Book Review – ‘A Brief History of Thought’

Tim Keller once wrote that if you’re going to read one book about how a Christian should interact with contemporary culture, then A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living by Luc Ferry should be the one. This might seem strange, because Ferry is not a Christian, but a self-identified humanist philosopher (p. 227). And yet, having read the book myself, I can see why Pastor Keller recommended it. And for what it’s worth, I recommend it as well.

Published in 2010, the book is true to its title — it seeks to give account of “everything that I consider to be truly indispensable in the history of thought,” beginning with the Greeks and then progressing on through Christianity, humanism, postmodernism and current-day deconstruction.

The fact that Christianity is even mentioned in the above progression (or perhaps regression) is significant, because it is common for more erudite unbelievers to dismiss Christianity as a naive myth with nothing robust to contribute to intellectual history. Refreshingly, Ferry discounts this notion right away, calling it “absurd” that philosophy departments will often skip from the end of the second century directly to the 17th in its overview of history, completely overlooking the great Christian philosophers (Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal). “Even if one is not a believer,” he says, “we have no right to ignorance.” (p. 55).

Ferry then goes on to make some observations about Christianity that secular thinkers prefer to ignore. In contrast to Greek thought, in which some individuals are fatalistically and inescapably locked into a lower class, Christianity brought a “reevaluation of the human person” which has led to the “philosophy of human rights” that is so highly prized in our world today (p. 60). In other words, there would be no Amnesty International or Human Rights Council at the United Nations if it weren’t for Christianity. “Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity — an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance” (p. 72).

Although Ferry seems to misunderstand some basic aspects of Christian doctrine (saying that Christianity leaves “everything up to the individual as to whether something is good or not” [p. 76]; or that the believer is one who “renounces his reasoning” [p. 68]), he does understand something that many evangelicals overlook — that while our faith certainly offers the hope of eternal life beyond this current life, the incarnation (p. 89) and resurrection of Jesus nonetheless affirm the value of human bodies. There is an earthiness to the Christian faith. Despite what atheists say, “one cannot maintain that Christianity is a religion dedicated to contempt for the flesh” (p. 90). This is important because many skeptics scorn Christianity as a religion that, in its hope for the next world, despise life in this world (as Nietzsche seemed to believe, p. 186). But Ferry understands that nothing could be further from the truth.

In several places, the book reads like a personal testimony of someone who has emerged out of atheism into the full embrace of faith. Ferry frames the entire book, and the ultimate goal of philosophy, as a quest for “salvation” that springs from the knowledge in all human beings that one day they and their loved ones will die, a notion we find “disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable” (p. 3). He says the Christian response to mortality is “without question the most ‘effective’ of all responses” (p. 90). Near the conclusion, Ferry writes, “I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compare with Christianity” (p. 261). It’s almost as if Ferry is just about to say, “And on such and such a date, I received Jesus Christ as my personal savior!” But that doesn’t happen. Finally Ferry acknowledges, and without much in the way of explanation, that he simply does not believe Christianity to be true (p. 263).

At this point, I want to be clear that this is not a reason to put this book aside. Ferry strikes me as a brilliant and fair-minded thinker who is engaged in an honest search for the truth. He has written a very helpful book that, while not an “easy read,” is about as simple as could be imagined given the complexity of his subject matter. Most refreshing is that Ferry avoids the angry condescension of other atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Ferry makes you want to listen to what he has to say.

In the end, it seems Ferry wants the hope of Christianity without the Lord of Christianity, showing that ultimately, conversion is not so much a matter of the head, but a matter of the heart. Hearts are much harder to change than heads, but God can do it.