Socrates in the City: Conversations on “Life, God, and Other Small Topics” edited by Eric Metaxas. Penguin, 2011. 400pp.
Sometimes one needs the right setting, the right speaker, and even a good glass of wine to encourage deep thinking about the important questions in life. Has Eric Metaxas, with his Socrates in the City speakers forum in Manhattan, found a recipe?
Metaxas—who is perhaps better known for his biographies of the great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the British parliamentarian and abolitionist, William Wilberforce—firmly believes that wrestling with the “Big Questions” in life and having fun can go together. In his book, Socrates in the City, he supports his conviction admirably.
In this collection of eleven talks presented at the Socrates in the City forum he founded, Metaxas presents a variety of learned speakers who address significant topics in engaging ways. Along with the topical speeches themselves, Metaxas reproduces printed versions of his own introductions to the speakers and transcriptions of the Question and Answer sessions that followed each presentation. The Q and A sections in particular make Socrates in the City a worthy addition to the library of anyone who wants to join in on what Metaxas calls, in his sub-title, Conversations on “Life, God, and Other Small Topics.”
Metaxas and a few others initiated the Socrates in the City forum in the autumn of 2000. According to Metaxas, “Living in New York, you sometimes get the idea that the biggest questions we deal with are along the lines of ‘Do I take the cab or the subway?'” For him, the antidote to such banality comes from Socrates’s dictum: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Metaxas’s particular (peculiar?) expression of that dictum includes mixing it with a large dose of humour. For example, in his introduction to Richard Neuhaus’s talk on the question “Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen?” Metaxas opens by saying, “Good evening and welcome to Socrates in the City, the thinking person’s alternative to having yourself surgically altered to look like a jungle cat.”
If such an introduction strikes you as inappropriate for a serious topic, you may have to read the book in spite of Metaxas rather than because of him. His introduction to each speaker, in addition to the inclusion of his own talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, means that Metaxas’s fingerprints are more visible than those of the editors of similar works. For example, A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions, edited by Dallas Willard, includes several chapters by speakers who appear also in Socrates in the City (namely Paul Vitz, Richard John Neuhaus, N.T. Wright, Alistair McGrath, Os Guinness, and Francis S. Collins). Willard, however, in his book, plays a much more behind-the-scenes role than does Metaxas in his. While Willard introduces the book as a whole and then allows the other thinkers to speak for themselves, Metaxas introduces every speaker, including himself, and sets a tone for the entire presentation. Regarding his own talk “How Good Confronts Evil: Lessons from the Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Metaxas jokes, “I happen to know in advance that the quality of the speaker is a little bit sub-par.”
In truth, however, many readers will agree with audience member Stephen Wise (grandson of renowned Rabbi Stephen Wise, with whom Bonhoeffer corresponded) when he prefaces his question by praising Metaxas for both his talk and his biography of Bonhoeffer, on which the talk is based. All the presentations in Socrates in the City address important matters in interesting ways, and some of the talks are particularly outstanding. Sir John Polkinghorne’s “Belief in God in an Age of Science,” which leads off the presentations, is one of the best. For example, Polkinghorne offers an explanation of the “fine-tuning” of the universe that includes an anecdote about Cambridge scientist Fred Hoyle. In the process of making a staggering scientific advance, Hoyle was able to seek and find a certain form of energy, not by inductive discovery, but because he knew that carbon-based life in our universe simply had to include certain predictable qualities that Polkinghorne calls “resonances.” The point is: what Polkinghorne calls “signs of mind” in creation did not block scientific discovery but enabled it. When Hoyle and his partners found the evidence for their theory in exactly the place they knew it had to be, Hoyle was forced, against his own tendencies toward atheism, to confess, “The universe is a put-up job.” In other words, life is not an accident.
In the Q and A section that follows Polkinghorne’s talk, listeners are able to push him regarding this and other matters, and this dialogue adds significant material to Polkinghorne’s original remarks. The same observation applies to all the presentations: the questions are excellent, and the answers add weight and often a personal poignancy to the positions the speaker represents. For example, in his talk, “Making Sense out of Suffering,” Peter Kreeft offers several philosophical and biblical insights that many, perhaps preachers in particular, will find helpful. Then, in the Q and A session, a listener prods Kreeft in a way that leads him to reflect on Martin Buber’s interpretation of Job in a way that is both fascinating and moving. To offer just one more example from several other possibilities, questions to Jean Bethke Elshtain about euthanasia lead her to reflect personally about the pressures people face when they attend medical school or when they care for someone who is dying painfully. In his “Acknowledgments,” Metaxas thanks the audiences for their questions and states, rightly, “The readers of this book are in your great debt.”
Is there a place for a forum like Socrates in other cities? While many cities host speaking events one can attend, there are not many quite like Socrates, which is held in a downtown location where one can purchase a glass of wine and listen to (as the Socrates website says) a “thought provoking and entertaining” address by some of the “leading writers and thinkers of our time” that gets us thinking “about the bigger questions in life”? If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that those are the questions that we often avoid asking or discussing, perhaps because we do not feel comfortable enough with our friends, family, or colleagues to risk any disagreement, any discomfort. In a recent political discussion we attended, a participant stated that we ought not to bring “morals” into public policy discussions—a clear sign of our reticence in both private and public discussions to address deeper issues and questions. Could a Socrates-like forum provide an opportunity to begin discussing these questions both publicly and privately?
Metaxas states in his biography of Bonhoeffer that his “greatest hope” for the book is that people will read and study Bonhoeffer for themselves. In Socrates in the City, Metaxas has made a contribution that can spark further study and edifying dialogue among Christians of all traditions, as well as citizens from many backgrounds. The book both instructs and delights, as the Socrates in the City forum appears to have done. Those of us who read this book are perhaps spurred to ask of our own cities: Could we have such a forum here?