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Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition

Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition - Tyler T. Roberts These thirty-six lectures span the theological and philosophical spectrum ranging from the purely religious to the rigorously secular while exploring various intellectual approaches to issues of faith and reason. Along the way the lectures introduce the listener to big names such as Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Barth. Whole lectures are devoted to these great thinkers, and in the cases of Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, two lectures. These and many other great thinkers are discussed and explained with language that can be understood by those who will never read the original writing of these famous individuals.

The lectures toward the end of the series are focused on issues with the views from multiple scholars being described around the given topic. These topics include many of the issues of later 20th Century and the 21st Century (e.g. liberation theology, postmodern theologies, fundamentalism and Islamism, new atheism, and pluralism). The discussion of the Holocaust and related questions of theodicy were particularly well done. But of course, these lectures didn't present the conclusive and final answer to the problem of evil. But rather they provided a summary of the many different ways that Post-Enlightenment thinkers have approached the issue.

The material is presented in roughly chronological order with a solid historical foundation laid in the early lectures providing the listener with a basic beginning point. The differing points of view are presented even-handedly and objectively with no apparent bias. The lecturer maintains a thread of connections between the differing ideas and manages to weave a vast amount of material into a coherent whole.

However, the lectures are framed around the writings of Nietzsche in a way that some listeners may percieve to be a deference to his ideas. This is probably a product of Tyler T. Roberts' (the lecturer) doctoral thesis subject having been on Nietzsche:
Harvard University, Divinity School, Th. D. in Theology, 1993
Dissertation: "Asceticism and Affirmation: Nietzsche's Relevance as Religious Thinker" Advisor: Prof. Gordon Kaufman. Defended Nov. 30, 1992.


It's ironic that the words "skeptic" and "believer" which are in the title are (almost) never used within the lectures themselves. Within the lectures, "suspicion" is used in lieu of "skeptic" and "traditionalist" is often used in lieu of "believer." Nevertheless the title is an attention getter and serves its purpose. The subtitle--"Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition"--is more descriptive of the content of the lectures than the title. However, even the word "debate" is a bit of hyperbole because the lectures are mostly reporting on the writings of various Post Enlightnment philosphers and theologians. The lectures allow these famous thinkers to speak for themselves, and any debate is described with dispassionate second hand reporting. Perhaps an honest descriptive--but boring--title or subtitle would have been, "Post Enlightenment Philosophy of Religion In Its Many Varieties."

I found lectures 1 through 28 a bit of a challenge to follow since they were reporting on the complex thoughts contained in writings of famous philosophers and theologians. Lectures 29 through 36 were on more modern issues, and I found them a bit easier for me to follow. Generally, I would credit Roberts for explaining things as clearly as is humanly possible. That didn't always mean that I found it easy to understand.

The Post-Enlightenment evolution of philosophical and theological thought as described in these lectures is similar the spectrum of change that I have experienced growing up in a conservative religious community and taking on a more liberal and metaphorical view of religion as an adult. Of course the philosophers and theologians described in these lectures articulated their thinking with more precision than was ever done by me. But that is what made these lectures fascinating to me. It was—loosely speaking—an explanation of my own intellectual maturation with the tools and words that had not been available to me. I don’t claim to have understood or agreed with everything described in theses lectures. But there was enough that I could pick and choose from that I felt my listening time was well spent.

Course Lecture Titles:
1. Religion and Modernity
2. From Suspicion to the Premodern Cosmos
3. From Catholicism to Protestantism
4. Scientific Revolution and Descartes
5. Descartes and Modern Philosophy
6. Enlightenment and Religion
7. Natural Religion and Its Critics
8. Kant—Religion and Moral Reason
9. Kant, Romanticism, and Pietism
10. Schleiermacher—Religion and Experience
11. Hegel—Religion, Spirit, and History
12. Theology and the Challenge of History
13. 19th-Century Christian Modernists
14. 19th-Century Christian Antimodernists
15. Judaism and Modernity
16. Kierkegaard's Faith
17. Kierkegaard's Paradox
18. 19th-Century Suspicion and Feuerbach
19. Marx—Religion as False Consciousness
20. Nietzsche and the Genealogy of Morals
21. Nietzsche—Religion and the Ascetic Ideal
22. Freud—Religion as Neurosis
23. Barth and the End of Liberal Theology
24. Theology and Suspicion
25. Protestant Theology after Barth
26. 20th-Century Catholicism
27. Modern Jewish Philosophy
28. Post-Holocaust Theology
29. Liberation Theology
30. Secular and Postmodern Theologies
31. Postmodernism and Tradition
32. Fundamentalism and Islamism
33. New Atheisms
34. Religion and Rationality
35. Pluralisms—Religious and Secular
36. Faith, Suspicion, and Modernity