Monday, 10 March 2008

Review of "The God Conversation"

Review of The God Conversation, J. P. Moreland & Tim Muehlhoff, IVP Books

This slim volume aims to demonstrate how to present important Christian concepts in friendly, thoughtful conversations with non-believers. Its approach, tone, and content is particularly suitable for older high-school (15 years old and up) and university students, but will be of value to anyone who has thoughtful friends who are open to discussing the way the world works, and what Christianity has to say about it.

Moreland and Muehlhoff present their conversation primers around five important topics: the problem of evil ("Can God be Good if Terrorists Exist?"), religious plurality ("Jesus, Buddha or Muhammad"), the reliability of Christianity's historic claims, the moral argument ("What Would Machiavelli Do?"), and the design argument ("Are We an Accident?"). Each topic is split into two chapters, and dealt with quickly but rigorously (unsurprising considering Moreland's training as a philosopher).

The real strength of the book is the way that these two elect to present these ancient arguments: using carefully chosen but contemporary illustrations and stories. The best way to illustrate how powerful this approach is, is to give an example from the book.

On the question of religious plurality, Moreland and Muehlhoff recognise that the most common argument against the exclusive claims of Christianity involves a variation of the "climbing the mountain" illustration. I'm sure you've heard this one yourself: all religions are different paths climbing the same mountain towards God at the top. What is important is not the path taken, but the (same) destination. M. & M. point out that there are two clear problems with this illustration: a) it denies the claims of the religious figures themselves (such as Jesus and Muhammad, who were very explicit in their claims to exclusivity); b) it fails to recognise the clear differences between religions (such as the radically different views of God between Judaism and Buddhism).

But M. & M. don't stop with pointing out the problems with the illustration: they propose a replacement illustration. Rather than everyone climbing a mountain to the same destination, imagine religion as something like the famous maze at Hampton Court Palace just outside London. This maze, like most mazes, has only one path to the centre. On the way many paths run parallel to the correct one, and some even branch off right towards the end of the correct path, but all of the wrong paths lead to dead ends, sooner or later. This, M. & M. argue (and I concur), is a far better analogy for religions, and takes into account the two problems with the mountain illustration. They then go on to flesh out this new illustration with a range of stories, arguments, and observations.

Throughout the volume, illustrations are clearly delineated (with a vertical line down the margin), making them easy to find, there are plenty of references in the end notes, and a short subject index is supplied. These features make this work a reference work as well as a primer.

And you will want to use it as a reference work, too. The illustrations and arguments are carefully formed, memorable, and mostly universal (at least for Western audiences).

To leave you with another example of the simple, humble brilliance of this little work, consider how they approach the problem of discussing moral relativity ("what's good for you isn't necessarily good for me"): they suggest creating a "Not to be Tolerated" list with your fellow conversationalist, and then working through that figuring out commonalities (and discussing why these are shared, and what possible basis we could have for not tolerating these things), and differences (and similarly questioning the foundation of these differences). This is a wonderfully gentle way to unpack this difficult issue, and succeeds in creating both common ground to share in and differences to discuss.

So, if you are interested in improving your ability to share with others about how Christ answers the important questions of life, you will find this book incredibly helpful. I unreservedly recommend it.