Thursday, May 29, 2008

BENEDICT XVI and the Search for Truth

BENEDICT XVI and the Search for Truth by Robert Tilley (St Pauls Publications 2007).

Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter ‘Deus Caritas Est’ was a revelation to me. I’d heard from my progressive Catholic friends that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a hardliner – more concerned, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with enforcing his traditional brand of ‘truth’ than in showing love. But apparently he’s been saying/writing for decades that the path of truth leads to love; and love is the perfection of what it is to be human.

The author of this volume has a PhD from the University of Sydney but teaches philosophy at an inner-city homeless men’s refuge. His language is sometimes dense, sometimes racy.

Two examples, respectively: ‘Meaning is perfected in reason; reason is perfected in philosophy; and philosophy is perfected in metaphysics’ (p. 217). I hope the homeless men can understand that. But at least we were warned, earlier (p. 18): ‘You might find your eyes beginning to glaze over, but resist the temptation; shake your head, go for a walk, get a coffee, and then we’ll continue.’ I did all that, but couldn’t stop the eyes glazing over sometimes.

Tilley’s aim in this 245-page, amply footnoted volume is to ‘help us get a grip on Benedict’s thinking, to discern the logic that informs his writings.’ I’m not sure that this reviewer, with his basic philosophy 101-level understandings, got a grip on Benedict’s theology, but I certainly developed an admiration for this simple man with his complex ideas...

Benedict’s ideological bĂȘte noir is Western relativism and its denial of ‘objective truth’, especially moral ‘truths’. His primary authority: the doctrines of the Church (not just the Bible), informed by reason. God’s eternal Reason is embedded in his creation, and everything derives its meaning from Christ. The Eucharist is the ‘causal principle’ of the Church; the Church ‘draws her life’ from the Eucharist.
How does all this work in practice? Here Benedict majors on the necessity of ‘loving community’: union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself; we cannot possess Christ just for ourselves, but also in union with those who have become, or who will become, his own.

So, Tilley writes, there is a close connection between a rejection of metaphysics and the dissolution of the sense of communion: hence the modern rise of the dominant notion of the person as primarily an autonomous individual. And the main error of modern liberalism is that it takes as a given that no absolute religious or philosophical claim is true.

Is Benedict – and Ratzinger before him – a ‘company man’ who could not tolerate criticism of the Church? Colm O’Gorman, Irish founder of the ‘One in Four’ Counselling Centre (referring to the proportion of Irish adults said to have suffered sexual abuse as children) said, in 2005, ‘The Vatican has never, ever accepted responsibility for clerical sexual abuse at all. Never.’ Like John Paul II before him, Benedict has – until recently, when he made some significant statements on his visit to the U.S. – shown little interest in reforming some of the basic policies adversely affecting the lives of ordinary Catholics.

So here we have a brilliant man, a holy man (for whom ‘prayer is a life and death matter’), a complex man. Read all about him: but be prepared for your eyes to glaze over sometimes.

Rowland Croucher

May 2008.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Thorwald Lorenzen, Toward a Culture of Freedom: Reflections on the Ten Commandments Today (Cascade Books, 2008).

Thorwald Lorenzen, currently Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University, is one of Australia’s most gifted theologians. His other books include Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections and Theological Consequences (1995, 2003), and Resurrection-Discipleship-Justice: Affirming the Resurrection of Jesus Christ Today (2003).

He brings two special strengths to his work as a theologian: he is a pastor (most recently, Canberra Baptist Church in Australia’s capital city) and his cross-cultural background (he has taught in Europe and Australia, and is fluent in German and English, as well as the Biblical languages).

This volume on the Torah’s ‘Ten Words’ reads like something produced in a theologian’s study, but honed in real-life situations. So the chapters begin with a few pages of theological comments but then apply the ethical principles of the Judeo-Christian commandments to life, and to contemporary global questions. The book is a marvellous resource for preaching on the Decalogue.

Thorwald Lorenzen is a progressive theologian (as I read him), but who takes the biblical text seriously. So the conservatives – except for some in Eastern Europe who ‘wrote him off’ for not sharing their views about a personal Devil – will generally benefit if they have an open mind about how a competent biblical exegete unpacks the text. And the progressives will connect, for example, with his refusal to use masculine – or any - pronouns for God; Deuteronomy was written in the 7th century BCE etc.

The ‘ten words’, writes Lorenzen, are not restrictive, seeking to spoil humans’ fun. Rather they are liberating, aimed at our enjoyment of life. ‘The ten words are guidelines in our quest to affirm life.’ They’re not intended to be laws or dogmas (note that in the four Gospels Jesus did not quote all of the commandments).

It’s packed full of marvellous insights. How about this, for example: ‘A generation that ignores the wisdom and errors, achievements and failures of its predecessors is ill-prepared to face the future. Would the revolutions of Germany’s youth in the 1960s and of America’s youth in the 1970s have happened if their parents had talked about their war experiences and the associated horror and guilt and doubts?’ (p. 86). Ever thought of that?

Another profundity: ‘Each of us has, or rather is, a conscience. Conscience is the centre of our personhood. It makes us who we are. It shapes our identity. It is worth understanding and caring for’ (p. 20).

And throughout Thorwald writes as a prophet. Try this, for example: ‘When some reformers in the sixteenth century took down the pictures and removed the statues from the churches, they wanted to make room for the living voice of the gospel. They wanted to celebrate Jesus as the one word that we need to hear, trust and obey in life and in death. But soon others, lesser minds and lesser hearts, came along and put a book where the pictures had been. So for many Christians the living voice of the gospel has been frozen into a book, the Bible. And around the world there are many Christians who spend more time and energy fighting about the Bible than in worshipping and obeying the Christ to whom the Bible points’ (p. 52).

Challenging stuff. If you’re a pastor, ‘Preach it, sister/brother!’

Rowland Croucher

May 2008

Monday, May 05, 2008


Jim Wallis: Seven Ways to Change the World: reviving faith and politics (2008).

Jim Wallis is probably America’s highest-profile ‘progressive evangelical’ and advocate for Christian left-wing causes, especially peace and justice issues. His ‘flagship’ publication is Sojourners magazine. Other well-known books include 'The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America' and 'God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it.'

Wallis is especially scornful of the Religious Right’s misuse of the Bible: ‘Jesus didn’t speak at all about homosexuality. There are about 12 verses in the Bible that touch on that question ... [t]here are thousands of verses on poverty. I don’t hear a lot of that conversation.’

'Seven Ways…' has forewords by Jimmy Carter and Tim Costello. In a commendation of the book, British PM Gordon Brown wrote, ‘Jim Wallis challenges us to create a society which both addresses injustice and stresses personal responsibility, and his call for a global covenant through which rich countries meet their obligations to the poor will have a resonance across the world.’

Jim’s style is readable, racy, and autobiographical. The people he likes – Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Howard Yoder, William Stringfellow, et. al - are quoted often.

His thesis: the Religious Right in America, which has campaigned, negatively, against abortion and homosexual marriage under the rubric of ‘moral values’ is diversifying. The issue of climate change, for example, previously treated with disdain by conservatives, is now – albeit often reluctantly - on many of their agendas. After all, shouldn't ‘family values’ have something to say about the world we leave to our children and grandchildren? Many younger Evangelicals, in particular, are ‘taking back the faith’ as he urged in his book God’s Politics. They’re concerned about poverty and economic injustice, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, Darfur, Iraq. We’re experiencing another ‘wave of revival’ similar to the spiritual awakenings that led to the abolition of the slave trade. Even megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels are getting on board. Barack Obama is linking faith and politics in a dynamic way which appeals to younger generations of Christians - and others. Even conservative columnist George Will is saying that the economic ideology that runs American society has eroded family and cultural stability.

But the shift away from the Religious Right is not necessarily a shift to the Left. This new generation is looking for a ‘Religious Centre’. The progressive Evangelicals in this group are reading theologians like Bishop N T Wright, who in a little book (Simply Christian) introducing thoughtful people to Christianity covers topics such as poverty, the environment and human rights. Thirty years ago, says Wright, these were secondary issues. They’re majoring on Jesus rather than Paul; their commission for mission is in Luke 4 (good news for the poor) as well as Matthew 28 (go and preach). They’re studying the prophets, with the help of scholars like Walter Brueggeman, and re-discovering that God hates injustice, everywhere.

Wallis writes that his concern for social justice has led him to embrace many aspects of Catholic social teaching, with its emphases on the well-being of the community as well as the rights of the individual.

There’s a wonderful tribute to Jim’s dad in an appendix. A list of discussion questions would have been a good idea.

Writing as a fellow-traveler with Jim Wallis en route from conservative Plymouth Brethrenism to following Jesus and the prophets, (I too was taught that the Sermon on the Mount didn't apply to us, but belonged to 'another dispensation') there’s not much here I’d want to argue with. In fact the only bit I marked negatively was his attribution of the famous quote (gleaned from the John Mark Ministries website rather than an original source) in the index to Richard rather than Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘The worst evils in the world are not done by evil people, but by good people who do not know that they are not doing good’ (p. 214).

Buy this book for every person under 35 who's prepared to re-think their childhood faith and/or their inherited conservative political stance!

Rowland Croucher
May 2008


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