I once cold-called a young woman named Tiffany for a date. My call went straight to voice mail, so I left a message that began with these words, “Hi! My name is George P. Wood … .”
After a few dates, she told me that the use of my middle initial made her laugh. Who does he think he is? she thought. Alex P. Keaton? (For all you youngsters, Keaton was an uptight young man in the 1980s sitcom, Family Ties.)
Hearing this, I explained that the men in my family are all named George, so we use our middle initials to differentiate us: George R. (grandfather), George O. (father), and George P. (me).
Eventually Tiffany and I married and she started calling me P. Wood. Then we had a son whom we named George (obviously), though my wife insisted we call him by his middle name, Reese.
I tell you all this to make a point: Narratives shape our identity. By telling you about a cold call twenty years ago, you’ve learned about my ancestry, my marriage, my son, and even the TV shows that shaped my wife’s cultural stereotypes.
“Our identity is wrapped up with the story of our lives: the story we tell, the story we live in,” writes philosopher Paul M. Gould. He goes on to say, “the deep longing of the human heart is for a story that is both true and satisfying” (emphasis in original). We want what the title of his book promises — A Good and True Story.
Gould’s book is about two cultural metanarratives — story-shaping stories — that lie beneath the surface of a thousand smaller personal narratives: “the nonreligious story” versus “the religious story.” Like all stories, these two stories have a beginning, middle, and end.
The nonreligious story begins with matter, which is all that exists. In this story, there is no spiritual world. Because the material world is what Tennyson called “red in tooth and claw,” human beings live vulnerable existences. Thanks to advances in knowledge, however, we have built technologies and instituted social practices that buffer the difficulties we experience in life.
By contrast, the religious story begins with God, whom Gould defines as “an immaterial personal being that is worthy of worship.” God creates humanity, which has become alienated from Him. Unsatisfied with this alienation, God intervenes to reconcile humanity to himself. Union with God is the end of the story.
These two stories are binary. If one is true, the other is false. So how do we decide between them?
In successive chapters, Gould describes 11 “physical and metaphysical pointers” that “show us the way to God.” They do so whether considered individually or cumulatively. In other words, each points to God, but together they have greater explanatory scope and power.
So, what are the signs? Gould’s chapter titles offer one-word descriptions: universe, life, species, humans, morality, meaning, happiness, pain, love, beauty, and religion. Rather than summarizing each chapter, let me focus on just two: morality and pain.
Start with morality. As we go through life, we discern both values and obligations. We value actions as either good or bad. For example, honest testimony is good, while perjury is bad. More than valuing honest testimony, however, we feel obligated to tell the truth.
The nonmoral story has difficulty explaining why this is so. After all, how do you get moral values from brute matter? And while science may describe what is via natural laws, it cannot prescribe what ought to be. Gould writes, “Evolutionary naturalism” — a technical term for the nonreligious story — “cannot ground objective moral obligations.”
If God exists, however, then value and obligation make sense. “Objective moral goodness exists because God exists as a perfectly good and self-existent being that wills to bring into being various valuable states of affairs,” writes Gould. “Objective moral obligations exist because God has created humans to flourish in various ways, and when we live as we ought to live, we flourish in light of that nature.”
Gould’s statement brings us to pain. If the nonreligious story has a problem explaining moral value and obligation, the experience of pain — which seems opposite of flourishing — constitutes a problem for the religious story. How can an all-good, all-powerful God allow suffering?
The answer, Gould argues, revolves around meeting two conditions: “our suffering benefits us, and our highest good extends beyond this world.” We intuitively realize that in some cases, “No pain, no gain” is true. Working out at a gym is one example. Going through surgery for cancer is another.
Unfortunately, we don’t always experience gains in this life. Think of the religious believer who is arrested, tortured, then executed for their faith. What did they gain from their suffering? Nothing, if this life is the only life there is. If there is no hereafter, then Paul was right. Our motto should be, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).
But if there is a hereafter, then there is a possibility that the pains of this life will be more than made up for in the life to come with God. “Pain and suffering and evil point, if we listen, beyond this world to Another,” writes Gould.
If Gould is right about morality and pain, as well as the other signs he discusses, then people have good reason to believe the religious story instead of the nonreligious story. It is both true and satisfactory.
But is the religious story specifically Christian? The first ten signs establish the case for a generic theism. It is only with the eleventh sign — evidence for Jesus — that Gould’s case becomes specifically Christian. If I had to characterize the flow of his argument, I would say it moves through three phases: from creation (universe, life, species, humans) to character (morality, meaning, happiness, pain, love, beauty) to Christ (religion).
I believe Gould makes a reasonable argument. At minimum, he shows that religious belief can be rational. That is why I would recommend his book to non-Christian friends who have an open mind about faith, spirituality, and religion. It just might convince them that the gospel story is both good and true.
Paul M. Gould, A Good and True Story: Eleven Clues to Understanding Our Universe and Your Place in It (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022).
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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.