Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Read with care

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

.... In college I absorbed the prevailing idea that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was just a historical curiosity, and that science could explain everything. By the time I was in my mid-to-late twenties, I was convinced that there was no God (or any spiritual reality). I did not believe that I had a soul; I thought I was just an intelligent animal, and that when I died, my consciousness would simply blink out. I thought that there was no ultimate meaning in life, and that people who believed in any form of God were seriously self-deluded. It was a bit depressing, but I believed it to be the best explanation of the way the world is, and truth is better than false comfort. If that’s not atheism, I’m not sure what counts…

...[C]lassic Christian literature planted seeds in my imagination as a young girl, something I write about in more detail in my book. Later, Christian authors provided dissenting voices to the naturalistic narrative that I’d accepted—the only possible dissenting voice, since I wasn’t interested in reading anything that directly dealt with the subject of faith or Christianity, and thus wasn’t exposed to serious Christian thought.

I found that my favorite authors were men and women of deep Christian faith. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien above all; and then the poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, John Donne, and others. Their work was unsettling to my atheist convictions, in part because I couldn’t sort their poetry into neat ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ categories; their faith infused all their work, and the poems that most moved me, from Hopkins’ “The Windhover” to Donne’s Holy Sonnets, were explicitly Christian. I tried to view their faith as a something I could separate from the aesthetic power of their writing, but that kind of compartmentalization didn’t work well, especially not with a work of literature as rich and complex as The Lord of the Rings.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I needed to ask more questions. I needed to find out what a man like Donne meant when he talked about faith in God, because whatever he meant, it didn’t seem to be ‘blind faith, contrary to reason’. ....

I read a lot of books! C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was one of the most important ones, particularly with regard to his moral argument, but also for the way that he provides vivid images and analogies to illuminate what words like ‘faith’ and ‘repentance’ mean.

For the philosophical and historical questions, I was particularly helped by a book called Does God Exist?, a debate between J.P. Moreland (a Christian) and Kai Nielsen (an atheist), articles by philosopher William Lane Craig, and the book In Defense of Miracles, which includes David Hume’s famous argument against miracles as well as arguments for the possibility of miracles. One of the most important books I read was N.T. Wright’s magisterial scholarly work The Resurrection of the Son of God, which convinced me that the Resurrection was a fact of history.

Literature also helped me along the way. In particular, the Chronicles of Narnia helped me connect my intellect and my imagination, so that I grasped the meaning of the Incarnation and saw its importance not as an abstract idea, but as something that impacted my life. .... [more]