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!
Right. So is he a fellow spirit?
I am more influenced by more contemporary nature writers-many of them not Christian. Lauren Isley would be one; some of the great science writers: Chet Ramo, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman. These people are guides to me. Now, they don't follow the rumors where I follow them. They leave that open as Einstein did, but they are coming at it as scientists, not freelance writers on religion.
In the book, though, you object to some kinds of scientific thinking.
I object to scientific reductionism. I oppose those who reduce the mystery of human being-the evolutionary psychologists, the sociobiologists-because we are more complex than they give us credit for being. I'm trying to push us in a different direction, where we look at music, art and beauty, and see them as pointers to something beyond.
How do we do that? How do we sharpen our hearts or minds to see the world behind the world?
It takes a lifetime of work. The people I know who do that best are the Benedictines, people like Joan Chittister. They spend hours a day in prayer, and the invisible world is what marks their day. When they enter the visible world, they see it in a very different way than most of us who just wake and drink our cup of coffee and walk outdoors. I'm not in a monastery, I don't pray five hours a day, but I can learn some of the techniques from them.
So I think it takes effort, it takes concentration and it takes time and discipline. I have a scene in the book where I watch the sea turtles lay their eggs in Costa Rica. You can have that experience without ever turning it into an act of gratitude or an act of worship. But there is a conscious move where you experience something and then express gratitude, turn it into an act of reverence. That takes training and takes will. It's not automatic, and it's not natural, unless you are St. Francis of Assisi.
Sociologist Peter Berger in his book "A Rumor of Angels" talks about the inbuilt sense of damnation we feel when Hitler does what he does, or a priest molesting a child, we feel a sense this is wrong, this is damnable, despicable. Well, why? In nature, things like that happen all the time. To me, that's a rumor, our sense that some things are unholy, wrong, evil. We feel that very strongly on Sept. 11--it's just not right that people can do this. I think that's a sense we need to pay attention to. The whole experience of guilt and evil is a uniquely human sense, and so that's a rumor I need to pay attention to.
But how does evil refer to an unseen world?
It's a complicated question. Jonathan Kozol studied the very poor people in housing projects in Chicago. After being with these children, he said, 'I'm almost ready to believe in an afterlife, because there has to be something better for these kids.' As a Christian, I can easily say that this is not the world that God had in mind. If I was stuck as a slave say in 1850s Georgia, or a child in Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project, and said, 'This is the world that God wants,' my conclusion would be that I don't want God.
As a Christian, I have the hope that God is strong enough to restore this world, and at some point in some dramatic way transform it. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't believe in God. If this is the best he can do what good is he? I believe he has called me-like millions of Christian who prayed today that God's will on Earth be done-to cling to that hope that one day I will live in a world where God's will will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.
These rumors of another world in nature don't point to a specific faith. How do they attach to Jesus for you?
One way is to look at how Jesus did that. He looked at the natural world as a pointer to the supernatural world. So many of his parables were about very common things. He found lilies and wheat and a bush in a garden and a vineyard and would draw his spiritual lessons from them, always honoring it as his father's work.
Is there not more urgency in the idea that Jesus died to revolutionize this world, not open the doors to another?
To me, it's not either-or. It's a both. I think the church fails when it makes it an either-or. One of the things that brought me back to faith is the idea that those people who really care about eternity translate that care into action on this earth. Jesus certainly set the model for that.
But don't Christians often say, "This isn't the real plane of existence, and therefore, I'm not going to invest in it?" Isn't that a danger of belief in general?
That's a huge danger. The church has tilted in that direction a lot. I wrote this book to bring us back to reclaim the world. The church has pretty well given up on the natural world. They no longer even point to it as a rumor, or as an expression of God's creativity. To me the most obvious thing about God is his creativity, his love of beauty. Hiking in the Rocky Mountains, you come across meadows just full of wildflowers that no one has seen for thousands of years. There are the beauties of the Great Barrier Reef. The world is spangled with beauty.
That's the most obvious thing we can learn about God. He is a creative being who honors beauty. That is a loud rumor, and just to give that away to the scientists and let that be their realm to me is to have blinders on.