What’s the point of being a Christian? Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. answers this question in a book and this 2006 interview with U.S. Catholic. He followed this up with another book and a 2010 U.S. Catholic interview on why go to church.
Making a case for Christianity is not an easy sell nowadays, and no one knows that better than Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. Participation in church life in his native United Kingdom, like much of Europe, is nearing a dismally low crisis point, while the church in the United States suffers strong division between left and right.
Radcliffe, however, is nothing if not hopeful, pointing out that the Eucharist itself was born in a time of crisis for Jesus’ followers. “The sacrament of community is given when the community is coming to bits. A sacrament that promises us the kingdom comes when there is no future.”
Radcliffe draws further hope from his travels as leader of his order. When he asked a woman in a Zimbabwe slum why she started a school in her shack for mostly HIV-positive kids, she simply responded, “I love children.”
“That’s a sign,” Radcliffe says, “like when Jesus in the face of death takes bread, breaks it, and says, ‘I give myself to you.'”
Timothy Radcliffe is a Dominican of the English province. After teaching theology and serving as provincial of the English Dominicans, he led his order as master general from 1992 to 2001.
Your most recent book has the provocative title What’s the Point of Being a Christian? Why did you choose it?
It came from discussions with a friend of mine who insistently asked me that very question. My reaction was to say that it’s the wrong question. I’m a Christian because I believe Christianity to be true, not because it’s got any particular point.
But it also makes sense to ask: What are the results of being a Christian? If the point of it is that it’s true, what are the consequences? And I think some of the consequences of being a Christian should be that we are people with a certain happiness and freedom, with liberty to face the world and courage in the face of its challenges.
When you say that Christianity is true, what exactly do you mean?
I think it makes claims that are true: that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and fully human, that he died and rose from the dead, and that all of humanity will be gathered into God at the end of history. But many of the most profound claims that Christianity makes we don’t understand.
Thomas Aquinas always said that God is good, God is beautiful, God is simple. But we can’t understand fully what that means. When I claim that God is true, that God is good, I’m saying something that goes beyond any understanding of truth or goodness that I could ever have.
Is the idea that Christianity is true a hard sell in the world today?
Especially in Europe, perhaps more than in the United States, people are very nervous about religious truth claims because they’re associated with fundamentalism. You’ve only got to look at the Middle East, and you see people battling over their allegiance to Jesus Christ or to the Quran or to the Torah. Very easily religion is associated with arrogance and intolerance. It is therefore important that we have the confidence to make truth claims but also have humility in the face of other people’s truth claims, because God is larger than any truth that I can ever understand.
Is there a danger of being nervous about the very idea of truth?
I think you can drift into a simple relativism. We’re often inclined to say, “Look, this is true for me. If you’re happy with believing that God is a green rabbit, that’s beautiful. That’s true for you.” I’m uncomfortable with that because the truth of something is greater than its relationship to me personally. Something is either true or false regardless of who believes it.
Given that many find Christianity hard to accept, how should we approach the world around us?
You have to start by being with people. I don’t think you tell somebody who’s 18 that they think they’re happy but they’re really not, that they’ve got a false happiness and you’re going to give them the real thing. I think that would be a great mistake.
So how do you approach them? You go in friendship to stand beside them and learn the happiness they treasure. And if you can treasure what they treasure, then you have some chance of taking it deeper.
That can bring you the opportunity to go further, especially when their happiness encounters a crisis. We’re not there to pose the challenge. Life is going to do that. We’re there to accompany them as they face the challenge.
But we have to take them seriously. Do young people feel that they are valued and treasured by the church, or do they feel that they’re just criticized? They shouldn’t have to win value in our eyes. If they get excited about following some unusual spiritual journey, we must have the openness of heart to walk with them. We maybe ask tough questions, but we also have to be ready to hear the tough questions that they’re going to ask.
You say that one of the “points” of being Christian is freedom. What kind of freedom are you talking about?
There are all sorts of layers of freedom. The most basic form of freedom, which is the freedom that our society usually thinks of, is the freedom of choice, of the marketplace. It’s the freedom of the consumer to choose between alternatives, and that’s a real freedom, which we can’t deny. It’s a necessary freedom.
Christianity doesn’t negate that freedom, but it invites us to enter into a deeper freedom. In the first place, Christian freedom is the freedom of authenticity, the freedom to be myself. And often there are constraints on that kind of freedom. We are forced by all forms of social pressure not to be ourselves but instead to be someone who is acceptable, who is liked, who is admired, who fits in.
Our freedom in Christ is to be ourselves, but that’s not just an individualistic choice. In the end, the core of who I am is God. Being myself means receiving everything that I am from God in every moment.
This moves us to another layer of freedom: spontaneity. And we see it preeminently in Jesus. He calls the disciples without hesitation. He sees the rich young man. He loves him. Jesus goes straight to the right thing to do because he acts from the core of his being.
There is another layer of freedom, which we see in Jesus at the Last Supper: He gives his life away. And that is the very epitome of our freedom. We give our lives away for each other and to each other.
You can do it by getting married. When somebody says to his or her spouse, “I give myself to you completely, now and forever,” that could look like a prison. All the possibilities of freedom seem taken away. But it is, in fact, the most profound act of freedom. That’s the freedom you also find in religious life. It’s the freedom we find in people who dedicate themselves to a cause, someone like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. Our deepest freedom can actually look like a denial of freedom. It isn’t.
How do we get from where we are to this spontaneous self-giving?
It’s the slow process of becoming a moral agent. If you react, you’re in the hands of other people. But that’s what we often do in the early stages of our life. You hit me, I hit you. But we need to be formed reflectively, slowly, deliberately not to be caught by reaction. That’s what Jesus invites us to do when he says, “If somebody strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” That looks like being weak. But it’s actually learning to be the source of my own actions rather than just the victim of other people’s.
We live in a society that’s always talking about victimhood. And there are lots of real victims. But if the victim doesn’t transcend that sense of being a victim, then that person is forever caught in an identity imposed by somebody else.
Are there things we need to get free from before we can be spontaneous?
Often I think that we are prisoners of compulsions: eating, shopping, smoking, drinking. Ours is a very compulsive society. And we’re confronted with myriad advertisements that reinforce these compulsions and tell us that unless you have these sorts of shoes or whatever, you’re not a real human being at all.
We need liberation from compulsions. We can liberate each other by looking at each other not just to see whether we’re as thin or as smart as we ought to be, but with what Pope Benedict in his first encyclical called “the look of love” for which people cry. That’s an immense liberation.
There’s another form of liberation, which is perhaps less fashionable these days, but also part of the Christian mission: asceticism. It has never been the strongest part of my life, I must admit, but I think an important part of becoming free is being able to say, “That’s a lovely glass of scotch, but I won’t have another one.” Or, “That was a lovely plate of spaghetti, but I’ll stop there. I will resist the cheesecake.” Asceticism is a part of becoming somebody whose life is in his or her own hands.
Do you think people would be surprised to hear that Christianity is about freedom? To some it looks like just the opposite.
That’s the claim St. Paul makes time and time again. He says in Galatians, “For freedom, Christ has set you free.” Much of St Augustine is about grace and freedom. Thomas Aquinas denned a moral act as one in which you are the source of your action. We are made in the image and likeness of God in that we have the freedom to do just that.
I think that maybe we’ve lost some of that, and we have to ask why we have drifted into a Christianity that often looks as if it’s more about control than about freedom. Very often it looks as if the church reduces goodness to moralism. Of course, morality is extremely important. But morality is not in the first place about how many commandments you have to obey. Morality is about the journey to God. And that’s where I think we have to be.
You’ve been speaking lately about polarization in the church. How is that an obstacle to our mission as Christians?
It’s an obstacle because, as it says in Chapter 17 of John’s gospel, Jesus prays, “Father, let them be one as we are one.” And not to be one is, in fact, to go against the law of Jesus Christ. Unity is actually the core mystery of our faith: God is gathering together the whole of humanity into unity. Not to care about healing division is to turn our back on the essential message of the gospel.
A lot of the polarization has to do with an either/or way of looking at the world that has nothing to do with Catholicism. The Enlightenment made an opposition between progress and tradition fundamental to its way of looking at the world. Either you’re an enlightened modern person-in which case you are liberated from dogmas, the Catholic Church, and all tradition—or you’re not. Either you’re a traditionalist or you’re a progressive.
But that is alien to Catholicism. The most “progressive,” in the sense of being creative, people you get in our tradition are the most traditional, too. St. Paul was somebody utterly indebted to the tradition that he inherited, but he was also incredibly creative, as was Thomas Aquinas. As Catholics, we have to say we can’t be put in a box as either traditional or progressive. This is particularly acute in the United States.
I think there is sometimes a hardness in the way that some Catholics on the right and left regard each other. There’s a sort of rigidity that is not typically Catholic at all. It’s perhaps more Puritan. I sometimes wonder whether the roots of American history in Puritanism aren’t reflected in this hard-edge critique on the left and the right.
To be fair to both sides, can you give some examples?
On the right, the reporting of anybody who seems to deviate at all from what is claimed as the absolutely pure orthodox message is an example. The idea that you can be “very” orthodox is an odd point of view. You can’t be very orthodox. You’re either orthodox or you’re not. And the idea that any word that falls from the lips of Holy Father must be treasured as the absolute truth is heresy. It’s not Catholic. That sort of suspicion, denunciation, and searching out of deviancy makes me think of things like the witch trials in Salem.
On the other hand, I think the way that Cardinal Ratzinger was treated by more progressive left-wing Catholics when he was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith reflects a sort of contempt and scorn that is equally inappropriate.
What is a better way of talking about the differences?
I like to distinguish between what I call “Kingdom Catholics” and “Communion Catholics.” The former are Catholics who are set alight by the idea of the people of God on pilgrimage to the kingdom. They find God present in the whole of society. They have the sense that the Holy Spirit is out there working in people who don’t even believe in God and bringing the whole of humanity toward our ultimate unity. And for them that means you have to be open to dialogue, you have to be open to other ways of talking, other ways of thinking. You have to go out and be with people where they are. That’s a perfectly valid part of the life of the church.
There are other people, though, who say, “Hey guys, we’re losing it. Where s our distinctive Catholic identity? Where s our tradition?” These are people like the present pope, the late Hans Urs von Balthasar, and other theologians. They want a clear identity that values the inherited tradition and doesn’t compromise too much with modern culture. They want to gather us in again.
My fundamental argument is that this tension between the Kingdom Catholics going out and Communion Catholics gathering in is as necessary as breathing out and breathing in. Throughout the whole life of the church, there’s been a gathering in around the altar, a gathering into our culture and tradition, a gathering into communion with the see of Rome and with the whole church. There’s also been that expulsion of breath, that reaching out to the whole of humanity.
If you only had the Kingdom Catholics, we would end up being a kind of vague Jesus movement. If you only had the Communion Catholics, you’d have a sect, and that wouldn’t be a sound church either. You’re really only Roman and Catholic when you have both. And that implies the dynamic tension, not a battle to the death.
Why does the conflict between the two groups seem so bitter?
There is a great deal of pain. The Kingdom Catholics feel that the church isn’t turning out to be the church they had imagined at the end of Vatican II. They think that it is becoming more clerical, more centralized, and they feel increasingly exiled. But those Catholics find it hard to understand that theirs is the same pain that conservative Catholics are feeling. They also feel exiled. They had to witness the destruction of much that they loved. Even young people who never actually knew that old church have a nostalgia for the church they never knew and feel the same sort of pain.
But you have to understand each other’s pain. Sometimes when you’re hurting, you only see the other person as the cause of your pain. So Kingdom Catholics see Communion Catholics as the cause of their hurt, and vice versa. To heal the polarization you need the charity of transcending your hurt so you feel the hurt of others.
How do we get the two sides to talk?
If you believe that the gospel is true, then you know it’s always going to be bigger than any ideology. And that means when you converse, what’s at issue is not that you win. The truth wins. Can you have a discussion that leaves you both in a different place?
Last year the case of John Kerry provoked a lot of debate in England about the role of Catholic public figures. So a well-known Catholic laywoman, Cherie Blair, the wife of the prime minister, suggested we have a debate. When we met to discuss how we could have such a debate, our most difficult task was finding somebody who could really represent the so-called the Communion Catholics because they were nervous about the proposal. Finally we got somebody from Opus Dei who is a philosopher at Princeton University.
Quite a lot of members of Opus Dei came, and everybody was astonished. It worked. We didn’t remain stuck.
Can you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t want to talk?
All you can do is to show that you are prepared to have a dialogue. If they’re not prepared to have a dialogue with you today, maybe they’ll be ready tomorrow. It means you have to go to their meetings and address issues in ways that show you are sensitive to how they talk and think. But in the end you just have to hang in there and wait.
Is there some virtue in waiting?
Philosopher Simone Weil wrote beautifully about waiting for God and how the most important things come by learning to wait. And in many ways Christianity is a study in learning to wait. Advent teaches us to wait for Christmas. Lent teaches us to wait for Resurrection.
Even your brother or sister who won’t talk to you is a gift, and you don’t grab gifts. You wait until they are given, lust as you have to wait for God to give himself when the moment is right, you have to wait until your brother or sister on the other side will talk to you.
Are you imagining a church where there are no differences?
Not at all. There have always been differences: between Peter and Paul, between Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, between the Dominicans and the Jesuits. The whole history of the church is about differences. But the issue is how we live with the differences. You can either approach a difference as a problem that has to be eliminated, or you can approach it as an invitation to go further.
If you could imagine 15 or 20 years down the road, what would you hope the church would look like?
It would be a lot less fearful, a lot less anxious, a lot more confident. Confident is always a word I love. We should have confidence to believe with. I think we’re suffering from a grave lack of confidence in the church today, which makes us timid. So I hope we would recover our confidence and that it would give us the freedom to try all sorts of crazy experiments and new things without always worrying what people will think.
This interview was conducted by Bryan Cones and appeared in the November 2006 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 71, No. 11, page 18).