Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Review: "The Practice of the Presence of God" by Brother Lawrence

"[T]hey want to make it understood that they are not at all without God, since they certainly believe there is some sort of God, whom they even recognize as creator of heaven and earth, as do the Turks; but as for Jesus Christ, they only know that he is and hold nothing concerning him nor his doctrine." ~ Pierre Viret, Instruction Chr├ętienne (1564)

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence is considered a classic of Christian devotional literature. I had never read it until recently when I took a philosophy class at my seminary. One of the major assignments for the class was to take a piece of Christian devotional literature and analyze it with respect to the philosophical climate in which the author wrote. Christian thinking about the faith and the relationship between faith and life unavoidably reflects the intellectual climate of its time period. If only because thinking takes place in human language, concepts and idioms, even the most careful Christian writers have had to wrestle with uncritically adopting the world’s categories, assumptions and values at the very heart of their devotional lives. My job in this assignment was to see how Brother Lawrence fared in managing the philosophical currents of his age along Biblical lines.

I was surprised at what I found when I read this work. I had never heard anything bad about it, so I assumed I was going to read a fairly decent piece of devotional literature. However, when I read it the one thought that kept coming back to my mind was similar to Viret's quote above--this work by Brother Lawrence could have been written by anyone who claims to "believe in God" and yet does not hold to any other tenant of orthodox Christianity. Now, as I state in my essay, I must admit that one's ability to get a full understanding of Lawrence's theology is hindered by the fact that this work is a collection of letters and recalled conversations with Lawrence. That means we have only half the conversation (Lawrence's letters only) and second-hand information (conversations recalled by Abbot Joseph de Beaufort). That does limit the ability to understand Lawrence's theology and philosophical view. However, in this work there is no mention of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or the gospel. Worse yet, Brother Lawrence seemed to believe in a method of salvation that was to a large degree dependent on his works. So even if we cannot fully know Lawrence's theology, what is in this work could be damaging to someone who does not read it critically. Needless to say, I would not recommend this book to anyone as a devotional literature.

If you are interested in reading my thoughts and critique of this work, the essay can be found in my shared Google Docs.

By His Grace,

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