We recently caught up with David Holley, author of Meaning and Mystery: What it Means to Believe in God. David talks about his motivations for writing, and something unusual about his writing style…
Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write Meaning and Mystery: What it Means to Believe in God?
David Holley: The beginnings of the book go back to an experience of listening to a very bright high school senior talk about how he was trying to decide whether to continue believing in God. The young man had grown up in a church environment, but had come to the point where he thought he needed to decide things for himself. The type of reasoning he pursued would be familiar to anyone who has dealt with standard philosophical arguments for God’s existence. What struck me as I listened to him was that he was trying to use a disengaged form of reasoning in which he held the issue at arm’s length to decide a matter of life-shaping significance. The book is my attempt to provide an alternative way to think about the matter that does more justice to the nature of the question being asked.
PE: What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
DH: While the question of God’s existence is typically dealt with as a theoretical issue, I claim that it makes most sense to treat it as a practical question. Each of us needs what I call a life-orienting story, a narrative that relates a picture of what is ultimately real to individual experience in a way that makes a particular way of living intelligible and attractive. Some narratives of this kind include God and some explicitly exclude God. Reflective judgment about God occurs in the context of considering alternative narratives that might provide orientation for a way of living. In that context the issue is not only whether the understanding provided by a narrative coheres with what we take to be the facts, but whether or not it has the power to engage a person in a way of life she finds worthy.
PE: And what is it that draws you (personally) to this topic?
DH: I am struck by the way religious claims and religious ways of life seem virtually unintelligible to some people. In the introduction to the book I cite one author who questions whether anyone actually believes in God because he thinks of the belief as a hypothesis that lacks any evidential support. Both believers and unbelievers are tempted to construe the issue in this way, and as a result the discussion gets sidetracked from the kind of belief intelligent religious people hold and the considerations that actually persuade them.
PE: Is there anything unusual about your writing style?
DH: I work harder than most philosophers at coming up with chapter beginnings that will draw people in. The first chapter starts with a kind of puzzling situation in which alternative background stories are offered as ways of providing intelligibility. Another chapter begins with Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, which tells of a boy who wants to be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. Another chapter begins with a reflection on science fiction stories in which people ask a computer questions.
PE: What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
DH: I would like to persuade people that standard ways of thinking about God’s existence do not get to the heart of the matter. I’d like to reconfigure the discussion between believers and nonbelievers away from arguments about an isolated proposition to consideration of alternative narratives that might structure a way of life. I expect that some people will misunderstand my book, imagining that I am advocating some kind of disregard of rational evidence. Instead, I am trying to show what kind of reflection is appropriate for cases where we inevitably end up believing some practical narrative (naturalistic or theistic) that cannot be established on purely empirical grounds.
PE: What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?
DH: I have written for reflective people like the student described above who was trying to decide whether to believe or not. But I have also written for professional philosophers who assume that the only legitimate way to consider the idea of God is as a metaphysical hypothesis.
PE: Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
DH: There are many books I admire. I have been especially influenced by the writings of Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self, A Secular Age). The central concept of life-orienting stories is influenced by sociologist Christian Smith’s book Moral Believing Animals.
PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?
DH: I am interested in the tension between having fundamental convictions that you are committed to living by and having an awareness of your fallibility in relation to disputable matters. I have tentatively called the book I hope to write Faith and Fallibility.