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Theologian reflects on a death

01 November 2013

Lavinia Byrne reads a book that followed sudden bereavement


Led into Mystery: Faith seeking answers in life and death

John W. de Gruchy

SCM Press £25


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DEATH is in the news. Forget all those euphemisms about "passing": the scandalous misuse of the essentially benign Liverpool Care Pathway has brought the inevitable reality sharply into focus. So how timely it is to have a book that seeks to offer new questions and interesting answers.

John de Gruchy is Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. His son, Steve, also a professor of theology, died in a river accident in February 2010, aged 48. His death was, self-evidently, a tragedy for his family. But it is now a source of biblical and, above all, theological reflection for his father.

With Karl Rahner, de Gruchy argues that to do theology is to be "drawn back unto mystery". "The real enemy of faith", he asserts, "is not doubt, but a faith unwilling to acknowledge doubt honestly." So he knows that he must not "trade on tragedy and come up with easy answers driven by emotions rather than critical thought". In this way, he proves himself to be a true son of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose life and death have inspired him. He is, after all, the author of numerous works on the German theologian, and also the editor of Bonhoeffer's selected writings. And, as he acknowledges, he is also open to the ideas of a wide variety of other thinkers, notably the 11th-century Iranian mystic al- Ghazālī. De Gruchy's own principal interest, however, is in Christian humanism.

His book has five chapters ranging over topics as varied as the part played by the imagination in exploring mystery; the place of biblical narrative in directing such exploration; the meaning of faith in God in a scientific age; a dialogue with neuropsychology, to discover what it means to be human; and, finally, an investigation into what he calls "the resurrection conviction" and the hope that it offers of a "new heaven and earth".

De Gruchy's most original work comes in the fourth chapter, where he sets up a dialogue between theology and neuroscience. This is where his work as a Christian humanist is most tested. "Scientists", he says, "seek to dispel the enigma of being human." Yet he is convinced that the biblical claim that we are made in the image of God explains many of the dilemmas that science faces as it enters the unknown territory that he calls "the complexity of soul". He engages with science as an advocate of its insights rather than an adversary.

The result is a book described as a "must-read" by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I am not so sure. After all, de Gruchy wrote it so soon after suffering an enormous loss. This is not to play down its merits, but simply to guide the reader to use discernment while reading it. 

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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