The following review by Stephanie Dowrick appears in today’s Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age:
FOR GOD’S SAKE
By Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock
At its best, thinking – and therefore writing and reading – can be transformative. It can allow our vision of life to become more nuanced and, ideally, less dogmatic. Books are key in this, offering a rare opportunity to take our thinking beyond where even the most serious of conversations is likely to go.
It’s perhaps only rare – and therefore precious – books that invite us to investigate that deeply, in part because it has become increasingly common for authors to adopt a highly conversational, self-referencing tone in their writing. This can be attractive but has its limitations, particularly when the writers are presenting an ”everyday” perspective that can be interesting – but is it enough?
I mention this because For God’s Sake makes no claims for specialised reflection. Instead, it’s an intelligent, good-natured exchange between two atheists (Jane Caro and Antony Loewenstein), an evangelical Christian (Simon Smart) and a Muslim (Rachel Woodlock) sharing views on religion, religions, God, life, ethics, meaning and death.
But what vast themes they have chosen to address. Religion can inspire people to sublime levels of conscience and unity; it can also justify or drive acts of barbarous violence. In its hugely diverse expressions as well as in its absence, religion remains profoundly significant in how individuals shape their inner identity and perceive and move through the world. Thinking freshly about this is intensely demanding and I found myself asking more often than I wished how well served readers would be when only two of the world’s major faiths were represented (Loewenstein is a cultural, not religious Jew) and when two contributors think and write from a humanistic atheist perspective, that’s become not just mainstream but the ”self-evident” norm.
In that context, Smart might have the hardest task. He’s the book’s representative Christian, already an awesome challenge given the breadth of views within that profoundly influential faith. That made it disappointing, at least for me, that his experience of his own faith appears sincere but insular, and that his knowledge of (interest in?) other faiths is relatively slight.
Ours is a time when inter-religious understanding is urgently needed, yet many of Smart’s assertions are contentious, including his claim that, ”According to Christian teaching we are alienated from God [and] each other.” This statement is easily passed by, yet has profound social as well as theological implications in a world where Eastern thinking on interdependence is increasingly well understood (although unrepresented here) and conventionally dualistic thinking is questioned.
Muslim writer Woodlock takes Smart up on the question of ”alienation” and shares her unifying belief that ”all of creation is infused with love”. It is also she who points out: ”Because all the great traditions teach love of the transcendent and compassion towards others, where there is violence, barbarity, prejudice and hatred it is a sign the tradition has been corrupted.” A convert to Islam from the Baha’i faith, she is the writer most generally alert to religion’s profound implications.
The other contributors can seem at times too quickly satisfied with what they already know. A tiny example from many possibilities comes when Loewenstein writes: ”I’d love to see ancient religions adapting to the 21st century without removing or diluting their traditions of soul.” He could see that right now. It’s happening, right now.
Yet it is also Loewenstein, the Jewish atheist rep, who affirms that ”the material world may not be enough to satiate the human mind and soul”. And his sister atheist Caro, who though ”perfectly content to think of [herself] as simply a mammal with an oversized brain”, nonetheless reflects a central spiritual principle when she writes: ”True morality lies in being self-responsible.”
What emerges is that all four writers are demonstrably good people and that goodness matters to them. I made notes as I read and while some have too many exclamation marks, others were decidedly appreciative, particularly of moments of brave self-questioning. I found woman-around-town Caro’s honesty about her early struggles with debilitating anxiety genuinely moving, also Woodlock’s love for and confidence in her unpopular faith.
And perhaps that is, finally, the basis on which this book should be read. If the writers’ frankness and warmth towards one another gets readers thinking freshly about their own attitudes towards religion, religions and life beyond the obvious, then it’s a fine start. It might even be enough.
Jane Caro and Antony Loewenstein are guests at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Stephanie Dowrick is a writer and minister who leads an interfaith congregation.