The Fellowship Of Disillusionment — Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment With God”

I never write book reviews ... until now. Now I am making an exception for three reasons:  (1) Philip Yancey's book Disappointment with God is an unflinching appraisal of how long-term disappointment precipitates crises of faith in the life of religiously devout people, (2) the theodical implications of that process, and (3) the theological consequences of (1) and (2). If you have been reading these columns for the last few years, you know that this has been a strong preoccupation of mine. But even though I wrote an Amazon review of Disappointment with God, I was not writing these "Skeptic's" columns at the time. So the following is in the nature of the latter playing catch-up with the former.
The Christian community almost always deals with disappointment, anger, and other adverse reactions to God in much the same way that Lord Rochester, the master of Thornfield in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, dealt with his mad wife: lock the offending feelings away in the most isolated wing of the Church's intellectual and experiential manor house, pretend they are not there, and allow them to rave, rant, and wander while everyone else in the great hall below attempts, more or less successfully, to drown out the din with their hymns. (Let’s all practice repeating “Return of the Repressed” … good! .. you said it right!) What Philip Yancey has achieved with Disappointment with God is to write that rarest of all texts: an honest book of theology. By doing so, he has accomplished what the ill-fated wedding in Jane Eyre accomplished: force everyone to go back to the manor house, open up the forbidden wing, and look the mad woman squarely in the face in all her inconvenient derangement and filth.

I would like to give Yancey at least 4 stars, just on the basis of this achievement alone. But content matters. So does logic. And it is in the matter of content and logic that Yancey's book unfortunately falls short -- though even here, he comes closer to the mark than most other works of theodicy.

First of all, there is the matter of how God, in Yancey's argument, deals with human demands for evidence, e.g., theophanies and miracles. Yancey asks a very good question: "Even if God complied with our often frenzied requests for such evidence, would the evidence we request conduce to faith?" In other words, even if God appeared to us and pulled out of the hat whatever theophanic rabbits we demand, would we believe? Using the various theological parables of the Bible, Yancey cites instance after instance where the narrative says God did indeed work just such miracles, including, but not limited to, the Plagues of Egypt, and after each such, the renewed belief the Israelites experienced proved short-lived. The Israelites saw the miracle, believed for a brief while, then returned to their old faithless ways. Yancey's conclusion is that, as far as the nurturance of faith is concerned, miracles are essentially parlor card-tricks, and about as evanescently effective at instilling enduring religious faith.

He infers from this conclusion that, in the case of his friend Richard's loss of faith, which starts Yancey’s book, even if God had complied with Richard's anguished pleading and provided evidence of God's presence and care, Richard would have experienced no rejuvenated faith in the long run. The fallacy here, as Yancey himself implicitly acknowledges, is that, even if theophanies and miracles are not effective in inculcating faith in an entire nation, there is no strict warrant for concluding that such measures would not instill faith in an individual. The behavior of people in aggregate is not a reliable predictor of the behavior of people as individuals.

I say Yancey "implicitly acknowledges" this fallacy, because he cites individual examples of people -- Abraham, Noah, Joseph, et al. -- whose faith, springing from just such a miracle or just such a theophany, was enduring. Not perfect. Just enduring. If Moses could see a burning bush and become a lifelong servant of God, why could not the same have been true of Richard? Yancey cannot have it both ways. Either miracles and theophanies are effective means of instilling faith or they are not. If they are as useless for that purpose as Yancey, without qualification, categorically argues, then there should be no Abrahams, no Noahs, no Josephs at all -- individually or collectively.

Secondly, Yancey's distinction between "looking at the beam" and "looking along the beam" (my italics) can be understood -- though I seriously doubt that Yancey would do so -- as implying that religious belief is, at bottom, a purely subjective matter, and that any objective, extra-personal significance of religious belief is vulnerable to being shaved away by Occam's Razor. Yancey says that, in the mode of looking-at-the-beam, the music of Beethoven is a matter of transcribing vibrations in the air -- say, the great Ninth Symphony -- to marks on a sheet of paper, and having these sonic vibrations accurately reproduced as rarefaction-compression waves in air, which then act on my auditory system in such a way that my brain "hears" the Ninth Symphony. Considerations of "beauty" and "meaning" fall away in such a purely physicalistic description. If one is talking about causation, this is all that is necessary to understand the concept of "music".

Most of us, myself included, would reject this account as exhaustive of the significance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beauty is real. Meaning is real. Yes, of course, to perceive things like "beauty" and "meaning", we do indeed have to do what Yancey calls "looking along the beam". If we do, we perceive both beauty and meaning. But we do so, each in our own idiosyncratic way. Beauty and meaning, though real, are not real in the same way or in the same sense as compression waves in the air, which, in principle, can be objectively measured by any suitably equipped and unbiased observer. Not so religious faith. So the price of "looking along the beam" is paid in the coin of objectivity and trans-personal or extra-personal significance. I doubt that Yancey would accept the conclusion that, by "looking along the beam", we see just that God that each of us is predisposed to see in her / his own mind. Yancey wants his God to be as objective as sound waves, but the way this God is perceived ("looking along the beam") will not permit that inference.

Finally, there is the issue of Ptolemaic epicycles. What does that have to do with Yancey's text? Everything. Prior to Galileo, the Church attempted to shore up the geocentric model of the Ptolemaic solar system with recourse to something called "epicycles", basically a byzantine system of "orbits within orbits within orbits within ... " that accounted for apparent anomalies like the (apparent) retrograde motion of, e.g., the planet Mars. One of the consequences of Galileo's (and before him, Copernicus's) heliocentric model is that it was simpler: it accounted for the motions of the planets, including retrograde motion, by placing the sun at the center of the solar system rather than the earth. (Strictly speaking, another missing piece was supplied by Kepler with his assertion that the planets move in ellipses, not perfect circles. Technically, we also need to understand that the planets’ orbits to not quite lie in the same geometric plane. But given the heliocentric model, elliptical orbits, and non-coplanar orbital planes, apparent retrograde planetary motion can be fully and quantifiably accounted for.) Occam's Razor says that, all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. With all the pieces in place supporting a Galilean / Copernican model of the planets in Keplerian elliptical orbits, sheer simplicity a la Occam's Razor gives the epistemological advantage to the heliocentric system.

Ptolemaic epicycles in a geocentric Universe

Much of Yancey's book strikes me as one man's valiant attempt to construct a byzantine system of theological and metaphysical epicycles in order to "save appearances" by securing the conclusion that God exists and cares for us. A much simpler hypothesis is available, though one that I cannot imagine Yancey advocating: that there is no God, or at most the Architect-God of classical 18th-century English deism or of Baruch Spinoza, so that "life, the universe, and everything" is a random, continuous, and ongoing accident, and that whatever meaning and compassion there is in life are human artifacts underwritten by our desire for meaning and compassion. This would save so much trouble, at least as much trouble as was saved by the similarly momentous move from a geocentric Ptolemaic universe to a heliocentric Galilean / Copernican / Keplerian one. But as I said, because of his prior commitments, this move is not available to Yancey.

In the end, Yancey is a magnificent, brave, even brilliant Don Quixote, jousting with the windmill of contemporary unbelief with a lance, made of papier-mache, that he believes to be tempered steel. I admire the guy. He has mega-chutzpah. I don't buy his arguments, but I do admire him for trying. He deserves a better Cervantes than I.

James R. Cowles

Note: as supplementary reading, I recommend Prof. David Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God, Archibald MacLeish's magnificent adaptation of the Book of Job JB, and Peter DeVries's haunting and almost-too-painful-to-read The Blood of the Lamb.

Image credits

Headache ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Westboro Baptist picket signs ... Photographer unknown ... CC BY 2.0
Helix Nebula ... NASA ... Public domain
Aurora -- Estonia ... Kristian Pikner ... CC by SA 4.0
Epicycles on epicycles ... Author unknown ... Public domain


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