Theology for Pilgrims

Lash, Nicholas
Darton, Longman & Todd (2008)
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Nicholas Lash is not a theologian for the faint-hearted: his scholarship is formidable, his range is bewildering and his polemic is withering and all three are strongly represented in this collection of papers and essays. Situated on the extreme 'progressive' (although he deplores the use of the term) end of the Roman Catholic theological spectrum, the most coherent set of essays, placed at the end of the book, is concerned with the legacy of Vatican II. His argument is that the documented history of the Council is being deliberately subverted at the highest level in the Vatican. As with all such attacks, the advisers, in the shape of the Curia, take much of the Flak but Lash lays into Benedict XVI before and after his election to the Papacy with a degree of directness only justified by the meticulous analysis which furnishes his ambition; one particularly important argument on the interpretation of scripture turns on a post hoc insertion of a comma and an "and", another, on the status of Christian entities outside the Roman Catholic Church, on the difference between "is" and "subsists in". Perhaps the clearest example is the reintroduction of the 1962 Missal as equal to that of 1970. Benedict’s insists that the two are no different, even though the differences are both fundamental and obvious. The root of the problem, of which his examples are merely symptoms, is the failure to institute the collegiality of the Bishops, presided over by the Pope, which was a central plank of the Council's teaching.

The first part of the book deals with some of his favourite themes, including The Church as a school or learning community, the disastrous separation of ideas from history and experience, the importance of using theology to keep us from the worship of idols, the importance of historical accuracy ("Ideas have a history") and the limits of language to handle theology. Sometimes I found his arguments heavy going, particularly when he was commenting on B commenting on C; and his essay on P.J. FitzPatrick's Breaking of Bread both requires and bears careful re-reading.

The middle section contains a set of fascinating pieces of the theologically jaded, including a discussion of Diderot's Dialogue with Rameau's Nephew, Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the window in the South transept of Chartres Cathedral which for him explains the concept of the Evangelists sitting on the shoulders of the prophets.

This is neither a systematic work, a textbook or a work of reference; it is, above all, a booked to be dipped into - with the exception of the Vatican II pieces - for the sheer pleasure of the argument.

Kevin Carey
14th October 2009