God: the Oldest Question

by William J. O’Malley, S.J.

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


O’Malley stays true to his Jesuit upbringing and gives us the purpose of the book! He states: “The first step on the quest for God is to admit (in both senses: acknowledge and welcome) at least the possibility of the transcendent, a dimension to our lives that invites exploration and defies conquest.” He begins the search for clues to God in what might seem an odd place: among the atheists. Then after looking at the atheists, we will explore hints about a Mind Behind it All revealed in so many experiences. We see a child smile, a beautiful sunset, a storm-ravaged after a hurricane, and all the moments that cause you to say Oh My God! An atheist would say that such responses are merely a shock to the senses, given significance internally by the subject rather than resulting from any possible objective presence that triggers them. The book also explores what we can learn about the Mind Behind It All from the complexities and simplicities of science, what we can understand about that Mind from the philosophers –without reference to any religion at all. The author also points out that if there is a God, God is interested not only in order but also in surprise. The book also takes into consideration insights rooted in Abraham and Moses: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The book ponders what we can find out about the nature and personality of God from the man and the message of Jesus—not Christianity as a doctrinal system, but the root person out of whom Christianity emerged. The final part of the group seeks clues about God in much homelier places – in silent receptivity, in other people, in suffering –where the God question is no longer academic.


In Chapter Two, the author points out the problem of pain and God. If there is a God what about the pain people have about illness, death, and other tragedies. O’Malley states: “Faith is not a blind leap in the dark. It is a calculated risk. The bit when all the calculation is done, there is still the risk; there is still a leap—whether it be the commitment of marriage or the commitment to an unseen God.” In chapter three, A Suspicion of Transcendence, the author suggests both uses of the word suspicion. On the one hand, the strict rationalist mind finds any suggestion of a nonphysical dimension to reality—much less actual immaterial realities themselves—highly suspicious. On the other hand, many less-single minded folk suspects that there is in truth more out there than meets the everyday eye; they say, “There’s got to be more than this.” It’s called a sense of the numinous.


Gerard Manley Hopkins, in God’s Grandeur, expresses the beauty of transcendence:

The word is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not wreck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all are scared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


The author points out that we often settle for a ‘realistic’ acceptance of what seems incontrovertibly the way things are. “Nobody can change anything.” We confuse vulnerability with weakness, defenselessness. We adjust to the humdrum and practical, which then become the norm, the stunting we share with everybody else. Therefore, we don’t notice how impoverished we are—though we feel the hungry emptiness somewhere in the depths of what might have been. Our experience of the creator’s power suggests that He is ‘other’ than we are, yet the experience of the numinous suggests that He is also lurking beneath the surface of things. It also suggests that this Being is both inexpressibly complex and inexpressibly simple. This is worth reading both for the novice and the veteran.

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