By Luke Bretherton
Ashgate Aldershot 2006 - ISBN-10:07546 5372 2
A Fulcrum review by Sarah Cawdell
Luke Bretherton is Lecturer in Theology and Ministry at King's College London. He has previously worked on SEITE a non-residential ecumenical ministry training course, and at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, London.
This book is a revision of his doctoral thesis, but is nevertheless readable and accessible. It is a book for our times as it seeks to address the issue of relations between Christian and non-Christian in a world which is aggressively multi-cultural and riven with an incommensurable variety of ethics. How are we to come to an ethical agreement within society that takes serious account of different traditions?
Bretherton lays out the thinking of Alasdair MacIntyre, with a severe critique of the culture of modernity and the drawbacks of the mores of individualism, bureaucratic rationality and liberalism. He points up the bankruptcy of a system which no longer sees the sense in keeping a moral order, because it has forgotten why morality ever existed; and describes the fragmentation of traditions with which we are all too familiar.
MacIntyre's work is described so as to lay out the problems of mutual understanding between Christians and non-Christians within the contemporary context of western liberalism, which is oppressive, if not prohibitive of rational debate. He suggests that "human flourishing requires a society whose common good takes account of human vulnerability and interdependence." (page 25)
Two prominent theologians are offered as conversation partners in the debate concerning understanding ethical differences. The first, Germaine Grisez, (a Roman Catholic moral theologian) is found wanting, as he minimizes the distance between Christian and non-Christian and, in failing to recognise the strength of the root differences between the traditions, fails to tackle the underlying problem.
The second partner is Oliver O'Donovan, who like MacIntyre, recognises the poverty of modern moral discourse, and the incoherence of ethics which results. However O'Donovan is shown to have a more theological approach which takes account of the eschatology that is fundamental to the Christian faith. We live in hope because we know that the Kingdom of God is already breaking in among us. Our foundations are not only in ancient traditions, but more importantly are rooted in the ever new and faithful actions of the Holy Spirit in transfiguration of our relations. Any system which relies on tradition, as MacIntyre's does, is over-dependent on the fallen nature of humanity, and of creation. O'Donovan offers possibilities which value tradition but allow for the present work of God through the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Bretherton concludes the first part of the book by recognising that Christian and non-Christian may arrive at the same social practice for different reasons, and that in the current climate this often leads to rivalry and conflict, which cannot be resolved and is not creative in relations. MacIntyre proposes communities of local resistance which tackle the problem in the small scale, as a particular tradition is worked out in practice in a community set in, but working against, the prevailing culture. These sound full of potential, and we can all think of small communities of resistance that have stood against destructive traditions and made a difference. Bretherton is looking for more than this, for interactions not marked by rivalry and conflict.
This is where hospitality comes in. Perhaps the best way to understand hospitality is in contrast to tolerance, a parody of love which is all that a modern society can offer without the fruits of a life of grace. Hospitality draws on the metaphors of feasting and celebration, on generous grace and confidence in who we are, and who we are in Christ. Bretherton defends hospitality through exposition of Scripture - taking the Great Banquet of Luke 14 as his key text, but also surveying the story of Acts, in particular the encounter between Peter and Cornelius, (Chapter 10) and through a brief survey of Christian tradition.
He points out that Jesus challenges the interpretation of holiness current in his day: "Jesus relates hospitality and holiness by inverting their relations: hospitality becomes the means of holiness, it is in Jesus' hospitality of pagans, the unclean and sinners that his own holiness is shown forth." (page 130)
He demonstrates that, in the present context, hospitality offers possibilities for conversation that take a proper account of difference between traditions, but does not expect either assimilation into, or withdrawal from, one tradition by another. Christians are to be hospitable, because we are ourselves welcomed into the very heart of God. Our security, our roots, are in that gracious relationship, and our journeying is a going out in order to come home. Bretherton reminds us of the centripetal and centrifugal movements of mission: coming in to worship, going out with love.
It is such a relief to read someone with a louder voice than mine who recognises that tolerance is not a Christian virtue, and that this parody of love is too often destructive of community life. Tolerance allows wrong to take place in the name of liberalism and freedom. The hospitality that Bretherton advocates has space for acceptance, but self-respect enough lovingly to challenge, and to stand against both assimilation and outright conflict.
Finally and, somewhat surprisingly, Bretherton illustrates the practice of hospitality with a brief look at the question of hospice care and euthanasia. He shows that the Christian foundation of caring for the vulnerable and needy stranger of the suffering-dying demonstrates hospitality in the current climate that points out the benefits of euthanasia in a budget driven health service, and a society fighting for control. Christian understandings of autonomy, suffering and death are utterly incommensurable with those who suggest that euthanasia (in the commonly understood definition) is good medicine and this gulf is carefully examined. The conclusion that "hospice care is a testimony to how the church can open up new possibilities and radically change the status quo through a deep engagement with the life together of the church and the life of its neighbours" (page 188) is a fitting demonstration of the creativity and benefits of this mode of engagement between Christian and non-Christian.
Set within a context of experience in the Balkan states, this book brings us back through our traditions to the heart of the Christian gospel, and reminds us that in the face of suspicion of the old stories, and the fragmentation of traditions our confidence in Christ is not misplaced, and the work of the unchanging Spirit is always finding new expression. From our place of humble confidence it is still the mission of the Church to welcome the needy and vulnerable, the stranger in our midst and in so doing find that we are welcoming Christ himself among us. Although the text is set up to address the issues of incommensurability between Christians and non-Christians, I suspect that it has much to offer Fulcrumesque evangelicals as we seek for understanding and creative interaction between Christians of different traditions, that have too often been set up as rivals in conflict with one another.
Sarah Cawdell lives in Shropshire with her husband and three teenage children.