I do not know William O’Malley, S.J. but I wish I did. I say this because I want both to establish and qualify the objectivity I bring to this review.
O’Malley, who teaches religious studies at Fordham Prep in the Bronx, N.Y., says that God: The Oldest Question offers a fresh look at belief and unbeliefand why the choice matters. He gives us this fresh perspective in nine short chapters. In the first three chapters, he prepares the case that he will subsequently secure. Chapter One probes the seeking for God that O’Malley finds endemic in human nature, asking: Are we the only species cursed with a hunger for a food that doesn’t exist? In Chapter Two he argues a case for atheism and finds it wanting: No one knows there is no God. Then, in Chapter Three O’Malley presents his intuitive counter-position: If there is Bach, there must be God. Is any of this new? Of course not. What O’Malley does is play with tired concepts so adroitly that he coaxes (tricks?) the reader into seeing them anew, as well as seeing what is new in them.
In the fourth and fifth chapters, our guides in understanding the oldest question come chiefly from science and classical philosophy. Science can teach us humility (Seekers for God can learn from the practitioners of science, especially in curbing their expectationsand their demands for evidence.). Under the lens of classical philosophy, O’Malley finds that humans often interpret the Mystery as either immanent or transcendent. Reflecting on each concept in turn can rein in our propensity to stress one to the exclusion of the other. This self-correcting possibility is what the author activates by asking, Is this unapproachable Other also loving, merciful, and just?
Eastern religious traditions, Chapter Six tells us, seem to deal well with religious ambiguity and paradox. I would argue that the apophatic strain of Western religions challenges any Eastern hegemony here. Still, O’Malley’s point is: For the Eastern mind, trying to trap God into words is like trying to lasso the wind. In Chapter Seven he explains his thesis: The West sees revelation as truly interpersonal. Yes, but.... I want to interject. I am uncomfortable with O’Malley’s proneness to generalize. Perhaps his enthusiasm for his subject or his gifts as an apologist cause him to overlook nuance. Fair-minded readers will admit the limitations inherent in condensing the insights of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam into 60 pages. Anyone who does this type of writing must deal in generalities. When generalizations work, they illustrate common traits that enlighten and enliven the whole. When they miss the mark, they can offend or distort by giving unwarranted weight to one aspect of a topic. Where examples of the latter are egregious, they raise questions about the writer’s competence. In my opinion, O’Malley hits the mark far more frequently than he misses it. Still, my caveat stands.
The final chapters assert that the answer to the oldest question can be known. For Christiansand this book is steeped in Christian faithO’Malley says, Jesus invites us to let him redeem us from our resentment that God is God and we are not. Through numerous New Testament citations, he underscores the heart of Jesus’ method; i.e., we know God in solitude, people and suffering. Knowing God is just this simple and profound. For me, the value of O’Malley’s message is his often witty and always willful insistence that the Christian God is a person, not a theological construct.
The primary audience for God: The Oldest Question is thoughtful Christians. It can certainly be read as lectio divina, rumination that likely (and quickly) becomes prayer. It would be a fine book for a study group where the gentle laughter it provokes could be shared as readily as the homely wisdom it provides. I would use it in a religious studies course where I wanted to expose the rationale for religious faith, especially for a credible Christian faith. Father O’Malley is described as a prolific popular writer. In some circles this designation carries terminal consequences: authoring many books read by many people renders a writer academically suspect. But dedicated teachers pay scant heed to such prejudice. They are always searching for whatever text will challenge their students to think deeply and motivate them to love generously. Bill O’Malley does both in this small book. I am grateful to him for writing it.