Thursday, May 25, 2006
Book Review: The Quest for God
The subtitle of Paul Johnson's book, The Quest for God, is more relevant to its contents. It is subtitled A Personal Pilgrimage -- and that is just what the book is. Paul Johnson is a leading British historian who was born into a Roman Catholic family and has remained a practising Catholic. Johnson does not hide the fact that his book is a personal journey. But he clearly wants to make Christianity attractive and reasonable to the average reader. The first few chapters are the better ones where he shares his reasons for writing the book ('partly to help myself, partly to help other people'). He wants to 'resolve many doubts in [his] own mind, to clarify [his] thoughts and to try to define what God means to [him] and [his] life.' In doing this, he hopes that his book will help 'others to straighten out' their beliefs. Johnson describes his book as a meditation rather than a manual or an attempt at proselitysing. His second chapter explores the reasons for belief in God surviving in the world against all odds. His third chapter focuses on 'the total, and in many cases abject, failure of the alternatives to God.' In a sense, Johnson arrives at the reality of God because there are no viable alternatives. As Johnson proceeds, he tackles some of the toughest questions facing Christians: who God is; the issue of divinity, gender, and sex; the relationship of humans to the natural world; suffering and evil; and so on. As Johnson proceeds, the discussion becomes increasingly saturated with unique Catholic beliefs such as the so-called immaculate conception of Mary; prayer to Mary and the saints; purgatory; prayers for the dead; and the nature of Hell. For someone like me, coming from within a Protestant tradition, Johnson's point of view became increasingly distanced from mine. It was interesting to hear about Catholic belief from a Catholic writer. But it was harder and harder to identify with his point of view. Given that Johnson explicitly states that his book is a meditation on his own journey, this is not a problem. It provides a fascinating insight into Catholicism and the reasons for some of the doctrines that Protestants have rejected since the Reformation. The book won't be enjoyed by everyone. And it doesn't have the apologetic power of a writer like C S Lewis. It is good to listen to other people's stories and try to understand the world view that they inhabit. In that sense, this book has value. But it won't be a book for everyone. In the end, Johnson may have sorted out his own ideas by writing the book. But it didn't do that for me.