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THIS is a collection of thoughtful essays published over the past 20 years
by the Roman Catholic priest and scholar David Burrell. Burrell’s interest is
medieval theology — Islamic, Christian, and Jewish — and the book rarely strays
beyond this territory, offering analyses of Aquinas, Maimonides, Scotus, and
Al-Ghazali. In the theological triangle of the Abrahamic faiths, Burrell finds
many affinities and differences that may illuminate contemporary interfaith
He argues that these medieval theologians shared a common view of creation
that we could now profitably recover. In particular, it was understood that God
is distinct from his creation, not “a being” but “the source of Being”. This
distinction has significant theological implications.
First, our freedom must be understood as a response to the gift of
existence. Burrell attacks the modernist view that freedom equals absolute
autonomy, offering instead the “more robust” view that we find our freedom by
responding gratefully to the gift of life. True freedom, says Burrell, cannot
come from mere expressions of the human will, nor from consumer choices, nor
from the achievement of personal projects. Our modern doctrine of human
autonomy is, he argues, a delusion that takes no account of the reality that we
are not free creators, but creatures.
Secondly, the “fact” that God is distinct from his creation means that the
world shows us only shadows and echoes of divinity. We see through a glass
darkly, and speak of God only in guesses and approximations. Doctrines of
God offer, at best, “systematic ambiguity”, and our theology is always
incomplete and imperfect.
Burrell argues that God’s unknowability is, or should be, a basic tenet for
Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We seek God, we worship him, and give him names,
but our theological languages cannot master God, nor offer any proper knowledge
of him. As Ghazali puts it, those who know God know “that they do not know
Here lies the key, Burrell argues, to interfaith relations. If we
acknowledge that our theological languages are incomplete, then the insights of
another faith may help us to improve our own theological discourse. Instead of
seeing interfaith dialogue as a burden or threat, we should regard it as a
special opportunity to deepen our understanding of God.
Burrell’s basic message is that theological humility is not only desirable:
it is fundamentally orthodox. This is an important insight, and one that should
surely underpin all dialogue between religious people. But theological humility
is in short supply these days. Our world seems full of theologically arrogant
people of all faiths who think they have nothing more to learn. As the song
runs, “Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”
Faith and Freedom is a book that has important insights, but I
suspect it will be read only by those who are already convinced of the need for
greater understanding between the faiths.
The Revd Dr Rayment-Pickard is Vicar of St Clement and St James,
Kensington, in London.
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