William J. O’MALLEY, Help My Unbelief. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008. pp. 152.$15.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-803-4.
Reviewed by Francis BERNA, La Salle University, 1900 W. Olney Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19141-1199

A great frustration comes with teaching religion to Honors students at the university. The frustration comes with their fear of questions. At least with regard to religion, they just don’t like to ask them. Or, more pointedly for many with twelve years of Catholic education under their belt, religion could not possibly provide a sensible answer for any real question. Too often religious education has proven to be nothing more than memorizing the right answers for irrelevant questions, the amassing of useless information. To paraphrase Karl Rahner, teachers and preachers provide all the right answers for questions no one is asking!

In the course of over 45 years teaching high school, O’Malley disciplined his ear to hear the questions and to appreciate the need for their being asked. He likewise has learned to appreciate the tentative character of his answers. Asking the questions holds the possibility of authentic belief. Faith as a “blind leap” he terms as “shear idiocy!”

Throughout the book one reads “classic O’Malley.” The epistemological framework condenses what he sets out in Meeting the Living God, a quality high school text with great popularity. The reality of questions does not result in a relativism of belief. One can be grasped by the truth with the same “very high probability” that marks scientific claims.

The most troubling question of adolescence, the question of identity, emerges as well at other points in adult development. The second most important question, “Where do I fit in?” can arise when walking the streets of New York or gazing at the stars thrown across the sky. The other questions of religion must find their answers in relation to these two fundamental questions.

Getting at the answers requires “getting the objective facts as they reveal themselves.” The teacher insists that the student not accept only what they would like nor simply what others claim. As a Jesuit he relies on the wisdom of Ignatius, “The purpose of these Exercises is to help inquirers take possession of the self, and… to not be swayed by immoderate dependency” (p. 43). And the reader will need this kind of disciplined mind to work through the survey of perspectives that ground the author’s faith.

O’Malley provides a fine description of symbols with technical precision and the clarity of readily appreciated examples. He offers a similar overview of myth and the place of both symbol and myth in the dynamics of religion. With just about ten pages O’Malley likewise explains the development of the Gospels and the three levels of truth-telling. Again, his clear examples make it possible for the average adult reader to understand some rather sophisticated concepts.

Some readers might suggest that his answers to real questions about the Catholic Church come too easily. However when one comes to see how the issues and challenges with regard to the church come not just from his students but from his own frustration, one can appreciate both the wit and serious depth of his perspective. O’Malley claims to enjoy the church that serves as home to both the Little Flower and the Wife of Bath. Looking around the Christian churches he observes the “all the boats leak” and given that the Roman Church has not broken off from another church, there’s enough “probability” to call it his home as well.

The author’s exploration of church issues – birth control, sexual scandal, the treatment of women, internal conflict, and other “neuralgic issues” – holds the reader’s attention more readily than the subsequent chapter on science. Again O’Malley takes on significant theories and their challenges with the length of only a few pages. Even if one does not fully understand the scientific detail two important points come across quite clearly. First religion cannot be afraid of the scientific questions. In fact, Christian faith has a responsibility to appreciate the questions and understand the theory. Second, science does not negate authentic adult faith. One gets a real feel for this chapter in but a few lines. “A senior once sneered at me, ‘Do you think you’re as smart as Carl Sagan?’ No. But a lot more open-minded” (p. 116). O’Malley demonstrates that open-mindedness as he corrects a perspective on science in his text Meeting the Living God.

The question of suffering unfolds in the final chapter. Here O’Malley provides a very readable overview of Job’s dilemma and convinces the reader of the depth of Jesus’ own questioning. He likewise helps the Christian understand his lack of appreciation for theories of Jesus’ death as atonement. O’Malley proposes the life and death of Jesus as a manifestation of that immense divine love which the friends of Job could not fathom.

About a third of the way through the text O’Malley proposes a serious challenge for any religion. “Perhaps one acid text of any philosophy (or religion) is whether its adherents can laugh at themselves – and even at the ways they sincerely express their beliefs” (p. 59). Help My Unbelief provides some very clever lines and can get one to laugh at one’s “religious self.” One can rightly imagine that the young men at Fordham Prep have had a good laugh or two along with doing some hard work on tough questions. One should rightly expect that these students have learned to live the questions and have come to know something of the great Mystery about which Christianity seeks to speak. Happy the university professor to have these and like-minded students.


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