This is a collection of short essays and reflections on Christianity. Why Tangents? Simply because truth can, if at all, be approached only obliquely. Who could claim to have penetrated some inner circle of truth that might be considered its fundamental heart or essence? Perhaps, as human beings, the best we can hope for is to be able to brush against it, in the way that a tangent touches the circumference of a circle, before heading off again into the unknown.
Martin Henry is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor in Northern Ireland, and has been a lecturer in Dogmatic Theology in St Patrick's College, Maynooth, since 1982. He has published several articles, as well as the following books: Franz Overbeck: Theologian? (1995), On Not Understanding God (1997), and, most recently, an annotated translation of one of the classic works of nineteenth-century German theology, How Christian Is Our Present-Day Theology? (2005) by Franz Overbeck.
Martin Henry and has been a lecturer in Dogmatic Theology in St Patricks College, Maynooth, since 1982. His latest book, Tangents, is a collection of short essays and reflections on Christianity which inspire thought and reflection on the noble claims of the Christian faith that the church has handed down to us from the distant past. It is challenging, in well-worn human words, to do righteousness to the mystery of God. Dr Henrys aptly titled book illustrates that truth can, if at all, be approached only obliquely. The best we humans can expect for is to be able to brush against truth, in a mode that a tangent touches the circumference of a circle, before heading off again into the unknown.
Touching on topics including Creation, The Doctrine of Christ and Death and Eternal Life, the author manages to present these familiar topics, but from a less familiar perspective. In a somewhat quirky style, Dr Henry discusses the back-firing of good intentions, in the name of (or disguise of) Christianity, and suggests that we, as Christians, pause and consider before declaring too self-confidently what exactly we think Christianity is supposed to be able to achieve.
Elsewhere in Tangents, Henry suggests that when considering the Trinity, we ought not to confuse openness and sharing with possessiveness or intrusiveness. In a somewhat anthropological view of the Trinity, he reminds us that we, as Gods creatures, made in Gods image and likeness, share to some extent in the hiddenness of God, and so we should respect that divine-like inaccessibility and unfathomability, that untouchablility or inexposability in ourselves and in others.
The forte of this interesting and valuable book is its simplicity and depth. Because of its simple structure and style it is accessible to everyone: layperson, preacher, student and teacher alike. Each element in the different sections has been given a specific title, making it easier for the reader to make their way around the text, as this is not a book to be read in one or two sittings, tempting as that may be, but rather one to be occasionally dipped into. There is also a very useful index of the essays and homilies included.
Oscar Wilde once said that people fashion their God after their own understanding. Tangents calls its reader to the task of thinking twice as it were, before asserting his/her views on what they consider Christianity, and, ultimately God, to be. It is a book well worth engaging and journeying with as it provides ample food for thought for the inquiring mind.
- Intercom, Michael Sherman, St. Patricks College, Maynooth.
Martin Henrys Tangents: Essays and Reflections is such a read-worthy and readable book. He gently touches many ordinary Christian topics with fresh truth as a tangent touches a circle or perhaps as an early sunbeam touches a hilltop, or like a careful nudge a grownup gives a youngster defying gravity on a swing.
- Review for Religious, March 2008
Anyone driving a car will be familiar with the reality of the blind spot: that area which we cant easily see but which hides possible disaster, travelling at our shoulder while we refuse to look. Less familiar are the blind spots we overlook in life itself and within his book the author considers this obscured vision in relation to our life within the church.
Martin Henry, priest and lecturer in Dogmatic Theology in Maynooth, has assembled a collection of essays and reflections on the elusive quality of truth as it relates to our Christian beliefs.
Applying the lightest of touches, these provide a revitalizing read as we examine our Christian certainties: the fullness of truth. For Martin Henry reasonably suggests that human beings, with the limitations of human understanding, can only comprehend truth indirectly. The aim of his reflections is to give the reader a new way of looking at old ideas: a brief encounter with the truth, in hope of generating further thought on the remarkable and ancient claims of the Christian faith. Being short, these essays would make a useful starting point for discussion in small groups.
This is a book to be dipped into, with provocative headings such as Is Christianity Unnatural?; Can the Bad Thief be Saved?; What is a Parish?; The Dark Side of the Beatitudes; Aspects of the History of Christianity; Escaping from the Experiments of the Past, all making it a page-turner. On our behalf the author asks the tough questions which cause us to doubt, questions which can become blind spots for the church.
It may reveal your blind spots, challenge what you thought you knew, give you a taste for what you didnt know, and leave you wanting to know more, with an index of homilies and names to move you on. Throughout, the author offers hope of Gods glory to those who ponder.
- Reality Magazine 2008
As Advent gets under way, Fr Martin Henry suggests it is a time not of seeking God but waiting for the reality of his arrival among us
A humorous anecdote relates how someone on his way to the west of Ireland met a friend who asked him where he was going.
He replied that he was going to the west of Ireland to try to find himself. His friend told him: Dont bother. Ive just come from the west of Ireland. Youre not there.
It is of course easy to poke fun at the find-yourself-culture of the present age. But it does nevertheless highlight a basic human need: to find meaning in our lives.
We all feel that need. The only question is whether we should go out and look for it or else wait in the hope that one day understanding will just come to us.
These approaches may appear to be mutually exclusive. Perhaps both are necessary.
For example, John the Baptist, Jesuss precursor, seems to combine them: he urges people to make preparations for the Lords coming but at the same time he doesnt suggest that this event can be humanly engineered.
Curiously, Jesuss own message does not differ significantly from Johns. Both speak about the nearness of Gods kingdom and, in the light of this hope, emphasise the need for repentance and change.
Yet the NewTestament also identifies differences between the approaches taken by John the Baptist and Jesus. John appears to have abandoned city, and even village, life entirely, and to have gone permanently into the wilderness to preach his message. Jesus, on the other hand, only went into the wilderness for 40 days, in order to prepare his subsequent mission.
When this time was up, He returned to the everyday world. It was in this world, and not in some desert, that he preached the message of the kingdom of heaven and it was people like ourselves, living in the normal world, that He invited into his kingdom. What can be deduced from this?
The wilderness is a place where we can go in order to reflect on our life, and try tomake sense of it. The wilderness, or desert , in other words, some isolated remote spot , has been the classical place where this kind of reflection has taken place.
But this wilderness doesnt have to be a literal one, a physical desert where people go to seek clarity about their lives. More often than not the wilderness is within us, when we are devastated by some great tragedy or loss.
That is the desert in which we may possibly begin thinking about life in a new way, about who and what we are, about how we relate to others, about what we really value, and why.
This thinking can be the beginning of a process of change. We need to stop looking back at the broken bridges behind us, and look forward, and then go forward, in a new light. That is what conversion or repentance really means.
The desert, then, can rightly be seen as a place for seeking meaning. And meaning is no mean thing. It is certainly not to be sneered at.
But Jesus goes further. He incarnates for Christian belief a reality even higher than the human attempt to make sense of life, or seek God.
Our search for God is, of course, profoundly important. But Christian faith is built on a belief in the reality of Gods seeking for us. In leaving the desert to go back into human society, in search of the lost sheep of Israel and ultimately of all humanity, Jesus incarnated this divine seeking.
What God seeks, he finds. Seeking for us, He will also find us, whether in a desert or a back street. God will do so in his own way and in his own time, which is not our human time of years and centuries. Locked in this human time dimension, we may often feel that God is being inactive but our faith assures us that He is only being patient.
If we can accept that it is God, and not ourselves, who will give meaning to our world, and redeem it, we will accept the need for waiting, and begin, wise men and women, to follow the bright star of Christian hope.
That is why Advent is such a significant time. We might try to find ourselves, to establish our own identity, to be the authors of our own meaning.
But Advent teaches us, at the start of every liturgical year, to relearn, indeed to re-enact, these ancient Christian truths: of letting God be God, and of waiting for him to find us.
And that is why Advent is primarily a time not of seeking, but of waiting. And we do not wait in vain, but look forward with joy to a child being born, the reality of Gods arrival among us.
- The Irish News - Thursday, December 3, 2009
During this season of Advent we look forward to the birth of Jesus , but we should also consider afresh the last things, says Fr Martin Henry.
On the final Sundays of the Churchs liturgical year, the Scripture readings turn, not surprisingly, to the issue of the last things, or the end of the world.
More portentously, theology uses for this the term eschatology. St Marks gospel (Mark 13:24- 32), to take the text used earlier this year, looks forward to the end of time when Christ, the Son of Man, will return to the earth and gather his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven.
Before we get that far, however, the evangelist predicts, through the mouth of Jesus, that the world will have to endure a time of great distress.
And after this time of great distress, apocalyptic catastrophes are predicted. It is claimed that the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Some contemporary commentators might be tempted to see in such dire, cataclysmic predictions , albeit clothed in a primitive, pre-scientific language , ominous warnings about future climate change or some other environmental disaster.
Yet what makes such an interpretation of the Gospel text unlikely is the fact that the evangelist doesnt appear to be particularly concerned at all about the fate of the earth in itself.
Indeed, he even seems to anticipate its eventual total disappearance with relative equanimity.
At least he puts the words: Heaven and earth will pass away, on the lips of Jesus, without any obvious sign of panic or horror or hysteria. The sun, we are assured by scientists, will one day exhaust its energy reserves, but even long before that happens, life, as we know it, will have ceased to be possible on this planet. So, no matter how careful and well-behaved we are or may become in the future, no matter how deferential we are towards the best advice available in matters ecological, it seems only a matter of time before this particular corner of the universe will be unfit for purpose.
And, if we may extrapolate from that, we could conjecture that, just as our solar system will eventually die, so will the whole universe one day run out of energy.
Things do, and things will, fall apart on a micro- and on a macro-scale. Its only a matter of time. Hence the old adage: if you live long enough, youll die.
Christianity, however, is not only about the deep truths of human experience. It is not only about the reality of change, either for better or for worse, in human existence. Even the kind of dramatic environmental change represented by the flood, say, in the Old Testament, is not given pride of place in the Christian dispensation.
And indeed not even the radical change of death , the fact that we are all tainted with transience , has been what has most concerned Christianity.
What is of paramount importance for Christian faith is evoked by Jesus when he says: Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.
What is at the heart of our faith is God and the indestructibility of Gods love for his creation, and especially for his wayward creature, man. God, in Christ, submitted to the vagaries of human history and to the ultimate humiliation of a brutal and ignominious death on the cross, in order to bring us to salvation.
What God begins, he can finish. What he promises, he can fulfil.
In other words, at the centre of our faith is not the reality of death, but the reality of God himself and the reality of Gods will to save humanity. The Christian teaching of the Second Coming, hinted at in various passages of the New Testament, is the affirmation of faith that no change in the human condition is as important as that reality.
No change in human affairs is capable of undermining the reality of God or Gods concern for us. Today and tomorrow may come and go, like yesterday, but the God of love, who was incarnate in Jesus, lives and loves for ever.
Our faith teaches us that Gods heart is, to use the jargon, eschatologically restless, that is, restless until it rests in us for ever. What is at stake when we speak about the last things, therefore, is the reality of God and of his unending love for his creation.
The strength, indeed the violence, of that love is hinted at in the apocalyptic imagery that has been traditionally associated with human attempts to visualise Gods final confrontation with his creation. But its a violence we dont need to be afraid of. Because its the same violence of love that carried Jesus, the Son of God, to his death and beyond. And its in the heart of God that we can all finally find eternal rest. In his will is our peace.
- The Irish News - Thursday, December 17, 2009
Why is the unusual family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus held up as the Holy Family?
The answer, says Martin Henry, reveals an important aspect of the truth of Christmas
The feast of the Holy Family, celebrated in the Christmas season (this year on Sunday December 27), has often been seized upon by Christian teachers, not unreasonably, as an ideal opportunity to reassert the traditional virtues needed to keep family life on an even keel.
These include the obedience of children to their parents, the exercise of authority without tyranny by parents over their children, or, more controversially, the submission of wives to their husbands, according to St Paul (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18).
Yet if you look a bit more closely at the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you can see at once that this was not quite a normal family.
According to Christian tradition, Mary and Joseph did not live like a normal married couple, and Jesus was Marys only child.
In Christian countries, in the past at any rate, the norm tended to be for married couples to have, if possible, large families, with many children, not just one.
So, in the light of this long tradition, the Holy Family is very uncharacteristic of the usual Christian family or, to say the least, its atypical of the ideal the church has often put before Christian spouses.
So why is a family, with just one child, given the inspiring title of the Holy Family, and held up for admiration?
Could it be that the meaning of the feast of the Holy Family has, in actual fact, very little or maybe nothing at all to do with the traditional understanding of marriage and the family?
If true, this would not, of course, imply that the traditional understanding of marriage and the family has no intrinsic value. But the feast of the Holy Family is perhaps about something else. And what it may have to convey is, above all, something of importance about the meaning of the incarnation.
The Holy Family is a holy family because the child of this family is the son of God. And hence this family is Gods family.
Put slightly differently, God didnt become man just for the sake of becoming man, so to speak. The incarnation wasnt some kind of extraordinary stunt or trick performed by God in order to impress or even dazzle us.
On the contrary, God became man for a reason or a purpose. The early Church teachers had this in mind when they argued that God became man so that we human beings could become divine or, as it could also be put, so that we human beings could all become members of Gods family.
But as Jesus himself taught: whether we are or become members of Gods family is decided by whether or not we are ready to do Gods will. It is not decided by when or where or into which family we happen to be born. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother, said Jesus (Mark 3:35).
That is to say, being a genuine member of Gods family is not decided by an accident of birth.
President Charles de Gaulle is said to have replied to the question: Why are you a Catholic? by answering: I am a Catholic by history and by geography.
Now, it is undoubtedly the case that most people are born into a religion, as part of their human inheritance, just as most get their language , their mother tongue , from their family. But being a member of Gods family is not quite so straightforward. It cannot be decided simply by history and by geography.
That implies, furthermore, that there is something more important, something deeper in our lives than history and geography, significant though these clearly are.
From history come the deepest human relationships we are aware of: those between parents and children, or between married couples, or between siblings. From geography comes the land we are born into, and the attachment that will normally develop between people and their native country.
But the lesson of the Holy Family is that there are relationships that are deeper still, and these are the relationships between God and us.
These relationships can be compared to those within a family in the sense that, like those between parents and children, they are irreversible.
But they also transcend family ties because we can never pin God down (The spirit blows where it wills, as St Johns Gospel has it), or indeed pin down where being a member of Gods family, assuming we become such, might eventually take us.
The chance of becoming a permanent member of Gods family, besides being a member of a human family, and sometimes, alas, maybe even despite what may happen in a human family, is, I think, an important aspect of the truth of Christmas that is brought to the fore particularly on the feast of the Holy Family.
- The Irish News - Thursday, December 24 2009