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Book Review: Faith: the Yes of the Heart

grace's book coverIn Faith: the Yes of the Heart, my neighbor and pastoral colleague, the Rev. Dr. Grace Brame, has laid out the contours of a mature Christian spirituality in a post-modern age. A Lutheran, Brame invokes a little read sermon by Martin Luther in which he speaks of faith as a “yes of the heart.” Interpreting this phrase, Brame explains that faith is not adherence to a set of beliefs, but rather, a passionate, positive response to an indwelling sacred Spirit (the Holy Spirit, in Christian parlance.) Brame’s book is not a step-by-step manual for growing one’s faith, but rather, a broad scholarly attempt to refute the faith-is-right-belief conceit of Christian orthodoxy in its many forms.

Here is a sampling of the book’s contents: There are chapters on a faith which balances heart and head, on the problem of understanding how or why God permits the suffering of innocents, on the importance of committing oneself to progressive social change. (The Christian existentialists of the 1950s called this “engagement”). Finally,  I was particularly grateful for Brame’s chapters on abiding in God, and on the importance of sabbath, silence, and solitude in an ever-more-frenetic, wired world. Brame, in her lengthy teaching career has specialized in the study of Christian spirituality, both in theory and practice. In this book she covers a very broad array of theological topics in order to explore how they might be re-understood in light of Luther’s insight that faith is a “yes of the heart.” She wants to liberate her readers from piety based on rules, encouraging them to realize that they have divine Spirit within, and that they can respond confidently with a joyful “yes!” This, according to my reading, is the book’s central purpose.

Brame’s citing of Luther’s sermon may be just a literary device to introduce that purpose. However, if she means to persuade her readers of the validity of that purpose by invoking the authority of Luther, then I judge that she has made a methodological move which undercuts it. Let me explain: In another little read work, Spiritual Reformers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Quaker author Rufus Jones observes that despite Luther’s emphasis on the importance of responding to the inner call of the Holy Spirit, both he (and Calvin too) ultimately mistrusted sacred Spirit as a source of authority, for they regarded spiritual experience as too subjective, too unreliable, possibly disruptive, and sometimes even dangerously explosive! So, these Reformers who in many ways did wage a radical critique of Roman Catholicism nevertheless remained conservative, in comparison to the mystic branch of the Reformation. I find that in Faith: the Yes of the Heart Brame reveals her mystic proclivity, her leaning toward a bold radical’s appreciation of inner light, very like that of Quakers and other Christian mystics. However, at a number of points her book reads more like a defense of Luther. Did she intend to use the prestige of Luther to persuade her readers of the truth of his relatively obscure insight (which is by no means unique to him) that faith is a yea-saying of the heart? No external authority, no champion should be required to persuade readers of that truth. George Fox, the grandfather of Quakerism, urged his contemporaries to follow the guidance of the inner light of Christ, which was present at least to some extent in every person. They would hear preachers say this or that. “But what can’st thou say?” Fox challenged them.

I found it quite significant that when examining the role of the Holy Spirit in matters of social conscience Brame drops the well known term, “theology of liberation” in favor of “spirituality of liberation.” This illustrates Brame’s tendency to trust in the authority of inner light when faced with a challenge of how to reform contemporary Christianity,. Hers is not a mainstream Reformed approach, bolstered by the authority of orthodox interpretations of scripture, expressed in creeds and corporate confessions, but rather the much riskier approach of relying on openness to the inner light, and a balancing of head and heart. In earlier times mystic reformers such as Brame were burned, hanged, or at the very least jailed. She has good reason to call her readers’ attention to the cost of Christian discipleship.

I have raised these criticisms of Dr. Brame’s book to pique others’ interest in it, and to encourage her in her native mystic direction, which I share and celebrate. In her future writing I would like her to consider how to make her views about spirituality more accessible to secularists. Faith: the Yes of the Heart is clearly written for Christians. In several places Dr. Brame makes brief analyses and judgments about secularists which need further examination. A mystic such as she, one who places such great weight upon spiritual experience, will likely acknowledge that sacred Spirit still blows where it wills, and that sometimes crucial wisdom comes to the churches from outside their own circles.



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