Meaning and Mystery: What it means to believe in God–David M. Holley

A book that is getting many good reviews from both academics and religious publications is David Holly, Meaning and Mystery. Holly approaches the question of the belief in God from a post-secular and post liberal perspective, God is part of our lives in a non-foundational way and the criteria for believe is whether God is part of our narrative. He takes from Charles Taylor the idea that we all create narratives or social imaginaries to make meaning of our lives. He also takes from all the new studies on evangelicals that people adopt Evangelical beliefs because it fits into their personal narratives. Hence, belief in God is non-foundational and based on our personal histories. God cannot be proved or disproved. Neither philosophy or science play a role in the belief in God. Someone who does not have God in their life cannot communicate with someone who does since they have different life stories. He does invoke Pascal and cheer for belief in ways that don’t fit with Charles Taylor, but many points of his are good. He seems to be working on a sequel on how the question of falsification is dealt with in a personal narrative approach.

Here is a review from a religious publication.

ONE of the myths of post-modernism is that we have entered the age of no meta-narratives.
Non¬sense. We are in the age of many meta-narratives. David Holley doesn’t even bother with the modern/post-modern question. He simply argues that it is these “life-orienting” meta-narratives that determine belief in God, or otherwise. This is the thesis expounded clearly and credibly in the first chapter, so that there is a certain inevitability about his attack on the “God of the Philosophers” who is the end point of a logical or empirical argument rather than an idea central to a life-orienting narrative that is accepted because it makes sense of experience, and is a plausible and practical guide for action.

Holley maintains that atheism is as dependent as theism on such life-orienting narratives.. Of course, such narratives require a degree of receptivity on our part if they are to be life-orienting, and it is in the nature of human freedom that they should be capable of being resisted.

Holley effectively exposes the worst excesses of rationalism and scientism that characterize many contemporary despisers of religion. Here he owes a significant debt to Alexander MacIntyre when it comes to seeing the very idea of virtues and values as incompatible with a purely naturalistic version of reality.
This leaves the way clear for him to demonstrate how narratives that include God are more likely to offer meaning to our lives than those that do not.
The final chapter deals with how we relate to religious and non-religious views other than our own. Holley contends that trying to evaluate various world-views from a standpoint outside any of them is impossible. We can address them only from within the life-orienting narrative we have adopted, and that way we can accommodate doubt and uncertainty without compromising the narrative that works for us.

From a scientific study of religion review interview:

What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
DH: While the question of God’s existence is typically dealt with as a theoretical issue, I claim that it makes most sense to treat it as a practical question. Each of us needs what I call a life-orienting story, a narrative that relates a picture of what is ultimately real to individual experience in a way that makes a particular way of living intelligible and attractive. Some narratives of this kind include God and some explicitly exclude God. Reflective judgment about God occurs in the context of considering alternative narratives that might provide orientation for a way of living. In that context the issue is not only whether the understanding provided by a narrative coheres with what we take to be the facts, but whether or not it has the power to engage a person in a way of life she finds worthy.

And what is it that draws you (personally) to this topic?
DH: I am struck by the way religious claims and religious ways of life seem virtually unintelligible to some people. In the introduction to the book I cite one author who questions whether anyone actually believes in God because he thinks of the belief as a hypothesis that lacks any evidential support. Both believers and unbelievers are tempted to construe the issue in this way, and as a result the discussion gets sidetracked from the kind of belief intelligent religious people hold and the considerations that actually persuade them.

What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
DH: I would like to persuade people that standard ways of thinking about God’s existence do not get to the heart of the matter. I’d like to reconfigure the discussion between believers and nonbelievers away from arguments about an isolated proposition to consideration of alternative narratives that might structure a way of life. I expect that some people will misunderstand my book, imagining that I am advocating some kind of disregard of rational evidence. Instead, I am trying to show what kind of reflection is appropriate for cases where we inevitably end up believing some practical narrative (naturalistic or theistic) that cannot be established on purely empirical grounds.

5 responses to “Meaning and Mystery: What it means to believe in God–David M. Holley

  1. If I recall correctly, R. Shaga”r z”l makes some similar points in ‘Kelim Shevurim’.
    I jotted down some musings on this issue a few years ago as I prepared for the Pesach seder:
    http://adderabbi.blogspot.com/2006/04/identity-and-narrative.html

    This discussion adds a dimension to the Kuzari’s point about God introducing Himself as our Redeemer and not as the Creator.
    Ultimately, it can be a fundamental (and welcome) reorientation of the way we think of lots of things (including Chezkas Habatim).

  2. Rav Shagar in Kelim Shuvim is openly post-modern, there is no certainty, no narratives, no harmony, no place to return to so we need to be post-modern Religious Zionist. And in the last two pages of the first essay, he affirms a God in the heart of our own creation not far from Green’s position. There are some good reviews and debate in Hazofeh when it came out.

    Holley is closer to your Kuzari idea. Holley argues that God is from our personal narratives of meaning. Holly can explain the attraction of Orthodox Judaism or evangelicals, or renewal as a narrative of meaning.
    Rav Shagar rejects the concept of meta-narrative in Kelim Shevurim and Rav Shagar would certainly not justify all the -BT foundationalism or orthodox dogmatism

  3. I like the non foundational part which seems pretty clear. I am less clear on the role of God in Jewish narratives. There are tight controls who is a ben bayis, an intimate friend with God. And there are even tighter controls on what we allow God to say to us. A Rebbe who said “I just had a chat with Hashem and He is definitely in favor of adding a new wing to our shtibel,” is a goner. Even in immanentist accounts of ain od milevado, God doesn’t end up as a character in a life story. I speculate than on closer analysis the relationship these days is with empirical objects, teachers, families, books, schools, neighborhoods. Evangelicals are schmoozers, they hold on tight to Jesus. We hold on tight to the books.

    I also don’t quite understand why people with religious narratives can’t communicate with outsiders. Can mountain climbers and adventurers communicate with the rest of us?

    • I think that you are correct that there is a difference about reference to God in Orthodox circles. But people do say Barukh Hashem, or learn to say tehillim, or Hashem is testing me or I need to follow Hashem though mizvot. I would be nice if we had a study of the language used. There is a great sociology book “The Book of Jerry Falwell” that shows how that group learns to weave God into their daily language.In the current Orthodox configuration, the role of TMS or the ol mitzvvot may function as the marked of a God narrative.
      To your other point, people who live their life to travel and have been to 70 countries and dont bother with home and hearth would not be able to have a meaning discussion of values with someone whose values are kin and kith. They can communicate (and debate) but neither side has enough commonality in their sense of meaning in life.

  4. As much as he talks about narrative, from the description above he seems to echo the American pragmatist tradition.

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