True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World?
by david skeel
intervarsity, 176 pages, $12

Evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins and experimental psychologists like Steven Pinker have gained immense cultural influence arguing for an atheistic, materialist worldview. Their influence derives not only from their arguments but from their undoubted scholarly achievements within their areas of academic expertise. It is imperative for Christians not only to answer these intelligent and learned voices in the public square but also to be seen by the world as answering them with equal sophistication.

David Skeel—an internationally recognized legal scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and an elder at the theologically conservative Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia—has done just this, arguing that Christianity offers a more plausible account of human experience than does atheistic materialism.

Skeel begins by considering and setting aside two familiar kinds of theistic arguments: cosmological arguments in analytic philosophy for the existence of God and arguments from intelligent design and the generation of living matter from non-living matter. In my view, his treatment of these arguments is sometimes too dismissive. After all, Antony Flew, the dean of philosophical atheists, eventually became a deist on the strength of the latter kind of argument. Skeel is no doubt correct, however, that such arguments by themselves are insufficient.

The reason is that human beings desire a consistent account of the world in which they live and their place in it. They can be presented, say, with a cosmological argument for the existence of God that seems perfectly sound, but if they think that believing in God involves other apparently insuperable contradictions such as the problem of evil, then some people may—perfectly rationally—dismiss the theistic argument as being incorrect even if they cannot determine at what point it goes wrong. Modifying one’s belief on such a large issue as the existence of God entails modifying a host of related beliefs as well, and Christian apologetics has to be ready to treat a network of connected questions.

This is precisely what Skeel’s book does. He argues that Christianity is better able than atheistic materialism to explain certain important aspects of human life, including the phenomenon of human consciousness, our appreciation of beauty and its transience, the meaning of human suffering, and our quest for justice. His examples are well chosen, and he argues persuasively that each of these obviously crucial aspects of the human experience is both an embarrassment to materialism and perfectly intelligible within the Christian understanding of the world.

Consciousness, including the capacity for abstract thought, is “the single most complex and mysterious feature of our existence.” Moreover, virtually everyone would agree that the greatest human accomplishments, whether in science and mathematics, philosophy and literature, art and music, or morals, law, and politics, depend on the human capacity for abstract thinking. On the Christian view, this makes perfect sense: Christians believe that human beings are made in the image of God, and in saying this we are referring not to a physical similarity but to a spiritual one—namely, the fact that human beings have intellect and will. No wonder, then, that our greatest accomplishments derive from that part of our being by which we are most like the Deity.

Materialists, however, have to explain human consciousness as a product of evolution, and although some degree of intelligence has obvious survival value, the connection between the upper reaches of human intellectual ability and replicating one’s genes in the next generation is extremely remote. Hence, materialists are generally reduced to saying that the most important aspects of human consciousness are a mere byproduct of the evolutionary process: The genes that allow us to use intelligence to survive in an often hostile physical environment somehow also allow Bach to write concerti and Gödel to prove the incompleteness theorems. There is no contradiction in saying this, but it is, as Skeel argues, deeply unsatisfying, and it calls into question our judgment that such things really are great accomplishments.

Regarding beauty, the Christian can make perfect sense of the notion that some features of the natural world are objectively beautiful and that human beings are able to appreciate them as such. As the sacred author says in the Book of Genesis, everything that God has made, including the physical world, is good. It is only natural, therefore, that man, the image of God, can recognize good things as good, including that kind of goodness we call beauty.

Once again, however, the materialist is embarrassed. For him, beauty is not an objective property of beautiful things; rather, it is two steps removed from reality. Our sense of beauty is but a byproduct of other reactions to certain physical objects that we have acquired through evolution because of their survival value. For instance, according to Pinker, we experience beauty in nature because our remote ancestors would have found the natural vistas in which we detect beauty to be safe and hospitable habitats likely to contain nutritious vegetation. (So much for those of us with a taste for desert landscapes.)

Skeel takes the argument further, however, because he points out that we often are deeply affected by the realization that beauty is transitory and that this is somehow wrong. The wildflowers that bloom today are thrown in the fire tomorrow. In explaining our sense of loss at the transience of beauty, the Christian can say with St. Paul that, because of the Fall, the whole creation is groaning in travail. For the materialist, however, the impermanence of beauty is merely the upshot of the second law of thermodynamics—which rather fails to account for the tragic importance we ascribe to the fragility of beauty.

In his treatment of human suffering, Skeel acknowledges that, in one obvious way, the materialist has the advantage, for the materialist has no difficulty explaining natural disasters, disease, and death as parts of the natural order. Skeel rehearses some familiar Christian responses to the problem of evil, but he then raises a more subtle issue: Human beings tend strongly to think that suffering is in some way wrong, even when it is clearly not the product of any human agency. The materialist can dismiss this as an illusion, the result of an overactive tendency for agent detection—the evolutionarily useful inclination of higher animals to perceive agency in natural phenomena even when none exists—but the Christian can explain our sense that suffering is somehow wrong by again appealing to the fallen state of humanity. When we think that suffering and death are unnatural, we are right: As it says in the Book of Wisdom, God formed man to be imperishable, but by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and those who are in the devil’s possession experience it.

Skeel’s arguments on the human quest for justice are probably his most original and certainly some of his most fascinating. He observes that human beings seek a just social order through the law and similar institutions but invariably fall short. Some people, such as traditional Marxists, have really believed that they could create a perfectly just society; others, such as the American founders, had a more realistic view of the possibilities of human nature. The human longing for perfect justice remains real, however, even when we recognize that it is unattainable. Why is this so?

The materialist has little trouble explaining why human justice often falls short, but he has more difficulty explaining why human beings should be so invested in something so obviously impossible. The Christian, however, can explain both aspects of the problem: We know that perfect justice is possible, for God’s justice will surely be perfect, but we fallen human beings will never attain justice from the law or, indeed, from any purely human source. This brief summary captures but a part of Skeel’s argument here, which includes an extended meditation on how the central events of the Christian religion—the Passion of Jesus Christ—concern how two separate legal systems, the Mosaic and the Roman, perpetrated the grave injustice of judicially murdering an innocent man.

There is much more in this rich and thoughtful book, and Skeel draws examples as easily from Shelley, Dickinson, and Eliot as he does from Bach, Stravinsky, and Negro spirituals. He also includes illuminating digressions on the paintings of the Hudson River School and the recto of Giotto’s Stefaneschi Triptych.

Naturally, I can find things with which I disagree. For example, I think that Skeel too easily assumes that Christian moral theory is premised on the notion that, since God created man in his image, all human beings have dignity, which then requires that we treat human beings in some ways rather than in others. This is a very common theory in a post-Kantian age, but it is utterly foreign to the supernatural eudaimonism of the patristic and medieval periods and to the divine command theories of the Reformation.

Nor would I agree that equality is central to Christian moral teaching in the manner Skeel believes. Equality became an important value in the Western tradition at the time of the Enlightenment when it was invoked to deny that some human beings, such as nobles or kings, have a natural right to rule over others, and it has more recently been transformed into the ideal that immutable human characteristics like race and sex are morally irrelevant. St. Paul may have said that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but what he meant, as he says in the very same verse (Gal. 3:28), is that all human beings are one in Christ—that is, are equally redeemed by him. This is not a foundational moral text in Christianity on the order of the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, which teach the love of God above all things and a radical love of others, even one’s enemies and persecutors.

Or again, Skeel occasionally attributes his own particular theological positions to Christians generally, saying at one point, for instance, that “even if Christians were convinced that there is no heaven, most would still believe in the truth of Christianity.” St. Paul, considering the same question, concluded that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).

But these are quibbles. True Paradox treats perhaps the most important issue of our time—the contest for minds and hearts between traditional Christian faith and a secular, materialist worldview—and it does so with lucid and convincing arguments, remarkable grace and good humor, scrupulous fairness to its opponents, and wide and delightful erudition. David Skeel has placed his light on a lampstand.  

Robert T. Miller is a professor of law and the F. Arnold Daum Fellow in Corporate Law at the University of Iowa College of Law.