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“The Golden Cord” By Charles Taliaferro

March 30, 2013

     The Golden Cord: A Short Book On the Secular and the Sacred by Charles Taliaferro. University of Notre Dame Press, 2013.

The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In the introduction to this book, Charles Taliaferro says “The Golden Cord might well be entitled Weaving the Spell.(12). Taliaferro, an eminent philosopher of religion, sets out, not so much to defend Christianity, but to show the beauty of Christianity’s view of the world. This book is about religious experience, but it takes the form of a journey, a journey from a secular naturalistic worldview to a holistic Christian worldview.Taliaferro covers art, literature and philosophy in this broad survey of life. He chooses as his companions in the journey the Cambridge Platonists, a group of 17th century English philosophers and theologians who championed a worldview based on God as the all-good creator and sustainer of the universe. Throughout the book Taliaferro quotes their writings and contrasts them with reductive materialists.

The book works as a sort of introduction to the experiential side of the Christian faith. Taliaferro begins by dealing with the worldview of materialism, and especially Daniel Dennett’s own brand of physicalism. Consciousness, the existence of God and the validity of religious experience are all discussed in the first four chapters. After that, Taliaferro looks into the problem of evil in chapter five, and uses that to look into the nature of eternity and redemption in chapters 6-7. The final chapter, “Glory and the Hallowing of Domestic Virtue,” deals with how life experiences as a whole can connect us with heaven.

Overall this was a worthwhile read. There were a few minor issues I had with the book. In the first few chapters, Taliaferro treats consciousness as sort of an argument for God. While I think that materialistic naturalism cannot adequately explain the human mind, I don’t necessarily think that any cosmological brute fact can be an argument for God’s existence–at best, they can merely show the failure of materialistic explanations. Taliaferro, however, does do a good job of demolishing some atheistic arguments against God, demonstrating how they create definitions of God that do not fit the Christian understanding of God, and then argue against those definitions. Calvinists will most likely be rankled by Taliaferro’s insistence on libertarian free will, and people with more theological knowledge than I might have some issue with his Christus Victor model of redemption as opposed to the juridical model. The main problem I had with this book, though, is that it was too short. Often there were arguments or ideas that I wanted Taliaferro to treat in more detail. I especially wish that there had been more material on the Cambridge Platonists.

On the flipside of that, however, the book is filled with quotes from a wide variety of sources. Taliaferro’s idea is that it is better to directly quote from an author than to paraphrase them, and this decision works well. The Golden Cord is the best sort of book–a book that makes you want to go out and read more books. You could use the footnotes as a “grocery list” of books to buy.  Overall, I think that this is would be a good book to give to a friend who is a non-believer or a Christian who is unsure about some things in the faith. It is short and non-technical, but has plenty of serious intellectual content. Its vast array of quotes means that it can also be a gateway into deeper exploration of some of the themes that he deals with.

Current Listenings: Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes. It is a modern classic.

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