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Book Revew on Believing in God

By: 'Jenny Brinkworth' - 14th of March 2017

Review Published in The Southern Cross, March 2017

It’s a cliché but if you read only one religious book this year, I recommend Mgr Neil Brown’s latest book.

Mgr Brown is a parish priest from Bondi Beach who taught Christian ethics for more than 30 years at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. His other books include Christians in a Pluralist Society, Spirit of the World and Our Quest for God.

His latest work is a carefully-crafted, well-researched critique of the ‘new atheism’ but also looks at the big questions facing both individual Christians and faith-based institutions in today’s secular world. He echoes the words and actions of Pope Francis in saying the challenge is to become mainstream again but in a way better attuned to today’s world.

It is not an ‘easy read’ in so far as it delves into some very complex theories such as how science has calculated the “constants that fit the universe for life – space, time, gravity and the weak and strong nuclear forces” and whether the quantifying of these constants has anything to do with believing or not believing in God.

Mgr Brown explores the use of science to prove the improbability of God’s existence by atheists like Richard Dawkins and suggests the scientific calculations which count against God’s existence also make our own existence highly improbable as well.

He ponders the unanswered questions about the Big Bang theory and whether it is a singular event or a series of events – a multiverse.

Is there some form of cosmological natural selection process to arrive eventually at our present setting which make life possible? If there is such a process, what laws govern it and where did these laws originate.

He delves into the writings of well-known scientist Paul Davies who asks ‘what decides what exists?’ and says the answer depends on how special you regard ‘life and mind’.

Continuing with the theme of improbability and how little we know about its role in evolution he writes: How much improbability or chance is needed to produce our world and the superabundant capacities of humankind, with the complexity, variety, beauty, wonder and intelligibility, that we are able to see around us?

He stresses that science and faith are not mutually exclusive, provided the scope and facts of science are respected.

But he adds that in a scientific age, our belief will be about “the reason of heart and soul”, and “looking at our lives from the inside, not from the outside” to understand the meaning of “our love of one another, of our search for justice, of human existence itself and of our world”.

He suggests that trust in God is at the very heart of belief: it is about the limited conditions of our lives, the times when we face evil, loss, suffering, failure, ultimate destiny and death. When we see we are not in control, are fragile, and realise how deep our human need for care is, we may then come to trust in God’s everlasting care for us personally.

Brown worries that in a secular and scientific age, faith is being overtaken by the pursuit of material happiness and progress.

Science can do much to improve the conditions of our lives, but it cannot substitute for truly human needs.

He devotes a chapter to the Fragility of the ‘Human’ in the Modern World, and the danger of believing, as the ‘new atheists’ do, that we are “just physics, plus chemistry, plus chance, plus blind adaption”.

This view of the world allows a market-driven, consumer society to prosper under the false premise that it can give us happiness, when the suicide statistics, substance abuse, inequality in communities and in the world, suggest otherwise.

The book also deals with our obsession with individual freedom, which fits well with a society focused on competitiveness, profit, wealth, and how Christians on the fringe of the secular society have been trapped into single issue disputes about morality while issues of equality and human dignity are often neglected.

There is much more to his counter arguments to the New Atheism but in the end his over-riding message is that faith cannot survive in ‘headspace’ alone but rather must be a lived faith. He concludes:

The only ways for us to prove our faith is to follow in the footsteps of Christ, to cross over our comfort barriers, and to move out to those who like ourselves are created in God’s image, whoever they might be and wherever we might find them, especially in their need.

What I like most about Believing in God is that it tackles some of the tough questions that many of us struggle with and in a way that might just strike a chord with younger people who have grown up putting all their faith in science and the material world. Who knows, they might just be looking for something more.

Believing in God: Challenges of the 21st Century is published by St Pauls Publications

Tackling the challenges

By: 'James McEvoy' - 14th of August 2018

Review published in the Australian Catholic Record, April 2018, Volume 95. No 2.

Believing in God: Challenges of the Twenty-First Century – Neil Brown (St Pauls Publications, Strathfield, NSW, 2016)

Over the last decade or so it’s hardly possible to have trudged past an airport bookshop, luggage in tow, without the work of one of the New Atheists beckoning from the ‘Latest’ shelf. The New Atheists are an eclectic group of evolutionary biologists, journalists, philosophers, and others, who count among their number Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Their fundamental line of argument pitches the scientific worldview and religious belief as polar opposites, and rules out any reasonable place for religion. For many people, particularly those under thirty, who value the immense benefits of modern science, the popularity of the New Atheists’ work and their marginalisation of religion can mean that personal faith seems either senseless or simply a predilection at the edges of a meaningful life.

Key chapters of Neil Brown’s Believing in God tackle this challenge to faith by engaging the New Atheism in a respectful, extended conversation – and all this in Brown’s uncluttered style, with his enviable gifts in the fields of moral theology and philosophy, literature, and cultural reflection. For the above reasons, Believing in God is an invaluable resource for those in the final years of high school, but, in this reviewer’s view, utterly unconvincing arguments of the New Atheism.

Following an introduction, chapter 2 explores the integral role that beliefs play in the multifaceted project that is a human life. Brown shows how human relationships, our sense of self, and even our engagement with the broader culture are all necessarily supported by beliefs. He argues that faith in God is enmeshed with these beliefs: ‘Faith is ultimately an opening of oneself to the Mystery perceived at the heart of existence itself and seeing the whole of life and its struggles in an entirely new way’ (21). Chapter 3 sets out the New Atheists’ arguments against belief in God, concluding that they aim to prescribe questions that don’t fit squarely within the boundaries of physics and chemistry. Chapter 4 describes a life beyond those limits, culminating in this evocative passage: ‘We are people of narrative and story, of history, culture, literature and the arts, of personal relationships, of beliefs and disbeliefs, of meaning and values, of wonder and questioning, of words and much beyond words, vulnerable beings prone to failure and harm, and even capable of wickedness and evil’ (53). Brown argues that while science fosters many aspects of human life, ‘culture is where we construct our lives’ (53).

With the New Atheists approach explained, chapter 5 considers the implications of that approach for the lived expression of human life. Brown shows that the New Atheists rule out any concept of a self, of consciousness, of free will and meaningful history. A life lived under those conditions is, in my view, not only unattractive, it is utterly repugnant.

Believing in God has an aim broader than an analysis of and response to the New Atheists. Brown also aims to examine ‘the cultural situation that belief inhabits’ (ix). If there are any limitations to this beautiful book, I think its account of the contemporary cultural context is one. In a number of chapters, Brown characterises the place of religion in the West as a vacuum or an absence. While, no doubt, there are great challenges for the churches as they work to proclaim the Gospel, I think a view of our secular age simply in terms of the decline of absence of faith doesn’t do it justice. I am more convinced by philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologists Hans Joas and Jose’ Casanova, who see a shift in the ‘conditions of belief’, and name the post-1960s period the ‘Age of Authenticity’. Sure, some people search in very odd places to fulfil their deepest desires, yet they are searching – and that fact offers the church an opportunity. I’m more of an optimist than Brown about our secular age.

In the concluding chapter 9, Brown calls the believing community to look over the fence, and get out of its own backyard – a great metaphor for the church’s relationship with contemporary culture. Faith is not a closing-off to questions but, at heart, ‘a wonder, a trust, an enquiry and an engagement in the face of what is unfolding in our world’ (122). It’s in that manner that the church’s future really lies.

Believing in God is a companion volume to Brown’s fine 2014 book, Our Quest for God, reviewed in these pages (January 2016). The earlier volume focuses on the theme of presence and portrays the type of life that Christian faith enables. Both are accessible, first-rate resources for the church.

                                                                                                                                          James McEvoy

                                                                                          Australasian Catholic University, Adelaide

                    Review published in the Australian Catholic Record, April 2018, Volume 95. No 2.


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