Notable for its markedly personal tone is Paul Johnson’s The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage (New York: Harper Prerennial, c. 1997). Johnson is a distinguished British historian—the author of Intellectuals and Modern Times among many others. He writes to defend the reality of God in a secularizing culture that has increasingly rejected Him. Though a professing Christian throughout his life, Johnson undertook the task of writing this book “to resolve many doubts in my own mind, to clarify my thoughts and to try to define what God means to me and my life. I write it in the expectation that, by straightening out my own beliefs, it may help others to straighten out theirs” (p. 5).
He begins by noting, in a chapter entitled “the God who would not die,” that belief in God (especially in non-Western nations) has proved remarkably resilient. Countless skeptics, countless times, have announced the “death of God,” but He somehow keeps resurfacing in mysterious ways! A variety of Promethean movements, declaring man’s independence from God, have easily gained devotees inasmuch as self-worship is one of our species most ancient idolatries. But these movements generally self-destruct quite quickly. Take H. G. Wells, for instance. He was highly acclaimed a century ago, widely respected for his pronouncements of the glories to come as the process of evolution produced a world that is getting ever better and better. But, Johnson says, “it is now almost impossible to point to a single pronouncement of his on society in his own day which carries the ring of truth or even mere plausibility” (p. 20).
That we today study the great Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton (a contemporary of Wells) rather than Wells, gives witness to the simple superiority of faith in God rather than man. So “what is God, then?” Johnson asks. For all his studies, he still believes basically what he learned in Catholic schools as a child and explains why he finds sophisticated modern theories, especially pantheism and its offspring, fatally flawed. He further endorses the importance of the Natural Law, “which has been part of Christianity since its inception” and provides “a form of moral absolutism” compatible with “Christian teaching, which I believe is true for all times and peoples” (p. 66).
Without a foundation in the Natural Law, people easily drift into moral relativism, which is “a great evil, one of the greatest of all evils because it makes possible so many other evils” (p. 67). That so many intellectuals (including most academics) espouse moral relativism deeply distresses Johnson, because it “has been the cardinal sin of the twentieth century, the reason why it has been such a desperately unhappy and destructive epoch in human history” (p. 67). Sadly enough, the moral relativism that shaped monstrous movements such as Communism and Nazism has subtly infiltrated the media that shapes contemporary culture. Even the churches have fallen under its sway! Thus we find “the pathetic spectacle of some churches trying to justify perverted sex—because there aresuch people as practicing homosexuals—or divorce—because so many people do get divorced—or pre-marital sex—because couples who live together without benefit of marriage are so numerous nowadays” (p. 68).
Johnson further defends the Catholic Church and her “dogma, authority, order and liturgy” for giving us truthful answers to life’s great questions. (Parenthetically, Johnson’s encyclopedic knowledge of history, literature, art and music enable him to proffer marvelous illustrations while discussing these items.) Importantly, he devotes separate chapters to the “four last things,” beginning with death. However clever our evasions, so evident in circumlocutions such as “falling asleep” we can never quite avoid death. Troubling to Johnson is the increasing tendency in churches to “celebrate” the life of the departed rather than acknowledge his death and announce the good news of his hope in life eternal through Christ! Following death, Christians believe, comes the Judgment. And if the Judgment has meaning, we will enter either heaven or hell.
“Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued . . . that Hell was a necessary consequence of free will” (p. 160). Through his addiction to opium Coleridge felt he gained insight into eternal damnation. For he “had more than a glimpse of what is meant by Death and utter Darkness, and the Worm that dieth not—and that all the Hell of the Reprobate is no more inconsistent with the Love of God, that the Blindness of one who has occasioned loaothsome and guilty Diseases to eat out his eyes, is inconsistent with the Light of the Sun’” (p. 161). But Heaven awaits the redeemed. That preachers fail to rightly proclaim the good news of future bliss dismays Johnson, for it promises us, as St Cyprian described it, a place where we will “’be allowed to see God, to be honoured with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God . . . to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of Heaven with the righteous and God’s friends’” (p. 174). This is “the timeless world waiting” us.
To enter that world we must pray—pray for faith, “asking God to give you the key to everything else” (p. 185). We may not understand much about God, or about prayer, but in praying as well as we can, primarily using the “perfect prayers” in Psalms, confessing and repenting in the process, going to church where we often pray more easily, we may end our “quest” and find the God perennially proclaimed by the Church.
After a long career as a journalist and historian, Paul Johnson writes very well and gives us an impressive testament of faith from a persuasive thinker.
Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.