Michael Gallagher, S.J., a professor of fundamental theology at Rome’s Gregorian University, has written a gem of a book. In clear prose, laced with more than a touch of poetry, he presents the writings of 10 prominent thinkers who explore the substance and challenge of Christian faith.
Besides Newman and Ratzinger, the “explorers” include not only the theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar and the philosophers Maurice Blondel and Charles Taylor, but the short story writer Flannery O’Connor, among others. Despite obvious differences, what unites them all is the conviction that Christian faith must address, with theological and pastoral creativity, the distinctively new “sensibility” that characterizes contemporary men and women. For some today, he writes, “God is not so much incredible as unreal.”
Hence it is often less a question of “ideas” and “reasons” than of what Charles Taylor calls the social imaginary, “how people come to feel and interpret their lives at an intuitive level.” Central to this imaginary is the new sense of self that emerges with modernity and assumes various protean shapes and misshapes in a now postmodern world. This rampant pluralism, however, all too often leads to incomprehension rather than communication, to fragmentation instead of authentic communion.
Besides theology, Gallagher has also studied and taught literature and so brings to his theological explorations keen attention to the oft-neglected aesthetic and affective dimensions of the life of faith and the doing of theology. Indeed, a major theme of the book is the need to engage the whole person, heart and mind, in the adventure of faith. For along with the undoubted benefits of modernity’s “turn to the subject” there arises the specter of a “shrunken subject”: one whose horizon is limited to the empirically verifiable and whose existence risks becoming “buffered,” devoid of real relations. Hence a major challenge, as Newman insisted, is to engage and expand the imagination beyond its one-dimensional constrictions in order to “imagine our lives grounded in a love beyond all imagining.”
Each of the thinkers discussed seeks in his or her distinctive way to bring the riches of the Christian tradition into sympathetic and challenging engagement with this contemporary sensibility. Thus O’Connor’s unsettling shock therapy stands side by side with Taylor’s measured appreciation of modernity’s gains. Von Balthasar’s beginning “from above”—with the unsurpassable beauty of the Father’s surrender of his only Son—complements Rahner’s committed probing of the human as always already called by grace.
All strive to awaken in the reader a sense of wonder and reverence before the manifestations of mystery in the everyday. To this end they often draw generously upon poets, both classical and contemporary, who offer some glimpse of a reality that is “charged with the grandeur of God.” Each of the faith-explorers respectfully seeks to show that these surprising intimations are not suppressed but transfigured by the good news of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.
Gallagher himself embodies the imagination he cogently champions. He concludes eight of his 10 presentations by assuming the “voice” of the thinker in question. He directly addresses the contemporary reader. What might appear at first blush to be merely a device turns out to be an effective and affective way of summing up that thinker’s vision and presenting it with art and insight.
In a final chapter, “Converging Pillars of Wisdom,” Gallagher gathers together the insights he has so keenly appropriated along this journey of faith exploration. The brief 11 pages repay multiple readings and would, themselves, make a fine starting point for classroom or adult education discussion. The final pillar, “doing the truth,” is a salutary reminder that at its deepest faith is, ineluctably, a way of life. Gallagher quotes Wittgenstein’s pointed observations regarding Christianity: “practice gives the words their sense”; ultimately, “you have to change your life.”
No wonder, then, that the theme of transformation figures so prominently in each of the faith maps presented. Encountering the Gospel’s summons to metanoia presses the hearer of the Word toward the realization of a new self whose author and measure is Christ. And friendship with Christ is ever viaticum: the food and drink that accompanies and sustains the Christian’s journey of faith.
Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., introduces the life and writings of Blessed John Henry Newman in this video.