The Big Questions: God & God: All That Matters

Ian Robinson / 30 January 2014

This book review was first published in Philosophy Now.

A publisher who wants to bring out a book about God is caught on the horns of a dilemma: if they ask a fervent theist to write it they will get an uncritical eulogy; if they ask an atheist they will get a death notice. The obvious middle way is to find a wavering agnostic, who, hopefully, will be even-handed. Unfortunately, in these polarized times, there seems to be just one ‘renowned agnostic’ (both publishers characterise the author thus) presently on the authoring circuit in Britain, so when the series editors of both Quercus’s The Big Questions and Hodder and Stoughton’s All That Matters came to commission the obligatory ‘God’ volume in their respective series, they both turned to the same writer! Mark Vernon seems to be the go-to guy for God in the current intellectual climate – an idealist whose time has come.

We may momentarily reflect that an agnostic, by definition, knows nothing – he or she, according to my dictionary, is “a person that believes that nothing is known, or can be known, of the existence or nature of God” [‘agnostic’ is Greek for ‘without knowledge’]. Such a state of ignorance does not seem to be a promising launching pad for two books on God. But fortunately Mark Vernon has what they call a ‘history’ – he has been both an Anglican priest and an atheist (atypically, in his case, not at the same time), so he should be able to delve into his contrasting experiences to find some things to say about the deity That Matter, and to answer our Big Questions.

As it turns out, Mark Vernon is not really an agnostic in the above sense anyway. It is clear from these two books that he does believe that God exists. Indeed, he writes as though God is constantly looking over his shoulder – while he may not say it in so many words, the presence of God in Vernon’s mind looms over these books like, well, God. These books are no even-handed exploration of the pros and cons of believing in the existence of a deity, but, despite occasional demurs and reservations, are at root out-and-out paeans to the divine. Even the answers to those questions that countenance God’s non-existence are approached in an apologetic frame of mind: we can’t rationally prove God exists, but not to worry, that’s just God playing hard to get, as you would expect; the existence of evil may seem to count against the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful deity, but don’t worry, we just have to accept evil, because if the universe had no evil, the universe would be perfect, wouldn’t it? – and we all (even agnostics) know that only God can be perfect.

So what Vernon’s agnosticism amounts to is not the admission that he doesn’t know if God exists or not, but rather the assertion that God is indeed around, but unknowable. At both the beginning and the end of God: All That Matters, he quotes with approval the views of the sixth century Christian mystic Denys the Areopagite, who wrote “nothing can be said of [God], he cannot be named.” (Ironically, ‘Denys the Areopagite’ turned out to be a pseudonym, and no-one has ever been able to discover who he really was, either.) In the face of this ineffability concerning God, Vernon ignores the advice of Ludwig Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen” (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”), and proceeds to wax eloquent, although to be fair he had signed contracts with two major publishers.

What results within the compass of the two books are more than two dozen essays on a wide range of topics more or less related to God. I say ‘more or less’ because, while in God: All That Matters every single question includes the term ‘God’, in The Big Questions: God, He hardly gets a look in. Only three of the Big Questions (‘Can reason prove the existence of God?’, ‘Does human suffering rule out God?’, and ‘Can we be good without God?’) actually mention God, and two of these three are considering the possibility of His non-existence. According to the index there are only four direct references to God in whole book. Eleven questions are either about religion in general (‘Why do people still have religious beliefs?’, ‘Can drugs induce religious experiences?’, ‘If you’re not religious, is nothing sacred?’, ‘Is religion inherently violent?’, ‘Will science bring the end of religion?’, ‘Is religion a mistake of evolution?’, ‘Can you be spiritual without being religious?’) or about specific religions (‘What is Buddhist enlightenment?’, ‘What is the literal meaning of Scripture?’ ‘What is it like to be a fundamentalist?’ ‘Is Confucianism a religion?’). For someone reading this book intent on deepening their understanding of God, this is a trifle disappointing.

The Agony & The Ecstacy

I found Vernon’s essays in both books both stimulating and frustrating. Let me vent my frustration first. Vernon brings to our attention a wide range of religious and non-religious writers and thinkers, from the pre-Socratics to Albert Einstein (everybody wants Albert Einstein on their side!) and some even more recent figures. Vernon will typically quote from their writings or summarise their views and then discuss their contribution to the question being considered. What is frustrating is that at this point, and beyond, it is frequently difficult to tell when he is paraphrasing someone else’s views, and when he is expounding his own. But then, I suppose being ambiguous is one of the perks of being an agnostic (or God).

Although in answering some questions Vernon is very up-to-date, with twenty-first century sources, in others he irritatingly ignores some of the most interesting recent work. For example, in discussing ‘Can reason prove the existence of God?’ he centres his discussion almost entirely around Aquinas’s Five Ways, with a bit of a nod to Darwin and Anselm, but he makes no mention of more recent valiant attempts to deduce God’s existence, most notably by Richard Swinburne in the UK and William Lane Craig in the US [see his article earlier in this issue – Ed]. And in discussing whether God is the same as nature or not, Vernon dwells almost exclusively on seventeenth century Spinoza and fails to mention the intriguing works of contemporary religious naturalists such as Donald Crosby, Corrie Barlow, Ursula Goodenough and the wonderfully-named Loyal Rue. Although such thinkers may be standing on the shoulders of giants, it cannot be denied that this gives them the ability to see more and further even than the giants, and inquirers into the big questions that matter deserve to be alerted to their contributions. The promise implicit in the series’ titles that the books will present the current state of play in the God area is to this extent not fulfilled.

Thirdly, Vernon sometimes makes eccentric choices in both his questions and his answers. I don’t believe that ‘Can an Agnostic Pray?’ would be in the Top Twenty of many people’s hit parade of major questions about God; and while I’m not sure what ‘Is God Green?’ is asking exactly, I am sure it is not fully answered by a ten-page dissertation on the history of Daoism in China up to the present day, with an exegesis of the views of Laozi (Lao Tsu) and, especially, Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu).

The flipside of this is that what is most engaging about Vernon’s essays is the eclecticism and openness of his approach. He is able to entertain a wide range of views without necessarily embracing them, in way that is receptive and guileless. Perhaps because he shelters under the cloak of agnosticism, he doesn’t need to be as defensively dogmatic as a committed theist or atheist. The agnostic stance relieves Vernon of the necessity of forming definitive or categorical conclusions about anything, and gives his writing a comfortable lightness.

Questioning What Matters

Before closing, this unrepentant sinner cannot resist the temptation to draw attention to the fact that there is something of a mismatch between the contents of the two tomes. The Big Questions: God gives answers to twenty purported Big Questions about God. Likewise, God: All That Matters is also organized as a series of questions; but here it appears there are only eight questions about God that actually matter. What is more disconcerting is that few if any of the questions in the one book really coincide with any in the other, so it is hard to resist the dual conclusions that, on the one hand, there are many big questions about God that don’t really matter, and, on the other, that some of the things that matter about God are not really significant questions. This anomaly may be in large part due to the necessity of ensuring product differentiation. All That Matters is more explicitly about God, while The Big Questions is mainly about religion and belief.

These are not books for everyone. Mainstream religious adherents will be perplexed and wonder what he is on about. Atheists will throw up their hands in despair at the non sequiturs and selective use of evidence. But people who don’t go to church, yet think ‘there must be something more’, or who are ‘spiritual but not religious’, may find a sufficient number of tantalizing glimpses of the unknowable God to start reflecting more deeply on what God, and even religion, might mean for them.

The books are not perfect (if they were, Mark Vernon would be God), but both books are worth perusing for their erudition and insight. Whether they make you purr or snarl will depend on where you started from.

© Ian Robinson 2013

Ian Robinson’s essay ‘Atheism as a Spiritual Path’ appeared in The Australian Book of Atheism (ed. Warren Bonett, Scribe, 2010). He is President Emeritus of the Rationalist Society of Australia, www.rationalist.com.au.

• The Big Questions: God, Mark Vernon, Quercus, 2012, 208 pp, ISBN 978 1 78087 032 8

• God: All That Matters, Mark Vernon, Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 2012. 160 pp, ISBN: 978 1 44415 669 0

All the more reason.