Diarmuid O’MURCHU, Adult Faith: Growing in Wisdom and Understanding. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010. pp. 216. $20.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-7
Gordon T. SMITH, Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010. pp. 208. $19.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-3247-9. Reviewed by Richard SHIELDS, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto ON, M5S 1J4, Canada

Here are two quite different approaches to the issue of faith and faith development in adulthood. O’Murchu begins with a vision of adulthood strongly influenced by the insights of new scientific construals of evolution (cosmic and human), often referred to as the “new cosmology.” Smith’s starting point is Scripture, particularly Ephesians, as providing a normative framework for understanding the reality and dynamics of adult faith. While each author has a different purpose, both set out to combat an unreflective attachment to naive beliefs that inhibits an adult’s growing into the fullness of human life. O’Murchu’s book falls into two parts. In the first, he deconstructs cultural and religious assumptions, dominant in the Christian West (“conventional inherited wisdom”) that, in his view, cultivate and enforce oppressive and unhealthy dependencies that narrow the understanding of adulthood and prevent Christians from recognizing and appropriating their creative place in the cosmos, the evolutionary process, and the Church. O’Murchu is a priest-social worker and popular author- speaker on spirituality. Basing himself on pastoral experience and a wide range of non-religious reading, he argues that the disaffection with government and church today is a deep and genuine stirring of the soul that recognizes the incongruence between the life seeking, evolutionary will of the universe and the hopeless resistance of human institutions rooted in patriarchy, rationalism, and subjugation. The Church’s refusal to embrace the reality of the world is not only self-destructive, but fails to offer a spiritual home to adults seeking to reconcile with a new paradigm. Adult faith requires a weaning from a past that is breaking down and a movement into the future with all its uncertainties and promise. It is the task of Adult Faith’s part two to describe adulthood in terms on the “horizons of quantum possibility” in the 21st century and to discuss alternative dispositions, ways of thinking, and behaviours that help people embrace the adult spiritual awakening that is taking place. Key ideas here are co-evolution, relationality, and spiritual surrender to a cosmic life-force, symbolized by the “Great Spirit” of the Indigenous religions. O’Murchu’s account of organized religion (the Christian churches) and their sacred scriptures tends to negativity. While he acknowledges that he is not probing their deeper meaning, but reacting to their popular impact on human freedom and imagination, there is little room in his project for either. He dismisses the historical contingency of revelation and faith in Jesus of Nazareth, in favour of creation theology founded on original blessing. On the positive side O’Murchu reveals an intuitive grasp of the Zeitgeist that captures the discontent of many life-long adherents to organized religion. While his alternatives seem to lead away from the church, for his readers he can say: “Someone hears your pain and believes you.”

Whereas O’Murchu addresses the individual, Smmith speaks directly to the churches. His thesis is that conversion discourse of the evangelical churches inhibits the development of authentic adult faith. This book opens with a critical analysis of the language of evangelical/revivalism, arguing that by focusing on conversion as a single affective experience, it alienates believers from the actual experience of coming to faith and caricatures religion as singular place apart from the world and its history and forecloses on an appreciation for the growth element and communal dimension of faith. Concentrating on Ephesians 2 and 4, Smith finds a biblical basis for an understanding of conversion that takes seriously the contradictory and paradoxical character of human experience and the complexity and gradual character of a religious transformation that permeates one’s whole life. He underscores the intellectual importance of connecting conversion with the in-breaking of God’s reign, its judgment on the world, and its cosmic hope. Smith—a lecturer in Spirituality at Regent College and head of his own Christian leadership group—next offers an extensive historical summary supporting his view that conversion can be grasped only as a beginning and not mistaken for a full blown adult faith. The first part of the book concludes with an exkurs on holiness as the goal of conversion. Smith then turns his attention to the process that supports maturing in Christ or growing in faith in adulthood—a penitential path that continuously acknowledges the life of sin and alienation from which one has turned, and the sacramental path which underscores the work of God, the power of symbolic action, and the importance of belonging to a faith community for honest faith growth. In the final chapters, Smith explores ways in which individuals can come to a deeper awareness of the process of grace that is going on in their lives (spiritual autobiography) and how congregations bring the personal experiences of faith’s journey into their worship and practices, not as triumphs and signs of success, but as reminders to seek the Kingdom of God and to pay attention to the working of God in the world. The contribution of this work is not to be found in Smith’s expanded discussions of Acts and Ephesians. He uses the texts to indicate his own position, treating them from a primarily conceptual perspective anchored not in the religious world of those texts, but in the mentality of contemporary North America. The special contribution of this study is to be found in its de-construction of the language of revivalism and its careful historical account of the understanding of conversion, especially in the English-speaking tradition that is foundational for American Christianity.

O’Murchu’s and Smith’s books appear to be on opposite poles, the one embracing the language of the new cosmology and pre-Christian spirituality, the other committed to reclaiming the language of the bible and honouring the tradition of the church. While both centre on the understanding and practice of faith in the adult life span, their responses appear incompatible. Theologians often focus on their specialities and the production of academic evidence of their expertise. In a time when mainline churches continue to haemorrhage at a dangerous rate and evangelicals emerge as the grass-roots of over-simplified political reactions, attention to the diverse and conflicting movements within the church deserve theological attention. Such divergent views cannot be forced into a single movement or generalized into broad religious categories. These books on adult faith are reminders that the unity of the people of God continues to be an urgent task for theology—one rife with problems and ideologies; but a task that cannot be ignored if the meaning of what we say in our scholarship is not to be trivialized by the reality of what is happening in the churches.


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