Putting God Second how to save religion from itself

by Donniel Hartman

Book, 2016



Call number

201 HAR


Boston : Beacon Press, 2016


Why have the monotheistic religions failed to produce societies that live up to their ethical ideals? A prominent rabbi answers this question by looking at his own faith and offering a way for religion to heal itself. In Putting God Second, Rabbi Donniel Hartman tackles one of modern life's most urgent and vexing questions- Why are the great monotheistic faiths-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-chronically unable to fulfill their own self-professed goal of creating individuals infused with moral sensitivity and societies governed by the highest ethical standards? To answer this question, Hartman takes a sober look at the moral peaks and valleys of his own tradition, Judaism, and diagnoses it with clarity, creativity, and erudition. He rejects both the sweeping denouncements of those who view religion as an inherent impediment to moral progress and the apologetics of fundamentalists who proclaim religion's moral perfection against all evidence to the contrary. Hartman identifies the primary source of religion's moral failure in what he terms its "autoimmune disease," or the way religions so often undermine their own deepest values. While God obligates the good and calls us into its service, Hartman argues, God simultaneously and inadvertently makes us morally blind. The nature of this self-defeating condition is that the human religious desire to live in relationship with God often distracts religious believers from their traditions' core moral truths. The answer Hartman offers is this- put God second. In order to fulfill religion's true vision for humanity-an uncompromising focus on the ethical treatment of others-religious believers must hold their traditions accountable to the highest independent moral standards. Decency toward one's neighbor must always take precedence over acts of religious devotion, and ethical piety must trump ritual piety. For as long as devotion to God comes first, responsibility to other people will trail far, far behind. In this book, Judaism serves as a template for how the challenge might be addressed by those of other faiths, whose sacred scriptures similarly evoke both the sublime heights of human aspiration and the depths of narcissistic moral blindness. In Putting God Second, Rabbi Hartman offers a lucid analysis of religion's flaws, as well as a compelling resource, and vision, for its repair.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
Putting God Second is a book on "How to Save Religion from Itself" (per the subtitle). Although the argument is constructed by a rabbi with reference to Judaism and drawing on Jewish sources, it is also addressed to other religions, all of which the author understands to be at risk from the same
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"auto-immune" problems that he sees afflicting his own tradition and community of faith. In particular, he is concerned with the relationship of religion to ethics, seeing ethical behavior as the highest aspiration of religion, but also observing that religion itself can motivate profoundly unethical conduct.

With respect to Judaism, author Donniel Hartman is unsurprisingly on solid ground. He makes a good case from the Tanakh and the Talmud to support the supremacy of ethics and social conscience over the received codes of religious conduct and even over conviction of the existence of the Jewish God. This particular religion, in addition to being the one which the author can address with authority, supplies particularly sore and evident contemporary cases of the failings that the rabbi seeks to highlight. Although it is not made an explicit site of the conversation, the injustice of the Jewish Israeli state's dispossession of the non-Jewish inhabitants of that region is a constant presence in the background.

The other two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, are also vulnerable to the basic criticisms and cautions that Hartman raises. He discusses "God-intoxication," where a sense of being commanded by the transcendent leaves adherents careless about the well-being of mere humans, and "God-manipulation," where believers leverage their religious identities and dedication to "deserve" privilege and dominance over others. In a further section, he focuses on the range of cases "when scripture is the problem," recognizing that the most revered texts contain words preserved for millennia that nevertheless clearly sanction unjust and appalling conduct. No matter how a clever exegesis may recuperate such passages for the benefit of sincere believers, ingenious readings do not remove the indelible hazard (and recurring damage) from a sentiment like Psalm 137:9: "Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock" (in reference to the Babylonian oppressors).

Augustine of Hippo rationalized that the babies of the psalm were a figure of the germinal desires that would lead to sin. Curiously, Aleister Crowley took very much the same tack when first grappling with Liber Legis II:21. In explaining "Stamp down the wretched and the weak," he proposed: "But 'the poor and the outcast' are the petty thoughts and the qliphothic thoughts and the sad thoughts. These must be rooted out, or the ecstasy of Hadit is not in us." So, even for Thelemites, scripture can still be "the problem." Nevertheless, I think that Thelema includes some useful countermeasures against the sources of Hartman's concern. The danger of scriptural justifications and "God-manipulation" is decidedly blunted by the "Short Comment" to Liber Legis: "The study of this book is forbidden. ... Those who discuss the contents of this book are to be shunned by all ...." Likewise, "God-manipulation" is undercut by the essential privacy of the essential attainment to which Thelemites aspire: the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. And the doctrine of O.T.O. that "There is no god but man" should inoculate against both "God-intoxication" and "God-manipulation." It is in no way clear, however, that ethical integrity is the ultimate goal of Thelema or of the general glut of religious systems, although it is common for many of them to justify themselves with ethical claims.

Although its arguments pertain especially to Western monotheisms, this fairly brief work is worth the contemplation of anyone interested in religion, and most particularly clergy, who must concern themselves with the social consequences of the teachings they promote.
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LibraryThing member john.cooper
Unless we are willing to put God second, we make it impossible for God to fulfill the role in our lives that, according to religion itself, God most yearns to fulfill....The inability to conceive that God could be anything other than first...is what generates the problems of moral failure,
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blindness, and callousness in the name of God: perennially preventing religion from achieving its mission of moral excellence.

In his deeply faithful and courageously reflective book, Rabbi Hartman argues that monotheistic religion suffers from an "autoimmune disease": that the desire to be in relationship with God often blinds its adherents to the central moral teachings of their own religious traditions. Specifically, religious believers are susceptible to what he calls God Intoxication, in which one's focus on God blocks one's obligations to ones fellow human beings, and God Manipulation, in which religion is used to support the interests of self and tribe. Hartman describes these phenomena at length and with subtlety, using the Jewish religious tradition as his springboard. He also includes a fascinating chapter called "When Scripture Is the Problem." Although my own religious tradition is Christian, I found it easy to apply the author's points to my experience, at the same time that my knowledge of the Talmud was deepened considerably, and often with delight.

I find it difficult to argue with his points. The trouble is that Hartman can provide no model for how religious leaders can encourage this kind of self-examination among the faithful. Those who are in most need of his message would never read a book with such a title, while those who are already open enough to read it are those least in need of its message. I hope his book is read widely (and not only by religious liberals) and that it gives encouragement to others who have the courage to look at the religion they love with a critical eye.
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LibraryThing member jonnijones
It took me awhile to read this book. While it was well written in easy to understand language, the subject itself was complex and dense. I would stop and think about what I was reading, trying to absorb his ideas and parse out the meanings of his lessons. Each chapter was the same exercise in
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stopping…then thinking…then thinking some more. Then I would put the book down and think some more.

There are plenty of reviews out there that tell you what the book is about so I won’t bother doing that here. So I’ll just say that I’m going to read this book again because Rabbi Hartman’s interpretations and conclusions are so enlightening and freeing. And…beautifully well articulated.

I won this book in exchange for a review and I’m so happy I did. This book is a keeper.
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LibraryThing member dclarion
"Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself" is a Modern Orthodox Jewish rabbi's look at what he sees as the flaws of religion, and his perspective on how to remedy them. Rabbi Hartman identifies what he calls "God Intoxication", an obsession with divine direction, and "God Manipulation",
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the belief that one is the chosen spokesman and enforcer for his god. The cure Hartman proposes is the ethic of "nonindifference", which can be described as arguing with one's god on behalf of one's fellow humans.

As an example of God Intoxication, Hartman presents the story of Abraham's god calling him to sacrifice his son and Abraham's ready acceptance (Gen. 22:1-3). Were it not for the angel, conveniently inserted into the narrative, staying Abraham's hand, Abraham would have abrogated his moral obligation to Isaac by way of his act of murder. To illustrate God Manipulation, Hartman cites the offensive wars the Abrahamic god directs his chosen people to wage (e.g. Deut. 20:10-14). Here, the Israelites' view of themselves as The Chosen trumps any sort of justice and civility. To counter this "autoimmune disease", as Hartman calls it, he proposes a philosophy wherein there is an ethic that transcends his god. The biblical literalist may find this abhorrent, but one should remember that Hartman comes from a tradition that holds that its scriptures are human productions influenced by the biases of their authors.

The book is well thought out except, perhaps, for the final two chapters. After spending most of the book making what might be considered a very good case for atheism, Hartman stumbles over himself trying to defend his god. In all, however, I would recommend this book to all people who consider themselves theists, to get them thinking about some of the pitfalls of their religious positions.
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LibraryThing member Neftzger
Rabbi Donniel Hartman has put together an argument as to why so many of our modern monotheistic religions fail to create individuals with lives that mirror the teachings and beliefs professed by these faiths. While Hartman focuses on Judaism, the same principles apply to all monotheistic faiths.
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For example, why do those who profess to be Christians lack compassion toward the poor (despite the clear teachings of Jesus to care for the poor)? What piqued my interest about this book is the idea that "putting God first" has been an avenue for turning religion inside out and instead of focusing on the ethical treatment of others, religion has become focused on itself as God becomes an excuse for just about any behavior that promotes the perceived overall mission of the religion (advancing God's cause at any cost).

If you're confused by the current climate in America where political and religious doctrines are intermixing, this book may hold some answers for you. Hartman does an excellent job of outlining how doctrines and policies are developed that pull religion from it's central mission, all in the name of promoting God. He refers to these processes as "autoimmune disorders." Similar to the medical term, these disorders cause a religion to turn against itself and its true mission as it fights perceived threats.

This is a well thought out and meticulous argument that many will find enlightening.

Note: I was given a free ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member ronincats
Rabbi Hartman addresses what he thinks are two major flaws in monotheistic religions, flaws that come with the territory as it were. The first is God Intoxication, where demonstrating loyalty and fidelity to God's will is more important than the consequences or effects of such behavior, leading to
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divinely sanctioned indifference to the needs, sensitivities, and interests of others and even of oneself. "This consuming vision of God eclipses not merely one's moral impulses but also one's awareness of, and regard for, the world. If the world is unimportant, moral responsibility to its inhabitants loses meaningful significance."

The second flaw is God Manipulation, which enables believers to justify unchecked self-interest. "...the myth of chosenness supports an image of God that subverts (ethical sensitivity to the other's needs) by enabling us to exclude most others from this obligation, legitimating a systemic moral double standard. For those who claim to own God, there is no sin that cannot be purified, sanctified, and ultimately transformed into a virtue."

Hartman calls these monotheism's autoimmune disease. Are they inherent to the system, unavoidable? If so, their legacy of moral mediocrity, corruption and even downright evil prevents the aspiration to produce individuals and communities of moral excellence. Hartman then talks about the prospects of recovering from this disease within the context of Judaism. Although he quotes at times from the New Testament and the Koran, he feels specifics for counteracting these diseases in Christianity and Islam should come within those communities. Through the use of Jewish scripture and Torah, he explains why the touchstone is always, does our religion result in ethical behavior toward ALL humanity? While this may seem self-evident and trite when I say it here, the way he develops this and supports it through the evolving meaning of Scripture and the Jewish tradition is masterful and fascinating reading. I recommend this to everyone with any interest in religion.
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LibraryThing member jwmccormack
Hartman's book digs deep into Judaism's textual traditions to advance an argument for monotheistic religion grounded first and foremost in ethical conduct, and only secondarily in faith or belief. It is at times a hard-nosed, realistic look at how religious exclusivity motivates violence against
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outsiders, at times an sweeping theological meditation on how faith in a transcendent God ought to prompt instead a recognition of human frailty and the limitations of individual perspectives on the world and on God. For Hartman, the ethical core of Judaism is the divine command not to look away from the suffering of others. He is not the only figure today making the case that such a call to justice lies at the heart of all religions, but he attempts to make the case both in explicitly Jewish terms and in a way that could be accepted by those outside the Jewish faith or who, while ethnically Jewish, do not affirm belief in God. For anyone interested in the relationship between religion and social justice or in interfaith dialogue, this book is highly recommended. Christian thinkers ought to read it and see how his reading of Genesis and the prophets squares with their interpretations. Any religious believer who would like a fair critique of exclusivist claims from the perspective of faith rather than unbelief will find much here to savor.
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LibraryThing member jodi
I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

I was very excited about this book before reading it.

The message of the title is well summed up by a story found early in Chapter 1: Briefly: "if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the
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The introduction (Chapter 0) is wide-ranging and eminently readable, quoting from the Talmud, the Christian Bible, and the Quran, to describe the promise and perils of monotheistic religions. I wish that the book had followed in the same vein. The author clearly has the passion and the knowledge to do so.

The remainder of the book, however, is more narrowly focused. It will be of interest to religious scholars, especially those interested in the Jewish rabbinical tradition.

**More fully: 200 years ago, "a famous Hassidic master" is walking down the street, when he hears "a cry that pierced the night" coming from his student's house, the sound of a baby crying. The student is "enraptured in prayer, swaying in pious devotion" when the Master walks in and rocks the baby to sleep. The student is embarrassed when he finally is paying attention to the world again. The master tells his student, "if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer." (p19-20)
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LibraryThing member gmicksmith
This is a time we work in that Americans are struggling with this whole notion of religion. The author here explains how God can be second but religion can be saved from itself.
LibraryThing member AniIma
I enjoyed this book, thoroughly. I was taken aback at first by Hartman's manner of writing, and first thought him to be some kind of 'modern day heretic', if there is such a thing. Delving further into this book, I began to see that he merely substituted phrases for commonly known problems existing
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in all religious constructs and religious tenets/practices when not not carefully examined by the practitioner him/herself. (TBC)
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LibraryThing member seongeona
Excellent book! While coming from a Jewish understanding and being directed towards the Jewish community, it is easily understood by anyone familiar with the Bible and useful to anyone practicing an Abrahamic religion. In these days where we hear so much "God said this" or "the Bible says that" in
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defense of so much hate-filled or fear-filled backlash to women's rights, LGBT rights, Muslim religious freedom, immigration, etc., this is timely, much-needed clarity and common sense.

Putting God second means putting the well-being of God's creation first. Hence, ultimately, putting God first when it comes down to it. It means acting out of love and compassion. Acknowledging that some of the worst things in this world come from putting God first - being blind to your fellow humans' suffering - Hartman shows how putting God second can be a remedy by pointing out the various Biblical passages and rabbinic literature wherein God actually advocates for this.

I thought I would read this book and then pass it to someone else but I enjoyed it so much and underlined so much that I will keep it in on my shelf with my other Abrahamic religious resources and recommend it highly.

(I received a free copy of this book via LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for a review).
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LibraryThing member Randy_Landes
Putting God Second was a challenging read on several levels. I was excited to see once I received the book that it was going to give me further enlightenment into the Old Testament from the perspective of a Jewish Rabbi verses the traditional Christian beliefs of the Protestant Faith. Currently
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reading through the book of Leviticus, I found Putting God Second helpful in understanding what the Jewish perspective was during that point in the Bible. I also found Rabbi Donniel Hartman writings on Religious Autoimmune Disease and God Intoxication helpful in giving me insight in to some of the problems people of faith have when getting too caught up in ritualistic and self-gratifying interpretations of the Holy Scripture. So often we lose connection to the original intent of God Word. This book was able to make me look inward at my intent toward others, and if I was willing to go above and beyond when considering my relationship with the human race as well as my relationship with God. Rabbi Donniel Hartman helped me take a moment away from looking at my interaction with others as a commandment by God alone and instead consider my responsibility to living ethically as a personal responsibility as a human to the human race. The book did great against my personal understanding of God when separating God from Good and making God a lover and doer of good only. I was able to move beyond this difference and appreciate the many points made. The greatest obstacle for me was some of the rhetoric used when discussing the God second concept was a bit offensive to me and tended to block my open mindedness. Rabbi Donniel Hartman could have been right with his understanding, but I will likely not accept them, because of some of his articulation of his argument. I still think it was helpful to me in walking away from religion and moving to a more personal relationship with My God Jesus Christ. As a side note, you do not have to believe in a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim God to find benefit from this book. To me this book is about the duty to care and do right by others. The core of most if not all monotheistic belief systems.
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LibraryThing member arosoff
R' Hartman has given his new book a provocative title, but the content is much less dramatic. While he calls for the primacy of the ethical imperative, in a sense it's a call for balance between extremes that demand absolute obedience to God without concern for wider meaning, or alternatively,
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ethics that exist without the religious dimension. It's primarily a call for religion to right itself and recognize that it's through ethics that we demonstrate our commitment to faith.

The message isn't radical, but it's well argued, though brief.
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LibraryThing member jwpell
I have to say that Hartman is pretty much right: religion, as it is practiced by many people, is putting what is in Judaism known as "bein adam l'makom" (between man and G-d) over "bein adam l'chavero" (between man and man). He analyzes at length why this is, and the forms this takes, and lets the
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reader know that HE believes that this approach is mistaken, that in fact, people should *for the sake of what G-d really wants of people* put relationships with people first.

That's the point at which it gets a bit sticky, because he says that human beings have an inate sense of the moral, and that G-d wants certain actions because they are moral -- rather than the way many of our more fundamentalist co-religioners think, namely that actions are moral because G-d wants them. Hartman emphasizes that the Torah was written in a certain time and place, and that human ideas of what's appropriate behavior between people have evolved, and advanced, over time. Which means, to him, that Torah Law, and certainly Oral Law, can and should be abrogated in favor of our more advanced understanding of the moral.

This is eminently reasonable -- but. But. When and what can we change? Are we understanding the moral correctly? How do we know when we are sufficiently sensitive to judge the moral? He points to the big matters of (Orthodox) Judaism today, namely women's participation in liturgy, and gay people's place in Jewish life. But once you start saying my moral sense trumps the law, when does it stop? What if I'm wrong? or flawed? Why be Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or believe in G-d at all?

His main point is correct -- that sometimes we, in fear and trembling, need to set aside the ritual for the sake of humans. Those ideas can be found in Jewish tradition. But oddly, Rabbi Hartman only cites a few sources -- over and over and over. And he doesn't fully look at the counter-idea, the doubt that perhaps humans are flawed in their gut ideas of the moral, and the Torah and Oral Law are correct.
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LibraryThing member ritaer
_Putting God Second_ is written from a distinctively Jewish point of view, but its lessons apply to other religions as well. Rabbi Hartman finds two problems that appear to be the result of the attitude that God must be put first in human life. The first he calls God Intoxication, a state of mind
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in which immersion in thoughts of God are so central to an individual's personality that they perceive little or no meaning in other human activities, motives or even other individual humans. The everyday concerns of earning a living, maintaining a family or running society are seen as inferior, if necessary, activities. This is not exclusive to Judaism, of course. Both Christian monasticism, and Buddhist thought encourage the believer to abandon the ordinary world rather than to work for its benefit. The second tendency that Hartman outlines is God Manipulation. This is the use of interpretations of God's will to justify manipulation of other people and even killing of those who interpret God differently. The central Jewish identity as God's Chosen people might make it seem as though this is exclusively Jewish problem. However, Christianity and Islam have also taken up the idea of having been given an exclusive set of truths about God's will.

Hartman points out, through stories from the Bible and from the Talmud, that Judaism has another strain of thought. God Himself is held to an external standard of justice, as when Abraham challenges God's plan to destroy Sodom. The idea that good is defined outside of the preferences of God or Gods is also found in the thought of Plato. The prophets also proclaim a God who is more interested in human kindness than in sacrifices, directing His people to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give justice to widows and orphans.

This book is thought provoking and informative. It addresses the question of interpretation and application of Scripture and of the nature of a truly religious life in ways that can be applied to any set of beliefs.

Anyone concerned about the role of religion in society should find this book interesting.
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LibraryThing member colleentw
I received this book from the publisher through a Library Thing early reviewers’ giveaway in exchange for a review. I was drawn to the subtitle of this book, How to Save Religion from Itself. I am a Christian, but I have always been intrigued by the fact that frequently the folks that are the
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most religious are often the most mean. This book helped my understanding of that seeming contradiction.

According to the author, who writes from a Jewish perspective, all three major monotheistic religions suffer from a form of moral blindness that can value piety over core value of the religion to care for others. He states that people who put God first can suffer from God Infatuation or God Manipulation. God Infatuation allows someone to step over a homeless person on the way to Church. God Manipulation allows someone to justify their actions by invoking God. In either case, God’s charge to humans to treat each other as we want to be treated is not followed. Therefore, to put God second is to put God’s will first, which is never to be indifferent to humanity.

This book contains a lot of good content that is really thought provoking. It is courageous for the author to examine his religion so critically. I wish the other two major monotheistic religions would undertake such an examination.
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LibraryThing member saraswati27
This was a good contribution to our modern discussion of relgion vs morality. The tension between religious tradition and secular morality is a source of suffering and discord in the modern world, and I think this is a very important discussion to be having right now.

I like the author's
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willingness to limit himself to discussing the problems in his own religious tradition, rather than searching for the mote in his neighbor's eye. Although obviously this problem is universal among religious traditions, the author's willingness towards self-searching is a strength of his arguments. I also appreciated his interest in working on differentiating between dogma and moral righteousness.

This discussion cannot just be -about- religion; it must be created with the participation of religious people. Rabbi Hartman has offered valuable insights and contributions to the discussion that we all need to have.
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LibraryThing member cheetosrapper
This book was challenging in its information. I struggle with the premise only because I believe through God a human can only truly love another human. I am selfish and it is only by sacrificing my selfish wants by the power of God that I can love another as they ought to be loved. I am not sure
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this was clearly communicated in the book.
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LibraryThing member booksandblintzes
I could not finish this book. While the author makes a cogent argument and clearly defines his theology, I thought his writing lacked self-awareness of his privilege and I felt like I was being lectured at. I am sure that if I was attending a class being offered by Hartman I would appreciate his
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words much more than I did this book.
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Original publication date



0807063347 / 9780807063347
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