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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson

The Skeptical Believer

In this space in the July/August 2012 issue, I wrote about Leah Price's How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, which turned out to be one of my favorites of the year. At the end of that column, I quoted a sentence from Price's conclusion: "My argument could be taken as one very long footnote to Natalie Davis's long-ago reminder that the book constitutes 'not merely a source for ideas … but a carrier of relationships.'" I agreed entirely, I said: Books are not merely sources of ideas. (I'm not sure who thinks they are.) They are also carriers of relationships, yes. And in fact it's often hard to say where the ideas stop and the relationships begin.

Take this particular book, for example: The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist, by Daniel Taylor. I've known Dan since the fall of 1968, when—newly married—I started my junior year as an undergraduate, having transferred to Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Hence reading this book is a continuation of a conversation that began more than 40 years ago, a conversation that includes a string of books by Dan over the decades, starting with The Myth of Certainty. Given that connection, you may be inclined to skepticism when I recommend his new book to you. Isn't there a good chance that my reading has been skewed by friendship?

It's possible, of course. You could read the book and decide for yourself. The Skeptical Believer consists of more than 80 small chapters. Although the chapters are arranged in eight sections, and although there's an overarching structure to the book as a whole, each little chapter stands by itself. Some readers may start at the beginning and read all the way through to the end; others will dip in here and there, attracted by the topic of this or that chapter. It's an ideal bedside book, a genre dear to my heart. (Each chapter begins with a quotation or two or three.)

What holds it all together is a commitment to story, made explicit early on:

So when I claim that God exists (or does not exist), or that capitalism works for the better good of all than socialism (or vice versa), or that Faulkner is a better writer than Hemingway, or even that global warming is caused by human activity, I am operating out of many contributing stories that together form the larger story that is my life and our lives together.

For some readers, this investment in story will be an inducement to read more. Others will say "this again!" and stop reading. I would urge those in the second group to keep reading. I'm not, myself, a card-carrying believer in "story" (as important as stories are to me), but it is—as Dan shows—a powerful way to make sense of our lives, a way of getting at a reality that will always exceed our grasp. It's possible to learn a great deal from this book—and relish it—without buying into "the story nature of all truth claims."

This is true, in part, because the book is written with genuine humility (not a self-conscious "humility" that draws attention to itself). To be a Skeptical Believer, Dan says, is not an achievement, a source of pride; neither is it a failing to apologize for. Believers come in different flavors, but they have this in common: they are characterized by "life-shaping acceptance of a claim." Belief includes but is not limited to intellectual assent.

The Skeptical Believer lives in tension with his "Inner Atheist" (a phrase that Dan borrows from Richard Rodriguez). Ever since he was a small boy, Dan says, he has had to deal with an internal "little voice," sneering, cynical, raising doubts, making mock of faith. That's Dan's Inner Atheist, and rather than just telling us about this antagonist, he gives us samples of his foe at work, in parenthetical comments set in italics. For instance, in a discussion of The Brothers Karamazov: "Ivan is Dostoevsky's Inner Atheist, and he allows him his say. (I wish I had been Dostoevsky's Inner Atheist instead of yours. Sooo much classier.)"

This annoying fellow has his say, but he doesn't have the last word:

I like that the story of faith in which I am a character is a great story composed of many small stories. I like that it is told by people from a wide range of cultures and times and understandings. I like that it includes the fifteen hundred years of stories in the Bible, but also includes two thousand years of stories since, and countless stories from throughout time and eternity known only to God. Such a vast range of smaller stories makes the master story all the more believable to me. God inhabits his creation and his creatures—from before time to after, throughout the world and the cosmos—and wherever he appears, he is telling a story ….
I believe the only kind of story worth spending a life on is a love story …. As the Christ, God came among us. He emptied himself, became Emmanuel—one of us ….

See—there I go again, with the plural pronouns—us, we. I want this to be a "God loves us" story, and it is. But it is, even more important, a "God loves me" story. And so I must put my own name in there—God loves Dan …. God Made Dan. God died for Dan. God defeated death for Dan. God desires to be known by Dan.

That I use this kind of intimate language to describe a relationship with God reveals the version of the story of faith I know best. I was raised in it. It put its stamp on me. I am not always at ease with it myself, but it is the way I know to tell the story.

To which I can only add, amen.

—John Wilson

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