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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Preaching

In this week`s TLS, Lucy Beckett reviews three recent books:

Rowan Williams
TOKENS OF TRUST: An introduction to Christian belief159pp. Canterbury Press. £9.99.
978 1 85311 803 6

Herbert McCabe
FAITH WITHIN REASON
173pp. Continuum. Paperback, £14.99.
978 0 8264 9547 8

Nicholas Mosley
EXPERIENCE AND RELIGION: A lay essay in theology
156pp. Dalkey Archive Press. Paperback, £8.99.
978 1 56478 424 .


"Forty years ago the present Pope, then Professor Ratzinger of Tübingen University, wrote Introduction to Christianity, an exposition of the Creed. He started this best-selling book with Kierkegaard’s story about a clown from a travelling circus who comes into a village to shout a warning that a fire has started where the performers are encamped. The villagers only laugh, because he is a clown in clown’s clothes. Circus and village are then destroyed by the fire. The clown is the Christian preacher in the contemporary world: people don’t take him seriously because “they know that he is just giving a performance that has little or nothing to do with reality”.


Of course most preaching is to the converted: this is as true of the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins as of sermons of every Christian stamp. People look to preachers for some deepening of what they already believe and for reassurance that they are right to believe it. Those prepared to stop and listen to what is being said in any of the three books under review are more likely to be Christians than non-Christians; their authors nevertheless hope also to attract the attention of unbelievers, to interest them in the personal possibility of faith or of at least trying, one way or another, to understand their own experience in Christian terms. Like Ratzinger, they seek to get the villagers to listen to the clown, and each must have had at the back of his mind the warning suggested in Nicholas Mosley’s sentence: “What prevents a reasonable discussion about (or indeed a belief in) God is the language and behaviour of people who talk about God but in such a way as to make any connection between their words, their actions, and other people’s experience of reality almost indiscernible”.


Rowan Williams’s Tokens of Trust is the most straightforward as well as the most persuasive of the three, although, or perhaps because, it is also the most evidently addressed in the first place to a Christian audience. Talks the Archbishop of Canterbury gave in his cathedral in Holy Week 2005 have become a short, attractive book on the basics – impossible now to use the word “fundamentals” – of Christian belief as expressed in the statements of the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds, printed at the beginning of the book. This is no easier a project now, though no more difficult either, than it was for Ratzinger in 1968. Dr Williams, careful neither to put off the beginner with a forbidding demandingness nor to blunt the definitiveness of Christianity’s description of the plight of the human race and the salvation it is offered, achieves a remarkable degree of success. He begins, in our world pervaded by mistrust because pervaded by the competitiveness of different versions of the will to power, with the possibility of trust. “I trust in God” is both easier and harder to say than “I believe in God”: easier because it requires less of an intellectual effort, harder because trusting in God cannot make sense unless there is God to trust. Paul’s resounding, complex statement of the core of Trinitarian faith at the opening of Ephesians is given at the outset as the affirmation without which there can be nothing truly recognizable as Christian belief. In its light, false notions of God should begin to fade into the shadows – and here, for the first but not the last time, Williams suggests that we may see in human lives lived in this light (“the communion of saints”, in the phrase from the Apostles’ Creed) some “faint reflection” of what God is “like”. "