If ever there were a time to be asking the big questions, it’s probably now. I mean – commercial Christmas, COVID, universal chaos, climate change crisis – you know. But let’s narrow it down and start at the top – Is there a God? And / or is it possible to be good without God, the ‘standover man’? Endless list really. But these and so very many more are the questions with which James Leatt has been living – for a very long time. In his 80s now, Leatt set out on the religious path as lay pastor for the Order of Christian Service aged just twenty. He recalls spending his twenty-first ‘preaching on a hot February day in a tent mission at a new housing estate in Retreat.’ His calling to the ministry was loud. But not impervious to question. ‘Doubt,’ he quotes a proverb, ‘is the beginning, not the end of wisdom.’
In this book, he charts for the reader his path over the decades of religion, faith, doubt and questions, all the while spilling out some contagiously quotable lines and thoughts from a lifetime of reading and thinking. He was captivated for instance by Durkheim’s view that ‘religion provides the glue that holds societies together.’ He quotes a Dutch Reformed Minister who said a mining disaster was ‘an act of a wrathful God calling a sinful nation to repentance.’ He talks about ‘theodicy’ (the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil) and of a ‘crisis of credibility in religion’ … and more.
Interestingly however, he has not been sitting Buddah-like under a tree mulling over all this enlightenment doing nothing, he has led an exhaustively busy life teaching Social Ethics at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, becoming Deputy VC and Vice Principal at the same institute, later becoming VC and Principal at the then University of Natal. He was a founder member of the Independent Mediation Service of SA and Deputy Chair of the Institute for Democracy in SA (IDASA) – amongst other roles. But I tell all this, not to knock you dead with his CV, but to indicate that the path he has trodden has also wound its way through some hectic, challenging and revealing times here in South Africa. That he has emerged as a mild-mannered, silver-headed man still questing and questioning when others of his era have taken up bowls, is inspirational. Especially thought-provoking are his chapters on ‘Looking east’ and ‘Living without gods’ – but it’s all interesting, and as I opened by saying, infinitely quotable. My favourite takeaway is the parable of dharma – which he writes, is like a raft that you build out of all the things that come your way. You use it to ford the river in front of you, then you leave it on the other side for someone else to use. Like a legacy. I’m sure James Leatt will leave many others, but this book is truly a nine-carat piece of legacy for thinking readers to use.
First published on the GBAS FB page.