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
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
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);
THE COMPASSION QUEST- SOME
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
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);
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
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.
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