Thomas J. Norris, a diocesan priest of Ossory, Ireland, and Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Patrick’s in Maynooth, has previously contributed worthwhile volumes on the Holy Trinity, and John Cardinal Newman. The impetus for his latest work is the perceived rift in Christianity that has arisen due to atheism and nihilism in Christian Europe. Norris claims that we must seek to understand the religious and cultural aspects as we “address the serious questions they [atheism and nihilism] pose to believer and non-believer alike” (p. 7). His book is logically organized into two sections: “Thinking and Reasoning Today,” which Norris admits is an “encounter with contemporary culture, in particular with the phenomenon of the loss of faith” (p. 12), and “Don’t Presuppose Faith, Propose it Afresh,” where Norris provides a theological conversation with faith in the context of the modern era. Father Norris, in echoing Louis Dupre’s premise in Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture, advocates a re-examination of our faith history to better “listen with sympathy to the concerns of our contemporaries in order to initiate the ‘dialogue of salvation’ (Pope John Paul II)” (p. 14).
In the chapter entitled “Alienation and the Search for Home,” Father Norris provides three reasons for the shift from Christianity. It is here that the reader derives a sense of the utter disparity between the Church and modern culture. Norris states that “Church and society do not easily recognise each other” (p.25), due to the subjugation of historical images and icons with those imposed by science, and borne out of the revolution of technology. Norris also believes that there has been a break in the flow of tradition due to what he describes as a replacement of our “universally recognised ensemble of beliefs, practices and attitudes expressing the principles and criteria for personal and social living…” (p. 25) which has arisen from humanity’s struggle for independence. Father Norris would agree that, sadly, we live in a world where the miracles of God have been replaced with the wonders of technology. The final cause cited by the author is the “Unitarian culture” that is driven by technology, and the cause of a new type of poverty. It should be pointed out here that the poverty Norris speaks about may not necessarily be financial in nature. He is addressing the spiritual poverty that can arise due to a dependence upon technology. Father Norris also admits that “there is an increasing sameness about the multiplicity of cultural goods,” and he correctly wonders “how this culture will provide unity for life, both individual and collective” (p.26)?
Karl Rahner once mused that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity could be removed from the Church’s profession of faith and sadly, the spiritual life of the average parishioner would hardly be affected. It is under this premise that Norris advocates for a return to the “glory-love-beauty” which disappeared from theology “during the centuries since the Reformation” (p. 210). To counter the current trend of trinitarian malaise, Norris turns to the early theologians and mystics (i.e. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, and Teresa of Avila) who have “indeed inspired the search for a critical perspective and presentation. This is not only a valid perspective, it is also a necessary one, especially since it shows that the question of God is the most human of all questions…” (p. 212). Norris’ approach differs from that of Dupre in that Dupre sought unification through the re-examination of the works of such lesser known figures as Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, and Giordano Bruno.
In returning to the works of Teresa of Avila, Norris finds an example of divine revelation in the crucified Christ, which he deems “a key to our understanding of the Blessed Trinity” (p. 228). Teresa shows us in the Interior Castle, that the path to God rests in our own participation (“self-annihilation”), which “is to be lived in the strictest unity with the Crucified Son, since it is he who emptied himself in kenosis, even to the nothingness and folly of the cross” (p. 229).
Thomas Norris’ latest publication is highly recommended, not only for its mature approach to complicated subject matter, but also for its ability to draw the reader into a deeper reflection regarding our faith and tradition. This book would be more than appropriate for a college-level course on Christian understanding. However, this volume would also be a necessary work for any Christian searching for the truth regarding the fragmented relationship between the Church and society, brought about by the forces of modernity.