The Flight of Peter Fromm

September 29, 2008 at 11:28 pm 23 comments

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.

- thechaplain

Entry filed under: thechaplain. Tags: , , , , , .

How some Christian commentors have helped…to solidify my atheism Don’t you worry… ‘bout a thing

23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. orDover  |  September 29, 2008 at 11:43 pm

    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.

    Cognitive dissonance? Along with all of the the other factors you mentioned in your last paragraph, of course.

  • 2. wowy  |  September 30, 2008 at 6:54 am

    I have also encountered these folks for whom it is just basically A GIVEN that God exists. It’s for them almost unimaginable to be not the case that God is present.

    Often, of course, this is wishful thinking. But then also, as I had to learn, I think they’re honest. It’s so deeply engraved in them.

    I always assumed that everybody had some questions about God’s existence because I never knew life differently. And to me, it was just a slow realization, that actually, some of my acquaintances really do NOT have such doubts.

    Thanks for the post.

  • 3. wowy  |  September 30, 2008 at 6:56 am

    I just started a blog some time ago, and actually this weekend, I just started writing a small series on liberal theology. I’d be flattered, if you stepped in and had a look at it:

    http://wowy.wordpress.com

  • 4. samanthamj  |  September 30, 2008 at 7:51 am

    thechaplain –
    great post. I can relate to your frustration and confusion. It’s like, I know they have all the various reasons to believe that you mentioned – (and more) – because I once also whole-heartedly believed. So, I can understand that. But, like you – as time went on, I also wonder more and more how anyone can keep believing… until I hit the point where it just baffles me.

    I guess we all have our own reasons and journeys – Christians and non-Christians alike. So, we can’t expect to understand how/why they reach conclusions other than our own.

    Personally, I think desire, fear, conditioning – just run real deep. And most folks just naturally resist any real change, or letting go of anything they really once held dear.

    ~smj

  • 5. Erudite Redneck  |  September 30, 2008 at 7:55 am

    Personally, I doubt God. But I dig Jesus, and I dare say I try, and fail, to “follow” him. And, can you believe this guy, Jesus? He believes in God! So, I keep pondering that, and alternately embracing it and doubting it, as I trudge onward.

  • 6. The de-Convert  |  September 30, 2008 at 8:19 am

    ER,
    I went down that road for a while. In fact check out http://www.thejesuscult.com where I started to list out the teachings of Jesus I viewed as authentic :) Of course, as with most of my projects, it sits unfinished.
    Paul

  • 7. Erudite Redneck  |  September 30, 2008 at 8:47 am

    Thanks, Paul. I’ll check it out.

  • 8. john t.  |  September 30, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Chaplain

    If the man is comfortable with where he is at, and he doesnt try to push his beliefs on others. If his belief makes his world better, then who cares what and how he believes. I dont know why my wife loves celery but so long as she doesnt put it in my salad, the world is good. ;)

    I think many people have an inherent sense of connection to the world we see. Its just that we lack the words or ideas that can describe that connection. So we search.

  • 9. Erudite Redneck  |  September 30, 2008 at 9:45 am

    Re, “he doesnt try to push his beliefs on others.”

    I agree that pests are pests. BUT, people who work to market anything other than religion aren’t marked with such a scarlet letter, whether as a PR pro or as some regular guy who just REALLY LIKES Pepsi and thinks everybody should drink it and that those who prefer Coke or RC just haven’t ever really “tasted” Pepsi in just the right way, at the rigjht temperature, in the right situationn — well, we might think he was a little weird, and we’d be put off he just kept on pestering us, but it would be wrong, in as free society, to tell him he couldn’t try to propogate his “faith” in Pepsi.

  • 10. Quester  |  September 30, 2008 at 10:29 am

    You have a point, ER, but if the Pepsi guy in your example truly believed you’d be better off dead then without Pepsi, formed groups with others to try to make Pepsi the only cola you could legally drink, or insisted on payment today so you could drink Pepsi in the afterlife, well, he’d get that same scarlet letter you mention.

  • 11. Griffin  |  September 30, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Erudite Redneck,

    “I agree that pests are pests. BUT, people who work to market anything other than religion aren’t marked with such a scarlet letter, whether as a PR pro or as some regular guy who just REALLY LIKES Pepsi and thinks everybody should drink it and that those who prefer Coke or RC just haven’t ever really “tasted” Pepsi in just the right way, at the rigjht temperature, in the right situationn — well, we might think he was a little weird, and we’d be put off he just kept on pestering us, but it would be wrong, in as free society, to tell him he couldn’t try to propogate his “faith” in Pepsi.

    This is valid up to a point. I have no problem with people who are religious. I don’t even have a problem with people who proselytize, so long as they do so politely.

    But nobody is saying that only Pepsi drinkers should be elected officials or that non-Pepsi products should not be available to the public. People aren’t trying to force their preference for Pepsi onto society as a whole. They aren’t using ‘Pepsi Scripture’ as a basis for universal legislation. Pepsi isn’t able to operate without paying taxes while Coke and RC are forced to pay taxes. Nobody’s trying to define America as ‘A Pepsi Nation’ or discriminate against non-Pepsi drinkers. Nobody’s suing to put Pepsi machines in every court room.

  • 12. LeoPardus  |  September 30, 2008 at 10:48 am

    chaplain:

    Yep, like you I never grasped what liberal Christianity did for anyone. I figured that if the faith wasn’t true, then it wasn’t true. Why waste time with a watered down version of it?

    Thanks for the article.

  • 13. Lorena  |  September 30, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    I hope that one day they’ll realize that the only thing required to let go of god-faith is faith in themselves.

    I was thinking about this today. I’ve observed quite a few people, particularly women, who cling to Christianity because it is the only thing that gives them meaning. I speculate that a deep lack of self-esteem is behind their need to be told what to do and to have their actions approved by somebody, the pastor, Christian leaders, or just about anyone.

    When I look at these individuals who seem to need an outside source of guidance, I realize that their chances of admitting that there is no god are slim.

    For to be able to let go of the Big Daddy figure, we have to find it within us to be the master of our own lives, and that’s hard when we think so little of ourselves.

  • 14. The Apostate  |  September 30, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    If there was a grand meta-narrative of history, I believe liberal Christianity would be shown on equal grounds as the 18th and early 19th century deists: people who are in the process of de-converting from Christianity in general. However, I do not believe in meta-narratives of history, so instead I believe this is simply a case of evolution of ideas. Just as Deism, as a popular movement, fizzled due to its logical inconsistencies, so too will liberal- Christianity (to be distinguished from “progressive Christianity” – people who believe in social justice and left-wing politics based on their faith).

  • 15. silentj  |  September 30, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    Apostate,

    How do you define “meta-narrative.” Why do you not believe in it?

  • 16. Erudite Redneck  |  September 30, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    :-) Rre, “This is valid up to a point.”

    All any of us is is valid up to a point. :-)

  • 17. The Apostate  |  September 30, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    silentj,
    I refer to a meta-narrative where the “meta” denotes higher kind. Hence, a meta-narrative in reference to human history is one grand narrative, where all of the little narratives of history equal some ultimate schema. While many religions do not have “meta-narratives,” it is necessary for all types of Christianity except perhaps various “existential” Christianities.

    The reason I do not believe in it is because I do not think any person seriously passionate about both history and philosophy can admit such a belief, unless of course they have a religious necessity to interpret all acts of history under that paradigm. Take away that necessity and the only observable “order” of history is simple reactionary behaviour: God didn’t “cause” WWI or WWII – they were results of imperialistic cause and effect. Period.

    As an additional note, I personally believe that meta-narratives are the true reasons for religiously-induced violence. It is only when we see history through these peculiar lenses that people are treated as a means to an end rather than ends in themselves.

  • 18. Griffin  |  October 1, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Re: Erudite Redneck

    :-) Rre, “This is valid up to a point.”

    All any of us is is valid up to a point. :-)”

    Pithy, but not a defense of your position. You claimed that people marketing religion are subjected to a different standard than people marketing soda. I don’t have a problem with people marketing religion, we have a problem with people ‘legislating’ and ‘enforcing’ religion on others. Do you?

  • 19. bigham  |  October 7, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    “The Most Outrageous Claim in the Bible”

  • 20. Paige  |  October 7, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    No need to spam us with your blog post bigham.

  • 21. Hugo  |  October 31, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Most of the liberal Christians I know are those taking some kind of leadership position, some kind of direction-giving. So the way I see it, for those studying theology: the church is an organisation with a shared mythology. Their mission is to help out, to evolve the movement (seems to be moving back to a movement and away from an institution again). Others are taking part, and have their uncertainties about an interventionist God, but generally don’t think about it too much. The church is an organisation within which they can play a part that is beneficial to the society around them.

    For context: I’m mostly interacting with “emerging church” people or theologically informed people, and I come from South Africa. The gap between the rich and the poor is huge, unemployement is huge, there are many challenges there. I think that’s the kind of scenario where the Christian mythos can have some real benefit, and they focus on that, on the orthopraxy, rather than the orthodoxy.

    And then there’s those that develop and maintain a liberal theology in order to maintain communication bridges with the “conservatives” that are importing American evangelicalism, viva “Bible believing” charismatic and pentecostal churches. I suppose I probably fall into this category, as I have friends and family that have been sucked into this vortex:

    *snip url, to see if I can successfully post without it*

    Gulp. That’s that for my two cents’ worth. Now to see if I can put together a good response to that article…

  • 22. Hugo  |  October 31, 2008 at 12:46 am

    OK, it doesn’t like URL’s from me. Never mind the URL, it’s just more of the scary stuff you all know too well. (Recent events in my home town.)

  • 23. Chris  |  January 1, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Interestingly I read this same book back in 1976, not long after it’s initial publication. It caused a crisis of faith for me at the time, but unlike “thechaplain” above I was unable to maintain my dis-belief in light of my feelings & wants for the christian community I was then a part of.

    It took a few decades for me to come to my senses & realize that all that I had forced my mind to give assent to: the whole jesus fable, etc. was nothing more than wishful thinking. I truly wish I could have courageously gone forth with a some idea of my future outcome by staying in that myth-making machinery called evangelicalism!

    O “the years I wasted in the vanity & pride” of fundamentalism! Then it was on to liberal theology til I finally admitted to myself, my wife (now ex-wife), kids & the church (that went so far as to ex-communicate me) that I was a non-believer & would be living from that point forward in honest recognition of my status as just that.

    My grown son has taken it the hardest, as he has gone into the same fundamentalism that engulfed me for years. I feel for him & only hope for his eventual realization of the truth some day. But fortunately my youngest daughter has come to her senses & revealed herself to be an atheist, though I am sure not from my influence. she has a good mind that can think for herself & probably came to her conclusions on her own.

    Now I am with a woman who has been a life long atheist, who cannot comprehend ANY of the attraction I ever had to those fables & such. She keeps me on the straight & narrow now!

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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