Dominican friar Timothy Radcliffe is a member of the community at Blackfriars, Oxford, and was Master of the Order of Preachers from 1992 to 2001. He is the author of a number of very popular books drawn from his experiences.
There is too much religious fanaticism in the world today. Why?
There is too much fundamentalism, and there are many forms of fundamentalism. The original form was scientific fundamentalism in the middle of the 19th century. The reaction to that in the American South was Christian fundamentalism. Now we have an enormous problem with religious fundamentalism; Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic – all forms. It’s a characteristic of modernity to tend to fundamentalism, to simple answers and slogans.
But how come there have been so many religious wars over the centuries?
Humanity has had a history of war, and if you have a war you will use everything you can to win it. You use nationalism, you use religion. I’m not sure that it would be true to see religion as the root of war. It’s more the case that human beings have had a culture of violence for several thousand years and have used religion in the promotion of it to justify it.
Hasn’t violence been used to convert people to religion?
Religion was so much part of everybody’s culture that it was more a question of imposing a culture of which religion was part. But you also see rebellion against that. I love Bartolomé de las Casas, who had this great rebellion against slavery when the Spanish conquistadors conquered Hispaniola, saying, “No conquest of these people is justified, in the name of religion or anything.” I agree with you that there’s been a great deal of violence in the name of religion, but there’s also always been religious people resisting violence. My friend Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a wonderful book recently called Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Jonathan shows how in the Old Testament, the Torah, you get a lot of violence, but you also get shifting beyond violence, you also see currents seeking to transcend it. So I think it’s a complex picture.
Why do you think people need religion in their life rather than just spirituality?
Human beings seek some ultimate meaning to their life. We want to know, while we are here, what we are here for. And that is a meaning that you cannot just pursue alone, you have to pursue it with others. Religion is trying to see how together, in community, we can seek the meaning of our lives. If you’re a Christian, in Jesus we are summoned into community to share a meal with him. You see in Judaism a fundamental role of community, from the Passover to the gathering of the community to pray. In Islam you see the absolutely fundamental concept of the ummah, the community worldwide. We humans are not just individuals, we are communal people who find our meaning in relationships with people; therefore we need to gather in mosques and churches and synagogues, together.
What is religion about?
Is there any ultimate meaning to our lives? We know that the universe came into existence 13.5 billion years ago. We know that we will die. We know that the earth will one day be swallowed up. I knew a man called John Rae. John was headmaster at Westminster School and every day he presided at Vespers in Westminster Abbey and all his life he wondered, ‘Do I believe or not?’ It was the big question. So he asked six Christians, since he was of Christian background, and six atheists, to meet him, to talk for a couple of hours each. We became friends, and he said in the end the question was, when he loved his wife and he loved his children, is there some ultimate meaning? Or is it just a passing emotion? Is it just a feeling of no ultimate importance before we die, or, when we love people, do we find some ultimate significance? In my faith, it’s in the love I have for people and the love that people have for me that I see some sign of the ultimate meaning of what it is to exist. And all my faith is that journey towards that ultimate meaning.
People who are deep believers cross life in a completely different way. Can you learn to have faith?
Yes and no. Everybody has faith in something. People have faith in the importance of love. People have faith in the importance of seeking to reason and to understand. We all have faith in all sorts of things. People have faith in democracy. The division isn’t between people of faith and those who don’t have faith, because we all believe in something. The question is to discover what ultimately is implied by the things we believe in. You have an atheist, like this friend of mine John Rae, and he says, “O, I don’t believe.” And then you discover that he does believe; he believes in the love of his wife, he believes in the love for his children. When I talk about religion I am saying, “Maybe in what you already believe are seeds of something very important.” Some people believe in God, some people don’t believe in God, but we all have faith in something. If I want to talk to somebody about religion I’ll begin by asking them what they believe in, what moves them, and then slowly you can find a common language.
In general people are living in permanent doubt, and doubt and questioning is a sign of intelligence. Is intelligence to do with faith?
It is a Catholic tradition that faith and reason are very closely linked. In the middle of the 19th century we had a great meeting in Rome where it was declared officially that part of the belief of Catholicism is that we believe in reason. Our faith may go beyond reason, but we believe it is never against reason. That’s why Christianity founded Oxford and Cambridge and Paris and Bologna and Madrid universities. Our faith should be as intelligent as we are in other areas. If you have a Nobel Prize winner then he or she should have an intelligent faith. If you have somebody who’s simple and not intellectual, they can have a simple faith. Faith is about trying to understand the ultimate meaning of why we are here, using all our intelligence. They say Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican of my Order, is the greatest philosopher of the West. Philosophy means literally the love of wisdom and any good healthy religion is wise. I value intelligence a great deal, and artistic intelligence too.
Do you think that all religions are a means to get to the same place?
Yes, I would be happy to say that, but the place is beyond all our knowledge. Thomas Aquinas said, “We are joined in this world to God as to the Unknown.” Religious fundamentalism happens when religious believers lose all humility, saying, “I’ve got it. I’ve got the truth.” We are all on the way to the one truth. Ultimately we will find utter happiness and freedom, and it begins now. People talk about this life and the afterlife. I think it’s an unhelpful way of talking. There is eternal life, and eternal life begins now. If we love somebody then eternal life has begun. When we die we enter the full mystery of the love that we already have. It’s not like taking a train from Oxford to London, to die and go somewhere else. Already now, this is what John says in the New Testament, already now, if we love, then eternal life has begun, maybe in a little way.
Is Catholicism a healthy religion today?
I’m a great fan of Pope Francis, who is doing wonderful things. Francis is really pushing the church forward in a much more relaxed, less centralized way. Some people are resisting, particularly some old Cardinals, but I think Francis is leading it in the right way towards freedom and spontaneity. And he’s reaching out to all sorts of communities.
Is Christian faith in search of an inner peace?
That is absolutely crucial. We all go through complex lives, we all live through crises and conflicts and disappointment. The crucial thing is whether you have the inner tranquility. Jesus said, “My peace I give you, not as the world gives, but my peace I give you.” At the heart of our lives has to be that sort of inner peace.
Can you acquire this inner peace with exercises?
You need posture, breathing, and you need silence. I think silence is so important. In Israel we founded a community, a place of peace, which is midway between a Jewish Kibbutz, a Muslim village and a Christian village. We built it in about 1968 when I was a young student and at the center is what they call the house of silence. So all three religions would gather together to be silent. That was the communion. It was intended to be a Jewish Christian Muslim community. With our way of life we have to have at least half an hour a day of silence. It’s the first thing you do in the morning.
How does religion help you to cross human life?
I’m not religious because it helps me. I’m religious because I believe it’s true, because I think it’s a beautiful truth which is the deepest meaning of being alive. I think all religion is an invitation to live. Moses said, “I put before you life and death. Choose life.” If it’s healthy all religion is about choosing to be alive, fully deeply alive.
Why did you decide to become a friar?
When I was at school I was one of the bad boys. I was always smoking in the bushes or trying to find my way to the nearest pub and I was not interested in religion at all. When I left school I made friends with people who weren’t religious, and they said to me: “It’s not true.” For me it all began with that question: Is it true? I had a very naive young idea of truth, but that was what excited me. Is it true? So I read philosophy, and I began to read a bit of theology, and I became a Dominican because the motto is Veritas – Truth. I hope a humble truth, but Truth. I joined the Order, first of all because of intellectual curiosity. I want to think, I want to study. No area of conversation is forbidden. I really finally made the commitment because it seemed to me my brothers were gloriously happy and they were living. And I said, “Yes, this is a life.”
You took three vows, of poverty, chastity and obedience. What is the purpose of chastity?
The vow of chastity only has any sense if it liberates you to love many people. If it stops you loving it is destructive. I always tell the brethren when they’re young and they join and they say, “Ooh, how are we going to be able to cope?” I say, “If it stops you loving, leave the Order, don’t stay, because you have got to have a heart. It’s only your vocation if it helps you to be loving and available, free.”
And with the vow of poverty did you give up all your belongings?
Yes, but you share your belongings, everything belongs to the community. The only exception in our case is books, because we study a lot and everybody has their books, but nobody really has a private car or any private furniture. Poverty is about simplicity, not about being poor, about having a simple life so that you’re not imprisoned by possessions.
The third vow you took is obedience. Who do you have to obey?
The community. Most decisions are taken by all the brothers, so it’s not a blind obedience. The whole process begins with discussion. If the community of Dominicans of Britain say to me, “We want you to go to Cornwall,” I will say, “Why? Let’s discuss it. Is it a good idea?” Obedience comes from the Latin word ob-audiens which means to listen deeply. Judaism has a profound sense of obedience as listening.
How do you bring faith?
The first thing to do is to engage with the creative people. We best spread the faith by being in conversation with the gifted people; the musicians, the poets, the artists, the filmmakers. If we engage with them we will share what we believe and they will share what they believe. I think there’s a deep link between creativity and religious thought. A wonderful Dominican called Marie-Alain Couturier founded a magazine called Le Sacré in the beginning of the 20th Century. When he wanted to build a church he got Le Corbusier to design Notre Dame du Haut. Le Corbusier was not a Catholic, but Couturier said, “It doesn’t matter. He is the best architect.” And he got Georges Braque and all sorts of people to participate.
Is this the way religion will come back to Europe?
I think there are two big ways. One is what is through that sort of artistic creative engagement. The other is through contact with the poorest. We should be the people who remember the poorest and work with them with commitment to hospitals, medical care and development. Half the hospitals in Africa are run by the church.
What is your view of modernity?
I think that modernity is mixed. It has many blessings. I would not be alive if it was not for modern science, so I give thanks for modern science and modern medicine, and I love astrophysics, but at the same time in many ways modernity is a bit narrow, it’s a bit blinkered.
Don’t you think the modern world deserves a modern religion?
I think we have to get beyond thinking of holiness as being primarily about obeying rules. Holiness is about living and the virtues, becoming virtuous and strong. I don’t think there will be a new religion, because the old religions become new.
Do you believe there will be changes inside the old religions?
Let’s pray for friendship between the religions, not sibling rivalry. Pope Francis has a lovely quotation from Saint Irenaeus of the 2nd century who says, “Christ comes to us in newness.” If you look at the different religions they’re always evolving, they’re always adapting, and they’re always becoming new. Sometimes in a negative way. Islamic fundamentalism is a very negative form of newness, but there’s always evolution, always change.
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