LEAP­ING FROM ONE QUO­TA­TION TO AN­OTHER SUG­GESTS A LACK OF PER­SONAL CON­VIC­TION

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ger­ard Wind­sor’s

writer is giv­ing an ac­count of their soul.

Leap­ing from one foothold of a quo­ta­tion to an­other sug­gests a lack of per­sonal con­vic­tion, a fail­ure to di­gest and make one’s own the stuff of be­lief. A sim­i­lar fail­ure in self-ap­pro­pri­a­tion was em­bar­rass­ingly on dis­play in the Q&A pro­gram, where Car­di­nal Pell was mouthing the terms and the­ses of his sem­i­nary train­ing more than 50 years ago. There was no sense of a creed that had been thought through in an in­di­vid­ual way.

If you’re go­ing to lace your prose with other men’s and women’s dic­tums, you have to pick the mem­o­rable ones. Yet Smart and Wood­lock in­tro­duce nu­mer­ous vari­a­tions of ‘‘ the Yale philoso­pher’’ or ‘‘ mod­ern Turk­ish the­olo­gian’’, and what th­ese wor­thies have to say rarely rises above per­son­al­ist ba­nal­ity. Wood­lock ends her es­say on what re­li­gion has done for us with: ‘‘ The Qur’an calls such a per­son [a good one] ‘ God’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive on earth’ (Q2:30) and, as Ibn ’ Arabi de­scribes it, we be­come al-in­san al-kamil, ‘ the lo­cus for the man­i­fes­ta­tion of God’.’’ Hardly a crowd-puller of a fi­nal sen­tence.

Of the athe­ists, Loewenstein has his own tic. No mat­ter what the topic, he man­ages to in­tro­duce his con­vic­tion about the in­famy of Is­rael’s treat­ment of the Pales­tini­ans. He is the most openly per­plexed of the panel, and this is win­ning, but there seems some­thing cu­ri­ously re­stricted in his sym­pa­thies and world view. Quite blithely, for ex­am­ple, he ap­pears to equate love with sex­ual love. More than the oth­ers he be­trays a per­sonal con­text that must play into his think­ing, but is un­ex­plored — not least a long­stand­ing alien­ation from his fa­ther.

Caro is the stand­out per­former. I say this al­though I con­sider my­self a strug­gling Catholic and she’s a chirpy athe­ist. But she speaks en­tirely in her own voice and has the ring of au­then­tic­ity. Her easy­go­ing straight-talk­ing, her sec­u­lar down-to-earth­ness, some­how seem to make her a more nat­u­ral fit as an Aus­tralian. And the be­liev­ers even seem self-con­scious that their lan­guage and out­look make them alien, and they make folksy jokes to try to val­i­date them­selves as dinky-di.

Yet the book’s modus operandi seems to have had an ef­fect on Smart. When he comes to the prob­lem of evil he gives us per­haps the best pages in the sym­po­sium. His con­tem­po­rary gu­rus are ditched and he claws his way through what he says is ‘‘ the most prob­lem­atic thing for me as a be­liever’’. Amen to that. If ‘‘ the Lord is loving and full of com­pas­sion’’, as the Good Book tells us, how can he not grieve over his cre­ation? But an all-pow­er­ful yet un­happy God? Surely not. Then again, the wholly di­vine, wholly hu­man Je­sus wept at the grave of Lazarus. On the ques­tions re­volve.

Clock­wise from top left, Jane Caro, Si­mon Smart, Rachel Wood­lock and Antony Loewenstein

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