel presentation. James K.A. Smith does not set out to do any of these things, but of course, by discussing Augustine, he does all of them. In this book, Smith invites us to get on the road that was traveled by Augustine centuries before us and discover how similar his own journey was to ours.

Summary

Smith invites the reader, a traveler like himself, to journey on the same road that Augustine went down centuries ago. We travel to find ourselves and become authentically us, and for someone living in a culture so distant and long ago from ours today, it may shock us to learn how similar Augustine’s journey is to our own. This book tells stories within stories. Every chapter is composed of a series of vignettes taken from Augustine’s life or connect with his experiences and ideas. These brief stories can seem random in their placement, but it does not take long to see how each stories connects to form a carefully-woven narrative. These chapters can feel similar to mind-bending films (such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento) wherein things may feel unsettled and random until one reaches the end and feels the satisfying (or unsettling in Nolan’s case) conclusion that brings the pieces together.

The ‘Idea’ Chapters

These chapters feel like a journey through life’s most prevalent topics. After setting the stage for Augustine being our contemporary in thought and deed as we, like him, are refugees looking for a place in this world to call home, Smith walks us through a series of topics. He opens this series of chapters by introducing the problem of freedom without end or without a goal. He then moves to address how ambition, though maligned in some parts of contemporary culture and worshipped in others, cannot be put into either category so neatly. When our ambition is rightly ordered for God’s sake, it becomes a great good, but this is difficult when the line between God’s sake and our own is rather fuzzy. Smith remarks that Augustine clearly admits that he still does things out of selfish ambition while still maintaining the desire to do them for God alone, and this does not make them entirely selfish or immoral or inconsistent—it just makes them honest. Throughout the book Smith address other topics of broad and sometimes theoretical significance such as enlightenment, story, and justice, but he also moves to some practical topics as well.

The Practical Chapters

Concerning the practical and everyday topics that connect with Augustine, Smith discusses family, friendship, death, and homecoming. Smith’s chapter on sex does much good in moving past some of Augustine’s hang-ups and misgivings almost certainly brought on by his own checkered past. For those familiar with some of Augustine’s claims concerning this topic, Smith gives a refreshing reinterpretation of Augustine that is honest and charitable.

In this book, we also glimpse at Augustine’s parental relationships. The chapter on Augustine’s mother relates the story of his rebellious emigration from her faith and home until he returns after experiencing her faith from another place in his life. Many people have similar experiences in scorning the faith and beliefs of their parents. Augustine finally realizes that, the whole time he left his geographical home to find one of rest, his mother was there pointing him to the proper home of peace. Augustine had an absent father like many others today, so Smith, in sharing that part of Augustine’s life, uses it as a platform to discuss our brokenness and the longing many feel for the place in their lives abandoned by absent fathers. Smith also talks about important topics such as friendship and death which have great significance in our lives as we seek loving companionship from others and await the fate that will reach us all.

Assessment

I quite enjoyed On the Road with Saint Augustine. I had the typical experience of reading Confessions for the first time. As a college freshmen with no real idea who Augustine was, I was shocked when this bishop from Africa told my story. His struggle with sin and wrestling with God could not have described my own story better. His heartfelt pain and tears came through so clearly even though he originally wrote in a different language and different century. It opened my eyes to the universal journey of fighting sin and evil and finding God and grace. Smith writes like a master-weaver, bringing Augustine’s story together with ours. For those interested in a faith that may seem foreign yet oddly familiar, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly. My one personal caution is that this book is not your typical narrative.

Like those mind-bending films mentioned before, every piece is essential even if you may not enjoy it while it happens. Many of those films have moments that seem to drag on or seem to not contribute enough to the story to warrant their inclusion, but again I believe they all have their place. The same is true of Smith’s work. Is it superbly written? Does it demonstrate a well-seasoned writing career? Yes, but it may not always feel like it. This critique, my only critique, may also be a strength. I will let the reader decide. Take up and read.