Thursday, 18 May 2017

Gregory Baum, The Oil Will not Fail, 2016

Very remarkably Gregory Baum has published another book – at more than 90 years of age. It is the
story of his theological journey from a Protestant home in Berlin in the 1920’s and 30’s to his current retirement in Montreal. There are few who could have realized such a project at his age. Gregory has always claimed he was not an artist but a foreman who built texts. Every day of his life he follows a discipline of reading and writing.
There are extraordinary moments recounted in this book, which gathers together the major influences and lines of thought that have guided him over these many decades from Berlin to England, to Farnham, Quebec, to Toronto to Montreal.
However, it is the intellectual journey that most interests him in this new book and it must be admitted that it is an extraordinary intellectual journey. As a recently ordained priest, he was called to be part of the Second Vatican Council and to assist in the creation of several of its documents. The prestige flowing from this involvement has followed him all his life. As a former Protestant, he was part of moving the Catholic Church out of its defensive isolation from other Christian traditions. He worked to engage the Church in the ecumenical movement. He also had a role to play in the movement to reconcile the Catholic Church with Jews worldwide. He developed an intimate understanding of the difficult relationship with Muslim traditions. Yet, he returns often to the fact that, regardless of what has happened to him and around him in the course of his life, he has always be able to maintain a fundamental happiness with life as he lives it each day. He is, by nature, open and optimistic. Perhaps this has played an important role in his intellectual curiosity and stamina.
At one point during his time in Toronto, he took time off to study at the New School in New York. There, grounded in sociology, he was introduced to a study of social structures. He applied the sociological expertise he gained to understand Church structures. His contact at the New School with Rosemary Radford Reuther profoundly affected his understanding also of women in the Church.
Baum also explains his move from a well-off German middle-class family quite isolated from the fate of the Jewish people in Europe and also from the struggles of the poor toward a much broader and inclusive understanding of inequalities and injustices in the world. His characteristic passion for justice was learned slowly and not without personal grief.
At 93, he now lives in a pleasant but simple apartment in Montreal; receives dialysis three times a week after his kidneys failed several years ago and is increasingly deaf. However, I can assure you that his mind is as alert as ever and he continues to write and publish. His current work, whose French version will be launched on June 1, 2017, is but the latest example.
He and I differ in temperament: While Gregory might feel uncomfortable speaking with street people, I find myself right at home. While Gregory might have had to struggle to incorporate the question of the poor and oppressed into his everyday worldview, I feel it was always part of my horizon – and made for difficult relationships quite often. While Gregory was enthusiastic initially with the NDP, I quickly became disenchanted – though continuing to support it. Gregory is much more systematic and thorough in his investigations; I am more impulsive and tend to “fire from the hip.” Gregory had a long and impressive teaching career; I abandoned that very early for involvement in social movements.
One of the differences I need to explore more fully is whether the question of God is inherent in being human.  Lonergan thinks so, Gregory does not.  On this hinges different ways of understanding how religious traditions lead to “salvation.”
My answer to the question of the fundamental human openness to God is that the question bridges  a theology of grace (“the Spirit works in every human”) and a philosophy that focuses on the restlessness of intellect to know and of heart to find rest/love. ” I would tend to find a point of departure in Augustine’s statement in the opening page of the Confessions: “My heart is restless until it rests in thee.” 
It is accepted in Roman Catholic theological circles today that God’s Spirit can work in the lives of people who are not Catholic, Christian or even religious. Usually the reason given is that this presence can be detected from the attitude and comportment of the person in question: their altruism and compassion, etc.  These attitudes are recognized as the fruit of the Spirit as described by St. Paul.
Catholic theology of grace also insists that the gift of the Spirit, the gift of God’s grace, is gratuitous and also that it is never forced on the individual, thus leaving their human freedom intact.
From an anthropological point of view this means that there is something in the human make-up that can be opened or closed to God’s Spirit. In turn, this means that there is something in the human make-up that makes it possible for the Spirit to be accepted. What this might be is still very much a matter of theological discussion.
Augustine points to the “restlessness” of the human heart and intellect; Rahner points to transcendence  and Lonergan points to the limitless possibility of the human mind to question – at least he does so in Insight. I would like to suggest that the restlessness inherent in being human – a point that can be verified by the human sciences – may be the quality we are looking for. It would be important not to limit this quality to one of the intellectual search for meaning but also to the limitless search of the human heart (what Lonergan calls “feelings”) for communion.
So, even if an atheist shows not the slightest inclination to religion or anything religious, the quality of “restlessness,” with respect to meaning and communion is, for the Christian theologian, an indication of the capacity and even the reality of a presence of the Spirit announced by Jesus in the Gospels.
This is not to make a believer or “anonymous Christian” out of the atheist. It is to respect his or her own position. But it provides the theologian with a way of understanding the experience of the atheist in such a way that the presence of the Spirit can be detected “in faith.”

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