Gregory E. Ganssle. Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations. IVP Academic, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Gregory E. Ganssle teaches philosophy at Talbot School of Theology,
which is at Biola University. Ganssle articulates his goal in Our Deepest Desires
on page 135: “I set out to make the case that the Christian story
grounds and explains the things we care about most.” Such things
include life’s purpose, the human desire for relationships, morality,
Ganssle’s philosophical training is evident throughout this book, as
he engages the thoughts of Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Sartre,
Plato, Nietzsche, and Hume. Ganssle also discusses postmodernism. His
explanation of their thoughts is clear. I especially appreciated his
discussion of Sartre’s view that human existence precedes essence: that
we were not created to be a certain way, but we get to define what our
essence is. Ganssle, of course, disagrees with that view, but the view
has a certain attraction to it, as long as it is not taken too far.
Speaking of that, I wondered if Sartre, Nietzsche, and Hume believed in
at least some moral boundaries. You would expect most humans to do so.
Occasionally, Ganssle mentioned considerations that may indicate that
some of these thinkers drew the line somewhere, but the broad thrust of
his discussion communicated that they were not too keen on moral
boundaries. Sartre was against others telling people what their essence
should be, Nietzsche regarded conventional (and Christian) morality as
weakness and detrimental to human self-fulfillment, and Hume was
skeptical of the existence of moral facts.
Ganssle sometimes employed philosophical argumentation, as when he
argued against the view that evolution was sufficient to account for the
human love for goodness. One can argue that human morality evolved as a
way to help humans survive, since cooperation is conducive to
survival. This makes some sense, but Ganssle does well to ask if a mere
desire to survive accounts for the love for goodness and heroism that
many people possess.
The book also had winsome reflections and anecdotes. Ganssle shared
his love for reading, saying that he reads Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis,
Tolkein, and Walker Percy every two or three years. He also talked
about how many people (himself included) do not enjoy being criticized:
they want truth, but not the criticism that can lead them in that
direction. That resonates!
A criticism that I had through much of the book was that it did not
appear to acknowledge suffering. Ganssle was saying that there are more
good things than bad things in life, but is that true for everyone?
Ganssle talked about the importance of relationships, but what about
those who have difficulty forming and sustaining them? The book perhaps
would have been better had it engaged the problem of suffering more.
This is not to imply that Ganssle should radically change his thesis:
people in the Third World, to use an example, do enjoy the goodness of
life. But they also experience intense suffering, and Ganssle’s
discussion of the goodness of the world is incomplete because he does
not really engage that. Near the end of the book, there was more
discussion about suffering and human mortality. It was thoughtful, but
even that discussion seemed to reflect a First World perspective (not
that Ganssle can change his perspective, but there are other
perspectives out there).
Ganssle talks about how God can spend an eternity helping people to
develop character, so it is never too late to begin. That is a profound
concept. I wonder, though, if it is consistent with prominent strands
of conservative Christianity—-the types that assume that Christians
become morally perfect once they enter heaven.
Also, I was curious about how hell would fit into Ganssle’s thesis.
One can argue that what Ganssle says about humanity’s deepest desires is
not irreconcilable with the existence of hell. Perhaps. But why would
God create so many human beings with desires that God can fulfill, if
God’s purpose was to damn most of them to hell, because they left this
earth before embracing a particular religion?
Does Christianity contribute to human flourishing? Ganssle contends
that it does, and, in certain respects, he is probably correct:
Christianity gives people hope, a basis for morality, and motivations
for philanthropy. Obviously, some of the thinkers Ganssle discusses had
a different view, seeing Christianity as detrimental towards human
flourishing. Maybe they went too far in their assessment. But one can
ask: Can homosexuals flourish when they cannot have a lifelong
relationship with someone of their own gender, due to the will of the
conservative Christian God? Do certain conservative Christian ideas
about sex—-specifically those that act as if people should not have
sexual desire until they are married—-contribute to human flourishing?
The other extreme—-promiscuity—-contributes to its share of problems,
but are not certain conservative Christian ideas themselves problematic
in terms of helping people to arrive at happiness?
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.
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