Bruno FORTE, The Essence of Christianity. Translated by P. David Glenday. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2003. pp. 132 + xiv. $22.00 pb. ISBN 0-8028-2657-1.
Reviewed by Linda S. HARRINGTON, Briar Cliff University, SIOUX CITY, IA 51103

Bruno Forte begins his little book with an analysis of the contemporary situation: the failure of the Enlightenment dream of emancipation through the use of reason. The "age of emancipation" has produced a plague of famine, wars, and ethnic cleansings, not freedom and equality. This catastrophic failure has produced a crisis of meaning and a vacuum of hope. Forte diagnoses the "most serious malady of this so-called postmodern age [as] the definitive abandonment of the search for a father-mother towards whom to hold out our arms, our no longer having the will or desire to seek a meaning worth living and dying for. . . . [F]aced with the vacuum of ultimate meaning, we grasp at penultimate concerns, and seek immediate possession" (5). Forte's project is to present a remedy for that nihilism.

Forte writes in conscious conversation with other treatises of the same name: Feuerbach's assertion that religion is merely a projection of human needs; Harnack's description of religion as the interior life; and Guardini's polemic against modernity. Although Guardini remains in the world of modernity even in his rejection of Feuerbach and Harnack, Forte finds in his work the foundation for the remedy for the nihilism that characterizes our time. Forte expands Guardini's insight that truth is not something, but the living person of Jesus Christ, by writing that truth in the person of Christ must be brought close to the weakness, suffering and loneliness of the human being. This happens precisely in the scandal of the cross. "'Crucified love' will then offer itself in all its measureless human and divine depth as the gospel for this postmodern age . . . as that essence which from the beginning of the Christian movement has sounded out as Good News . . .: the word of the cross" (132).

The Triune God, revealed in three-fold exodus of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, provides the horizon of meaning that brings hope back into the world. The Word comes from the womb of silence that is the Father and mediates that silence to us. The Son reveals the Father through the mystery of his unconditional obedience, going out from himself in the freedom of love. Christ transforms his unjust death into a life-giving event by his return to the Father. The essence of Christianity is found in Jesus' cry from the cross, remembered in the light of the resurrection. Truth comes to humanity, not in the ideas of rationality, but in the person of the Risen Christ, a loving presence, whom one encounters in the communion of believers.

Forte writes from an almost mystical view point. My first thought as I began reading the book was that this would be good mealtime reading for a retreat. The description of the Trinity as Lover, Beloved and Love, the use of 'mother-father' as an image for God, and the presentation of the cross and resurrection as a particular locus of revelation combine classic and contemporary ways of speaking about God that I find helpful as starting points for meditative prayer. His analysis of the post-modern situation as a nihilistic search for immediate gratification and his presentation of Crucified Love (the Incarnate Word's identification with the weakness of humanity) as the antidote for that despair are also fruitful starting points for prayer and reflection. On first reading, the book seems to be a thoughtful meditation on the mysteries of Trinity, Incarnation and Salvation.

However, the fourth chapter includes a "side-bar" on Mary that I find troubling. Forte describes her as icon of the Trinity: as Virgin, she is the icon of the Son, both standing before the Father in perfect, virginal receptivity; as mother of the Incarnate Word, she is the icon of the Father, the source of life-giving love; as Spouse, she is the icon of the Spirit, the bond of God's infinite love. She is also icon of the church: as Virgin, she is the receptive believer who listens, accepts and consents; as Mother, she is generous love, giving her very self; as Spouse, she is a creature rich in hope for God's promise. Mary also reveals the feminine dimension "that all human beings must take to themselves to be completely fulfilled according to God's plan" (103). Existing only in her relationship to Christ, "the feminine [in Mary] reveals the depths of the masculine . . . in the reciprocity by which it lives." (102).

Forte seems not to notice that the reciprocity he describes is not that of man and woman as partners in life, but that of mother and son. Nor does he seem to recognize the problems inherent in identifying virginity with receptivity or in defining Mary's existence only in terms of her son. Additionally, he always speaks of Mary first as virgin, then as mother, and only thirdly as spouse. Holding up the mother/son relationship as the model for understanding human gender and apparently advocating virginal motherhood (and spousehood?) for all women indicate grave flaws in the underlying anthropology. The question one is left with is whether such a flawed anthropology is part of the essence of Christianity.

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