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Loving and Hating the World: Ambivalence and discipleship by James Lawson

17 June 2022

George Pattison looks at an unfashionable strand in Christianity

THIS book has fulsome back-cover endorsements from both Rowan Williams and John Milbank, which rightly assure readers that they are in for an intellectually well-sourced and challenging read.

But the real challenge of the book is not an intellectual one; for, although Lawson tracks how strategies of loving the world and hating it can each claim to be grounded in scripture and are equally well-attested throughout Christian history, one comes away from reading with a sense that it is the “hating” aspect that most needs to be rediscovered by contemporary Christianity. Although both tendencies continue to be reflected in the modern Christian world, it seems, on aggregate, that our temptation is, in Maritain’s phrase, to kneel before the world (pp. 106-8).

I should immediately add that this is not to be understood as calling for grim ascetic renunciation or apocalyptic world-denial. On the contrary, with a word taken from Ivan Illich, the attitude required is described as eutrapelia, which Lawson explains as the “graceful playfulness” characteristic of “light-hearted, carefree play”. As he concludes, such an attitude is really only possible “for those who anticipate eternity in the way they live their lives . . . who, as it were, push the world away from them with the grace of a dancer, and yet hold it close to their hearts because God the Creator can be seen in its transparency”.

Although the larger part of the book deals with the modern situation, the first three chapters track how these two basic attitudes developed through the ancient Church and into the Middle Ages, where, with a dominant monastic culture, contemptus mundi became the defining tone of the Church’s relation to the world.

At the same time, Lawson makes clear that this is also a one-sided development of what is a far more nuanced picture in St Augustine, for whom the idea of the secular refers to “the time of the inextricable and confusing mixture of the two cities, an age of competing loves in which loyalties are constantly being negotiated” — and in this respect at least Lawson’s own approach is markedly Augustinian.

As we come to the modern world, theories of the secular are debated with Hans Blumenberg and Charles Taylor, the latter being largely a positive presence throughout. Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, and Theodor Adorno also share a chapter, and, though none of them was a theologian, all reflected world-affirming and world-denying tendencies inherited from their theological predecessors, and Adorno emerged as a modern champion of the contemptus mundi.

Returning to theology, Lawson scans developments in modern Catholic thought, where Maritain and Henri de Lubac are notable interlocutors, with further contributions from Radical Orthodoxy and Sarah Coakley.

The heritage of Bonhoeffer is considered at some length. Although what Lawson calls “English Bonhoefferism” seems to have ended with entire absorption in the world, Bonhoeffer himself “understood that the profound this-worldliness of Christianity was founded in the apocalyptic witness of the New Testament” and, equally, that “the world is condemned for the sake of the world.”

Thomas Merton is presented as another recent thinker who got this tension right. In fiction, Dostoevsky’s Elder Zosima and his disciple Alyosha Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov) also provide a serviceable model.

This brief review may suggest that, in fact, Lawson’s call is for balance rather than (as I said at the outset) for a greater emphasis on “hating” the world. But the truth is that the balance that he calls for is, to borrow a phrase from Bonhoeffer, “costly grace”. True world-affirmation is possible only if we are ready to deny the world and its alluring prospects for success, pleasure, and self-fulfilment. A hard ask.

Lawson’s writing is lucid and well-paced. He makes every point clearly and directly, and, although the material is challenging, the book invites cover-to-cover reading — to be followed by long reflection.

The Revd Dr George Pattison is a retired theologian and priest.

Loving and Hating the World: Ambivalence and discipleship
James Lawson
Cascade Books £20
Church House Bookshop £18

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