You say your book is for those living on the borderlands of belief. What kind of person is that?
They come from two different directions. Some, and I'm one of them, are fleeing the church because of wounds from the past-they grew up in cultic churches, as I did in the South, or in Boston Catholic schools where the nuns slapped their fingers, or Orthodox Jewish, or whatever. They have rejected that, but look back on their experience with a kind of wistfulness and nostalgia and a belief that there must be something there.
Then there are others who have never entered the institution, those who say "I'm spiritual but not religious," who have an intuitive faith sense, but don't really know how to put content to that.
So how do you talk to this person?
My stance is that of an ordinary person who asks questions and reads the Bible and tries to figure out what it's all about. I grew up learning to distrust authority in some ways. I doubted a lot of the crazy things I was taught growing up in church. So I talk about doubt as a very positive thing, because it brought me back to faith. I try to ask the questions that we all sense but that the church doesn't entertain very compassionately.
Now, it's obvious to readers that I'm a Christian, but the rumors I talk about, the existential questions, are universal. A lot of people who are uncomfortable with religion attend to some of these rumors and to the questions that rise out of them, even if they come down with different answers than I do.
Reviewers have called this "another dark book from Philip Yancey." Do you think you've become darker?
No. [Laughs.] Actually, I hope the opposite. The church has not handled this whole idea of two worlds very well, historically. It often rejects the visible world as full of danger. So you have hermits who go into the desert, and you have the church's reputation as being anti-sex--about which you can make a good case.
What I'm trying to do is bring those two worlds together in a little more healthy way. If you look at sex in a different way, as God's creation, as a gift that he has given us, but one that is best used in a way that he describes, it can be a very powerful rumor of what God is like, what the world should be like. So I'm trying to move toward a more positive embrace of the good things of this world--these gifts of God. That's what we are here to explore and to enjoy--not to exploit, but to explore and enjoy not as ends in themselves, but as pointers, rumors toward what God is really like.
Jacques Ellul said, isn't it odd that the nations that are most penetrated by the gospel tend to produce societies which are least like the gospel-that's my paraphrase. I travel a lot internationally, about four trips a year, and from the standpoint of the rest of the world, it's seems to be true. What describes America? Well, what describes America is wealth, military might, power, and sexual license. All those would be very different from the kind of values that Jesus spent his life talking about. And yet they would also say America is the most Christian nation on Earth.
This is an odd thing. This is an irony. So as an American and as a Christian, I think it's part of my task to explore that irony. Should we be paying attention to that? What are we missing? In that sense, I guess it is, well, maybe not a jeremiad, but a Jeremiah-ish book.
At one point you say that we go about our lives without any consolation that our lives have meaning. How do you square that with the spiritual reawakening America is going through? By all accounts, people appear convinced that there is a meaning to life and are reaching for it.
As I was writing this book, I took four trips to Europe, to places like the Czech Republic and to Denmark. Both of those countries claim they are the least religious countries on Earth. They kind of compete for the distinction. As I was writing this book, I found myself reflecting their perspective. Three-fourths of Europeans don't really seem to think through the consequences of their view of the world. They just go through the routine, pick up the mail, look after the kids and all that. They don't put on an overlay on their life, and try to order their life to reflect that overlay. My book is an approach to do that from a particular point of view.
Some of the most beautiful writing in the book is about nature as a sign of the supernatural. I was put in mind of Ralph Waldo Emerson-
Another one fleeing the church!