The narrative line of The Flight of Peter Fromm is that of the evolution of American fundamentalist belief and its adaptation to the world beyond the tribal society in which it has been formed. The answer, I am convinced, is: because American religious fundamentalism emerged in a period, around the turn of the 20th century, when a parallel debate about the fundamentals of mathematics was also taking place. While Christian religious belief had been under intense fire by historical criticism and biblical exegesis during the latter half of the 19th century, mathematics was simultaneously being challenged to demonstrate its own rationality. The situation provoked a response among American Christians that became known as Fundamentalism, that is, the adherence to a specific and fixed set of doctrinal fundamentals regardless of scientific, historical internal biblical evidence which might seem to contradict them. The initial response of the mathematical community was not unlike that of the American Protestants. Russells Principia had a run of growing popularity for about 20 years until a mathematical smart aleck named Kurt Godel demonstrated not only that Russell and Whitehead were wrong, but that the very objective of their project, the establishment of the inherent rationality of numbers, was futile. Education was eroding the credibility of primitive religious beliefs generally; the expansion of the federal government was providing a cohesive American self-image which was independent of the local, historically religiously-based identity; scientific and philosophical research in language began to show the inherent conventionality of words and their problematic relation to things. So religious fundamentalism was feeling exactly the same pinch as its mathematical sibling: if even language was unreliable, what hope could doctrinal pronouncements, necessarily made in language, have for expressing the purported truth of religion.*** Gardner picks up his story at just about this historical point. Unitarians, very much like mathematicians, are aware of the fundamental irrationality of their adherence to their calling. It is here that the book makes an important contrast between the religious and mathematical responses to failure. The issue he seems to be putting forth is: Can we make a rational response to a situation which is literally fundamentally irrational? Mathematics is the hidden metaphor in Gardners novel for an alternative to fundamentalist tribalism, an alternative that expands the community of believers indefinitely. They have demonstrated their fundamentalism with no regard for evidence, or logic, or their fellow human beings for the past year. *** By the time of WWII, Reinhold Niebuhr, the premier American Protestant theologian, could write a 600 page book, Human Nature and Human Destiny, with not a single mention of the central Christian belief of the Resurrection.
Each step along the way Peter studies and ponders with deep emotional feelings the various religious, philosophical, and scientific ideas. he had one rare, refreshing trait, a constitutional inability to accept any form of intellectual evasion."(9)The story is narrated by a mentor professor/preacher who virtually adopts Peter during his years at the seminary as an extended member of his family. The professor is a Unitarian minister, but in private conversations admits that he doesn't believe there is a God. Early in the book the professor explains the demands on his profession as,"To be a Protestant minister today, in the typical church of a prosperous suburb, one must be as skilled as a politician in the rhetoric of ambiguity, circumlocution, and double-talk." (9)The problem for Peter near the end of the book is that he has finally arrived at the end of his studies with a PhD in theology, and he now has to face the prospect of entering a profession where he will be expected to deliver a weekly sermon to a church congregation."I feel the way young Barth must have felt...The good people of my flock will be sitting there, looking up, expecting me--expecting me!--to talk to them about God, to tell them what they should believe and what they ought to do. How can I do that when I don't know myself what to believe or do?" (207)His professor/mentor explains his choice."...you have to choose between being a truthful traitor or a loyal liar." (208)Peter has arrived at a point where intellectually he's a secular humanist but he still possesses remnants of the former Pentecostal within his heart. The book ends after Peter has recovered from his climatic break with a conversation between him and his professor friend about faith. I only know I can't not believe." (271)The professor says he believes that Peter is evading all the dilemmas of theism by calling them mysteries.
I liked the theological digressions, though at times they assumed knowledge that even I didn't have (let alone someone who did not grow up in a protestant church) and were a little dry. The author has done a wonderful job of making a story seem incredibly real.
One needs to be well versed in philosophy and religion (especially Barth) to keep up with the author's telling of the development of the religious mind of Peter Fromm. I guess my most important concern with the book was the arrogant attitude of the author as he described Peter's spiritual development.
I think it made this book worth a read, maybe a skim if you don't enjoy all the lengthy parts. *** I didn't actually finish this book, but was very near the end, which is a bit frustrating. The actual journey and overall of the book I think was interesting.
Gardner's encyclopedic knowledge of Christologies and theologies and the world of the University of Chicago and secular humanismeverything in this book seems made to touch strings I still and will always vibrate to.
In the end I loved the story of Peter, a student of theology, and his journey and crisis of faith.
It's kind of enjoyable if you know the theological ideas and people, as the book's narrator gives it's commentary on the various ideas and figures.
I think it was an intro to the New Testament class.