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Wall Street Journal

How Christianity Explains Beauty and Suffering

An argument for a religion based not on cosmology but the way it makes sense of the author’s everyday life.

Edward Burne-Jones’s stained-glass ‘The Last Judgment’ (1897)
Edward Burne-Jones’s stained-glass ‘The Last Judgment’ (1897) http://www.bridgemanart.com

The debate between science and religion has reached a glowering standstill.  Christianity’s defenders seek to poke holes in the logic of and evidence for evolutionary materialism, even as Darwinian scientists altogether refuse to acknowledge that there is a debate.  The New Atheists, meanwhile, a confederation of atheism’s most eloquent popularizers, have convinced their many readers that the chief impediment to global peace and stability is religious belief.

True Paradox

By David Skeel
InterVarsity, 175 pages, $15

It’s good and right to debate questions like the world’s origin, of course, but those questions are pretty far removed from the experience of most people.  With “True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World,” David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests changing the subject:  “If we shift from origins to the world as we actually experience it, we will need to explain sensations like our sense of beauty and evil, as well as the puzzles of morals and law.”  Each of these areas of experience contains paradoxes—real or apparent contradictions that, if we’re honest, are hard to make sense of.  Mr. Skeel’s gentle contention is that the ancient creed of Christianity reckons with each in surprisingly satisfying ways.

Consider beauty.  Some, famously Stephen Jay Gould, have asserted that the human ability to produce and appreciate beauty is a fortunate but not especially useful byproduct of natural selection.  Others, for instance Steven Pinker, surmise that beauty signified food and fertile vegetation to our earliest ancestors (though sunsets and great paintings don’t typically make us hungry).

Mr. Skeel emphasizes something different about beauty:  that it’s rare and elusive.  All of us, he asserts, feel “that beauty is real and that it reflects the universe as it is meant to be, but that it is impermanent and somehow corrupted.”  Christians hold that the physical world is in a fallen state; its beauty is imperfect and fleeting.  Leave aside whether you believe Christianity’s doctrinal claims:  They fit our lived experience of beauty in ways the materialist view does not.

In his short book Mr. Skeel touches on a variety of eternal questions—from the mystery of human consciousness to the relationship between law and justice.  He addresses the problem of evil in an especially compelling way—not by “solving” it in some philosophically air-tight way, but by questioning its premise.

The “problem,” of course, is that the presence of evil in human affairs seems to suggest that God, if he is there, is either malicious for causing it or powerless to stop it:  In either case, he isn’t “God” in any traditional understanding.  Mr. Skeel points out, however, that in order to make the argument, terms like “evil and “malicious” must be imported from a worldview that assumes God’s existence.  To make the point vivid, Mr. Skeel charts the final illnesses of two very different men:  the contrarian journalist Christopher Hitchens and the less famous but equally accomplished Harvard law professor William Stuntz.

Hitchens was an atheist, Stuntz a committed Christian.  The difference between the ways these men wrote about their sufferings is instructive.  Hitchens hotly denied that his suffering had any moral significance but found it hard not to describe it in moral terms—writing of the cancer’s “malice” before catching himself:  “There I go again.”  At another point:  “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply:  Why not?”

Stuntz, by contrast, who lived for a decade with debilitating back pain but died of brain cancer in 2011, readily admitted that there was something wrong with the pain he lived with for a decade.  The sense that “my back was not made—that I was not made—to feel like this,” he wrote, “is so real and hard that I sometimes think I can touch it, grasp it.”

Why did the famously eloquent atheist Hitchens find it hard to express the wrongness of the disease that was killing him, while Stuntz, whom we might have expected to question God’s intentions—or even his existence—had no such trouble?  Mr. Skeel thinks he knows the answer.  The Christian God does not simply allow or disallow suffering—he himself suffered, in the person of Jesus Christ, and uses suffering to renew his children’s character.

The most captivating chapter in “True Paradox” deals with the afterlife.  No one who achieves great things, Mr. Skeel argues, really believes those achievements are pointless, destined to fade into nothingness.  In a similar way, he suggests, our work on earth will somehow find its fulfillment in heaven.  Indeed, the afterlife of the Christian tradition has little to do, he contends, with the commonplace images of men and women playing harps in the clouds.  The Bible strongly implies, rather, that the Christian’s life in eternity will extend his earthly life’s complexity, only without failure and rebellion against God.  The Christian, then, if Mr. Skeel is right, is able to do his work believing what the materialist wants to believe but can’t, quite—that the significance of that work will not only last but last into eternity.

“True Paradox” is written by a Christian in defense of Christianity, but most nonbelieving readers will not find it off-putting.  Mr. Skeel expresses great respect for those with whom he disagrees—a good deal more respect, in fact, than some prominent materialists have accorded their believing interlocutors.  Which may be precisely what this subject needs.

—Mr. Swaim is writing a book on political language and public life.

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