TCC Reads: Books I’ve Been Reading

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“If you believe in meaning, you must also believe in God.”

Three new books, haunted by God, confession, and redemption.

1) When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, is a bestselling memoir about a neurosurgeon facing terminal lung cancer. Kalanithi writes about his marriage, the wonder of becoming a father, and his experiences as a doctor working with the brain. All of it is fascinating. As a young scientist Kalanithi went through a positivist period in which he tried to be an atheist. Eventually, he found this worldview somewhat limiting.

Read an excerpt here:

“Passages like these, where there is a clear mocking of literalist readings of Scripture, had brought me back around to Christianity after a long stretch, following college, when my notion of God and Jesus had grown, to put it gently, tenuous. During my sojourn in ironclad atheism, the primary arsenal leveled against Christianity had been its failure on empirical grounds. Surely enlightened reason offered a more coherent cosmos. Surely Occam’s razor cut the faithful free from blind faith. There is no proof of God; therefore, it is unreasonable to believe in God.

Although I had been raised in a devout Christian family, where prayer and Scripture readings were a nightly ritual, I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality, an ultimately scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outmoded concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes. I spent a good chunk of my twenties trying to build a frame for such an endeavor. The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning–to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in. That’s to say that if you believe in meaning, you must also believe in God. It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge.”

Yet the paradox is that scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth. We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units. Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience. The realm of metaphysics remains the province of revelation (this, not atheism, is what Occam argued, after all). And atheism can be justified only on these grounds. The prototypical atheist, then, is Graham Greene’s commandant from The Power and the Glory, whose atheism comes from a revelation of the absence of God. The only real atheism must grounded in a world-making vision. The favorite quote of many an atheist, from the Nobel Prize winning French biologist Jacques Monod, belies this revelatory aspect: ‘The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance.’”

Yet I returned to the central values of Christianity– sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness–because I found them so compelling. . . About God I could say nothing definitive, of course, but the basic reality of human life stands compellingly against blind determinism…”


2) Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola. I’ve always liked Sarah Hepola’s writing. In her bestselling sometimes hard-to-read new memoir, she writes about how she spent her 20s and early 30s drinking and hooking up, and how our culture told her that her unhealthy drinking habits were feminist and empowering. You got wasted and left the bar with a hot stranger? Good for you! You’re an independent, 21st century woman. That is, until blacking out, and waking up with a person she didn’t know, didn’t seem so funny anymore. This is a book about having to renounce a story about yourself that you cherish, in order to figure out who you really are. Which is what all Christians have to do.

Here’s a sample: 

“’God.’ The word made me squirm. Like so many people, I resisted AA in part because of the words ‘higher power’… God was for weak people who couldn’t handle their own lives, and it took me a long time to understand that, actually, I was a weak person who couldn’t handle my own life, and I could probably use all the help I could get. . . What nobody tells you is that miracles can be very very uncomfortable.”

The Road to Character

3) The Road to Character by David Brooks. In this book, Brooks tells the stories of Americans who lived radical lives, from the soon-to-be Catholic saint, Dorothy Day, to Civil Rights pioneers, as well as the values that made these individuals tick. In the process he encourages his readers to understand the the difference between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”

One of the interesting things about the book is that Brooks himself appears to be on a spiritual quest. He makes it clear that he has pursued resume virtues first, and he hasn’t experienced much joy. The entire book is worth reading, but if nothing else, read the chapter on Servant of God Dorothy Day called “Struggle.” Brooks writes, “Day used the word loneliness to describe spiritual isolation . . . she sensed that there was some transcendent cause of entity or activity and she would be restless until she found it. She was incapable of living life on the surface only – for pleasures, success, even for service – but needed a deep and total commitment to something holy.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“In other words, people in earlier times inherited a vast moral vocabulary and set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation. This was a practical inheritance, like learning how to speak a certain language, which people could use to engage their own moral struggles.”