Monday, March 4, 2013

Anthony Flew: there is (now) a God

There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His MindThere Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by Antony Flew
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Enjoyable, brief ramble from the former to the probably final state of philosopher Antony Flew's thinking, particularly about God, and including how he changed his mind from atheism to Deism. It is bookended by a lengthy introduction and an appendix by the actual writer of the book, Roy Abraham Varghese, and another by the biblical scholar of the hour, Tom, or NT, Wright. Flew took care to write, and personally sign, his own introduction.

Here's a quote, cue unreasoned, buttock-clenching joy from theists and wailing and gnashing of teeth from his former atheist pals:

I must stress that my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology. It has no connection with any of the revealed religions. Nor do I claim to have had any personal experience that may be called supernatural or miraculous. In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith. (p93)

The 'pilgrimage of reason' soundbite could not be more perfectly chosen to delight and infuriate in equal measure.

The book is a good read. The Internet is also a good read, seeing some atheists build a case against the book using the same kind of tactics usually employed by cigarette companies, traffic lawyers, climate-change deniers or creationists, on the lines of 'the old boy lost it, very sad, and was bundled into the back of a van by evangelicals and forced to sign a script someone else had written for him.'

Actually, the book is clear that Flew became a Deist, and never stopped personally rejecting all the received religions. He didn't believe in an afterlife. He thought Christianity was the best available religion, but he didn't claim to embrace it, despite the admittedly gorgeous scholarship of N T Wright. All this is in the book. It's nice to find good and honest atheist commentators who recognize this, and who agree with the broadsheet obituaries of Flew, not least in the New York Times which put some journalistic resource into investigating the circumstances of the book. Flew had his marbles and after a lifetime of brilliant atheist philosophical discourse, took to believing that the universe was created by an infinite, immutable, omnipotent, First Cause. Flew's widow agreed that that was his position. The jeers and hoots coming from the Theist side may be in bad taste, but perhaps we should be allowed our little moment of fun. Remember, we also have to put up with Creationists and Republicans, and sometimes even have to call them 'brother'.

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Eliza Grizwold: The Tenth Parallel

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and IslamThe Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Accept no substitutes to a writer who travels to wild places and talks to people. Eliza Griswold (what a wonderful name, like something out of Dickens or Harry Potter) explores in her book the peoples of latitude ten degrees north of the equator. She concentrates on the human geography, the conflict between the desert and the sown, the aristocratic nomad and the dirt-digging farmer, and-- which is her real purpose -- between Islam and Christianity.

She's either fearless, or crazy, in her pursuit of former terrorists and other dodgy characters, as well as of the people who are perhaps just the collateral damage in this turbulent region-- the two Muslims who were to be caned for suspected adultery, who just wanted to marry so they would not be shamed, for example. She meets plenty of missionaries and zealots on both sides. On the way she is led to Christ by Franklin Graham, Billy's son, an experience that was evidently more satisfying to him than it was to her. Halfway round the world she meets a former mujahideen trying a new career selling beauty products. And on and on.

Eliza Griswold resists cynicism, stereotyping and the urge to fit what she is seeing into some coherent analysis.. The perhaps-overlooked daughter of a radical, liberal bishop, her very puzzled poking around in this confusion is to me almost a vital sign of a living faith. I loved the contrast she sees between her own nail-chewed hands with the worthily worn ones of her mother. This is doubt as the penumbra of bright belief; the opposite of faith is apathy and cynicism, not this.

. I only have one little caveat which is that her library-work isn't always quite as excellent as her reportage. Her footnotes sometimes lead us to other popular accounts, not authoritative sources, and there's the odd place where she's surely oversimplifying: 'Under the Roman Empire, the practice of Christianity was punishable by death until 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine officially legalized it.' (p 78).

What fun it would be to have such a fascinating person, and such a fine writer, round for dinner. Failing that, read this lovely book, after which you will know more, and understand less, about the people at the join between Islam and Christianity , an area mightily unwritten about and largely unknown to the Weatern world.

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