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Alive in God: A Christian imagination, by Timothy Radcliffe

15 November 2019

John Inge on a protest against superficiality

THIS book by the well-known author Timothy Radcliffe OP is a wonderful one. It extols the importance of the Christian imagination; and the author brings to bear a tremendous range of examples in fiction, as well as in theological writing, to encourage us in the happy task of expanding that imagination. I found it exhilarating, and I commend it wholeheartedly.

At its beginning, the author draws attention to St John Henry Newman’s observation that “imagination, not reason, is the enemy of faith.” If it was true when Newman was writing, that “the way his contemporaries imagined the world did not allow much place for the transcendent,” it is surely all the more true now. It would be wonderful if many “cultured despisers” who have not hitherto been able to find much place for the transcendent were able to read this book; but, given that this is unlikely, it would at least be good for Christians to have their imagination expanded so that they can be encouraged and the more effectively speak into our culture.

After an introduction, the book is ordered into a Christian schema of four sections: Imagination, Journeying, Teaching, and The Risen Life. There is much to be commended within them — to name but two: an effective defence of the importance of dogma, and a moving commendation of non-violence, so essential to the identity of the Early Church and, as he notes, not necessarily to be equated with pacifism.

I appreciated particularly a refreshing exposition of the healing of the blind man in Acts 3, which, as the author puts it, launches the mission of the Church, which had been inaugurated with “the breathing of God’s breath, holy breath, the breath of love”.

Radcliffe suggests that central to the dulling of the Christian imagination in our society is the triumph of what Pope Francis terms “the technocratic imagination”, which blinds us to the presence of the transcendent by viewing everything as just “thing”, to be used. He quotes Charles Taylor, who writes that we have rejected the attempt to read the cosmos as the locus of signs, and have “traded in a universe of ordered signs, in which everything has meaning, for a silent but beneficent machine”.

Observing that the Pope himself questions our ability to free ourselves from “the iron grip of the technocratic paradigm”, Radcliffe reminds us that we have allies in the novelists and poets whom he quotes with such force and abandon to counteract “the globalisation of superficiality”, which subverts faith. In fact, he suggests in his conclusion, our allies can be “anyone, of any faith or none, who engages with the complexity of being human, with falling in love, struggling to forgive, finding themselves in a mess, trying to make sense of their lives”.

This book can be a great encouragement in alerting its readers to where those allies can be found, and to the Christian hope that promises life in abundance now.

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

Alive in God: A Christian imagination
Timothy Radcliffe
Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £10.99

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