Book Write-Up: Our Deepest Desires

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, and beauty.

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.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Book Write-Up: Our Deepest Desires

  1. Pingback: Lecture Series Write-Up: The Psychology of Atheism, by R.C. Sproul | James' Ramblings

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