Last year, the story of Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi went viral–and for good reason. The 36 year old Dr. Kalanithi was dying of lung cancer and had written an article for Stanford Medicine, in which he addressed his infant daughter in such moving terms that it feels trite to try to describe them. It turns out that the essay was merely an excerpt of a book-length reflection, When Breath Becomes Air, which was published posthumously last month. Suffice to say, it will leave you in a puddle on the ground (his widow’s epilogue – Oh My Lord). Sarah commented powerfully on the ending last year, but I couldn’t resist calling our attention to a brief section in which Dr. Kalanithi writes about returning to Christianity after spending a post-college decade in what he calls “ironclad atheism”. The past tense is a little confusing, but he’s not talking about a former belief so much as how he came to understand the faith as an adult:

breath airScience may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

Between those core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience. The realm of metaphysics remains the province of revelation (this, not atheism, is what Occam argued after all). And atheism can be justified only on these grounds. The prototypical atheist, then, is Graham Greene’s commandant from The Power and the Glory, whose atheism comes from a revelation of the absence of God…

Yet I returned to the central values of Christianity–sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness–because I found them so compelling. There is a tension in the Bible between justice and mercy, between the Old Testament and the New Testament. And the New Testament says you can never be good enough: goodness is the thing, and you can never live up to it. The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time.

Not only that, but maybe the basic message of original sin isn’t “Feel guilty all the time.” Maybe it is more along these lines: “We all have a notion of what it means to be good, and we can’t live up to it all the time.” Maybe that’s what the message of the New Testament is, after all. Even if you have a notion as well defined as Leviticus, you can’t live that way. It’s not just impossible, it’s insane. (pgs. 170-171)