Dominicans, Docetists, Dogma and Doubt

Shortly after graduating from college in June 1965, I was married for the first time. My wife Mary and I planned to move to Kenya to teach in a mission in the area where one of her college classmates came from. During the six months we had to wait for the freighter that would take us there, we both worked and read voraciously. I was very much enthralled during this period with John T. Robinson’s Honest to God and Harvey Cox’s Secular City. Reading them led me to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Protestant theologian who was killed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer started the line of thinking that was picked up by Robinson and Cox and exploded in the famous Time magazine cover in April 1966: Is God Dead?

That is the background to this journal entry I made as we were waiting for the tugboat to pull the Robin Grey away from the dock and on its way around the Cape of Good Hope to Kenya. As I relate in the story about that trip, we were traveling with a Dominican priest, Fr. Francis Conway. Mary and I had been given the stateroom so that he would have a place to say Mass every day.

Here’s what I wrote:

After Mass [the morning before], Fr. Conway happened to mention that he was working or had been working on a dissertation on Tillich. I decided to sound him out to compare his views with Robinson’s Honest to God. He had Tillich [another one of Robinson’s mentors] fitted into neat little categories—Docetist, Arian, etc. and he had a very simple explanation of Robinson—if the Church is an organization for service to others, the Church is now irrelevant because the State can perform these functions better. “If you read Robinson correctly” you find he says the above—if you fit him into your neat little categories and don’t let yourself get shook up. I do agree with Fr that the basic question involves the necessity of grace for salvation, but I’m not sure the old categories fit. When I asked him about making your work your prayer, he started off on some idea that success or failure would then be able to be an obstacle to salvation or sanctification and I couldn’t get him off that track on to what Robinson was trying to say.

Once we were at sea, Fr. Conway started asking me down to his room just before supper to share some whiskey with him. Unfortunately I did not make more entries about these conversations. In fact, I’m surprised at how few entries I made during that voyage when we had nothing but time on our hands. But I have the vague memory that I didn’t pursue my theological questions with him. He was a lovely, kind man, but not very open to new ideas.

One Comment

  1. It is interesting that Fr. Conway links Tillich/Robinson to Arius and the Docetists, who were both arguing about the meaning of the doctrine that Jesus was both God and man. As I said in my journal entry I was more interested in whether we needed help, i.e., grace, from a supernatural God in order to make this world a better place. The ancient “heretic” who said that we didn’t was Pelagius. Fr. Conway was probably engaged in an argument with Tillich with whom I was not familiar.

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