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‘Leaving the Church to find God’: an excerpt from Tin House’s conversation with Paul Harding

Former rock-band-drummer-turned-author Paul Harding shocked the hell out of lit-types recently by winning the Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel Tinkers. Published by an indie, non-profit press at the NYU School of Medicine (no joke), Harding’s fictional account of a dying man’s hallucinatory meanderings has become the darling of struggling, art-minded authors everywhere.

My review of the book is on the way. In the meantime, take a moment to enjoy this surprising quote touching on theology, atheism, and quantum mechanics from his recent conversation with Tony Perez from Tin House:

TP: There’s a quiet spirituality to your work that I think is lacking in a lot of contemporary fiction (your old teacher Marilynne Robinson being an obvious exception) and I’ve heard you’re a big reader of theology. I wonder if you could talk about how your work or your thinking is influenced by people like Karl Barth, or Martin Luther. Or even someone like William James?

PH: All the people you’ve just described I think you can sort of line up in parade formation, they all come out of the same tradition—reformed Protestant thinking. I grew up here in Boston kind of a neutral atheist. I read my Nietzsche and what not, but I wasn’t a dogmatic atheist—I wasn’t doctrinaire; I didn’t have anything against religion. And then after having studied with Marilynne Robinson for a number of years, it occurred to me that if I asked her where the source of her aesthetic, and intellectual, and soulful kind of integrity and sophistication came from, she would tell me that it was her religion. She would tell me that it came out of her reading in this tradition. Given that I respect her so much, I would be inclined to respect her answer, her own accounting of herself. So I just started to read these things and I found them to be incredibly beautiful— deeply concerned with narrative and cosmology. It was so much more than the popular sand kicking you hear in the press between Richard Dawkins and Creationists—the crummy little cartoon versions of these things. The more deeply I read into them, the more I realize that if you isolate yourself from these traditions of thinking, you’re isolating yourself from most of Western intellectual history, up until, almost post-World War II thinking. It almost feels like a type of censorship, like “religion’s bad for you, don’t bother looking at theology.” I read someone like Karl Barth and it’s just the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing human thought I’ve encountered. In Tinkers, since it’s fiction, I’m not under the obligation to engage in apologetics or offer proof, but I can explore things. I can play around with them dramatically and aesthetically, and sort of see how these people account for themselves in terms of spiritual conceptions of who they are in the Universe.

If you look at Emerson, he was a Unitarian minister and he left the church. The common rap about that is, you know, he left the church for greener pastures. But if you look at the tradition out of which he came, there’s a strong argument to be made that he left the church to find God. That’s the Protestant tradition—at least the writing and thinking with which I’m familiar. There’s a built-in anti-authoritarianism, the presumption that the institutional church is a human construction; it’s always going to ossify, and it’s antithetical to truly pious thinking. For them, really what it comes down to, is you and scripture. The Unitarians broke away from the Calvinists; the Calvinists broke away from the Lutherans; the Lutherans broke away from the Catholics; the Catholics broke away from the Jews; the Jews broke away from the Babylonians. That’s a beautiful tradition, and seems hardwired into this understanding of what pursuing religion and that kind of thinking is. The best theologians, for example Karl Barth, view the Bible as a work of literature, and that does not demean its normative or holy authority. He’s a close reader of a text. It’s a much more sophisticated use of the imagination and the intellect, and just makes you think about what we talk about when we talk about God. When you go back to someone like Dawkins, he just perverts all that stuff by saying, “if you believe in God, you believe in an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne.” Of course that’s ridiculous. But then you realize that people like Dawkins have never read a word of theology, they rely on popular prejudice—or all this material positivism that they misheard in their, you know, Wittgenstein 101 class. If everything is made of matter, and there is no such thing as the spirit, then all that means is that we have no idea what the nature of matter is. I’m perfectly willing to grant that everything is made out of stuff, but that just means that we don’t really know what stuff is. To me, theology and poetry and art go hand-in-hand with physics. That version of materialism is totally antiquated, out-dated, Newtonian mechanics. They’re always complaining that it’s not testable, it’s not falsifiable, but the most sophisticated quantum mechanical experiments only make the nature of matter more ambiguous than it ever was before—it’s all observer dependent. If you’re a writer, there’s a very cool anti-realist strain in quantum mechanics. Supraluminal influence and observer dependent reality—all of that speaks to the experiential and participatory nature of human consciousness. When translated into fiction, it’s part of character. There’s a passage in Tinkers where Howard is walking through the woods, and when he turns around to look at his wagon, he’s certain that every time he turns his head, everything behind him disappears or changes. In a way, that’s just fooling around with quantum physics, just in a narrative sense.

Love, love, love that bit about Wittgenstein 101. So funny. Seriously, read the whole article. And the book.

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7 Comments  »

  1. Tyson says:

    That’s so awesome. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Bill Kinnon says:

    The quote gave me goose bumps. Now I need to go see if the book is available on Kindle.

    Thanks for this, Jason.

  3. love that…contingency and the Kingdom…looking forward to your review now, and maybe picking up the book.

    peace

  4. Clay says:

    I like his comments on modern physics. Western Christians have no idea how the presuppositions that form our worldview are influenced by outdated science. Our whole view of reality is outdated. What’s funny is that the patristics, writing long before the scientific revolution, expressed a Christian worldview that is compatible and complementary with the findings of modern physics. Barth and his protege Torrance have been really helpful to me in correcting my worldview, and it’s because their theological foundation starts with the early (eastern) Church fathers, and not the reformers.

  5. Drew Lawson says:

    Well, that’s about all the motivation I needed to buy a copy. My schoolwork is going to suffer hard come next Tuesday.

  6. Jason Coker says:

    @Clay – So true.

    @Drew – It’s less than 200 pages, so it should only ruin an afternoon or so.

  7. JH says:

    Don’t know if Bill bought the Kindle version – if he did, you’ve sold at least two (for some reason it is only 5 bucks). Anyway, great post. Very attractive answer.

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