We will be having our first episode of “The BioLogos Book Club” on the podcast in a couple of weeks, where we bring together a group of people with relevant experience and interesting insights to have a conversation about a book we read together.
For the first one, we are kicking it off with a work of fiction about a scientist wrestling with her work and family at an intersection of science, faith and identity.
About a fifth of the way in I became curious about how closely the story might follow the author’s own story so I looked for an interview and found this one in the Paris Review. Not sure whether I’ll finish reading the review first or the book, but both eventually.
From the intro the interviewer writes
“ I wanted to know how Gyasi came to write a novel that departs so much from her first novel, the critically acclaimedHomegoing, a multigenerational saga that spans centuries. I was surprised to hear her say that sticking to a single character in Transcendent Kingdom felt more freeing. The story feels like an excavation, like pulling from the depths a self.”
My desire to know more was spurred by some pretty heavy bad times the main character’s family goes through. She seems to be the only one with any hope of making a life (in science) beyond that morass. But one begins to sense that perhaps her escape may have led to her severing some links to the past whose cost she doesn’t yet recognize. So this is a little uncomfortable for me as her reader. This is definitely a character who is going to need some redemption.
The quote below struck me as significant. It comes on page 176 of my large print, paperback copy of the book. It is the final paragraph in a reflection by the main character regarding her longer stays in the lab studying addiction in mice while her mother (the Black Mamba) remains in her bed back at her apartment, unresponsive to her efforts to lure her out of depression but always capable of striking out at her in self worth sapping, judgmental ways.
“What’s the point of all this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing”?
To my mind “Nothing” is much more debilitating than “I don’t know”. The first answer could/should have been phrased “I don’t know but I trust that God does and has my back”. My own tweener position leads to the answer "I don’t know but there seems to be something more which is my silent partner which sees it all better and occasionally, if I leave space, I receive reassurance or even understanding. Plus there is much which inspires awe, wonder and appreciation, all of which can render moot the question "what’s the point of all this?
I have yet to start this book. But your comments, Mark, certainly spark interest for me.
And I really resonate with your distinction between the “I don’t know” and the much less humble expression of an unwarranted certainty: “Nothing”.
My inclination right now (facing the struggles and travails that I am seeing right now) is that I am very much animated and feel full of purpose at the moment. The agitant for me is … relationships. Wherever there is good relationship … or the sparks of it ready to be fanned to flame, or the dying embers of it that aren’t quite yet faded away … there is very much a purpose in life. Close friends feel this. Young (and old) lovers feel this. Nobody who still has the closeness of trusted relationship burning still in their hearts is at that moment agonizing over ‘what is the point of life’. I think that question begins to haunt us more when we face what feels to us like a desolation of absent (or vanishing) relationship. But even there, once we’ve tasted it, we are animated to pursue it in its absence. That is, unless despair has overwhelmed us and we retreat into anger or any other of the dangerous surrogates that masquerade as true or good purpose.
Sorry if that was totally tangent. Since I haven’t even begun to read the book on hand yet, my reaction here is probably unauthorized. Our aching human need for relationship and love (close to being synonyms perhaps?) is probably our reflection or taste of how much God longs for us in exactly the same way.
Hardly. Relationship is one of the big bulwarks against pointlessness which I left out.
I’m hoping you can make time for it but I realize as a teacher there is a ton that needs your attention. Authorized or not, your impressions are rarely bereft of interest.
So often one hears Christians talk of God as self sufficient and needing nothing, certainly nothing that puny us could offer. But I agree with you: whatever we call this something more, it is a partnership which is mutually beneficial even if we are the more dependent, junior partners. Even Hobbits have their use.
It’s one of the great puzzlements (and joys) of (traditional) Christianity. The God who needs absolutely nothing wants to have to do with us, who can offer Him nothing.
I’m not sure if it’s absolutely nobody. But certainly most.
Relationships, in my opinion, are hugely important to our grasp of our value. I don’t think they define that value, but they certainly aid our understanding of that value.
Another tidbit from pp 254-5 of my large print paperback copy.
We were the only black people at the First Assemblies of God Church; my mother didn’t know any better. She thought the God of America must be the same as the God of Ghana, that the Jehovah of the white church could not possibly be different from the one of the black church. …
…that day when she first walked into the sanctuary, she began to lose her children, who would learn well before she did did that not all churches in America are created equal, not in practice and not in politics. And, for me, the damage of going to a church where people whispered disparaging words about “my kind” was itself a spiritual wound—so deep and so hidden that it has taken me years to find and address it. And, for me, the damage of going to a church where people whispered disparaging words about “my kind” was itself a spiritual wound - so deep and so hidden that it has taken me years to find and address it. …
When I heard the gossip of those two women, I saw a veil lift and the shadow world of my religion come into view.
Everybody has a shadow so I suppose every religion can have one too. As we keep learning, given how deep faith goes, the potential for harm is greater for a church than for any individual. Of course, the potential for aid and comfort is also greater. Like any other institution, a church amplifies the strengths and weakness of the individuals who make it up, and with those, the potential for good and evil too.
I wouldn’t say they define value so much as provide it. For example, a close friend or a lover does not think of their relationship as something in need of justification or as only having value because of something else higher. The relationship is the ‘highest’ thing that itself gives value to other things, like some time spent together or the little gift you picked up because you know they would like that.
If someone was to ask a young man why he likes a particular woman, yes - he could probably list lots of great stuff he loves about her - but (if it’s true love) - he doesn’t love her because she has a certain color hair or enjoys doing this or that specific activity. He instead loves all those specific things because she likes them, or is that way. If she changed her mind and liked something else, then his desires would follow her, not the former things associated with her. In short she is the person that causes other things to have or not have value to him.