Reviewed by Roger Kimball
Among his best-known works are A History of the Jews, A History of Christianity, and Intellectuals, the last an anatomy of spiritual and moral obtuseness in intellectuals from Rousseau and Shelley to Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Lillian Hellman. Perhaps his greatest works are The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (1991) and Modern Times: From the Twenties to the Nineties, the first edition of which was published in 1983. Each is a complex book of some thousand pages, yet each zipped through numerous printings and became a popular success.
One reason for Johnson's success as a popular historian is that, unlike many academic historians today, he understands that history, if it is to be compelling, must present past events as an unfolding human drama: it must, in other words, tell a story, and one with a moral. Johnson is an accomplished storyteller, having early on perfected the knack of distilling whole libraries of fact into coherent narratives that delight as they instruct.
A second reason for his success, especially as a journalist, is his formidable skill as a conservative polemicist. Johnson is not one to suffer fools gladly-nor charlatans, knaves, or mountebanks. He is a man of strong political, artistic, and moral convictions-convictions that are often decidedly at odds with received opinion in academia and in the media-and he is not shy about defending them. He has, for example, been a staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; more recently, he has emerged as a powerful critic of political correctness and radical multiculturalism, evils that are beginning to blight English society just as they have deformed ours.
A third reason for Johnson's success, I believe, is the underlying moral seriousness that informs his work. Johnson does not preach. He is not moralistic. But he does write out of deep conviction, which is grounded in his lifelong faith as a Roman Catholic. Even when he is at his most entertaining, this underlying gravitas communicates itself to his readers, inviting them, too, to ponder the spectacle of human folly and wisdom that Johnson conjures from the pages of history and the hurly- burly of contemporary social and political life.
In tone, his new book, The Quest for God, is very different from most of his earlier work. Johnson the polemicist, Johnson the controversialist, is nowhere to be seen. As its subtitle suggests, this is a very personal book: quieter, gentler, more tentative than his work as an historian and journalist. He describes the book as neither "a manual of religious instruction" nor "an attempt to proselytize" but "a series of meditations on religious subjects, by one who has imperfect knowledge and often ill-defined beliefs, but who has an absolutely genuine anxiety to explore the truth and convey it." The "personal pilgrimage" he embarks upon yields not a series of answers but a sustained reflection on a number of basic religious questions.
If the tone of The Quest for God is not characteristically Johnsonian, however, the theme of the book has clearly been percolating for some time in the author's mind. At the end of the first chapter of Modern Times, Johnson quotes Friedrich Nietzsche's infamous proclamation that "God is dead" and that "belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable." Noting the "huge vacuum" that this collapse of religious belief would leave, he somberly observed that "the history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum [has] been filled." By the time he published a revised edition of Modern Times, in 1991, Johnson had become more optimistic about the fate of religion. In "The Recovery of Freedom," the new concluding chapter he supplied for that edition, he wrote that "What is important in history is not only the events that occur but the events that obstinately do not occur. The outstanding event of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear."
This failure-what from another perspective must be accounted an important triumph-provides Johnson with the starting point for his inquiry. A century or more after such prophets of atheism as Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche confidentally proclaimed the death of God, religious belief continues to thrive in most parts of the world. "From the perspective of human spirituality," Johnson writes, "the most extraordinary thing about the twentieth century was the failure of God to die."
To be sure, the modern world has seen the proliferation of many rivals to religious belief, from communism and fascism to such currently fashionable talismans as "race politics, sexual politics, environmental politics, health politics," and other instances of what Johnson calls the "Promethean spirit." ("The road to hell," he notes, "is paved by self-apotheosis.")
But all the predictions that religion would gradually disappear as human society became more "enlightened" have turned out to be grossly mistaken. The vast majority of men and women, as Johnson notes, are "believers or agnostics-and agnosticism has every degree of doubt and bewilderment, ranging from near belief to total confusion." What we might call hard-core atheism seems to flourish mostly among certain intellectual elites. George Orwell once observed of some absurdity that one would have to be an intellectual to believe a thing like that; perhaps the same goes for certain forms of militant disbelief.
In the sixteen brief chapters that compose The Quest for God, Johnson rehearses a wide range of classic religious quandaries, from the question of whether God exists to the problem of reconciling the idea of a just and all-powerful God with the existence of evil and innocent suffering. His main purpose, however, is not theological speculation but existential reflection.
The existence or nonexistence of God is the most important question we humans are ever called to answer. If God does exist, and if in consequence we are called to another life when this one ends, a momentous set of consequences follows. . . . Our life then becomes a mere preparation for eternity and must be conducted throughout with our future in view.
Of course, the existence of God cannot convincingly be proved in any normal sense of the word "prove." But that does not mean that God's presence is utterly undiscernable. To a large extent, The Quest for God is the record of one man's effort to trace the tokens of God's presence, both in the world at large and in the recesses of his own conscience. Johnson is particularly eloquent on what used to be called the cosmological argument for God's existence: the ways in which order and beauty point beyond themselves to a divine artificer.
There are one or two surprises in this book. In a chapter called "He, She, or It: Divinity, Gender, and Sex," Johnson advocates the ordination of women, writing that "I believe I shall live to see women priests in the Catholic Church, and my grandchildren may well live to see the first woman pope."
Be that as it may, The Quest for God for the most part eschews political controversy. Apart from an occasional digression, its main focus is on what Johnson calls the two most important questions facing mankind: Does God exist? And what is our fate after death? There is an important sense in which the chief lesson of religion is, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, to teach us to be failures. Time's inexorable ravages doom all human and material accomplishments to oblivion. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as the Bible tells us, a reflection on the ineluctable deprivations of time is a goad to religious awakening. "Without God," Johnson writes, "death is horrific." The Christian religion proposes to redeem the works of time by placing them sub specie aeternitatis.
Although the dominant tone of The Quest for God is affirmative, there is a sharp undercurrent of concern about the spiritual and moral fate of Western society. For if religious belief flourishes today, so too does moral relativism, which Johnson rightly calls "the cardinal sin of the twentieth century." Together with the "Promethean spirit" that fuels modernity, moral relativism poses grave threats to the spiritual substance and integrity of our society. The increasingly widespread practice of abortion and euthanasia, for example, confront us with moral enormities that are no less egregious for being commonplace. Indeed, the fact that we have rapidly become inured to practices that even a couple of decades ago would have routinely sparked outrage is a reminder of how fragile our moral commitments can be. The prospect of ever-increasing technological intervention into the processes of life promises not only great medical advances but, as Johnson cautions, great temptations. He is right to look with uneasiness on the challenges to human dignity that will surely be forthcoming from "the innovators who plan to use the new technologies to 'improve' the human condition." If he nevertheless remains hopeful, it is partly because of his conviction that although "you may not believe in God, . . . that does not prevent God from believing in you."