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The Mystery of Being

The Presence and Absence of God

Author(s): Patrick F. OConnell

ISBN13: 9781847301949

ISBN10: 1847301940

Publisher: Veritas

Extent: 128 pages

Binding: Paperback

Size: 14.7 x 9.9 x 1 cm

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  • The Mystery of Being: The Presence and Absence of God comes out of the tradition of Christian intellectualism. It combines a philosophical approach to understanding God with describing the evolution of the idea of God in the Old Testament, while seeking to examine and present the simultaneously powerful and caring image of God in the New Testament. It offers a thought-out approach to God that suggests how many of today’s atheist authors only reject a caricature of the origins of existence. 

  • Patrick F. OConnell

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    OConnell has vast experience in the field of religious thought. He studied philosophy at NUI and Louvain before going on to teach in Ireland, Nigeria and the USA. He was also professor of peace studies at Bradford University from 1978 to 1993. This slim pocketable book takes on the mighty task of rebutting atheist authors who argue against the existence of God. OConnell takes what he calls an intellectual approach to the question of Gods existence which in effect means that he examines God as represented in the Old and New Testaments to gather evidence about the nature and character of the supreme being. He concludes that atheist critics of religion have misunderstood Christianity and attack what is really a caricature of God. OConnell writes in clear prose and shows that there are different strands and traditions in the Bible with varying views on God and the Messiah. His analysis of the text of the testaments is backed up with extensive notes at the end of each chapter. OConnell has managed to pack a lot into a small book. This will undoubtedly be a useful guide for any lay believer trying to cope with atheist attacks on religion.

    - Books Ireland, November 2009

    Though written by a trained philosopher, the aim of this book is to provide readers with a thought-out approach to God that suggests how many of todays atheist authors (such as the ubiqui?¼tous Professor Dawkins) only reject a caricature of the origins of existence.
    This again is a book aimed squarely at the ordinary reader, but one based on wide and varied experience of religion, life and teaching.

    - The Irish Catholic, 26 Nov 2009

    James OConnell, a former teacher and Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, is extensively published on theology, comparative religion and a range of philosophical issues. Here he offers a short scholarly book intended for people who believe in and have a relationship with God. He recognizes that as Christians grow in experience and education they become aware that their early understanding of God is no longer sufficient and needs to be refined. His further aim is to provide Christian tools for effective dialogue with current atheism and secularism which seek to persuade others to their view.
    The author writes that in loving relationships lovers seek a deeper understanding of the beloved. In the primary Christian relationship the beloved is God and to be closer to God we need to know God more completely so as to form a better relationship with him. A profound and fully developed understanding of God might lead us to lament with St Augustine, "Too late have I loved you, ever old and ever new!"
    The book suggests that confining images of God to a particular historical period is to reduce God. Ideas of a Creator have developed over many centuries and OConnell offers three different perspectives on God. First is the God of the philosophers: the Approach of Reason, followed by the God of Israel: from Abraham to Mary and, lastly, the God and Father of Jesus Christ. We read how the God of the philosophers reached further so as to communicate with ordinary Jewish humanity and further still to Christianity.
    James OConnell considers the difference between knowing about God intellectually and experiencing God faithfully, and writes about a God of limitless love, reminding us of the many ways we may encounter such a God and mirror such love to others.

    - Kate Barrance, Reality, January 2010


    This book on understanding god is intended for people who have accepted a belief in god and a relationship with him and who wish to deepen their knowledge and strengthen that relationship. It is also written for those of an agnostic outlook who wish to reflect further on human origins, ethos and destiny. in a narrower sense it is written for teachers of religion in schools as well as for those who study theology or preach in churches and elsewhere.

    Many Christians, in moving through a secular education in the arts or sciences and in growing through life experiences, have begun to realise that the understanding of god that they have taken with them from primary school or church instructions is no longer adequate and needs to be refined. But they cannot readily lay their hands on material that would offer purified concepts and avoid images drawn excessively from a folk past.

    Also, at a time when many proponents of atheism , the best known in the English-speaking world is Richard Dawkins , are no longer content just to deny the existence of god but wish to convince others of the non-existence of the deity, believers need to be able to weigh the worth of the negative arguments and to suggest their inadequacy.

    If we accept that god is love and we are called to love in return, in any such relationship we, lovers, seek to deepen our understanding of god and one another. if we are to love god and draw closer to him, we need to come to know him more profoundly so as to relate better to him. Many of us may indeed join with St Augustine who lamented in Book X of his Confessions: Too late have i loved you, ever old and ever new! Too late have I loved you. Love has to be worked on, and worked for, all our lives; and in loving god and one another we
    grow in love.

    The three chapters that follow this introduction are arranged around three different approaches to the understanding of god. There is, first, the approach of reason to god: the god of the philosophers. The second chapter deals with the god of the Jews: the Abrahamic tradition. Third, a set of reflections explores belief in the god and father of Jesus Christ: the Christian tradition.

    In beginning this short study with the role of reason in discerning the nature of god, the being who exists of himself without the intervention of any other being, I am making a fundamental point. While few persons would come to know and fewer still would die for a cerebral god of the philosophers, reason is nevertheless our principal instrument in reflecting on the Judaeo-Christian scriptures and traditions. Not least, it is the instrument through which we bring the riches both of historical learning and contemporary experience to bear on the understanding of god. A god of revelation who flouted the rules of reason would be a god involved in contradictions between his work of creation and his sons work of atonement. in that sense there must always be a primacy of reason.

    A God of faith who has become known through the faith and worship of the Jews is richer and more accessible than the god of reason. He reaches beyond the ranks of the philosophers to touch the great bulk of the simple and ordinary members of humankind. Yet this god of the Jewish faith did not spring readymade from early Jewish reflection and worship but came from long centuries of intellectual searching and purification. There are, for example, almost certainly centuries between the two accounts of creation in the first and second chapters of genesis. in one account the Adam story is almost crudely anthropomorphic and draws powerfully on a folklorist tradition, and in the other account there is a sophisticated rendering of beginnings that has as its backthe priestly worship of the temple. I have mostly emphasised the later part of the Jewish scriptures. But it is crucial to understand , something that the opponents of theism often get as wrong as Christian fundamentalists , that the Bible is not one book but a collection of documents put together from different periods of time and that describe an evolution of thought, ethics and ritual. The Jewish writers, priests, elders and prophets who cherished and leavened their people collaborated with one another over long years to create and to bequeath to posterity one of the great religious legacies of history.

    The Christian scriptures and tradition are saturated with the history, ritual and thought of the Jewish people. Christ undertook his mission of atonement (at-one-ment) at a moment when the Jewish religious tradition, especially in the later prophets, had reached a high degree of development. He could speak to an audience that was ready for the further teaching that he was imparting; and he could gather followers who would appreciate , and in many cases follow literally , the example of the sacrifice of his life that he gave. he turned out to be a messiah different from what most had expected. He not only acted to prepare a kingdom of truth and justice but he taught with authority and revealed in his life a concept of a god who came close to humans and who was full of love and compassion. Paul, one of his most learned and passionate disciples, summed up the gift that Christ brought: but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry Abba! Father, it is that very spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of god, and if children, then heirs, heirs of god and joint heirs with Christ (Rom 8:15-17).

    Finally, in considering the god of the philosophers, the god of the Jews, and the god and Father of Jesus Christ, I have limited myself to reflecting in a relatively simple way on the nature and the work of god. for that reason I have only begun to do justice to the complexity of natural theology, to the varied riches of the Hebrew scriptures, to the wonderful analyses and images of the Christian scriptures, and to the primordial descriptions of the person of Jesus in the gospels. I hope that this small study will be for my readers a continuation of their own search.




    A fundamental element in our human experience is the understanding that we have come about in an utterly contingent1 and accidental way. even if other things did not remind us, the chance encounters that led our parents to one another and prompted the act of generation that gave us biological being reminds us that our existence owes nothing to ourselves. We are in our most personal and thinking terms upthrusts from nothingness and products of accident. Pascal with his literary genius catches the sense of human contingency:

    When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? ...The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.

    Yet because we think creatively and reflectively , because we are not only individual but know that we are and because we are not only present to others but are present to ourselves , we find and make ourselves spontaneous beings that reach out in personal freedom, adaptation to others, and social order to challenge the logic of nothingness and chance. Moreover, in being thinking beings, we are able to ask questions about the nature of our being and the ground of being itself. Pascal again has said pithily: Man is only a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed.

    The question of origins that is raised over my/our personal existence hangs over all other existing things as well. Heidegger, the German thinker, argued that the ground question in metaphysics is: Why is there any Being at all , why not far rather nothing? It is not simply that every being presupposes other beings and so on ad infinitum (the scholastics argued that this would involve an infinite regress unless there was a cause outside the series) but the positive being of anything , the fact of existence in the case of any existent , challenges the logic of nothingness and the non-necessary nature of being as we meet it in ephemeral experience. We, humans, differ from other beings in being conscious of the question of existence and non-existence that is posed about them as it is posed about us. In other words, logically there need not be anything but there is something. Consequentially, if there is being , and since there is , we are driven intellectually to find an explanation for it. Moreover, if there is something now there must always have been something because from nothing nothing comes: ex nihilo nihil. Moving on from this position i want to integrate our understanding of the existence of god with a discussion of his nature , in other words, linking that god is with what he is.

    That something that has always existed is what we call God. Once we accept the existence of god, there is however no profounder mystery than that he has always existed: he is existence that is its own explanation; existence that must in some strange way explain all existence, including our ability to grow and to feel, to know and to love; existence that does not change and that yet possesses the fullness of freedom; existence that is unlimited and yet is something with which our limited being is able to co-exist.

    The central paradox of creation that underlies lesser issues such as those of divine foreknowledge and human freedom is that other beings can in some derived and limited way exist within , and exist in some way other than , infinite and unlimited being. Mother Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchorite, sketches a powerful image:

    He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my minds eye and I thought, What can this be? And answer came, it is all that is made. I marvelled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. and the answer came into my mind. it lasts and ever shall because god loves it.

    This paradox of creation involves, further, that the being of the creator is beyond or transcendent to the creature but the creator simultaneously pervades the being of the creature, or is immanent in it. God is outside and god is within. A prayer from a Book of Hours (1514) that is reproduced in The Book of Common Prayer conveys the immanence of god while implying his transcendence:

    God be in my head and in my understanding;
    God be in my eyes and in my looking;
    God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
    God be in my heart and in my thinking;
    God be at my end and at my departing.

    In short, in some strange way we are permeated by god because there is no being outside him; and we are other than god because we are finite and individual. so too, we are not persons in action over against god nor god over against us but in an almighty and mysterious way god respects our individuality while empowering our being.

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