This book was a true learning experience for me. Attracted by the title, I was taken aback to discover that it contains two years’ worth of weekly meditations published in the “conservative” London Daily Telegraph. According to the cover blurb, “The Meditations are each self-contained arguments in support of a traditionalist understanding of Christianity, intended to help readers in their faith, and to maintain respect for the teachings of the Church. In that, they are plainly hostile to liberal interpretations of the Christian religion, and especially intend to deny modern reductionist attempts . . . to represent the mission of Christ as compatible with Humanist ethics. In his rigorous Introduction to the collection, the author surveys modern versions of religious belief with critical disdain.”
The Introduction, at least, lives up to its billing. The author rails against the enemies of Truth and appears almost a caricature of the pedantic Englishman when he complains that the modern services of the Church of England “are trite, banal, and occasionally lapse into actual grammatical error” (p. xiv). Horrors! (well, I admit that ungrammatical English grates on my nerves, too). But when I turned to the meditations themselves I found they fulfilled the promise of the title. Norman insists again and again that human beings, rather than considering themselves somehow entitled to every good thing, should live their lives in humility and gratitude for what the poet of the Exultet calls the “wondrous condescension” of God’s love for us. With all our rhapsodizing about the “sanctity of human life,” we are all too prone to suppose that our lives are somehow noble simply because we are, or because of what we do, and not solely because God, in divine humility, has loved us enough to redeem us and make us heirs of the Promise.
Norman can be quite hard-nosed about this: for example, when he writes that “It still shocks people today to be told that Jesus loves child molesters and murderers; and criminals may even achieve sanctity if in other dimensions of their nature they seek submission to the will of God and amend their lives” or that “Christ did not, on his own testimony, come for the righteous, and of the conventionally good, he observed simply that they had their reward” (pp. 4, 10). Some readers may find his emphasis on human sinfulness and the necessity for obedience to the sovereign God to be old-fashioned and illiberal—but he displays an awareness of the mercy of God, and its breadth and determination, that is rarely encountered.
The author is a deadly foe of “liberal humanism”—or humanism in general. He insists that life is not meant to be easy. He seems to have a fixation on the next world that is off-putting to those of us who are engaged in trying to improve the lot of those who are getting the short end of the stick here and now. Nevertheless, he is a thoughtful companion who challenges assumptions and forces us to answer for what we believe, and why. The sensation is a little like what I imagine bungee jumping to be—soaring blissfully through stretches of delighted discovery of common ground and common dreams, then being brought up short by a statement quite contrary to what seems to “follow” in one’s own system of thought.
This book, being made up of two-page newspaper columns, cannot be read in long sittings. It would be good for a daily, or even weekly meditation, as the original columns were intended. I recommend it to anyone willing to soar and to struggle.