Night of the Confessor

Article by   July 2013
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Tomás Halík, Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty (New York: Image, 2012), 223pp. £7.00/$13.00

Indisputably, no theologian in the Czech Republic or Slovakia today is anywhere near as influential as Tomás Halík, Catholic priest and psychotherapist, sociologist and philosopher at Charles University, Prague. If part of his secret is to draw the reader into the circle of his sympathizers from the outset, he certainly succeeds in this volume. The front cover displays Monet's Setting Sun on the Seine at Lavacourt, Effect of Winter. The first quotation in the book, even before we have reached the 'Contents' page, is from the poet, Hölderlin. If the author's strategy is to disarm readers as they enter the premises, it is a job thoroughly well done.

As the reader's critical faculty sidles back to its proper spot, it encounters an essay on the possibilities of faith in our day. Formally, this book could doubtless be described as an account of the paradoxical nature of authentic Christian faith, a treatment of 'the theology and spirituality of paradox' (p.9). To put it like this is not to hint that it might be materially something quite different. It is just that to describe it as a material 'account' would be a bit misleading, for it is a personal essay emerging, in its literary form, from a place of retreat and reflection: the hermitage. But its substance has to do with teeming life in all its vagaries. In particular, the book is a description of how things look through the eyes of an experienced confessor. 

Halík tells us at the beginning that two paradoxical statements steer his meditations. One is Jesus': 'For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible'; the other is Paul's: 'When I am weak, then I am strong'. The possibility of experiencing the life of faith in these terms is enabled by the great paradox that stands at the heart of the Christian faith, the paradox of Easter resurrection after the cross. We often try to create space for faith by rational argumentation, but this is a characteristically Enlightenment move which we must derail. God creates the possibility of faith. We often try to power our way through life, physically or psychologically, but this is a godless move which we must oppose. God will work through our weakness. Halík puts flesh on all this in many ways, via reflections on such matters as religion and science, other faith traditions, the culture of Big Brother and Pope John Paul II. We must neither combat the uncertainty of our age by a demand for certainty, nor capitulate to it by a diffident faith. Centred on God, Christ, church and sacrament, we tread a path that repudiates equally entrenched religious conservatism and futile irreligious materialism. For theological guidance, the author picks out Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Nicholas Lash also receives a place of honour. But it is his subject-matter, not his fellow-travellers, that Halík constantly has in view.

This comes over as an honest book and not honest just in that shallow sense wherein writers can give the impression of priding themselves on the virtues of transparency and vulnerability in exposing their struggles or doubts. For this reviewer, at least, the author's first-person references have not produced a self-focused, self-conscious account; within the constraints of his chosen style of communication, he is not attracting attention to his personal state of mind. He simply wants to tell us how things look to him as he seeks to understand faith and persuade people to exercise it in the third millennium. We do not have to be subtle readers to sense the writer's turbulence, nor generous readers to sense the integrity of his conviction about the strength of God which, 'if I understand properly the Paulian [sic.] paradox...required our weakness in order to manifest itself. It can manifest itself in our weakness, but not in our indifference, sloth, bitterness, or cynicism' (p.128). 

We shall capture neither the vision nor the force of Tomás Halík's proposals unless we have a sense - a hard-won sense - for the world of post-Communist Czech Catholicism. 'Wherever I go in Europe I hear that our country is regarded, on the basis of census returns, as the most atheistic country not only of the European Union but possibly of the entire planet' (p.118). Imagine a Czech Catholic reader trying to grasp a book on the possibilities of faith today by a conservative Protestant theologian from the Mid-West, without that reader having any sense for life in a nation which has the reputation of being the most Christian nation in the world. This reviewer must therefore confess his limitations with respect to commenting on Halík's book, but, if I may speak personally, I know that I should understand this book even less well than I do were it not for two experiences. One is some acquaintance with Central Europe over the last two decades; the other is the unforgettable experience of being present in Poland during the week of the funeral of Pope John Paul II. (See chapter 13 on the Pope.) Perhaps - I do not know - one gains a little more insight into this volume by virtue of some familiarity with the work of Kafka. Unless we are sensitive to context, this book may well read like one more exercise in (some variant of) liberal Catholicism designed to weave the fabric of Christianity for our day out of the materials of paradox, mystery, the hiddenness of God and God's reality as the ground of our being. It is not wrong to read Night of the Confessor like that, but it is an inadequate reading. How shall we meet its peculiar challenge?

We are best able to answer this question by alluding to Tomás Halík's position on other religious or faith traditions. He believes that Christ is the 'fullness of truth' (p.104) and hopes that those who conscientiously follow another (e.g., Buddhist) path will find their destiny in the eschatological embrace of Christ. Adherents of other religions can bear good fruit and those who come or return to Christ after treading another path may be encouraged to preserve what wisdom they have learned. Here is the paradox: the supremacy and deity of Jesus Christ cannot be surrendered, but God would not have us be afraid, in the third millennium, of seeking him in unfamiliar places and returning to Christ and the Church with eyes that see Christianity afresh. Looking at religious truth from our particular perspective does not entail relativism; being hospitable to religious truth outside one's own tradition does not mean reductionism. But we cannot see, still less prove, the unique truth of Christianity from some outside, 'objectivist', perspective. So a comparative assessment of the value of various religious traditions eludes our ability.

There is a confusion here. If 'objectivism' means a perspective from outside everything, Halík may be right; but 'objectivity' is a different matter. If I have reason to be confident that Christ is the fulness of truth, there is no logical reason why my perspective on him and on other faith traditions should disable me from making a comparative assessment of religious values. I do not have to be confident that I see everything with the very objectivity of God to be confident that I can make such a value-judgement, in a spirit of suitable humility. In terms of the argument of the book, it seems that the author eschews this possibility in the name of paradox. We must not be found guilty of seeking a faith-certainty without paradox in an age of uncertainty. 

This brings us to the heart of the weakness of this book: it elevates paradox too highly. We may judge that paradox is near the centre of our faith, when we engage in theological reflection, reflect on our religious experience or meditate on the great object of our faith, Jesus Christ, one person, human and divine. But talk of paradox is to be regulated by our belief in what God has revealed in Jesus Christ. Whether we call this, that, or the other in Christianity a 'paradox' is frequently a matter for discussion. In particular, to speak of the Easter 'paradox' of resurrection following the death of Christ may be a semantic preference, but it is not a theological necessity. And if we do decide to describe it as paradox, which may be fair enough, we must ask in conceptual detail exactly what other paradoxes are licensed by it. Theological affirmations or affirmations about the life of faith are not to be judged primarily on the basis of whether or not they meet the test of paradox. Let paradox be the servus, not the magister in Christian affirmation.

That, it seems to me, is one way of answering the question of how we meet the peculiar challenge of this book. However, it is the negative way. A more positive way would be to re-locate the place of paradox in theological understanding. And there is a more demanding way to respond, which is to live in weakness. On that score, we should not readily quarrel with Tomás Halík.

Stephen N Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. 

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