Critics like to suggest that the world has passed Christianity by. Advances in human knowledge, especially those of science, seem to leave fewer and fewer mysteries for religious faith to explain. Soon “the God of the gaps”—the idea that faith serves mainly to fill the holes in human understanding—will be squeezed out of existence altogether.
But real faith is much more than this, and we need to live accordingly. When we embrace the idea of the God of the gaps, we accept the divorce of faith and reason. This is exactly the attitude that’s led many people to abandon Christianity, and it’s exactly the perception of our faith that leads many more never to consider it at all.
G.K. Chesterton famously quipped that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” We can adjust his words for our era: Christianity hasn’t been considered and found untenable. It’s presumed unreasonable and left unconsidered.
It’s this first hurdle to evangelization in the modern world—reasonableness—that legal scholar David Skeel clears in his excellent True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World. This is not a book of airtight apologetics (Skeel calls it a “preface to a preface”). Rather, the text focuses on widely shared moral and intellectual intuitions that point persuasively away from materialism and toward Christianity.
The Battlefield of Complexity
Materialism—the view that no reality exists outside the physical world of matter and energy— has been the default alternative to Christianity since the Enlightenment. Its popularity has grown as science has found material explanations for complex phenomena previously considered mysterious, from the movement of the heavens to the inner workings of the human brain.
The trick to materialism’s explanatory power, though, is that it succeeds marvelously within its own logic. That is, if we assume a materialist perspective and stick to suitably material phenomena, materialism never fails. But if materialism is true, it must explain everything— even phenomena outside its core competence.
Skeel lists five areas in which any comprehensive worldview should be able to explain the complexity of human experience. Our culture teaches that materialism is mature and intricate, while religious belief is childish and simple. If that were the case, then on the battlefield of complexity materialism should rout Christianity. Yet with grace and charm, Skeel convincingly shows that this is not at all how it plays out. He argues:
- There is no material reason for humans to be “idea-making” creatures, unless we were made in the image and likeness of a God who desires us to know and to understand him.
- There is no material reason why we should recognize and appreciate beauty, unless beauty is a participation in and a foretaste of divine goodness.
- There is no material reason why we should be distressed by suffering at the hands of natural processes, unless human beings have a special kind of dignity conferred by God.
- There is no material reason why all human attempts to create perfectly just societies fail, unless we are fallen creatures for whom personal and social perfection is impossible.
- There is no material reason why we long for a happy afterlife, unless that desire were placed there by a God who promises just that.
In each chapter covering a different “paradox,” Skeel presents materialist and contrasting religious (usually pantheist and dualist) perspectives on the topic. He can be overly kind to materialist arguments that deserve much less cordial treatment, such as linguist Stephen Pinker’s suggestion that the appeal of beautiful vistas is really about finding food: “The landscapes thought to be loveliest are dead ringers for an optimal savanna.” But in a volume designed for the sincerely open-minded, this restraint is admirable.
Satisfying the Mind and the Heart
He then gives the Christian understanding of each “paradox.” Skeel works from a C.S. Lewis-type “mere Christianity” in order to keep his discussions as broad as possible, which does come at the cost of precision. In most cases, he gestures toward the truth of the broadly Christian account without asserting it outright. Readers looking for a latter-day Five Ways to Prove Christianity will be disappointed in these sections.
But a fair-minded reader will necessarily understand at the end of each chapter that the Christian account is not only a reasonable option, but the most reasonable option. When it comes to the thorniest aspects of the human experience, Christianity satisfies the mind and heart in a way that the simplistic materialist approach cannot.
It’s worth noting one of Skeel’s more illuminating paradoxes: the human experience of beauty as at once transcendent and ephemeral. The recognition of beauty, even as we disagree about its particular contours, is a basic aspect of being human. All but the most thoroughgoing relativists would acknowledge that beauty exists. If a comprehensive system of thought is really true, it needs to be able to explain this.
Science is very good at explaining the material world. This is why scientific exploration is so important, and why the Church has supported the scientific endeavor for centuries. It’s good that we now understand that forests are animated by natural cycles of light energy, water and soil, not nymphs and sprites. But materialism can’t explain why we find the sunlight filtering through a forest canopy so appealing; why it arrests us physically and emotionally—in other words, why humans felt the need to invent nymphs and sprites to begin with. Materialism can’t adequately explain why or how we experience beauty in the material world.
By contrast, Christian theology explains our experience of beauty perfectly. As Skeel succinctly puts it: “Beauty points beyond the creation . . . but it also is a feature of the natural world. The world is not as it should be; it has been bent and corrupted. We long for it to be transformed.” We experience beauty because we were made to participate in Divine Beauty. But we recognize, even if only dimly, that all created beauty does not last.
The shrewdness of Skeel’s approach lies in identifying universally shared experiences that are not obviously spiritual (with the exception of the book’s last chapter on heaven). He asks the reader to assume nothing outside his or her own experience of the world; he only appeals to evidence that all readers will have already implicitly accepted. And yet, even on these secular terms, Christianity explains the data most accurately.
In an increasingly post-Christian world, this is the kind of baseline apologetics we need. Until not too long ago the Church could rely on certain basic and widely shared assumptions on which it could base its outreach: that right and wrong are real categories; that religious belief is essential to morality; that Christian civilization is a meaningful concept and one worth conserving; that belief in a Supreme Being is reasonable. These assumptions no longer hold.
And so we need books like True Paradox that meet people where they are—at the very beginning. We need writers like David Skeel with the humility to recognize that one book won’t get an open-minded skeptic from materialism to a full embrace of the Christian faith. But it may break down the first intellectual barriers, opening up the skeptic not just to other authors, but to the Great Author of the World himself.
Charles J. Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan, is the archbishop of Philadelphia and the author of Render Unto Caesar.