REVIEWING a book about suffering and the Christian life during the current pandemic was a strange experience. On the one hand, the subject-matter could hardly be more apt. On the other, some of the essays seemed rather esoteric in the face of it. There is some good stuff here, though.
The book grew out of papers delivered at a conference at Ushaw College sponsored by the Congregation of La Retraite. The editors are a Professor of Catholic Theology and a past Director of Catholic Studies at Durham University; so it is not surprising that the essays have a distinctly Catholic flavour — and there’s nothing wrong with that, in my view.
Of the essays on New Testament themes, I found the most engaging to be Logan Williams’s on the crucified Christ as gift in Galatians. In a broadside against the view that Christian love, agape, is entirely selfless, he argues that “the point of Christ’s self-giving is not just to benefit believers per se but to benefit them by existing with them — and this hope for mutuality and reception is internal to love itself.” I would love to see more work on this.
I would also love to witness dialogue between contributions in this volume: for example, between the one referred to above and the one on vulnerability in which Linn Tonstad sticks rigidly to a Thomistic view that God is impassible and cannot be vulnerable to the creation in any way. This latter essay, and Karen Kilby’s on “the seductions of kenosis”, take a refreshingly unfashionable line.
Anna Rowlands writes arrestingly of the experiences of destitute and formerly detained migrants supported by the Jesuit Refugee Services in London. She does so through the lens of Simone Weil’s writing on the Iliad, “an extraordinary meditation on the nature of force as a process through which those subjected to it are turned into a ‘thing’, into something without life”. She notes with Weil that force makes victims out of those who possess it as well as those who fall victim to it. This is surely a crucial point. Rachel Davies’s essay on reading Mother Teresa with Bonaventure’s help is similarly stimulating.
John Swinton’s piece on suffering and bipolar disorder includes reflection on very unhelpful comments made by well-wishing Christians to those afflicted. He notes, with Bonhoeffer, that telling the truth has to do not only with moral character: “it is also a matter of correct appreciation of real situations and of serious reflection upon them.” So, contra Kant, it would not be morally correct to tell an axe man who is looking for a friend where that friend is.
Some of those affected by bipolar disorder have what they understand to be religious experiences, and they must be treated with care in “truth-telling”: Swinton concludes that it is only when psychiatry and theology come together in hospitable dialogue that they “can find release, understanding and spiritual fulfilment even in the midst of most difficult times”. There is much work to be done here.
Andrew Graystone reflects on the language of warfare in relation to cancer, especially after President Nixon initiated what he called “The War on Cancer”. This was uncomfortable to the author, who has pacifist leanings, when he was diagnosed with cancer. Also, as he points out, “when a part of the body such as a cancerous tumour is objectified, a person is forced into the incoherence of disowning or even repenting of a part of themselves.”
He prefers alternative rhetoric and insists that “my cancerous tumour is not my enemy, but a reminder that one of us are yet what we can be and will be. It is God’s thumbprint on the Plasticine of my existence, and it deserves my love.”
These, and the other essays, make a worthwhile collection — though they are heavyweight and not for the faint-hearted. I suspect that, at £85 a pop, it won’t be finding its way on to that many bookshelves.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.
Suffering and the Christian Life
Karen Kilby and Rachel Davies, editors
T & T Clark £85
Church Times Bookshop £76.50