Christian Spirituality Blog

We understand Christian Spirituality to be the practice of the presence of God in daily life.  As such it includes both the mundane and the mystical dimensions of Christian faith and practice.  This Blog is intended to provide thought provoking information and discussion in the categories of Christian Spirituality, Spiritual Direction, Sacred Psychology, Interfaith Relationships, Peacebuilding, Spirituality/Religion, and Book Reviews of interest. 

Everyone can view this Blog.  If you want to make Comments and carry on a dialogue, you will need to create an account in the Login Menu.  You may also submit Posts on the Contact Us page for consideration for Posting in the appropriate Category.   

The Rules for use of this Blog are simple.  First, show respect for everyone and their individual beliefs.  We don't all believe the same way.  Keep it clean and try not to make others wrong.  We can agree or disagree without being disagreeable. 

Posts from category "Book Reviews"

The Asian Jesus

The Asian Jesus

Michael Amaladoss, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006; 180 pp, including Endnotes, Bibliography, and Indexes.

Michael Amaladoss, S.J., a native of South India, is a professor of theology at Vidyajyoti College in Delhi and director of the Institute for Dialogue with Cultures and Religions in Chennai.  Among his books and articles is Life in Freedom: Liberation Theologies From Asia (Orbis).  With a special interest in intercultural and interreligious dialogue and spirituality, Amaladoss has been a consultant to the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Other Religions and to the World Council of Churches.  He also has served as the president of the International Association for Mission Studies.  He is the author of 20 books and more than 300 articles in various languages.

Occasionally one picks up a book that proves to be an unexpected breath of fresh air.  For this reviewer The Asian Jesus turned out to be such a book.  It is written, I believe with two audiences in mind—the Asian religious (though not necessarily just Christians) and Western Christians.  For the former he supplies a great deal of material, including a few entire chapters, about perspectives on Christianity that are not unique to Asian Christianity.  For the latter, however, the preponderance of material is quite unique to Asians, this in large part because of the cultural and religious milieu in which the Christian faith has developed, often without the overwhelming influence of Western missionaries.  (Though Amaladoss nowhere makes this assertion, his description of the Asian cultural and religious influences on biblical interpretation certainly strongly imply that this is the case.)

The Asian perspective that Amaladoss unfolds is formulated in terms of a number of images of Jesus that Asians incorporate into their understanding of the Gospel accounts of his life and ministry.  These include the images of the Way (Tao), Guru, Moral Teacher (advaita), avatar, satyagrahi, and bodhisattva.  (There are others that Amaladoss discusses at some length—for example, sage, servant, dancer, pilgrim--but these are more conventional portrayals common to both Eastern and Western traditions.)

The Tao: The term Tao is used in both the Taoist and Confucian traditions in China and means simply, “the way.”  In India, one would use the term marga, and Buddha spoke of the eightfold path.  “It is in this context that we must understand the way proposed by Jesus.  He does not indulge in any metaphysical speculations… The framework of Jesus is a human community fragmented by egotism and pride embodied in structures of religious, social, and political power.  People are called to turn away from this self-centered arrogance.  This is achieved through the selfless love of others, shown in humble service and sharing… The way of Jesus therefore operates at the level of human and social relationships… It resonates with the nishkama karma of the Indian tradition and the wu wei of the Chinese tradition.  But it is set in a framework of cosmic-human-divine community building.” (pp. 58-59)

Amaladoss cites the observation of Indian writer George Soares-Prabhu: “The vision of Jesus indicates not the goal but the way.  It does not present us with a static pre-fabricated model to be imitated, but invites us to continual refashioning of societal structures in an attempt to realize as completely as possible in our times the values of the Kingdom.”  Amaladoss continues, “The Kingdom of God that Jesus announced and began to establish is not an institutional, politco-military structure.  It is a community of people who are ready to love and forgive, share, and serve.” (p. 59)

Amaladoss goes on to describe the way of Jesus as a way of love and service, a way of non-violent struggle, a transcendent way, and an inclusive way.  “The way of Jesus is the way of creation. It is the way that humans and the world live.  It is the life.  It is God’s gift to creation and humanity.  We can understand why some Chinese theologians call Jesus the Tao.  But the Tao of Jesus has a Confucian resonance because it concerns community building.” (p. 65)

Guru: In Indian practice, a guru is a person who has traveled a particular spiritual path and is thus qualified to lead others on that path.  “In the Advaitic (non-dual) tradition, in which true spiritual experience consists in realizing one’s oneness with the Brahman or the Absolute, gurus are seen as divine, because they have experienced advaitic oneness with the divine.  In the Bhakti traditions…in which the final experience is one of encountering Siva, the Absolute, in love… the guru [is understood to be] a divine-human person… Many Indian disciples of Jesus, whether Hindu or Christian, have considered him as their guru.  Christians stress the uniqueness of Jesus by calling him sadguru (true guru).” (pp. 69-70)  Jesus is thought to be “the guru of a cosmic movement that he initiates himself and perpetuates by choosing disciples and sending them to continue his mission.” (p. 76)  He is seen to be exemplary of what other gurus should be like.

Advaita: As a moral teacher, advaita (Indian non-duality) presupposes a strong monotheism, a view that militates against acceptance of Jesus as God.  Asians who maintain this view may think of the unity of will between Jesus and God rather than the identity of being.  “Jesus was an exemplary human being who taught us how to live by word and example.  He shows us the way to self-discovery and moral behavior.” (p. 22)

Avatar: Avatar is the word used in Indian languages to refer to the incarnation of the Word in Jesus.  “God is believed to self-manifest in some earthly form to encounter the devotees and grant them liberation.” (p. 105)  Amaladoss cited Hindu Swami Vivekananda:  “Jesus had our nature; he became the Christ; so can we and so must we.  Christ and Buddha were the names of a state to be attained.  Jesus and Gautama were the persons to manifest it.”  Vivekananda goes on to note that one need not become a Christian to be a follower of Jesus.  “He (Christ) had no other occupation in life; no other thought except that one, that he was a Spirit.  He was a disembodied, unfettered, unbound spirit.  And not only so, but he, with his marvelous vision, had found that every man and woman, whether Jew or Greek, whether rich or poor, whether saint or sinner, was the embodiment of the same undying Spirit as himself.  Therefore the one work his whole life showed, was calling upon them to realize their own spiritual nature… You are all sons of God, Immortal spirit. ‘Know,’ he declared, ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you.  I and my Father are one.’” (p. 23)

Avatar can be variously realized at different places at different times.  The Hindu “devotees of Siva [the Absolute] think that God cannot become human.  But they still believe that Siva can manifest himself in various ways in the lives of his devotees.” (p. 105)  Because of this cultural/religious context, “Indians looking on Jesus will spontaneously consider him [Jesus] an avatar.  It is an Indian religio-cultural entry point to explore our experience of Jesus as a human-divine person (p.106).

Amaladoss suggests, “…the term avatar, meaning ‘manifestation,’ helps us look at the plurality of manifestations of the Word, of the Spirit, and of God positively and openly and profit from all of them” (p. 107).  He believes that Jesus’ disciples experienced him first of all as a human being.  But as avatar it was eventually recognized that Jesus had a deeper dimension as a unique manifestation of the Father, but a manifestation that was still subject to the limitations of it human nature.

Satyagrahi: Satya means “truth”. Graha means “clinging.”  The combination, satyagrahi, coined by Mahatma Gandhi, is someone who clings to the truth, namely, to God.  “Gandhi saw his own life as a quest for truth.  He knew that truth is absolute.  One does not possess truth; rather, one is possessed by it” (p. 86).  Gandhi held that “we cannot reach truth through untrue means” nor “peace through violence.”  As applied to Jesus, “the image satyagrahi points to the idea that Jesus, though he was a revolutionary, was a nonviolent one” (p. 87).

“What distinguished Jesus from the Zealots [of his day] were two things.  The Zealot effort focused on liberating Palestine from the colonialism of the Romans… On the contrary, Jesus does not seem to focus much on the Roman presence in Palestine.  He takes it for granted… The second difference between him and the Zealots is the means used to promote revolution.  Jesus is firmly committed to the means of love and nonviolence.”  Jesus believes the ends and the means must be the same.  “We cannot promote love through hatred, nor peace through violence” (p. 95).

“God, the Father of Jesus, is not a vengeful God who demands expiation for sins.  Jesus presented God as a loving and forgiving parent.  The suffering imposed on Jesus comes not from God but from Jewish leaders who seek to defend their own self-interest by doing away with Jesus.”  But “The murder of Jesus… does not put an end to the movement that he has launched. As a of fact, it acquires new vigor” (p. 97).

Amaladoss continues with an extended analysis of the role of suffering in Jesus’ life and, by extension, in the lives of his followers.  He asserts, “Suffering for its own sake is not a Christian ideal.  Suffering has meaning as an element of protest or as a manifestation of self-giving.  Without such meaning, suffering is not a virtue. It has no transformative value” (p. 104).

He concludes his discussion of satyagraha: “The image of Jesus as satyagrahi places the idea of salvation on a personal, human-divine level.  It is not something automatic effected by the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus.  It is a divine-human interaction marked by freedom on both sides… Jesus calls us to be satyagrahi in our turn.

Bodhisattva: Buddhists in Asia consider Jesus a bodhisattva.  In Buddhist tradition the bodhisattva is the model of the compassionate person.  In this sense Jesus is seen to be very much like Buddha.  “Having achieved personal liberation, the bodhisattva delays the personal enjoyment of it in order to help everyone become liberated” (p. 135).As a bodhisattva, Jesus is compassionate like no other.  His compassion operates around God’s gift of abundant life, which he not only promises but shares with others. (p. 136).  “The measure of the abundance of God’s gift of life is not our merits but God’s generosity.  The crucial element in the process of salvation is our openness to accept it as a gift of God, since God’s gift is always there.  Being sure of God’s unbounded love, we are ready to abandon ourselves to God. God then saves us.”  Thus, in a major departure from the understandings of Western Christianity, “Jesus saves us precisely by enabling us to respond to God in humility and faith, in egolessness and surrender, and thus receive God’s gift of life.  He enables us by being in solidarity with us” (p. 143).  “He saves us by freeing us, by forgiving us, by loving us, and by empowering or enabling us.” (p. 144)

This reviewer is struck by how much resonance there is between many of the beliefs of Asian Christians and the so-called “heretical” teachings of a certain 3rd and 4th century priest in Alexandria, Egypt.  His name was Arius.  His teachings were affirmed by most of the Christian bishops in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean world of his day but were opposed by most of the bishops from the West, thus creating something of an East-West divide in the Christian Church.  Could it be that the present Asian-West theological divide has its roots in that early division?  Interesting.

Jim Foster, reviewer

Submission Requirements for Submitting a Book Review

Submission Requirements for Submitting a Book Review

Please submit all this information with your book review.  The completion of this information will allow us to give credit to you, the reviewer, as well as properly attribute the source for the book you are reviewing.  Copy this page and paste to a word processing document, add the requested information, and email with your review. We reserve the right to accept, reject or edit all submissions.  Reviews are published in the Book Review category on the Blog. If you would like to review a book not on our list, please contact us.

  • Your Name

  • Your Email Address

  • Your Nationality

  • Your Street Address

  • Your City or Town

  • Your State or Province

  • Your Zip or Postal Code

  • Your Home Telephone Number

  • Your Work Telephone Number

  • Main Title of Book You Have Reviewed

  • Sub-Title of Book (if any)

  • Name of Author or Authors

  • Name of Publisher

  • Publishing Date

  • Number of pages

  • Does the Book Include (Check all that apply)...

    • Footnotes?

    • Endnotes?

    • Illustrations?

    • Bibliography?

    • Bibliography?

    • Glossary?

    • Biographical Information on Author(s)?


Thank You, Jim Foster

God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment

God’s Debris: 

A Thought Experiment

Scott Adams, (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001), 137 pagesScott Adams is the creator of cartoon character Dilbert.  But this is not a work of humor, though it is a work of fiction.  As Mr. Adams has not claimed ownership of the ideas expressed in this story, but rather attributes them to the main character, a Mr. Avatar, the reviewer has chosen to address his remarks to Mr. Avatar.  Mr. Adams is, of course free to respond in Mr. Avatar’s behalf should he choose to do so.

Dear Mr. Avatar

I am sending this open letter to you by way of Mr. Scott Adams since I do not have your email address.  The fact is that I doubt if you even have one.  I am writing in response to your conversation with him as it is recorded in a small book of his titled God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment, published in 2004 by Andrews McMeel Publishing of Kansas City.

I find your concept of God as an expression of probability interesting but improbable.  It may be that that I am just looking for something a bit more, or a lot more, comprehensive than probability.

However, I do not buy into the theology that God is a person, either.  It rather seems to me that what the human race has done is created a God in its own image, like us only bigger.  We have made of God a Being with a capital B but none-the-less, a being.  This is fraught with all kinds of difficulties, many arising out of our efforts to describe this Being.  (1) One problem is that no description can adequately encompass the whole of God.  When we try to describe God we inevitably engage in reductionism, describing something less than God.  (2) Whose description are we going to buy into?  Our efforts to describe God generally bring us into conflict with each other.  We are pitting God against God as it were.  (3) Our descriptions are typically, and perhaps necessarily, anthropomorphic since those are the only applicable words we have to describe an entity whom we have chosen to categorize as a person.

Oddly enough, the way of thinking about God that has been most satisfying to me has been in terms of Being, not a Being, but Being itself.  As Being God finds expression in all of Creation, including the microscopic and the macroscopic, every atom and every galaxy, and in you and me.  As I gather from your discussion with Mr. Adams, you, too, believe that we are God stuff. The irony is that perhaps the use of anthropomorphic language to speak of God may be acceptable, but only if we mean it quite literally and apply it to the whole of creation.  As part of the whole, a rock really does reveal God, as does a flower and a briar.  You and I also reveal God, though I admit that in some instances our revealing of God is not particularly flattering to God.

At one point early on in the quasi pre-history of the Jewish nation, God is thought to have said essentially what I have said above.  God is quoted as saying out of a burning bush that he is “I am Who I am.”  The only sense I can make of that is that “God is what is”—Being.

As I indicated in my first sentence, this is an open letter and thus was published in the online journal, En Christo: A Journal for a New Christianity.  Any response you wish to make to these observations will likewise be published, unless you indicate that it should be treated confidentially.

Thank you for provoking me to write.  Give my regards to Mr. Adams

Jim Foster, reviewer

,Note to the readers of the above letter:  Mr. Avatar addresses many subjects in God’s Debris – free will, genuine belief, God’s consciousness, evolution, reincarnation, science, delusion – to name a few.  But the thread that runs through the entire story is the equation of “probability” (that he says is omnipotent and omnipresent) with “God.”  He has given us a good many ideas with which to wrestle, and in this lies the justification of the sub-title, “A Thought Experiment.”

When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

When Jesus Became God: 

The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

Rubenstein, Richard E.; (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999, 267 pages including Index and copious end notes.)

Dr. Rubenstein is a professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where he specializes in analyzing violent social and religious conflict.  He is a graduate of Harvard College (B.A. 1959, magna cum laude in History and Literature); Oxford University (M.A. 1961, Honours School of Jurisprudence, Rhodes Scholar) and Harvard Law School ( J.D. 1963).

This reviewer has known for many years that the process by which the early Church determined its theology was a political one, and by today’s standards, a sordid one.  It was power politics.  Those who had the most power got to determine the theology of the fledgling Church.  However, I did not know a lot of the historical details that support that conclusion.  Reading Rubenstein’s account of those days--of who had the power, and how it was exercised—has come as a bit of a shock. Civil discourse was not a part of the story.

The focus of the book is on the Arian controversy, which spanned the better part of two centuries. This was a controversy about the nature of Jesus Christ.  Was he God or was he a spiritually astute human anointed by God but neither one with God nor an equal.  The early Church bishops were fairly evenly divided on the question.  Arian, from whom the controversy got its name, was a priest in Alexandria, Egypt.  As a mere priest, he had little power, but he was an able exponent of the view that Jesus was subordinate to the Father but was not of the same substance with him. Supporting him in this theology were many of the Eastern bishops, i.e. those who were situated around the eastern half of the Mediterranean world.

The Western bishops, those situated to the west of Constantinople, were for the most part supporters of the theology that Jesus and God the Father were essentially of the same substance.

“Faced with the problem that had confronted all Christians since St. Paul—how to be a monotheist believing in only one God, yet still worship Jesus Christ—Arius advanced the view that Jesus was a creature intermediary between man and God…  All Christians believed that Jesus’ sacrifice redeemed humanity.  What God did for the Son by resurrecting him and granting him immortality He could do for us as well, provided that we became new people in Christ.  But if Jesus was not God by nature—if he earned his deification by growing in wisdom and virtue—why, so can we all.  The Good News of the Gospels is that we also are God’s potential Sons and Daughters.  How, then, is Christ essentially different from or superior to us?  And if he is not, what does it mean to call ourselves Christians?” (pp. 55-56)  These were questions that demanded answers.  The answers given by Arius and his bishops in Alexandria--at first Bishop Alexander, and later his successor, Bishop Athanasius—were poles apart.

Civil discourse was apparently never considered a viable way to resolve the conflict.  Instead, Arius’ bishops resorted to strong-arm tactics, each having gangs of street thugs whose job it was to beat their opponents into submission.  Arius and some of his followers were forced to flee into the desert to escape bodily injury and possible death.  At the same time there were other bishops in other cities who were rallying to the support of Arius.  Riots spurred by street fighters spread to other cities, leaving paths of destruction in their wake.  It appeared the whole fabric of Roman society was being ripped apart.

Into this volatile mix, early in the fourth century, steps the recently converted Roman emperor, Constantine.  Ultimately it was Constantine who held the position of power, so each side in the controversy appealed to him for support of their particular theology.  The problem for Constantine was that he was no theologian, and he tended to side with whoever was talking to him at the moment.  The thing that Constantine wanted most was peace in the empire, and he had hoped that Christianity could be the instrument to bring it about.  To this end he convened the bishops from all over the empire at his summer residence on the Lake of Nicaea near Nicomedia in Asia Minor, what is now modern day Turkey.  The council began in May of 325 with 250 bishops in attendance.

“Constantine’s great hope was to convene a conference that would end the bishops’ bitter wrangling and begin an era of harmony in the Church.” (p. 69)  It was not to be, in spite of the fact that “Constantine was in a position strongly to influence—perhaps even to dictate—the course of events at Nicaea.” (p. 71)  The bishops staked out their positions… “the strongest anti-Arians experienced their present as a sharp break with the past.  It was they who demanded, in effect, that Christianity be “updated” by blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son.

“From the perspective of our own time, it may seem strange to think of Arian ‘heretics’ as conservatives, but emphasizing Jesus’ humanity and God’s transcendent otherness had never seemed heretical in the East.  On the contrary, subordinating the Son to the Father was a rational way of maintaining one’s belief in a largely unknowable, utterly singular First Cause while picturing Christ as a usable model of human moral development.” (p. 74)

Constantine came down on the side of the anti-Arians, and the Nicene Creed, an amended version of which is still repeated in churches today, was the result.  Several later gatherings would be more representative of the entire Church; one of them, the joint council of Rimini-Seleucia (359), was attended by more than five hundred bishops from both East and West…but its result—the adoption of an Arian creed—was later repudiated by the Church.

Unity was not achieved.  Theology did not change as a result of the councils.  Those who sided with Arius continued to do so.  The anti-Arians dug in their heels even deeper, refusing to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the Arian bishops.  Constantine continued to flip-flop in his efforts to unify the empire. He died May 22, 337, but the Arian controversy did not die with him. Rubenstein continues the story through the Great Council of Chalcedon (451 CE).

He concludes, “Soon, most of the Eastern world would come under the domination of a new religion offering another interpretation of Jesus’ nature and mission.  The Islamic Jesus was not the incarnate God of Nicene Christianity or the superangelic Son of the Arians.  In the view of the Muslim conquerors, he was a divinely inspired man: a spiritual genius ranking with the greatest prophets, Moses and Muhammad himself… With the ascension of Islam, Arianism as a discrete religious philosophy disappeared in the East as well as in the West.  But the great questions that had generated the controversy over Jesus’ divinity remained—and remain yet—to haunt the imagination and provoke the conscience of humankind.” (pp. 230-231)

If we have learned anything from the past, it should be that one’s beliefs cannot be changed by violence.  Truth is neither validated nor invalidated by coercion, political power, theological wrangling, or ecclesiastical mandates.  Rubenstein’s very readable, detailed and well-documented account can serve well as a reminder of our past and of the highly tenuous theological conclusions we have inherited.  Thus the debate continues, but please, may it at least be civil.

Jim Foster, reviewer

Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation New

Virtually Christian:

How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation New

by Anthony W. Bartlett

Published February 2011 byO-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing, Ltd., UK ISBN: 978 1 84694 396 6

The difficulty of writing a review of a book such as this is that, to do it justice, one needs to impose limits, while, at the same time, doing justice to a work of incredible breadth of content and depth of insight.  This reviewer has read over a hundred books about Jesus, most of them scholarly treatises by recognized scholars with considerable repute in the areas of Christology and biblical exegesis, but never before had I encountered a book with the originality and depth of this one.

Dr. Bartlett has achieved in Virtually Christian a decidedly new approach to understanding the meaning of the life and death of Jesus for the world of the 21st century.  He has drawn on a wide variety of sources to support his thesis that the game-changing role of Jesus for contemporary (and all other) societies is that through his act of forgiveness for his executioners as he was hanging on the cross, he initiated an evolutionary change from the ubiquitous culture of violence enveloping the world to a movement towards equally ubiquitous non-violence.

Bartlett draws on the pioneering work of anthropologist Rene Girard, demonstrating that the application of Girard’s teachings regarding signs brings into focus the current reality, i.e. “the sign of the non-violent forgiving Christ can and will show up [and, indeed is showing up] as the only way through, the only way to transform the violence [of our world] into peace.”  * In subsequent chapters, he shows this to be the motor that drives his contention that the world is already “virtually Christian.”  He challenges traditional religious teachings based on philosophical and metaphysical ideas reflected in our theologies, but instead insists that religious meaning is not located in the realm of ideas but in the realm of signs as a this world reality.  Citing Girard, he says that “our signs at some level always carry the birthmark of desire and violence…Or, alternatively, they can, because of Christ, signify the converse: compassion, forgiveness, love.”  In the following chapters, Bartlett convincingly demonstrates that this is precisely what is already happening.

In Chapter One: No Name for a Non-Violent God, Bartlett opens his opus with a vision and a question.  “I begin with a vision of extraordinary beauty: ‘The earth is robed in light like a jewel, like a bride dressed for her wedding…’ Can we share the vision?  Can we let ourselves be drawn to it?”  He leads us deeper and deeper into the vision, setting the stage for the following divination of what the church, and indeed, the world, is becoming.  Thus begins the story—a story of incredible hope and optimism—bringing “an awareness of how the end is already playing out dynamically in the present.  For the virtual character of Christianity is extraordinarily concrete.”

In Chapter Two: The Sign that Means the World, Bartlett analyzes “the character of historical Christianity in relation to the vision of the earth in communion with its lover…and with Jesus the nonviolent one.”  He begins by pointing out that “enhancing a relationship with the earth” is not something with which Christianity has traditionally been concerned. Its focus has instead been on

* Since this review is being written on the basis of the unpublished manuscript, it is neither practical nor helpful to include page numbers for the numerous quotes.  The reviewer recommends that the reader purchase the book to get the full context of quoted passages.

“getting souls to heaven.”  But Bartlett laments that “For Christianity not to try to realize its soul of peace on the earth (emphasis mine) …is to ignore something that is coming to realization from within its own innermost character and story.  For today, for the first time, Christianity is coming into its authentic character as virtual.”  He subsequently explains that “Christianity is neither one thing nor another! It is not the new earth, but neither is it the old earth.  It takes a certain shape, yet progressively its shape is not certain.  It is an impossible idea, but its impossibility becomes more and more its central possibility. ” With this Bartlett begins a step-by-step book-long explication, “a kind of light-footed dance across the landscape of Christian history and the system of signs in which it lives…”In this chapter he shows how already in the Middle Ages—despite contrary evidences—the sign of Christ was breaking into our culture with its transforming meaning of nonviolence and peace.

In Chapter Three: “Motion Pictures,” Bartlett shows how our motion pictures support, generally without being aware of it, the “in-breaking” of Christ and of his revolutionary influence in even the most violent of movies.  For movie aficionados, he provides incisive commentary on movie after movie, after movie — such as Alien 3 (1992), A.I, Artificial Intelligence (2001), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and The Matrix trilogy (1999 to 2003) et. al. -- showing how even the most violent of them have not escaped the sign of Christ’s non-violence.  Even though I am one who has been repelled by the seemingly gratuitous violence depicted by such movies, Bartlett’s commentary leaves me feeling that I may have missed something of importance – i.e. the mysterious in-breaking sign of Christ in these movies.  Bartlett goes on to explore the presence of this sign in music videos and, particularly, in the music of Bob Dylan, of whom he says, “This Jewish-Christian-Secular artist who is called the Shakespeare of popular song stands as persuasive witness of the dynamic meaning of Christ at the heart of our contemporary culture, at the heart of our world of signs.”

In Chapter Four: “Alpha and Omega,” Bartlett argues that Christ is revealed “or, more precisely, draws close to us” through the historical and popular-culture account of the virtual” described in the previous chapters.  This argument indicates a “sense of movement, of the vortex of images and the agency at its heart which is the self-giving of Christ.”  In this chapter he argues that “it is Christ who is the generative source of [this] movement…” as well as “the irreducible role of movement for our contemporary theological and faith universe….If Christ is the source of actual human movement presumably it is to draw human beings to himself…” He notes that the heightened pace of everything suggests “that we are being carried necessarily toward something different, something new.  “This movement becomes the key question of our age.  Where is it leading us? What is its purpose?”

To address these questions, Bartlett turns to the thought of movement in the contemporary scientific worldview of evolution.  “Evolution,” he notes, “has movement at its core.”  Citing the French Jesuit and anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin, Bartlett observes that “there is de facto a curve toward consciousness in evolutionary genesis and this suggests to him a built-in impetus or inner principle, a reaching toward thought, to personal communion and to love, to what he calls an Omega point.”  This for de Chardin was not only a “speculative model” but also its living reality.”  Bartlett quotes at length de Chardin’s description of the noosphere or ‘mind-sphere’ and observes that “I am not the first to see here a prophetic description of the internet phenomenon, the layer of satellites and computers girdling the earth allowing simultaneous aural and visual ‘thought’ by humans.”  For de Chardin [and I think for Bartlett] the technical advance of the internet is simply the latest and logical outgrowth of a possibility that was there from the beginning and enormously enhanced by Christ.

Bartlett continues with a critique of Girard’s hypothesis of original violence and the biblical teaching of original sin.  “One of the criticisms of de Chardin and other thinkers who emphasize movement is that they underestimate the power of sin and hence the need for redemption: You would not think that anything could go wrong on the grand evolutionary journey to the Omega point.  By inserting Girard here, and by means of the ‘hard’ biological science of mirror neurons, we open the evolutionary picture fully and formidably to sin.”  Quoting John 1:1 & 10 – “In the beginning was the word/logos, and the word/logos came into the world, yet the world did no know him,” it is telling us that the divine principle of meaning arises in the midst of history, and yet is not recognized.  But then later in the same gospel, we are told that when this principle is ‘lifted up’ (12:33), i.e. as the Crucified, he will in fact draw all humanity to himself.  In other words the Crucified is the effective radical subversion of historical human meaning.  (Emphasis mine) Continuing the discussion of revolution in human meaning, Bartlett asserts that “Jesus can thus be said to have made the act of love in a truly contingent and elemental way and there is a real sense in which Jesus gave birth to love in the world.”  He concludes that “With Jesus there is an absolute affirmation of love, and the figure of the cross introduces a sign to the world which (de)symbolizes (reveals) the original murder, while it resets creation toward a meaning of absolute giving.”

For Bartlett, it is “the Christ who becomes the principle of human evolution after the principle of human violence has run its course.”  He follows this with perhaps the only minor quibble I have with his book when he characterizes the responses to his evolutionary thesis.  “Fundamentalists,” he says, “expect violent judgment from God, not nonviolent transformation.”  This, I think can be easily documented ad nauseam.  But “liberal Christians” he says, “see Christ as a metaphor for…a general principle of goodness floating somewhere in the universe available intellectually or spiritually to all.”  Surely these are not the only options! I, personally, do not fit in either of these characterizations.  Some, I suppose, might accuse both Bartlett and me of theological elitism, but I would take such claims as defensive reactions to the philosophy, evolutionary theory and solid theological reasoning and exegesis Bartlett has here demonstrated. 

I would characterize Bartlett’s approach to Christ as radical.  He speaks of the “intervention of Christ drawing all history to himself” and “Christ who has set the world in motion—toward himself.”  “To be a Christian, “he asserts, “is to let yourself be pulled by Christ into a completely different quality of time and space.”  And finally, “All contemporary human movement derives from and presses toward the Christ, the Alpha and the Omega…” I challenge anyone, past or present, who would claim to have a more unapologetic Christology than this. 

In Chapter 5: God Save Me from God!, Bartlett takes on the challenges of those who would make the case for atheism, notably Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who rail against the violence of God as depicted both in biblical accounts and in Christian history.  Bartlett counters that “they do not consider the possibility that religion in fact derives from the deep structure of the human and that their protest against its violence is part of an astonishing sea change in that very structure”-- a change that “is itself a product of the gospel of Jesus.” 

Bartlett continues in this chapter to challenge our understandings of the the Chalcedonian Creed, Wisdom Jesus, the crucifixion, Resurrection, and Human Reconstitution, the latter exploring the neural basis for the mystical path to Christ.  This chapter alone is a prodigious undertaking in that it seriously considers a broad swath of traditional Christian theology.  He explains the “spiritual union of Christianity and Greek philosophy” and debates the nature of the question, who or what is God, concluding that the question is “immediate and existential, not speculative or religious.”  God is to be found, “Not in ideas of the infinite in our heads, but in the limitless desire humans experience in their bodies, in their neural pathways.”

In his discussion of Divine Hypostasis or Personhood of Jesus, and drawing on the Gospel of John, Bartlett argues that this is nothing more (or less) than an infinitely nonviolent relationship with his Father demonstrated concretely in his life.  He maintains that the “hypostasis of Jesus, his self-giving relationship to the other, brings us therefore to a stunning new sense of God.  The human and divine transformation cannot be separated, and there is no way back.” (emphasis mine)  Drawing again, I think, on the theories of Rene Girard, “If Jesus relates to God in his human existence by a practice of infinite compassion then by the rules of relational imitation, of compassion itself (i.e. if Jesus truly imitates God), God has to be of the exact same character.  And then, even more radically, if Jesus practiced this infinite compassion all the way to his death…then we are required to follow him all the way to the death of any meaning of God not consistent with this, his absolutely self-giving human hypostasis.”

In Chapter Six: A Virtual Church, Bartlett turns to a discussion of the Virtual Church in which he deals “with the practical ways in which all this can impact in actual human life.”  It seeks to answer the question of how the thought of human meaning radically transfigured by divine nonviolence would play itself out as community, as organization, as church.”  A lengthy exploration ensues of how the concept of “church” has variously manifested historically from its beginnings to the present day.  Of the early church he writes that what “these communities lacked in books or formalized doctrine they made up a hundred-fold in the existential matrix of the gospel message.”  Now “we have had seminaries and libraries for centuries, but where is the existential matrix?...When we talk of the existential matrix in the first centuries it evokes a sense of liberating truth communicated from person to person, one of forgiveness, love and Holy Spirit.”  He believes it still exists today, “but it comes laced in a body of doctrine and academic theology that sometimes makes it hard to taste the brandy in the cake!”

But Bartlett maintains that “the gospel is not simply communicated one-to-one, along the frequencies of personal forgiveness and freedom, but that the whole world has been set in motion toward the new humanity of Christ. (emphasis mine)

Bartlett identifies “six key practical elements for a form of church emerging out of the contemporary matrix of Christ…They are: 1. Informal structures; 2. Inclusive boundaries; 3. Local and networked grouping; 4. Non-rivalrous relationship with established churches; 5. Bible study as reprogramming our sign system; 6. Signs and Sacraments.”  These constitute “what we can now begin to call a “virtual church”.  Then follows a detailed explication of each of these elements.

In Chapter Seven: What Signs Did He Give? Bartlett endeavors to bring the many strands of his theological reflections together.  “I feel” he says “a portrait [of the historical Jesus] has to be attempted if my overall argument of the world-changing work of Christ is to be rounded out.  If what I am claiming is true, if the change in meaning brought by Christ is anthropological rather than metaphysical, it has to start in a real human being…It has to arise in a real human life and in the signs that communicate that life.” (emphasis mine)

In this final chapter, Bartlett, endeavors “to present the figure of Christ as someone who creatively and decisively orchestrated meaning and did so in reference to his own person and activity.  He follows the hermeneutical development of our understanding of the historical Jesus from Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus through Rudolf Bultmann’s existential theology to Norman T. Wright’s Third Quest for the Historical Jesus, citing the latter’s belief that “any history of Jesus has to answer at least four key questions: how does Jesus fit into Judaism, what were his aims, why was he crucified, and why did a movement dedicated to him arise after his death?” Bartlett observes that “It’s very difficult to conceive of a gospel of open forgiveness if its original author was seen as ‘dead and murdered,” implying that some kind of experience of resurrection on the part of the disciples was historically imperative.  But he also concludes that “for the integral message of resurrection and forgiveness to be proclaimed so quickly and centrally by the primitive community it would have to have been backed by the consistent tenor of Jesus’ historical life and teaching.  So, in answer to the fourth question, we can suggest there had to be both some transcendent event overcoming death and a radical teaching of forgiveness underpinning it from Jesus actual life.”  Bartlett proceeds to exegete a number of passages which he identifies as signs of the nonviolent kingdom of God.  He sees Wisdom to be the core sign and cites Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to me, all you that are weary…and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls…” Jesus thus identifies himself “with Wisdom as his first-person truth and he understood that in terms of nonviolence.”  “Wisdom provided the effective sign of his personal identity.”

From this same venue, the biblical Wisdom tradition, Bartlett explores the sign of Jonah (Luke 11:29-32 and Matthew 12:38-42, et. al.), noting that “for Jesus the figure of Jonah is the chosen alternative to Elijah as the prophet sign of God’s imminent action in the world.”  He explores the semiotics of Jesus’ rebuke of demonic spirits, particularly as conveyed in the healing of the ‘Gerasene demoniac.’

He concludes that Jesus’ signs renounce the old order based in violence and they replace it with a Wisdom in the depths.  They refer in fact to himself as the transfiguring of our human condition from within, and so also of all creation.

Bartlett has, in this one book, accomplished a recasting of virtually all Christian theology, identifying themes and exposing the nature of the work of Jesus, in ways that promise to shake and reshape the traditional theologies of the past.  It is truly an original and creative work from start to finish.  It may also be a fresh beginning, providing the Church and its theologians grist for the mill for decades to come.  This reviewer believes it is a timely and timeless contribution which will prove to become a turning point in the history of the Christian Church.

James L. Foster, reviewer

St. John of the Cross and Dr. C. G. Jung:

St. John of the Cross and Dr. C. G. Jung:

Christian Mysticism in the Light of Jungian Psychology

James Arroj; (Chiloquin, OR, Inner Growth Books, 1988), 199 pages

This life-giving book aspires to help lay foundations for “a renewal of the life of prayer and a practical science of spiritual direction.”  It is written by James Arraj, who with Tyra Arraj, is a writer, craftsperson, homesteader in the Oregon wilderness and co-editor of Inner Growth Books.  He gives us a good look at the processes of individuation and contemplative prayer.  The material covered is often difficult and complex yet meticulously researched and clearly articulated.

The three major parts of this work are: Jung’s psychology and Christian faith, the dawn of contemplation, and a psychological light on St. John of the Cross and the life of prayer.  The first two parts attempt to resolve misgivings about the compatibility of Jung’s psychology and Christian faith, and a long-standing misinterpretation of St. John’s doctrine of contemplation.  The final section outlines the relationship between individuation (as understood by Jung) and contemplation (as understood by St. John).

Part one is an introduction to Carl Jung and his lifelong desire to come to grips with meaning, religion and God. Arraj writes, “A psychology like his shakes our sense of being experts about who we are and challenges us to a journey from ego-consciousness into the unconscious in order to find a deeper and truer self.” Arraj pays particular attention to the process of individuation, “an inner movement towards psychic develop-ment, “ and “the journey to a proper balance between the ego and the unconscious.”  Pragmatically, Jung found that it was essential for the well being of his patients to rediscover a religious, meaning-full perspective for living.  This meant that “the ego had to experience something beyond itself and even submit itself to the healing powers that come from the unconscious.”  And so Jung could talk about a “psychological cure of souls.”  Yet Jung felt that he could not distinguish between the experience of God and the experience of the unconscious, and took pains to say that he could not presume to talk about God as God is, but only about the image of God within humanity.  Arraj does a thorough job of examining Jung’s philosophical and cultural premises and summarizes:  “Jung’s statements on the scope of our ability to know should be interpreted only in relationship to his natural science of the psyche, and not extended to philosophy and theology.  Once the distinction is made between the essence of his work and the context it developed in, the way is open to employ it as an instrument in Christian theology.”  Arraj has synthesized two extreme positions here:  confusing Jung’s psychology as a substitute for theology and rejecting it altogether as a threat to Christian faith.

Part two is an introduction to the person and thought of St. John of the Cross, born three centuries earlier than the Swiss Jung, in Castilian Spain. Like Jung’s work, St. John’s formulations on contemplation are to be experienced and practiced, not merely grappled with intellectually.  For instance, what St. John called “infused contemplation” meant a real, abiding experience of union with God in daily life. Impacted strongly by both poverty and family love, St. John (born Juan de Yepes) entered a Carmelite monastery at age 21.  After being ordained a priest, he was on the verge of leaving the order for one more austere when he met St Teresa of Avila, who had already initiated a reform among the sisters.  She persuaded him to stay and help her in this new work.  It was while on an extended stay at her convent, as both confessor and spiritual director that St. John was kidnapped by friars who deeply opposed his reform.  He was imprisoned in Toledo, brutally treated and feared for his life during these eight months.  It was in this context, in 1577, that he underwent his “dark night of the soul” out of which much of his magnificent poetry was born.  After escaping, he wrote his major works: Ascent of Mt. Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul, masterpieces of the interior life.  In these he develops his concept of “infused contemplation --a concept central to Arraj’s concern—a phenomenon independent of the will of the person who receives it, a divine gift. In con-templation a person knows God “not as an object or thing about which something is known, but simply as a whole, a subject. God is present to him in a way analogous to the way he is present to himself.”

It was perhaps twenty years later that the term “acquired contemplation” began to appear in Carmelite writing.  Claiming to be congruent with the thought of St. John, “acquired contemplation is an act of will in “an affectionate and sincere knowledge of God and his effects which is gained by our own industry.”  Arraj writes insightfully, “Acquired contemplation is rowing the boat, while infused contemplation is having the wind fill the sails and drive it along.”  He counsels us to acknowledge that “infused contemplation” is at the heart of St. John’s teachings, and it is to the relationship between it and individuation that he turns next.

Part three turns to a psychological look at St. John of the Cross, identified as an introverted, intuitive type.  After his life-threatening prison experience, St John emerged a transformed person.  Successfully and fruitfully shouldering many responsibilities (which went against his natural inclinations), he spoke and wrote freely about what was most important to him.  Seeing the world through new eyes, he found that the “physical beauty of the earth had become a symbol of the spiritual journey “ for him.  Both his subsequent poetry and his prose came to reflect the power of his mystical experiences and his ongoing process of individuation, an ever-broadening path of integration and joy.

Arraj’s chapter on psychic energy and contemplation is particularly strong.  He concludes, “It would be precipitous to conclude either contemplation represents some kind of individuation or it is the result of the resolution of these tensions of psychic energy.  At the same time it would be a valuable undertaking if the contemplative life could be examined from the point of view of Jung’s psychology.”  He points especially to the transformations of psychic energy that occur on the spiritual journey.  He rightly indicates the lack of spiritual direction available (“explicit guidance in how to progress in the life of prayer”), indicating that the most fruitful path of development is under the guidance of St. John, with help from Carl Jung.

James Arraj has made a good beginning at reflecting on Christian mysticism in the light of Jung’s work.  His book is going to be important for all of us who, like him, consider the magnum opus to be a “renewal of the religious life of the west.”  This is not light reading. He bogs down in a few places in his attention to detail; he exclusively uses the male pronoun in his writing.  Yet his intelligence and faithfulness shine through each chapter. His own journey through the book reflects the words of St. John:

I went without discerningAnd with no other lightExcept for that which in my heart was burning.

Linda Kusse-Wolfe, reviewer

Donal Dorr’s Spirituality and Justice

Donal Dorr’s Spirituality and Justice

Donal Dorr, New York: Orbis, 1985. 264 pages, paperback.

Donal Dorr’s Spirituality and Justice is critical reading for constructive involvement in the vital issue of world community, and will provide an invaluable tool for the professional or layman who is serious about the churches role in society and it’s mission to persons and structures beyond it’s borders.  Dorr, a Catholic missionary priest, has taught philosophy and theology in Ireland and has worked extensively in Africa and Latin America.

Here the reader will find a positive and nonthreatening approach to issues that tend to polarize the Christian community: “personal” vs. “social” Gospel, conservative vs. liberal, “ spiritual” vs. materialistic or political mission.  Dorr removes the antagonistic flavor these issues usually incur by a reasoned approach to analysis and perspective that gives the reader a basis for thinking and rethinking his or her position.

Dorr links spirituality with justice.  These two images are essential to Biblical faith, to a Christian understanding of humanity, and to human self-understanding.  The book is pastoral in the sense that there is an honest attempt to understand and be with the reader through the writer’s rich experience in the church and in the midst of struggle.  He never talks down to us and he treats technical material, whether religious or secular, with competence and yet in highly readable form. He is able to do this because he is not out to prove his point so much as to seek with the reader deeper understanding and more effective involvement, to be a part of the healing process.  A primary strength of this writing is that it does not stop with analysis but offers viable options for action.

The value of this book is not so much in offering solutions as in providing perspective  I commend it as a helpful resource that will move us beyond the established position; the prejudice and labeling that leave us divided and ineffective.  Dorr invites us into understandings that feed and enrich our spirituality through more comprehensive and effective involvement in the whole community.

It has been said that whatever failure is assigned the church today, the essential failure is not in commitment or purpose, but in analysis.  To do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason are ineffective means to questionable ends.  Some such resource as Spirituality and Justice is necessary to know where and how the church stands in the world today.

Ken Caraway, reviewer

A Child Is Born: Meditations for Advent and Christmas

A Child Is Born: Meditations for Advent and Christmas

by J. Barrie Shepherd- a book review

J. Barrie Shepherd, a Presbyterian pastor, is author of dozens of books most of which are deeply devotional in nature.  The book reviewed here, though it is an earlier work and available primarily in used editions, is none-the-less, a classic.  It is also appropriate to the season.  A Child Is Born is an elegantly written prayer diary, created in the tradition of John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer.  Made especially for Advent, it contains thirty morning and evening prayers, each full of hope and help.  The lectionary readings chosen for each day are a carefully orchestrated cadence of Old and New Testament passages.  Following each day’s entry is a blank page for readers to pen their own prayers and reflections.

Amid the frantically extroverted pace of the Christmas season this volume is a shining gift. “Advent we call this season—which means ‘Coming’—because in all the busy comings and goings, over the next few weeks, we will be remembering how you came among us long ago at Bethlehem and how—in your good time—you will come again to bring all to fulfillment.”

Shepherd (who at the time he wrote this book was pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church in Swarthmore, PA) offers us a thoughtful means of centering, and considering the continuity of our lives in the context of Christ’s birth.  His fugue of reflection, query and petition brings to life issues from both our inner and outer journeys.  Hope, waiting, making inner space in our busy lives, owning both our personal darkness and light, offering sanctuary to the suffering and acknowledging the unfolding miracle and mystery of advent are intertwining themes.

Shot through each page is an invitation to be more deeply aware of God’s presence.

“I would guess, Lord God That most people know your presence, sense at least a momentary touch of Holy Spirit at some time in their lives.  But we write it off as indigestion, or an excess of emotion. In the cold clear light of morning we look back and say, ‘How could I be so foolish?’ so we spend our days in shallows, fearful to launch out, to entrust ourselves to mystery.”

Practicing the presence of God, while celebrating the apogee of history with traditional symbols of love and affection, is a life-giving anchor in our cultural sea of consumerism.

“And your call to me these days, Lord God, is not so much to wallow in nostalgia, to break out in a stubborn rash of generosity and gift giving, to get all caught up in rituals with candles, incense and the like You invite me to entrust myself, to place my story within yours, to set my future firm beside the manger where your Son may claim it for his own.”

A Child Is Born focuses our attention on the pattern God has woven for each of us.  With our increased self-awareness we are faithfully invited into a deeper openness to Christ’s perpetual coming.  This poignant, dandy, meaningful book reminds me of nothing so much as the affirmation of Julian of Norwich that “all will be well, all will be well and all manner of things will be well.” This is a book to which I shall return regularly.

Linda Kusse-Wolfe, reviewer

The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

Henri Nouwen (New York: Doubleday, 1988)

One always thinks that a book by Nouwen will be worth reading and that expectation was certainly fulfilled.  But one expectation not fulfilled was that of hearing a story of L’Arche and day-to-day life in that community of handicapped people and their assistants.  Although that community is the setting and background for most of the book and some details are given, the focus is on Nouwen himself.

As with several of his other works, this one is written in diary style from his personal journal so the reader is given a glimpse of the author’s inner life.  The original 700 pages of manuscript were edited considerably to shape the book and give it direction.  Even so, we are presented with a painfully honest picture of the author during a time of transition in his life when he felt that following Jesus required a change in his life but he wasn’t sure what change or if he wanted it.

Because of the diary style the thoughts and ideas in the individual entries can often stand alone and do not necessarily flow in a logical progression.  The thread running through the book, which ties it together, is Nowen’s desire to be shown his place of mission.  He attempts to answer the question, “How does one follow Jesus unreservedly?”  The journal entries are always interesting, thought provoking and even moving. Nowen’s struggles with relationships, friendships, rejection, fear and hurts are very human and any reader will be able to relate to them.

The material about the call to a new vocation or lifestyle is more difficult to follow.  True to life there is no clear trail, no large signposts.  Nouwen tells us his thoughts and feelings, but their development and the emerging conviction that this new way was God’s leading remain somewhat obscure.  This certainly is not a “how to” book for finding one’s mission or discovering the Lord’s will for one’s life.  More authentically it is a description of one man’s search and the answer he discovered.

There is an aspect of Nouwen’s thought that is very difficult and painful.  He perceives his being led away from those areas where he has great abilities, where he has been successful, where he is inclined to feel pride of accomplishment.  So much must be left behind.  The Lord appears to be separating him from the two areas on which Nouwen seemed to build his sense of self:  the accomplishments and the acclaim of teaching, lecturing, etc.; and the nurture and support of close relationships and friendships.

The Epilogue of the book, in which he looks back over his first year at Daybreak, is one of the saddest writings I have read.  “Sometimes it felt as though the spiritual house I had built up over the years was now proving to be made of cardboard and ready to go up in flames.”  He experienced a radical confrontation in his new environment and struggled with the question “’Is Jesus truly enough for you, or do you keep looking for others to give you your sense of worth?’” He feels his life at Daybreak is an invitation to loneliness.  “It is a loneliness that asks of me to throw myself completely into the arms of God whose presence can no longer be felt and to risk every part of my being to nothingness.”

This is not what he expected after having struggled for a year (as recorded in this journal) deciding to enter Daybreak House.  Most of us expect that if we discern the Lord’s will and follow it life will somehow become smoother and more pleasant. Nouwen writes, “It is a dark agony.  It is following Jesus to a completely unknown place.  It is being emptied out on the cross and having to wait for new life in naked faith.”

As a reader I ask, “Does God really require and ask that much of us?”  I weep when I read the answer Nouwen discovered for it rings true with what others who also followed unreservedly have written. Nouwen concludes with some hope, “I am just starting to see the light of a new day and I still do not know if I will have the courage to walk the long road ahead of me.”  But he strongly affirms that Jesus has led and sustained him on this long and arduous journey and is guiding him toward the day.

 Mary Jo Bezanson, reviewer

The Power Delusion

The Power Delusion

Anthony Campolo (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books Division of S P Publications, Inc., 1983)

Power is the enemy of love and this little book is finally a profound book about love.  It is also a handbook about ways to eschew power and to replace power with love.  Power and love are facets of humankind’s free choice and they are mutually exclusive: “…the coercive nature of power gives expression to its potential for evil.  Coercion is the crux of why power is irreconcilable with Christianity.”

If God chose to retain power, he would be a coercive God.  But God is a loving God, so people are free and uncoerced in their relationships to God and to each other.  Campolo suggests that persuasion is a loving alternative to coercion, and often it is.  But he fails to note that persuasion may also be an exercise of power, and not always to a good end.

Through several chapters Campolo anecdotally examines those who would exercise power and explores the love-centered alternatives to power in each case.  He looks at exploitive husbands and at wives who would use power in their marriages; at children who take power and are victims of it; at clergy who try to retain power in their churches and at members who would deprive them of it; and at the alternatives to the political uses of power.

Unfortunately, Campolo equivocates when he comes to questions of governmental power and the participation of Christians in it.  He sees political as proper in the restraint of evil, while recognizing the corrupting tendency of power.  He concludes that civil disobedience is a proper response to abusive political power only if the disobedient Christian is willing to take the legal consequences of his or her disobedience.

Campolo is also somewhat equivocal about unilaterally forsaking nuclear disarmament even at the risk of exposure to military adventurism saying, “…those advocates of love and peace claim we are not supposed to ask whether the principles of Jesus are practical or will work; our obligation is to live them out – the only response to power is love.”In a late chapter, Campolo discusses the “sin of the powerless.”  “Resentment,” he says, “is often the sin of those who feel powerless to change circumstances that leave them feeling trapped and cheated.”  It is the sin, he says, that afflicts the exploited, such as women and blacks, and those who feel abandoned or ignored by God.  He sees confession and forgiveness as the keys to exorcising resentment.  But one feels that this is an oversimplification of both the problem and the solution.  Resentment of the power trip is the reason that many blacks regard Christianity as strictly a white man’s trip.  It is such resentment that lost to Christianity the likes of Mahatma Gandhi.  Campolo asks with regard to Gandhi, “Can it be that a Hindu understood the teachings of Jesus on love and power better than the theologians and preachers of the church of Christ?” Well, yes.

Campolo’s last chapter is worth the book.  Called “Living Without Power; The Triumph of Love,” it is an unequivocal statement:  “The Christian alternative to power is love….Without love, people always die.”  Love is a two-way street, “unless we show our need for others, we cannot be loved by them.”  But he notes, “It is not only more blessed to give than to receive — it is easier too.”

The theme in the closing pages is a powerful testament that the living Christ is mystically present in every person that we meet.  “I believe that every person is an agent through whom Jesus wants to express his love to me….I believe he is trying to love me through that person, even as he expects me to love him in that person….Sin takes place when the person refuses to allow the love of God to flow through his life into mine.”

One of Campolo’s final anecdotes is a personal one of a failure in love.  He had realized only belatedly that the distraught mother holding a starving baby, left futilely appealing for his help on a remote Haitian airstrip, had been a special opportunity missed.  “It wasn’t long,” Campolo wrote, “before I realized who I had left behind.  It wasn’t just a dying Haitian child.  I knew I had left Jesus.”  What a searing, life-changing realization!  Such a scene should haunt us all.  One time or another, each in his or her own way, have we not all stood face to face with Jesus?  And left him?

Glen Lloyd Foster, reviewer