Category Archives: Theology

Introducing Buddha

buddha

Introducing Buddha – A Graphic Guide
By Jane Hope & Borin Van Loon
Icon Books – £4.99

To study the way of Buddha is to study oneself.
To study oneself is to forget oneself.
To forget oneself is to be enlightened by everything in the world.
To be enlightened by everything is to surrender one’s own body and mind.

Surely it is a good thing to remind oneself of Buddhist teachings from time to time, even if only to be reacquainted with occasional inner peace; for the inner sanctum of oneself – as mentioned above – is all too readily, all too often, forgotten about.

And for those who aren’t familiar with the Buddhist design, then might I recommend this delightful little book, Introducing Buddha – A Graphic Guide, which, according to The Times Educational Supplement, is: ”an exemplary introduction… persuasive and intelligently critical.”

Icon Books best-selling guides to Big Ideas, really are a most worthy investigation.

Why you may well ask?

Well not only are they snug and compact – the perfect companion for those tedious commutes – but they really enlighten the reader with what one needs to know nigh immediately: ”The early stories and teachings of the Buddha were not written down until several centuries after his death. They were not seen as the ”authorized version.” The Buddha encouraged his followers to put everything he said to the test, and therefore, through the ages, followers of the Buddha have trusted their own wisdom, rather than trying to interpret what might have been meant in old texts.”

Compared to that other mighty book that begins with the letter ‘B,’ isn’t this good practice and something a reassuring approach? Especially the words: ”trying to interpret what might have been meant in old texts.”

Augmented with countless graphics and drawings (hence the title), these 173 pages – excluding Further Reading, About the Author, About the Illustrator and Index – Introducing Buddha describes the life and teachings of the Buddha.

It also fundamentally shows that enlightenment is a matter of experiencing the truth individually, by way of inspiration being passed from teacher to student.

Or rather, giver and receiver, which is always rather special.

David Marx

Confessions – St Augustine

confessions2-2

Confessions – St Augustine
Translated by Benignus O’Rourke
Darton Longman & Todd – £12.99

Yet, I chose to steal.
I stole, not because of poverty or need,
unless the lack of a sense of justice
counts as a need.
I stole because I was bored of doing right,
and had a greedy love of doing wrong.
For the things I stole I already had in plenty,
and were of better quality.
I had no desire to enjoy what I stole.
What I wanted to enjoy was the actual stealing,
and the sin itself.

‘Bored Of Doing Right’

It’s not often one reads such hyper-honesty as that pronounced, or should I say, confessed above; especially the line: ”I stole because I was bored of doing right/and had a greedy love of doing wrong.”

Indeed, who in their right mind would to admit to such subliminal darkness? Other than the likes of Jack Nicholson and perhaps Johnny Cash, there aren’t many who would confide such reflective openness.

There again, St Augustine wasn’t of the sort you’d stumble across everyday, which is what partially accounts for Confessions being as disturbing yet as vibrant as it is; of which this particular rendition, published by Darton Longman & Todd, rally does need to be looked into. In the words of the author of Into The Silent Land, Martin Laird, this is ”a daringly original contribution to the history of English translations of Confessions.”

And one can understand why.

According to many, not only is the latter ”a canticle to God and full of psychological insights which might have been written yesterday, the Confessions is ”the story of a soul, and also the story of God and how he is constantly at work seeking us.”

For me personally, it’s the underlying meaning and varying text(s) to which I am fundamentally drawn, because it is nigh impossible to open almost any of these 394 pages (excluding the Foreword by Laird, Introduction and Notes) and not be touched in some literal or theological way:

Now that I had begun to understand
that what is incorruptible
is better than what is corruptible,
I tried to explore further

‘The Highest and Most Perfect Good’

So I joined a group of men who,
though calling themselves philosophers,
were mainly slick talkers,
very sensual and proud to the point of madness.

‘Closer To Me Than I Was To Myself’

Do the last two lines not sound resoundingly familiar? Do they not resonate with all the trajectory a charade of middle management at a marketing convention?
Either way, Confessions makes for top-notch, provocative and enlightened reading.

As if you didn’t already know!

David Marx

A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies

theology

A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies
By Edward T. Oakes
Eerdmans Publishing Company – £18.99/$28.00

As Maurice Blondel (1861 – 1949) once said: Every doctrine which does not reach the one thing necessary, every separated philosophy, will remain deceived by false appearances. It will be a doctrine, it will not be a philosophy.

How exceedingly true the above words ring – in as much that there are times when the all too obvious does indeed need to be clarified.

That in this instance, it has been brought to bear by the French philosopher Blondel, whose most influential work was L’Action – (aimed at establishing the correct relationship between autonomous philosophical reasoning and Christianity) really should come as no surprise. Likewise, the degree to which this altogether marvellous book by Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is simultaneously provocative and enlightening.

To say there are numerous instances throughout A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies, to which some form of provocation readily applies – the most very excellent of inspired titles itself – would be one of the utmost of understatements. In the chapter, ‘Sin and Justification for instance,’ Oakes quotes N.T. Wright by supposing that ”God’s purposes go far beyond individual salvation” when he writes: ”God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world.”

I would hasten to add that this is something I wholeheartedly agree with; although said particular ”shipwreck of the world,” does appear just a little too submerged to be truly rescued. Alas, if even if it were, could the world itself actually be redeemed?

Oakes continues: ”We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the Gospels as equally important to the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened. But it has, and we must deal with it.”

Yes we must.
Herein perhaps, lies one of the most fundamental problems facing humanity today.

We do not work in conjunction with any of the above, because we have been side-tracked by far, far too much deviation. Or, dare I say it, temptation, which too is addressed by way of Oakes delving into the doctrinal thinking of Karl Barth: ”Temptation mercilessly reveals the yawning chasm between Is and Ought, between what is and what should be. We see the depths of this fissure from an insight into God’s justice and judgement […]. Every single feature of human life is lost before God if grace is lacking – a grace that the sinner cannot count on and to which he has no right whatever. No one who has really found himself trapped in the coils of temptation has ever been able to save one of his works from the fire of divine judgement. No one in such a situation would ever even dream of laying claim to any reward.”

With such a title heading as the aforementioned ‘Sin and Justification,’ not to mention ‘Evolution and Original Sin,’ is it any wonder I use the word provocative to describe this occasionally inflammatory, yet ultimately dense book of readings and teachings?

Throughout the six chapters of this book, (plus a further Introduction and Glossary of Terms), Oakes examines various issues relating to grace and points them back to that central question, illuminating and explaining what is really at stake in these debates. Maintaining that controversies clarify issues, especially those as convoluted as that of nature and grace, Oakes works through six central debates on the topic, including sin and justification, free will and evolution, along with original sin.”

And as a matter of profound interest, why is it always original sin? Why not pre-ordained sin? Calculated sin. Sin passed down through many a misguided generation?

Of the author, Aaron Riches (Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ) writes: ”Edward Oakes will be remembered as one of the finest American Catholic theologians of his generation. With A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies, he has given the church and contemporary theology a final offering – a work as daring as it is faithful, as provocative as it is irenic, as creative as it is traditional. This book promises to change the terms of the question concerning the relation of nature and grace. A must-read for anyone interested in contemporary theology.”

That Oakes pushes the theological boat out and doesn’t ultimately write from that of a particularly safe premise, does a lot to substantiate as much throughout this most complex and multifacted of books.

David Marx

Field Hospital

Field

Field Hospital – the church’s engagement with a wounded world
By William T. Cavanaugh
Eerdmans Publishing – £16.99

The Introduction of this book opens with the question: ”what kind of church do you dream of?” And it’s interesting to note, that in as much as the church he’d personally like to see, Pope Francis famously responded (in 2013) with: ”I see clearly, that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal the wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle […] Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And you have to start from the ground up.”

Having ”to start from the ground up,” is, if nothing else, a most appropriate premise from which to embark on any journey.

It also suggests a cleansing of the spiritual palette, which, somewhere along the line, may well have become obstructed or distorted by an array of bad teaching(s). Bad feeling(s). Or at the very least, bad information.

So in a round-a-bout kind of way, this is what initially drew me to Field Hospital – the church’s engagement with a wounded world to begin with. Apart from being a most frank, literary charismatic and rather to the point sort of title, the book neither dithers nor deludes – as is often the case with publications of a theological persuasion.

They can so easily become something of a saccharine induced obstruction in themselves, although such is most definitely not the case here.

The mere fact that the second part of the title is all in lower case, could be viewed as something of an invitation to the reader – as in: there is nothing highbrow with regards what is contained herein. If such be the thinking (and I suspect it is), it’s a welcome perspective to say the least.

Reason being, it covers an array of possibilities that transcend the very idea that the church is somewhat philosophically or economically sacred. To be sure, William T. Cavanaugh – who is the Director of the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology – touches on as much in the fourth chapter, under the sub-heading, Economics and Theology Intertwined, where he astutely writes: ”Poverty is that state and condition in society where the individual has no surplus labour in store, or, in other words, no property or means of subsistence but what is derived from the constant exercise of industry in the various occupations of life. Poverty is there a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilization. It is the lot of man. It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour, there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.”

Such thinking would also entail there would be no Donald Trump, which, apart from being an exceedingly good thing; substantiates the fact that there are those who have no shame whatsoever when it comes to accumulating enormous amounts of wealth, usually at the expense of other peoples’ grinding misery and expense.

Naturally, so far as the actual Vatican is concerned, there is nothing sacred to be gleaned in relation to its menagerie of tumultuous, taboo finances.

Yet, as Cavanaugh continues: ”The process by which some come to ”be possessed of wealth” and others own nothing but their labour is known as ”primitive accumulation.” Karl Marx famously wrote that we are taught to think about this process through the lens of the theological notion of original sin. We tend to think that, way back in the misty past, some people were hard-working and frugal and others were lazy and dissolute; the former became the owners of capital, the latter relegated to work for others” (‘Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want’).

Broken into three sections (‘Markets and Bodies,’ Dispersed Political Theology’ and ‘Further Exploration in Religion and Violence’), these thirteen chapters are quintessentially lucid and instructive in as much as they portray the church as being somewhat (socially) crestfallen – if not vulnerable.

This may go some way in partially explaining why William T. Cavanaugh has evolved into one of the most innovative and idiosyncratically interesting of theological voices (of our time).

David Marx

The Journey

the journey

The Journey – Spirituality, Pilgrimage, Chant
By Dr J. Richard Smith
Darton-Longman-Todd – £9.99

Ask, and it shall be given you, seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.
                                                                                                                          Matthew 7:7

The Journey is a book ”about being whole and is for anyone on the pathway to physical and psychological well being after illness, or seeking greater spiritual fulfilment.”

That all royalties generated from its sale are being donated to the charity, Womb Transplant, is in and of itself, most, most commendable. There again, one will always learn from having taken a long journey – the more in-depth, the more arduous, the more philosophical or strident, the better.

Indeed, every now and then, a book depicting a journey such as this will come along and make a difference. The sort of difference that can be life-changing and positively over-whelming. There have been a few over the years, perhaps one of the most definitive in recent years was Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist – a magical fable about learning to take note of what it is your heart is telling you – which has since gone on to sell over thirty-million copies worldwide.

Moreover, Richard Smith is one of the world’s leading gynaecological surgeons and a specialist in cancer survivorship; fertility-sparing surgery for women with cancer. A few years back, a major health scare forced him to question his belief in his own personal invincibility and as a result, come to terms with the reality of mortality. An inner search led him to read the spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim, and with the guidance of his priest, to start practising contemplative prayer, pilgrimage and chant.

Hence, the kernel of this book, that in essence, fundamentally revisits Smith’s actual journey of discovery. A prime manifestation of which conjures the physical as well as the spiritual well-being: of the challenges and wonders of pilgrim paths to ancient sites such as Jerusalem, Assisi, Iona, Patmos and Mount Athos. Not to mention the hidden truths inside Smith’s own heart and soul – truths all the more underlined by the words of the brilliant, Carl Gustav Jung: ”The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens to primeval cosmic night that was soul long before there was conscious ego, and will be soul far beyond what a conscious ego could ever reach” (The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man).

Can’t argue with that; just like one can’t really argue with (most of) The Journey.

David Marx

American Jesuits and the World

jesuits

American Jesuits and the World
By John T. McGreevy
Princeton University Press – £24.95

The United States is the freest country in the world. You believe yourselves free in France and in Belgium; but be assured that you possess but the shadow of the liberty which we enjoy in America. I can establish here as many schools as I can wish, and no one will interfere with them. What is more, I could preach the doctrines of the Catholic religion in the most Protestant town, before an audience composed entirely of Protestants, and I feel sure that I would not suffer a single interruption.
                                                                                               (‘Education and Religious Liberty’)

Food for prophetic thought? Or prophetic food for fraught food? I guess the wretched Republican Candidate, Donald Trump, would the answer and a whole lot more (prophecy) besides. Still, each of this book’s six chapters (along with an Introduction, Conclusion, Notes, Acknowledgements and a section on Abbreviations Used in the Notes), fundamentally regale many a story of a revealing and/or a controversial Trumpesque persuasion.

That American Jesuits and the World – How An Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global, goes some way in tracking Jesuits who left Europe for America and Jesuits who left the United States for missionary ventures across the Pacific, might, in and of itself, already be (considered) mightily controversial. That assorted stories include the tarring and feathering of an exiled Swiss Jesuit in Maine, the efforts of the French Jesuits in Louisiana to obtain Vatican approval of a miraculous healing, and the educational efforts of American Jesuits in Manila, should punctuate the fact that author John T. McGreevy doesn’t pull any punches. Nor hold any back for that matter.

Indeed, these stories place the Jesuits at the centre of the worldwide clash between Catholics and liberal nationalists, and reveal how the Jesuits not only revived their own order but made modern Catholicism more global.

Hence the rather apt, second part of American Jesuits and the World’s title.
A title (How An Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global) many might readily decree, lends the book a somewhat inflammatory undertone – right from the very start.

In the book’s Introduction for instance, none other than John Adams is quoted in conversation with Thomas Jefferson: ”I do not like the late Resurrection of the Jesuits. They have a General, now in Russia, in correspondence with the Jesuits in the U.S. Who are more numerous than every body knows. Shall we not have Swarms of them here?… If ever any congregation of Men could merit, eternal Perdition on Earth and in Hell… it is this Company of Loiola. Our system however of Religious Liberty must afford them an Asylum. But if they do not put the Purity of our Elections to a severe Tryal, it will be a wonder” (1816).

Hmm, does this not sound somewhat reminiscent of what that ill-led buffoon, and now Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has been carping on about these last few months? Especially with regards ”swarms” of migrants invading Britain….

Lord Help Us.

What this book does show rather well, is the degree to which history is simply steeped in myopic circularity. The sort of which – every now and then – is augmented with the kind of dire stupidity that is so evidently on display amid much of the UK’s current electorate (debacle).

Like mid-thirties Germany, a despicable line has been drawn in Britain’s sad and solipsistic sand; many an unfortunate kernel of which, can be found throughout these 223 pages. There’s a good example in chapter six (‘Empire’), where John T. McGreevy – who is Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame – quotes Denis O’Connell, the one time Irish cleric: ”It is the question of two civilizations. It is the question of all that is old & vile & mean & rotten & cruel & false in Europe against all this [sic] is free & noble & open & true & humane in America. When Spain is swept of [sic] the seas much of the meanness & narrowness of old Europe goes with it to be replaced by the freedom and openness of America. This is God’s way of developing the world.”

As touched on at the outset of this review, there’s so much detonatory food for thought contained herein, which simply reeks of a certain, shiny, pristine black-kettle ideology.

”This is God’s way of developing the world” (my italics). Oh really? Says who?

As Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History has been quoted as saying: ”Global history is all the rage today, yet one of the most global institutions – the Catholic Church – has largely been ignored in this wave of scholarship. In this timely and brilliantly argued book, McGreevy convincingly shows that in order to understand the modern world – and modern America – we need to come to terms with globe-trotting priests with a global vision.”

We do.

On a final note, I do rather like the way the author hasn’t held back so far as the actual tonality of the writing is concerned. McGreevy hasn’t exactly shied away from assorted tough, literary values; as some of the quotes I’ve included I’d like to think exemplify.

David Marx

John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion

calvin

John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
By Bruce Gordon
Princeton University Press – £19.95

With what clear manifestations his might draws us to contemplate him!
(Institutes 1.5.6)

That Calvin never outgrew the limits of this book, which was almost his first, and which though greatly enlarged later, was never modified, is evidence of the stiffness and limitation of his own mind.
Prophet of Modernity – Prince of Tyrants

These twelve chapters are best described as something a theological journey through the ages, stopping off here for considered reflection, thus enabling both author and reader to re-collect their thoughts by way of embracing – or not, as the case may be, all that which has gone before. Which, in the interest of full disclosure, really is none of the following: a theology of John Calvin, a history of Calvinism, or an overview of scholarship on the Frenchman and his most famous theological creation.

As Bruce Gordon makes clear: ”a short book of this sort could never hope to address such enormously complex topics, and I am the wrong person for all three. My goal is rather different, though equally quixotic. I intend to take the reader on a journey from the desk of the young John Calvin in Basel in 1536 to our world of social media religion by following the lives of one of the great books of the European Reformation, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. My investigation makes no pretence of exhaustive coverage, and the narrative is necessarily selective, privileging certain characters and events, yet mindful of omissions and silences.”

Being ‘mindful of omissions and silences’ is an interesting premise from which to further investigate the narrative; a narrative, that to all intents and purposes, once again traverses the enormous chasm betwixt a certain longing for diversity and change (”I do not insist that the moral life of a Christian man breath nothing but the very gospel”), yet nevertheless does so, amid a cloying undercurrent of gloom riddled guilt (”let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal: not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds”).

What evil deeds?
Indeed, why always evil deeds?
Why, amid the predominantly Christian faith, are we always deemed to be evil?

Almost five hundred years after John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
came to light, it may well be easy to question some of its deeply entrenched writings, that in all honesty, appear to have meandered very little since. Yet the world has changed a great deal since, and to accommodate said change, ought we not to be approaching Calvin’s manifesto from that of a slightly different perspective?

Much as we do the many great plays of William Shakespeare for instance?

As Williston Walker stated in the afore-quoted Prophet of Modernity – Prince of Tyrants ”John Calvin’ was not a pleasant man, and his biography is not pleasant reading.” Not that this should have any bearing on the writing itself – although ”the reviewer continues to consider the book, the content of which is not referred to, as a symbol of the reformer.”

Having ”embraced the sum of religion in all its parts,” it could, perhaps wrongly, be assumed that many of these 218 pages (excluding an Afterword, Note on Translation Used, Introduction, Appendix 1&2, Notes and Index), merely promote Scripture as being the only true and translucent way. Although something tells me it’s not.

David Marx