A Witness in Our Time

Robert McAfee Brownby Selected with an Introduction by Paul Crowley

Orbis Books. 224p $22

“In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” That claim by Dag Hammarskjöld is borne out in the books published in the series “Orbis Modern Spiritual Masters.” The authors of these paperbacks are people of action whose holiness-spirituality fuses contemplation with activity. Think of Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil and scores more. Now the Protestant theologian Robert McAfee Brown joins that published cast with Spiritual and Prophetic Writings, edited by Paul Crowley, S.J.

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Does Brown fit? He was certainly “modern,” at home in his times, though he was also respectful of the past, on whose scriptures and testimonies he drew. His work is certainly “spiritual,” though hardly a page of this book would be a lure for those who promote unmoored “spirituality” of the sort so popular in our era. Brown was impatient with the gauzy and gassy forms of self-contemplation so readily available on the market today. And he is a “master,” as readers of this anthology of his spiritual writings will quickly find out.

Crowley sneaked the word prophetic into the subtitle. “Oh-oh!” readers have a right to respond: that’s a dangerous word to apply in descriptions of an honored and well-traveled figure like Brown. Prophets are supposed to be burners of bridges behind themselves, rejecters of the kind of props on which endangered high-risking humans can fall back. Suspicious when prophetic is a too casually applied appellation, I sometimes let myself be ornery enough to note that being academically tenured almost disqualifies one from being a prophet. Yet in a sense, Professor Brown (Stanford University, Union Theological Seminary) transcends the category or finds a distinctive way of fitting it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a victim of the Nazis, spoke of prophecy as “hope projected backward.” Whatever else Brown the realist points to, it is hope. Prophets can be gloomy when sure of themselves, as was the biblical Jeremiah—hence the category “Jeremiad.” But they can also write Browniads, as does our author here.

Prophetic writers get right to the point. In the opening lines of the anthologized texts, “A Personal Creed,” Brown had to issue a response to a request or demand of the San Jose Presbytery when he wanted to activate his clergy papers there after several years away. Here it is: “I can summarize my faith in two words of the early church, Kyrios Christos (Christ is Lord), or in ten words of [hymn-writer] Samuel Crossman, ‘love the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.’” Readers of the pages that follow that creed will find that these two-plus-ten words provide the cantus firmus for the “rich polyphony of [his] life,” to cite Bonhoeffer again.

Readers may need this undertone or undergirding if they are first meeting Brown here, since at first glance, as his biographical sketch and the variety of topics dealt with in this collection suggest, he seems to be “all over the place,” as an example of what Robert J. Lifton named “Protean man.” The librarian Robert Benedetto, in his preface, almost gasps as he recounts Brown’s issues and involvements, and I will try to inspire more gasps by quoting him as he enumerates some highlights: “the civil rights movement and race relations, the ecumenical movement, the Holocaust and Jewish-Christian relations, liberation theology and narrative theology, Marxism, the politics and governments of Central America and Cuba, world poverty, the changing shape of Protestant theology, the Second Vatican Council and Protestant-Catholic relations, and the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement.” The many of us who were dabblers in these issues and marginal to these movements can attest: Brown was centrally engaged and made decisive contributions.

Although in this review we may concentrate on his Catholic and other Christian commitments, it would do him an injustice if we slighted his role in Christian-Jewish conversations, and we also do not do justice to him if we do not notice the esthetic writings collected here. Thus the piano- and cello- playing and occasional singer theologian Brown writes on “Beauty . . . and the Humiliated” and “Music: the Highest Form of Human Praise.” And, along the lines of more conventional “spiritual writing,” he also offers “Take Prayer,” or touches theology as he asks of an ecumenical document, “Who Is This Jesus Christ Who Frees and Unites?” Brown may not be read as much as he was several decades ago—who of his contemporaries is?—but believers and lookers-on will be poorer if they share in the neglect. This book allows a new generation to catch on and older generations to catch up.

To take a final example, slighted here because this book publishes only what has not been collected in books before, is the Robert McAfee Brown best known in Roman Catholic spheres for his earlier publications on Catholic events and modes. He was a most scrupulous and even exciting observer and chronicler of all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. He published one book, An Observer in Rome (1964), which included all four sessions, and which deserves to be consulted by those who want an alternative to the polarizing writings by many Catholics and others. As late, or as recently, as 1987, in an address to a Protestant congregation in Minnesota, he did a careful and not uncritical evaluation of two documents (on the economy and on peace) issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Not given to optimism but committed to hope, he dropped his guard and closed his analysis with “Deo Gratias (Thanks be to God)” and, he adds, “with another salutation I am still somewhat surprised to hear coming from my Calvinist lips: ‘Thanks be to the bishops.’”

Brown also had many occasions after 1987 and before his death in 2001 to say “No thanks” to the bishops, but his Calvinist heart and catechisms would not let him waver in the first call, “Thanks be to God!” It does not surprise me to hear my Lutheran lips and heartbeat utter thanks to God for a witness in our time, Robert McAfee Brown. And after hearing these sounds, I would then emulate what Brown liked to do: engage in critical conversation, since the issues and movements to which Benedetto referred remain alive, if transformed, in our time, and many new ones have been added. Brown’s Christian claim, Kyrios Christos, and his prophetic call to “love the loveless...that they might lovely be” provide incentive and guidance still.

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