God In Proof: The Intersection of Life and Ideas

Book Review

God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet

Reading Nathan Schneider’s recent articles on William Lane Craig, you might think that he has focused rather narrowly, perhaps even naively, on the prominent apologist. Craig has his detractors, after all, and it turns out that Schneider isn’t one of them. William Hallquist called his Chronicle of Higher Ed article a “puff piece.” There is history behind these articles, though. A lot of history.

For one thing, Schneider hasn’t always looked upon Craig so positively. Five years ago today he published a rather critical piece in Religious Dispatches, complaining about an article Craig had written for Christianity Today, saying (if I may be forgiven for oversimplifying) that Craig hadn’t done his homework. I responded here on this blog, suggesting that Schneider was being unfair to critique Craig’s CT as philosophy, since that wasn’t the intent of the article; rather it was journalism about philosophy, which is not the same thing at all. Not long after that Nathan returned an unusually gracious reply.

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That’s a bit of history, but it’s hardly all. Fast-forward five years to the publication of God in Proof, published by the University of California Press, and it becomes clear that there is much more. For God in Proof is all history.

It’s all history, that is, except that it’s all personal memoir. Or it’s all a personal story of a spiritual journey. Or it’s all argument, albeit of the most cordial sort. Confused? Jeff Sharlet asks, “What to call this odd, fascinating, and absolutely compelling book? History? Treatise? Manifesto? Travelogue? Confession?” The answer is all of these.

Think of it this way. Suppose you were setting out to read a book on the history of philosophical excursions into the God question. God in Proof would be an excellent choice. Beginning with Parmenides and continuing right through to Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, Schneider covers the main outlines of (mostly) Western thought regarding proofs for God. Its scope is narrow, focusing just on that one question; still it’s as fine a history of philosophy as I’ve read (even though — full disclosure — my name comes up in it, toward the end where he brings up the history of his interactions with Craig.)

Suppose on the other hand your interest were in one man’s tour through today’s manifold spiritual options. Again, God in Proof would again be an outstanding choice. It’s an intensely personal work, beginning with his religiously eclectic upbringing, continuing with his wide-ranging journey through everything from atheistic secularism to New Age beliefs, to his decision to be baptized as a Christian, and his remaining in the faith despite pressures to let go of it — yet still with questions to ask.

Or suppose your intent were to discover whether philosophy really matters in the real world. Again, this would be a great choice, for Schneider ties intellectual history to his own life in a manner that seems almost seamless.

The Intersection of Life and Ideas

Books tell messages in words; sometimes they also tell messages by their form. It seems to me that this book’s most important message is of the latter sort. For there are two stories in this book: one which covers millennia, with names as eternal in our memory as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and many more. It is a grand story of the ages. Interleaved with it there is the story of one twenty-six year-old individual with a lot of questions. What’s remarkable is how Schneider crafted the two stories to carry equal weight.

The effect of that is threefold. For one, it enabled him to tell a very personal story without making himself the star, for the book is about the ideas it covers. Meanwhile, and paradoxically, he told a story about grand and sweeping ideas without losing a human connection, for the book is about a personal spiritual journey. The paradox resolves in this: Great ideas matter. One life matters. And the intersection of life and ideas matters, too. It’s a truth told creatively, informatively, and above all personally.

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