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Beloved Father, Beloved Son

ISS Reports


A talk given at the Launch of the Book
Beloved Father, Beloved Son: A conversation about faith between a Bishop and his atheist son
by Graeme Rutherford and Jonathan Rutherford (Mosaic Press, Preston, Vic, 2013)

Delivered by Dr Graeme Garrett, formerly of St Mark's National Theological Centre and sometime editor of St Mark's Review, at the Institute for Spiritual Studies on Sunday the 17th of February, 2013.

Thank you Graeme and Jonathan for the honour of launching your lovely and challenging book Beloved Father, Beloved Son: A conversation about faith between a Bishop and his atheist son. I have known Graeme for some time and benefitted greatly from conversations we have shared. Jonathan I had not met until this morning. But after reading his words in these pages, I feel that I have a real sense of who he is. Both men are full of life and not afraid to say what is what as they see it. Both are highly intelligent and well informed about their respective traditions. Both are strong advocates of compassion, justice and care for the Earth. They are also father and son and the ties of blood and affection are clear throughout. And yet—and this is the real heartbeat of the book—they disagree strongly at a, some might say the, central issue of human existence: God. The book arises out of the context of those common ties and in the tension of that central disagreement. It is a courageous thing to attempt and we applaud you both for doing it, and doing it so well. The result is a great gift to the rest of us who also struggle in family and elsewhere with these issues. This journey gives us insight, challenge, pleasure, encouragement, hope and, yes, a kick in the rear to get us to think a bit more rigorously about the various faith or un-faith stances we hold.

As the title indicates, the form of the book is a conversation; not a monologue, but a dialogue between son and father, father and son. And it is not just 'he said and then he said'; not blocks of words following each other like a row of bricks in a fence, touching but not interacting. These pages are a real engagement. Each participant really does listen to what the other says. This isn't easy in such an exchange, as both Graeme and Jonathan acknowledge. In discussing a matter as central and life-shaping as faith in the living God as manifest in Jesus Christ, or no faith in God since there is no such entity to have faith in, it is hard not to rush too quickly to defend one's stance and point out the weakness in its opposite.

Such exchanges, as we know only too well from some of the public stoushes between the so-called 'new atheists' and their opponents, often produce more heat than light. But not here. This is a conversation not a stoush. Both men respect and admire the integrity and grit of their opposite number. We learn not just from the content of the talk, though that is deep, nuanced and challenging; but we learn also from the manner in which it is conducted. As I said, both authors are concerned with compassion, justice and truth in life. This is reflected in the way they talk with each other. And that's impressive throughout the text, and often deeply moving.

The second thing about this conversation is that it is open-ended. Both Jonathan and Graeme are deeply committed to the positions they hold. But they are not fundamentalists in the sense that they are impervious to any outside critique which may nudge them towards change or re-thinking. Towards the end of the book Jonathan writes, 'I have learnt (meaning through this conversation) that true dialogue means daring to take seriously that I may be wrong, or at least that the other person has information, or perspectives that are worth taking on board and considering.' (128) Graeme agrees. The two emerge from the talk different people. This book models a way to engage with fellow humans on deep issues that divide and often cause alienation and even violence in our world. Reading these pages I found myself stirred and stretched, even stressed, by matters that go to the heart of my own life and commitments. Ideas, arguments, feelings, prejudices, mystery and muddle swirled through me as I listened to them talk. But their willingness to stick with each other, respect each other, to struggle with issues that unseat us all, was ...well ... such an invitation, such a challenge. We need to risk open conversation with each other in our pluralist society in Australia, and perhaps, as in these pages, by so doing we can find new ways to be with each other and learn life and love, compassion and justice more deeply through our very differences.

This conversation, of course, is about something. The form cradles and expresses a specific content. Again as the title indicates, the book is about 'faith'; faith in God, and, on the whole, faith in the Christian God (though the discussion ranges wider than this in many places). Faith in this God, represented by Graeme, and un-faith or lack of faith in this God, here presented in its strong form, that is, in rejection of the idea that the word 'God' refers to any actuality outside the human mind, represented by Jonathan. Both positions, faith and un-faith, are deliberately chosen. These are not thoughtless, limp, default positions adopted through laziness, habit, or cheap imitation of others. Both writers have come to their places in life through long, careful and well analysed experience. And they both know intimately the strengths and perhaps most of the weaknesses of the other camp. As the story unfolds, we see Jonathan as a young man brought up in a loving and accepting Christian family ... well, father a Bishop ... that's about as 'in' the faith as you can get! But Jonathan's life, including much reading, debate and reflection, leads him out of this camp into its polar opposite. So Jonathan knows what he's talking about when he talks about faith. It's no straw man he sets up the easier to knock over. And likewise Graeme. Graeme came to faith and vocation from a family not much given to it. He has learned through study, experience, pastoral involvement, the challenge of preaching and teaching Jesus Christ in pretty heavily sceptical society, what un-faith is, and what reasons people have for holding that position. So this is a deeply formed and informed conversation across the faith/un-faith divide. The chapters of the book highlight for us the central issues of dispute between the contenders. These are not new of course. This particular debate goes back in the western tradition thousands of years and, as these pages amply indicate, there are some pretty heavyweight warriors in the field on both sides from Plato and Aristotle, to Hume and Russell, Wittgenstein and Dawkins, to say nothing of Moses and Miriam, Jesus and Mary, and Paul and Lois.

The chapter headings indicate the areas covered. God as a human wish fulfilment—the position argued by Feuerbach, Freud and the other great representatives of the co-called 'hermeneutics of suspicion'; the origins of the universe; the horror of evil and suffering; the authority and reliability (or otherwise) of the Bible; and that central issue for Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus; the ground of our ethical choices; the human search for meaning; and contemporary spirituality. These are complex and bedrock matters in the historical and contemporary debate between faith and un-faith. We've all encountered them in one way or another. But each generation needs to step up to the plate for itself. We can learn much from great women and men who have gone before. But faith or un-faith is not something we can take on second hand. It is my faith or un-faith; your faith or un-faith that is required of us. These pages present these classic areas of contention in a lively and engaging fashion. And the conversational form they are set in rescues them from that sort of wearisome abstraction that sometimes clings to weighty philosophical or theological monologues. The ideas and counter-ideas fizz off the pages as the talk flies from one to the other like a cricket ball in the nets at catching practice. And these guys are really good at keeping it in the air! Perhaps there is a fumble here and there, on rare occasions the ball may slip through the fingers and hit the turf. But this is theological ball exchange at a high level, and it is wonderful to be a part of it. Here theology and real life are never separated. This isn't dead theory but living challenge about how to be human in our tough times.

There are countless examples I could give. But you need to read the book yourself to get the impact. But just a taste. Here is Graeme talking about how to read the Bible as a medium of God's word and not simply a textbook of morals or a dubious tale of long bygone people and dusty happenings. 'It [reading the bible] It's a bit like sucking a lozenge when you have a sore throat! You don't chew it up quickly but savour it and allow its healing properties to remain in your mouth and do their healing work for as long as possible. So it is with our ruminating on God's Word. We read it in such a way as to give God a chance to 'speak' by 'pricking up our ears' to the echo of God's Word, Jesus Christ.' (59)

Here is Jonathan on the question of the resurrection of Jesus. 'Let's be clear about what we are dealing with here. The idea that someone over two thousand years ago rose from the dead is, undeniably, an extraordinary claim. In our experience this simply does not happen. It follows that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, especially if we are going to make an historical judgment that something miraculous probably happened in the past. I think we all know this. If someone came to you and said they travelled back to the French Revolution and met Louis XVI, you would be demanding concrete evidence and contemporary eyewitness accounts and, really, video recordings on an iPod (and even this would probably not be enough) — because you know that people cannot time travel!' (76) Such issues are serious for faith and un-faith. And both protagonists treat them with the seriousness they deserve. But there is always a lightness of touch between them, banter, exchange of shared memories, and some lovely humour to boot. One story from Graeme perhaps helps put it all in perspective. Speaking about how serious we Christians often get about our various theologies and pet doctrines, Graeme tells the story of the 19th century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard who once presented an imaginary account of Christians arriving at the gates of heaven. Coming to the edge of that great divine kingdom, the Christians are confronted with two doors. One is marked 'Heaven' and the other marked, 'Lecture on Heaven'. SK concluded wryly he thought most would troop through the door marked 'Lecture on Heaven'! (52).

Well, perhaps that's the right place to stop a discussion about a discussion of matters theological and un-theological. You need to engage with this text yourself. Graeme and Jonathan Rutherford offer us a great gem. It is brim full of careful thought, robust debate and detailed argument. But that's not all. The real gift that both give us here is themselves; their lives and passions, choices and actions, hopes and worries as these relate to our world here in Australia today. What a wonderful and worthy gift! I thank them both sincerely for it and congratulate them on the wit and wisdom they had in bringing it to us. Well done you two!

And thank you to Mosaic Press for your part in making it possible at such a reasonable price.

I declare the book launched: buy it, read it, enjoy it, be changed by it.

A review of this book be Philip Harvey can be seen on the Bookroom Review pages.

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