Examining the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Edited by Anthony J. Cernera and Oliver J. Morgan. Sacred Heart University Press. 234 pp. $24.95.
The interdisciplinary academic program known as “Catholic Studies” has become something of a trend on both secular and Catholic campuses. For the past several years Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, has been in the forefront of efforts to establish this new field of studies as a fully respectable discipline. The collection of essays on offer here represents the university’s first attempt to set forth before the reading public the results of its efforts so far. It is almost obligatory in reviews of collections of this sort to mention the uneven quality of the essays; and while not all of the essays are of the sterling quality of many of them, what is more striking is the unspoken presence of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, hovering over the proceedings like Poe’s Raven. None of the authors here (Monika Hellwig, Louis Dupré, Gerald A. McCool, inter alia) is exactly known for their excessive enthusiasm for Ex Corde (and indeed Hellwig earned her salary for a while lobbying against it). But almost all of the authors speak of a dire academic landscape that Ex Corde was designed to address—and correct. Hellwig, for example, points out that “U.S. Catholic colleges and universities had in many cases moved unnoticed towards secularization in the seventies and early eighties, to discover with a jolt in the late eighties that without taking thought and action they would not retain their distinctive identities.” Similarly, she says that “it is becoming increasingly clear that a critical mass of faculty, administrators, and staff really committed to the Catholic mission of the institution is essential if the character of the institution is to survive. . . . If the faculty does not share the ideals of the founders, those ideals will not remain the philosophy and spirit of the institution.” As to curriculum, Dupré points out that many Catholic schools have reduced the ideal of a Catholic liberal education to “a few courses on religion, ethics, and a smattering of philosophy in an otherwise wholly pragmatically oriented curriculum.” Whether Ex Corde will prove to be the catalyst for the solution to these problems remains to be seen, but what this book certainly does tell us is that, at a minimum, Ex Corde is not the enemy.
— Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Six Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization. By Philip J. Sampson. InterVarsity. 197 pp. $12.99 paper.
Someone, maybe Will Rogers, has said that it is amazing how much we know that isn’t so. Everyone “knows,” for example, that Galileo, courageously defending Copernicus’ discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, was roundly condemned by the Inquisition because his conclusions conflicted with the Bible; and everyone “knows” that the history of Christian missionary endeavors is inextricably linked with Western colonialism and oppression of native peoples. But how true are these accounts? The author of this modest but rewarding volume sets out to examine these and four other stories that have taken the form of conventional wisdom regarding history, Christianity, and Western culture. The subject matter includes Darwin’s theories and the presumed “warfare between science and religion”; the supposed complicity of Christianity in the rape of the environment; the human body and its “repression” by the Church; and the phenomenon of witchhunting. In the process of exploring these issues, Sampson finds that the standard Enlightenment storyline leaves much to be desired. This book does much to expose the intolerance of supposedly “tolerant” modernity and is highly recommended.
— Jeff McAlister
Does God Suffer? By Thomas G. Weinandy. University of Notre Dame Press. 310 pp. $22.95 paper.
This is theology as it should be done. The author, warden of Greyfriars and lecturer in history and doctrine at Oxford, clearly poses the question of his title, examines the answers to the question proposed by Scripture, authoritative tradition, and a wide variety of contemporary thinkers, and then presents his own conviction, persuasively giving the reasons why. His conclusion, posited against many, if not most, influential theologians of the last century, is that God does not suffer. In agreement with almost the entirety of the Christian tradition until recently, and drawing with particular erudition and insight from the patristic literature, Weinandy holds that it is part of the perfection of God that He is impassable, namely, incapable of suffering. Weinandy is particularly effective in explaining why it is precisely the impassability of God that makes both possible and coherent the incarnation of the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, in Jesus, by which incarnation God experiences and overcomes human suffering as a human being. The proponents of God as “our companion in suffering,” he argues, finally offer no consolation other than the dubious comfort that God is in as much, or more, trouble than we are. He further contends that such a God is very doubtfully God at all, since He is of the same order of being as we are and therefore not the Creator who is radically other than the creation. Throughout, Weinandy imaginatively engages the Christian tradition in a way that respects the truths of faith as a “mystery” to be explored rather than as “problems” to be solved, thus giving to his entire work the character of intelligently believing humility. Striking also is his treatment of the continuing suffering of the risen Christ in his body, the Church, and our participation in the sufferings of Christ. The discussion is learned and the argument complex, but Does God Suffer? is accessible to the patient reader who has no specialized theological training. Do not skip the extensive footnotes, which themselves constitute an education in Christological and Trinitarian thought through the centuries, and, not incidentally, provide a valuable guide to the theological contributions of the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II. For those who are ready for a very thorough intellectual and spiritual workout, this book is warmly recommended.
Soul Mountain. By Gao Xingjian. HarperCollins. 511 pp. $27.
Xingjian, who lives in exile in Paris, was the first Chinese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. The current book is a slow, almost languorous, story of a young man who, having received a false report, discovers he does not have cancer after all and goes off looking for understanding at a mythical Soul Mountain. Along the way are various encounters with monks, prostitutes, sages, criminals, and others who add their distinctive angles of vision on everyday life in China. There are charms here for the patient.
The Monochrome Society. By Amitai Etzioni. Princeton University Press. 297 pp. $24.95.
Liberal failures of theory and practice gave rise in the 1970s to an emphasis on community, mediating institutions, and the doctrine of subsidiarity in social policy. In some quarters this approach came to be called “communitarianism,” and Amitai Etzioni has had some success in taking out a copyright on the term. In this collection of essays he addresses questions as various as marriage and divorce, immigration policy, and the importance of national holidays. Of particular interest is a fifteen–page exchange with Robert P. George on the agreements and disagreements between communitarians and social conservatives. The conclusion would seem to be that, where communitarians differ from social conservatives, they are liberals.
The New Believers: Sects, “Cults,” and Alternative Religions. By David V. Barrett. Sterling. 544 pp. $29.95.
An updating of an earlier book whose title was the above subtitle, this is a valuable encyclopedia of a maddening variety of religious movements. The author is British, which explains the disproportionate attention to the U.K., but his reach is very broad and movements in the U.S. are well covered. The subject of “new religions” is a staple in the news, making the book an essential for journalists, but it will also be welcomed by all who are interested in the many forms taken by the intense spiritual churnings of our time.
Twilight of Liberty: The Legacy of the ACLU. By William A. Donohue. Transaction. 368 pp. $29.95 paper.
First published in 1994, this updated version is a welcome guide to the ways in which the ACLU’s constituting mission of protecting civil liberties has frequently degenerated into an ideological crusade against cultural institutions and habits essential to a genuinely free society. The author is president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America. By Angela D. Dillard. New York University Press. 245 pp. $26.95.
The author is conflicted. Declaring herself a person of the left, she none theless has a sympathetic appreciation of black intellectuals and opinion makers who now call themselves conservative, although they still wage war against an older conservatism driven by racial and class prejudices. She worries that other minorities, notably Hispanic and Asian, will join with more privileged blacks in a “multicultural conservatism” at the continuing expense of the black “underclass.” As the author is conflicted, the argument is complex and frequently convoluted, but the book provides an intelligent and informative perspective on neglected aspects of America’s racial politics.
Deus lo Volt! Chronicle of the Crusades. By Evan S. Connell. Counterpoint. 463 pp. $28 cloth, $16 paper.
In 1095, Urban II called for the first crusade to reclaim the Holy Land and the people responded, Deus lo Volt—God wills it! Connell adopts the device of a soldier who fought for Good King Louis of France two hundred years later, telling the story of what happened, siege by siege, massacre by massacre, victory by victory, and ending up by not being sure what is was all about. Despite the repetitiveness, the narrating does have the ring of authenticity.
The Human Condition. Ultimate Realities. Religious Truth. Three volumes, edited by Robert Cummings Neville. State University of New York Press. 337, 362, 336 pp. $73.50, $73.50, $78.50 cloth; $24.95, $24.95, $26.95 paper.
Neville is dean of the School of Theology at Boston University and director of the Comparative Religious Ideas Project, from which these volumes issue. He is also author or coauthor of many of these scholarly essays which demonstrate, as Peter L. Berger, codirector of the project, writes in the introduction to The Human Condition, that religious pluralism need not result in either fanaticism or relativism but can lead to honest dialogue on the basis of what he calls “natural reason.” The books are a valuable contribution to the academic study of living religion, and the extensive treatments of Hinduism and Islam will be of interest to general readers unfamiliar with those traditions.
Troublemaker: The Life and History of A. J. P. Taylor. By Kathleen Burk. Yale University Press. 493 pp. $35.
A wantonly prolific writer of books and daily journalism, and a regular on British chat shows, A. J. P. (Alan) Taylor was perhaps best known for his book claiming that Hitler more or less inadvertently stumbled into World War II, having no coherent plan for conquest or for much of anything else. As a historian he wrote in a straightforward manner, attending to power relationships between states and unbothered by big questions of meaning. Typical is his recounting of a teenage moment at school in York: “I was sitting in the art room and looking through its big window across to The Minster when I had a revelation just like Saul’s on the road to Damascus. A voice said: ‘There is no God.’ I had never thought about religion before; I had taken it for granted. From that moment Christian’s burden fell from my back for ever.” So that’s that, then. His books, journalism, and television appearances earned him a good deal of money to support his children and three wives, and Kathleen Burk, who studied with Taylor, devotes much attention to who paid him how much for what. His was, one gathers, a very busy and rather empty life.
The Dictionary of Historical Theology. Edited by Trevor A. Hart. Eerdmans. 599 pp. $50.
Of the making of such reference books there is no end in sight, and a good thing that is. Every such book is the subject of quibbling about who and what is included and who and what is not, but this one is particularly uneven. A dictionary of “historical” theology should not suggest that so much of the history of theology was made in the twentieth century, or that so much of it was made by Anglicans in England. To cite but one example, Don Cupitt, a kind of English John Spong, gets more attention than John Henry Newman. And the platitudinous puffery under “Black Theology” is an embarrassment. At the same time, there are many insightful entries by the authorities in the pertinent fields. In sum, a very mixed bag but, as is the way with mixed bags, some pleasant surprises.
The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics. Edited by Robin Gill. Cambridge University Press. 290 pp. $59.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Intended to provide an overview of the state of the academic discipline known as Christian ethics, this book achieves its purpose with essays by eighteen veterans of that enterprise.
Growth in Agreement II. Edited by Jeffrey Gros et al. Eerdmans. 941 pp. $45 paper.
Covering the period from 1982 through 1998, this huge book in cludes the reports and agreed upon statements issuing from official dialogues between Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and various Protestant communions. Of particular interest to professional ecumenists and students of the ecumenical movement.
John Paul II: A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man. By Ray Flynn. St. Martin’s. 204 pp. $22.95.
Written with the help of Robin Moore (author of The French Connection) and Jim Vrabel, this book by the former ambassador to the Holy See (1993–1997) and popular mayor of Boston (1984–1993) provides a personal account of one man’s experience as a diplomat at the Vatican and his occasional encounters with the Pope. Mr. Flynn does not claim to have been on intimate terms with John Paul II, but he does have an intimate knowledge of the Clinton Administration’s dealings with the Holy See. As he makes clear, for the most part those dealings were ham–fisted, especially when it came to Washington’s efforts to establish abortion as a “human right” in international law. The book is an enjoyable read that once again underscores the moral and spiritual stature of John Paul II on the world stage.
There We Stood, Here We Stand: Eleven Lutherans Rediscover Their Catholic Roots. Edited by Timothy Drake. 1stBooksLibrary (www.1stbooks.com). 168 pp. $15.54 paper.
Lutherans who have in recent years entered into full communion with the Catholic
Church tell their stories and reasons why. Evident in almost all cases is an
abiding gratitude for their Christian experience as Lutherans and a graced stubbornness—which
some might say is typical of Lutherans—about pressing questions of theo logical
truth. Foreword by Richard John Neuhaus.