Monday, August 08, 2022

TruthB.O.M.B. Book Review: Rational Faith- A Philosopher's Defense of Christianity by Stephen T. Davis

B - Background

Stephen T. Davis is the Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.  He specializes in the philosophy of religion and Christian thought and is the author or editor of fifteen books, including Encountering Evil, Christian Philosophical Theology and Disputed Issues.

O - Overview

As a high school graduate and young Christian, Stephen T. Davis was advised by a lay leader in his church congregation, " not major in philosophy. Lots of Christian students take a class in philosophy and then lose their faith." [p. 9] Davis explains that this advice struck him as very strange:

"...I remember saying to myself that if Christianity was true-as I believed it was-Christians ought to be able to answer any questions and stand up to any objections that critics from philosophy (or anywhere else) might raise." [Ibid.]

Thankfully, Davis didn't take his lay leader's advice and would go on to earn his PhD in philosophy and spend his career as a professor of philosophy.

Rational Faith is Davis's attempt to deal with the difficulties and academic challenges he has discussed with his students over the years in the secular institutions of higher learning he has taught in.  He explains that the book is mainly for two types of people: 1) Christian academics, especially those who are located at secular universities and colleges 2) Undergraduate students and graduate students who are Christians or are considering Christianity.  The latter is Davis' primary focus.

M - Main Arguments 

Chapter 1- Is There Any Such Thing as Objective Truth?

It is Davis' conviction that "the validity of everything anyone does, in academic studies or in ordinary life, depends on objective truth." [p. 13]

Davis begins the chapter by defending objective truth against two claims that are often raised against it.  Then, he defines relativism as "the view that the truth or falsity of claims depends on who is making or evaluating them." [p. 17]  He then proceeds to raise numerous philosophical criticisms against it.

The author then turns to Christian claims regarding truth and, more specifically, Jesus's claim to be "the truth."  Davis contends that when Jesus claimed to be "the way, the truth and the life," He was claiming to be the the truth in three ways: 1) What He says is objectively true 2) What He did on our behalf is the true route to redemption and wholeness in life 3) He truly was and is the Son of God (i.e., God incarnate).

He ends the chapter by making a key point about moral relativism.  Davis argues that "If there are not objective values but only good and bad 'for you' and good and bad 'for me,' then there is no rational or trustworthy basis for defending the ideals and accomplishments like the equality of all people before the law, government as based on the consent of the people, tolerance of and civility toward those who disagree with us freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  If there are no objective values, then the only available goals are the targets of one's own desires, and the only available vehicles for convincing people are power and politics." [p.23]

Chapter 2- Why Believe in God?

Davis begins this chapter by disclosing that "the primary historical reason" that he believes in God "is doubtless the fact that my parents believed in God and taught me to do the same." [p. 29]  His family was not particularly religious, but did attend church occasionally.  This reviewer appreciated Davis' willingness to share this fact and as he rightly explains, "...many people grow up to reject opinions held by their parents...I have never encountered any convincing reason to reject belief in God." [p. Ibid] Regardless of how Davis came to believe in God, one should consider his reasons for continuing to believe.  To do otherwise is to risk falling prey to the genetic fallacy.

The author continues by further admitting that " far the most important reason why I believe in God is this: I have had experiences in my life that I naturally find myself interpreting in terms of the presence of God." [p. 30]  However, he understands that while this certainly counts as evidence for him that God exists, this doesn't qualify as evidence for the person who hasn't had these experiences.  As a result, in addition to the argument about God and morality made in chapter one (see here), Davis offers two more arguments for the existence of God.

His first argument deals with the kind of world we live in.  The author argues that there are only two possible explanations of the existence of the world: 1) The world is entirely accidental or just has no explanation 2) The world was brought into existence by some sort of creator.  His contention is "...that this world is the sort of world we would expect to exist if it were created by God." [p. 31] Intriguingly, Davis continues by suggesting, "...let's say that God's central aim in creating human beings is that as many of them as possible come freely to worship, love and obey God." [p. Ibid]  He then asks, "In order to achieve those ends, what sort of world would God create?"  The author argues that this world would have four main characteristics: 1) It would be a coherent and rational world 2) The evidence for the existence of God is ambiguous 3) There would be moral ambiguity 4) Humans would long redemption and redemption would be possible.  After hashing out each of these characteristics, he contends that this is preciously the world we find ourselves in.

Davis' calls his second argument "the generic cosmological argument" and it is patterned after arguments made by "Aguinas, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Samuel Clarke." [p. 33]  It is as follows:

1. If the existence of the universe can be explained, then God exists.
2. Everything can be explained.
3. The universe is a thing.
4. Therefore, the universe can be explained.
5. Therefore God exists

After clarifying his terms, the author defends each of the premises and this was perhaps my favorite part of the book.  In regard to Premise (2), Davis explains that this " a version of a principle that philosophers call the 'principle of sufficient reason' (PSR)." [p. 34]  As he explains, "There are many versions of the PSR; I will interpret it to mean simply this: Everything that exists has a reason for its existence.  That is, if something x exists, there must be a reason or explanation why x exists." [p. Ibid] What follows is perhaps the most concise defense of the PSR that this reviewer has read. And while Davis freely concedes that "[d]efenders of the PSR usually admit that the PSR cannot by proved, since it constitutes one of the basic axioms of rational thought against which all other claims or statements are measured" [p. 35], he concludes that " some sense we cannot help but accept the PSR and have no good reason to think it nonetheless false, it is pointless to suggest that we take seriously the possibility that it is false." [p. 43]  This reader agrees.

He concludes the chapter by sharing thoughts on our need for God and how one can find God.

Chapter 3- Is the Bible's Picture of Jesus Reliable?

Davis' main goal in this chapter is to argue that the Gospels in the New Testament are reliable.  And while he confesses that he does not hold that the Bible is inerrant, he does affirm that "the Bible is infallible, where I understand this to mean something like 'does not mislead us in matters that are crucially related to Christian faith and practice.'" [p. 67]  The author's main reason for resisting inerrancy is due to his conviction that "[t]he Bible contains discrepancies and inconsistencies that I am not able to harmonize sensibly." [p. 50]  This reader would have appreciated some examples of these so called "discrepancies and inconsistencies," however, I understand that this was not Davis' focus in this particular work.  Regardless, Davis holds to "a robust view of biblical reliability." [p. Ibid.]

After listing and responding to some common arguments offered by New Testament (NT) critics, the author makes his case for the reliability of the NT documents.  Perhaps the most impressive argument the author made dealt with the Apostle Paul's writings on Jesus.  He convincingly demonstrates that a "broad outline" of the life of Jesus can be pieced together using "...references in the seven letters that most NT scholars accept as authentically Pauline (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon)." [p. 58]  

He concludes the chapter by arguing that the Jesus presented in the NT documents explains best why He was crucified and His resurrection best explains the rise of the church.

Chapter 4- Was Jesus Raised from the Dead?

In this chapter, Davis strives to provide a "quick and brief" case for the resurrection of Jesus and from the outset, he makes it clear that he will "argue from reason and evidence alone, not from authority." [p. 68]  
This reviewer appreciated how the author took the time to explain what a worldview is and how it impacts the way we interpret the evidence for Jesus' resurrection from the dead.  As Davis notes, "[a] worldview is a set of fundamental beliefs about how the world is.  Everybody has a worldview.  It is like a pair of glasses or spectacles through which you see the world and that allows you to interpret what you see." [p. 69]   He then proceeds to solidify exactly what he means by the worldviews of naturalism and supernaturalism.

Davis' case for the resurrection leans heavily on the evidence for the empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances.  Most of the arguments presented will not be new to the reader familiar with common arguments in favor of both, however, this reader did appreciate how Davis took the time to deal with the common objection of so-called discrepancies in the gospel accounts.  He contends that
"[m]ost of the discrepancies are quite easy to harmonize," but also argues that the discrepancies themselves testify in a sort of backhanded way to the truth of the the basic point." [p. 77]  He writes, "They show that the Christian claim was not a made-up story, memorized and repeated verbatim by the early witnesses, like an alibi story that criminals might invent.  The New Testament claim that Jesus was alive and had appeared to certain people clearly came from different believers or communities of believers and was written down at different times.  That is evidence of the truth of what they say." [Ibid.]

I was also gratified to see that the author saw fit to draw upon the work of Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne and his argument that the resurrection of Jesus and the incarnation support each other.

Davis ends the chapter by offering his own version of the "minimal facts" argument commonly used by apologists such as Mike Licona and Gary Habermas.

He concludes that "[t]he best way to account for these facts is to affirm that Jesus really was raised by God from the dead.  In other words, there is a patch of first-century history that makes perfect sense from a Christian perspective but from no other." [p. 80]

Chapter 5- Does Evolution Disprove Christianity?

Davis begins this chapter by conceding that "the question of evolution and religion is controversial, to say the least." [p. 81]  He then proceeds to rightly explain that "evolution can mean various things" and then offers four different definitions.  The author continues by explaining that his "aim in this chapter is to argue that it is rationally possible to be a Christian who finds the religious truth in Scripture-a Christian, that is, of a fairly orthodox and traditional persuasion-and still affirm evolution." [p.83-84]

Davis asserts that their exist at least five available options when it comes to the question of evolution and religion- young earth creationism, old earth creation, intelligent design, theistic evolution or atheistic evolution.

The author then argues that "the evidence in favor of evolution, and in favor of the claim that evolution over time produces new species, seems to me to be powerful." [p. 86]  Generally, I found Davis's assessment of each of the views mostly charitable; however, I confess that some missteps were made. For example, when discussing intelligent design (ID), Davis claims that "[a]ll the ID defenders are theists..." [p. 87]  While a popular assertion, this is demonstrably false.  Agnostic David Berlinski and atheist Bradley Monton are two examples of non-theists who defend ID.

Overall, this chapter offers a fair overview of each of the positions mentioned above and while Davis himself identifies as a theistic evolutionist, he concedes that there are indeed problems with evolutionary theory and points out that "...evolutionists sometimes tell 'just-so' stories that are not strongly supported by the fossil record." [p. 92]  It should be noted that Davis does briefly discuss how one can accept evolution and the biblical account of creation, but no hard and fast answers are offered here.

Chapter 6- Can Cognitive Science Explain Religion?

The author begins this chapter by reporting that..."[i]t is not often that new topics and debates emerge in the philosophy of religion.  But one such subject of study arises from the cognitive science of religion (CSR), which is a loosely organized group of cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists and others who are interested in the phenomenon of religion." [p. 101]  These thinkers, according to Davis, believe that religion is merely natural.  That is, they believe humans have a natural inclination toward believing in the supernatural and these beliefs are purely adaptive in an evolutionary sense.  He then proceeds to assess whether or not religion is indeed natural.

What follows is a much broader look at the question than this reader has seen elsewhere that is informative and thoughtful.  Ultimately, the author concludes "...[t]he tendency of human beings to believe in some sort of God, gods or supernatural beings can to a great extent by explained along cognitive or evolutionary lines...I do not believe any such explanation can be complete without adding the point that God created us with a certain need and desire for fellowship with God." [p. 120]

Chapter 7- Is Christianity Unique?

Davis takes aim at the "foremost religious pluralist in recent times," [p.  125]  Professor John Hick.  He successfully argues that "pluralism is not the right way to look at the problem of religious diversity." [p. 126]  He then goes on to argue for the uniqueness of Christianity based upon history, the notion of grace and person of Jesus Christ.  He rejects the notion that "Christianity and the other religions are on an epistemic or evidential par." [p. 138]

Chapter 8- Do Evil and Suffering Show that God Does Not Exist?

I believe most would agree that one of the most powerful arguments against the existence of a theistic God is the so-called problem of evil.  Davis concedes as much and explains the problem rather forthrightly:

"The problem of evil is probably the foremost intellectual difficulty that theists face.  If God is all-powerful, all-knowing and perfectly good, why is there so much undeserved and needless suffering?Surely, if God is all-powerful, God has the ability to prevent needless suffering.  And surely, if God is perfectly good, God would not want there to be needless suffering.  Since, as it clearly seems, there is needless suffering, either God is not all-powerful or is not perfectly good, or else does not exist." [p. 140]

Following in the footsteps of philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Davis begins by clarifying the difference between a theodicy and defense.  Then, Davis moves into offering his own theodicy based upon what he identifies as God's three great aims in creation.  These aims are:

1. God wanted to create a world that contained the greatest possible balance of moral and natural good over moral and natural evil.
2. God wanted to do so given a world in which human beings free to say yes or no to God, to obey or disobey God, to love or to hate God.
3. This entails that God wanted a world in which as many human beings as possible would freely say yes to God and accept God's salvation.

As anyone familiar with the literature on the problem of evil (POE) should be willing to concede, it can be difficult to fully address in a single chapter.  However, this reader was impressed with Davis' sensitivity to the issue and his humility.  He concedes that "...the problem of evil can best be solved given theological assumptions that Christians are prepared to make and non-believers are not" [p. 141], all the while admitting the limitations the believer experiences in completely dealing with the problem:

"Christians believe that God has good reasons for allowing evil to exist.  Christians do not always claim to know what those reasons are, but they trust in God nonetheless." [p. 145]

And least readers fear that Davis is merely offering a type of "skeptical theism" here, he actually argues that epistemic limitations are exactly what the inquirer should expect when considering the POE:

"...the fact that there are mysteries in theodicy and truths beyond our ken is not a last-ditch attempt to save a Christian theology from criticism but rather exactly what that theology should lead us to expect." [p. 146]

Chapter 9- Can We Be Happy Apart from God?

In this final chapter, the author argues that "...human beings have needs they desperately want to be met and questions they desperately want to be answered.  These are some of our deepest longings as human beings...I want to argue that people should be properly related to God because I think that God can meet those needs and provide those answers." [p. 152]  Davis then proceeds to offer 5 questions or longings that are more satisfactorily answered, should Christian theism be true.   


The book concludes with a rich discussion about what we should make of religious conversions, the distinction between private and public evidence and what it means to follow Jesus Christ.  

B - Bottomline 

It is not often that one stumbles upon a philosopher who is capable of making their writing precise and lucid, while maintaining its readability, but Stephen T. Davis is just such a thinker.  Simply put, this volume is a delightful and informative read.  And it is this reviewer's conviction that Davis succeeds in demonstrating that faith in the Christian God is indeed rational.  Further, philosophers and apologists would do well in modeling Davis' humble defense of his convictions.  As C. Stephen Evans wrote in his review of the work, "Davis is fair to the critics of Christianity and careful not to claim more than his arguments warrant."  

Whether you are a committed believer or an inquiring skeptic, I believe this book will both encourage and challenge you to think deeply about the important matters therein.

You can get your copy here.

Many thanks to IVP for the review copy.  

Courage and Godspeed,

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