Timoty Radcliffe (© Catholic Press Photo)

Radcliffe: Nothing human is alien to us

Do Christians need the world or must they defend themselves against secularisation? The Oxford Dominican proposes a surprising method: the imagination. This is what allows us to touch the person where they are most alive (from September Tracce).
Giuseppe Pezzini

Timothy Radcliffe, at the beginning of his book Alive in God: A Christian imagination, confides that he has found himself hundreds of times in conversation with parents who blame themselves for not having passed on their faith to their children. It is a language, the Christian language, that "simply means nothing" to these young people, explains the famous Oxford Dominican, former Master of the Order and Consultant for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace: "It is as outmoded as the typewriter. It belongs to another world and speaks another language.”

Call it secularisation, call it the 'death of God', but the concept is clear: a gulf has formed between the Church and the contemporary world. We have faced this problem for over a century. And in the Church everyone has their own infallible solution. There are those who re-propose Christianity as a "civil religion", whose doctrine can revitalise and re-humanise civil coexistence, those who consider the battle over "values" to be definitively lost, those who try to embrace "worldly" reasons, and those who retreat so as not to "contaminate themselves"... Radcliffe, for his part, does what he likes: he feeds on art and literature (from the TV series Friends to the Irish Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney) in search of the depth of the human with which the Christian fact radically dialogues. The ring that does not hold, as Montale would say. The crack in everything through which light passes, according to Leonard Cohen. Christians lack imagination, says Radcliffe, that is the ability to see the world. Rings and cracks included.

Can Christians engage with a post-Christian world without betraying themselves?
Certainly Christians today need to be counter cultural. We have values which are in tension with today’s world. We see society as distorted by inequality, by greed and materialism and a fear of strangers, and so we need communities which sustain other ways of being alive. These may be communities like parishes or, more radically, monasteries, in which we keep alive a perception of the world as filled with gifts and which challenges the superficiality of much modern culture.

Should one 'withdraw' from the world?
But Christianity cannot become a sect which is cut off from the world, otherwise it would die.

What does this mean?
Outside my room in Oxford there is a beautiful tree. It has its own life. It is itself! But it is only alive and flourishing in contact with what is other. Its leaves are open to the air and the rain, its roots to the nourishment of the earth, its bark to insects. It is only alive in so far as it is in interaction with what is other. The Church is like this, alive in its interactions with the world, sharing the good news of the gospel and open to the wisdom of others, their joy and suffering. If the Church were to become shut off from the world, it would die of a lack of oxygen. So we need both forms of community life which sustain our vision of the world as radiant with God’s presence, and we need an openness to others who do not believe, or believe differently, so that we are stimulated by the interaction.

How does faith interact with the wounds of all human beings?
In Ezekiel, God proclaims that he will take out our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Hearts of flesh are vulnerable, open to both hurt and joy. I think that they are inseparable. The opposite of joy is not, therefore, sorrow, but being invulnerable, hard hearted. I have often written about my Benedictine great uncle, Dom John Lane Fox. He was the most joyful person whom I have ever met, and the source of my vocation as a religious, even though he was surprised I chose the Dominicans… I am sure that his vast joy was a sort of sharing in the life of God, and not just an emotion. It was inseparable from his experience as a chaplain in the First World War, going into no man’s land every night to rescue the wounded and pray for the dead. If we wish to be really joyful, we must not flee the pain of the world. It breaks open our hearts of stone. Pope Francis has talked about the ‘globalisation of indifference’, the death of compassion. A French Dominican who was a novelist, Jacques Laval, gave me a copy of one of his novels with the inscription, ‘For you who know that wounds may become the doors of the sun.’ The Risen Lord is forever wounded! So our faith does not protect us from wounds so much as transform what they mean. Pain, with God’s grace, breaks open my self-sufficiency, my self-containment, and opens my heart to the joy and suffering of the world.

Photo: Aris Messinis/GettyImages

You often repeat in the book that “nothing human is alien to Christ”, what do you mean exactly?
Our faith is in a God who became human. He entered fully into the human condition. Therefore, for a Christian, one of the first tasks is to become myself human. In Aristotle and then Aquinas, this growing up was helped by practicing the virtues. One tried to become courageous and temperate and kind and just... And so anyone who understands the challenges involved can help me.

For example?
I love the novels of Dickens. He has an extraordinary insight into the human heart. He understands how easy it is to make mistakes and get into a mess. And so when I read his novels, or watch modern films or just chat with friends, I am hoping to grow humanly, as someone who understands the human heart and mind. If I can become truly human, then I can encounter Christ, who is most human of all.

You claim that “we are most likely to excite people with our faith if Christianity is grasped as the invitation to live fully.”
It is God who calls us to live fully. In Deuteronomy, God says, “I put before you life and death: choose life.” Jesus said in John’s gospel, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Does this invitation to “live fully” pose the risk of putting at its centre our subjective, psychological whims?
Someone who is centred on his or her own subjective whims, wrapped up in themselves, is not fully alive. I live more fully in being engaged with other people, opening my heart and mind to them. Yes, our faith does proclaim objective truths, such as that God created us and calls us to share the divine life. But these truths are beyond our literal comprehension. We cannot understand what it means for God to be God! We get a glimpse of what Christian teachings mean when we meet people who do live fully, abundantly. The wonderful thing about Christianity is that we are offered truths whose depths are always beyond our reach. They are objectively true, but not fully within our grasp. Poets and artists help us to discern a little bit about the meaning of these truths.

In the book you state that “Christianity ought to (…) open to a fullness of identity that always lies ahead. Who we are we do not yet fully know”. How can there be hope and certainty for a Christian without a fixed, stable identity?
The beauty of a Christian identity is that it is both known and to be discovered. It is known in the sense that we are baptised into a community with a long tradition of teaching, with an ethical vision, and we are members of a community which stretches around the globe and across time. So yes, we do have a clear identity. I am a Roman Catholic, a member of a community which is centred on the diocese of Rome and whose existence can be traced back two thousand years. A lot of more traditionalist people love this solidly given identity. But it is also true that our identity lies ahead. I do not yet know fully what it means to be the brother and sister of people of very different cultures. Every real friendship stretches you open so that you become someone new. Aquinas loved Aristotle’s remark that the soul is in a sense everything. As Master of the Order I travelled all over the world, and my very being was stretched open. So I am a Roman Catholic, which means ‘universal’, always drawn beyond all that is small and exclusive. I think that it is if we have an identity which is sure and clear, then we can have the confidence to adventure beyond it and discover brothers and sisters all over the world.

Your latest book is entitled Alive in God: A Christian imagination. Why should we reflect on this theme today?
Many people drift away from Christianity because they find it boring. It does not seem to engage with them, with their questions, struggles and joys. But Christianity is precisely about our God who came close to us, and shared in our ordinary lives, reached out to people in all sorts of difficulties and joys, from lepers to a couple celebrating their marriage at Cana. It is imagination that enables us now to become close to other people, so that one sympathizes with the dramas of their lives. If I want to share my faith with someone, I need to understand who he or she is, and what lights up their lives, then I can share what lights up mine. Imagination is not subjective. It is what enables me to reach out to another person and enter their world. It liberates me from what the English philosopher Iris Murdoch called, “the fat relentless ego.” When I read a really compelling novel or see a wonderful film or tremendous music, I am liberated beyond my little world. I breathe fresh air! It is not an alternative to faith and reason, for all attempts to express belief and to explore it rationally are also acts of the imagination. It pervades all that we do and are, the oxygen of a truly human life.

Your book is full of quotes from different cultural backgrounds. In a world like ours that is often so polarized, should one not choose and align themselves with a particular position?
I agree in part. There is friction between different points of view. Popes Benedict and Francis, Jesuits and Dominicans, etc, do not agree with everything. I do adhere to particular positions and belong to particular traditions. But we should engage with the differences. But if we have the intelligence and charity to understand why someone holds views which I do not, then the difference becomes fertile. Each of us is the fruit of the difference between male and female! Our society is generally afraid of difference. The algorithms of Google steer us towards people with whom we agree, and this can lock us up in silos, bubbles. It is the essence of Catholicism to delight in difference. Four gospels in the New Testament, and they do not agree! The conversation between them pushes us onwards towards more understanding. Faced with differences with society and the Church, one does not remain neutral or accept equally all points of view. That would be a tedious and empty position. But I do believe that those with whom I disagree have some truth to teach me, some pearl of wisdom, that could enlarge my mind.

What about polarization?
The systematic polarization of left and right is essentially a fruit of the Enlightenment. It derives from the seating of parliamentarians in the chamber of post-Revolutionary France. It presumes an essential opposition of tradition and freedom, of dogma and freedom of thought. But this polarization is unhealthy and stultifying. In any dynamic society, tradition is alive and evolving. We return to original sources so as to imagine new thoughts. Good doctrine opens the mind and propels it on exploration and does not shut it down.

From the examples you give in your book (novels, movies, TV series, and contemporary best sellers), it seems that even “worldly culture” can contribute to the Christian experience. Is this true?
The danger of religious belief is that it may sometimes enable us to run away from the complexity, the rawness of experience. It is so easy to say ‘Don’t worry. You are in God’s hands.’ Or ‘All you need to do is love’. If only it were so simple! So we need people who open to us the complexity of human experience, of falling in love, or facing moral dilemmas, with honesty. All the mess of so much human life. Then, with fresh eyes, we can look for God there. Like Jacob when he fled Esau, and had a dream of the skies opening and the angels ascending and descending, and he said, ‘Truly God was here and I did not know it.’ Simon Tolkien, the grandson of J.R.R., wrote a novel about the First World War, No Man’s Land, in which the stark horror of that war is exposed. For some people, that terrible suffering meant the end of belief. God could not exist. But the challenge is not to avert one’s gaze but learn how to say, ‘Truly God was here, though I did not know it.’

Among the many non-Christian works of creativity, what would you recommend?
There are so many marvellous works of art that can speak to us that I would choose a different one every day! But today may I suggest Proust’s A La Recherche du temps perdu. It is the most extraordinary exploration of time, of memory and expectation. The little church in Combray is a building in four dimensions, Proust writes, the fourth being time. As Pope Francis often says, and Pope Benedict before him, the lives of Christians are structured by time, memory – ‘Do this in memory of me’ – and expectation of the Christ who is to come. Proust can help us to understand what it means to live in time.