Doubts and Loves

A review of Richard Holloway’s Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity (Canongate, London 2001) by Nicholas Rundle of Adelaide, a member of Sea of Faith in Australian and an Anglican priest. This review was first published in the Bulletin of SoFiA.

Richard Holloway once encouraged his fellow Bishops to hurl their mitres in the river Thames as a symbol of their rejection of prelatical pomposity. He has himself jumped ship from the leadership of the Scottish Episcopal Church after the last Lambeth Conference and its ugly debate on gay and lesbian people. In the preface to his new book, Holloway describes the conference as akin to “stumbling on a lynching organised by your own brothers” (p x). If Richard Holloway were to follow his mitre and jump in the river Thames he would surely metaphorically sizzle and steam, for this is a passionate man. Some might call him a God-tortured man.

Doubts and Loves should be a controversial book. It must have taken great courage to be so open about one’s doubts and loves. However, this is a man who has given the greater part of his life to a wholehearted living out of the Gospel and helping others to do the same. He does not want the church to become “post modern retro-chic” (14), but to discover “new ways of using the Christian tradition that will deepen our humanity, our care for the earth and for one another” (16).

This aim will appeal to many members of the Sea of Faith, although some will find him too hopeful for the future and others will disagree with his radical theism. He claims that

the needle on my own dial trembles midway between non-realism (God is a human invention) and critical realism (there is a mystery out there, but we are inextricably involved in its interpretation and can never get it with complete purity). (29)
Holloway is haunted by the sacred, the other, the sheer strangeness of existence which invites us to wonder. He finds in Don Cupitt’s Solar Ethics a metaphor for life: “Rather than living frightened and cautious lives, we should burn out extravagantly, giving warmth and joy to others”. (31)

Holloway draws on poetry, literature, movies and philosophy to explore his new vision of Christianity.

His title is drawn from a poem by the late Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:

[T]he place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard,
But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plough…
Holloway passionately wants to play his part in digging up the world. He invokes atheists — Marx, Nietzsche, Richard Dawkins, Richard Rorty — and a variety of modern films to prove his case. He argues for the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in a homophobic Church and welcomes feminism. However, he quotes from remarkably few women writers and I see this as a weakness. The other criticism I have is that this book originated as a series of lectures for Gresham College in London. The chapters still read as discrete lectures and I would have preferred a greater ‘flow’ of ideas and arguments through the book.

Part one of the book is entitled 'The Shaking of the Foundations', a title drawn from the American theologian, Paul Tillich. In this first part Holloway reviews the sad state of Christianity in much of the world, torn as it is between the strident voices of conservative Christianity and the abandonment of religious practice by many others.

He views religion as a human construct and sees in Thomas Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm shift a move to the provisional, living with uncertainty and welcoming change. This is an idea which Holloway has developed before, when he used the metaphor of playing jazz to construct an idea of ethics and theology in perpetual evolution. Holloway commends the way of action and that Christianity is not about belief but about following Jesus.

In the second part, entitled 'Rebuilding the Ruins', Richard Holloway explores what it means to follow Jesus. He speaks of good religion where ”we ourselves are never cured of ourselves” (78), and where we live intentionally. The author discusses the holocaust through the powerful novel, The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart to explore the Christian understanding of hell, where hope dies. He goes on to explore the concept of redemption, drawing on Tillich’s notion of acceptance and the movie American Beauty.

In the third part of Doubts and Loves Holloway asks the question, 'What is left of Christianity?'. Some critics would reply “very little”. The author explores the meaning of Jesus as someone who loved rather than condemned, who sought to understand and include the other and who rightly mistrusts power and violence. What is left of Christianity, he asserts,

should be the practice of the kind of love that subverts the selfishness of power, whether it is the subtle political power of spiritual, or the brutal power of political institutions. (197)
The book concludes with a chapter entitled 'For Love of the World'. He rightly accuses the Church of an unwarranted and unhealthy rejection of the world, and invokes the radical monk Thomas Merton and the missionary Albert Schweitzer to present a hopeful, affirming attitude to life. He invites us to the age-old practice of paying attention to the world and to the practice of repentance leading to the remaking of the world. The Kingdom of Jesus is concerned with present, not future. He quotes John Dominic Crossan in saying that Kingdom living “is a style of life for now rather than a hope for the future”. (249)

What should we make of this book? It has received mixed reviews. Some have accused Holloway of overstating his case and misrepresenting traditional theology. Others will no doubt be mightily offended by Holloway's description of Luther’s constipation and St. Paul’s neurosis. Some will answer the author’s question, 'can I still call myself a Christian?' (54), with a resounding, “no!”.

The author is certainly setting out to be provocative. But he seeks to offer a useable path for those who still want to practice the Christian faith, albeit a slimline but focused living-the-radical-gospel version. I would argue that although Holloway has become a marginal figure within the Church, he retains his passion for God, that left wing Anglo-Catholic incarnational love of life and anti-establishment love of social justice. I like his philosophical pragmatism that describes belief as a habit of action, rather than a matter of believing or disbelieving propositions.(54).

I am challenged by Holloway’s invitation to use Christian teachings as a kind of poetry to discover wisdom, although perhaps this involves a kind of double-minded reading of liturgical, biblical and ecclesiastical texts that he doesn’t explore.

At a season when I am experiencing my own midlife journey through doubts and loves, I found Richard Holloway’s book like a strong Anglo-Catholic gin and tonic. The flavour of the writing is exquisite, the mixture of sources from which he draws is strong, and the whole experience is intoxicating and leaves one with a jaunty sense of euphoria. Pour me another Bishop!

Nicholas Rundle