Back in the mid-sixties, our seminary rector, Fr. Dennis Foudy, S.S., gave a conference which stuck with me. He talked about why priests leave the ministerial priesthood (the mass exodus was just beginning in those years). Fr. Foudy argued that the ones who leave, lack a sense of history while those who persevere, cultivate that vital sense.
I believe Fr. Foudy was on to something. At any rate in the decades since that conference, I have tried to dedicate a good portion of my reading time to history. In that category my all-time favorite author is Paul Johnson (b. 1928). He wrote a single-volume History of Christianity and also a History of the Jews. Equally dazzling are Intellectuals which lays bare the lives of the most influential modern thinkers from Rosseau to Bertrand Russell, The Birth of the Modern, a sweeping view of world society from 1815-1830, The Offshore Islanders, a one volume history of England and Modern Times, a history of the twentieth century. These books I have enjoyed enough to read two or three times. Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular take their knocks from Johnson, but on the whole he provides an innoculation against both over-idealism and cynicism (the main cause of defection from the priesthood).
Because of my admiration for Johnson, I was eager to read his latest book, The Quest for God. I was not disappointed. It is his most personal book, but also his boldest. He tells why as an historian he believes in God, then attempts to describe what that faith means to him. He addresses the big questions: Is there an alternative to God? What is God? Why does evil exist--and why can we distinguish it from good? In the context of this discussion, he takes up issues like gender, ecology, church authority, liturgy, the relationship of the Catholic Church to other Christian churches, non-Christian religions and the Jews. He explains why he believes in the doctrine of hell and why we should fear it. He even offers some ideas about heaven. As I say Quest is a bold book.
In his books Johnson is not constrained by political correctness--and only rarely does he fall into its opposite, a tiresome iconoclasm (History of Christianity did have that tendency, but his later books avoided it.) . Because he expresses himself so freely, I doubt anyone would agree with all he writes. For example, while I appreciated his somewhat singular defence of celibacy, I would dissent from his view that there will be women priests in the Catholic Church. He says, "I believe I will live to see woman priests in the Catholic Church" (I do wish him a long life, but perhaps not that long.) Agree or not, Johnson's views are always thought provoking. And who cannot benefit by reflecting on the issues discussed in Quest?
But what touched me most was not Johnson's intellectual analysis. Rather, I was bowled over by the utter simplicity with which the great historian revealed his own faith. He begins his day by kissing the bloody feet of a crucifix, he prays to St. Anthony to recover lost articles and he has composed some personal prayers which are deeply touching.
My only real critique of Quest would be in the section on prayer. While he quoted the Catechism so appropriately regarding Catholic doctrine and morals, he seemed to neglect what it says about prayer. To me Part Four (Christian Prayer) is the most beautifully written and the most compelling. I only note this because some appropriate quotes from that part of the Catechism would have strengthened his presentation on prayer.
All in all, the reader can only be grateful that Johnson has taken the risk to write such a personal book. While it is clearly not an attempt to proselytise, I believe it will achieve its goal of helping those "who wish to move from obscurity to daylight, from doubt to certitude, from infidelity to faith--or from faith to greater faith--and from apprehension, even despair, to hope."
Other books reviewed.
Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History