Book review - Stories we Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe

Deepening Spirituality
Image of a multicoloured vortex
Richard Holloway

Book review by Roger Lasko

In this wonderful book, Richard Holloway takes us to the point he has reached on his religious journey: a Christianity without God (or at least that doesn’t depend on a belief in God), living life as Christ told his followers to live in the Sermon on the Mount, not because Christ says, or God says, or the Church says but because living as Christ said is the right way to live. Holloway talks of the power of forgiveness to break the eternal, blood-stained cycle of revenge; of challenging the social injustice that allows there to be poverty in the midst of plenty; of creating the kingdom, heaven here on earth, by finding the courage to do something.

That is where we get to at the end of the book. The book starts with the terrible story of a small child left to die by her mother on the central reservation of a busy main road in California. Richard Holloway simply cannot fit that incident into the story of a loving, all-powerful God as told by the Christian religion. Nor, as he tells us in the beautiful prologue to this book, could Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan is appalled by the justificatory story told by the church of how God could possibly allow suffering to little children. Having to believe that story is too high a price to pay for admission. Ivan wants no part of it ‘And therefore I hasten to return my ticket’ (readers can find much of this elsewhere in ‘Stories we tell ourselves’, Richard Holloway’s address to the 2019 PCN Conference on theology and atheism, see link below).

The story of Jesus, as told in the Gospels of Matthew and of Thomas, does not explain how that small child could have been left to die, nor does it explain the countless other acts of cruelty to innocent children over the ages. But, Richard Holloway tells us, it does give us a way of responding to such horrors. He reaches that point by way of a tour, spanning the furthest reaches of pre-history to the present day, of ideas about the world around us and our place in that world, and the consequences of those ideas. This is a scholarly tour, illustrated throughout with references to novelists, philosophers, poets, scientists and religious thinkers, as well as his own readings of religious texts. This is all done in the course of just a couple of hundred pages with an illuminating clarity of thought (reading Holloway’s account of Bonhoeffer’s theology in Letters and Papers from Prison was, for me, like having the lights turned on). There is some technical jargon, but when it does appear it is carefully explained and is usually necessary. (That said, I am not entirely convinced we actually need ‘antisyzygy’. But if you’re an author with a word like that up your sleeve, you’ll want to use it somewhere. And Holloway does explain it nicely.)

The core of the book is organised into 4 sections.

First is a canter through the history of scientific enquiry into the problem of existence with Holloway musing about quite how much the theory of the Big Bang does and does not explain. This section includes the archaeological evidence of the first glimmerings, perhaps 130,000 years ago, of religious thought; and of the clear evidence over the ages of the human compulsion to find explanations for everything that concerns us, to find a cause and, if one cannot be found, to make one up ‘and so we came up with the notion of God’ taken up and developed by most of the great religions, not least by Christianity.

Next is his account of the history of Christian theology. The opening chapter of this section ‘Why we are the problem’ is a warning of the dangers of belief dressed up as certainty. It starts with the all-too recent example of Tony Blair’s belief in Weapons of Mass Destruction drawing us into the invasion of Iraq. But the bulk of this chapter is a raging account of religious beliefs being forced onto unbelievers, whether by threats of torture or of eternal damnation. Then comes the Biblical accounts of Creation, starting with the Genesis story of the first 6 days of God’s great works. Holloway has already told us about the need to read such texts in the way they would have been written, full of awe at the inexplicable wonders of creation. And if some religious people want to read this story as literal truth well, it makes a bit of a laughing-stock of the church, but maybe no great harm is done, says Holloway.

It is a different matter however when it comes to the other part of the Genesis story of creation – the story of The Fall. Holloway’s account of the consequences of this story is rich in analysis and insight, drawing on much Biblical scholarship, on Nietzsche, and on Jewish interpretations of what is, after all, their Bible. The traditional Christian readings of the story of The Fall most certainly have done harm, not just in the horrors inflicted on women over the ages as the sinful sex, not just the traditional Christian embarrassment about sexuality, nor the sense of guilt built into our liturgy. Holloway tells us the traditional church reading of these stories has also deprived future generations of the wisdom and guidance that can be found in them when read and interpreted in other ways.

Fortunately, he says, there ‘have always been men and women who more trust in the validity of their own intuitions and spiritual experiences than in the sanctioned truths of dogmatic religion. We call them mystics.’

So follows Holloway’s eye-witness account of the drug culture of San Francisco in June 1968 starting to spin out of control on the very day that Robert Kennedy died having been shot the previous night. Holloway again draws on Nietzsche in his analysis of the chaos and irrationality of both sides of that cultural divide: on the one side the counter-culture losing its innocence with the Manson murders; and the other, the America where Martin Luther King Jnr had been murdered just weeks before Kennedy, the America of the war in Vietnam.

There has though always been mysticism without magic mushrooms. We are familiar with the mysticism of the Eastern religions but Holloway gives us an account of Christian mysticism, starting with the visions of St Teresa of Avila which he links with the ‘apophatic’ theology of Christian mystics which avoids all attempts to define God, talking only of what the divine mystery can not be. So to Meister Eckhart, 250 years before Teresa, with ‘the still desert of the Godhead’. Holloway’s anger with the established church (of which of course, he was once a leader) comes out again in this chapter with his account of the response of ‘the uniformed branch of the Church... (to) that kind of thing’, with its insistence on certainty as against the open-minded wonder of the mystics.

Christian mysticism did not end with the Middle Ages. In a remarkable passage, Holloway gives examples from our own era of sober Christians having visions and out-of-body experiences, including his own. Out of such experiences can come wisdom.  For those of us (like me) who are inclined to dismiss mysticism as the avoidance of serious thought about difficult questions, this chapter is challenging. Holloway draws on the work of several professional philosophers to support his case for contemporary mysticism as a source of wisdom. His reading of their work is that any given philosophical approach can only take us so far in answering the big questions; we should instead be open to other approaches, including the ‘what works’ schools of American pragmatism and English empiricism. I am not wholly convinced by Holloway’s inclusion of mysticism in the ‘what works’ list but him doing so is certainly chimes with his consistent insistence on open-mindedness.

And so we return to the dreadful story of the little girl left to die. First, is an extended account of the stories the Christian religion has given to the problem of suffering. Holloway is withering in his criticism of the theologies of suffering to be found in the Old Testament and parts of the New, and of the theologies devised by the church over the centuries. This is a no holds barred demolition: intellectually wrong, morally wrong, wicked justifications for further suffering, all completely inadequate when applied to children and all arguments against the existence of the loving, all powerful God of Christianity.

Now Holloway returns to the notion he has raised earlier in the book ‘Better no-God, a-theos, than that false God’. And that in turn leads him back to the theology of the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which he develops in an extended passage before giving us his last chapter, The Story I Now Tell Myself. Here is the story that he now tries ‘feebly to live by’, the story that makes him a Christian, the story that, unlike Ivan, encourages him to hold on to his ticket.

Canongate Books
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Books and book reviews