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Book reviews >

The glory of God in the face of Christ

Richard Harries reflects on silence, prayer, and the problem of human anguish

Shaping Theology: Engagements in a religious and secular world
David F. Ford

Blackwell £19.99 (978-1-4051-7720-7)
Church Times Bookshop £18

DAVID FORD is a theologian who puts his intellectual gifts at the service of others; and the range of constituencies with which he engages is a wide one. They include the Church, academic theology, the university, other faiths, and wider humanity. This collection of essays arises out of these engagements, and reflects also his service of the Divine Wisdom, one of the key categories of David Ford’s theology. It also includes a substantial discussion of Barth’s interpretation of the Bible.

Two essays at the end of the book are of particular interest, both reflecting the spirit of his Cambridge predecessor Donald MacKinnon. After the terrible evil and suffering of the 20th century, it could be argued that the most pressing theological question for Christians is how to understand the resurrection of Christ in a way that is not triumphalistic, and which does not therefore cheapen human anguish.

Ford argues that the tragic remains an inescapable dimension of human life, and, indeed, for a Christian is heightened. Drawing on the insights of Levinas, however, he argues that existence is inherently plural. We have no all-including overview, and therefore reality must be approached in face-to-face categories.

This leads him to affirm “the glory of God in the face of Christ”, as the face in which there is an ultimate resolution of the tension — for that is a face that has experienced both anguish and joy, crucifixion and resurrection. It is, however, ultimate, not given now except by faith in the context of a community of shared suffering; for it is only at the end that we shall see “face to face”.

This is an excellent discussion, and in the nicest possible way hints at the possibility, even now, of a joy to which Mackinnon may not have done full justice.

In “Apophasis and the Shoah: Where was Jesus Christ at Auschwitz?”, Ford finds illumination in Anne Michaels’s novel Fugitive Pieces, and in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom write about silence as a fundamental category of human knowing. I had previously read Anne Michaels’s complex, poetic novel in terms of the ever-presentness of the past, but Ford shows the theme of silence to be no less fundamental, and sums it up in a fine sentence. The book “conveys not just the inexpressibility of the Shoah, but its pressure to find new forms of inexpressibility, more adequate forms of silence”.

From Bonhoeffer he takes the idea that “The spoken Word is the inexpressible: that which cannot be spoken is the Word.” This exploration of silence takes us to the fundamental question, “Where was Jesus Christ at Auschwitz?”, which Ford answers in terms of Christ facing Auschwitz. The fact that Jesus is facing — that is, on the same level — rules out any superior metanarrative that would carry supersessionist overtones.

Furthermore, the Jesus who faces is one “who is silent, who listens to cries, who is self-effacing, suffers violence, and dies”. This leads to “an interrogative faith before the faces of victims, of the perpetrators, of the silence and speaking witnesses and others”. Christians have to stand where Jesus did, facing Auschwitz and taking responsibility through prayer and action, so that nothing like it happens ever again.

These are dangerous areas. Christians are best advised to tiptoe round them in fury, silence, penitence, and a desire for a radical reappraisal of traditional approaches to Judaism; and of course Ford approaches them with great sensitivity. He seems to agree with Mackinnon that Golgotha and Auschwitz are “implicated in some interrelated finality”, and that, meanwhile, following Bonhoeffer, we are to be among those “who pray and do right, and wait for God’s own time”.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

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