Friday, August 01, 2008

It's Nonbelieving Literati time!!!

And it's my turn to pick!

I assume you've all heard of Martin Gardner. He's well known for his "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American and for his many books on science and pseudoscience, not to mention his annotated versions of books such as Alice in Wonderland.

But did you know he also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about a young, idealistic Christian Fundamentalist whose beliefs evolve over time, in part through the influence of a Unitarian (atheist) professor of religion? The book is The Flight of Peter Fromm.

Not to start you off with a spoiler or anything, but -- to head off my theistic readers who may be rolling their eyes at this seemingly biased choice -- I'll tell you at least that it doesn't end with the glorious triumph of atheism. And on top of that, this book goes against the grain of my biases in an even more significant way. Here's a taste:

The typical American Protestant today is in a state of unprecedented metaphysical indifference. His theology has the shape and substance of a fog-bank.

Question him about his deepest religious convictions and what will you discover? You will find him believing vaguely that Jesus is somehow the son of God, but in precisely what sense he neither knows nor cares. He may tell you, if he has thought about it at all, that the Bible is a unique document. In exactly what way it is unique he isn't sure. If he has read any part of the Bible since he went to Sunday School, the chances are high that he is some variety of fundamentalist: Pentecostal, Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, or any of a dozen other sects that bemuse the poor and poorly educated. If he is not a fundamentalist, he may still insist that the Incarnation and Resurrection are foundation dogmas of his faith; but ask him what exactly those dogmas mean, and you find him strangely ill at ease. He stammers gray phrases. He parrots fusty platitudes. Do you really think, he will counter, that those are important questions?

And it's the atheist character who is decrying this! See? This book perpetuates the myth that Christian theology is profound and interesting to contemplate.

That was my gut-level reaction when I hit this passage (among other theological points). Who is he kidding? I asked myself. Trying to figure out the precise nature of the Trinity -- attempting to tease it out of Bible passages -- is the same thing as coming up with ingenious explanations for why the Klingons didn't have head-bumps in Old-Generation Star Trek days and calculating formulas for warp speed...

Then it hit me that I'm being unfair (and I've been too mean to Christians lately). A wise person once said: "you're not doing yourself a favor when you work yourself into a state where you have no comprehension of another's viewpoint." And I can't imagine a better book than this one to help us understand the perspective of the intellectual theologist. Gardner is a talented writer who has written an engrossing story here. I've only read the first few chapters so far, but I hesitate to put it down even for the time it takes to write this post!

Plus, I know some of our Non-believing Literati friends have extensive experience in Christianity, and I'm curious to hear their reactions to this book. To any other non-believers who have been thinking of joining this book club: now would be a great time!!

Now, I know I was supposed to write about Cosmicomics today, but due to a failed attempt to read it in Italian, coupled with my vacation voyage falling right in the middle of the time set aside for reading it (making it tricky to order the book in English), yadda, yadda, yadda, long story short (if it's not already too late), I just finished it yesterday, so I need another few days to mull it over before deciding what to write about it. Please bear with me. :D


Anonymous said...

I haven't finished Cosmicomics yet either. I'm close, so I hope to get something posted on Monday night.

Joe said...

I read one of Martin Gardner's earlier books and though he came across as a rather arrogant prick, so I'm not inclined to read anything else he's written.

(The oddest thing is that for someone claiming to be a scientist, he's awfully dogmatic in many of his views. Then again Scientific American has lost pretty much all its credibility in recent years for this very reason.)

James said...

This is perhaps off topic, but you mentioned Klingons . . .

There is actually an in-universe explanation for the change in Klingon appearance from TOS to later movies and other series.
/trekkie rant

Just couldn't resist mentioning it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Chaplain!!!

Yeah, it was a short book, but the scheduling was a bit of a problem. I'll probably post about it on Wednesday myself.

Hey Joe!!!

Very interesting point. In this one, the narrator character is supposed to be arrogant, so we'll see if he can pull it off... ;^)

Hey James!!!

That is too funny!!!

Despite my Star Trek adventures, I clearly haven't been keeping up with the Star Trek universe recently. I always thought of the Klingon head bumps thing as one of those examples where the fans come up with all sorts of elaborate (non-canonical) explanations (to explain away a contradiction) when it's clear that the real explanation was just an increase in make-up technology and budget.

It's cool that the makers of Star Trek would make the effort to respond to the fans' desire to find ways of making the Star Trek universe internally consistent. Thus we learn that Theology and Trekology aren't equivalent after all: Trekology is better. ;^)

Eugene said...

Martin Gardner has described the theological state of mind of the typical Mormon.

In The Roots of Modern Mormonism, Mark Leone says that "Mormonism has remarkably little firm doctrine; the variance of belief within the Mormon Church is very wide; and that while Mormons are convinced that they have the complete revealed truth from God, in fact, have very few beliefs that are universally agreed upon."

Orson Scott Card responds: "While we do have a core of absolutely certain and universally shared beliefs, there are many doctrines that have varied or changed over time, and many other doctrinal areas where there has been no general agreement among members and leaders of the Church . . . a large area of doctrine is not firmly established."

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eugene!!!

Weirdly, I think they may both be right. It kind of depends on your definitions of "few" and "many"...

The Ridger, FCD said...

It would have been better to have Enterprise Klingons look like TOS ones, imo....

Ordering my copy of the Gardner now.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ridger!!!

I've heard some Trekkies consider the newer Enterprise series non-canonical because of some of the weird incongruities in it...