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What Rome is and could be

by
02 December 2008

Lucy Beckett reads a plea for academic rigour among RCs

What is Truth? From the Academy to the Vatican
John M. Rist

Cambridge University Press £17.99 (978-0-521-71775-5)
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

THIS is a very ambitious book, although not in the direction suggested by its title. The truth of full, orthodox, developed, and developing Roman Catholic Christianity is John Rist’s premise rather than his conclusion.

His book examines different aspects of this truth as they have become established over the centuries, and as they need now to be affirmed, and in some cases re-examined and expanded, in the face not only of the prevailing secular assumption that their time has passed, but also of contending fun­damentalisms, Christian, Muslim, and atheist. The result is a bold and challenging call for better history, theology, and philosophy to support new confidence that the Church has what it takes to confront openly, and with courage and judgement, the world of the 21st century.

Rist’s first, most difficult, and longest chapter concerns the equal­ity, or not, in Christian perception of women and men. A great deal of material, from mythology, extra-canonical scriptures, and patristic writing on a wide spectrum from orthodox to heretical, is shown to have weighed against the extraord­in­arily liberating precedent, accord­ing to the Gospels, of Jesus’s treat­ment of women.

Since the central figures of Rist’s narrative are, as anyone familiar with his very distinguished earlier books would expect, Plato and Augustine, it is hard to see why quite so much that, mercifully, did not find its way into the central tradition needs to be discussed here.

A good deal of what follows is a conversation of subtlety and depth between Rist and Augustine. A chap­ter on divine justice and orig­inal sin explores the Pelagian con­tro­versy with acknowledgement of the importance of the paradox­ical issues raised, and the inadequacy of the philosophical tools available for their dissection in the Latin early fifth century.

Easier to grasp and more positive in tone are chapters on divine beauty as the concept without which aesthetic judgements of value must ultimately fail; on the papacy, however humanly fallible from time to time, as the necessary guarantee of Christian orthodoxy and order; and on the eventual, healthy detach­ment of the Church from structures of secular power.

That only belief in God as the Creator in whose image all human beings are made, and in whose eyes all are of equal worth, can validate the very idea of universal human rights is a resounding conclusion to a profoundly based case.

Although the tone of this book is sometimes angry, occasionally grudging (Balthasar, ressourcement theology, and the Anglican Church get shorter shrift than they deserve), and towards the end only just more hopeful than despairing, its densely argued appeal for honesty, thoroughness, and intelligent discrimination in Christian thought richly repays the attention it demands.

Lucy Beckett is a novelist and a historian.

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