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Why be a Christian? Pt 2

Timothy Radcliffe What is the Point of Being a Christian?


Joy in this life is mixed with pain. Yet our joy sustains us through it all, teaching us patience.   As St Augustine says:

“Let us sing Alleluia here below while we are still anxious, so that we may sing it one day there above when we are free from care…Let us sing Alleluia, not in the enjoyment of heavenly rest, but to sweeten our toil. Sing as travellers along the road: but keep on walking…Sing up—and keep on walking.” (cited, 53)

We trust that joy will bloom for us again, one day quite brilliantly. This is so even though we die; consider the witness of the martyrs.  When St Ignatius of Antioch was going to his death in Rome 107AD, he begged the Roman Christians not to try to save him, so that by dying he could become ‘an intelligible utterance of God”.  (69-70) He wished to become, in his own way, an incarnation of the Word.  By his endurance of trials, he gains definitive life.

In Christ we learn patience with time. In a world of instant gratification, we wait.  We wait, as if through a long gestation, discerning what is coming to birth within us in visions or in dreams.  We await the birth of God’s future.  Radcliffe says, “God comes from within, inside our deepest interiority.  God comes to us as a child comes to a mother, in the depth of her being, through a slow transformation of who she is. … Just as it takes nine months for a pregnancy, so it takes time for broken bones to reknit, for fevers to be overcome.” (78) We therefore live outside of the culture, which has trouble handling the idea that the future is coming to birth.  Our society has a problem with hope, but we know that God works through the long course of history.

Our patience is not in vain, for all our waiting and all our suffering will be gathered up in God. Radcliffe cites Julian of Norwich, “none of what happens in time and none of the toil and suffering that we have to endure in this world will be wasted; it will all be turned to God’s worship and our endless joy. All shall be well.” Even our failure and sins, like dissonant notes, will find resolution within a larger score. (87) Religious faith gives us this broader perspective.


In Christ we learn truthfulness, for God is Truth. We and the whole Church are in the diakonia, the service, of the truth—though it be obscure.

This implies, for Radcliffe, that we will ween ourselves from escapist fantasies. He discusses this mainly in conncection with chastity; but let us observe that, for Thomas Aquinas, chastity was about chastening fleshly appetite as such, not only sexual desire but also one’s diet.  Might this category in our time embrace moderation in the consumption of media—television, internet, gaming, or whatever?  I think so.  We are called to moderate our fantasy lives, not to become sour or dull, but to see the joy at the heart of things as they are.  It is about getting real.

Radcliffe helpfully distinguishes the escapism of fantasy from imagination, which is “the power to reshape reality, to find hope where there appears to be only despair.  Imagination creates signs that speak of the future and bring it nearer.”  (98)  Imagination is a carrier of truth.

Truthfulness also means striving to see aright, without projection or transference or undue defensiveness—seeing, that is, in love. He cites Iris Murdoch,

“The great artist sees his objects (and this is true whether they are sad, absurd, repulsive or even evil) in a light of justice and mercy. The direction of attention is, contrary to nature, outward, away from the self which reduces all to a false unity, towards the great surprising variety of the world, and the ability so to direct attention is love.” (124)

Radcliffe believes that truth is an antidote to our society’s “climate of mistrust and suspicion, the constant bombardment of the media with its culture of accusation, the ethos of consumerism.” These things distort our seeing.  But in the Church, we have (or should have) a space where people can have “their sight refreshed and their eyes cleaned. “  We need, he says, “oases of leisure and silence and gratitude”. (128)  In the atmosphere of prayer, silence and study, the truth can shine forth.  This vision is, of course, foundational for the Dominicans themselves, who wait upon Truth, Veritas! 


The Church is a school of community; and community means friendship and sharing. Christ is community.  Put otherwise, God in our midst is a centripetal reality, something like gravity.  Hear the words of Thomas Merton, written on his entering the religious life:

“Now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God. God’s own gravitation towards the depths of His own infinite nature. His goodness without end.  And God, that centre Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me.  And He called out to me from His own immense depths.” (cited at 130)

As we move closer to the One who is, we move closer to our neighbour. We do not suppress our identity, but enter more fully into ourselves.  That is so because we are constituted in friendship, and here only can we find our identity.  We do not find it “through mental introversion, through disengagement from the webs of relationship.”  (135)  We discover in community that we are uniquely gifted, and uniquely worthwhile.  We learn to speak with confidence (143).

Yet we also learn that we need others.  No one is an island.  In this connection, Radcliffe cites Catherine of Sienna, who images God saying “I could well have made human beings in such a way that each had everything, but I preferred to give different gifts to different people, so that they would all need each other.” (141)  Our interdependence–when it is free from compulsiveness, resentment, and anger–makes for home.  Christ shines forth in our midst.

And we hear the chiming of the Word.  For Radcliffe, the Word of God sounds not only in scripture, but also in the other, in strangers.  We are called to universal friendship.  This is so, as Thomas Aquinas held, because Christ has called us friends (Jn 20); and though we cannot be intimate with all, we must try to be open to all, habitually crossing boundary lines.  Only then shall we be “capable … of effectively resisting the degradation of relationship into bonds of ownership and exploitation, dominance and violence and unconcern.” (citing Nicholas Lash, 158)  This is good Thomism and also simply the Gospel, for Jesus eschews external indicia of holiness.  If we are capable of friendship, we will be attuned to the Word of God, the shared, but sometimes obscure, language which is Jesus Christ.

The Church in its visible aspect is “the sacrament of the unity of humanity in Christ.” (143) It therefore witnesses against whatever deforms the unity of humanity and, in particular, against three idolatries—“the cultivation of unlimited desire, the absolutization of private property, and the deification of money.” (144-5)  It rejects, says Radcliffe, the philosophy that “greed is good,” popularised in the 80s-era film Wall Street, but which originated in Bernard de Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees (1714).  According to Radcliffe, Mandeville maintained that

“the economy flourishes if people desire as much as possible.  Greed is good because it increases consumption and so develops the market. ‘Private vices make public virtues.’  Desire should be unrestrained.  ‘Luxury employed a million of the poor, and odious pride a million more.’  And so the rich had a positive public duty to be intemperate, so that the economy could go on growing and the poor benefit” (150-151)

Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, thought that property was originally common, for all things belong to God.  Nevertheless private property is justifiable if it is for the common good—if it is, in other words, shared with the intention of bettering humanity.  The original commonality of property means, too, that “[i]n situations where the poor have the urgent need and the rich have a superabundance, then the poor have the right to the goods of the rich, since God’s creation is for all.”  All things are God’s and therefore all things must be distributed equitably.  The Angelic Doctor quotes St Ambrose: “The bread that you keep for yourself belongs to the hungry, the cloak that you store away belongs to the naked, the money that you salt away is the price of the poor person’s freedom.” (152)  It is a counter-cultural message, apt to be called socialist, or worse!

In the next part I discuss Radcliffe’s final chapter on Sabbath rest—“Without the Day of the Lord, We Cannot Live.”