Sunday, September 14, 2008

Invisible Assumptions: Martin Gardner's The Flight of Peter Fromm

Martin Gardner's novel The Flight of Peter Fromm is a fascinating portrait of how an intelligent and fundamentally honest person can hold assumptions that he is absolutely incapable of questioning. Peter Fromm's core belief is in the critical importance of having precise answers to questions about the physical nature of God, and especially the question of whether Jesus' body was actually resurrected.

Peter starts out as a Pentecostal fundamentalist who is absolutely certain of the literal inerrancy of the Bible. He sets off to call the intellectual theologians to repentance, and that's where he runs into trouble. With an honest conviction that truth can withstand scrutiny, he delves into all of the different arguments against Bible literalism, and his beliefs gradually change as a result. He becomes fixated on the question of whether Jesus' actual physical remains were truly reanimated. No matter how much heart and effort he puts into it, he can't find a satisfactory answer. This is a problem for him because the one solution he absolutely cannot accept -- the solution that nearly breaks his brain and causes him essentially a nervous breakdown -- is the idea that it's okay to be uncertain about it. Either possible certainty (that the resurrection happened or that it didn't) is far less threatening to his worldview.

The most intriguing point for me is that it doesn't even seem to occur to Peter Fromm that this need for certainty is itself an assumption; one that could potentially be questioned. And, to be honest, it looks like what we're seeing may be the author's own blind spot. He shows us sincere, simple Christians who hardly realize that it's possible for a Christian to doubt the resurrection. He shows us the atheist Unitarian minister who has at least reached a definite conclusion about the resurrection, even if it's not the answer Peter wants to find. Then he shows us the Christians who don't care whether the resurrection really happened or not: because either they're shallow or because they lack integrity. The idea that an honest Christian might have thought seriously about theology and concluded that such questions aren't important? That possibility doesn't exist in this book's universe.

Naturally, it's fun to contrast this book with Duck Egg Blue, another Unitarian-interest book which argues exactly the opposite thesis. One of the main heroes of Duck Egg Blue is a (Christian) Unitarian woman who doesn't care in the slightest what is actually written in the Bible. She just makes up whatever she wants to believe and blithely attributes her statement to Jesus. She thinks that being picky about such things is just another manifestation of closed-minded authoritarianism, and the author Derrick Neill sets up the book's universe to prove her right.

Weirdly, though, the fictional set-up in Duck Egg Blue doesn't precisely contradict the thesis of The Flight of Peter Fromm. The Unitarian in Duck Egg Blue has a value system that's a lot kinder and more tolerant that a fundamentalist's, yet her beliefs come off as being as unexamined and naively simplistic as the beliefs of a Bible literalist, even if the author (perhaps?) intended her spirituality to be deeper and/or more reasonable.

We run into exactly the same conflict in Mormonism, with the Bloggernaclers standing in opposition to both the "True Blue Mormons" and the "exmos" (for a key to this terminology, see here). Wry Catcher wrote a fantastic analysis of this conflict in her post Grayer than thou?.

In a nutshell, the 'nacclers (and other liberal Mormons) congratulate themselves for having a more "nuanced faith" -- one that can withstand disbelieving some of Mormonism's claims without throwing out what's really important. Consequently, they accuse both TBMs and exmos of "black and white thinking," and accuse people who leave the church entirely of "throwing out the baby with the bathwater." But, ultimately, this is less a question of binary thinking than it is a question of which part did you think was the important part? One man's baby is another man's bathwater, so to speak.

I'd also like to point out that religion isn't the only subject where humans hold beliefs that are invisible assumptions that they're not even aware of, hence aren't capable of questioning. I'd give some examples, but of course once you recognize them, they cease to be invisible. My recommendation is to always remain open to the strange and unfamiliar -- stop and think first before fearing and rejecting what you don't understand.

Oh, and what about the book? The Flight of Peter Fromm. Was it good?

I enjoyed it quite a bit. The characters and situation are interesting and (obviously) thought-provoking. The passionate young man of God who's curious, introspective, and open-minded to a point (but ready to clock anyone who pushes him too far...) is a character like no other I've met in literature, and I'm glad to have met him.


Saganist said...

At the risk of committing a "no true Scotsman" fallacy, the way you describe New Order Mormons sounds more apt to describe the mostly-believing Mormons who write in the Bloggernacle. Most NOMs I know (and I consider myself one) would rather be out of the church than in it, but are stuck due to family or other circumstances, so are trying to make the best of it. In the year or so I've spent at NOM, I haven't sensed much antagonism toward exmos - if anything, a lot of us are jealous of you!

Thanks for the book review; it sounds like a very interesting read, and I'll be putting it on my queue.

The Exterminator said...

The characters and situation are interesting and (obviously) thought-provoking.

As you know, C.L., from reading my own post on this selection, the only thought that was provoked in me by this book was "How fucking stupid." But, as I explained, having been an atheist all my life, I think of theology as just bullshit dressed up.

Frankly, I found Nico's lecture on the carnivorous tendencies of brambles to be far more thought-provoking.

Sabayon said...

Saganist, that was what I was going to say actually. Back several years ago when I was in NOM most of the people seemed like they would be happy to leave the church entirely and been jealous of us exmos*. Although there were some who enjoyed some aspects of Mormon theology and would have preferred to change the church rather than leave it, and so in general there is a certain gentleness of philosophy, if that makes sense.

*This made me think about whether I can really consider myself an exmo, but that's complicated so I'll do my own blog post and not bogart this thread.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Saganist & Sabayon!!!

You're right -- I've been very sloppy here in my characterization of the groups with different shades of belief. What I've said probably does apply more to the 'Nacclers than to the NOMs. I would recommend reading Wry's essay that I linked to -- she explains it well and (correctly) applies the discussion to the 'Nacclers. I look forward to Sabayon's post on this! :D

Hey Exterminator!!!

That's one way of looking at it. Yet I think there's some interest in trying to understand the perspective of people who take this sort of thing seriously. OTOH, I may be wrong, and perhaps by saying it's interesting I'm just feeding the wrong-headed myth that theology should be taken seriously as a real subject of study...

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. to Saganist & Sabayon:

There, I fixed it. ;^)

The Ridger, FCD said...

I'm not certain theology is the study of anything at all, but it's fascinating to see how the study of nothing is so branching and diverse and passionately fought over.

Also, I don't quite see how anyone can be an "honest Christian" and not care if Jesus was Christ - that is, not care if he was God. As I said in my post, how can one be a Christian if one doesn't believe that Jesus is God? (What one can be, obviously, is a theist of some sort - many sorts, in fact - but a Christian?) Clearly many do, but Peter - and Homer, and Gardiner for that matter, don't consider them "honest". At best they are "loyal liars", and at worse they just refuse to tell us what they really think, as Peter exclaims.

But I too really enjoyed the book. Maybe you have to have made some part of Peter's journey yourself - not just jumped straight from "this is what they tell me" to "it's all bullshit", but via "it must make sense, so many people say it - but how can it?" - before this book will speak to you. I hope Peter's flight continues, but I fear he's just settled where he's comfortable.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ridger!!!

True, I'm kind of playing devil's advocate by suggesting that one could be an "honest Christian" and find this question unimportant. The only reason I raise this possibility is that Gardner holds this question as such a central theme that on some level I feel like he should have demonstrated some comprehension of the opposite position, especially since such people appear to exist (eg. Christians with integrity who are more about the woo about than the theological details).

To be honest, even though the Christian woo position is incomprehensible to me, the idea that there's something interesting or deep about theology is just as absurd to me. So why not learn about these positions by seeing them portrayed in stories? ;^)

Hellmut said...

You are making a good point, Chanson. Gardner appears to have accepted fundamentalist standards himself.

As for the 'naclers' black and white dictum, I think that there is some value to their position. The problem is that at the end of the day, following the prophet does have consequences, which regularly includes harm to other people.

I am thinking particularly about our gay children but there are many other instances. Many converts get hurt becoming Mormons. Racism is declining, thanks heaven, but remains an instructive reminder how Mormonism can bring out the worst in us.

If you want to be a Mormon, go ahead, but then we have to take responsibility for the harm that our religion inflicts on other people.

Some 'naclers do. Many prefer to follow the prophet even when it hurts other people.

As for myself, I have concluded that I shortchanged myself and my family when I traded my heritage for Mormonism. Others may reach a different conclusion about their options.

As long as people are responsible for their actions, which includes the community to which they are contributing, there is nothing wrong with being a Mormon. But don't kid yourself about the consequences of your actions.

the chaplain said...

I enjoyed the book, even though I was disappointed with where Peter ended up faith-wise. The "proper" finishing point is so obvious to me, I can't see how he didn't get it!

Ordinary Girl said...

I very closely agree with Chappy. I did find the theological arguments to be a slog, but I did enjoy the evolution of Peter in relation to my own religious evolution.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Hellmut!!!

That's a good point (if I'm reading you correctly). Splitting a question into black and white (instead of shades of gray) isn't always a case of stupidly oversimplifying. Sometimes the solution is more complex, but sometimes it isn't. Some solutions are wrong. Some actions have definite consequences that you can predict.

One should be open enough to assess a question fairly before coming to a conclusion, but that doesn't mean one should never come to a definite conclusion, even when it's warranted.

Hey Chaplain!!!

Weirdly, it wasn't that unsatisfying for me because I had the idea that that's the way his brain works, and he's just never going to fully make that leap. I guess that's what I get for reading the spoilers before reading the book... ;^)

Hey O.G.!!!

I'm glad you liked it!!! I was hoping that (given your related background) this would be of interest. For myself, I not only found the character kind of intriguing, but I actually kind of liked all the theology that everyone else hated when reading this book. I hadn't really been presented with quite this type of thinking before, and it was interesting to see how it works...

Saganist said...

C.L., you're awesome! I hoped I wasn't being too argumentative by posting my comment. I often can't tell whether I'm making a point that's worth making. :-)

Being comfortable with uncertainty is something I have a hard time with, but I am learning. I love what Carl Sagan said (of course) in The Demon-Haunted World:

"Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science—by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans—teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us."

When I started realizing I no longer believed in the LDS church, it irked me a little that my wife and her family would ask me whether I had reached a "conclusion" about my faith. Well, yes and no. Yes, because I reached the conclusion that all conclusions are tentative and provisional. And no, for the same reason!

So I'm learning to become okay with saying "I don't know". It would be nice if more people would recognize that as a legitimate answer, never mind learning to say it themselves.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Saganist!!!

I agree, and I really liked your related post Science is never finished.