A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest
In 1992, a group of Christians at Harvard University started The Veritas Forum, hoping to promote discussion of the “big questions” that they felt were being ignored in the secular academy. The Forum has clearly been a success, staging high-profile events at universities throughout the United States and the world. A Place for Truth contains a selection of presentations from those events, in which prominent scholars from different academic fields reflect on profound and controversial issues.
This is a very enjoyable book to read and one that can serve to introduce to a general audience some of the important issues it raises. In what follows I will briefly summarize the book and then offer critical comments—not to undermine my overall positive assessment of the book, but to highlight structural weaknesses connected to the format in which the presentations were delivered and to point out surprising claims found in some of the chapters themselves.
The book contains fifteen chapters, and as Dallas Willard says in his introduction, they “deal with questions about truth itself and questions about several particular truths” (15). By that description, the book could be about anything—and indeed, it does read like a bit of a hodge-podge. The first three chapters, by Richard John Neuhaus, Os Guinness, and Timothy Keller, are on the nature of truth. Their point is to emphasize the importance of objective truth, and in so doing to lay the groundwork for the rest of the book. In the next three chapters, on science and religion, Francis Collins describes his journey to the Christian faith and his take on its relation to science; Alister McGrath and David Helfand discuss Richard Dawkins’ critique of religion; and Hugh Ross tells how he found evidence for the reliability of Scripture. The following two chapters are on atheism: Paul Vitz describes psychological factors that can lead one to atheism; and Dallas Willard compares the message of Nietzsche to the message of Jesus Christ. The heading for the next three chapters is “Meaning and Humanity,” and these are among the best chapters of the book. In them, Peter Singer and John Hare debate the relative merits of theistic and atheistic morality; Rodney Brooks and Rosalind Picard discuss the humanity of robots; and Jeremy Begbie compares life in general, and the Christian life in particular, to music. In the following chapter, N. T. Wright attempts to summarize the essence of Christianity. The book closes with three chapters on social justice, where John Warwick Montgomery argues that human rights require religion, Mary Poplin tells of the impact of Mother Teresa on her life, and Ronald Sider describes the social implications of the Christian gospel.
The book has some unusual features connected with the fact that the chapters were originally presentations to large general audiences. A positive consequence is that the chapters are easy to read and the arguments for the most part are easy to follow. The excitement and enthusiasm is also palpable in the writing, and certainly in the off-the-cuff remarks made in debate and in Q&A sessions after some of the lectures. Sometimes the ad-libbed comments become so loose as to seem out of place in a book like this (as when Picard expresses surprise at Brooks’ stated desire to engineer a human being: “I mean, there’s a much more fun way to make new humans!” ); but in general they provide insight and offer moments of genuine candor on the part of the speakers.
There are of course drawbacks to presentations of this sort. For one thing, they tend to invite grand statements that are undefended and sometimes unfair or misleading. This book contains a number of such statements, with a few coming in the opening chapters where the secular academy is portrayed as opposing an objective notion of truth. For instance, Os Guinness proclaims, “I’ve been on campuses where, to put it simply, today it is worse to judge evil than it is to do evil” (44)—a catchy line, no doubt, but hardly a helpful one. Is it really true that at these unnamed campuses, the act of gunning down innocent civilians is considered not as bad as the act of judging it as evil? I doubt it. And who on these campuses thinks so, anyway? Everyone? Almost everyone? A few misguided loudmouths? There certainly are problems with the intellectual climate at some universities, and many proponents of academic freedom are not nearly as open-minded as they claim to be, but in pursuit of the truth about the situation it is probably best to refrain from exaggeration.
A couple of additional weaknesses show up as well. The nature of these presentations limits speakers’ ability to go into significant detail, a problem that did not prevent many contributors from giving arguments and analyses that were informative, interesting, and even profound. One of the weaker chapters along these lines, however, is the debate between McGrath and Helfand about the views of Richard Dawkins. McGrath in particular attributes to Dawkins broad views about science and religion, but neglects to engage any of Dawkins’ actual arguments on the subject and tells us almost nothing that Dawkins actually says. Some of the views he attributes to Dawkins are a bit suspect anyway: Does Dawkins really think that “science means 100 percent certainty; religion, 0 percent” (103)? A citation might help the reader determine what, one would hope, are Dawkins’ slightly more subtle views on the matter; but none is given. Indeed, the lack of citations is a further weakness of the book. Full citations cannot be delivered in oral presentations, of course, but one thinks they could have been added here so that when Timothy Keller says, “China is probably going to go from about 1 percent Christian to about 30 or 40 percent Christian in the next hundred years” (58), readers can learn where he acquired this information.
Another interesting feature of the book stems from the fact that while most of the contributors are Christian, they take varying positions on the nature of their faith and its perceived advantages over secular viewpoints. There are tensions between some of the papers as a result. For instance, John Warwick Montgomery, in a chapter that ranges more widely than it should, asserts that only Christianity can change people’s hearts and give them “the basis … for a solid understanding of human rights” (278), while John Hare notes that “there are atheists whose moral lives put the lives of many theists to shame” (178), and Ronald Sider laments the fact that Christians generally appear no more concerned about justice than anyone else is (300).
Also interesting is the way that many contributors cite historical evidence, particularly for the Resurrection, as reason to accept the Christian faith and as important to their own. The most peculiar appeal to evidence, however, comes from Hugh Ross, who rests the weight of his faith on the accuracy of scientific claims and predictions he claims to find in Scripture. On Ross’s reading, the biblical writers accurately predicted the discovery of the law of gravity and the first and second laws of thermodynamics; the “prophet Moses” predicted events that occurred 3,400 years later; and King David predicted the rebirth of Israel that took place in 1948 (128-129). His method of interpreting Scripture would no doubt raise the eyebrows of most biblical scholars. (The method is also a bit disturbing, since adherence to it can promote an unhealthy fixation on prophecy and a corresponding blindness to such clear biblical themes as justice and love of neighbor.) But I should report that, were I skeptical about the Christian faith, I would not find what he says all that convincing. As evidence of the Bible’s predictive reliability, Ross marvels that “Bible writers named people by name, even before they were born” (128); but a skeptic could sensibly doubt that this is genuine prophecy, and instead make note of the less-than-straightforward nature of biblical authorship and of the possibility that the books were written after the events they supposedly predict. In any case, Ross’s essay, curiously titled, “A Scientist who Looked and was Found,” (curious since it seems he is the one doing the finding) represents an unusual call for potential converts to search out the evidence for Christian faith, a call that is repeated more conventionally in other chapters.
The book also has many highlights. In his debate with Peter Singer, John Hare argues that we can better justify the moral demand and motivate moral living with God in the picture than without, points that Singer almost entirely concedes. Francis Collins, whose scientific credentials are above reproach, defends the theory of evolution and explains how he can hold it alongside his Christian faith. Rosalind Picard and Rodney Brooks engage in a fascinating debate on the possibility that there is more to human beings than the physical. Jeremy Begbie’s meditation on music, which was delivered soon after the attacks of 9/11, and Mary Poplin’s deeply personal account of her interaction with Mother Teresa are unusually affecting.
In short, A Place for Truth is enjoyable to read, often edifying, and sometimes profound. Its arguments and claims are for the most part too loose for the book to serve as a useful text in, say, a philosophy class; but for a general audience I recommend it highly as a point of entry into discussion of some of life’s big questions—and hopefully as a catalyst to further study and investigation.