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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Book review: God? A debate between a Christian and an atheist, by William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

There has been a lot of discussion in the media (and elsewhere) recently on the question of the "New Atheism". Simply put, a lot of new books have been recently published that make the case that we should *not* believe in God. I find these books depressing, mainly because of the general lack of theological and philosophical sophistication that they contain. Sadly, I also find the Christian responses to these books equally depressing, for much the same reason. It was, therefore, with some interest, that I began to read God? A debate between a Christian and an atheist, because this book represents the results of an actual debate, where each side not only presents its views but has the chance to actively respond to its interlocutor. Imagine, a book co-authored by opponents! In fact, this is where the book's greatest strength can be found: while they arrive at divergent conclusions, both authors are united in at least one thing — regarding the existence of God, they are seeking the *truth* of the matter, and that is no small thing.

This book has an interesting structure. Each author first wrote a chapter in which he presented his main arguments for or against the existence of God. They then exchanged copies, and each author then wrote a second chapter responding to the other's first chapter. Finally, those copies were then exchanged and each author wrote a final, third chapter, responding to the responses. Of course, they could have continued to another iteration, but they stopped there.

On the level of argument, it is hard to say who "won" the debate. In my opinion, Sinnott-Armstrong (the atheist) presented the strongest opening argument, but Craig (the believer) had the strongest responses. Ultimately, however, the debate itself was problematic, because on some level it was very difficult to establish a reasonable burden of proof. Sinnott-Armstrong can poke holes, for example, in Craig arguments for the existence of God, but when he puts forward his own positive arguments for atheism his case is extraordinarily weak. In each case, there is a problem of burden of proof, and neither meets that standard for the other. This, of course, should not be surprising, but it does render the debate somewhat unsatisfying.

As I read the book, I found myself living the frustration of an informed spectator. I felt rather like the stereotypical sports fan who shouts suggestions at his TV as he watches his favourite team play a game. Sinnott-Armstrong (the atheist) would put forward his rebuttal, for example, of some of Craig's points, and I could tell that he just didn't understand those points in the first place. So I'd sit in my chair, mentally "shouting" into the debate by writing notes in the margins, trying to refine the issues to make them clearer. Of course, neither party could "hear" me — just like the favourite team cannot hear the sports fan — but, in this case, it did not take away from the value of the experience. I'm beginning to suspect that maybe, just maybe, the frustration of being an informed spectator is the most important contribution this book has to make. After all, if it spurs others to write better books as a follow-up, then the debate is truly well-served.

There is not much point going into all the arguments each party presents in their text — at least, not in this book review! What this work has ultimately helped clarify — at least for me — is that the debate about the existence (or not) of God, as it is presented today, is fundamentally a cosmological problem. Both the theologian and the atheist philosopher (not to mention scientist) are attempting to understand the world around them. One holds that this being called "God" is a necessary part of a true cosmological model, while another says the opposite. It strikes me, then, that the next book to be written on such a topic could be less a debate and more of a mutual exploration of world-views. I'd be willing to engage in that myself.

In conclusion, suffice it to say that an atheist who reads this book will not likely come away convinced that God exists, but neither will a Christian come away with his faith shaken. Each party just might come away, however, with a little less of his smugness intact — which is a good thing. While not a watershed work in the ongoing debate between Christians and atheists, this book has the virtue of at least contributing the clarification of some of the issues involved, thanks mainly to the original form of its composition. For this, we can all be grateful. My rating: B.

Book review: Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality, by Raymond Arroyo

About 15 years ago I was browsing through a religious bookstore and came across a small book called "Answers, not promises" by a nun called Mother Angelica. I had never heard of her. She was apparently part of some Catholic TV channel called EWTN, that I had never heard of either (and which was not, at that time, available in Canada). But the book seemed interesting, full of little bits of everyday wisdom, so I picked it up. To make a long story short, I found it very unsatisfying. I had just finished reading a similar book of spiritual quotes from another nun, Mother Theresa. Perhaps it was an unfair comparison, but between the two Mother's I knew which one I preferred.

Skip ahead to earlier this year. Doubleday sends me a book of — you guessed it — spiritual aphorisms, edited by Raymond Arroyo but originally from the lips and pen of Mother Angelica. My reaction: oh no! But I decided to give the book a chance. And I am glad I did, as I found it to be a delightful little work!

There are plenty of books of spirituality out there, and plenty of people ready to give advice. Sometimes Catholicism is accused of being too "pie in the sky" to be practical in everyday life, but this is simply a perception — something Mother Angelica shows in the pages of this book. "Life lessons and everyday spirituality" really is what this book is all about, a guide to walking with God in every moment of our day, and in every challenge we face. It is about simple things: how we treat family members, how we deal with anger and live forgiveness, how to confront all the little corruptions that threaten to creep into our lives, how to live with suffering, how to keep our eyes fixed on God and heaven. Simple stuff, but very worthwhile.

I did not agree with everything the book contained, in terms of theological wisdom or practical advice, but I must say that 95% of it was just fine and the other 5% was largely harmless. For example, I found her theology of angels a bit dated, but that is really just a quibble, not a showstopper. When it comes to things that really count, however — for example, her views on suffering, on God's love, or on heaven and hell —`I found what she had to say both profound and accessible to the ordinary reader.

What I found I liked about the style in the book comes from Mother Angelica's gift of getting to the point in a way that connects the spiritual and the practical. For example, I was really amused by her story of the peanut. Her monastery, to make ends meet, ran a peanut roasting business. At one point, a supplier asked for a kickback. She refused, and he threatened to cut off the monastery, to which she replied "Go ahead, if I'm going to go to hell it isn't going to be over peanuts!" I love it! In one line she connects deep issues of moral theology and our eternal destiny with something practical — the kind of challenges any ordinary person might encounter in life.

I do not believe that this book will change the world, but it just may change a few hearts, and from my point of view that already makes it immensly valuable. My rating: B+ ('B' for 'good' and the '+' as an indicator of its special qualities)