FAITH MAGAZINE November-December 2013
The Fullness of Truth – Catholicism and the World’s Major Religions
By Rev Thomas Kocik, Newman House, 2013, 203 pages, £6.19
This is a work on an increasingly relevant issue. It is a presentation of the great religious traditions and a search to find the semina Verbi – the seeds of the Word. This will allow us to discover “something of our own in what is alien … [so that] we can better understand ourselves in light of what we have received. The result, please God, will be a faith that is more vibrantly catholic – and Catholic” (p13).
The first part deals with the Eastern religions. The treatment is respectful and avoids the usual mistakes about these traditions. The Chestertonian quip that, if we worship “the god within” (p24) this means that we worship ourselves, is not true. Christian mysticism would refer to the mysterious presence of God in the soul or heart as something immanent but also “Other”, so it is not ourselves but rather the presence of the Kingdom of God. It’s what the old theology books called “the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity” (p199). Fr Kocik points to Hinduism’s concept of God as a creative dance reflecting the playfulness of wisdom mentioned in the Old Testament.
In Buddhism we find in the Mahayana tradition the noble picture of the bodhisattva, who as an enlightened being refuses to enter Nirvana and stays among mankind to work for liberation.Embodying love, compassion and self-giving, this figure finds obvious resonance with Jesus Christ (p47). Confucianism holds the value placed on high ideals such as friendship which, Fr Kocik argues, Christianity raises to supernatural heights by charity (p39).
It is when he is discussing Taoism that one of the great insights of the book emerges. This concerns the Taoist and Confucian concept of Heaven, the Way and Goodness as pointing to the Holy Trinity: “Chinese religion is aware of transcendent power, T’ien (Heaven), at work in those who seek Jen (goodness) by following the Tao (Way) – fragmentary glimpses, perhaps, of the heavenly Father whose Spirit elicits and sustains our union with Christ, the Incarnate Way” (p47). Although the book doesn’t mention it, there is an even deeper affirmation in Hinduism, where the one great, unchanging Reality, Brahman, is seen as or expressed as Sat-cit-ananda. Sat is ground/being, Chit is consciousness and Ananda is bliss or joy. This is a Trinitarian framework despitedifferent conceptual frameworks and understandings. The fascinating work Hindu-Christian Meeting Point by Abhshiktananda develops this.
The next chapter looks at Judaism and Islam which, together with Christianity, account for 54 per cent of the world’s current population. The author captures the common ground in three points: all three faiths are strictly monotheistic; they trace their revelation and message back to a historical episode; and they encounter God in a relational way (pp49-50). The book gives an account of the history of Israel and the appearing of Jesus as the promised Messiah. I felt this section could have been stronger in its exploration of the connections between Judaism and Catholic Christianity. The Old Testament offers both a sign and a challenge for all of us who are Christians in how our faith has grown from this religious system yet represents something new.
There is a good explanation of Islam’s history and beliefs, but it appears to become more difficult to see the connections. Perhaps this is because Christianity and Islam, despite growing in the same soil, have grown in different directions to become distinct religious formations. I would suggest it is in the mystical tradition of Islam (Sufism) that Christianity might meet a dialogue in which it sees its own face. While Islam tends not to promote celibacy, we have Rabia in Sufism who will not marry as she wishes to be joined to God alone.
We also find in this good soul that she goes around the streets of Basra with a pail of water and a flaming torch. When asked why, she answers that she wants to put out the fires of Hell and set on fire the garden of Paradise so that people might then follow God neither out of fear nor for what they might get in return. In this she was pointing to the pure love with which the Christian mystics burned, driven not by what they could get or avoid but by love of Him who is pure Life and Love itself. Perhaps here is a real ground of engagement. Bahai and Sikkhism are mentioned at the end of the chapter.
The following chapter concerns Christianity. I was pleased to see the great Oriental Churches mentioned and that the Coptic and Armenian Apostolic Churches, once regarded as heretical because of their Monophysite character, are now seen as expressing the same Faith with different terminology (p98). The same applies to the Assyrian Church and its Nestorianism. Fr Kocik leads us through the history between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. One of the blessings of ecumenical contact has been a movement towards agreement on some of the contentious issues the book mentions as dividing the Churches, such as the filioque clause and the papal primacy.
There is also the ecumenical growth of a climate of love, friendship, respect and accord, although this can be fragile at times. In terms of Orthodoxy the value and necessity of the Petrine ministry is noted. Fr Kocik also makes the much-needed point that theology has to be both faithful and creative. We do not just pass on a faith but seek to know its depths and mysteries more clearly. Tradition is, in the words of Pope Benedict, “a living and dynamic reality”.
A long section on Protestant Christianity covers history, theology and groups. The section on Christian spins-offs looks briefly at the main groups: Unitarian Universalists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Science. The book ends with a helpful overview of its journey through faiths and traditions.
There is much to commend this book. The author has obviously spent a great deal of time studying and searching these religious traditions and seeking where the connecting points may be. Anyone wanting a clear and simple introduction to world religions from a Catholic point of view should buy this book. However, I think there are two weaknesses. First, Fr Kocik writes: “In the course of my work I visited no temple, mosque, or synagogue nor did I interview Hindu gurus, Confucian sages, or Pentecostal preachers” (p9). To understand other religions we need to spend time with their adherents – to listen, question and be friends with them also. This opens up to us how these faiths exist and are incarnate in the people who hold them. This is a real learning curve but it will sow the seeds forbetter understanding and for our own faith to be clarified and developed.
The second weakness is that the book does not sufficiently emphasise that the mystical tradition of Christianity speaks a common language which crosses denominations and faiths. This is reflected well in Huxley’s famous work The Perennial Philosophy. An anthology such as The Fire of Silence and Stillness edited by Paul Harris, from 1995, also offers a library of voices from across the ages and religions speaking of meditation, silence and union with God. This is the mystery in which we all exist, the God in whom we all live, move and have our very being. It is this still point in a turning world that perhaps offers us the most appropriate and creative opportunity to meet and understand the other and to share what we have of the Christ – He who is the meaning and centreof all that is.
Edited by Andrew Davison, SCM Press, 169pp, £19.99
Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine
By Archbishop Michael Sheehan, edited by Fr Peter Joseph, Baronius Press, 683pp, $25.92
Apologetics has not had a good press for quite some time, owing partly to the rise of rationalist theology and partly to a decline in the use of scholastic philosophy in theological training.
Andrew Davison, who edited this collection of 10 writers from “the Catholic tradition” (most of them are Anglican, but they include a lecturer from St Mary’s Twickenham and Fr Richard Conrad OP), provides a useful introductory note to each article. There is also a good index.
The overall opinion goes against the approach of foundationalist apologetics – what Archbishop Michael Sheehan put forward in his famous book Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine gets a very rough ride. John Hughes opines that “proof and the particular sort of rationalism that went with it has had its day”. Davison says “the foundationalist approach sets apologetics up for a fall”. St Ambrose used to say “non in dialectica placuit Deo”, which broadly translated means that God is not interested in a purely argumentative process.
When the blind man was confronted by Jesus, who asked him “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” he replied that he would believe if he could only see him. Fr Conrad puts forward the history of apologetics down the centuries and concludes that there is a need “to meet people where they are – both intellectually and in terms of the media they attend to… [and] we need to work harder at getting the full message of the Gospel across”.
Alison Milbank says that we need “to find a language that can show people that they are already engaged in religious practice, and assuming implicitly that it is true”. Davison remarks: “Apologetics is as much an invitation to ‘taste and see’ what it is like to live and think differently.”
In the same essay, Davison puts forward the case for continuing to use theological language, even when it might be strange, because “it is the task of apologetics to make things clear and on other occasions it is the task of apologetics to cut through the vapid familiarity of our time and present something unfamiliar, glorious and true”. He amusingly quotes an unnamed liberal-minded Catholic bishop who objected to the use of the word “bounty” in new liturgical translations (he could equally have used paschal or consubstantial) as a case in point.
Graham Ward in his essay puts the spotlight on the treatment of opponents (adversarii in theological manuals), whose views were often simplified to the point of parody. Instead he argues that we should “courteously present adversaries with detailed readings of their own work, while exposing the heresy announced with respect of Christian teaching; then they correct their teachings while also learning from and adopting some of their ideas.”
Regarding present problems – specifically child abuse – both Craig Harvey and Richard Conrad admit that this does tend to drive a nail through logical arguments. Alistair McGrath points out that “apologetics appeals to beauty and morality as much as to rationality [and] must go beyond demonstrating the capacity of the Christian faith to make sense of things, and speak meaningfully of deeper issues of purpose, value and identity.”
On the argument between religion and science, McGrath considers that there is no contradiction since science itself works on acts of faith, not simply on logical deduction. “Christianity does not displace scientific accounts of the world; rather it lends them ontological depth and clarity, and in doing so discloses a greater vision of reality,” he writes.
Has the traditional apologetics, then, had its day? By no means. But it needs to be realigned. As John Hughes says: “Many of the ancient arguments for the existence of God, whether Anselm’s or Aquinas’s, can be rehabilitated, not as unquestionable proofs, but as arguments that draw out the logic of a certain position or line of thought.” Ultimately, says Davison, “the apologist may labour to show that the Christian vision is true, but that will fall flat unless he or she has an equal confidence that it is supremely attractive and engaging”.
Archbishop Sheehan’s work would certainly be considered foundationist. The full edition was first published in 1923. It has been given a thorough make-over by Fr Peter Joseph, vice-rector of Wagga Wagga seminary in Australia, and now incorporates Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church while retaining the same basic structure. It is certainly comprehensive (and far larger than the original). It provides more data to back up the various arguments. It still has the manual feel about it – which will commend it to many – but Fr Joseph can’t resist forays into private revelations (such as St Faustina’s on hell) and the phenomenon of incorruptibility of beati. He also continues to consign unbaptised infants to limbo.
Although Fr Joseph discusses the impact of science – quoting Pope John Paul II’s address to the Academy of Science – he concludes: “It is only the presumptuous who represent it [evolution] as a scientifically established truth.” For those who have never experienced the scholastic presentation of theology, or do not possess Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, the book has merit as a reference source.
Lessons in a Rose-Garden: Reviving the Doctrinal Rosary
By Aidan Nichols OP, Gracewing, 330pp, £20
“In the rosary,” Fr Nichols tell us, “there is a special educational method that makes dogma pass through the hands of Mary” (p11). Accordingly, in this book Nichols sets out to “do theology” through the rosary, or more precisely “to contemplate the mysteries that the Rosary sets forth and their wider lessons” (p2, Nichols’ italics). The book is divided into four parts: the Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries. Each part has five sections, one for each mystery, and each section contains three lessons arising from that mystery, covering a range of doctrinal, spiritual, moral and liturgical themes. Readers inspired by the Incarnation-centred theological vision of the Faith movement will notice that this “rosary way” of doing theology means we begin ourtheological reflection with the moment of the Incarnation: the Annunciation. (Incidentally, although Nichols does uphold the Franciscan primacy of Christ, his perspective appears to embrace a predestination of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice more akin to the interpretation of Hans Urs von Balthasar (cf pp68, 74-75).
Nichols’ distinctive approach means his book stands out among works on the rosary, which tend to be devotional in character, and also among works of theology, which tend generally to follow thematic structures. However, Nichols is in fact harking back to an older approach, once widespread in Catholic Europe, of a “doctrinal rosary book”, a rosary book that was not simply devotional in character.
The systematically trained theologian may well at first feel a bit at sea, or should I say lost in a rose garden, jumping from one topic to another in an unexpected fashion. However, the structure that holds together what might otherwise seem a series of eclectic reflections – that is, the mysteries of the rosary – is of course nothing other than the life and work of Jesus Christ set out in linear fashion from Incarnation through redemption to the glory of heaven. We have left the highways of the town planners not for an uncultivated wilderness, but in favour of meandering in a rose garden, which is not without its own order and design. Above all it is the mariological thread running through the book, the “seeing through Mary’s eyes”, that organises the reflections and gives the book itsdistinctive character.
In Nichols’ hands this is certainly a fruitful approach. There is hardly a doctrine of the Catholic faith that is not explicated in the book’s 330 pages. The lessons, for example, in the Annunciation section dive straight into a treatment of the hypostatic union and Mary as Theotokos, touch upon bioethics, and address joy, obedience and monasticism (as “Annunciation existence”, p31). While “The Visitation” elucidates the virtue of hope, Confession, Advent and indulgences. “The proclamation of the Gospel”, in addition to addressing the universal commission of the Church and the relation to other religions, usefully rehearses the main argument of Nichols’ book The Realm – An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England.
Nichols’ precise and illuminating connections across a wide range of topics and resources (eg gathering together treatments of virtue, Scripture, popular devotions, doctrine, divine office) present a closely woven picture, a “joined up”, tightly coherent vision of the faith. (His impressively broad resources, both traditional and innovative, from Aquinas to Bulgakov, Dante to Bernanos, may well of course mean readers find some ideas with which they do not entirely concur.)
Moreover, the style is not dry but attractive and imaginative. We are learning in the beauty of a “rosary”, a rose garden, where theological instruction draws on art and literature, on “distinctively evangelical” examples of the use of the imagination, for “we must learn with blessed Mary … how to lay hold imaginatively on our salvation in a way that is worthy of the promises of Christ” (p46). Religious art illustrating each mystery is reproduced in colour to accompany the opening page of each section, and the argument is frequently developed with references to literature, art or architecture.
As one would expect, Nichols’ theology is sound, precise, clearly argued, beautifully expressed, strewn with poignant connections and rich in insights, such as the observation that at the wedding feast at Cana, as the bridegroom fails to fulfil his traditional Palestinian-Jewish duty to provide wine, Jesus substitutes himself for the bridegroom (pp125-6); or the presentation of Christmas night as the dark night of our mystical unmaking and remaking (p66). One senses with a feeling of privilege and gratitude that one is drinking from the deep and abundant wellspring of a dedicated Dominican life here generously shared with us.
Moreover, there are indications that this book, which is robustly ready to engage in the public square of theology, is not just meant for experts. Some sections are developed from material used in sermons and retreats, basic theological terms are often explained and down-to-earth analogies are used.
There is nothing like a theology book that affects one spiritually, that enlightens one’s understanding of the truth but that also includes plenty of sentences inspiring one to follow that truth wholeheartedly. One such is this, which with a characteristic, understated directness goes to the heart of the matter: “Unless our lives are thoroughly centred on God and eternal life with him in his Kingdom, it is not likely that we shall accomplish much work for him on earth” (p49).
An afternoon (well it might be a little longer) in the rose garden with Fr Nichol’s book as guide has much to recommend it.
Practicing Catholic: Essays Historical, Literary, Sporting and Elegiac
George Weigel, Crossroads publishing, 294pp, £9.99p
This is a stimulating, utterly enjoyable read. Weigel is a well-informed, witty and thoughtful writer, whose Catholic faith gives depth to his work. I might have expected him to write well on subjects such as Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, John Paul II, and the history of the Catholic Church in the United States – and he does so, and the reader will not be disappointed. But he also sparkles on subjects like baseball (on which I expected to be bored, and wasn’t), Evelyn Waugh, Tony Blair, and the 1960s. This is an excellent collection of essays, which will nourish your brain and lift your spirits.
One of the best essays is on the subject of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in 2010. Weigel exactly captures the anti-Papal ranting of the weeks immediately preceding the visit – and then the extraordinary change that came over the country that began the moment the Pope arrived and came hurrying down from the aircraft, arms outstretched. Reading it brought it all back again – the Pope’s magnificent speech in Westminster Hall, his beautiful message to schoolchildren gathered at Twickenham, and the way in which the fundamental goodness of the man communicated itself to the crowds.
Weigel highlights the huge importance of the issues raised by Benedict at Westminster: ‘What are the moral foundations of democracy, and of the democratic commitment to civility, tolerance, and the rule of law? Can there, in fact, be democracy “if the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus?” Would this not lead to a condition of “fragility” that could, in time, lead to democratic crack-up?’
Weigel contrasts Benedict XVI’s insights with those of Tony Blair… well, it’s an unequal contest, of course, but the way in which Weigel brings this out, with reference to various events in recent British history (Princess Diana’s death, the Iraq wars, Anglo-American relations) makes for an exciting read. Enjoy it.
And so to topics that plunge more deeply into spiritual matters. On Evelyn Waugh, Weigel notes that Waugh grasped the essential point that Catholicism is an incarnational religion: St Helena’s search for the true Cross was rooted in this. Waugh understood that this search was all about the actual, raw fact of the Crucifixion really happening: the Christian faith is not a set of moral principles, or a myth and some lovely traditions, but the truth, rooted in history. I found this so well expressed, and with such clarity, that it helped me to grasp an aspect of sacramental theology that I had never really thought through adequately before.|
On the Church, Weigel explores issues that still divide Catholics – notably Vatican II and its documents, including Gaudium et Spes. He explores this document and sees its flaws and omissions as essentially rectified by the subsequent writings of John Paul II. I think he is right, and this approach is a richer and more useful one than the angry-young-man line that is taken by an emerging group of commentators who are more keen to denounce something from the 1960s than to seek to build and inspire.
Baseball? I skipped over these essays at first, turning hurriedly to other topics – but when I eventually got round to them I discovered some gems. Issues like the role of money in sport, why loud rock music and sport don’t mix, and the greatness of good sportsmanship are all well handled.
This is an inexpensive book, and it is well worth treating yourself to a copy. Weigel’s prose is tasty and crunchy. The occasional Americanism doesn’t grate – except perhaps for the curious spelling of the title: surely it should be “Practising” with an “s”? And I wish the publisher had found a better binder – some pages in my copy came loose, which is irritating in a book you are much enjoying and want to carry about for train journeys etc. But don’t let these things deter you. George Weigel is deservedly well known as a Catholic writer and biographer. This book reveals that he is also that rare thing – a genuine essayist. Relish it.
Joanna Bogle DSG