Timothy Radcliffe: “Believing even in the time of fundamentalism”

A translation of the interview with fr Timothy Radcliffe op by the Italian TV2000
Timothy Radcliffe

Conversation between Monica Mondo, Italian journalist, and the former Master of the Order, now consultor of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace
Theologian, Dominican, biblical scholar, lecturer at Oxford, consultor of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Father Timothy Radcliffe has the smile of Friar Tuck, Robin Hood’s friend, and sadly is not the uncle of Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter – although, as he explains, he greatly enjoys the Harry Potter books and films: it would be a neat trick and a good way to attract young people. And since Christianity is spread by contagion, perhaps he could conceal his true identity and say that yes, he is Harry Potter’s uncle. (Well, I’d certainly sell a lot more books that way!”

 “Believing in a time of uncertainty” is the subtitle of the French edition of your book .
Yes, I think that always in a time of uncertainty you have to have faith because being a Christian, being a believer doesn’t mean tat you have all the answers, but that you’re always seeking, you’re always at the start of your investigation. And in that sense being a Christian means being on an adventure where you always need the help of your friends, of all the people who’re with you.

You say that we’re living “in the time of fundamentalism, which is a feature of modernity”. In what sense? It existed earlier, and indeed the Dominicans were regarded as masters of rigour. “Domini canes”, people said.
There’s a distinction to be made between rigour and fundamentalism. Fundamentalism means that you can have all the answers in a single language. 19th-century fundamentalism was scientific, they thought that science could give you all the answers. Today what we have is economic fundamentalism and many people think that the market is the solution to every need. And then there’s religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism arises when things are described too simplistically, and I think the way out is always to get to grips with whoever thinks differently, whereas fundamentalists are unable to talk to those who think differently from tem. Rigour is quite different. Rigour means doing all you can to understand the great questions: deep analysis is very different from fundamentalism.

“Loving people”, you write, means finding the right combination of offering space and self-giving”.  You mean too much or too little freedom is harmful?
If you’re talking to someone you always have to try to give them space, so that they can show themselves to the other, listen to how they talk, who they really are. Every time you talk to someone you’re always surprised, and you have to give them space to surprise you: that’s the heart of every good, correct conversation. In any friendship you give the person in front of you the chance to be different from what you thought at first and not to conform to your initial idea of that person.

How can one have hope?
On the basis of my own experience, I think if you want to hope you have to turn to people who seem not to have hope, and together you will learn to hope. Remember, there was a terrible hurricane this September in Houston: I went there to visit all the devastated areas. People told me that at first they were very angry, but what struck me was their courage, and also their joy at being alive. And this helped me to hope too. I’m going to Baghdad to spend some time with brethren and sisters, and I can say that if you want to have hope you really have to go to Baghdad, because you meet people whose life is truly very hard, beyond our imagination. And you see, you come across a hope you didn’t think could even exist.

Is there no hope without forgiveness of sins?
The opposite of happiness is not sadness but having a hard heart that no longer feels. When you are in contact with people who suffer it opens your heart, and if your heart is wide open you can be happy again. What’s most important if you’re to be happy is escaping from your own small worries. When you experience other people’s grief, you stop thinking about yourself and start sharing what they are going through, and so you’ll have great happiness, you’ll have a soul. In the book of Ezekiel it’s written: “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”, so a heart capable of feeling, of having feelings again.

Quoting from your book again: “Hope is not the conviction that something will go right, but the certainty that something makes sense”.
When we suffer we sometimes think our lives have no meaning any longer, and we wonder why this suffering, what’s the point of it. But that’s a waste of time! Our hope is that in the end we’ll see that our lives have been a pathway, a journey towards the fullness of love, of understanding. And so we travel in order to try to understand who we are, to see small indications that show us where we’re going. We have to be trustful, and when we arrive at the fullness of love and life, despite the trials we’ve gone through, then we’ll discover the meaning of it all. Now we only get a glimpse here and there, which shows us that we are made to love, to love completely. We will reach the fullness of love at the end of our journey and everything we have experienced, everything we’ve borne, will take on meaning.

You write that “Christianity makes demands that are frankly impossible”, that we can’t meet alone. So do we need the Church?
We need one another. Because you may be able to love in a way I’m not capable of, and vice versa. Unconditional love is impossible, it’s a gift that is given to each of us little by little, in time. The best thing about being human is that we’re called always to be something more, more than we can imagine, more than we can think of being. Tomorrow you’ll meet your brother, your sister, your son, your daughter, who’ll teach you far more and bring you into this fullness of love. I think that every time we love someone with real love, we realise the transcendent mystery of love that goes beyond anything we can imagine being able to receive.

“Modernity accepts faith as long as it stays shut into the private sphere or has a decorative role, without invading the public space”. If it’s unimportant, then, limited to the sacristy.
And it can’t be like that! For instance, I think of Pope Francis, who at the moment is working on immediate human problems, and I think that Catholicism is always attracted by the dramas people are living through, here and now. Having faith doesn’t mean living in a small isolated world, staying in a corner, in safety, but coming to grips with reality. And that’s what the Pope deos when he goes to visit the most difficult places in the world.

We often think that obedience means abandoning reason and liberty.
I love the origin of the term “obedience”, which comes form ob audiens, which means listen intently. For me being obedient towards my brother, as a Dominican, doesn’t mean stopping thinking, “I do as other people tell me”: no, I listen with my whole intelligence, with all my imagination. So true obedience is based on intelligence.

You stress that “Christianity exalts bodiliness, corporality”. We may say it’s more materialist than spiritual.
I think the essence of Christianity is that God became one of us, he became a person like us, he became body. And the gift of Christianity is when Jesus says “This is my body, I give it to you” – he doesn’t say my mind, my spirit and my soul. We must be happy to be bodily too, and that’s the case even when many people hate their bodies, they think they’re too thin or too fat or too short or too ugly. At that time we have to recognise that we can live in a body because we are spirit that lives in a body, and we must love this body. The heart of Christianity is the holiness of our bodies.

Prayer, too, for us Europeans, since the Reformation, has become a purely mental act. “Instead, we must pray with physical exuberance”.
Most Christians at one time prayed with their bodies, for instance St Dominic, the founder of my Order, had nine ways of praying with the body. Francis of Assisi too said that everything can be expressed with the body, but today we sit alone in our pews, like a bag of potatoes, we’re no longer capable of expressing the spontaneity of our faith! To pray well, we have to ask our African brothers and sisters to come and teach us how to pray with the body too.

Translated by Ruth Anne Henderson


(15 December 2017)