THE title that has been given to this short study does not quite prepare the reader for a demonstration that the Christian narrative as presented in scripture is to be treated not as the grounds for faith, but as a poetic vision offering a set of “leading ideas”.
Dinah Livingstone argues that the vision is realised most convincingly in the full working out of a humanist view. She approaches this proposition via a long introductory discussion of what she calls the “shining” that emerges through the poetic vision — the communication of unique and specific perceptions that could not take exact verbal form in any other way. Her next, and unexpected, move is to compare poetry to theology, a pursuit also concerned with what is “transcendent” and “supernatural”.
With reference to the parables, the Johannine Prologue, and the kenotic hymn of Philippians, Livingstone argues that Jesus was entirely wrong about the coming of the Kingdom, but that we can retrieve from these texts something more important: the total outpouring of the divine into humanity. The most orthodox claims about Christ, she proposes, are also the fullest realisation of humanism.
Further sections deal with the calendar through celebrations of the incarnation, the resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit. To these are added the feast of Mary on 15 August as acknowledgement of the “divine feminine”, and the Advent antiphons as poetic evocations of God in us. She admires liberation theology and the cosmogenesis of Teilhard de Chardin as the richest available Christologies, praising their rootedness in the evolving natural world and in concern for the poor. We might suspect that she has also found in them, despite the writings of their profoundest exponents, a way to have a Christology without Christ.
The book is the work of a poet and skilled translator who applies these gifts to reducing a “supernatural” God to some guiding ideas about how to be fully human. There are many reasons why it fails to convince as an argument, but alerting readers at the outset to what it is attempting would have made its design more robust.
Dr Bridget Nichols is a lecturer in Anglicanism and liturgy at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.
The Making of Humanity: Poetic vision and kindness