By Patrick Henry. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2021. 318 pages. $19.99/paperback or eBook.
The title is phrased in such a way as to suggest “God’s grace” can be defined, but Henry cautiously disavows that: “I don’t know how to say what the grace of God is. What I can say is what it’s like for me.” He does not even claim to list the various understandings of “grace itself,” as he puts it. So he is simply offering his sense of the presence of God, and there is no need to be concerned with whether this counts as “grace” or not.
Each of the “33 Encounters” is given a name, a single word, or a short phrase. Each encounter helpfully concludes with “In a Word” where a single adjective (such as “reassuring,” “complex,” “reconciling,” “demanding,” “sustaining,” or “challenging”) sums up how this encounter has impacted him. The first two sections are devoted to self-assessment and reorienting. Then viewing everything in a fresh perspective (he admits he had a lot to unlearn before he could learn), he asks new questions about and argues with God, exploring the history and components of his Christian identity. The Christian realm today is starkly different from what it was in his growing years: denominational barriers have all but vanished; Christian energy is more and more directed “from fission to fusion.” The “In a Word” adjectives “daring,” “disorienting,” “adventurous,” “reassuring,” and even “humorous” clearly express the meandering paths of his life’s journey. He asks the crucial question: “Why are you Christian?” which leads to the more aggressive “Why are you still Christian?” This exploration leads into his presentation of the 33 encounters that outline this identity.
These encounters—with frequent cross-referencing—yield fresh insights that come from many unanticipated directions. Besides the expected Saint Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Søren Kierkegaard, Buddhism, and so on, there are references to musical performances and musical theater, The Da Vinci Code, a variety of TV shows and films, sports, the wisdom of Yogi Berra, Darwin, politics, the Scopes Trial, and Captain Sullenberger’s Hudson landing. It is hard to escape the feeling that Encounter 29 is his favorite one: the long series of TV shows devoted to the adventures of the starship Enterprise. It is in “remembering forward,” a dialogue with conversation partners three and a half centuries in the future, that he feels most companionably comfortable. Its theme of boldly venturing into the unknown and seeing new things with wonder opens to him the roominess of Christianity when it is truest to itself and encourages exploration. Following the final encounter, the book concludes with a seven-page letter to Captain Picard, thanking him for the exemplary qualities of his forward-looking leadership.
As a former professor of religion at Swarthmore College and having familiarity with the Bible, church, and history, Henry has had many opportunities in his lifetime for encounters both positive and negative. He works back through the many theological layers in history to recover the original sense of Christianity and finds himself concluding that religious truth remains essentially elusive. Further on, he gets into ecumenism and diversity and then science and religion, which for him are inescapably interactive and interdependent. Parenthetically, I confess to feeling a certain artificial tone of contrivance in these last sections, as if he were separating his smoothly articulated insights into the right number of encounters in order to match the preconceived field of 33.
The concluding section is called “A Spirituality for the Long Haul.” Encounter 30 takes up the challenge of the much-discussed overlap of “spirituality” and “religion,” where Henry finds grace in the ways spirituality can lose its moorings without the steadying hand of the church. “Institutional religion can stifle spirituality,” he claims, “but it can also nourish and sustain it.” The final insight he leaves us with in Encounter 33 is based on T.S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages that tells him that the grace is in always being able to detect the “groundswell’s bell.” It is in this final encounter that we come closest by means of a hint (“the motion of the sea brings not death but stability, a reference point in the mist of space and time”) to how Henry understands “grace”: something like the bestowing of an unearned gift or favor. It is summed up “finally” (his word) by his use of the word “amazing.”
Henry’s unflinchingly honest exploration is a valuable personal testimony in which we get an unparalleled view of his spiritual world. He succeeds in reaching his announced goal of opening the numerous often unrecognized ways in which encounters with God flash into our lives. Religious wisdom can indeed be discovered in many crevices, and he has succeeded in shining a laser-like light on these fragments of religious wisdom.
William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. He wonders whether the books we pay attention to here might not also be flashes of grace.