Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 18, 1999
Vanier confronts secular views of renewal
Becoming Human., by Jean Vanier, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 1998 CBC Massey Lectures, 163 pp.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
When this reviewer first heard Jean Vanier speak, it was to a ecumenical group of idealistic students and their friends 30 years ago.
Much has changed over three decades but in a true sense Vanier and his message have not. He has only become more seasoned and experienced in his understanding of basic faith, the importance of the poor, and the implications of all this for people in the "real world."
Back then, he was sketching his views to a group of Christians soon after Vatican II.
Now, his content and the nature of his audience have expanded considerably. He quotes from the Koran and the Dalai Lama to amplify insights from Jesus. He is more quietly confident to share truth as he understands it with postmoderns searching for meaning.
Vanier was invited to give the prestigious 1998 Massey Lecture series. That offered him an audience he would not normally reach. Becoming Human is essentially the text of his talks.
The five lectures (on loneliness, belonging, from exclusion to inclusion: a path of healing; the path to freedom, and forgiveness) are vintage Vanier, but with a difference.
His message seeks to confront, on its own turf, the secular penchant for personal and societal renewal through pragmatic and rational restructuring rather than by means of a profound spiritual change in the human heart.
Two parallel streams permeate this series - the personal and the societal need for healing and hope. Experience has taught the author that the latter is interdependent with the former. "A changed person can change society" is his nuanced and repeated message.
He also makes it radically clear that "Society must change its basic priorities to include and integrate the individual in all his or her variety and difference."
Becoming human holds special meaning for the author who founded the L'Arche communities now numbering more than 100 worldwide. He co-founded, with Marie-Helene Mathieu, the Faith and Light movement (1,300 groups in 75 countries) which bring together people with disabilities, their parents and friends, for regular times of meeting.
L'Arche has taught Vanier that universal truth can be discovered in the particular situation. True community, essential to any real individual growth, is based on a vision of a common humanity where mercy and kindness are more important than ideology.
Becoming human in community is not so much a matter of acquiring knowledge, power and status - the normal way to success - as of focusing on human essentials, and the heart which he calls "the powerhouse of love."
Welcoming a few people who are different to become friends can start to change society. This is the way of the heart.
Reading this book will challenge any reader to a profound reassessment of values. Vanier's insights are as poignant for growing numbers outside organized religion as they are for churchpeople struggling to locate faith in a rapidly changing world.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a lecturer at the University of Calgary. He was a Lutheran pastor, missionary and Church executive for 25 years.)