Monday, March 21, 2022

Part III: A clash of ideas: books summaries from a period of searching

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, part III

For context, start at the introduction.

The post includes my personal summaries of four books and an essay that I read while I was searching for the truth of Christianity:

  • “On Miracles,” by David Hume (the essay)
  • “Mere Christianity,” by C. S. Lewis
  • “The Meaning of Human Existence,” by E. O. Wilson
  • “Jesus: The Human Face of God,” by Jay Parini
  • “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” by Stephen Greenblatt

Painting of David Hume by Allan Ramsay (public domain) and photography of C. S. Lewis by Arthur Strong (fair use of non-free media). 

My selection intentionally aims to juxtapose these books as glimpses into a grand clash of ideas, but this collection is more an accident of my own history of reading than a representative sample of the best thought on this subject. I think all these works are interesting and useful to the person who searches for the truth of Christianity.

For a Christian, to read Hume’s “On Miracles” is to invite Doubt into your heart, then to offer Doubt a coffee and a comfortable chair. Such an exercise could be considered an application of Venkatesh Roa’s idea of “Accelerating into a Crash,” where the “crash” is the destruction of one’s own faith.

“Mere Christianity” follows second, in the spirit of abject contrast and the celebration of contradiction. The counsel of C. S. Lewis does what it can to cause the reverse kind of “crash” — a gain of saving faith — for the modern or early post-modern person. Lewis’ ideas have been highly influential in the kind of churches that I attended. 

The pendulum swings back to atheism with the work of the celebrated biologist E. O. Wilson, “The Meaning of Human Existence.” Can any work deliver on such a grandiose title? Notice that my summary (written in 2015) reeks of "Eternalist" thinking, when I demand more from "the meaning of life" than Wilson offers. "Eternalism," in this sense, is considering that meanings are fixed and well-defined. For example, an Eternalist would consider that "the meaning of life" is a particular thing that could be summarized in a single sentence. (The Westminster Catechism does this in its first question-answer pair.) This blog series will talk a lot more about Eternalism in Part VI, “On Meaningness,” and Parts VII through X.

As if to proffer a compromise, “Jesus: The Human Face of God” by Jay Parini sets aside questions of whether or not the Bible is factually accurate and deliberately focuses on restoring a degree of myth to our understanding of Jesus and appreciating the mythical aspects. 

It almost doesn’t fit in with the other books, but “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” by Stephen Greenblatt is a great book and it earns its place by contrasting a hypocritical 15th century Christianity with both Epicurean philosophy from the 1st century BC and the modern world. This book also inspired the title of my album “Electrons and Void.”

After absorbing all these works, what’s the conclusion? Which idea wins in your mind? I already revealed my eventual siding with the atheists since late 2016, but I think it’s useful to enter into the details. Not every battle in the war goes the same way, and many considerably more interesting questions are raise beyond the binary “Does god exist?” 

On Miracles

By David Hume

Full text available at 

Summary written around 2016

Hume argues that we should not accept reports of miracles, when a "miracle" is defined as a transgression of the laws of nature. He considers that the balance of probabilities is always in favor of a report of miracles being false because the evidence in favor of the natural laws always holding is so strong. Furthermore, because the reporting of miracles is fun, people may be less critical of their observations. 

One way of approaching a potential miracle is to ask a question based on probability. To use Jesus' resurrection as an example: "Which is MORE miraculous: Jesus rising from the dead, or finding the New Testament, the church and the minor byproducts of Jesus' life as they are, supposing that he did not rise?"

In one view, Hume's argument seems circular: each reported instance of miracles must be wrong, because the natural laws are so well established that we can say with confidence that, in general, miracles don't happen. Maybe we can refine Hume's argument as: our prior belief for miracles is so low, that the evidence required for us to accept one as being true is enormous. And that evidence comes as human testimony from a few witnesses which is weaker than the human testimony of many witnesses and from one's direct experience. But the Black Swan idea is at play here, that we shouldn't act based solely on probabilities because the consequences are enormous in the case of Jesus' resurrection. 

Some parts of Hume's argument are not convincing, for example, he seems to think that people wouldn't accept miracles if they were better informed; the experiment of common internet access has invalidated this premise. 

Given Hume's eloquence in this work, I find it ironic that he should dismiss those who promulgate miracles with eloquent words:  “Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding.”

Mere Christianity

By C. S. Lewis 

Full text available at 

Summary written around 2015

Lewis describes his opinion of the minimal and essential Christianity, explicitly leaving out aspects that distinguish one denomination from another. He begins by presenting a ground-up philosophy and apologetic case for the truth of Christianity. Essentially, he argues that objective morality leads us to belief in a god (unconvincingly) and that the gospels leave us with compelling evidence that Jesus is one of a liar, a lunatic, or, most likely, Lord. He explains Christian moral fundamentals, highlighting what he considers to be the cardinal virtues and vices. Finally, Lewis develops a philosophical justification for belief in the Trinity including a description of how God is outside of time. I admire this book for its ground-up approach to developing a complete worldview (however brief), and for its analysis of why we can’t evaluate Christianity by measuring how much nicer (or not) Christians than non-Christians (in Book 4, Chapter 10). I had encountered many of Lewis’ ideas in my journey through different Christian cultures.

The Meaning of Human Existence

By E. O. Wilson 

Summary written in 2015

Wilson vastly under-delivers on his promise to expound on the meaning of human existence. He is a biologist but no philosopher. His idea of group evolutionary selection is compelling and his description of co-operative behaviour on ants is vivid and interesting. He presupposes the non-existence of god. Wilson offers an alternative and weaker definition of 'meaning' for the titular phrase such that a description of human evolution and of humanity's place in universal biology suffices.

Jesus - The Human Face of God 

By Jay Parini 

Summary written in 2015

Parini “remythologizes" Jesus by interpreting the Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life with an emphasis on the mysterious and internally spiritual aspects, while being deliberately less concerned with the exact factual accuracy of those accounts. I found "Jesus - The Human Face of God” to be occasionally informative, occasionally insightful and consistently theologically ‘liberal.’ Parini leans toward an understanding of the kingdom of God as an inclusive, gradual process, where God brings people into his kingdom by transforming their minds, in contrast to one being ‘saved’ if and only if he or she asserts a particular set of beliefs. Parini devotes a chapter to each part of Jesus’ life: including: 1) the historical context of first century Palestine, 2) his birth & childhood, 3) the beginning of his ministry, 4) his actions as a healer and teacher, 5) his entrance to Jerusalem, 6) the passion, 7) the resurrection, and 8) a highly compressed synopsis of secular & liberal Christian thought on the life of Jesus. 

Despite feeling familiar with the canonical gospel accounts, I found “Jesus - The Human Face of God” to be thought provoking. For example: Parini considers that Jesus developed as a person and a prophet such that he came to realize his divinely appointed role only gradually. Parini definitely emphasized Jesus’ humanity, while I (as a reader more versed in conservative Christian thought) wondered as I read if Parini thought that Jesus was also divine. Actually, this is similar to what happens in the gospel accounts where the apostles consider Jesus to be a rabbi when they meet him, and then come to wonder if he is something more, and finally Peter recognizes Jesus as the Christ. Another example of how the book was thought provoking: Parini emphasizes how no one immediately recognised Jesus after his resurrection; that Jesus had an other-world quality. The resurrected Jesus ate -- and this was noteworthy! Parini considers that “Jesus did not, like Lazarus, simply get up and walk out from the burial crypt and resume life in ordinary time. The Resurrection was not the Resuscitation” (p. 125). This explicit distinction is not one that I had heard before.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt 

Summary written in 2019

Greenblatt describes the Renaissance rediscovery of a Latin poem called "On The Nature of Things" by Lucretius (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC). Lucretius was a follower of the Epicurean school of philosophy, which espouses the pursuit of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, and the belief that the gods don't care about the activities of people (ergo no reason to consider any afterlife). Mostly the book follows the life and times of the papal secretary Poggio Bracciolin who found a copy of the poem in January 1417. Greenblatt contends that the poem was a catalyst for modernity, and that the poem contains numerous ideas that presumably belong to Greenblatt's 'modern' world view, such as atomism. Greenblatt does acknowledge that the poem is not atheist (which he considers to be a modern worldview trait) but rather deist. However, Greenblatt seems to make some incredible claims about the poem's contents, that, for example, the poet knew about evolution and exoplanets. The author praises Lucretius for his naturalist view of the world and his fun-centric philosophy, by contrast to the warped, hypocritical and unthinking Christian worldview that was common in Europe in Poggio Bracciolin’s times. 

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