Gerard Hughes (1924-2014) was a Jesuit priest whose writing on faith and spirituality may be said to have arisen out of his ambivalent relationship with the church. Twice sacked, then reinstated, as Catholic Chaplain at Glasgow University, Hughes was never afraid to speak out on controversial matters of faith. In the sixties and seventies it was contraception and admitting non-Catholics to Communion that got him into trouble. Later on, nuclear disarmament and the anti-war movement became his cause. The vengeful God, frequently vaunted by church and state, bore no relation to the God of peace and compassion that Hughes preached. He saw discussion, debate, doubt and uncertainty as important aspects of the spiritual life – in contrast to what he saw as the authoritarian tendencies of the Catholic Church of which he was a part. His focus was on the inner life – on the quest for God – rather than orthodoxy of religious practice and doctrine.
Hughes’ bestselling book God of Surprises (1985), was written for “bewildered, confused or disillusioned Christians, who have a love-hate relationship with the church to which they belong or once belonged.”1 At a time when the church’s relevance was beginning to be openly challenged, Hughes book offered a God “smiling at us in our bewilderment, beckoning to us in our confusion and revealing himself in our failure and disillusion as our only rock, refuge and strength.”2
Hughes’ sequel, God in All Things (2003), written almost twenty years after God of Surprises, targets this same, growing, audience andcontinues to emphasise the inner life. Hughes spent the intervening period developing spirituality practices for those working in the fields of justice, peace and reconciliation. Recognising rapidly changing global and social contexts, Hughes considers that many of the religious structures and securities of a previous generation no longer meet the needs of the day. He rejects the turn to religious fundamentalism and urges his readers to seek true security:
True security enables us to live at peace in insecurity, offers us certainty in uncertainty, comfort in confusion; it helps us to spot creativity in chaos, and to smile even in the tears of things.3
There is an implicit recognition in Hughes’ work that, for many people, traditional religious institutions appear to be at odds with changing social attitudes, scientific understanding, new theologies and progressive politics in general. In spite of this, this is an encouraging, generous-spirited and hope-filled book. Hughes aims to provide a way back into a spiritual life for progressive-leaning, former church-goers, who are neither willing nor able to sacrifice intellectual, political or – in my case – feminist integrity in the name of their religion.4 (I noted with satisfaction that the male pronouns used unreflectively for God throughout God of Surprises are gone and the more inclusive term “Godself” introduced, in this sequel). However, if you are a religious traditionalist, or adhere to a more right-of-centre political standpoint, you may find this book rather more confrontational – and I believe it is deliberately so. Hughes’ spiritual teaching is unabashedly bound up with his left-wing, progressive, socio-political worldview, which is, frankly, right up my street – but which will assuredly be off-putting for some readers. I say more about this below.
Spiritual integrity is at the core of this book. Hughes argues that, “If our life in the Spirit is genuine, it must find expression in the way we relate to one another and the way in which we organise our lives, both corporately and as individuals.”5 He spends the first three chapters identifying the ways in which spirituality may be perceived to have become “split” from the rest of life. This split is manifest in our separation of the church and spirituality, the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the secular, the soul and the body, religion and politics, the heart and the head. For Hughes the purpose of the spiritual quest is unity with God, our ultimate identity. This identity is revealed not through orthodox practices or the assertion of doctrinal propositions, but through lived experience of God:
We can only come to a knowledge of God through our sense experience of God’s creation. If we try to find God by ignoring our own experience, we shall construct an abstraction. And yet, with our split spirituality this is precisely what we attempt. We are trying to find a God who is uncontaminated by anything earthly, and in this way we construct an abstract God.6
At the end of each chapter are exercises for the reader to undertake, which Hughes believes to be the most valuable part of the book. These encourage reflection on the reader’s felt experiences during the exercises. However, for Hughes, our knowledge of the limitations of our own minds and experiences must mean that we acknowledge the limitations of our understanding of God. “Complete religious certainty about God, without any shadow of doubt, is a sign of atheism. The God we think we know all about cannot be the true God, because God is always greater than our powers of comprehension.”7 Agnosticism, rather than dogmatism is a characteristic of Hughes’ approach.
Hughes asserts that if God is our ultimate identity, then there must be signs in us, now, both of God’s immanence and transcendence. God’s holiness or transcendence in us may be evidenced through agnosticism, a hunger for knowledge and truth, through the gift of awe and wonder, through our sense of humour, through human love and desire and through our longing to be free.8 God’s immanence or down-to-earth nature in us is evidenced in compassion and inclusivity towards others in all areas of our lives.9
Hughes even goes so far as to identify guidelines for distinguishing true from false spirituality. These encompass four elements:
- The intra-personal: How do I relate to myself? To what extent does the reality I am living relate to my inner experience? How are my thoughts, feelings, prayers reflected in my actions?
- The inter-personal: Am I letting God be God in personal relationships? Am I compassionate, loving and forgiving, however impossible other people may be?
- The social: Are my attitudes and values compassionate and inclusive? Or do they reflect “destructive defences” such as “racism, sexism, militarism, consumerism and narrow nationalism”?
- The environmental: Does my life-style reflect an awareness of God-in-all-things – the inter-relatedness of all of creation? Am I concerned for the wellbeing of the planet over and above personal greed and consumerism?10
As a progressive Christian reader this is just the sort of thing that floats my boat: orthopraxy not orthodoxy, environmental action as opposed to evangelism, inclusivity rather than exclusivity. And yet here I face just the kind of heart/head split described by Hughes above. With my Religious Studies training I recognise religious boundary-making when I see it. Hughes is setting out a new spiritual orthodoxy: a framework through which authentic spirituality may be measured and tested. Critical scholars of religion point out that when “liberal” and “progressive” religious practitioners start redrawing boundaries of good and bad religion, they do so intentionally to create an in-group and an out-group. They deliberately exclude the kind of religious believers who have socially conservative values, religiously conservative or fundamentalist beliefs, and illiberal and intolerant attitudes from the in-group. Russell McCutcheon sums up this problem:
Those not in favour of these [liberal, tolerant] rules and the social world they make possible are understandably, yet in suitably illiberal fashion, branded as exclusivists [. . .] radicals, militants, extremists [. . .]. Such name calling strikes me as eliminating from serious consideration the very group whom liberals claim to include in their pluralist umbrella.11
As McCutcheon points out, it is contradictory, on the one hand, to make tolerant inclusivity a criterion of authentic spirituality, while on the other emphatically excluding those who are not inclusive and tolerant (e.g., for Hughes, racists, sexists and nationalists – but also religious fundamentalists). I raise this contradiction not because I think Hughes is wrong to emphasise these desirable characteristics of the spiritual life – I find the guidelines helpful and insightful. I mean, rather, to point out that genuine spiritual inclusivity, while appearing to be straightforward in theory, actually requires tolerance of people whose views we may consider intolerant and whose theology we may consider to be pathological. In practice, this kind of tolerance is uncomfortable, embarrassing and downright infuriating in the context of your average church discussion group. Hughes hints at some awareness of this when he speaks of the indignation of the outraged faithful in Jesus’ story of the wedding feast to which invitees included “good and bad alike.”12 But in Hughes’ readiness to dismiss religious fundamentalists as idolatrous, heretical and atheistic I fear he fails his own spiritual test. His “true” spirituality may appear illiberal, dogmatic and authoritarian to those on the outside, looking in. My point is, that this name calling does not make it easier for progressive church groups to engage constructively – and inclusively – with people who hold more rigid religious views.
Tobe fair, Hughesis here setting out his progressive Christian stall. It is not surprising that he should define his programme against forms of religious belief and practice that he believes to be harmful both to the self and to wider society. And it is with this generosity of spirit that I believe this book should be read. God in All Things is, in fact, a real treasure trove of practices for anyone seeking guidance on the Christian spiritual life.
A key insight of God in All Things is that holiness is not something to aspire to, or to earn:
[Holiness is] a gift freely given, indestructible and always accessible [. . .]. Spirituality is the process by which we become more aware of this gift of holiness and increasingly conformed to it. To the extent that we acknowledge the gift, our life will be transformed, as we allow God to be the God of love and compassion to us and through us.13
And this is not simply a navel-gazing exercise:
Transformation does not begin and end in us; in some way it has an effect upon the whole of creation. God’s gifts are never given simply for the good of the individual: they are given for the wellbeing of all human kind, including the good estate of our enemies!14
It is the interconnectedness of all people, all things – down to subatomic particles and on the cosmic scale – with God and each other that makes prayer both the “most effective” and “most subversive activity in which we can engage”.15 He defines prayer as “a surrender of our whole being to God, so that God may be the God of mercy and compassion to us and through us [. . .]. Prayer is about being still, so we can become more perceptive and responsive to God.”16 Hughes draws on traditional sources such as the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola – the founder of the Jesuits – making them accessible to the modern reader.
In simple language and in patient and forgiving terms, Hughes provides a range of exercises for stilling, meditation and contemplative prayer. From simple breathing exercises to imaginative interpretation of scripture, all encourage reflection on the felt experience of the activity. By bringing our feelings into the prayer, Hughes suggests, we are able to heal the split in spirituality. “Our feelings are, in many ways, far more intelligent and perceptive than our conscious minds in terms of knowing and meeting our needs [. . .]. Feelings discern what is needful and register its importance by their intensity.” These feelings can then be used to examine the desires which underlie them. The desires themselves can indicate a “rich seam of precious metal” for spiritual growth.17 Our desires, he says, are never ultimately split from our spiritual life, but integral to it: “If we could discover what we really desire, we would have found God’s will: if we could really find our true self, we should have found God.”18
In subsequent chapters, Hughes expands on desire as the ultimate longing for God who is at the core of our being. Following Ignatius Loyola, he presents guidelines with which to discern the source of our desires and decision-making processes, and to bring them in line with this longing for at-one-ness, or atonement with God. These themes are further developed in chapters on spiritual freedom, pilgrimage and church unity.
In his chapter on human suffering, Hughes mounts a critique of theological ideas which “add to pain and suffering, rather than alleviate it.”19
In the past, some theologians have produced explanations of the death of Jesus that correspond exactly with ancient mythical accounts of sacrifice in which a victim is killed and through the killing, enemies are reconciled and peace restored. God is presented as the murderer; a God of retribution who can only be satisfied with the blood of his Son who by shedding it, makes up for our sins and expiates them.20
The outworking of such beliefs must be “utterly destructive of human freedom and life. They can be so interpreted that they present an image of a God whose will appears to be our suffering and death. This is the antithesis of the God whom Jesus presents in his life and his teaching.”21
It is worth quoting Hughes at length here, because his point is well made and is a helpful redescription of the events of Jesus’ death for those who find this retributive theology unpalatable. He argues:
Jesus is the image of the unseen God, the expression of God in human form. Jesus lives and preaches a God of non-violence [. . .]. Jesus was a threat to those whose security lay in their power to control, dominate and oppress precisely because he manifested a God who did none of those things; a God who calls us instead to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. Jesus opposed the misuse of power by civil and religious authorities. Jesus opposed such exercise of authority, a resistance that brought him to arrest and crucifixion, but even in his final moments he manifests the God of compassion: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).
In the passion and death of Jesus it is as though the concentrated evil and perversity of humankind is hurled at God through his son, Jesus, and Jesus fails to respond with redemptive violence.22
Consistent with the kind of spiritual integrity that is being promoted in this book, Hughes insists that our theology should not necessitate an intellectual “split” from our experience of the compassionate and loving nature of God, from our trust in the potential for goodness in human nature which finds its identity in God, or from a praxis in which compassion, justice and non-violence are at the fore. There is much more wisdom in this chapter about the nature of suffering, and in the following chapter, on dying. But I shall end with Hughes’ insightful comments on the Christian Eucharist, which are again in line with his concern for the outworking of spirituality into daily lives. For Hughes, the Eucharist is not just a remembrance of the Last Supper, or of the breaking of Jesus body at the crucifixion:
It is far more than the commemoration of a past event [. . .]. This is a declaration of the nature of God in whom we all live and move and have our being; therefore it is also a declaration of the truth of our own existence [. . .]. God’s existence is a giving, so that we, all of us, might live. Jesus tells us, “Do this in my memory”. He is not simply saying “Repeat this ritual regularly”. He is saying something far more important: “Let this be the pattern of your lives, too, so that you live to give life to one another, so that your lives become Eucharist.” This Eucharist “deepens our awareness of who we are, that our ultimate identity is in God, the God of mercy and compassion. This awareness leads us to live what we celebrate, allowing God to be God to us and through us.”23
God in All Things, although sixteen years old at the time of writing, has a relevance and prescience at a time when our political landscape has never been more fractured and the climate emergency presents an existential threat to the planet. Hughes would not have us retreat to religious certainties and narrow political solutions but to seek the “true security” which “helps us to spot the creativity in chaos.” The lesson of this book is surely that any creative and compassionate action that we can take, in our homes, our communities, and through participation in wider campaigns for economic and climate justice – rooted in prayer and self-reflection – is our expression of God-in-us, and our own gift to humankind.
The book does, however, inadvertently present a challenge to the progressive Christian movement as a whole: how are we to share our alternative theology of a compassionate and inclusive God-in-all-things, without engaging in name-calling, boundary-making and unintentional exclusivism? It’s a challenge I’m not entirely sure Hughes meets – but that may be too harsh a judgement. It is a test I fail unerringly.
God in All Things has assuredly been a gift to our Haven Churches benefice. After reading this book with our book club, our minister established weekly contemplative prayer on Thursday evenings, from 6pm, in St Catherine’s Chapel, St Helens. The Eco Church – from 3.30pm on the fourth Sunday in the month – is also a natural outworking of God in All Things. You are most welcome to join us.
1 Gerard W. Hughes. God of Surprises (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985), ix.
2 Hughes. God of Surprises: ix-x.
3 Gerard W. Hughes. God in All Things (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003), x.
4 Hughes does not use the term progressive, but I think it is useful as a short hand for the kind of experiential, liberal theology which he here promotes.
5 Hughes. God in All Things: 2
6 Ibid. 21.
7 Ibid. 22.
8 Ibid. 22-26.
9 Ibid. 35-38.
10 Ibid. 43-46.
11 Russell T. McCutcheon, “Our ‘Special Promise’ as Teachers: Scholars of Religion and the Politics of Tolerance”, in Critics Not Caretakers, ed. Russell T. McCutcheon (New York: State University of New York Press, 2001). 162-3.
12 Hughes. God in All Things: 38-9.
13 Ibid. 18.
14 Ibid. 50.
16 Ibid. 51.
17 Ibid. 64-5.
18 Ibid. 75.
19 Ibid. 179.
20 Ibid. 194.
21 Ibid. 180.
22 Ibid. 195.
23 Ibid. 226-227.