Flashes of Insight On the Nature of God
The Quest for God
By Paul Johnson
216 pp., $24
Paul Johnson begins this highly personal and introspective book, "The Quest for God," with an examination of atheism.
The author of the bestselling "Modern Times," he considers the arguments for God's nonexistence in the writings of David Hume, Friedrich Hegel, T.H. Huxley, Charles Darwin, Adolph Hitler - all self-avowed atheists to one degree or another. This approach suggests that one way to finding a meaningful understanding of God is through God's "felt-absence."
"Why," Johnson asks, "has a belief in God - or a belief in something beyond us - endured in the twentieth century?" He understands and relates sensibly how science, to a small degree, how world war, and how the prevalence of humanism to a much greater degree are leading mankind away from God.
And even more so today, he says, it is gross materialism, so lacking in any deeper spiritual satisfaction, that people are substituting as a false idol for faith in God. He is emphatic that "At all levels of society, the growth of materialism leads to forms of moral squalor which makes the heart sick and destroys decency and happiness."
Johnson moves on from considering contemporary alternatives for God to an insightful if not entirely original discussion of the actual nature of God and of God's creation.
His book, he explains, "...is in no sense a manual of religious instruction. Still less is it an attempt to proselytize. It is a meditation, or a series of meditations, on religious subjects, by one who has imperfect knowledge and often ill-defined beliefs, but who has an absolutely genuine anxiety to explore truth and convey it...."
Coming from a background of an almost autocratic religious upbringing, his journey breaks new ground for him and will do the same for many readers, especially those with Roman Catholic backgrounds.
Johnson makes encouraging leaps into the meaning of God and life. He sees belief in God continuing to be universal, despite materialism, hatred, and indifference.
As with all thinkers and seekers, reason is one of Johnson's most effective tools for opening the way to truth. Also, just as any writer on so expansive a theme would find, Johnson relies on ideas of God acquired from his religious upbringing.
His concepts of God at first seem bound to Roman Catholic culture - concepts about God's anthropomorphism, God's potential for creating a material universe, allowing evil. But he appears to reach beyond any single religious tradition in a number of instances.
For example, he writes, "If, as I have argued, God's motive in creating the universe was love, if love is the ultimate organizing and sustaining principle of the universe, if God himself, insofar as he has characteristics beyond his own self-sufficiency, is the very embodiment of love, then it is clear that, in his mind, one of the principle objects of the universe was the exploration of love to its ultimate possibilities."
Most of the remainder of the book, which at times becomes an apology for Roman Catholicism, considers general ideas about death, the Day of Wrath, hell, and the return to paradise. The book concludes with examples of heartfelt prayer. The tone clearly intends to point people more quickly to ways of regeneration.
People everywhere are on comparable quests for God. Paul Johnson is courageous enough to document his own quest in writing for all the world to see.
*Mark Swinney, former managing editor of the Christian Science periodicals, lives in Albuquerque, N.M.