Almost all of us have found ourselves in a debate over belief, faced with the decision to defend our convictions against criticism. The media will often portray religious disagreements as “wars” between the believers and non-believers. In a time when it can feel like U.S. culture is becoming more divided over religion and politics, it can be appealing to retreat into a safe group of like-minded people and rely on the arguments we have been using for years to assure ourselves we are in the “right.”
Richard Leonard’s What are We Doing on Earth for Christ’s Sake? and John C. Haughey’s A Biography of the Spirit go beyond defending belief to exploring whether there should be more to our current understanding of faith and God—an exploration that can be uncomfortable in its uncertainty. Be sure to have pen and paper handy for note taking and maybe a dictionary, as these authors will not let the reader off the hook with simple explanations. And that is precisely why they are so important.
The premise of Leonard’s What are we doing on Earth for Christ’s Sake? comes from a conversation he had on a flight from New York City to Los Angeles with a fellow passenger and Catholic, Thomas. Leonard says he typically encounters one of five types of airplane seatmates: those unhappy with their Catholic school upbringing, those who believe religion is nonsense and fantastical, conservative Catholics, evangelical Christians and those scandalized by the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Conversations ensue. Many of us can empathize with the anecdotes of talkative travelers, and by couching his discussions in this context, Leonard’s text is easy to digest—we can imagine we are debating some issues with our own friends or acquaintances (or fellow passengers). With a background in cinema and having written extensively on faith and culture, Leonard speaks to the reader in a way that is understandable, humorous and joyful—a must-read for those wanting a few well-researched defenses of the belief in God.
Leonard’s book is divided into three parts: a chapter on belief and non-belief, a chapter answering common questions posed to believers and a final chapter about some of the church’s greatest role models. Never before have I been so excited to read a Table of Contents. After telling believers and non-believers in the first chapter to keep their cool and always be respectful, Leonard gets into some of the most obvious but pressing debate topics between believers and non-believers: “Isn’t Religion the Cause of Most Wars?” “Is the Bible True?” and “Why Follow any Religion’s Moral Code? Why Not Simply Follow Your Own Moral Code” to name just a few of the questions posed.
The common questions about the belief in God and the church are just that: common. We have heard most of them many times. Admittedly, I expected common answers, and I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the usefulness of Leonard’s research. Some of the tough questions are left with incomplete answers, though, especially those regarding the clergy sex abuse scandal and how we can maintain our faith when some of our leaders have betrayed the trust of the church’s followers. This topic deserves more attention than Leonard was able to give it in this text.
For Leonard, it seems love in action is at the heart of belief. If we can support our belief in God with sound arguments, then what are we doing with that belief? The final third of the book is dedicated to “Witnesses of Faith, Hope, and Love”—a series of mini-biographies on some of the church’s greatest examples of love in action: St. Thomas More, Blessed Teresa, Oscar Romero and Pope Francis, among others. All 13 of the witnesses are worth reading. Even the most familiar characters held something new to be discovered by Leonard’s description of them. Many witnesses had doubts, made mistakes and came to reflect on their lives. Reflection allows one “to discern the patterns that lead us to be more hopeful, faithful, and loving…This means constantly assessing the what, and why, of our decisions.” What are we doing on Earth for Christ’s sake?
I’m glad I read Leonard’s book before Haughey’s, as I found it all that much more providential when the passenger next to me on a flight from Washington, D.C., to Salt Lake City spied the title A Biography of the Spirit and began talking to me about Catholic doctrine, Catholic school education and the Holy Spirit. Thanks for the heads-up, Richard.
Leonard reminded us that religions evolve and theologians interpret texts in light of contemporary scholars’ knowledge. Haughey does just that in his wonderfully image-filled A Biography of the Spirit. He profiles the Holy Spirit while armed with the knowledge of physics, biology and neurology of today. The result is an intelligent and inspiring book written in the form of a diary. The brief entries broken up by date force the reader to pause, even just for a few moments, and reflect. Haughey’s book is certainly not a “beach read”—it’s quite the opposite of light and fluffy—but you should definitely read it while in the midst of nature. Haughey’s descriptions of both the microscopic organisms and unquantifiable expanses of the universe will enhance your observation of the world around you.
Simply put, Haughey sets out to write a biography of the Holy Spirit with supportive examples from scientific discoveries. Religion and science should not be opposed or even exclusive. Rather, “both science and religion have much to teach each other. Neither, of course, will learn from one another if the practitioners don’t believe each has something important to say.” We cannot ignore scientific breakthroughs; they should inform and inspire theological exploration. “[St.] Augustine’s belief was that our knowledge of God increases if our knowledge of nature increases. And since the natural sciences are learning more and more about nature, we have the opportunity of knowing more about nature’s Author.”
Haughey presents the Spirit as the Great Connector. The Spirit helps us make wholes from parts, It “makes new meaning about what otherwise wouldn’t have meaning.” Haughey gives numerous examples of the interconnectedness of the universe, Earth and the human body. For example, within ourselves, the “brain has nine regions in it…connected by 100,000 miles of nerve fibers…[and] gray matter is made up of our 86 billion neurons, each of which is distinctive, individualistic…yet does a similar thing.” Haughey goes into further detail about how pneumatology can be a source of insight for neuroscience—how religion and science can learn from each other.
In one entry, Haughey cites Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg in his discussion of aspects of physics that are today unexplainable, and may never be explained. Weinberg points to two notions: dark matter and the expansion of the universe. Scientists are making wholes from parts—forming hypotheses to explain what is otherwise unexplainable. The hypotheses cannot be tested, though. They are “asserted because they are needed to complete the understanding of what is empirically verifiable.” Haughey argues that perhaps pneumatology can shed some light on this dark matter. Together, science and religion can work toward uncovering truth—the same truth.
For those who may criticize Haughey’s theology, he does not have all the answers, but he does have some good questions. And, as he says, how can that be displeasing to God? “It can’t displease the One who made us tower builders that new towers of meaning keep getting constructed,” he writes.
Haughey’s book is exciting! It offers new insight into the Spirit and nature. As I can say for all my Jesuit educators, Haughey teaches more than theology. He offers an interdisciplinary discussion, using our experiences of nature, human history and scientific theories to advance the study of the Spirit. Having written this well-informed biography, Haughey certainly has an answer to “what is he doing on Earth for Christ’s sake?” What a lucky passenger whoever will be seated next to him on his next flight.