To write a slim, serious book that provides thought-provoking reasons for believing in God is a difficult task today. Many books are written from a Christian perspective and some notorious ones ridicule religious belief. Shortt, journalist, biographer and religious editor of the Times Literary Supplement, brings thoughtfulness and intellectual rigour to his defence of the opening statement: “Christianity – at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts – forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence.”
He makes it clear that atheism and agnosticism are “reasonable” worldviews which Christians must respect, yet he also argues that the Christian faith is dismissed too quickly in the West (but not, he notes, in almost all other countries.) By using the word “reasonable” Shortt indicates that debate over God’s existence can and should be debated by reasonable people on both sides; religious fundamentalism on the one hand and the routine abuse and contempt for faith common to (Western) internet users on the other, do a disservice to the perennial question at the heart of human existence: who are we? Are we merely the product of random evolutionary development – or do human beings have a divine destiny?
Shortt concedes that although the numbers of people “who come to faith as a result of intellectual exchanges alone” is small, an intellectually robust case for Christianity can be made. For those who think that all statements must be “provable in a test tube”, he offers the reasonable rebuttal that it means rejecting “ethics, aesthetics and much culture, as well as spirituality.” And to those who think that civilised, enlightened behaviour can be upheld without benefit of religious belief (the position of intellectual elites in the UK) he adds a warning that is obvious to those who regard human nature as deeply flawed: “Principles such as human rights and human dignity may not automatically survive, once commitment to the infinite value of every life has faded away.” Some would say we have already entered this dangerous territory.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is Shortt’s advocacy of St Thomas Aquinas’s argument for a first cause. Science is not “all-encompassing” and there cannot be “a naturalistic explanation for existence.” In other words, despite all the conjectures and hypotheses of scientists like Richard Dawkins, it isn’t possible or credible that “something” could emerge spontaneously from “nothing.”
Whenever I mention to a friend who is both a scientist and an atheist that not all scientists would agree with his worldview – indeed, that some are Christians – he always replies dismissively that they are “second-rate” scientists, not in the “first division.” I am less competent than Shortt to dispute this assertion. He would quote the Cambridge physicist and priest John Polkinghorne’s reflection:
“The rational transparency and beauty of the universe speaks of a world shot through with signs of the mind, and it is an attractive and coherent possibility to believe that this is so because the divine Mind of the Creator lies beneath its marvellous order.”
Shortt also includes a surprising statement from the autobiography of the famous philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell, whose well-attested public dismissal of religious belief gives it all the more resonance:
“The loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at least useless.”
This unintentionally mystical reflection speaks indirectly of the self-sacrificial love most completely demonstrated by Christ’s death on the Cross; it is also the inspiration for the greatest music, art and literature in the world.
Shortt’s book deserves to be reflected upon and debated by believers and unbelievers alike.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.
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