Socrates In The City: Conversations On “Life, God, And Other Small Topics,” edited by Eric Metaxas
It is easy to see what Metaxas is trying to do with this work, and it is something that can (and probably should) be done by others. Not all readers, even those who are generally fond of the author’s work in general , are likely to appreciate this book, especially the way it is formatted. Some people are likely to think that the editor is being a bit flippant in roasting his guests (including himself!) before they speak. But there is a lot of genuine Socratic spirit in these pages and in these discussions, not only in the fact that the talks cover largely philosophical subjects of great interest to those whose range of interests spans from natural philosophy to Christian apologetics, but also because the talks themselves have a strong question and answer component to them and because the atmosphere as a whole resembles something that would have been familiar to Socrates and his associates, a college of wise people who were good-natured and liked asking and answering questions and talking at some length meeting together in a friendly if somewhat formal atmosphere. This book is evidence that the spirit of Socrates’ discussions can be brought successfully into the contemporary world, and that is worth appreciating.
This book is a somewhat lengthy one at almost 400 pages, and it contains a variety of talks with a variety of speakers organized with Metaxas roasting them in an introduction, a talk in which they present an idea which usually relates to their works as writers and thinkers, and then a question and answer session with the audience. Speakers and topics include Sir John Polkinghorne talking about believing in God in an age of science, Peter Kreeft talking about making sense out of suffering, Paul Vitz talking about the importance of fatherhood, Richard John Neuhaus talking about the relationship of atheism and citizenship, Jean Bethke Elshtain talking about C.S. Lewis and the question of humanity, Charles Colson talking about the good life, N.T. Wright talking about why Christianity makes sense, Alister McGrath talking about the decline of contemporary atheism, Os Guinness giving a case for civility in the contemporary world, Francis Collins talking about the human genome as the language of God, and the editor himself talking about lessons from the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Make no mistake, while the tone of Metaxas’ introductions is consistently light and humorous, these are not small or insignificant topics beings discussed.
This is not to say that I agree with everything that is said by these people. By and large I would listen patiently to any of them, and some of them I thought were very well-spoken, but a few of them (this is true of the theistic evolution of Francis Collins in particular) come off a bit worse than others. No doubt all of them got a respectful hearing and the atmosphere as a whole was witty and intelligent and precisely the sort of atmosphere that one would expect would be viewed highly by those who want to see Christians in the public sphere. All of the people engaged in these talks would be people who mainstream believers would be content to see popularizing and defending their faith at least in the general sense, and the editor did a good job at choosing a wide variety of speakers with different areas of focus and interest and different backgrounds, making this an ecumenical experience of a kind that few people get to experience. It is only a shame, I suppose, that there are so few places where one can get a group of thoughtful and philosophical people on a regular basis for talks of this kind.
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