By Dr. John Murray
First of all, full disclosure: Mark Hamilton is a good friend of The Iona Institute. He only recently retired from its Board of Directors, having contributed wisely, bravely, and always very energetically to our work over the years. So, having seen Mark’s intelligence in action in many Board meetings, I was not surprised to see how well-written this book is. Our author’s background in education, as teacher and principal in a Catholic school at secondary level, is also on display in this book – clearly this is written by someone who is familiar with the questions that young people, and those not so young, ask about God and the meaning of life. He is also familiar with the fascinating and inspiring answers that can be offered to the searching mind and heart.
The book is structured as a dialogue between a young, searching man, Peter, and an older, wiser and well-informed man, John. This unfolds in a sequence of letters between them, written over the period of March to June 2020. The first national Covid-19 lockdown provides the setting, which gives the book a nice topical feel. However, the main content of the book concerns universal and timeless matters, such as how we can know that God exists and that objective meaning for life exists too. As the book’s subtitle suggests, the approach is not a dry, academic one, focusing on God’s existence as a technical philosophical issue; rather, it approaches the question of God with a keen eye on why it matters that God exists. The book is not only about God’s reality but about how, in the light of God’s existence and reality, we are to find true meaning in life.
You could not ask for a more important topic! The sequence of letters between the two men presents a kind of intellectual and spiritual journey in which Peter finds answers to the questions that puzzle and intrigue him. The answers provided by John are detailed and deep – but not in a narrowly technical manner. This is not an academic book; but neither is it a set of platitudes or slogans. It engages with the questions in an honest and searching quest for truth and wisdom. As well as God’s existence, it also examines a range of other, related questions such as the problem of evil, the failures of the Church regarding the sex abuse cover up, the counter-cultural challenge of Christian morality, and the importance of using reason. One big theme is the question of how we can appreciate science fully whilst still being confident in God’s existence – in fact, the book argues that the findings of science, and the very approach of science in its quest to understand the world, are fully supportive of theism.
The dialogue is non-polemical. Peter provides John, and our author, with the perfect questioner – honestly concerned with the questions and willing to listen. This allows John to provide thoughtful answers that invite Peter, and the reader, to gently question our preconceptions and assumptions and search for the truth about God, ourselves, and life. The gentle and invitational approach of the arguments reflects one of the inspirational figures behind our author’s approach, namely, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. I think that another figure also inspires the approach taken, or at least provides a similar approach. I’m speaking of St. John Henry Newman. In his classic, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Newman presented an approach to theism that argued from a convergence of several probable arguments to the confident assertion of God’s existence, relying on a parallel to how human beings come to know confidently so many things in ordinary life by just such a method. This is a useful and accessible way to argue for the existence of God – e.g. by pointing out the fine-tuning of the universe and how it points towards an intelligent Being behind the amazing order we find when we investigate the world and cosmos. In a couple of chapters towards the end of the book, we find a summary outline of the various arguments that combine to provide a rich, clear, and convincing case for God. These arguments were examined in the first half of the book. In the second half of the book, there are some very interesting chapters about how one does not stay at the philosophical level concerning God, but opens up towards faith in response to a God who reveals.
I teach students who are preparing to be secondary school teachers of Religious Education. I would love to see them all read this book – both for their own information and inspiration, but also as a source of ideas for teaching. It is lengthy but broken up into short chapters (30 of them, and two very helpful appendices). It makes frequent reference to examples and cultural references and is easy to follow in each of its sections. It would be a great resource for anyone who wishes to investigate the rationality of theism, whether for personal or professional reasons. If I have one criticism to make, it would be that whilst the book does briefly outline and praise the famous ‘five ways’ of St. Thomas Aquinas, which demonstrate the existence of God in a metaphysical manner, it does not give them extended attention. Instead, it takes the more Newman-style approach, focusing on pointers-to-God, on cosmic order, conscience and psychology, rather than metaphysics. This probably makes for a more accessible book for the contemporary, general reader. But, for those who would like to explore further, I would point towards authors such as Edward Feser, Brian Davies, Gavin Kerr, and Peter Kreeft, for further arguments for theism that complement the ones explored here.
The book is available at the website that Mark Hamilton has set up (sowhat.ie) where one can find more information on his book and a link to purchase it (€15.99 plus postage). The good news is that our author has written and just published another book: Escaping the Bunker: Democracy Needs Christianity – So What? There’s more information on that book on the website too. Mark is certainly putting his retirement to good use.
John Murray is Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Iona Institute, and is a lecturer in Theology at Dublin City University.