A Martyr’s Theology
  • Friday, September 20, 2013

Review by Ephraim Radner

Christian de Chergé was a Trappist monk who, with six of his monastic brothers, was killed in Algeria in 1996. The exact circumstances of their deaths remain disputed. They were abducted by a band of radical Islamists, in the midst of a horrendously violent period of civil-religious strife. Only their severed heads were subsequently recovered. To what degree did the Algerian army play a role in their deaths, and with what assistance from French security advisers, wittingly or unwittingly?

Rather, de Chergé gave his life as a reconciling gift thrown into the midst of the hostility and violence associated with antagonistic diversities. His was a witness made quintessentially within our late modern culture of fragmented “globalized” hopelessness.

Christian de Chergé
A Theology of Hope
By Christian Salenson.
Translated by Nada Conic.
Cistercian Publications.
Pp. 224. $19.95

De Chergé published little during his life. Since his death significant collections of his homilies and monastic conferences have been published in French, along with anthologies. More volumes are promised. But even in French these are expensive and scarce, and although there have been some fine accounts of the Tibhirine community, notably by John Kiser, there is virtually nothing of his work translated into English.

In 2010, the French movie Of Gods and Men movingly brought the final days of the monks’ lives to an international audience. Critical interest in the film centered, as our culture now tends to do, on the interreligious aspect of the story. But the movie itself, I would argue, was more Of Gods and Men focused on the monastic life of Christian community and prayer that supported local friendships to the point of sacrifice. And it is this, in my opinion, that The monastic life of Christian community and prayer remains the richest fruit of de Chergé’s witness.

Christian Salenson’s Christian de Chergé: A Theology of Hope (a translation of the 2009 French original) follows in step with the temper of the times, and takes up the Christian-Muslim aspect. Although this approach has its limitations, the volume, in all of its austere precision and accessibility, is of the highest quality, and deserves to be read as a necessary introduction to de Chergé’s thought. Salenson himself is a French priest and scholar, now head of a church-sponsored institute that is in part devoted to interreligious studies.

Compiler of a previous volume of prayers culled from de Chergé’s writing, here he lays out a synthetic overview of the monk’s theological vision, as it is oriented specifically towards interreligious dialogue. One of his key orientations is to interpret de Chergé in the light of the “Spirit of Assisi,” a term coined by John Paul II in the wake of his invited gathering of religious leaders in 1986. It was the pope’s assertion that the Spirit of Christ was properly at work, within all religions, to draw divided humanity back into its original unity. And under this impulsion, interreligious encounter was an essential part of the Christian mission.

Salenson divides his short volume into three sections. The first deals with contextual and personal aspects of de Chergé’s life and ministry. The second and longest section focuses, through a series of thematic chapters, on aspects of de Chergé’s understanding of Islam in relation to the Christian gospel. And the third offers a brief expansion of this vision into wider concerns, like martyrdom, ecclesiology, and prayer. In all of this, Salenson writes with clarity and a teacher’s careful guidance. Particularly useful is the way he repeatedly places de Chergé’s thinking in the context of magisterial discussion, sometimes also bringing to bear the thought of major Protestant theologians.

Let me focus on only two elements of this overview: the important formative role of some of de Chergé’s personal encounters and his understanding of eschatology. Both of these order the “hope” of the book’s title.

Salenson rightly underscores the way several specific meetings and persons profoundly shaped de Chergé’s self-understanding, including two in particular. In the first, as a seminarian working in Algeria, de Chergé developed a friendship with a Muslim family man, Mohammed, whose intervention saved the young man’s life and led to Mohammed’s own execution. In another, an unplanned meeting with a Muslim man in the course of several hours of prayer together reoriented his vision. For de Chergé these were not illustrations of a theory but providential encounters of Christ’s Spirit aimed at teaching and shaping him, and thus embodiments of the truths God offers in the gospel. They were to be “followed.” And this lies at the root of religious “encounter” itself: actual persons are the crucible of evangelical truths and divine guidance, not propositions. Such encounters, because real, offer true and historically revelatory signs of hope.

As Salenson explains it, Christian hope such as de Chergé saw embodied in religious personal encounter was the gift of divine grace at work in the world in a way that must necessarily outstrip human comprehension and manipulation. Influenced by the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy, de Chergé insisted that God’s love in Christ Jesus “for the world” is the foundation of any knowledge we might have of anything of value. It also comes “to” us, rather than being elicited by us. In a way that perhaps can be seen as paralleling Barth’s insistence on the historical priority of God’s life in Christ, de Chergé saw the reconciling act of God, in its fulfillment, as preceding Christian-Muslim encounter, and hence “filling it” with its divine fruit of unity even before our efforts. There was no problem for de Chergé in claiming that in such encounters we “recognize” Christ’s spirit at work within the other, much as the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leapt in the face of her encounter with Mary. The “end” is given its sign within the present encounter of love. A Christian can love a Muslim neighbor without dint because that love is already established in its infinite breadth in a way that must include Christian and Muslim together in Christ somehow.

To be sure, the “somehow” was something de Chergé was explicit in leaving unspecified. Christian hope meant assuming a place for Islam in God’s positive economy, not in a way that might supplant the Christian gospel, but nonetheless in a way that the Christian gospel itself demanded be kept veiled, so that only love might be its explicator. Salenson argues, on this basis, that the “martyrdom” that can be attributed to de Chergé and his companions is of a particular kind. That is, although not unrelated to its creedal base, the “witness” pressed in another direction: if de Chergé and his brothers were murdered “for Christ,” it was for that love of Christ that drove them simply to be friends with their religious counterparts — amicable and hostile as they were — with no other motive than that such love be lived openly. They were, Salenson says, “martyrs of charity.” And in this sense, a world of division is put on notice and invited in by the truth of God in Christ.

Salenson’s study engages much more than this, and merits careful study. Still, the book has its limitations, ones that might possibly contribute to distortions regarding de Chergé’s own thinking and witness in a public mind that approaches his monastic life with restricted knowledge.

It is possible, for instance, to read Salenson and gain a picture of de Chergé as a radical religious inclusivist. While Salenson tries hard to avoid this, his frequent quotations from Raimon Pannkkar, among others, can give the impression that de Chergé shared with them their often worrying syncretistic tendencies. He did not. While his notion of divine grace was indeed radical, it remained tied to the particularities of Incarnation, Scripture, and Gospel — not to mention Church — in ways that cannot be easily reduced to religious inclusivism. His own reflections on the question of the “status” of non-Christian religions remained deliberately tentative and humble.

Much of this is tied, on the one hand, to his deeply traditional Benedictine milieu and commitments and, on the other, to his well-rooted formation as a priest and loyal servant of the Church. This is something Salenson’s focus inevitably misses. De Chergé, for all his willingness to be open to self-critical rethinking regarding the place of Islam in God’s economy of salvation, was an orthodox and, in many ways, very conservative Christian. This is important to grasp, and comes out far more clearly in his discussions of Church teaching, Scriptural reflection, and ecclesial expectations given in his homilies and community talks.

Not that these stand in some kind of tension with his interreligious reflections. Just the opposite: they support them because of the sheer power of de Chergé’s quite traditional faith in the infinite grace of God in Christ Jesus. Vulnerable openness to others derives from confidence in the absoluteness of the Christian revelation in this case — something that is often misunderstood by those whose commitment to a greater religious tolerance wrongly leads them to relativize and reshape the clear contours of the Christian gospel. Here, in any case, we face something similar to Bonhoeffer: de Chergé’s steadfast faith in the ultimacy of God in Christ, rather than a relativizing instinct, led him into an astonishing sacrificial generosity of spirit.

Salenson’s book should be read as widely as possible, just because it opens English readers to the evangelical shape of such generosity. It is a generosity, however, that requires experimental engagement among us in order to be explored, let alone understood. And that is a calling for which the discipleship of encounter, and not theological argument alone, is the vehicle of grace.

The Rev. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and serves on the Living Church Foundation.

Martyr's Theology


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