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Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us
Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us
Tomas Halik
Doubleday Religion, 2009
240 pp., 23.95

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Daniel Taylor

A Priest for a Twilight Faith

Reading Tomáš Halík.

Tomáš Halík, winner of the 2014 Templeton Prize, is a writer and a thinker (the two don't always go together) for those who live on the edge of things—or just beyond the edge. He addresses the in-between space that separates belief and disbelief, hope and despair, love of and exasperation with the Church, tradition and postmodernity, insiders and outsiders, and so on—what he calls the areas and moments of "twilight." He feels called "to be an understanding neighbor … for those who keep their distance" (Zacchaeus being a prototype).

Trained as a psychotherapist, Halík secretly studied theology in Communist Czechoslovakia (where he was forbidden to teach) and became an underground Catholic priest. A much-honored European intellectual since the collapse of Communism, and an advisor to presidents, he has moved to the center of public life while ministering especially to those far beyond the center of spiritual or religious life. He says the common aim of his writing is "to help diagnose the present-day climate—'to read the signs of the times.'" And so he does in two recent books, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus and Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty.

In both books he often seems more comfortable with (and even approving of) atheists and agnostics than with his fellow believers within the Church—especially if the former are of the open, questing kind, rather than as close-minded and narrow as the religious fundamentalists they love to parody. (Halík offers a useful discussion of the different kinds of atheists in Patience with God.) His main criticism of atheists is not that they are wrong about God, though he believes they are, but that they are too hasty. They make their central judgment too quickly, too superficially (especially the scientific materialists), and without adequately considering contrary evidence.

Importantly, he also suggests the same is true for far too many believers—too quick to proclaim God without adequately taking account of the conditions (the human condition generally, and the contemporary conditions in particular). If there is growing atheism in the Western world, it may largely be the fault of the Church for failing to be what it should be. Halík claims that whereas the Church once saw atheism as an intellectual error or recalcitrance on the part of the unbeliever, at Vatican II it "considered the main cause of atheism to be insufficiently credible witness on the part of the church." There would be fewer atheists if Christians lived up to their story.

In both books Halík touches on familiar themes in postmodern reflections on the life of faith—the nature of truth and paradox, the roles of reason and mystery, Christianity's relation to other religions and to disbelief, the future of the Church, the need for authenticity and a lived faith versus a cerebral faith, and so on. Overall, he sees "a withering away" of a kind of Christian faith that developed both because of and in reaction to the Enlightenment—references I think both to liberalism and fundamentalism. Emil Brunner referred to fundamentalism as the petrification of faith and liberalism as its gassification, and Halík sees neither as healthy for the Church.

Halík finds hope in concepts like mystery and paradox, both of which have a long history in the Christian life but have been pushed aside both by liberal rationalism and fundamentalist fideism. Halík believes in Truth, even capitalized, but he doesn't believe it is neatly packaged to be handed out at the church door. I quote at length from a passage in Patience with God because it encompasses so much of what Halík is about:

The biosphere of Truth is mystery, inaccessible depths, and unreachable heights. Its homeland is the eschaton, the absolute future beyond the horizon of history—and its major role in the present is to be constantly in a state of opposition to our attempts to make absolutes out of some of our human attitudes, approaches, and opinions, which are limited by our own individual (not universal) experience. Not even our faith can pull Truth in its eschatological fullness down "from heaven to earth," nor build a tower that would reach up to heaven. Rather it teaches us hope and perseverance in overcoming the temptations of resignation, skepticism, and triumphalism—teaches us to listen with an open and humble heart when Truth itself visits us and speaks to us—even were it to go on speaking only "in a mirror and in riddles" and in ambiguous "signs of the times."

The limited "human attitudes, approaches, and opinions" that Halík addresses most often are those of believers, not of unbelievers. And the two attitudes in both camps that irritate him most (a reaction which he expresses almost petulantly at times in Night of the Confessor) are certainty (which he associates with arrogance) and superficiality (which he associates with naïveté). He believes the credibility of the Church today and in the future hinges on being more tentative in its claims, open about its doubts, and welcoming to those who live on the margins.

The tentativeness he calls for has not to do with the power or truth of the gospel, but with our ability to capture each in our words, concepts, and traditions. In Night of the Confessor he says, "a great deal within ourselves, within the Church, within our faith, and within our certainties has to 'die off,' to be crucified, in order to make room for the Resurrected one." His reference to "the Resurrected one" is not casual, for Halík puts Easter at the heart of his faith and his call to the Church, perhaps the most important thing that separates him from a run-of-the-mill postmodern critique of modern Christianity. The Easter story ("event" in academic parlance) contains all that Halík believes to be central to faith—mystery, paradox, the intersection of the divine and the temporal/physical, and life-transforming power.

Paradox is at the heart of faith for Halík (though he seems confused at times about its definition) because matters of faith reveal clearly the limits of human reason and the oft-felt absurdity of the human experience. The first great paradox of Easter, he claims in Night of the Confessor, is the Matthew 19 declaration, "For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible." One wonders why Halík thinks that claiming that God can do things we can't is paradoxical, but he is right to emphasize the centrality of this truth nonetheless.

The second core Easter truth is "the great paradox of victory through defeat." That God chose seeming weakness over strength, failure over success, humiliation over triumph is a clue to the moral order of the universe and a guide to how to approach the great mystery of faith in God. It is, he claims, what makes forgiveness, reconciliation, and transformation possible. It is also what gives power to his role as a confessor, which he sees as so much more than the role of a psychotherapist.

Halík wants to retain the truths of orthodoxy without much of the language and formulations that have been used to transport orthodoxy over the centuries. He is most likely to make the traditionally orthodox nervous when he talks about other religions, or even about spirituality apart from any religion. In Patience with God he dances around a "many paths up the mountain" approach to religious pluralism ("the church should pentecostally 'speak all languages,' and not presuppose that our Christianity is the language whereby God speaks to all and that everyone is required to understand it"). If he is talking about the "language" of particular organizations, rituals, customs, and theological formulations, then of course he is right. If he is obliquely diminishing the defining significance of the Incarnation in Christ, then he has followed the trail of many who are willing to sacrifice the meaning of Easter for the prize of appearing tolerant. (Those at Pentecost heard many languages, but they only heard one message—the good news of the Resurrected Christ.)

Though he bobs and weaves a bit, I think Halík chooses Christ over relativistic tolerance. On the same page where he seems to say that Christianity is only one language in which God speaks, he cites the Apostle Paul as someone who both moved away from the certainties and rituals of Judaism and yet also rejected the universalist pluralism of the Greek embrace of many gods, resisting "a temptation to seek salvation elsewhere than in the reconciliation of God with the world through the blood of Christ's cross." In fairness to Halík, there is perhaps no more difficult challenge for anyone wanting to move beyond the saved/not saved categories of simplistic theologies—while retaining anything at all of the biblical and historical understandings—than to describe adequately the ways God works in places where Christianity as a religion is not present.

Halík says he agrees with Paul that our faith is vain if Christ is not resurrected. But Halík also says that it is vain if that truth does not shape how we live, not just what we believe. Halík is a priest and practical theologian, not a theoretical one, and that is part of what makes his writing attractive and useful. He ministers to people for whom doubts, questions, paradoxes, pain, and refusals are an everyday reality, not abstract puzzles. His ministry is less of providing ready answers than of sharing the pain and paradoxes, because these have been and are his own experience too. The main difference between him and the unbelievers he reaches out to is that he waits patiently for God to enter the conversation.

Halík is less patient, at times, with those inside the community of faith. He dismisses charismatics (speaking in tongues is "baby talk" and infantile regression), fundamentalism ("a disorder"), stadium rallies of the faithful ("religious clownery"), and recalls once hearing "a hideous sermon" by Billy Graham. These seem gratuitous potshots from a fellow who prizes tolerance and openness to a wide variety of human experiences. He admits he should perhaps be "skeptical about my skepticism" of such things, noting "I have never felt at ease among religious enthusiasts" and "I myself came to faith through a process of doubt."

Halík knows that confidence and bombast often carry the day in our world. Early in Patience with God he suggests that those "whose minds are made up"—whether believers or unbelievers—should save themselves the trouble of reading the book. He is writing for those whose minds instead are never at rest, nor should be, for truth is always "in movement" and in mystery. He admits that some think he exaggerates mystery—God has, after all, revealed as well as concealed—but he seems to think there are enough (too many) committed to making things plain and easy. He cites approvingly Nicholas Lash's dismissal of the "illusion (widely shared by believer and nonbeliever alike) that it is perfectly easy to talk about God," and he feels called to be in conversation with those who feel otherwise.

Like many others, Tomáš Halík writes about what Christianity must do and not do to be relevant in the modern world. He is speaking for and to only a slice of the universal Church. Many a Christian understands faith simply and lives it with integrity and enthusiasm. But many others do not, and still others are beyond the borders of faith but willing to listen. They are Halík's audience and are grateful for his voice.

Near the end of Night of the Confessor, Halík takes up the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaeus. He says the risen Jesus joins them and "retells, that is, reinterprets, 'the great narrative of the Bible' … in light of the travelers' present situation." That is what Halík is trying to do—in a much more modest way, of course—and what he encourages the Church to do for the contemporary world.

Daniel Taylor calls himself "a Christian humanist with a fondness for the life of the mind, spiritual pilgrimage, and salty snacks." He is the author most recently of Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, a novel just published by Slant.

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