Paul S. Fiddes

Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue between Literature and Christian Doctrine

Review by Julian Gotobed, 2002

Fiddes, Paul S. Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue between Literature and Christian Doctrine. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999. viii + 269 pp. ISBN 0-86554-649-5.

Paul Fiddes is Principal of Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, and a Baptist Minister. He teaches Systematic Theology specializing in the Christian understanding of Atonement and God as Trinity. However, his interests range far beyond the traditional confines of the systematic theologian. as the subtitle of Freedom and Limit clearly indicates the book is a fascinating conversation between the Christian Story and the creative works of modern authors and poets.

Fiddes contends that the underlying thrust of a great deal of poetry, literature, and drama is a movement towards mystery. Creative authors are probing for the hidden reality that a Christian theologian would speak of as a personal God. Conversely, the Systematic Theologian is engaged in a movement from mystery. Central to the Christian notion of God is the conviction that God has revealed Himself through the story of the people of Israel and supremely in Jesus Christ. These movements to and from mystery overlap, because they share themes and concerns common to all human beings

Historically, the Christian Story has been depicted as beginning in Paradise, a Fall from Paradise, and a return to Paradise. This model can be likened to a ‘U-shape’ in terms of the course that the story takes. Fiddes concludes that this model does not do justice to the biblical witness nor, indeed, to the experience of human beings reflected in literature and poetry stretching from Shakespeare through William Blake, Gerald Manley Hopkins, D. H. Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, and William Golding. Fiddes prefers to think of the human experience as a line bounded by the polarities of freedom and limit. Human beings find themselves caught between the tensions generated by these two factors in human experience.

The human experience is frequently characterized by anxiety. Human beings attempt to resolve this predicament not by trusting God and obeying Him, but by turning to substitutes for God that fail to be adequate and ultimately disappoint.

Essentially, the task of theology is to talk carefully about the human experience of God. The words of literary artists weave stories and paint pictures that strive for self-transcendence and stretch out towards mystery and fresh vistas. Fiddes lays these two kinds of story side by side so that they might illuminate one another.

The juxtaposition of the Christian Story alongside stories that aspire to glimpse and connect with ‘that reality which is already present in our experience, though in a hidden way’ offers a creative approach to engaging seriously with the phenomenon of religious experience. The resources of Systematic Theology need to be extended beyond the realm of fiction and poetry to evaluate and dialogue with descriptions of religious experiences.