Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review: Patrick Downey's Desperately Wicked

This past Saturday I finished a book! That, for me, is saying a lot. I tend to start reading many books and complete reading only a few. But don't get me wrong. This doesn't frustrate me as it once did. I read for the purpose of learning and growing. Oftentimes circumstances will lead me to put down one good book in order to pick up another, and it may not be until months later that I finish reading the one I put down. Some books, still remain unfinished, but that's okay. However, I finished this book having read it very slowly and deliberately. It was one of the few books that have so captivated my attention that I was determined to read it completely. It was more than intellectually stimulating; it dealt with my heart in a very needful manner.

The book to which I am referring is Patrick Downey's Desperately Wicked: Philosophy, Christianity and the Human Heart (IVP, 2009). I remember seeing this book listed in the IVP Academic catalog and, to my surprise, a few weeks later a review copy arrived in the mail. All that I know of the author is what I have learned from the author bio and the little bit I read on his faculty profile page.
Patrick Downey is professor of philosophy at St. Mary's College of California. He is the author of Serious Comedy: The Philosophical and Theological Significance of Tragic and Comic Writing in the Western Tradition.

Areas of Specialization: Ethics, Political Philosophy, Foundational Theology, Poetics Areas of Interest: Plato, Aristotle, Greek Tragedy, Kierkegaard, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Nietzsche

Downey begins with the Jeremiah 17:9, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" From here he invites us all to consider the ramifications of this charge:
Jeremiah is challenging us to an argument about who we are. Are we prepared to meet it head on, without distracting ourselves by turning angrily on the one who makes it? If we are, if we have even the minimal fortitude and focus to face this claim, how are we to find out if he is right? Further, if our hearts truly are this way, should we find it out, especially if we can't--or don't even want--to do anything about it? Yes, we should. For this simple reason: we--all of us--want to become good. Truly good. For this very best of reasons, if we remain deceived on this matter, the possible wickedness of our own heart, we will be deceived and unhappy in everything else. (12)
I have shared numerous tidbits from this book with my wife and other friends. It has been such a tremendous challenge and help to me. Considering my current reading focus on prayer and spiritual formation, this book was providential preparation. As I shared with one friend, long before I finished reading this book, I was compelled to get on my knees in confession and communion with God.

The first part of Downey's study of the heart is a guided tour through Greek philosophy and tragedy. The bulk of this section is drawn from the political philosophy of Plato, but many other philosophers, including those from the Enlightenment, are considered. The best of man's wisdom regarding the heart of man is summarized by three basic desires: thumos, eros and logos. Downey defines each and illustrates them vividly. Eros is "the desire to have and keep" or "an irrational love of one's own." Thumos is essentially "the desire for justice" and is often expressed by irrational rage. Logos is our desire to know.
The erotic desire to have leads to the fear of loss. The thumotic desire for justice leads to the fear of suffering injustice without getting revenge....Deceit and lies, wherein the fear of loss or dishonor trumps the desire to know, display the essential disorder of the soul wherein these two fears end up dominating the desire to own or be honored. (78)
This idea of "the noble lie" and controlling lies was the most frightening part of this study. I have had to stop and consider how much lies are a part of our society. Sales, advertisements, education, schools, etc. thrive upon lies.
The desperation of our "wickedness," the need to lie and be lied to, like the thrashings of a fever, are the sign in both that we are designed and ordered for something else. (81)
The second part of the study begins, I believe, at chapter 6: The Knowledge of Good and Evil. From here, Downey turns to the Bible to show how it not only confirms "the desperation of our wickedness" beginning in the Garden of Eden, but it also supplies the solution to our problem.
In the betrayal and murder of Jesus we can therefore see what is in all our hearts that we must hide from ourselves and each other. Then and only then can we move towards a bloodless cure and a new shareable reality. Now that God has allowed himself to be murdered and we have seen the true intention of our hearts, this voluntary victim in his complete innocence reveals our complete guilt and complicit ignorance in our lies. From his prayer on the cross, "forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34), to the veil in the temple that tears from top to bottom at the moment of his death (Mark 15:38), the murder of Jesus uncovers and reveals the truth behind all our coverings and deceit. We can now know what we are doing and do it no more. Now our shameful need for covering can be safely uncovered, for in the death of this one body alone can we now live with no need to hide. (126)
Each phrase is charged with meaning and explained throughout the book. The concepts of hiding and covering (shame); blood and murder; ignorance, lies and deceit; sharing; and body are all important to this study.

I heartily recommend this study to you. You are sure to benefit from it.

Here are some details and links to excerpts:

Book Excerpts
PDF Introduction
PDF 1. The Ring of Truth

Table of Contents
Reviews & Endorsements
Features & Benefits