Author, theologian lectures 'via negativa'
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Talking with Douglas John Hall, a retired professor of theology at McGill University in Montreal, you imagine what it must have been like talking with Alistair Cooke.
There's the perfect erudition, the royal-sounding accent, the Latin phrases. And like the BBC "Masterpiece Theatre" announcer, Hall is oh so interesting to listen to.
With 25 books — the most popular were probably "The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age" and "Why Christian? For Those on the Edge of Faith," he estimates — under his belt, Hall, who is here from Canada, is making a return trip. He also served as theologian in residence at the Church of the Crossroads in 2003. Lectures he gave then are now part of his latest tome, 2005's "Bound and Free: A Theologian's Journey," which he describes as "a kind of theological autobiography."
Here are his answers to our five questions:
Q. What was the impetus for the lecture series, "What Christianity Is Not"?
A. "There's an old tradition, doing theology 'via negativa,' or the opposite of 'via positiva.' You can talk about what a thing is, or what it is not. Sometimes, that's the better way to do it. If I tried to tell someone who my wife is, especially if she was hearing me, I could get into serious trouble. But if I said who she isn't — she isn't blond, she isn't 6 feet tall, she isn't Asian — that way I could leave space in the middle where the reality can be contemplated."
Q. Where else would you use "via negativa"?
A. "It helps to clarify what is going on in society, like misinterpretations of the Christian faith, which is not a culture religion, not a religion of the book, not a system of morality, and what misinterpretations are there in those."
Q. Can you explain that?
A. "Our society is full of biblical fundamentalism. You take the Bible literally, 'This is what truth means.' This, I would say, is a misinterpretation of Christianity and the Bible both. It doesn't ask us to do that. The Bible is pointing to something beyond itself, so far beyond itself that it can put God in definition.
"As for being a culture religion: Christianity has been in the Western world as everybody's religion. If you were born in English or German or French society in the past, you're automatically Christian. An example: I was giving a lecture in Idaho and a man said, 'I've not heard so much un-American stuff in my life.' 'As a Canadian,' I said, 'I'm confused. What does that mean?' He said, 'That's easy, it means being un-Christian.' We shouldn't present Christianity as just a Western thing.
"As a system of morality: For a lot of people, it means what you should do and shouldn't do. Of course, it has to do with ethics, but it can't be reduced to a system of ethics. Christianity's basic ethic is to love, and love can't be reduced to a system of dos and don'ts."
Q. When you look at Hawai'i, with its mix of Eastern and Western religion, what do you see happening to Christianity here?
A. "I'm not really equipped to discuss Hawai'i specifically, but the whole Western world is becoming pluralistic. We're used to a sprinkling of Judaism with some Islam mixed in. Hawai'i is a bit farther advanced, much like Canada. The official policy of the country is multiculturalism. That's becoming our new reality. We have to learn how to listen. The great temptation of religion is to imagine itself true."
Q. Why are you a Christian today?
A. "I've written 30 books about that, so I don't want to give you a great, long spiel. Hmm. I'm a Christian because that's the only way I can make sense of my own life."