Sunday, September 30, 2018

Book Review: "Just Whatever" by Matt Nelson

I have been a great admirer of Matt Nelson's online articles and Reasonable Catholic blog, so I cracked the cover of his first book with incredibly high expectations - and yet, Nelson exceeded them. Just Whatever: How to Help the Spiritually Indifferent Find Beliefs that Really Matter is a master's seminar, bringing philosophy, history, and finally, theology, to bear on the most pressing - albeit most neglected - questions in our lives.

For those new to Matt Nelson's work, they will quickly recognize his skill as a writer. His appreciation of great English writers such as Newman, Chesterton, and Lewis is evident, not just in quotations but in the character of Nelson's work. His prose is something special. Like Lewis, the profundity of his thought is often made clear by everyday examples, and he is honest about his own past struggles with questions of faith.

Just Whatever is divided into three parts, based upon three levels of religious indifference: 1) Indifference to the existence of a personal God; 2) Indifference to the claims of Jesus; 3) Indifference to the Church. In each section Nelson draws together the thought of the best minds - past (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Newman, Chesterton, Lewis, Sheed, Sheen) and present (Ratzinger, Kreeft, Craig, Wright, Hahn, Pitre, Barron) - to overcome the indifference  and objections that keep far too many at a distance from God and the fullness of His Revelation to mankind.

Part One is an unflinching look at the objections to God's existence raised by atheism. Materialism, evolution, the problem of evil, and more - Nelson's responses are expertly reasoned and convincing. Those lulled into the intellectual and spiritual slumber of life without God will find themselves shocked awake by the philosophical arguments for His existence. They will also be forced to face atheism's logical end:
With no purpose to life except what we invent for ourselves, with no hope of life after death, and with all our greatest achievements ultimately without meaning or effect, one is left with little else than the "nausea" of existence that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about. If God does not exist, then this meaningless existence we call our life is as good as it gets.     From this follows the questions of whether life is worth living. Sartre's existentialist ally Albert Camus reflected deeply on the consequences of life without God and came to the staggering conclusion in his literary essay The Myth of Sisyphus that "there is only one really serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not one's life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that." Camus understood that if God does not exist and our existence is a random accident headed for nowhere, then whether life is worth living is a question for which there is no true answer. (p. 47-48)
If that thought doesn't shock a man out of his spiritual indifference, then I doubt anything, short of a brush with death, can.

Parts Two and Three are equally as insightful. Nelson brings a host of ancient sources to bear on the question of Jesus' existence and his chapter on the historical reliability of the gospels is chocked full of the most up-to-date research. And his chapters specifically on Catholicism? After reading them this weekend, I was more spiritually alert when receiving Reconciliation and the Eucharist - I can't give higher praise than that.

Matt Nelson is an incredibly talented writer, gifted well beyond his years. (And honestly, well beyond mine, too.) Just Whatever is sure to be the first of many important works. 

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