In his really wonderful book, What is the Point of Being a Christian?, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, former Master General of the Dominican Order, writes, “The point of Christianity, before anything else, is to show that there is a point to our lives.” Obviously, that will mean that we must follow commandments. But, Fr Radcliffe writes, God always gives us commandments in the context of friendship. “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Ex 33:11). Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment because they are his friends: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn 15:14). “It is the obligation of love rather than law.” And, so, Fr Radcliffe counsels, the Church must teach, but it must do so standing beside men and women, even if this should prove difficult and painful.
After all, to continue with a Lenten theme, if we are to patiently stand beside men and women, we will first have to let go of some things (Fr Radcliffe mentions a Dominican who became a chaplain to the Roma) – and many fears. Fr Radcliffe explains what all this might mean in a rather challenging excerpt:
Even when Christian teaching seems clear and unambiguous, we must still be prepared to enter into the complexity of people’s lives as they struggle to discover what is right. Let us take abortion. The whole Christian tradition witnesses to the rejection of abortion. According to the Letter to Diognetus, it was already recognized in the second century as one of the ways in which Christians were strikingly different from their neighbours: ‘They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.’ It is almost inconceivable that the Church will ever regard abortion as permissible. But this does not mean that we Christians can simply close our ears to what those who are in favour of abortion wish to tell us. It is precisely because we may be confident in the fundamental truth of our tradition that we have no need to be afraid of using every effort of the mind and imagination to understand their position and see what we can learn from it. As the great Bishop Butler said at the Council, ‘Ne timeamus quod veritas veritati noceat’, ‘Let us not fear that truth can endanger truth.’ If we are attentive to the truth of what they say, that can only help us to see more clearly the truth of what we believe. Novels like Cider House Rules by John Irving and films like Vera Drake help us to enter into the complexity of the lives of those who make choices about abortion. The truth is simple, but unless it is the simplicity that has passed through the complexity of human experience then it is a childish simplicity, a strident and inhuman simplicity, rather than the simplicity that we can dimly glimpse in God. Those who feel that the truth of our teaching must be protected with denigration and violent attacks on others may well be insecure in their convictions, frightened to hear the other side in case they begin to doubt. It is precisely when we are most confident in the teaching of the Church that we should be most free to listen and to learn, and to open our minds and hearts to those who have arrived at conclusions with which we disagree.
St Thomas loved the Gospel text which says that we should call no one master, for we have one who is in heaven. I noticed that the brethren also seemed to like this text when I was Master of the Order, for it appeared to crop up in the readings with suspicious frequency! Thomas understood that it is God who teaches through grace in the depths of the human heart and mind. All that a human teacher can do is to accompany people in their exploration, sharing what we know in friendship. Josef Pieper expresses Thomas’ view in this way: ‘A friend, and a prudent friend, can help to share a friend’s decision. He does so by virtue of that love which makes the friend’s problem is own, the friend’s ego his own (so that it is not entirely “from outside”).’ We have to become that other person, enter their imagination and share their dilemmas, before we share our teaching.
Pope John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio: ‘It must not be forgotten that reason too needs to be sustained in all its searching by trusting dialogue and sincere friendship. A climate of suspicion and distrust, which can beset speculative research, ignores the teaching of the ancient philosophers who proposed friendship as one of the most appropriate contexts for sound philosophical enquiry.’ Friendship means that one sees through people’s eyes, is attentive to their experience, takes seriously their intuitions and their doubts. When the Church appears to teach from on high, remote from the struggles of ordinary people, then she is not teaching at all. Denys Turner, a Cambridge professor of divinity, wrote:
I cannot imagine what else a teacher, or for that matter a preacher, should do, except to remind people of their capacity for the infinite … Jesus told us that we are not to call ourselves teachers, and God help up if, in our teaching and preaching, theologians should add anything of our own which does not contribute to that evincing of memory, that eliciting of nostalgia, that desire for the Spirit. All teachers know this humility, this diffidence in practice, for they know that when they have taught well the students will spontaneously say: ‘Of course‘ – they recognize, as if recalling, a truth no longer the teacher’s, because now commonly possessed and shared.