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Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine & Aquinas

by Curtis Chang

Buy the book: Curtis Chang. Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine & Aquinas

Release Date: October, 2000

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Curtis Chang. Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine & Aquinas

Worth reading.

Curtis Chang has an excellent idea: read Augustine and Aquinas, two great Christian thinkers, compare how they explained their faith to non-Christian contemporaries of their eras, and see what we in the "post-modern" world can learn. Overall, I think he pulls it off well. Chang is a thoughtful writer, and the book is well-organized and clearly (though not eloquently) written. (Chang seems to be one of those writers whose diction remains structured and careful even when he gets a bit passionate.)

I was happy to learn a bit about Aquinas (whom I had not read) and to bask in Chang's exposition of one aspect of the thought of Augustine (whom I have long appreciated). He argues that the two men entered into the stories of their non-Christian opponents, deepened them, and retold them as facets of the "metanarrative" of the Gospel. This subject particularly interests me because I am doing research on the fascinating (and long) story of how Western, Indian and Chinese Christians have related the Gospel to their cultures. Also, I wrote a book a couple years ago, Jesus and the Religions of Man, that relates the Gospel to modern religions and ideologies in a way rather similar to Augustine's approach in City of God -- maybe more by accident than by design. I think the period in which Augustine wrote resembled our own diverse, multi-cultural society in many ways, and we have much to learn from him. (And, it seems, from Aquinas as well.)

I also learned a bit about "post-modernism" here, at last. (The term being unnecessarily ugly, I have previously tried to avoid finding out what it referred to. Ignore it, and it will go away!) I don't think, as one reviewer below seems to, that Chang accepts the "post-modern" view wholeheartedly, nor ask us to. "Both (A+A) . . . enter the pagan and Islamic stories still retaining their distinctive Christian identities. They refuse to give in to some confusing syncretism or an intellectual appeasement that would change the essence of the gospel." I don't think Chang is unconcerned about truth, just because he emphasizes story. (Which he calls "narrative," yikes.) Story and truth need not conflict. The Gospel marks where the two cross and become one. Chang's approach is to find truth in non-Christian philosophy, and show how the Gospel deepens and supplements it. I think that is a valid, Biblical, and rational approach to any worldview that contains truth, as "post-modernism" undoubtedly does.

Chang talks about Islam in an indirect way, because he thinks Aquinas wrote Summa Contra Gentiles to help missionaries reach the educated, philosophical Muslims of his day. Islam is of course on a lot of peoples' minds, my own included. I think Chang is a bit hard on the Crusaders -- it would only be fair for us to enter their story, too, if we are going to enter that of the Muslims. Not everyone has the luxury of responding to armies with words alone. And I am not sure Aquinas was always entirely tolerant either.

From Amazon.com

A good introductory work on Christianity and postmodernism

Postmodernism is a notoriously slippery subject, but in this book Curtis Chang does a good job of introducing and explaining it; he then proceeds to give a plan of action for engaging it, based upon his reading of St. Augustine's CITY OF GOD and Aquinas' SUMMA CONTRA GENTILES.

To me, the most important facet of this discussion is how the Christian faith, which claims objective truth, can be communicated to people who do not admit the existence of such truth (at least in theory). The apologetic method of the past hundred or so years, the "evidence-that-demands-a-verdict" approach, isn't particularly successful anymore. Is there something that can replace it, so we can better communicate the faith to those that have rejected Enlightenment rationalism? That is the question that Chang attempts to answer here.

There is, as one reviewer below says, a danger in falling under the sway of postmodernist presuppositions oneself when attempting to engage with postmodernists. He believes Chang has taken this fall to a certain extent; I do not. By emphasizing the faith as story (or as myth even, remembering that it is a myth that happens to be true) rather than as a set of propositions that need to be embraced rationalistically, one need not tumble into subjectivism or relativism. To me, Chang does a good job of maneuvering between this rock and hard place.
I must also say that the previous reviewer's claim that Augustine himself fell into this trap, thus paving the way for Roman Catholicism's acceptance of devotion utilizing images and physical objects, is more than slightly wrongheaded. This reviewer is repeating (whether he knows it or not) old iconoclastic arguments that have been dealt with by both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and it would do him well to read some of the works that Chang refers to when discussing this subject.

If there is one complaint about the book, it is Chang's reliance on contemporary, critical church history works. One is given a picture of the church of both Augustine's and Aquinas' times as muddled, ignorant and compromised. Undoubtedly there were some elements of the church that were like that (as there are today) but one needs to balance that picture by reading more positive appraisals such as Rowan Greer's BROKEN LIGHTS AND MENDED LIVES, which includes a valuable discussion of Augustine and his times.

All in all, though, this is a work well worth reading by anyone who is interested in the clash between Christianity and postmodern culture.

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