A personal reflection about the relevance of the concept of God.
Harry (The Delicate Illusion, 1999, etc.) was raised as a Christian Scientist and now attends a Presbyterian church with his wife, but he has long wrestled with a nagging skepticism that precluded either simple belief or a leap of faith. However, he distinguishes between the literal belief in the God of the Christian Church and the profound utility of that idea for mankind. From a strictly rational perspective, he asserts, the conception of God is simply beyond demonstration, and it’s not based on philosophical deliberation, as the church’s authority simply rests on the revealed word of Scripture. However, whether the idea of God is objectively tenable or not, he asserts, it still collectively promises things of considerable value: it provides people with a sense of security amid chaos, perfection in a world that screams for correction, and the hope of immortality as a consolation for our eventual death. That idea, though, must be presented in a way that’s personal enough that mankind can forge a connection with it. The author explores the ways in which the figure of Jesus Christ fulfills this function, as a bridge between the human and the divine. He also explores the difficulty that the church has in remaining relevant in a world that, through breakneck progress and evolution, struggles to believe in supernatural myth.
Harry intrepidly confronts the deepest and most historically recalcitrant questions and impressively attempts to balance a skeptical epistemology with a profound respect for the significance of religion. In focusing on the subjective prominence of the idea of God, as opposed to metaphysical confirmation of God’s existence, the author even manages to make this study germane to atheists: “The idea of God does not mean one necessarily automatically believes in the god of the idea, only that one is aware of it. Even atheists are, by necessity, aware of the god of the idea.” The downside of this maneuver is that he simply dismisses attempts to make such an idea more rationally acceptable, and he largely abandons any serious discussion of the relation between faith and reason. Furthermore, the work as a whole is frustratingly incondite, and much of is so meandering that it reads like a succession of footnotes without a primary text. There is a great display of broad erudition—the author mentions Plato, Voltaire, and St. Augustine, to name a very small sample—but he eschews a serious, sustained discussion of any of them, using them as little more than name-dropping fodder. Harry raises all the right questions, but the answers he provides are neither unfamiliar nor particularly provocative. Finally, he never adequately addresses a fundamental problem with his overall approach: how does the idea of God, if accepted only as myth, provide any of the comforts that he claims? In other words, what reassurances can be delivered by a fictional contrivance that’s acknowledged as such?
A philosophically ambitious but unfocused and shopworn discussion of religious faith.