Book Review- Mere Humanity by Donald T Williams.

mere humanityBook Review by Dr Stuart Devenish Donald T Williams. Mere Humanity: G.K .Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien on the human condition. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2006.

Available formats: paperback and e-book/kindle

Size: ca. 200 pages

Cost: around AUD $20 plus postage   Introduction: While doing some writing on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in the post-Christian age, I have also had occasion to think deeply about what it means to be a human person in the 21st-century. According to Thomas Merton, these two questions are intrinsically linked. As a part of my quest to understand the linkage between the two, I read Donald Williams’ book Mere Humanity – and as a consequence I have begun to learn how they are linked and the implications for us as Christian leaders in the context of our local churches. Mere Humanity: From the outset Mere Humanity is a work of literature. How so? Firstly, it is centred on the works of three well-known and much-loved literary contributors to Christian thought, in the form of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Who hasn’t read [at least] extracts from their works, and come to see something of their own humanity in the classic lines of their books, poems and fictional literature? Secondly, Williams’ interrogation of the works of these three authors is itself literary. Preceding each of the 6 chapters, Williams presents a poem written by himself to introduce the topic. So, for example on the question ‘Is Man a Myth’ (from his Introduction), Williams captures the essence of human materiality in his finely-spun poem ‘The Body Human’ which I would have to say is nothing short of brilliant.[1] Just a snippet will have to suffice: Intricate engine angels might admire, Material spirit, animated earth, crafted casket for celestial fire … Godlike image, able to stand direct, yet by what small and simple things laid low: A sneeze, a scratch, a germ, and all is wrecked; … Delicate instrument of love or lust, admirably compacted … out of dust. Williams sets the tone by quoting theologian Peter Kreeft’s words, “Our primary business in life is not business, or construction work, or sales, or teaching, or even motherhood, but on becoming a complete human being” (Back to Virtue, Williams, p. v). Through a well-informed and dextrous engagement with the works of our three writers, Williams explores Chesterton’s concept of the “everlasting man”; Lewis’ “abolition of man”; and Tolkien’s fictional explorations of humans in the context of goblins, hobbits and elves. By this means, he comes to the conclusion that, “Christ is what we have always been looking for. He is the ultimate definition of true humanity.”[2] Writing in this way, Williams repeats the teaching of Irenaeus (second century Christian writer) when he stated, “Jesus was man as God intended him to be.” However, despite being literary in form, I found Williams’ work accessible and easy to understand. In our busy 21st-century lives, one of the great problems with literary works is that they seem difficult for us to understand. We are in such a hurry to “get to the point” that we cannot linger longer than the next deadline allows – in order to find some truth to embed in our next Bible study or sermon. But I found Williams’ book to be wonderfully translucent, and to give up its substance without too much hard work on my part. So what did I learn from this delightful book? (1) First, that the baptised imagination (Williams’ way of describing the Christian mind) is a central feature of Christian discipleship in the 21st-century, and that we must do everything we can to awaken and enliven it amongst the Christian disciples in our churches and ministry teams. (2) Second, that our humanity is not all it seems. It was Thomas Merton who – while standing at a traffic intersection – (re)discovered that people bear the image of God within themselves. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun!” And (3) third, that our Evangelical theology of humanity is underdone. We tend to focus on the extent of the fall, on the sinfulness and depravity of pre-salvation human beings. And as a consequence we tend to focus on the costliness and extent of Christ’s self-giving in his crucifixion so as to redeem a fallen and misshapen humanity. These are wonderful truths in themselves, but there is a sense in which that is not all there is to say. We need now to go on to tease out the implications of the extent of the glory of the redeemed human person who is now saved, restored, reconciled and participating in God’s divine purposes on earth as Christ’s (to use the apostle Paul’s words) “agents”, “fellow workers” and “representatives”. Conclusion: In a recent TV documentary on the significance of pilgrimage in the UK, the British scientist, author and presenter Simon Reeve made the statement that Lincoln Cathedral was nothing less than “England cast in stone” – which I thought was a very significant statement for a person who makes no profession of faith. It has been my discovery, through reading Williams’ book and my reflections on the topic, that when it comes to disciples and holy persons in the everyday world – saints are the kingdom of God embodied in fleshly form. And as such, the best advertisement for the truth and authenticity of the Christian faith in the 21st-century is the redeemed humanity of those men and women who confess Christ and live as if he were their be-all and end-all. As the Catholic theologian Hans von Balthasar puts it, “It is not dry manuals (full as these may be of unquestionable truths) that plausibly express to the world the truth of Christ’s gospel; but the existence of saints, who have been grasped by Christ’s Holy Spirit. And Christ himself foresaw no other kind of apologetics.”[3] So should you read Williams’ book Mere Humanity? Yes, you should. If you have any interest in the work of Christ in your own life, or if you have any responsibility for the care of the souls of others, reading Williams is a must. As the theologians often tell us, God is best known by his works. And one of His most wondrous and miraculous works is expressed in the lives of redeemed people. Henry Scougal (1650-1678) described that work in terms of “the life of God in the soul of man.” With Williams, I find redeemed human persons to be one of the most fascinating, wondrous and astounding of all of God’s works, because they/we are being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ, and being changed from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). [1] Williams, p. xi [2] Ibid., p. 51 [3] Hans von Balthasar. The Glory of the Lord: a theological aesthetics. Volume 1, ‘Seeing the Form’. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983, p. 494.

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