This is a list of some of the most important books in my life and intellectual and spiritual development. I hope you find something intriguing and I would love to hear your thoughts on any of the below.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
An incredible book of bite-sized, accessible insights into the irrationality of the human brain. The insights summarize decades of the fruitful research from Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman (much of that in partnership with the late Amos Tversky) and highlights the fallibility of our rational capabilities and how non-intuitive statistical thinking can be for us. It was quite unsettling at first, making me wonder how much of our thinking we can ever really trust, but ultimately it led me to think more graciously of my fellow human beings and to go slower in my own process of forming opinions to account for snap judgments and assumptions that may very well be completely off-base.
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis’s quirky, often difficult, novel providing a counterpoint to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In The Great Divorce, the protagonist visit a Purgatory-like Grey Town then an area of Pre-Heaven, and learns about what kind attitudes and habits keep people from accepting Heaven and from starting to live Heavenly lives on Earth. This short book encapsulates much of Lewis’s theological thought and is an underappreciated gem of his work.
Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham H. Maslow
In Toward a Psychology of Being, Maslow addresses two gaps he saw in the behaviorist and psychoanalytic psychologies of his time, thus creating the field of humanistic or positive psychology. He claims psychoanalytic thought erroneously assumes neuroses to be fundamental to humanity, rather than existential “illnesses” to be cure, and that behaviorism erroneously assumes humans are too much of a blank slate, not allowing for a real, unique, persistent concept of the self. He presents an alternative theory of the authentic self and how we can move towards greater authenticity.
New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
Merton writes a book aiming to awaken the spiritual side of the reader, and presents a framework for authenticity in his descriptions of the “false” self and the “real” self. In his view, we are all authentically saints in God’s kingdom, wholly unique with a holy purpose all our own. It’s a beautiful book that brings our uniqueness to the forefront of how we relate to God as His Self-reflecting creation.
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
Written in the style of St. Augustine’s Confessions, Merton describes his journey from academic to Trappist monk in the early 20th century. His descriptions of his inner struggles and ultimate peace construct almost a theology of authenticity, and I find his descriptions of the false self as distinguished from the real self to be a wonderful spiritual treatment of the ideas of humanistic psychology (though Merton certainly didn’t have those intentions).
Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In this fairly radical (for Christian ethics) book, Bonhoeffer argues that Christians have embraced a rigid system of behavioral rules that fails to allow for truly ethical behavior. Instead, he argues for a religious situationism, an ethical system that is dynamic, requiring responses appropriate to and fully immersed in each individual, unique situation. Christian situationism has one hard-and-fast rule and one only – maintain intimacy at all times with Jesus Christ. In that intimacy, Bonhoeffer says, we receive the wisdom and guidance particular not only to each of us, but to the action that is appropriate and right for our immediate circumstances.
The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer
Shermer provides a comprehensive overview of the science behind what we believe and why. It is an eye-opening book for anyone devoted to a particular worldview (aka, everyone) and shows just how tenuous our grasp on reality is compared to how strongly we assert our opinions. The brain is a delicate, murky, opaque thing and we do well to acknowledge its limitations and continually search for truth, even in instances where we think we’ve already found it. (I also recommend Believing by Michael McGuire for more on this topic.)