The Flight of Peter Fromm
The Flight of Peter Fromm by Martin Gardner is a tale of one man’s intellectual and spiritual journey from a literalist, fundamentalist Protestant faith to … some other sort of faith. When the young Peter arrives at the University of Chicago to prepare for a preaching career, he is one of a handful of students who believes in that Old-Time Religion. You know the kind I mean: tent meeting revivals, holy rolling, speaking in tongues, being slain in the Spirit, etc.
Several years later, Peter’s faith has matured into something less rigid, something more sophisticated and theologically informed. By now, he’s read Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin. He’s dabbled in Catholicism and Communism. And he’s taken up smoking, drinking and sex. When the United States is drawn into World War II, he interrupts his education and spends four years in the Navy.
When Peter returns to Chicago, he explores the writings of twentieth century theologians: Barth, Niebuhr, Bultmann, Tillich, among others. Eventually, he questions the life and ministry of Jesus. Was there actually a man named Jesus? Was he born of a virgin? Was he resurrected? These are all good questions. (Well, I think they are because they were questions I asked).
The one question Peter never seems to ask is the biggest one of all: is there really a God? In spite of all of the other questions Peter raises, he repeatedly tells his mentor, Homer, that he does not doubt God. He loses faith in Jesus, but he hangs onto some semblance of the Christian God. Well, that may not be quite accurate. Peter’s final image of God may be more deistic than theistic. As the book closes, I’m not sure whether Peter is a deist or a muddled theist who really just believes in belief. I also find myself frustrated with Peter’s inability, or unwillingness, to just let go of the whole god-thing once and for all.
As a nonbeliever who has flown from a fairly conservative evangelicalism through moderate and liberal Christianity through deism to atheism, I’m at a stage in which I simply cannot comprehend how anyone can be satisfied with the liberal Christian mindset. I can understand deism. I don’t hold to it myself, but I can understand and accept the concept of some other sort of being that is beyond humankind’s ability to know. I can also understand evangelical and fundamentalist conservatism. I know all too well what it’s like to look at the world through that paradigm and to be literally unable to conceive of the possibility that other paradigms exist and work even better than that religious one. But, I cannot understand how anyone can, like Peter Fromm, accept modern biblical textual criticism, modern historical scholarship, modern science, psychology, sociology, philosophy and political science, and still hang onto anything like the god of the theists. Why do it?
Is it because churches fulfill needs for community? Is it because people are uncomfortable with uncertainty? Is it because belief is a habit that people don’t even think about? Is it because people fear death and desperately hope for an afterlife? I don’t know. What I do know is that I have a lot of difficulty understanding the Peter Fromms of the world, even though there are many of them out there. I hope that one day they’ll realize that the only thing required to let go of god-faith is faith in themselves.