In October of this year (2022), I will celebrate fifty years of Christian faith. I was converted in Munich, Germany, during my second year of university study. It was a time of crisis and prolonged searching.
In this blog and the next two, I will tell you about ten books that deeply impacted me during the first twenty-five years. In the future, I will describe books that influenced me in the second twenty-five years.
Prayers by Michel Quoist
In the inside cover of this book, I wrote “August, 1975,” but I suspect that I began to read it even before I became a believer. Quoist eloquently expresses many human aspirations, weaknesses, and emotions―and in the process teaches us how to pray. Early in my life, I was deeply moved by “Help me to say ‘yes’” and “Lord, deliver me from myself.” I have read these many times throughout the fifty years. In the last two decades, I have embraced another prayer by the author, “I would like to rise very high,” especially with reference to my intellectual aspirations as a Christian. Here is a short excerpt:
I would like to rise very high, Lord, above my city, above the world, above time. I would like to purify my gaze, and borrow your eyes.
I would then see the universe, humanity and history, as the Father sees them. . . .
And I would see that today, like yesterday, the most minute details are part of it, every person has his place, every group, every object. . . .
Startled, I will begin to understand that the great adventure of Love, that started at the creation of the world, continues to unfold before my eyes.
The Sacred and Profane by Mircea Eliade
Eliade was certainly not a Christian, but I learned a lot from him. (I still have my original copy with my dormitory room number from 1973.) From him, I discovered the uniformity (what is similar) and diversity (what is different) in religions. I became curious to understand homo religiosus (man, the religious being) and homo adoranas (man, the worshipper). From Eliade, I first learned that human beings are incurably spiritual. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he also opened my eyes to the dynamic of idolatry, when he wrote: “The majority of men ‘without religion’ still hold to pseudo religions and degenerated mythologies.” The following observation stills seems prophetic:
From the Christian point of view, it could also be said that nonreligion is equivalent to a new ‘fall’ of man―in other words, that nonreligious man has lost the capacity to live religion consciously, and hence to understand and assume it; but that, in his deepest being, he still retains a memory of it, as, after the first ‘fall’, his ancestor, the primordial man [Adam], retained intelligence enough to enable him to rediscover the traces of God that are still visible in the world.
The New Demons by Jacques Ellul
Beginning with Ellul, I began to discover that the mind played an essential role in Christian faith and spirituality. For the first fourteen years of my church life, I participated in a movement that did not celebrate the intellect or cherish a deep knowledge of scripture. The New Demons was the beginning of my cure. Ellul critiqued culture―including popular evangelicalism and political ideology―in a way that fostered healthy skepticism. He wrote: “In every critical period of history myths reappear which have as their purpose to assure maintenance of a certain type of society and to confirm the dominant group in its faith in the system.” I learned that this dynamic can also occur among religious groups. The following statement had a big impact on my developing mind and anticipated my doctoral dissertation on Romans 1:18–25 (we “suppress” the truth for a “lie” and “exchange” the true God for idols):
It is forgotten that in this word of God there is attestation of man’s sin, of the rupture between man and God and, of man’s situation within evil. To void that, to reduce it, is on the one hand, to render the remainder of revelation completely meaningless, and the other hand, it is to prevent oneself any longer from seeing modern man’s sacralizing, for this man creates a sacred for himself and finds a religion only in order to counter the prior situation.