First and foremost, I want to stipulate that reading this book has been like taking a can of mace and applying it vigorously to my eyes without respite.
I started reading this book during my lunch break or during trips to the bathroom (believe me, if you need a cure for a lazy bowel, this will do the trick nicely.) It got to the point where I came back from my lunch or loo break and was more frustrated and decidedly less relaxed than I was before, and I had to temporarily cut my losses.
In most theological or apologetic literature, I can find something interesting or useful or even some decent points to consider. Life itself is a very complicated endeavor and even a half baked attempt at making sense of it deserves some reflection, regardless of how closely it matches my own reasoning. Ultimately that is all religion is, really: an attempt at making sense of the mundane and the profound things that may happen to us, to help distract us from the stark imminence of our own mortality.
C.S. Lewis asked us to look to our better nature for evidence of Altruistic Transcendence in Mere Christianity (my full review here). In his book Theism and Explanation (my full review here),Gregory Dawes posited that “we are warranted in regarding a theistic hypothesis as a potential explanation of some state of affairs only if we cannot conceive of any better way in which the posited divine goal could have been attained,” which is a beautiful way of illustrating Ockham’s Razor, until he said personal revelation was the exception to this rule—and our views promptly diverged. Both of these authors are theists, or deists at the very least, but there was plenty of intellectual merit to consider. I definitely came away with something from reading these works, if not Faith itself.
However, this book was a miracle. It was absolutely none of these things. C.S. Lewis and Gregory Dawes don’t have to tell you they are academics— it is evident in their writing and careful sculpting of a sequence of points for argument. Holly Ordway, the author, has done little to none of what would be required to earn the title she bodly printed on her stack of paper Not God’s Type, A Rational Academic Finds Radical Faith.
My initial impression was hopeful: the reviews sampled on the back cover as to why the book was worth more its weight in sawdust said it was engaging and offered:
“a pastorally sensitive but interesting approach to a pivotal topic. Though this kind of personal topic is often underserved, Ordway has dealt with it in a rigorous way.”
Oh goody, I thought. I can do rigor. I can do pivotal. Let’s see what she’s serving.
What I was faced with instead was a woman bemoaning how miserable her life was without god. For the first 6 chapters she regales us with the cheery tale of just how much of a liberal secular feminist academic she was and how, consequently, she was angry and hollow inside, yet refused to relinquish her sense of superiority to the religious types. She describes how her anger often boiled over in her role as a university teacher, in one instance becoming a full blown scream-fest when her students were particularly noisome. At this point I was thinking to myself, “girl if you lose your shit in a room full of adults, you need a behavioral health assessment, not a religion.” Furthermore, when she goes on about how she viewed the concept of death being where the buck stops as “bleak and depressing” and made her contemplate “if there really was anything to live for” it made me begin to wonder how much of a secularist she really was. As Ricky Gervais said, “It’s a strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for. We have everything to live for.”
I’ll grant her the finality of our inevitable demise can be an overwhelming concept. There are at least 2 things that are particularly daunting about death. For one, if the transition from life to death is painful, it’s not much to look forward to. Secondly, what happens afterwards? It’s the Mysterious Unknown and people are often intimidated by what they can’t possibly know. It’s scary: will I be conscious, will I just cease to be altogether?
For me, I can honestly say the former point on death is far more intimidating than the latter. I don’t have a high pain tolerance, and don’t relish the thought of meeting my end screaming in agony, or worse, a gurgling vegetable.
However, I actually take comfort in knowing there is nothing more. There’s closure to it. If I’m a bad person, my death will bring relief. If I’m a good person, people will remember me or maybe be inspired by my life and try to follow my example. But if I’m like 99% of people who die, my immediate family and friends may remember me for awhile and then it won’t matter. So, the driving force is not waiting to die so I can live eternally, but focusing on the quickly escaping moments of the “now”. How can I optimize this time I have, and what value do I ascribe to it? Certainly its more comforting to assume there is a reason for everything, or that there will be justice for the many deplorable acts we see or hear about every day. However, assuming there are good and evil supernatural forces, one of which is stronger than the other yet allows the other to wreak havoc where he may simply because the mortals haven’t worshipped him the way the currently tickles his fancy yet seems…..ridiculous.
Ordway likes to think of God as Aslan from Lion, Witch and Wardrobe or Aragorn from LOTR. She peppers her book with quotes of their valiant deeds and admits even as an atheist, when she thought of God as impersonating these fictional characters, she was filled with hope. She is incredibly attracted to the archetype of the dashing, deboniar, altrustic god-hero, which honestly I find rather tiresome. If someone is wholly good and without flaw, and persecuted for their complete goodness only to come around victorious in the third act—it falls rather flat with me as far as a realistic lesson in life. A flawless victim is a very 2D character—he or she requires no personal development, and their only struggle is not with themselves but for the world which cannot yet appreciate their level of perfection. Nobody you will meet in life is actually like that. It makes her seem like one of the Twilight fangirls who obsess over a “ideal” protagonist, only instead of Edward you have Jeebus.
That, by the way, is another theme of this book. Ordway loves poetry. There are entire chapters filled with clips of some verse about the “winter of her heart” (being an atheist) vs the “springtime of the mind” (becoming a Christian). I found it rather predictable and saccharine, so at this point I found it difficult to relate to her and began to worry I wouldn’t find much of an academic case for her conversion.
My worries were justified when Ordway describes her passion for fencing and how, quite metaphorically, she began to spar with her Christian fencing teacher over issues of faith, specifically belief in a “first cause” (God).
For example, while talking one day over coffee, the fencing teacher asks her how she can know there is coffee in his cup without looking. Answer: she can’t. If he tells her there is in fact coffee in the cup, she has to take his word for it. She is trusting that since he can see into it and she can’t, he knows something she is unable to from her standpoint. The fencing teacher drove the point home by saying he knew Jesus and because he personally had this knowledge, if she trusted him, she should believe there might be something more to faith than what she could glean at first glance.
Or, you know, you could reach over and knock the coffee cup into his crotch. If he screams and you hear a splatter, there is likely hot coffee. Doesn’t require you to look, but still gives you concrete knowledge.
This is the part of the book where I did more than roll my eyes at the banal narrative of the angry, empty atheist and had to stop to shake my head at the immensity of the cliche logical fallacies being spun as a fresh dose of theological breakthroughs.
Here’s my main beef with Holly’s thought process. A rational person solves problems by taking a general dilemma or malfunction and finds specific instances/supporting details to help identify causation.
Ex: I have a stomach ache.
Questions: What did I do differently? What have I eaten today? Have other people eaten similar? Are those people now sick too? Etc…
Holly, on the other hand, takes specific problems (“I feel constantly angry and hopeless”) and surmises a general root cause (“Godlessness makes humans miserable.”). In my opinion this leaves out many important steps in deduction and oversimplifies solutions. If religion brought her some much needed solace in her existential crisis, that’s fine, but to suggest other people are equally as empty or lost because they did not reach the same conclusion as she did is straight up insulting.
It occurred to me that this wasn’t an apologetics novel at all. This was written as an emotional chronology of a person with anger management issues who found peace by believing in the kinds of ideas a “rational academic” would have considered and rejected long ago. Holly Ordway is exactly “God’s type” when it comes to the personality religion would appeal to, rather than its harshest critic.