22 Sep 2010

What is the point of being a Christian? - Timothy Radcliffe OP - An extended book review

Veritas – truth – is the motto of the Dominican Order, and the truth of Christianity is the challenge posed to and by the Dominican author of this extremely enjoyable, and thought provoking book.
When challenged about the point of Christianity, Radcliffe realises that if “the point of religion is to point to God who is the point of everything…it makes no sense to ask whether belief in God is relevant, because God is the measure of all relevance,”[1] and “if Christianity is true, then it does not have a point other than to point to God who is the point of everything”[2]. In our post-modern, even post-Christian world, in which the appeal to authority and tradition is no longer sufficient to convince people of the validity of ones belief and the appropriateness of religion in general, the rediscovery of the phenomenon that is the message of Christianity is presented as the way to re-introduce the truth of Christianity to the modern world.   

“Ever since the youth and student revolts of the late 1960’s, there are no longer any institutions or guardians of values which are not in crisis or have not been radically challenged.”[3] “For our grandfathers and grandmothers, religion, or Christianity, was still a matter of personal conviction. For our fathers and mothers it was still at least a matter of tradition and ‘the done thing’. For their emancipated [though spiritually emaciated] sons and daughters, however, it is becoming increasingly a thing of the past which is no longer binding; passed by and obsolete”[4]. “In this disorientated age people long for a fundamental orientation, for some system of essential values, for a commitment”[5].
This challenge of providing a system of essential values is not one that can be done by fiat and dictate. The Good News of Christianity - expressed by the Word breaking into history in first century Palestine - which has to be shared, is still “the same liberating and transforming message [which] now has to be spoken in the world of the twenty-first century…Each generation “speaks a language into which the language of Jesus must be translated with patience and wisdom and without betrayal”[6]. But “being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”[7].
“The Second Vatican Council expressed a marvellous vision of the Church – [the Christian community] – as universal sacrament of salvation, as communion in the life of the Triune God, as…a community which is meant to give witness to, and indeed be, the presence of Christ in the world through its members”[8]. Radcliffe quoting Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris in the 1940’s notes that,
“to be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would make no sense if God did not exist.” There should be something about Christians that puzzles people and makes them wonder what is at the heart of our lives”[9].
“These truths to which we adhere must have some consequence in one’s life…If the truths of Christian teaching do not have any effects in one’s life, any fruit, then what sort of truths would they be? If God is the point of everything, then being religious, being pointed towards God as one’s ultimate goal must show itself somehow in one’s life” [10].
Radcliffe sets out to examine the role that truth plays and how it is not about knowing all the answers and refusing to listen to counter argument but about a willingness and openness to learn[11]. Again and again he refers in different ways to truth as a way of being and that the essence of Christianity, as expressed in the many aspects of its founding story at the Last Supper, is that of hope, charity, courage and ultimately love. The church cannot speak on issues unless it can say that it shares its message of truth - of love - in the light of the experiences of those to whom it seeks to be a witness. To be able to connect with people, the messenger needs to empathise with them in terms of where they are in time, history and life’s journey. Jürgen Moltmann makes the point that if theology ignores the daily circumstances of people that it becomes abstract and sterile, and no longer has much to say to them[12]. If the discourse fails to connect with the experience of the listener, either it will not be heard or it will be misheard. But it is not just that the message proposed by the Christian faith must be attuned to the cultural realities of the recipients; the message must be perceived as a response to the questions that the culture evokes[13].
Radcliffe makes the observation that many young people today are struggling to deal with the very fact that they exist, they are almost without hope, full of disillusionment. We are a generation which seems to have lost the concept of life and existence being a journey on which we must travel and how the gospel message can provide hope. In spite of being the generation which understands the Cosmic Narrative from Big Bang to Big Chill, an identity crisis grips Western society. “Individualism is the first language in which [people] tend to think about their lives, [in an age which] values independence and self reliance above all else”[14]  yet “many Western countries [are] suffering from a collective depression.”[15] We are experiencing “radical individualisation, one that places increasing pressures on individuals to disengage from the larger society and in doing so contributes to creating a crisis of civic [and church] membership”[16].
Yet in spite of this ‘radical individualisation’ there is a realisation that our current lifestyles are failing to “touch the deep questions of the meaning of human life, the dignity and destiny of the human person”[17]. There is a hunger, a deep desire at the very heart of us, a longing which was expressed by Augustine as that restlessness that exists at the centre of the human person where “our hearts know no rest until it may repose in thee”[18]. “A natural expression of this … hunger is to go on pilgrimage…The skies are filled with people travelling, and our travels are often symptomatic of a search, a tentative hope….Going on pilgrimage is rooted in our human nature. Pilgrimages can be expressive of deep conviction, but also give space for the unsure, those who travel hoping to find something on the way or at the end”[19].This recognition of the role of journey is why Radcliffe calls on us to “cherish and nurture the pilgrim itch that is in every human being. It is expressive of a least an implicit hope….We must walk with people, as Jesus walked with  the disciples to Emmaus, even if, like those disciples, they sometimes seem to us to start off by walking in the wrong direction.”[20].
Amongst this life journey, Christianity does not offer “a roadmap, but it does have a story” [21]. In our society “there is often a distinction made between story and textbooks where textbooks are understood as information, facts that are objective and static. In stories there is a movement where the reader enters into the movement by identifying with the characters; our imaginations are active, our feelings and emotions get involved; we are not objective but subjective”[22]. In our world of facts, it seems to ignore the fact that stories can convey values, a message; that a poetic text or a story that encapsulates an experience of the truth in images and symbols can have something to offer. We have to remind ourselves that the Christian community has something to offer because “at the moment that this fragile community was disintegrating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and gave it to them saying, ‘this is my Body, given for you.’…This is the fundamental paradox of Christianity. As Christians, we gather to remember the story of the Last Supper. It is our foundational story, the one in which we find the meaning of our lives. And yet it is a story which tells of the moment when there was no story to tell, when the future disappeared. We gather as a community around the alter and remember the night that the community disintegrated”[23]. And this paradox is one of the central ideas of the truth of Christianity, the fact that Christianity was born out of despair, that we are an Easter people and that we should not be fearful of crises because the Church, our community, was born in a crisis of hope and it is this hope that we can offer the world.
Radcliffe presents the story of the Last Supper as being “about another sort of power, which is the power of the sign and the word….It is the power of meaning and truth….Every Eucharist is a celebration of our trust in Christ meaning will triumph in ways that we cannot guess or anticipate. [The story reminds us that] to exist is not a brute fact. It is to be held in meaning by God’s word”[24]. But this sign of Love to the world can be clouded by the messenger. “Christianity is gravely wounded in its ability to witness to the future unity of humanity, both because of divisions between Christians and divisions between the Churches”[25].
But even within this scandal of division Radcliffe reminds us of hope. For in the beginning, “the community collapsed, the bonds of fellowship were denied and subverted. Jesus embraced the crisis and made it fertile…The Last Supper invites us not to run away from a crisis, but to embrace it, confident that it can bear fruit”[26]. Michael Breen has also made the point that a crisis is an opportunity, properly defined as a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events is determined. [27] This is very apt as we are after all an Easter people, who profess a belief in the Resurrection after the trauma and suffering of the Crucifixion, the slow agonizing trauma of the moment prepares the way for the emergence of a re-newed and strengthened church.
The Last Supper, our “celebration of the new covenant, the gift of our home, contains a tension between the gathering into communion of … Jesus’ close and intimate friends, and the reaching out to all, for the fullness of the Kingdom”[28]. Such an out reach must be dynamic and courageous.  Radcliffe puts it succinctly by saying that our Church “must become a place of scandalous freedom”[29]. It must follow the example of its Master by becoming one with the vulnerable. “When Jesus hands over his body to the disciples he is vulnerable. He is in their hands for them to do as they wish”[30]. Such openness to vulnerability can only be understood through Love, which is “the only impetus that is sufficiently overwhelming to force us to leave the comfortable shelter of our well-armed individuality, shed the impregnable shell of self-sufficiency, and crawl nakedly into the danger zone beyond, the melting pot where individuality is purified into personhood”[31].
The idea that Jesus was even more human than us is one of the abiding images that this book leaves you with as Radcliffe makes the point that “Jesus became even more bodily than us, at home in his skin, at ease in himself, body and soul, a face without masks. Jesus could only give himself to us. ‘This is my body, given for you’, because he accepted himself as a gift from the Father in the first place”[32].
Such a focus on the body is where Radcliffe emphasises our corporality and that “bad religion renders us insentient, incapable of bodily life. Worship of the true God makes us corporeally alive…the full flourishing of our God-given being means we aspire to vitality in all our senses…To be a creature is to receive existence, not just at conception but at every moment”[33]. After all “most of the doctrines of Christianity – [the truths professed by Christianity]- make no sense unless we have a clear understanding of the goodness of our corporeal existence: Creation, Incarnation, the sacraments, the resurrection of the dead, all rooted in our flesh and blood…The particularity of the body and the universality of the Kingdom coincide in the Eucharist. It is the gift of a very particular body which opens the space for the unimaginable vastness of the Kingdom”[34]. 


Overall an excellent read with much to ponder on and to reflect over. It comes with a strong recommendation from the Sacred Space team!




[1] T. Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005) pg. 1
[2] Ibid
[3] H. Kung, Why I am still a Christian, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group,2005) pg. 3 
[4] Op. Cit pg. 4
[5] Op. Cit. pg. 6
[6] D. Murray, How can we know the way? – Journeying together into a new century, (Limerick:  Limerick Roman Catholic Diocese, 2002) Pg. 5.
[7] Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 2005, §1.
[8] D. Murray, “What it is to be a Catholic Now - Spiritual Aspects: Faith,” presented at Mount Merrion, Tuesday 14 March 2006, accessed at www.limerickdiocese.org/publications/refelctions/155.htm on 29 March 2006, pg. 2.
[9] T. Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005) pg. 2.
[10] Ibid.
[11] A. Thurston, “Truth as a Way of Living,” Doctrine & Life, February 2006, Vol. 56, No. 2, (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 2006) pg. 60.
[12] J. Moltmann, “What is a theologian?” Irish Theological Quarterly (64) (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1999) pg. 193.
[13] E. Cassidy, “The Right Notes in the Right Order: Faith and the Challenge of a Therapeutic Culture” Milltown Studies, (48) (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 2001) pg. 1.
[14]Op. Cit. pg. 4.
[15] T. Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005) pg. 2.
[16] E. Cassidy, “The Right Notes in the Right Order: Faith and the Challenge of a Therapeutic Culture” Milltown Studies, (48) (Dublin: Milltown, 2001) pg. 5.
[17]  D. Murray, “What it is to be a Catholic Now - Spiritual Aspects: Faith,” presented at Mount Merrion, Tuesday 14 March 2006, accessed at www.limerickdiocese.org/publications/refelctions/155.htm on 29 March 2006, Pg. 3.
[18] Augustine, Confessions §1.1, trans. T Matthew, (Collins Fontana Press, London, 1965, 5th ed.). 
[19] T. Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005) pg. 2.
[20] Op. Cit. pg. 11.
[21] Op. Cit. pg. 15.
[22] M. de Verteuil, Your Word is a Light for my Steps, (Dublin: Veritas, 1996), pg 13.
[23] T. Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005) pg. 15.
[24] Op. Cit. pg. 17.
[25] Op. Cit. pg. 164.
[26] Op. Cit. pg. 97.
[27] M. Breen “Where is here?” presentation at the Limerick Diocesan Conference “How can we know the way?” held at Dundrum, Co. Tipperary, 20 November 2002.
[28] T. Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian (London, Burns & Oates, 2005) pg. 175.
[29] Op. Cit. pg. 186.
[30] Op. Cit. pg. 96.
[31] Op. Cit. pg. 96.
[32] Op. Cit. pg. 210.
[33] Op. Cit. pg. 93.
[34] Op. Cit. pg. 211.

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