A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
September 8, 2011 2

Brief notes: All things shining… a book review

By in brief notes

This morning I received a review of an interesting new book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. The book is All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (Free Press, 2011.) Here’s an edited excerpt from the review:

Dreyfus and Kelly open All Things Shining with a promise of no less than deliverance from the boredom, nihilism and despair that they think characteristic of our “secular age”. To accomplish this deliverance they take readers on a whirlwind tour through the history of Western thought.

The problem is the need for a middle path between two tempting, though in the authors’ view bankrupt, positions. The first is the “temptation to monotheism,” which they trace to the rise of Christianity. Monotheism promised “ultimate or final” meaning, “an ultimate truth behind everything that is”. The authors never make entirely clear what they mean by a “final” or “ultimate” account. But, as their extended discussion of Melville’s Moby Dick makes clear, they think that the possibility of such a thing disappears with monotheistic faith.

Still saddled with unsatisfiable longing for ultimate meaning, post-monotheist secularists fall prey to the second temptation, trying to create this meaning for themselves. This turns out to be merely a detour to the same ennui and despair it aimed to avoid.

The authors dismiss the possibility of an objective source of meaning — at least of “ultimate” meaning — and critique attempts to meet our yearning for one by subjective creation. But, unsurprisingly, they have difficulty locating a third possibility.

The lengthy review finishes:

The authors’ most significant mistake then is their early promise that they can address this state of mind. Baseball games are great fun and coffee is nice, but offered as antidotes to despair these things are hard to take seriously. Instead the book accomplishes the more modest goal of demonstrating that a breakdown of experienced meaning in the wake of secularism is not wholly inevitable.

The result is that the authors’ engaging reading of selections from the Western canon leaves everyone right where they were. It neither addresses the monotheist nor delivers the despairing secularist. But those fortunate enough to have the resources to invest in baseball games and coffee rituals, and the disposition not to worry too much about the “ultimate” significance of such things, will find affirmation here.

You can find the full review here.

COMMENT on this post

2 Responses to “Brief notes: All things shining… a book review”

  1. Chris Mulherin says:

    Thanks to Anne for alerting us to a post at the Immanent Frame which is an interview with Sean Kelly, one of the authors of “All things shining”. It’s at: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/10/24/the-shining-and-the-shiny/

  2. Robert Brown says:

    If you find that your analysis of awe leads you to a belief in a God, I suggest you should then consider the question(s): “Is God a Christian? A Muslim? A Jew? A Buddhist? An Atheist? or possibly all of these at once?

    Like Feynman I find the fantastic capability of the human brain to examine the fundamental questions of life and the nature of the universe, sufficient to overcome the fear of my own death without having to make up some mumbo jumbo about a divine being and some mysterious ways for living after my human cells degenerate.
    Cheers, Robert.

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