Faith Maps: Ten Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger

Gallagher SJ, Michael Paul
Darton, Longman & Todd (2010)
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Michael Paul Gallagher's bibliography demonstrates his lifelong commitment to exploring issues of Christian faith. His experience shows in his elegant and subtle explanation of the standpoints of ten fellow explorers. I use the term literally and not because he uses the metaphor of "faith maps" which the text hardly sustains because, as he would admit himself, there are too many cartographical lacunae - or perhaps Bermuda triangles - to make these maps navigationally viable.

Gallagher's technique is to describe the main outlines of his chosen authors' line of thought from an ostensibly impartial standpoint before voicing their views in an imagined authorial monologue. This technique allows him to contrast a rather formalist approach with a more intuitive line of persuasion and it works because, as all the authors point out in their various ways, faith is a deeply personal and enigmatic issue. The two exceptions to this latter procedure are Dorothee Soelle, where he takes the opportunity to sketch some aspects of liberation theology and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger where his respectful modesty prevents him from presuming to voice the words of Pope Benedict XVI.

Not surprisingly, the book begins with Newman and the limits of the rational, the rejection of formalism in favour of the heart, which is a recurrent theme in the chosen authors. Blondel inverts the idea by saying that life is meaningless without faith. There then follows a rather cautious, and not altogether convincing - we will see why shortly - reading of Rahner on the universality of redemption and the primacy of mystery over theory. He is more comfortable with von Balthasar's rejection of the collectively anthropological and the emphasis on personal transcendence - which von Balthasar characterises as Kantian - in favour of divine action in Christ. The twin themes of encounter with beauty and the theatre of participation with Christ which characterise von Balthasar's approach also occur in other authors. Lonnergan's proposition that theology needs grounding in the religious experience of being  transformed by God's love - often unhelpfully characterised as "transcendental thomism" - reflects without necessarily acknowledging Newman and Rahner. Genuine objectivity, he says, is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.

After the incomprehensible inclusion of Flannery O'Connor, who may or may not be "the most theologically acute novelist" of the 20th Century, Gallagher, perhaps surprisingly in view of my conclusions, turns to Dorothee Soelle's assault on apathy, the inability to suffer or feel compassion where, she says, faith, based on the Exodus story, is standing against cynicism, which is followed by a somewhat idiosyncratic summary of liberation theologians. This is followed by Sequeri's association of faith with freedom, affectivity and beauty.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is the contrast between Charles Taylor's subtle analysis of contemporary culture and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's sledge hammer which, to my mind at least, demonstrates that an accurate diagnosis is a necessary precondition for effective prescription. Taylor is careful to characterise our contemporary situation as a failure of ethical imagination as opposed to Ratzinger's analysis of intrinsic societal degeneration and this provides a clue to the central issues raised by these essays. First, one common theme from Newman to Soelle is the importance of the poetic imagination and the general rejection of narrow rationalism. Secondly, again starting with Newman and leading right up to Sequeri, there is the issue of the personal versus the institutional. Newman, Rahner and Soelle have each had their issues with the Institutional Roman Catholic Church and one wonders how the book might have read if the redundant O'Connor had been replaced, say, by Kung. Indeed, the list of missing theologians from de Lubac to de Chardin by way of Congar, not to mention Barth, Niebuhr, Bonheoffer and other non-Catholic theologians says a good deal about the crisis of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church.

Put bluntly, the question is this: does the Roman Catholic Church know more about its marginality than it is prepared to admit? If the evenly moderately orthodox theologians in this book emphasise the primacy of personal commitment and an informed conscience, of the poetic dynamic and its culmination in the mystical, what does this say about the relevance, let alone the efficacy, of the Ratzinger theological apparatus? Perhaps Gallagher's next book should be on the relationship between faith and Church.