Humbler Faith, Bigger God: Finding a Story to Live By
By Samuel Wells
Eerdmans, pp. 272, $22.99
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Review by Leander Harding
Sam Wells is a well-known priest in the Church of England who has served on both sides of the Atlantic. He is the rector of St. Martin in-the-Fields in London and has more than 40 books to his credit.
This is an intriguing book of apologetics, built around what Wells has found the 10 most common objections to the Christian faith. They are: crutch for the deluded, catalogue of betrayals, fairy tale for the infantile, drug for the poor, intolerant poison, perpetrator of terrible harm, cause of endless conflict, one path among many, arrogant narcissism, and cruel fantasy. He divides these into five complaints about God and five about Christians.
I find the most winsome part of the book its organizational scheme. Rather than offering a militant defense against each of these accusations, Wells wants to take them seriously and use them as an opportunity for reflection, repentance, and retrieval of a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the apostolic faith, the humbler faith, and bigger God of the title.
The structure of each chapter is an adaptation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s method in the Summa. Wells wants to combine the clarity of St. Thomas with the “tenderness of the pastor-theologian.” Each chapter begins with what he calls “the old, old story: a broadly traditional orthodox Christianity.” The challenges to that account are then presented.
There follows a “rival story,” which is “what an educated, rational, contemporary person would generally think.” Wells then points out problems with the rival story and ends each chapter by offering his own “story to live by.” The story to live by is a reconstruction of the standard telling of the Christian story that takes on board legitimate critique by a combination of ressourcement and necessary adjustments that Wells believes must be made in the light of contemporary knowledge and culture.
I consider the strongest part of the book its recognition of legitimate criticisms as a way into a more comprehensive and catholic view of the great tradition. The execution of the plan is uneven. It is a very challenging task to summarize great sweeps of biblical and theological material in the space of a few pages. The result is sometimes brilliantly articulate and sometimes too condensed and opaque to help someone without more than a little theological literacy.
In the preface Wells identifies himself as a preacher first and writer second. It is an effective homiletical technique to introduce a memorable word and use that word as a mnemonic device around which to build the sermon. An example is his use of the word forever. In the chapter “Crutch for the Deluded,” Wells introduces the Thomistic distinction between essence and existence as a way of thinking about God. He affirms that forever is another word for essence.
Essence then becomes personified as the personal God who does not want to let existence spiral away in dissolution and who then resolves to restore the relationship between essence and existence that existence had sundered. We then move quickly to the Resurrection and the promise that “essence being with existence was no temporary gesture but a forever thing.”
I can imagine that this account is much more compelling when delivered by a passionate preacher who has developed a relationship with a congregation over time. Timbre of voice and that vast communication that comes through presence and connection can fill in this outline.
I think it would be hard to follow without the personal presence of the preacher to open it up. There is a similar presentation on the Trinity based on being as “being with.” I admire the efforts to bring the great tradition into evangelism and apologetics, but I think Wells is asking a lot from the causal reader with only the printed page to guide her.
Wells takes up the contentious issues of sexuality in the chapter on “Intolerant Poison.” He believes that new science and social understandings require a revision of the traditional Christian sexual ethic, and he affirms same-sex marriage. He believes the ethic of the old story, properly understood, was against sexual exploitation in unequal power relationships; and that the culture that gave rise to the Bible did not know homosexuality is not a choice and did not know about faithful, monogamous, and affirming relationships between persons of the same sex. Both assertions are debatable. But Wells asks for understanding of those who are cautious about the “social and biological” context.
When he comes to the story to live by, Wells presents a lovely argument for exclusive sexual fidelity between married persons based on an exposition of the commandment against coveting as an ethic of thanksgiving and contentment with the infinite depth of God’s blessings. The good gifts God gives are always “enough.” Properly understood, the gift of another person has an infinite depth. There is always enough there to appreciate, to understand, and to serve.
The book ends with a study guide and a contemporary creed that is a combination of paraphrase and exposition of the historic creeds. The book would certainly provide the basis for an interesting discussion in some settings, and seems just right for the metropolitan urban setting where Wells ministers.
I think it would be a good choice for those who have some background in the faith and have been alienated by the concerns that Wells describes. I think it would be less useful as first evangelization or first catechesis.
Wells is attempting an inviting and yet faithful presentation of the apostolic faith that embraces in the most generous way some of contemporary culture’s most sacred values. I think he goes a bit too far in the direction of cultural accommodation, but I can imagine that for others it will be just right.
The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding is dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, New York.