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The best books on Christianity

recommended by Richard Harries

The former bishop of Oxford tells us about books that explore what it means to be a Christian – from St Augustine and medieval mysticism to grappling with Dostoyevsky and more modern dilemmas. He picks the best books on Christianity.

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You specifically chose your five books to give a sense of what Christianity is about. For you personally, how would you describe what it means to be a Christian?

I would say that, above all, it gives one a wonderful sense of the meaning and glory of human existence. It shows us what it means to be a human being. However awful things are, as they seem at the moment in the world as a whole, we should never lose hope, because there is an ultimate hope in God and for a good purpose behind the universe.

I grew up in your old diocese of Oxford and our local parish church used to be packed and now it is nearly empty. Why do you think so many people have stopped going to church in the UK and seem to be losing that hope?

That’s not true of all churches. A lot of churches are growing. The Evangelical churches are growing – and it is not only the Evangelical churches. Frankly, if you have a good incumbent and a few good people you can make a church grow, more in some areas than others. It is not as dire as the newspapers like to make out. Another thing that one has to bear in mind is that all traditional institutions have declined, and compared with the dramatic decline of political party membership, trade union membership and newspapers, the Church of England has actually held up rather well.

But this is very much the age of the atheist in the media – how do you think that Christians can fight back?

I think that the new wave of atheism has blown itself out and there are now some people engaging in a serious discussion about religion – some atheists, and some agnostics. That is much healthier. The very virulent phase with [Richard] Dawkins and co has really blown itself out and I don’t think that serious atheists were very convinced by it anyway. In fact at The Guardian Open Weekend [24-25 March] I am engaged with Julian Baggini and some other people in a new, more serious discussion of atheism.

Let’s look at some of those key books that make up the identity of Christianity for you. Your first book choice is St Augustine’s seminal work The Confessions. Why do you think this remains such an important text to this day?

First of all, outside the New Testament, St Augustine is the most influential person in Western Christianity by far. He is not so influential in the East but both Protestantism and Catholicism in the West owe almost everything to him, from outside the New Testament. Secondly, he was a wonderful, wonderful writer and a deeply passionate man. He was very sensual. Peter Brown in his biography of Augustine says that his works are filled with the sights and sounds of North Africa.

Before we discuss The Confessions in more detail, for those who might not have come across him, can you explain who he was?

This is St Augustine of Hippo in North Africa, which is now in Algeria. He lived from 354 to 430 so at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century. He is not to be confused with St Augustine of Canterbury who is one of the first English Bishops. St Augustine of Hippo wrote a huge amount and he went on a great spiritual pilgrimage from Manichaeism to Platonism and eventually found his way into Christianity. Confessions is a wonderfully personal book, but not in a lurid sense like a modern confession.

“The Christian faith does have a very particular view of what it is to be a human being in society – being realistic but avoiding cynicism on the one hand and hopeful and avoiding sentimentality on the other hand.”

The whole thing is an almost agonised prayer to God on this kind of search. One of the great things about St Augustine, like so many Christians then, but less now, is that he had a great sense of God as the source of all beauty, as well the source of goodness and truth. There is this wonderful phrase, “Oh thou Beauty so ancient and so fresh”. I think that through The Confessions you get an insight into a passionate mind on a spiritual journey.

And why is it that his works have become the most influential Christian texts aside from the New Testament?

It is because he was engaged in a lot of the controversies at the time. His position eventually became the received orthodox one, so he was influential from that point of view. And also he wrote a huge amount and he wrote very well and so that also explains why he was so influential and why his writings have survived.

Let’s move on to your next choice, The Cloud of Unknowing, which is an anonymous 14th century text. It has been described as one of the most useful and practical guides to finding union with God ever written – do you agree?

Yes, the 14th century was a remarkable century. It was characterised by the terrible Black Death but at the same time it produced the most amazing mystical writing. One of the writers was Julian of Norwich, who is absolutely wonderful, and then this anonymous author who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing. The reason why I think it is so important is because many people think that we speak much too easily and glibly about God and the author of this book says that in order to truly know God we have to go into a cloud of unknowing.

Why is that?

According to Christian theology there are two ways to know God. There is what’s called the positive way, where you try to say things about God, and then there is the negative way, where you have to unsay everything you have said about God and go into a kind of unknown. This is because everything we say about God can be somewhat misleading because we talk in metaphors all the time. And metaphors are always as untrue as they are true. They have to be broken and then remade and broken and remade. And therefore to know God as he truly is, instead of purely our projection, we need to go beyond all our metaphors into what he referred to as “the cloud of unknowing”, where you simply reach out to God himself, whom you can’t characterise or describe at all.

So this book, for me, is very important because Christianity has this strong mystical tradition, which can often be neglected. And this is one of Christianity’s most important mystical writings.

And some see this work as coming from a series of letters written by monk to a student, which was giving him some advice.

It could be so but it reads as a single text.

What kind of advice was being given in the text?

Well, it was this theme of moving beyond words and trying to reach out to God in a very still, very silent, wordless way.

Your next book, Moral Man and Immoral Society is by another great Christian thinker and social critic, the American Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is a very different kind of book. St Augustine gives you a feel for the Christian belief and The Cloud of Unknowing gives you a feel for the life of prayer. Moral Man and Immoral Society is about how Christian faith impinges on the world. What is interesting about Reinhold Niebuhr is that he was hugely influential on the top swath of American political thinkers and politicians in the Democratic Party. Jimmy Carter, for instance, kept a collection of Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings by his bedside. He referred to them as his political bible.

He has been one of the few Christian writers who have really been able to speak to two generations of political thinkers and he is beginning to come back into fashion again now. He has been a huge influence on President Obama, for example.

They could both be described as social activists couldn’t they?

Yes, they could. But they are also realists. I think if you had to sum up in a phrase what Niebuhr’s view would be – it would be a kind of hopeful realism. He has very often been claimed as the father of American Realism. He was brutally realistic but the Christian faith in him has always made him look for the possibility of progress and improvement. He was way on the left of American politics. He was one of the founders of the equivalent of a Labour or Socialist Party in America. For the first part of his life he was way to the left of the Democratic Party. He has a very good understanding of democracy. He wrote what I think is the best defence of democracy in a book called Children of Light and Children of Darkness. And in that book he said that “man’s capacity for good makes democracy possible, man’s inclination to evil makes democracy necessary”. The point he is making is that democracy holds together the balance between the possibilities for good within us which make democracy possible, but also because of our propensity to evil we need the checks and balances on potential tyranny which democracy does give.

Do you think like him, that the church should be involved in social reforms?

Yes, I do. And for me there are two reasons why. First of all the Christian faith does have a very particular view of what it is to be a human being in society, which I think was Niebuhr’s view. There is this idea of being realistic but avoiding cynicism on the one hand and hopeful and avoiding sentimentality on the other hand. It is holding together this kind of hopeful realism which one would hope is expressed through various forms of social commitment as well as a political philosophy.

But you must also think that it is possible to be moral without being religious?

Of course it is. Interestingly, Reinhold Niebuhr said later on that he wished he had called the book Immoral Man and Even More Immoral Society! He draws a contrast between the kind of idealism which is possible in individual life and the kind of brute reality of relationships between organised groups and states where power is an essential factor. He took power seriously and is one of the few theologians who has really grappled with the issue of power. A lot of his book is about how you curb and control power in a brutal world.

I am interested in why you, as well as Niebuhr, think that it is important to have a religious moral framework rather than just a series of social reforms.

Basically, because we think it is true. I certainly believe that all people by virtue of being human have a capacity for moral insight as part of what it is to be a human being. From my point of view it is part of what it means to be made in the image of God, and the church has always believed that. We all have some moral capacity, but if you believe in God, you believe that this capacity ultimately comes from God. It is part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Of course you can have a moral view of society without a religious view, but if you believe a religious view to be true then that also affects your view of society.

I see your point. I am intrigued to discover how the Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky gives people a feel for what Christianity is all about.

This is a great novel of belief and unbelief. Dostoyevsky himself was a passionate Orthodox Christian, but of course he felt the flames of unbelief as much as anybody and the novel is about the relationship between Alyosha, who is one of the brothers who believes in God, and Ivan, who doesn’t. In particular it poses in acute form the problem of suffering. Ivan tells a story of most horrific cruelty to children and he turns to Alyosha and says, “It is not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.” In other words he could not believe in a God who allowed such things and he argued that no kind of future happiness could justify the cruelty we saw on human earth.

And those thoughts represent many people’s point of view.

Yes, and that is the heart of where the real difficulty is for a religious believer. All the usual moves are obvious – for example, if you have free will you must be free to choose wrong as well as right. It is not possible to have the kind of conscious life we know without the possibility of accident and mishap in terms of earthquakes and so on. Things like that belong to existence as such. But, given all this, the question to put it brutally is, “Was God justified in creating a world in which such things happen and which he presumably knew would happen?” That, I think, is how the problem ought to be posed and it is posed that way in Dostoyevsky’s great novel. And it is not only about that dialogue, of course. There are some wonderful characters in it. It is a great novel and the greatest novel of belief and unbelief that has ever been written.

For you personally, as a Christian, how do you square the problems he poses?

I think in all our experiences we have some idea of good coming out of evil. It is not that God wills the evil in order to bring the good, but all of us in our life know that sometimes you go through a very difficult patch and you manage to get some good out of it. Obviously the God in which we believe must think there is some ultimate good that can come out of what Keats called “this Vale of Soul Making”. Secondly there is a sort of feeling that a lot of people have, that life is more than a calculus of pain and pleasure and that something big is at stake. Why is it that most people in life don’t commit suicide when things are difficult? In my view it is because they feel that something big is at stake – it is more than a paltry happiness or unhappiness, however important those things are.

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Of course, this is a very shorthand description of my point of view and only a little bit of what I would want to say. In my understanding of Christianity I can hold on to Christian belief on the basis of two fundamental Christian doctrines. One is that God himself and Christ himself shares in human anguish through the incarnation. Secondly, that through my belief in the resurrection and eternal life I believe that this life is not all there is. It is only on the basis of those two features that I think it is actually possible to believe there is a wise and loving power behind the universe.

Your final choice is a collection of works by Rowan Williams.

In my view, Rowan Williams is the biggest intellectual genius of our time by quite a long way. It is one of God’s ironies at a time when the church is meant to be declining he raises up two intellectuals as religious leaders – the Chief Rabbi [Lord Jonathan Sacks] for the Jews and Rowan Williams. Rowan translates from about 11 languages; anything you think you know about, he knows far more. It is really rather depressing! Some of his work is very easy – for example, some of his simple sermons. But some of his essays on theology need quite a lot of grappling with. I am assuming that my five books are for people who really want to grapple quite seriously, so there must be something of Rowan Williams. On Christian Theology is a collection of his essays from the 1980s and 90s and on a range of subjects. Just thinking about his intellect, one of the things he tossed off was a major scholarly book on Dostoyevsky when he took a month off!

You talk about how he has brought his vast intellect to the Church of England, but in terms of theology what, for you, has he brought?

It is very difficult to sum it up, but he is acutely aware of all modern dilemmas. He understands the postmodern world. He understands all the major philosophical difficulties because he has read everything. Everything he writes is acutely aware of some of the searching aspects of modern philosophy and sociology and other disciplines and that is why some of his writing is so difficult because he can’t write a sentence without immediately getting thousands of qualifications in his mind. He can speak very simply and everything he writes comes across as extraordinarily authentic and real. And, of course, he is a published poet as well.

You mentioned the other great intellectual religious leader of our time being the Chief Rabbi. I know that you are very much involved in the inter-faith dialogue so I was wondering what you think about the dialogue between the different faiths? I know a sticking-point for many would-be believers is the idea of having to choose one faith over another.

Well, that is a very big question! I think if you have a religious upbringing you need to start by exploring your religion and seeing what it has to offer. I find with a lot of people, when they begin to look at other religions they find themselves finding truths about their own religion for the first time. They come to appreciate the other religion but also it uncovers things in their own religion that they hadn’t properly seen before. But there is no Archimedean point above all religions where you can just stand back and say this one is true and that one is untrue. So you have to bed down in your own place and start from there.

So you value the faith of Jewish people and Muslim people?

Yes, I was chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews for many years.

Does that mean your think other religions are just as valid?

I don’t believe that all religions are saying the same thing. Some religions are saying very very different things. And there are Truth Claims in all religions. I think that what one can say is that whatever one thinks is true, it is equally clear that one does not grasp the fullness of truth and that lies beyond one. And I certainly think there is a huge amount of overlap and much in common between Judaism and Christianity, and a fair amount with Islam as well.

Finally, there are so many different types of Christianity around the world – do you see them as all equally valid or do you think there are some basic principles people need to follow in order to be a Christian?

There are some principles. But if people want to say they are a Christian they need to be able to define themselves in their own way. But for me being a Christian basically means adhering to the Christian creed, not in a literalistic way. Christian language is what I call symbolic symbolism – not mere symbolism as some people say, but it is metaphor which points to something which is ultimately real. I go along with the basic fundamental truths of the Christian faith, as does the Anglican Church, as do all the mainstream churches. There is not all that much which divides the mainstream churches these days. They have discovered that many of the issues that divided them at the Reformation, and earlier between East and West in the 11th century, have been got over. Not all of them, of course, but many of them have been got over.

February 27, 2012

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Richard Harries

Richard Harries

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries is the Gresham College Professor of Divinity. He was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006 and was previously the Dean of King’s College, London. Lord Harries has been a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and written numerous books, including Faith in Politics? and Questions of Life and Death

Richard Harries

Richard Harries

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries is the Gresham College Professor of Divinity. He was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006 and was previously the Dean of King’s College, London. Lord Harries has been a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and written numerous books, including Faith in Politics? and Questions of Life and Death