Engaging The God Of Experience

Thomas Kidd praises David Skeel’s True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World, a book he describes as a “remarkable” effort of apologetics:

Skeel’s work is both philosophically weighty and engagingly brief (at 160 pages, I read it in one afternoon). The essence of his case for Christianity (or at least monotheism) is that humans seem inexorably drawn to normative ideas about truth, beauty, and justice, all of which are better explained by a created order than by random materialistic chaos. As a lawyer, he especially notes how people – reformers, activists, and politicians – seem unable to get away from normative ideas of justice, and seek to implement just systems. Paradoxically (one of a number of paradoxes he notes), we have a strong sense of justice and yet seem unable to manifest and or even approximate justice in most societies. This speaks to our innate notions of morality and fairness, yet highlights our inability to overcome the debilitating effects of sin and the Fall.

Barton Swaim emphasizes that Skeel shies away from metaphysical speculation about the universe’s origins, focusing instead on “the world as we actually experience it” – which includes pain and suffering:

The “problem,” of course, is that the presence of evil in human affairs seems to suggest that God, if he is there, is either malicious for causing it or powerless to stop it: In either case, he isn’t “God” in any traditional understanding. Mr. Skeel points out, however, that in order to make the argument, terms like “evil and “malicious” must be imported from a worldview that assumes God’s existence. To make the point vivid, Mr. Skeel charts the final illnesses of two very different men: the contrarian journalist Christopher Hitchens and the less famous but equally accomplished Harvard law professor William Stuntz.

Hitchens was an atheist, Stuntz a committed Christian. The difference between the ways these men wrote about their sufferings is instructive. Hitchens hotly denied that his suffering had any moral significance but found it hard not to describe it in moral terms—writing of the cancer’s “malice” before catching himself: “There I go again.” At another point: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

Stuntz, by contrast, who lived for a decade with debilitating back pain but died of brain cancer in 2011, readily admitted that there was something wrong with the pain he lived with for a decade. The sense that “my back was not made—that I was not made—to feel like this,” he wrote, “is so real and hard that I sometimes think I can touch it, grasp it.”

Why did the famously eloquent atheist Hitchens find it hard to express the wrongness of the disease that was killing him, while Stuntz, whom we might have expected to question God’s intentions—or even his existence—had no such trouble? Mr. Skeel thinks he knows the answer. The Christian God does not simply allow or disallow suffering—he himself suffered, in the person of Jesus Christ, and uses suffering to renew his children’s character.

Samuel G. Freedman details the fascinating friendship that informs the book. For the last few years, Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has ranged over the arguments in True Paradox during many conversations with an atheist colleague, Patrick Arsenault:

Their ensuing discourse roved over free will, determinism, the emergence of human language, the reasons for circumcision, the human capacity for love. They traded links to magazine articles and citations from books, with Dr. Arsenault particularly steering Professor Skeel to the work of the experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. After Professor Skeel finished his first draft in November 2013, Dr. Arsenault line-edited the manuscript.

Amid all the respect and comity, though, the atheist and the apologist ducked no fights, especially concerning Professor Skeel’s belief that God endowed humans with humanity. Dr. Arsenault asserted in one email that men and women “are not so different from those unconscious computers.” In another, he suggested that human beings, far from being the most advanced form of life, would pale next to bacteria in terms of survival under duress. As for love, Dr. Arsenault attributed his ardor for his wife to “a neuronal change induced by mutual oxytocin release.” He referred to Professor Skeel’s God only with a lowercase g.

The effect of the emails, the coffee chats and edits was to sharpen Professor Skeel’s arguments and to encourage him to reckon with the findings of scientists like Dr. Pinker. “True Paradox” became a book of engagement rather than avoidance.