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At Age 93, Gregory Baum's Oil Has Not Run Dry

A Book Review
Volume 31, Issue 1,2 & 3, March 21, 2017

Christine Jamieson

     Gregory Baum’s book, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), is an intellectual memoir recounting life experiences that affected his theological thinking. The result is a beautifully written reflection and an amazing exploration of key theological themes over a period of 60 plus years beginning with Baum’s doctoral work on Christian unity. 
     An underlying interpretive tool that continually guided Baum was his openness to questioning, the force of which most often emerged when he recognized injustice and marginalization of individuals and groups. It seems that paying attention to our questions is paramount. As Baum asserts, “If we refuse to ask questions and repress our doubts, we gradually become blind fundamentalists or lonely non-believers.” (199) 
     The willingness to ask questions in face of difficult realities did not leave Baum unscathed. Early in his work as a theologian, he recalls an insight into the anti-Jewish rhetoric in Church teaching that “shook the very ground on which I had built my life.” (34) Yet, it was that dark period that paved the way to a profound realization that theology has a critical function and Baum has taken that critical function seriously throughout his life as a theologian. 
     Stylistically, the book is divided into two parts, comprising 40 short chapters. Part One, titled “My Theological Pathway” is initially a chronological exploration of events leading to Baum entering the Catholic Church, joining a religious order and becoming a priest. 
     From there, he follows the trajectory of his theological interests and why these themes emerged as important to study. Examples are “The Second Vatican Council” (Chapter 6), “The Impact of Latin American Liberation Theology” (Chapter 11), “Quebec Nationalism and Human Rights” (Chapter 16), “Dialogue with Islam” (Chapter 21) and “The Arrival of Pope Francis” (Chapter 24). 
     Part Two, titled “Questions and Answers”, is a dialogue of sorts between Baum and his good friend, philosopher and psychotherapist, Philip McKenna. McKenna asks Baum questions that allow readers a glimpse into more personal dimensions of Baum’s extraordinary life. Throughout the book, one is struck by Baum’s authenticity and honesty. This is particularly evidenced in Part Two.
     Gregory Baum identifies himself as a “practical theologian” engaged in the world and in people’s lives and concerns. “The Gospel is not a message about a higher sphere: it addresses the challenge experienced by people in this world.” (53) He is clearly a man who lives his life for others. At an early age, he experienced being “wounded by the suffering of others” which he calls “a gift of the Holy Spirit”. (11) 
     Certain early experiences of the suffering of others never left him. Even though his young life was filled with its own sufferings, this is not his focus. In fact, if there is a theme that runs throughout the book, it is one of gratitude. The title of the book refers to the story of a widow who shares with the Prophet Elijah the little food she has. 
     The Lord, in response, ensures that the widow’s oil never runs dry nor her jar of meal ever empty. Baum resonates with this story. At 93, he still lives a productive and happy life and his gratitude intensifies and overflows. 
     As is abundantly clear in this book, Baum has the uncommon gift of bridging the world of theory and practice, writing to a general, educated public about theological themes that could initially be perceived as totally unrelated to everyday lives. However, after reading Baum’s book, one becomes concretely aware that what he is writing about, the questions he raises, are questions that many thoughtful, committed Christians and Catholics have asked. It is a book that also speaks to non-Christians and even non-believers. 
     It raises issues and questions that touch the heart of people who struggle with the realities and fallout of injustice and marginalization in a world that is in crisis. While Baum’s conclusions may not resonate with everyone, his questions certainly do.
     From a progressive Catholic perspective, Baum’s is the voice of a people, articulating the cares and concerns that most experience but few can articulate. In his faithfulness to the critical function of theology he courageously pushes the horizon of his knowledge and values to understand what lies beyond. 
     Philip McKenna wrote a poem in honour of Gregory Baum’s 90th birthday in which he thanks Baum for his “witness in a darkened world, and [his] ready joy in life.” (213) Baum is a theologian who recognizes his utter dependency on the gracious gift of God’s love. 
     In the book, he reminds us often of this gracious gift, he writes of the gift as the undertow of human life and, while not determining the outcome of human existence (“the New Testament does not tell us how human history will end – in fulfilment or in catastrophe”), it offers hope and consolation. 
     “Christians are divinely summoned to live in hope, even as they sojourn in the wilderness.” (143) Yet, where can one find hope in the chaos of crisis? Baum reminds us that we must never forget about the theological category of “the unexpected”. “God’s action in the world is often a surprise, an unexpected mercy, an unforeseen breakthrough, an unpredictable turn of events.” (180) In reading The Oil Has Not Run Dry, Gregory Baum’s life bears witness to such beauty and hope.
Christine Jamieson is Associate Professor, Theological Studies at Concordia University, Montreal.