God in Proof: A Book Review – Part 4

9780520269071I think the most intriguing aspect of God in Proof, by Nathan Schneider, is his personal story. Schneider describes his early quest for proof of God as it relates to the separation of his parents. He says of this sad moment: “That night my world bifurcated” (15). Schneider kept a journal during his teen years (that is amazing enough to me) and writes of going to a local Baptist church with a friend. He wrote in his journal: “I felt like we had just entered hostile territory” (15, italics are all his). He adds that God was a question he stayed clear of at first but he was haunted by reading of The Brothers Karamazov. The Russian classic caused him to remember the monk Zosima speaking of his love for God. He was more than intrigued.

He provides one of the best descriptions of millennials that I have read when he writes:

I wrote about having the feeling of “skin hurting”– when I felt like there’s absolutely nothing I can do to make my life bearable again. It came and went without warning or good reason, except adolescence. It’s a story familiar to many of us in this generation, we “millennials”: two houses, lonely neighborhoods, and the feeling of being at the mercy of forces beyond our understanding. From initial conditions like these, spelled out in the details of each particular case, each of us has our own story. Really–divorce or not, millennial or not–nobody evades this basic problem: our of the multitude of stage sets, other people, and stray ideas, a person must be made and a mind must be made up (15).

Here is the phrase that explains so much of what I’ve experienced in my friendships with millennials: “. . . two houses, lonely neighborhoods, and the feeling of being at the mercy of forces beyond our understanding . . .” Grasp this and you have understood something really important.

Over time Nathan Schneider says he could relate to one word from the Gospel of John, sin. As he discovered who he was he later wrote in his journal: “I’ve been playing with ideas of sin” (15, italics are his). And later he wrote: “Why do I burn so unsatisfied? I beg. I cannot imagine what satisfaction I require, what could possibly soothe my desires, what could being me some peace” (16, again the italics are all his).

In one of the most scintillating paragraphs of insightful confession in the entire book Schneider concludes:

“Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” the apostle Paul wrote to his followers in the Greek city of Corinth, “but we proclaim Christ crucified.” So there, he’s saying, love unto death. The image is shocking. It’s hard to do ordinary philosophy with a bloodied and tortured and executed God, one who forgave his executioners, who commands us to love our enemies. This is seemingly unthinkable. Yet, for Paul, “We have the mind of Christ.” Mind, logos–he’s preaching philosophy, crucified. Its first axiom is that act of self-sacrifice, made out of love (16).

Schneider not only came to profess Christian faith but entered the Catholic Church during the Easter vigil at his college campus chapel through his receiving baptism. He says “officially, I became a Christian and a Roman Catholic, a person responsible to God” (59-60). At his first Easter as a Christian he recalls remembering that evening something a priest had said to him earlier about his own conversion being suspect. “Well mine is, I wrote. They all are. We all are. God works in us anyway” (60). That is again a millennial speaking of conversion and is so much like so many I know.

He wrote to his former girlfriend: “Probably for the rest of my life I will question that water and that night . . . but I am comfortable at least to have something certain to question. . .  In the eyes of faith, that moment changed what I am, though all else remains painfully the same” (60, italics again are his). I have heard this same story time and time again but it is so helpfully fleshed out in the power of great prose by Schneider’s telling of it.

Noting that many conversion stories end with the conversion as the end result Schneider adds, “I have more chapters to add” (60). This book includes more chapters in his search to find proof thus he adds:

Proof is what comes afterward, after birth and rebirth, through practice and entropy. It is the reconstruction, the tale we tell ourselves and those privy to our terminology, in the years and centuries that follow. Now I was starting to build up arguments and conclusions of my own from a new foundation–but not, despite myself, from scratch (60, italics are mine).

Nathan Schneider’s most intriguing chapters, the ones that will appeal to most of you I think, are those that deal with what he calls “the proof industry.” Here he offers the finest story-telling I’ve seen of the development and work of Christian Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga. He shows how a handful of serious Christian academics restored philosophy, especially religious philosophy, to an important place in the academy and beyond. He also discusses a wide-range of conservative Christian apologists, some with a careful sense of respectful criticism; i.e., William Lane Craig, William Dembski, Ken Ham, Michael Behe and Ray Comfort. (I am not categorizing these individuals together as if they are all alike since they are certainly not!) He gives a helpful timeline of “provers” covering the ages. This list begins with names like Pythagoras of Samos and Socrates (as far back as the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.) and ends with modern writers such as the pop-Christian “prover” Kirk Cameron and the pop-atheist “denier” Sam Harris; cf. pages 247-249. He also provides a marvelous account of C.S. Lewis and his role in this search for proof. For me Lewis is the most influential popular apologist and thus the one we should continue to interact with, both pro and con.

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