7.27.2010

Review: Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles' Creed, by Brother David Steindl-Rast

There is something a bit jarring about seeing the words “Apostles’ Creed” and “Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama” printed on the cover of a book, but the name of the author reassures us that somehow it will end up making a great deal of sense.

That’s because the author is Brother David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian-born Benedictine monk, who is one of the great teachers in our Church. He has been a leading figure in the Church’s dialog with Buddhism, a tradition for which he has developed considerable sympathies. He describes in the introduction how he came to write this book at the urging of the Dalai Lama, and why he chose the Apostles’ Creed, of all things:

In interreligious dialogue we tend to quote from our respective traditions those passages that the others are most likely to find acceptable. But increasingly this had begun to seem a bit superficial to me. I had come to feel that for genuine agreement we would have to go deeper; we would have to test whether even the least likely texts—say, a creed—could help deepen interreligious understanding. Wars have been fought even among co-religionists over these succinct summaries of essential beliefs. A creed would thus make the perfect touchstone for the possibility of interreligious agreement on that deep level where it matters. That's why I chose the Apostles' Creed—the oldest of the Christian creeds—and thus this book came about.

The Creed basically provides Brother David with his Table of Contents: there are twenty four chapters, each devoted to one line (or in a couple of cases, part of a line) of the Creed.

Each chapter is divided into four sections. Referring to the line in the Creed that serves as the title of the chapter, he asks, “What does this really mean?” and he offers an interpretation of the line. Then he asks, “How do we know this is so?” and explains his answer to the first question. He then asks, “Why make such a point of this?” which he answers by explaining why this matters to us today. Finally, he ends each chapter with his personal reflections.

There wasn’t a single chapter in this book that I didn’t find deeply thought provoking. Brother David takes the familiar words of the Creed—words that for many people have become stale and lifeless, if the droning recitation one hears in Church is any indication—and reveals unfamiliar depths of meaning, reading the Creed as a faith proclamation in poetry, rather than a prosaic checklist of beliefs.

His non-literal interpretation of the Creed will probably not endear him to the mythic membership crowd. Anyone looking for a reflection on a literal virgin birth or ascension into heaven will be disappointed. But even the events Brother David acknowledges as historical—suffering under Pontius Pilate, crucifixion, death and burial, etc.—are here interpreted as having a deep and enduring significance, well beyond their historical facticity.

Readers of Brother David’s previous works will not be surprised to find frequent quotations of poetry. He quotes from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Theodore Roethke, Jessica Powers, Mary Oliver, Kabir, and Patricia Campbell Carlson, among others. I often get a little impatient when writers quote poetry, but in Brother David’s work poetry is never used as mere ornamentation or for showing off.

After reading the introduction (and the foreword by the Dalai Lama) I expected there would be more frequent references to Buddhism than there actually were. But this is quite thoroughly a Christian book, in a very catholic, which is to say “all-embracing,” way. Indeed, his rather generous interpretations of the Creed’s “Holy Catholic Church” and “Communion of Saints” will leave exclusivists shaking their heads in indignation. (This is not a criticism, just an observation.)

So how, then, does Brother David further the cause of interreligious understanding? He does not do this by suggesting that the Christian beliefs expressed in the Apostles’ Creed are the same as those expressed by Buddhists or Hindus. Rather, he shows that the essential Christian message is a universal message of faith and love, of belonging and sharing, that transcends the boundary lines we draw around ourselves in the name of religion.

The great scholar of religion Huston Smith wrote of this book:

I have always felt that in endorsing a book I was honoring the book and its author. Brother David’s Deeper Than Words, however, brought a new and startling sensation: I found myself sensing that the book was honoring me by allowing me to endorse it. Never before have I felt this way about a book.
I feel much the same way. This is truly a very special book.

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20 Comments:

Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Juan Lino,

I deleted your comment, because I felt it was a gratuitous attack, and I didn't see any reason to keep it there. I have since decided that I should avoid doing that. So here is what you wrote:

I read this piece of syncretist fiction twice and it convinced me that P. T. Barnum was right. My advice to all is: Save your money and read Dominus Iesus instead.

I'm sorry you didn't appreciate Brother David's book. As I said in my review, it's not for everyone.

I'm sure we can agree that if someone finds Dominus Iesus in any way edifying, this book is not for them.

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Hey PP,

A friend gave me the book and so I am reading it right now and I am up to page 109. Would love to have a discussion with you about it when I am done.

Thanks for the e-mail too!

Pax,

Henry

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Oops, I forgot to ask, what's your definition of an "exclusivist'?

10:30 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Henry,

I would be happy to discuss it.

I used the word "exclusivist" in kind of a non-technical way in this particular case. What I had in mind are the people who are very preoccupied with drawing lines between insiders and outsiders, while maintaining that outsiders are at some disadvantage relative to insiders, simply by virtue of the fact that they are outsiders. The people who imagine that the lines we draw around ourselves and our "in-group" are of any importance to God. That kind of thing.

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Thanks PP for the definition. I should be done with the book next week, do you want to discuss it here or by e-mail?

Pax,

Henry

2:31 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Henry,

Discussing it here would be preferable, but it's up to you.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Bklyn said...

PP,

OK, let's do it here.

Have a good weekend.

Pax,

Henry

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Hmm...if I post comments with my Gmail account it shows up as Bklyn instead of Bklyn Henry - I learned something new.

4:15 PM  
Blogger littlebug-peg said...

I've been following your blog with interest and enjoyment for some time: thanks for your dedication.

Because of your review of DTW, I went out and bought it. I'm about 50 pages in and am enjoying it immensely (just wish the print were a little larger!). I found one other person on Goodreads.com who is reading it, too; now another wonderful friend has come into my on-line life!

Keep up the good postings, PP. You never know how far-reaching the impact can be.

Peg

9:25 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Peg,

Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you decided to read the book. I've read a lot of books this summer, but that has easily been my favourite so far.

11:41 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

It does sound interesting. I looked it up at Google books and have read a bit of it there. It's nice to read someone discussing all the stuff in the Creed instead of just insisting on it's veracity.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

PP,

I just finished reading the book and I want to give you my preliminary thoughts. A more detailed analysis of good and bad points to follow because it’s almost 12:30m here in NY.

First, I agree that the book is thought provoking and the questions I kept asking myself as I read through it were: 1) Is the author embarrassed by Christ? 2) Is the author afraid to affirm that the Lord presents Himself to all by choosing a particular human reality? (I.e., is the author afraid to affirm the concepts of election and Divine Revelation?)

Since I believe that the answer to those questions is yes, I would classify the book as a great work of sophistry because he separates the historic Christian vocabulary from the historic Christian experience. Now, if the book was advertised as one man’s reflections, I’d say, who cares; but since the author tries to pass it off as a faithful exposition of the Faith (as implied in his dedication), I believe it is a dangerous piece of theory masquerading as fact.

Second, if the author was my instructor, I would never have converted from Zen Buddhism. After all, if one religion is basically as good as another (and this seems to be his primary undeclared premise), why bother? For if the formal motive of the act of Faith is not the infallible authority of God revealing supernatural truth, why should I trade my myth for yours? Despite what he tries to make his readers believe, the everyday use of the word “myth” connotes that we judge the stories or accounts to be untrue.

Lastly, I am very happy I read this book because I am sure that I will eventually run into someone in the Adult Faith Formation classes I teach for the Diocese that is so poorly catechized that he or she will not recognize that this book is full of heresy - i.e., unsubstantiated claims that have no real link to the Deposit of Faith.

I am sorry to be so critical, especially since I know you like the book, but it would be unjust to overlook the fact that the book distorts the Catholic Christian Faith. Of course, there are some things in the book that are beautiful, like the chapter titled “The Father Almighty”, but the semantic gymnastics, the semantic devaluation of those who believe in Orthodoxy, and the many historical inaccuracies diminish, in my opinion, the small amount of good in the book.

I will write about some of the good things in my next comment. Have a good night.

Pax Christi,

Henry

12:22 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Henry, thank you for your comments.

You indicated that you would write a more detailed analysis, so I will wait for that before responding in detail. I do have a couple of questions that perhaps you could address:

Why specifically do you feel the author is "embarrassed by Christ"? You said you "kept asking" yourself that as you read it, but perhaps you could indicate some instances in the book that made you think that.

I'm also not sure what you mean by "the semantic devaluation of those who believe in Orthodoxy." "Semantic devaluation" pertains to language, not people. Also, what are some of the "historical inaccuracies" you speak of?

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Hey PP,

I often wish we could have a conversation over a cup of coffee because I actually believe we have much more in common that either of us believes. For example, I believe we are both very interested in the Truth even if we seem to approach it from completely different angles.

Your questions are great but I can't answer the first one now because I don't have the book with me.

Perhaps "semantic devaluation" is not the best term to use but it's one I often use because, as someone who has been the victim of marginalizing language because of my Spanish descent, it’s something that I am particularly sensitive about. So, what I am trying to say when I use that term is that words can be (and are!) used to dehumanize someone. So, for example, while, anyone (including me) can promote a heretical opinion that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s being done intentionally and that person is a willful heretic. I know these are not PC words but they do reflect a reality. Any suggestions on a better way to express what I am trying to say?

Regarding the historical inaccuracies, I’d like to cite parts of the book so please bear with me.

On a personal level, there are some things in the book that I think are great. However, I am reading it and critiquing it as a catechist. Don’t forget, I was a Zen Buddhist for 10 years and many of the things he wrote reminded me that important part of my life and so I was flooded with many wonderful memories. And so, to use his term, I was grateful because I was reminded that Christ saves everything that is human, everything.

I am about to pray the Angelus and I will remember you.

Pax Christi,

Henry

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

PP,

Here, as promised, is the start of my comment pointing out what I think are the good things about the book.

First, his three-pronged tool (which he describes on page 15) is wonderful and when I first read it, I said to myself: “Great method!”

I admire that he agreed to try to reconcile the Christian’s belief in a divine Creator (the Dali Lama expressed it accurately) and the Buddhist belief in Interdependent Arising (i.e., Paticca-Samuppada / Pratitya-Samutpada).

As an aside, I think the publisher should have inserted a definition of the term – as a footnote - so that those not familiar with the belief could appreciate what Br. Steindl-Rast was trying to do. Now as I recall, the term refers to the Buddha’s account of causality; i.e., the law-governed dynamics of change in which the events or happenings in the world are causally conditioned by and dependent on other processes, events, or happenings. I also know that Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “interbeing” and that some explain it by saying that the instant there is “yin,” there’s “yang” – which was how it was explained to me.

In many cases, the “personal reflections” and “the questions he asks the reader to ponder” were fantastic. I especially like the reflection on page 29, particularly the small boy’s response: “Yes, I know, but I want a God with skin on.” Beautiful!

As I mentioned before, his chapter “The Father Almighty” (pages 37 to 40) is, in my opinion, the best chapter. As of now, my second favorite chapter was the one on the “Amen” (with the exception of what he writes in the “Why make such a point of this?” section.). What he wrote in the “personal reflections section” was like a beautiful word painting. I greatly admired his creativity and it was fascinating to see the method he used to decide that he would focus on “Word, Silence, and Understanding.”

Forgive me but I am tired and so I stop now. I promise to write again soon.

Peace my friend and good night,

Henry

9:52 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Henry,

Thanks for your comments. I'm going out of town for a wedding, but will respond to everything you've written when I get back on Monday, including anything else you might say between now and then.

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Hey PP,

I've been thinking about the book and my preliminary thoughts about it in my silence and I want to tell you that doing that has helped me understand that my initial reaction, while good, is also mistaken. In other words, I'd say that my esteem for the book is rising- maybe not to your heights but certainly higher than when I wrote my first critique. So, even though I am one of those people that likes the milk of DI, I think that Juan Lino's assessment is unnecessarily harsh and wrong in some ways, although I am not sure that your disparaging comment to him on the Amazon site is helpful.

More to follow...

Pax Christi,

Henry

Pax Christi,

Henry

2:09 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

PP,

I had hoped to be finished with my review of the book by now but I am not and I probably won't be before I leave for my retreat on Tuesday. I will be away for two weeks since I am going overseas and so, would you be willing to wait until I return to post your critique of my comments?

Moreover, I have a favor to ask, once we are done I might post it on Amazon and if I decide to do that would you help me tweak it?

Pax Christi,

Henry

12:33 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Henry:

I will be away for two weeks since I am going overseas and so, would you be willing to wait until I return to post your critique of my comments?

Moreover, I have a favor to ask, once we are done I might post it on Amazon and if I decide to do that would you help me tweak it?


Yes and yes.

11:26 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Hey PP, I am back.

While you were away I was commenting on one of Crystal's posts and in my last comment I wrote the following:

One thing I confirmed from this experience was that I really prefer face to face discussions! It would have been magical to have actually been sitting at a table with Crystal and Mike discussing this. Mike and I would get revved up and Crystal would try to calm us down, then Crystal would get revved up and we’d try to calm her down and then I would get revved up and they would try to calm me down - it would be life, friends talking about life. I personally get tired about talking about abstract ideas, I get tired playing ideological ping-pong, and I think this form of communication actually perpetuates that precisely because the human is missing. Crystal can’t see my face or hear the tone of my voice or see my comportment, etc., all things we need to see to truly understand. On the blogshere people simply engage in mental masturbation - sure it feels good but then what? What has been proven? Not much, in my opinion. What has been done? Disharmony has increased.

Moreover, blogs allow for too many voyeurs. What I was trying to work out is actually something private, something deeply personal, and I realize now that I should have done it via e-mail with my two internet friends. So I am probably not going to post on blogs very often from this point on.


I then went on retreat and now that I am back my sentiments haven't changed. So, this will be my last comment on your blog. Since I only just returned I haven't had a chance to type of my review of the book and hope to do that soon as I finish a few pressing matters. If you can't wait, please comment on what I wrote so far and I promise to respond by e-mail.

I wish you well my friend.

Pax Christi,

Henry

10:27 PM  

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