Greenbelt: Timothy Radcliffe on holy spontaneity 1 September 2006

 The success of Christian witness, Fr Timothy Radcliffe insists, depends on an apprenticeship in our innate God-given freedom.

In his latest book, What is the Point of Being a Christian? Fr Radcliffe expounds an attractive and radical way of thinking about the relevance of Christianity and the nature of Christian freedom. Speaking at the Greenbelt Festival over the August Bank Holiday, he drew out some of the themes of his book in an exploration of the 'strange, inexplicable, provocative liberty and happiness', which should characterise Christian 'oddness': 'There should', he said, 'be something puzzling and provocative about our lives'.

Thomas Aquinas said that we are free 'insofar as we are the sources of our own acts'. People who are free are people who act out of the core of their being. We are called to action rather than reaction. We are not to be mere puppets. Fr Radcliffe issued a clear challenge to Christians to assume the full implications of their vocation, to prove the truth of Christianity by letting God stand for his own truth, and by letting their lives reflect his truth, and having the humility to let that be the ultimate guide, the ultimate criterion. Truth is the criterion of the relevance of the Christian vocation: 'It is in God that we discover the criteria of all relevance', he said.

Lazarus can be the model for us in this, especially the image in John 11 of him walking out of the tomb unaided. Fr Radcliffe invites us to consider the symbolic point of every detail in the Gospel passage: in asking why? we not only find the answer, but also realise the point of the question. How can Lazarus leave the tomb with his legs bound? We need to learn to walk on our own two feet: that is the answer. Every day ­ this would be the logical conclusion ­ we walk, as Lazarus tries to do, with legs bound. He went on to say that 'one of the ways we learn to walk is by using the muscle of our minds'. Lazarus summons us between society's moral dichotomy ­ permissiveness or rigidity ­ to the freedom of the Gospel.

How do we view divorcees, those who are gay or who are in irregular relationships? 'That's where they are, that's where the journey to the Kingdom starts', Fr Radcliffe asserts. All religious formation is done as an act of pleasure, and we need to start by feeling God's pleasure. Sometimes we can unbind people by sharing the fact that we are bound. Like the fourth-century desert father Macarius, we need to be honest and strong enough to show that we are weak.

As an example of the desire to belong across social divisions, Radcliffe mentioned a friar in the Dominican house in Paris who worked with the homeless. He spent a lot of time living on the streets like one of them, and used to come back to the house once a week. He felt free not to worry about what he looked or smelled like. In challenging us to identify the people with whom we don't want to be associated, Fr Radcliffe admits that he is reiterating what we have heard hundreds of times before. But this needs to become the criterion with which we judge our faith.

Fr Radcliffe said he was particularly fond of the chapter on the body, 'The Body Electric'. The title alludes both to Walt Whitman's poem, 'I sing the body electric' and to the film Billy Elliot, where Billy, about to leave the Royal Academy in despair, is asked what it feels like when he dances. He replies, 'electricity, electricity'. Sexuality, like the Last Supper, requires giving, trust, faithfulness and vulnerability. Freedom is the power to give away one's life as Christ did, and Christians need to see Christ's self-giving in the Last Supper in terms of what we live now, the books we read and the films we watch.

People who act from the core of their being have what Fr Radcliffe termed a 'holy spontaneity', the spontaneity of God. Spontaneity is not spontaneous; it is learned slowly, through exercising ourselves in practising the Commandments. These 'disclose what we most profoundly wish to do', and 'we need the laws to teach us spontaneity'. Freedom is learnt as one learns how to play football. It begins as a kind of going-through-the-motions, a making of intellectual decisions. Then it gradually becomes more innate, more spontaneous.

Freedom and happiness are intertwined. Again, as for freedom, Fr Radcliffe argued vehemently for Christian happiness ­ God's happiness that comes from sharing his sorrow, not the happiness of fixed smiles. In the sermon he preached just before he died, Oscar Romero said, 'God is the protagonist of history.' This is an appeal to belong, to be our own moral agents and to reject expediency. It is more than the freedom to choose between twenty kinds of tomato ketchup in the supermarket. It is the freedom to surrender, and its ultimate sign is that we are 'liberated into laughter'.

The Church in the West badly needs to rediscover what G. K. Chesterton called 'the romance of orthodoxy'. We too timid in giving witness: influenced, Fr Radcliffe said, by the 'modern heresy' that identifies the Church with the clergy. The Vatican is not the Church, just as the Cabinet is not Great Britain. This was a view shared by Pope John Paul II. For Christianity to be credible, Radcliffe is suggesting, we need to examine how far this message has managed to overcome the false freedom we substitute for it.

Eric Liddell in the film Chariots of Fire said 'God made me fast'. This is the epitome of God's delight in the body. It also sums up Fr Radcliffe's point about freedom being paradoxical, and takes us beyond that paradox, allowing us to glimpse the attractiveness of acting out of the core of our being.

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