Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Meaningful Meditations

I picked up The Quest for God based on the endorsement—if we may stretch the term to call it that—which the imperturbably irreligious John Derbyshire gave it in one of his pieces for National Review: "I am tempted to say that any believers out there who feel like writing a book of apologetics should imitate P.J.’s approach, if they want to make any impression on the unbelieving reader." Since apologetic tracts seem to have lamentably little influence on those whom they were written to convince, when a casual visitor doesn't run out shrieking in the midst of all the preaching to the choir, the preacher merits further investigation.

In contrast to some of his more opinionated works—Intellectuals, for instance—The Quest for God is largely respectful and even-handed. This is not to say that Johnson avoids the difficulties inherent in a meditation on tricky theological issues, either by avoiding them altogether, or by pretending that they do not exist. Instead, he freely admits that the most important areas of belief are usually those most shrouded in mystery, and confesses his own ignorance and uncertainty. "We may not be able to being to understand God. We may not even be able to believe in him."

While admitting that he wants all to experience the riches of Catholicism, Johnson admits: "I never proselytize, as such... I want to help -I do help when asked or when it is clear my help is needed and will be useful. But I also confess my own woeful ignorance and shortcomings and uncertainties." This is a good approach to take. Our attempts to provide spiritual assistance may be well-intended, but they are not always appreciated. Instead of attempting to cajole reluctant converts, Johnson provides useful thoughts for anyone who is concerned with the questions which vex us all, while also giving incite into the mind of an intelligent believer.

Unfortunately, the book is not exactly orthodox: "Not only do I think there is salvation outside my church; I also think that, for some people, salvation is more likely outside my church - in other churches or no church." Since few people would turn to Johnson for theological certitude, fellow Catholics shouldn't be too bothered with this passage—see instead CCC 816. Of greater concern: one wonders why anyone would become a Catholic if salvation can be had without bothering with all that awful church business. It is a tricky balance to maintain: charitably interpreting the more difficult aspects of Christianity while insisting that truth is nonnegotiable. For the most part, Johnson achieves this by adequately exploring each issue he examines. Death, heaven, hell, purgatory: they're all here--and much more besides.

The closing chapter on prayer he calls "the most important". Although he does not cite Pascal in this context, Johnson maintains that all can and should pray; since our belief in God ultimately has no bearing on whether or not he exists, it is prudent for everyone to do so. This holds even for the agnostic or atheist: "In a way, the prayer for faith is the purest form of prayer." If God exists, and he is at all concerned with human beings, he cannot help but assist those who implore his help. This is why prayer is "the one thing I have found in life that never fails completely."

The Quest for God was enlightening and edifying—as most of Johnson's books are—and it draws one's attention away from worldly things to that which really matters, if only for a brief while. That is the merit of books of this type. There are better reflections out there, but Paul Johnson has contributed a worthy addition.

1 comment:

troutsky said...

A "tricky business" indeed. I suppose "worldly matters" seem to be at the forefront now because the planet is in a spot of bother at the present conjuncture.