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Desmond Tutu: A spiritual biography of South Africa’s confessor, by Michael Battle

04 June 2021

The path of union with God, and ubuntu, is Desmond Tutu’s way, writes John D. Davies

THE name of Desmond Tutu is known around the world. We might well feel that his life-story needs no new exposition. But Michael Battle comes to his subject with special resources.

He is an Afro-American academic theologian, who has made a special study of Christian spirituality, giving particular attention to St Augustine and St Bernard of Clairvaux. He came as a young man from the United States to South Africa as the apartheid regime was finally collapsing; he was ordained priest by Archbishop Tutu, and stayed on the Archbishop’s staff for about five years as his Chaplain.

So, although he did not experience the specific cruelties against black people during the worst period of the racist rule, he was very close to Dr Tutu during the time when the latter was becoming known as the inspirer and manager of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this very thorough book of nearly 400 closely packed pages, he brings a special lens to the understanding of Dr Tutu’s inner resources and motivations, in terms of Christian spirituality.

Any account of Dr Tutu which does not include his spiritual motivation is bound to be incomplete; as Battle points out, on any ordinary working day, Dr Tutu would spend eight hours in silence and in communion with his Master. Therein is the clue to his extraordinary resilience, and to his productive energy (the book’s bibliography lists 168 books, pamphlets, and other publications).

Battle sees Dr Tutu as South Africa’s “confessor” — in a very exact application of that label. In Dr Tutu’s life-story, Battle identifies the classic succession of phases of “purgation, illumination, and union”. So the book is valuable as offering a working model of the application of the classic analysis of spiritual process as both a personal and a corporate instrument.

Professor Battle is clear that classic Western spirituality, though a very fruitful instrument, cannot be held accountable for all that Dr Tutu is. Dr Tutu brings from Africa two vital further resources:

First, he is a great storyteller — and a joker — in a less insane environment he could have made a good living as a comedian. He can puncture pretentious nonsense, whether in ecclesiastical systems or in political manipulation.

Second, he has brought his deep awareness of the primal African value of ubuntu, the sense that we are persons through our relationship with persons. This can deliver spirituality from any tendency to concentrate merely on oneself; it gives priority to forgiveness, and it insists on realism in reconciliation; thus it gives meaning and substance to the place of “union” as a final element in the mystical process that Battle takes as the basis of his map of interpretation. And it informs his understanding of “heaven” in a particularly enlightening conclusion of Dr Tutu’s world-view.

ALAMYArchbishop Desmond Tutu vested at a Friday-morning celebration in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, in 2008

Battle recognises that apartheid was, primarily, a spiritual rather than just a political reality. Christian spirituality affirms the existence of evil: under the apartheid regime, the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer had a very definite relevance. Dr Tutu and his colleagues knew this only too well, and this was profoundly the case for many years before Battle came on to the scene.

And it was not confined to South Africa. British political and financial interests had much responsibility in the fostering of the noxious state of civil war which tore the Zulu people apart and almost disabled the 1994 election process. This brought vilification on to Tutu personally, wounding him and his Church. “Principalities and powers” operated on both a personal and international level; and this provided a significant element in the spiritual process that the author identifies as “purgation”.

As a working example of the use of classical mystical formulation, Battle’s book is both unique and valuable. I would not say that without his kind of analysis there can be no valid appreciation of Dr Tutu; but the use of Dr Tutu as an example does give a practical and usable model for the application of the mysticism of authorities such as St Bernard. Without such an example, the writings of the mystics can seem to be theoretical and abstract, inaccessible to ordinary mortals who have little fluency in such terminology.

In Battle’s vision, however, with his claiming of the insights of ubuntu, the application of the mystical process is not just for one person’s salvation; it represents the process that has been happening corporately in South Africa. Under Dr Tutu’s guidance, that country has been experiencing purgation, illumination, and union. The process has not been either complete or consistent, but it has been real, and is both perceptible and recreative. And, while Dr Tutu has not been the sole enabler or inspirer, he has brought a personal spiritual discipline and interpretative world-view to bear on a chaotic and dehumanising situation.

If there is any sense in which South Africa can be said to have experienced salvation, the Archbishop’s ministry has to be recognised as a vital element in the process. For this, Battle’s identification and clarification of the process is a valuable interpretative tool, for both personal and corporate reflection. It becomes an inspiration for thanksgiving, and a model for Christians in recognising something of the ways of God with us.

The Rt Revd John D. Davies was a mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa from 1956 until his residence permit was cancelled in 1970.


Desmond Tutu: A spiritual biography of South Africa’s confessor
Michael Battle
WJK £40
Church Times Bookshop £32

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