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Engaged in a journey with God

07 February 2014

Mark Oakley reads The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes

THE recently departed Professor Kenneth Minogue once commented that "an ideological movement is a collection of people, many of whom could hardly bake a cake, fix a car, sustain a friendship or a marriage, or even do a quadratic equation; yet they believe they know how to rule the world".

A similar cynicism may lie behind the loudly expressed opinion of many that the Church should not "get involved with politics", as if it were not competent enough to contribute to debates about priorities and practical policies.

Trystan Owain Hughes shows in The Compassion Quest why any understanding of Christianity as a set of idealistic propositions is a lazy approach to the Christian vision, which has profound spiritual and civic resources to help humanity. Christian people are not concerned how to "rule the world" so much as to show how deepened "awareness, acceptance and interconnectedness" have the potential to clarify the world's "intended purpose", from which it is so clearly alienated.

Hughes's previous book, Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (Lent Books, 4 February 2011; Faith, 1-22 March 2011), was widely appreciated, but he looks back and sees it as "fundamentally inward-looking and centred on individual spirituality". Here he sets out to redress the balance by an incarnational restoration of the spiritual with the social.

For Hughes, "nothing is secular." He is influenced by Hildegard of Bingen and her belief in the "greening" power (veriditas) of God, which surges through the universe as the connection of all that is. So he argues that one of the Church's tasks is to provide a language for the transcendent "encounters" that contemporary people are alive to, especially in the natural world, and in relationships and beauty.

Whether he emphasises the importance of feelings and emotion too much for some readers might prompt a discussion. Likewise, his breaking down of the barrier between "sacred" and "secular" leads to important questions about whether lay Christians are being equipped and encouraged by a Church that can focus its vocation more around the altar, retreat house, or synod than the work-place, home, or the nurture of children.

Once we see our physical natures, our work, recreation, and bodily fragility, as well as our interior motives and landscape, as part of the human vocation to live and trust in God, the complexities of ordinary daily existence can be read very differently, and with a greater sense of spiritual adventure.

At the heart of Hughes's book is a heartfelt belief in what has been called the sacrament of the present moment. He believes that for that conviction to be Christlike, Christian people must have "an uncompromising, self-giving, unconditional compassion that transcends religious, political, or ethnic differences".

Bill Clinton remains bewildered about why Christians are capable of so much hate, and Hughes is equally puzzled; for if, as Meister Eckhart says, the best name for God is "Compassion", why is not something of that name to be seen in those who speak it most?

Reading this book in a train full of drunk City men and booming headphones tempted me to formulate an answer to this rather quickly. Hughes, however, is surely right to see compassion as the radical challenge that we all need, if our religion is to mean or change anything.

People talk about "organised religion" a great deal these days. I have never actually seen any - it all seems pretty disorganised to me - but the temptations and flaws that such religion is susceptible to would be easier to stomach if, as Hughes advocates, the Church was a bit humbler, kinder, and aware that the questions it might ask may be more valuable than the answers it canall too often churn out, inlanguage and styles that just do not resonate.

Professor Minogue may have had a point about the schoolboy vanities that our ideologies can bring out. In this book, however, Hughes reminds us that the Christian vision of a Kingdom of God is necessarily about what Reinhold Niebuhr called "the relevance of the impossible ideal", so that when the world is mature enough to dispel its illusions, it does not end up merely disillusioned.

Canon Mark Oakley is Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral and a Visiting Lecturer at King's College, London.

The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes (Books, 12 July 2013) is published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-281-06825-8.



How far do you agree that living in the present moment is the way to fulfil the "quest for meaning, purpose and strength" (page 3)?

The author asserts that theology is about looking, seeing, and responding: do you think this is a good definition?

In chapter one, the author writes about how the traditional view of God is being undermined and attacked by people such as Dawkins and Hitchens. How do you respond to their criticism of faith?

What experiences of "interconnectedness" have you had?

"The intimate relationship between us and the world in which we live should be central to our faith" (page 35). Do you agree?

Why does the author emphasise the importance of incarnation so strongly?

Having read this book, what message do you take away with you?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 March, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston. It is published by Harper Press at £10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.90); 978-0-00-638695-7.

Author notes

Paul Preston studied at Oriel College, Oxford, where he gained a D.Phil., and at Reading University. After finishing his degrees, he taught first at Reading University and then at Queen Mary, University of London. In 1991, he was appointed Professor in International History at the London School of Economics, and is now Professor Emeritus.

He has written biographies of General Franco (1995) and King Juan Carlos of Spain (2004), and a history of the Spanish Civil War (2006). He was appointed CBE in 2000, and has also been honoured by the King of Spain. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Book notes

The Spanish Holocaust

was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and won the Sunday Times History Book of the Year, bothin 2012. Preston tells the story of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, highlighting the brutality inflicted by people on both sides of the conflict. He analyses the causes and effects of the war, and explains how the consequences are still felt in Spain today.

Books for the next two months

April: The Old Ways: A journey on foot by Robert Macfarlane
May: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

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