A Paradoxical Ascent

Christian apologetics—and, one suspects, arguments generally—can take two basic forms: they can be directed toward trying to persuade others of the truth of one’s position or they can be self-reflective, focusing on arguments that one finds personally persuasive and to explain one’s personal conviction as to why one argument is more persuasive than another. In True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of our Complex WorldDavid Skeel, the S. Samuel Arsht Professor of Corporate Law at Pennsylvania Law School, has written a book that is an exemplar of the latter.

Rather than seeking directly to persuade the reader of the truth of Christianity, Skeel’s apologia instead reads like a journey through Skeel’s mind as he comes to try to explain (rather than justify) how he came to believe in Christianity. In this sense, Skeel’s book has many of the hallmarks of classical Christian apologies such as C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, by representing an intermingling of his own personal journey of faith with an effort to explain it to others. And by pointing to the experiences that Skeel experienced as pivotal during that journey, he hopes to bring along the reader with him.

Skeel seeks to distinguish efforts that attempt to persuade others by pointing to objective facts of the world and marshaling evidence for or against a particular position. Instead, Skeel focuses on what he calls the experience of life, a foundation that seems vague and subjective at first glance, but which Skeel identifies as marked by universal yearnings of the human soul and that these universal yearnings and their satisfaction are best explained by the role of God in our world and souls. In short, Skeel argues that neither advocates for or against religion consider the core of Christianity’s appeal—that it offers a more truthful and fulfilling understanding of what it means to be fully human and to flourish than any other alternative, whether secular or other religious traditions.

Skeel develops his argument through explication of five paradoxes that he says define the human condition: “ideas and idea making” (seeking to understand the world even though its inherent complexity makes it fundamentally beyond understanding), beauty and the arts (that we yearn for beauty even though it is fundamentally fleeting), suffering and sensation (that the existence of suffering is actually evidence for a Christian God), the justice paradox (that we seek true justice on Earth but can never attain it), and finally, the riddle of life and afterlife.

As Skeel works his way through these five fundamental paradoxes, he argues that Christianity provides the better explanation of their persistence and centrality to the experience of human living as compared to non-religious “materialist” arguments on one side and other religious traditions on the other (such as pantheism and Islam or Judaism) on the other. Skeel’s primary target, however, is the materialism of Steven Pinker and the “new Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

Skeel’s focus on “ideas” and the human “idea-making capacity” is front and center and provides the organizing theme of the book. By “idea-making capacity” Skeel means something similar to what is conventionally called “consciousness,” but it is more than that—a generalized capacity for abstract thought removed from the challenges of survival or to tangibly grasp the elements of our physical and social environments. A particularly relevant example of this “idea-making capacity” is our desire to ponder and debate the origins of life and to understand our place in the universe. As Skeel puts it:

Although we tend to take our idea-making capacity for granted, it is actually quite peculiar. From an early age, most of us puzzle over the mysteries of politics, economics, and personal and social ethics. We have not only the capacity to formulate and debate ideas about morality and other features of our existence and to adopt theories about why we are here and how we should live, but also a veritable compulsion to do so. Why in the world do we do this? What purpose does our idea making serve? After all, it is not immediately clear why it is necessary to our survival as individuals as a species.

Indeed, one might add, spending time pondering the mysteries of life would seem to be not only pointless but counterproductive to the task of gaining resources and replicating the species.

Materialists such as Steven Pinker argue that the human capacity for idea-making—indeed, what he admits is the somewhat obsessive efforts of people in every time and place to “concoct theories of the universe and their place within it”—is nothing more than a useless by-product of our brain’s evolution to solve more tangible problems, such as predator detection and the like.

Yet Skeel observes that the claim that our idea-making capacity is simply a useless by-product of our brain’s evolution to solve concrete problems of natural selection simply seems unpersuasive. After all, this ability for abstract thought, to seek to understand our world and our place within it, seems for most of us to be the very essence of what it means to be human, not a mere distraction or by-product. As he observes, “Moreover, even if our idea-making capacity were the by-product of other traits, this still does not explain why idea making is so central to our sense of what it means to be human. There is something deeply unsatisfying about the claim that idea making has no real meaning.”

Is this scientific proof that demonstrates the “truth” of Christianity or rebuts the claims of materialists? Of course not. Does it ring true as an intuitive understanding of human nature? It does to me. And I suspect, to many others. Indeed, materialists such as Pinker and Dawkins—who presumably should know better from an evolutionary perspective—apparently share this passion to understand the origins of humans and human nature themselves. For Christianity, however, our idea-making capacity is the feature, not merely a bug—our idea-making capacity exists so that we can come to know and perhaps understand God and God’s plan for each of us.

And so it goes for beauty. Again, the materialists proffer various explanations for the universal sense of beauty. While the particular content of beauty varies in time, culture, and place (Zen gardens and English gardens are both beautiful in their particular ways), the yearning for the experience of beauty seems to be universal. Materialists proffer a variety of explanations for our appreciation of beauty—for example, being able to accurately identify fresh fruits. Yet again this explanation seems to miss the mark—upon gazing upon a beautiful landscape painting few of us feel a craving to eat an apple: “The moments when we stand in stunned silence before a sublime vista have almost precisely the opposite effect than a real signal that food is nearby.” Moreover, while other materialists point to the role of art in creating social cohesion within groups, Skeel notes that both the creation and enjoyment of art is often a purely isolated experience of communing with one’s most private thoughts—and, perhaps, God.

More than a logical answer to these (and similar) paradoxes, Skeel attempts to explain in a logical fashion the basic intuitions and sentiments that led him to God. Like Skeel, I found my way to Christianity as an adult. And I remain a strong believer in evolutionary psychology in explaining much of human behavior (see here, here, here, and here). But while materialist and evolutionary explanations explain much of human behavior, to my mine they fail to provide a satisfactory explanation for much of the experience of life and what constitutes a life well-lived. I recall an early conversation with my priest who asked me whether the experiences of love, loyalty, friendship, beauty, and compassion were “real” even though unobservable and unmeasureable. And, in the end, this is the essence of Skeel’s contention about Christianity—it takes these intangible experiences of life—of friendship, and love, and loyalty, and beauty—as real and important phenomena and, in the end, the essence of being human. For those of us who are Christians, Skeel’s book illuminates the sense of meaning and truth that many of us find at the core of Christian belief.

Skeel’s book notes the recurrence of themes in atheist and non-Christians that subconsciously mirror the personal testimonies of Christians, of the sense of fulfillment and beauty that they feel in experiencing the world through their own materialistic perspectives. To embrace God is in the end a unity of heart and mind—a sense that not only do the arguments seem right as a matter of reason, they feel right as a matter of intuition and sentiment. And Skeel suggests, in so doing, the materialists miss the real message—the joy of understanding the world in its beauty and complexity, which reflects the spirit of God in the soul of every person, whether they acknowledge it or not.

Reader Discussion

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on February 02, 2015 at 13:43:32 pm

Quite obviously, words are all we have to make any argument we choose, and so the words and definitions we choose are key to validity of the arguments we make. For example, I am not a "New Atheist" which I've seen used to describe Richard Dawkins and his followers, who seem to believe that the harm religious belief does outweighs the good, and therefore, all believers need to be "converted" of their belief. I am far more open to letting believers believe, so long as they don't carry their spiritual, as opposed to moral, belief into our legislatures. But I would not want to be defined as a "materialist", which has its own baggage. Nor would I define my own joy of life notwithstanding my acceptance that there is no God and no spiritual afterlife as "reflecting the spirit of God" whether I realize it or not.

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on February 02, 2015 at 15:10:26 pm

It's pretty funny for you to say Pinker sees language as a useless byproduct, when Pinker's distinguished career has been devoted to describing language as the ultimate achievement of the mind. Also, Pinker believes in the computational theory of mind. In thinking, it is the patterns of information that count, not the hardware. That is a PROFOUNDLY non-materialistic approach. It is saying that relationships alone (that is, "patterns" or "information") are where the mind exists, and the material substrate is irrelevant (just like a software program such as Word can look identical on a PC and a Mac). Oh, you need the hardware, don't get me wrong, but that's not where the meaning resides. Relationship, i.e. information, is where all the important stuff is taking place. See if you can wrap your mind around that. It doesn't quite fit with a simplistic template in which scientists are rejecting everything intangible and spiritual...because they actually aren't. They are way beyond that level of argumentation IMHO.

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on February 02, 2015 at 21:17:40 pm

I'm afraid I don't really follow your argument--I said nothing at all about language. Skeel refers to Pinker when he discusses what he calls our "idea making capacity," by which he essentially means philosophy and the desire to understand oneself and our place in the world. Are you saying that language and "idea making capacity" are the same thing? Because I didn't say anything about language. Language has obvious survival value for humans. A tendency to navel-gaze about the meaning of life, however, doesn't seem to have survival value, yet Skeel argues it is one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be human. That argument strikes me as correct.

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Todd Zywicki
on February 04, 2015 at 01:29:06 am

Todd, I think you are confusing the claim that our mental capacities are adaptations with the claim they are adaptive. There clearly was a fitness advantage to those early humans who were better at learning and using abstract concepts. Selection made our lineage better at communicating, learning and thinking about abstractions, which we can use to think about metaphysics or group theory. Maybe thinking about these things a lot more than average has always been fitness-reducing. That is perfectly compatible with evolutionary theory. Maybe giraffes with really long necks are less fit than average-necked giraffes indeed, that will normally be the case.

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Gareth Morley
on February 08, 2015 at 13:29:24 pm

Are you saying that's Pinker's argument or are you proffering that as an argument? It could be true (it could also be a just-so story) but I was just taking Skeel's analysis of Pinker's position. There could be people other than Pinker who make that argument. It certainly sounds plausible to me but I haven't seen anyone develop and test that argument, so there could be explanations other than the one that Skeel attributes to Pinker.

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Todd Zywicki

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