The Death of a Prophet, Albert Nolan, OP

Yesterday South African Dominican Albert Nolan died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86.  Who was Albert Nolan? 

Image by Ricardo da Silva, S.J. Photo courtesy of The Southern Cross. Originally posted to the website of America Magazine

Albert Nolan was a theologian and activist for social justice during the horrific apartheid times of South Africa.  He had to go underground to escape the notorious South African Security police because he had worked with college students and black youth supporting them as a chaplain as they came into their power to rise up against the cruel and unjust regime.

Rabbi Heschel defines a prophet as “one who interferes.”  Albert Nolan was a prophet for his interference with satanic apartheid. 

In 2003 he was awarded the ‘Order of Luthuli in Silver’ by then President Thabo Mbeki for his “life-long dedication to the struggle for democracy, human rights and justice and for challenging the religious  ‘dogma’ especially the theological justification for apartheid.”   It is said that he “inspired a generation of Christian activists and theologians.”

His excellent book on Jesus before Christianity brought forward a liberation theology that he called “prophetic theology” and it is one of my favorite books on Jesus.  We used it as a primary textbook for many years at our Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality. 

L-R: Ralph David Abernathy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Bunche; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Frederick Douglas Reese, leaders of the third Selma-to-Montgomery march, speak with the press. Photographer unknown. Abraham Joshua Heschel papers, from Duke University Libraries.

In addition to appreciating his work on Jesus, the pre-Constantinian and pre-Nicene creed Jesus—the pre-empire Jesus therefore, I had an important encounter with my Dominican brother Albert Nolan when he visited Oakland, California just as the time that I was expelled from the Order and was meditating on whether to join the Episcopalian church. 

He and I sat down over tea in an Oakland café and here is how I tell the story in my autobiography:

When I was dismissed from the Dominican order I felt that three options presented themselves to me:  1) Hide under a rock (the Vatican’s choice) 2) Do what Fr. Leonard Boff did: seek laicization 3) Make a lateral move to another tradition in the Christian church.

For me, and my culture, I felt the third option to be the most creative choice.  I consulted only one Roman Catholic clergy person on making the decision, and he was a liberation theologian and elder Dominican, Fr. Albert Nolan of South Africa.  He had been elected head of the Dominican order several years earlier but had turned the job down—the first time in its 750 year history that anyone had!—which says something of the wisdom of the man.  [This was during the reign of Cardinal Ratzinger and the return of the inquisition.)  

To be continued

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Post-denominational Priest, pp. 275f.


To reada transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Views from above Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Sharaan Muruvan on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

Does the title of Albert Nolan’s book, Jesus before Christianity, excite you as it does me because it takes us back before Christianity took over an empire and back to Jesus’ Jewish roots and thereby confronts anti-semitism and imperial ambitions at the same time?

Recommended Reading

Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest (Revised/Updated Edition)

Matthew Fox’s stirring autobiography, Confessions, reveals his personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey from altar boy, to Dominican priest, to his eventual break with the Vatican. Five new chapters in this revised and updated edition bring added perspective in light of the author’s continued journey, and his reflections on the current changes taking place in church, society and the environment.
“The unfolding story of this irrepressible spiritual revolutionary enlivens the mind and emboldens the heart — must reading for anyone interested in courage, creativity, and the future of religion.”
—Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self

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7 thoughts on “The Death of a Prophet, Albert Nolan, OP”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today you speak to us of one of your Dominican brothers, Albert Nolan. Nolan was a theologian and activist for social justice during the horrific apartheid times of South Africa. He had to go underground to escape the notorious South African Security police because he had worked with college students and black youth during this cruel and unjust regime. You say that his, “excellent book on Jesus before Christianity brought forward a liberation theology that he called “prophetic theology.” And you have now sparked my interest in this book, because I am working on a book about Christianity before the Church. You say that you appreciated his work on Jesus, the pre-Constantinian and pre-Nicene creed Jesus—the pre-empire Jesus. Now I’m really going to have to get it! My question is, before the Nicaean Creed (and the men who created it), if this was the work of the dominant Christian group–because we now know that there were many other kinds of Christian groups–such as the Gnostics and the Ebionites, how do we know that the right group came out on top???

    1. Avatar

      I’d be interested in your research, Dennis. I have often wondered where Christianity would be if it had not become an Imperial religion, or what would have happened if Celtic Christianity had triumphed at Whitby. We would have a very different world!

  2. Avatar

    Daily Meditations could as well be called Daily Inspirations. Thank you so much for sharing your stories of courage, community, creativity….and the introduction to your Dominican brother, Albert Nolan. His spirit is with us.

  3. Avatar

    Matthew, thank you for introducing Fr. Albert Nolan and his book, “Jesus Before Christianity’s,” to us. I look forward to reading the book and hearing more about your conversations with him during a critical period of your spiritual journey. I share your long appreciation for liberation theology and its’ advocates, in spite of their constant opposition by the church patriarchal hierarchy.

  4. Avatar

    So sorry not to have met Fr Albert Nolan. Our small group in Newbury UK has been studying the historical Jesus ever since Dom Crossan’s ‘Historical Jesus’ appeared after we first convened in 1991. We still meet, though your brother Alberrt has joined many of our group who are now ancestors. We are currently reading the splendid book from the Westar Institute ‘After Jesus before Christianity’ published last year (2021). We would have loved to hear how your brother would have received it. And indeed, what you think of it too. Such wonderful diversity, commitment and insight among those early Jesus groups. Truely thankful for Albert’s sterling contributions to this work and for being so active in difficult places, enhancing the lives of so many.

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