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Book Review: God Is a Question, Not an Answer

God is a Question, Not an Answer: Finding Common Ground in our Uncertainty
By William Irwin
Rowman and Littlefield, 2019 – $24.95
Purchase Book Here

The following review is by Jamie Spencer
William Irwin has written a very clear and articulate argument in support of the special value of doubt. Both modest and yet far-ranging, the book gets into both epistemological and theological matters. Irwin proposes a new and challenging way to approach a Being whom we have grown up thinking of as Almighty, as an Absolute. He rejects that more traditional, “theistic” (God-centered) notion and wants us to see “God” as a process: a mental condition, or a habit, of continual “asking.” Asking, yes, but not reaching any final conclusions: “When it comes to God, answers are temporary, and questions are forever.” He wants us to adopt uncertainty as an active and humanizing force.

Irwin’s book is so abundant in provocative ideas that a reviewer cannot help, first, saluting them and, then, exploring their implications. He meets one of a writer’s primary obligations: to get his readers thinking–and thinking about our world (and our beliefs) in new and provocative ways. I bet “Free Inquiry” readers will find some of Irwin’s chapter titles intriguing, for they speak imaginatively to our sensible, reasonable doubts about religious faith. Here are three: “What do you mean by ‘God’?” “Is Faith a Gift?” and “A Skeptic’s Guide to Religions, Spiritual and Secular.” “What do you Mean by ‘God’” is a concise and thoughtful historical survey of religious belief. And a final chapter, “Confessions of a Recovering Catholic,” helps us see where Irwin’s religious thinking got formed and how and why, in due course, he rejected it.

He is an equal opportunity critic, though he is far too genial and flexible to be a curmudgeon. Though much of his books finds fault with too many common assumptions about God, this admitted “honest atheist” also levels some harsh criticism at “a number of individual atheists … who seem to lack philosophical curiosity and capacity for abstract reflection on questions of knowledge.” That lack disappoints him because “most atheists were not raised as atheists, but rather came to their atheism upon reflection.” You’d expect they’d have thought through their “conversions” more carefully. They owe us clearer explanations.  What’s more, their “unbelief must constantly renew itself in the face of the challenge that others pose and the temptation to believe.”

Irwin announces the explicit aim of God is a Question: “to disrupt false certainty and to foster genuine uncertainty.” His deepest faith, his primary moral commitment, is to the power of doubt.

Doubt as a Virtue

In a book that loves to challenge the inherited or conventional, it’s no surprise that Irwin sees that New Testament figure, “doubting Thomas,” as a model. Most of us fallen-away Christians still retain many of these Biblical stories, so here‘s a very brief reminder. In John’s Gospel, Thomas is a disciple who refuses to accept Christ’s resurrection. One night the executed Jesus appears to the assembled disciples, but Thomas is not present, and he refuses to believe their account until he can “see the marks of the nails in his hands.”. When Jesus appears the next night and displays those marks, the doubter’s “conversion” is poignant and powerful. The awestruck skeptic exclaims: “My Lord and my God.”

It’s a powerful moment, but Irwin proceeds to make what I think is the even more salient point for a skeptic like me. The story of Thomas occurs in only one of the four “approved” Gospels, a fact that raises a question about the Bible’s “reliability”. The book which far too many people revere as unquestionable and absolute is in truth a compilation of the evolving thinking of several generations of believers. The Gospels “were written by four different authors … were written for four different audiences …. Worse, the authors were not the apostles who gave their names to the Gospels … [and so] were not eye-witness accounts.”

Irwin does note that “one enduring legacy of the [Thomas] story has been the ideal of muscular belief, impervious to doubt.” That’s a fair enough reading, but, wait: am I becoming an Irwin disciple? I want to challenge his view. I interpret that invented tale as less about an individual and as more of an historical and institutional reflection. For me the purported doubting disciple represents a phenomenon, a development which would have arisen only when the “Christian” mission was well underway. The infant church was realizing, as it began drawing serious but curious thinkers, that it had to find a way to manage such recalcitrant believers. Recognizing the need to deal with such growing pains and putting those early challenges into writing strike me as an inevitable early stage of a tiny, just-forming ecclesiastical bureaucracy. (I’ll make the same case later that another “singleton” story–in Luke, the journey to Emmaus–reflects a similar communal experience and strategy.)

But Irwin’s overarching concern, his keynote, is the slim possibility in our world for attaining certainty. “People overestimate the amount of certainty they are warranted in having in their daily beliefs.” The insight elicits a crucial admission: “When it comes to God, we will never amass enough evidence or good enough arguments to reach complete certainty.”  That concession, in turn, explains his firm call aimed not only at pious believers but at skeptics and deniers as well: greater humility.

He also gets us to think more globally about religion: “Cultures and religions act as channels to God, but they also act as filters.” That’s a healthful reminder: we can learn much about a culture from what it chooses, over time, to exclude. He contrasts “our” western, monotheistic faiths, which “approach God as masculine,” with a religion like Hinduism, which offers “the opportunity to approach the divine as feminine as well as masculine.” In fact, “devotion to the feminine is older than all the major world religions” and we see it today in the emergence of Wicca, a genuinely contemporary and yet truly “pagan religious movement.”

As for the dangers of being too certain, he is sympathetic to the impulse but critical of its consequences: “The certainty that comes with rigidity is, no doubt, a source of comfort and righteousness.”  He offers an array of other insights that call religious faith into doubt, but which also help us understand why we as a species continue to cling to any of the many types of faith we’ve invented. Here’s one provocative hypothesis: “Maybe we are biologically hardwired to believe in God even when we have dismissed God as a fiction.”  Just as the human eye can see only some of the colors nature offers, or our ears hear only some of the myriad sounds that surround us, “perhaps faith puts a person in touch with part of the ‘spectrum of reality’ that cannot be detected by reason or observation.” Our “honest atheist” is open to a more inclusive and more humanistic understanding of what makes our species tick.

Doubt is his definitive noun. (His index lists the word eight times and the book devotes 45 pages to its elucidation.). His goal for a doubting life, one that’s continually honest and commendably open, is “to keep alive the perplexity at the heart of our life, to acknowledge that fundamentally we do not know what is going on, to question whatever arises within us.”

Prayerful Habits

While we skeptics embrace doubt, we can also practice tolerance: we can appreciate Irwin’s further efforts to identify some of the totems to which credulous believers cling. One of them is prayer, to which even thoughtful and rational people ascribe unwarranted power. A simple example Irwin offers is the renowned physicist Niels Bohr, who kept a lucky horseshoe above the door in his office. When quizzed by a dubious colleague, Bohr explained, “I’m told you don’t have to believe in order for it to work.”  What Bohr voices Irwin terms “religious fictionalism.” For whatever reason, some people “cannot help but act as if there is god, even though, when they stop to consider the matter, they do not believe.”

What Irwin seeks is to discover prayer’s “values and benefits once the religious algae is stripped away.”  Yes, he does open the discussion by rejecting what he terms “petitionary prayer” which for many people “is essentially sacrifice and petition”: The devout believer says to God, “I give so you will give.” Irwin condemns that habit because it’s “motivated by anxious fear, not sincere love.” (He also throws cold water on prayer’s efficacy when he reminds us that scientific tests have proven no connection between prayer and the healing it seeks to effect.) But, always fair-minded, he cannot deny that the ritual of talking aloud to an unseen presence, whether “god” or merely a departed spouse, can offer something like “a kind of poetry of the heart and, as such, it is something atheists should not deny themselves.”  It serves once more to promote Irwin’s ultimate personal virtue: humility. Such a ritual can “deliver a proper perspective of one’s small place in the universe.”

He is, however, selective in the prayers he admires. He rejects the Lord’s Prayer because its theology does not “fit with the theologies of Judaism or Islam.” But he does admire the “Serenity Prayer” for its power to promote a more positive stance toward the world, and one that curbs the self: “Prayer does not change the world, but prayer does change the person for the world.” (He re-appraises Karl Marx to similar effect, reminding us that when that philosopher “called religion the opiate of the people he didn’t mean to disparage people or religion.” Marx’s analysis had a higher purpose: he wanted us to “be motivated to change the world so as to make opium unnecessary.”

Another prayer Irwin admires is that of St. Francis because it also urges “kindness and compassion, asking that I may be relived of the bondage of self.” He salutes it for the moral attitudes and actions it promotes in the world. Indeed, the prayer brings to our fellow creatures what Irwin considers to be key blessings, both moral and communal: “peace, love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy.” I agree with him, for the prayer, though voiced by a revered Christian saint, develops a healthful, fully secular, practical and psychological approach to life, and does so to wonderful effect. It can help produce a full, loving, and humanist community of doers and thinkers.

That brings us to Luke’s Emmaus encounter. He sets his story on a road near Jerusalem, on the day after the Crucifixion, and two grieving disciples meet a stranger and commence a conversation in which the stranger voices profound insights into the Jewish prophets. It dawns on them that this is Jesus Himself.  Irwin interprets the incident, rather conventionally and traditionally, as a proclamation of the power of Faith. “The evidence is there. Faith …opens our eyes.”  But here’s where the English professor in me begs leave to let loose some imaginative and analytical tendencies. I’d like to think that again I’m bringing some of the skeptic’s healthful doubt about sacred writ that Irwin urges. Mine leads me again to an alternative claim: the account of meeting the post-Crucifixion Jesus on the road is in fact a later, retrospective literary invention.

Luke shapes the incident in a way that demonstrates the growth of the infant Christian faith. Like John’s account of a “doubting Thomas,” this invented tale compresses into a single individual a wider process that I believe took many years and countless potential converts to play out. Here’s my take on what may have occurred, a hypothetical instigating experience: on some day or other, maybe in the Galilean region, two disciples (who knows? maybe one? maybe more?) were walking and came across a stranger from some other town or community. In the course of their informal chat they find him voicing the same insights into Jesus and his teachings that they had acquired directly, face-to-face. The encounter opens their eyes, not to a risen, living and breathing savior (as Luke’s literary creation has it) but to the remarkable way their new and devout faith, the Word, was taking flight.

The literary craftsman Luke has made the narrative into a formative early miracle in the communal life of what St. Paul called the Body of Christ. And I’d go even further and claim that what Irwin is recommending in his book is the creation of a contemporary, down-to-earth community—true, this one a “godless” one–of similar restorative power.

Some other Progressive Travelers

Elsewhere in his book, Irwin shows his firm command of the history of ideas and provides a concise and accurate summary of the views that developed during the age of Enlightenment, a tipping point when many thinkers began to question a huge range of “sacred” assumptions. (He cites one of my intellectual heroes, David Hume.) When he goes farther into the 19th century, he considers both Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, but, most impressive to me, he devotes special attention to John Stuart Mill, another secular saint of mine. In his book “On Liberty,” Mill became a foundational spokesman for free thought, for free speech and for the vital importance of a continual dynamic collisions of ideas. Irwin makes that ideal a personal agenda, as he insist on the value of “[telling] my friend uncomfortable truths.” Such a practice becomes a rich way of life and makes each of us a “better colleague” and “citizen.”

Irwin takes Mill’s abstract and philosophical thinking and puts it to work in a proactive and ethical way. “Minority opinion is valuable, and so we need to create not just the legal right for its expression but the civil atmosphere in which it can be comfortably expressed.” Irwin’s goal for the life of doubt and questioning he is proposing is the chance to achieve a common and humble commitment to civility–humility put to work in a wider community. It’s probable, he says, that “the truth lies somewhere in between the majority and minority views. So we need to be quick to see where people we disagree with are right, even partially.”

Irwin also shows he’s familiar with some of today’s most notable faith-deniers, not just the rather strident and notorious Richard Dawkins but (the more popular) Neil de Grasse Tyson and Bill Nye. He does appreciate some sober thinkers, like the emeritus Professor of Religion, John Caputo and the Trappist Monk and mystic, Thomas Merton. Good, but here again I feel impelled to offer a challenge. I’d like him to take note of some additional thinkers. A group he’d particularly treasure is the Westar Institute–a body of “Progressive Christian” thinkers formed in 1986. Its announced goal is to undertake “collaborative, cumulative research in religious studies” and to “communicate” the results of its explorations. It’s also home to the “Jesus Seminar” whose responsible but healthfully iconoclastic goal is “to review each of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the gospels and determine which of them could be considered authentic.” In short, those Seminarians continue to employ reason and historical research to rethink things we once accepted without question. (I’m bringing a similar critical lens to those Gospel tales of Thomas and Emmaus.)

The Jesus Seminar has played a crucial part in my own journey toward skepticism. As a teen, I indulged in some conventional youthful skepticism and began to question various declared miracles, like the Resurrection (rare) or Ascension (impossible) or the Virgin Birth (are you kidding?). When I came upon the Seminar, its work spoke to me. It allowed me to retain some affection for the Christian story, but to discard two millennia of Church doctrines and practices. I think Irwin and the Seminar would find common ground on many matters. A concise comment by another of these iconoclastic thinkers, Bishop John Shelby Spong (his views were so daring that he was declared a heretic by his Episcopal Church)  announces his central thesis: “Atheism means that the theistic understanding of God no longer translates into the world of our experience.” He supplements that position in his review of Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design. Spong “welcomes” it because it’s “driving one more nail into the coffin of theistic thinking and forcing the religious world to begin the hard process of rethinking [what we mean] when we say the word God.” Irwin would applaud the goal, though he proposes a kinder and more inclusive stance: “What … can we find of value in religion that we can appropriate for other purposes?”

There are other Westar members whom I’m sure Irwin would find stimulating, thinkers like the late Marcus Borg (a New Testament scholar and theologian) and Dominic Crossan (an historian of earl Christianity and a former Catholic priest). He’d really have cottoned to Robert Funk, who was the founder of both the Jesus Seminar and the Westar Institute. Wikipedia describes him as having “a strongly skeptical view of orthodox Christian belief, particularly concerning the historical Jesus.” I don’t doubt that Irwin would find these thinkers’ critical eyes and judgments congenial. He might even welcome the rather daring “Death of God” hypothesis put forward by Westar’s Academic Director, David Galston: “God dies as the custom of all things familiar, so that God can live as the strange things that upset and challenge us.”

Free Inquirers who find Irwin’s arguments effective might also appreciate the sorts of hypotheses offered regularly in the Institute’s journal, The Fourth R. In its July / August 2016 issue, for example, Dr. James Veitch devotes considerable imaginative attention to St. Paul and his effort to draw new members to his revolutionary sect.  He makes the case that, in the book of Galatians, Paul “creates a matrix of interrelated ideas for a belief system that he is proposing to develop.”  The apostle sought, first, to find and inspire believers, then to find common texts for them to share. His goal? To grow them into a thriving Christian community.  There’s a parallel between Veitch’s sense of such a bonded, early community and the common collegial ground Irwin imagines and urges. They share a humble and shared commitment to fertile doubt that could bring together today’s wide and diverse communities of new belief.

Irwin praises his Jesuit instructors for the crucial life-long habit he’s eager to instill in his readers, “to question and interrogate [my] faith.” He wants to continue that tradition by summoning a yet wider community of thoughtful people (including all those “readers of this book”), for whom “God” offers no final answers but promotes a continual and “exhilarating” life of permanent questions, endless challenge.

“Republished from FREE INQUIRY, the journal of the Council for Secular Humanism,”

Review & Commentary