Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman

Book Review: Jesus: A Gospel, by Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen, Jesus: A Gospel, Orbis Books, 2013, £16.99 available from Alban Books)

Christians and other spiritual seekers familiar with the work of the late Henri Nouwen will welcome this new book. It is a compilation of Gospel reflections drawn from more than twenty of his books and writings. The compiling was done by Michael O’Laughlin who was Nouwen’s teaching assistant during his years at Harvard University.

Nouwen writes that the whole message of the Gospel is to become like Jesus. He invites us to read again the Gospels with eyes clear of the blurriness caused by centuries of dog- matism. Christianity has disappeared from many areas of our culture due to its inability to communicate with, speak the language of, our now post-Christendom world view. The historical and doctrinal detritus which has accumulated over the centuries has obscured the figure of Jesus and has deprived the Church of its Gospel-inspired passion and energy. The Jesus Christ of our churches is a plaster idol imprisoned by a clerical mindset incapable of rethinking and rediscovering the core of who he was, nor the kernel of what he stood for. Yet Jesus is the most revered person of the last 2000 years of human history.

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Review - God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan: Reconciling Religious Difference

God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan:  Reconciling Religious Difference
Tim Firth
Reviewed by John Mackrell

Books on religion and spirituality abound.  What distinguishes Tim Firth’s book from others, and explains why he had to publish it privately under his own imprint, is the daring way in which he confronts the cosy religion of many with the challenging spirituality of a few.  Religion he shows often serves as a refuge from a hostile world, all the more comforting while yielding unthinking obedience to an absolute ecclesiastical authority.  That kind of religion pales into insignificance against personal commitment to an unknowable God.

God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan - revered Scottish proverb - demands a daunting transformation both in feeling and thinking by its readers.  Most of us, whether aware of it or not, are children of the Enlightenment.  We search for truth in a binary way.  Either an article of faith, such as ‘transubstantiation’, is true or false: it cannot be both.  That is why we have different churches, even if we sometimes refrain from persecuting one another, to impose our beliefs on others. Firth’s answer to our myopia is what he calls ‘Both/And’.  With delightful appropriateness Firth chooses his principal models from the Church’s mystics, notably Meister Eckhart, whom the hierarchy reveres, while never daring to follow his advice, so much at variance with its own understanding. Firth cites Meister Eckhart’s words: ‘If the eye of the heart were fully open and we had obtained complete knowledge, we would see that contraries are all contained finally in an all-embracing unity’.  As Firth sees it, human minds set in the ‘either/or’ mould are incapable of understanding that opposites when seen from different viewpoints are perfectly compatible.  More fundamentally, a mystery in the spiritual sense needs to be grasped by heart and mind acting in unison.  The mind acting alone reduces the mysterious to arid propositions, which too often issue in the rules and dogma of de-spiritualised religions.  Jesus Christ himself spoke as a mystic, when instead of laying down precise rules, He exhorted His followers to love God and their neighbour as themselves.  And again in the less well-known passage, ‘I have come to bring fire upon the earth and how I wish it were blazing already.’ (Luke 12/49)

Religion in the author’s view is a man-made framework to express  mankind’s spiritual yearnings.  Imbedded in the human psyche, many feel there is an innate urge to reach outwards to something greater than the individual and which gives life meaning.  Firth has no difficulty in demonstrating that religion is an expression of man’s culture and that beliefs, while often viewed as immutable by adherents, change frequently to fit new circumstances.  In the case of Christianity Firth comments that with the sack of Rome in 410, much of the power of the Roman Emperors passed to the bishops of Rome, to Leo the Great, 440-61, to Gregory the Great, 590-614. When the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers strove for a less showy and more interior religion, Counter-Reformation Catholicism with its Baroque churches adopted a monarchical style, while in the twentieth century there was an abortive attempt to follow much of the secular world into a more democratic style of government.  Behind these changes lie what may be called the betrayals of human nature – the control of the Church by power-hungry clerics with the collusion of the laity, who too often prefer unquestioning obedience to authority more congenial than personal commitment to a challenging spirituality.

The recent bleak decline in the practice of spirituality is matched by the author’s optimism about the immediate future.  He sees globalisation as likely to lead to a world unity conducive to a shared spirituality.  He points to growing concern about third-world poverty and the need for everyone to work together to preserve human life on the planet.  Most heartening of all, Firth underlines the continuing growth in mankind’s self-consciousness.  In the quoted words of Julian Huxley, ‘human beings are nothing less than evolution becoming conscious of itself.’  That self-consciousness, as Firth has often emphasized, tends to lead to a yearning for spirituality, which gives meaning to life.  Support for this view Firth shows in his chapter on the cosmos comes from scientists, who see some power greater than man at work in their field.

An optimist in the heavens, a pessimist about earthly Christianity, is how the author comes through to this reviewer.  Yet the author’s mystics and like-minded writers, whom he quotes so often, are already affecting attitudes within the established churches.  That is true, particularly within the Catholic Church.  Some take their lead from Jesus Christ, himself a rebel against the Jewish orthodoxy of his time.  Following his words, ‘I am there, whenever two or three are gathered together in my name’, Eucharists or informal house masses, are often presided over by a lay person, usually but not always a Catholic. Religion is the clergy’s domain: spirituality is for true believers, as stated so often above.

‘God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan’ will provoke much needed heart searching among readers.  The amount of material covered is truly staggering.  This is a book to which the much less informed reviewer will need to digest at leisure.  Re-reading will be a pleasure, not least because of Firth’s many touching stories of his work while a priest.  Particularly interesting is his inside view of Cardinal Hume, whom he knew as abbot and with whom he worked closely as a vicar-general.  It is good to know, unlike other members of the Church’s hierarchy, Cardinal Hume had the courage to protest against the nauseous stream of denunciations by vigilante Catholics of clergy they branded as unorthodox, including some 400 letters fed to the voracious CDF, the Church’s Stasi, against the blameless Archbishop Worlock.     

Tim Firth, God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan: Reconciling Religious Difference, 2012, 343pp, £12.50 + £2.80 p&p, obtainable from  Or Box 256, 33 Queen’s St, Horsham, West Sussex, RH13 5AA

Review - Being in Christ by Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips, Being in Christ, Columba Press, 2013, £9.99

Fr Phillips writes his book in the key of what Augustine in his De Trinitate refers to as: “Embrace love which is God, and embrace God with love”. The author calls Christ the encounter which sets us free for doing the task of christians. The task of christology is to express in word and deed what Christ himself expressed. His phrase for everything that his Abba Father wanted for us was ‘Reign of God’. It occurs more than sixty times in the discourses of Jesus. Paul refers to the Reign not as food and drink but as “justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17).  The Reign of God is encounter with Christ whose word heard by us finds echo in the depths of us and in doing in our world.

According to Newman the privilege which the first followers of Christ had was to know him without dogmas. Later on Christ became an object of study and motive for debate. By the time the Council of Chalcedon had adjourned the “homoousian” Christ was very clearly defined but straight-jacketed in rigid doctrines ring-fenced by anathemas. By this time there have been whole libraries dedicated to books on Jesus Christ but these can obscure the person in whose Spirit we are called to relate. He is a living person who has told us that he is to be found where the poor and the oppressed struggle, where the abused weep and where the forgotten and exiled languish and hope.

The author claims that this is an exciting moment for students of Christology. Con- temporary Christology must learn to dialogue with the cultures of Asia and Africa and with our own postmodern culture. We are too Euro-centric and far from the life and death struggles of the world’s majorities, far from the secular seeking truth, far from a planet which cries out for healing. Our Christ is a Graeco-Roman, triumphalist Christ the King with Catholics his favoured children. A glance, for example, at the bibliographies of Pope Benedict’s books on Christ will list no books from south of the Equator.

The New Testament provides a pluralism of christologies which we ought not abandon. Just compare Matthew’s Jewish Christ with Mark’s abrasive prophet and again with John’s saviour from above. There is a notable progression from the “on-the-ground” functional christologies of the Synoptics to the incarnational, ontological christology of John.

Phillips’s chapters flow easily from the historic controversies clearly outlined to a consideration of the various theological strands opened up by Chalcedon to the beginnings of a Christological spirituality lived in communion with God. The book ends with a most useful appendix on the history of interpretation of the person of Jesus Christ. This is a book well worth reading and pondering.

The author is a priest of the Shrewsbury Diocese. He is now in a parish in north Cheshire and is a Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. He has worked many years in teaching at secondary and higher education as well as formation of adults.

Frank Regan
April 2013

Brother John of Taize, Friends in Christ, Orbis Books, 2012, £14.99 (#166)

This book emanates from the Community of Taize which is perhaps the most credible ongoing effort to build universal Christian and inclusive community ever attempted. Every year thousands, the majority young people, make pilgrimage there. They come away renewed and inspired by its non-sectarian spirit of friendship and communion.

Brother John has extensive experience helping mostly young people in reading the Bible in today’s world. He offers us his reflections on being friends as the bedrock of christian community. Personally, I do not think that Christ was all that family-friendly. He broke up not a few of them and his relationship with his own seems to have been fraught. His use of family words is scarce. He refers to the poor as his brothers and sisters. And as risen Christ, he instructs Mary to go tell his friends that he is going to “my Father and to your Father”.  In the Father we are brother and sister of Christ. In Christ we are friends.

Our author wants to shed light on the christian message through the lens of universal friendship. Jesus calls us to be friends on the basis that everything the Father has told him, he in his turn has relayed to us. And everything he has related to us has been that our joy might be complete. The author will say that what makes the christian faith distinct is the shared existence of the community in Christ. The various chapters in the book will attempt to break open that basic idea.    

In the first part of five, Brother John makes the point that Christ came to announce a way of living. Christianity was not meant to be a religion or a code of conduct. It is about life, living together, of experiencing “Christ living in me” (Paul). In the second part Brother John talks of the Church being Catholic, implying that it is inclusive all-embracive in its outreach. He cites the Letter to Diognetus 6:1, “What the soul is in the body that Christians are in the world.”

In the central part Brother John speaks of friendship as foundational of all experience of Christ and the world. It is capable of patterning itself on the Trinity, a three-person community which finds expression in one friend loving another loving Christ. That love is creative and expansive, leaving no room for sectarianism, sexism, classism or any ‘ism’ which excludes the other because of difference. The book goes on to explore the themes of community and the theology of being friends in Christ.

In a time of crisis for the institutional church, a book like this can remind us of the core values of being called by Christ for living in abundance for the life of the world. Sadly it also reminds us Catholics of the long road we have yet to travel.

Frank Regan
April 2013

Daniel G. Groody (editor), Gustavo Gutierrez: Spiritual Writings, Orbis Books, 2012, 256pp, £12.99, (available from Alban Books)

Every good theology is founded upon a good spirituality. Theology enables us to talk the talk. Spirituality energises us to walk the walk. Faith, the gracious gift by which we know ourselves loved by God, precedes all. Faith illumines the mind to know what we believe and moves the heart to practice our Faith, committing ourselves totally for the life of the world, life in abundance.

The theology of liberation (TL) is a theology, a talking about God, rooted in the journeying of the poor and the mystical tradition. It is the practice of social transformation and community prayer in the midst of a world straining to know who God is and what God’s plan is. Its method is: See the reality; Judge it bringing to bear our Gospel values; Act on what we see motivated by our values. Our method is our spirituality.

At last we have a volume dedicated to the Spirituality of Liberation (SL) as elaborated by Gustavo Gutierrez, father of Liberation Theology. It speaks of the God of life, the option for the poor, Christ who announces the Reign for the life of the world, the Spirit at the heart of the community. This is a book worth praying on which will move us once again to drink from our own wells.

Frank Regan



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