Saturday, May 9, 2009

Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922

By Alasdair MacIntyre, 195 pages, Roman Littlefield.

Alasdair MacIntyre's demanding examination of the early years of Saint Edith Stein, philosopher and Carmelite who was murdered by the Nazis, does more than just introduce her philosophical thought. It introduces the entire intellectual and German cultural environment out of which she came. One interesting note is Stein's support of Germany fighting World War One, which many German intellectuals regarded as a defense of Kultur against “French cynicism” and British commercialism.

More than simply analyzing the relevant philosophy, Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue paints the background of personalities with which Stein came into contact, such as the brilliant phenomenologist and personalist, Max Scheler:

Scheler “was not yet a Catholic, but already in 1913-1914 he was impressed by the Catholic conception of the universe and made Stein's mind aware of possibilities that she had not so far entertained. But she was repelled by Scheler himself. Scheler, while teaching at Munich between 1907 and 1910, had elaborated his own version of phenomenology and claimed sincerely and passionately that, insofar as his positions coincided with those of Husserl, they had been arrived at independently. Yet in fact Scheler had almost certainly become acquainted with Husserl's basic positions in conversations that had taken place much earlier.”

MacIntyre thus offers us an idea of the interactions among leading philosophical lights as well as the processes that led to their intellectual discoveries. The rest of the book deals with Stein's early career as a philosopher and her thought.

Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth

By Richard John Neuhaus, 260 pages, Basic Books.

The late John Richard Neuhaus, a convert to Catholicism after 30 years as a Lutheran pastor in America, offers a keen, blunt analysis about the empty spiritual landscape of post-Christian liberal secularism: “Where orthodoxy is optional, it will, in time, be proscribed. The truth of that axiom is today on sad display in the agonies of liberal Protestantism.”

He also offers his insider view of Protestants: “The Protestant principle, as we know from sad experience, is so protean and subject to variation that it results either in gutting the tradition or in creating new traditions around which further schisms are formed. Theology that is not in service to 'the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) will, in time, turn against the faith once delivered to the saints. Ideas that are not held accountable to 'the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth' (I Timothy 3:15) will, in time, turn against the enemy of that truth.”

In Catholic Matters, the author intertwines his personal journey into the Catholic Church from the mess of liberal and foggy Lutheranism. He has personally lived the sad experiences of the oldline North American churches and their descent into post-Christian theology and a love for anything that is not masculine, Western, and orthodox Christian.

The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World

By Billy Graham, 312 pages.

“On which road are you traveling? Is it the right road—the road God has set out for you? Or are you still on the broad road of which Jesus spoke—a road that looks deceptively inviting and easy, but in the end leads only to emptiness and sorrow and death?”

This extraordinarily straightforward book assumes that sainthood is simple, though not easy. Billy Graham hatches no new theologies, but offers instead the traditional beliefs of American born-again evangelicals.

Pastoral rather than philosophical or academically-theological, The Journey focuses on the trials of people living in a materialistic, socially unstable world. Graham does not tinker with his successful evangelical formula. The Journey reads like the advice of a very loving, thoughtful grandfather with an urgent message he has learned from all his years of living.

In particular, Graham focuses on the sinful nature of humans. In order to truly accept Christ, we have to accept our sinful nature. This is something that liberal Christians from every church have rejected. This sense of sin—or lack thereof--is one of the greatest differences between traditional / conservative and liberal Christians.

“Sin is serious—it is, in fact, the most basic problem of the human race. It is my basic problem and yours as well. Don't ever think sin is only a minor misdeed or an occasional outburst of wrongdoing. Sin is far deeper than that. It is a spiritual disease that leaves us weak and powerless. Its hold over us is so strong that only God can overcome it.”

This strong sense of sin and of human powerlessness grounds this theology of redemption, and explains the deep contrast this book has with liberal theology, where sin is social or psychological, but never, as with Graham, in the deepest part of each individual: “Remember:” he writes, “This world is not the way God meant it to be, and neither are we. Something devastating has happened—and that 'something' is sin.”

Graham rejects post-Christian values, linking it to “human dignity”: s“If we think we are only sophisticated animals, we will begin to act like sophisticated animals...Our souls make us uniquely human, and they give dignity and value to every human life.”

Lastly, Graham delicately touches on “the mystery of evil” with wisdom and maturity, simultaneously respecting and being sensitive to the terrible suffering of people, and the hope in God's response of grace and love to this suffering, even when we don't feel this divine work.

The Journey deals with temptation, Satan, the church, pride, grief and adversity, and countless other concerns we all have. Graham thoughtfully and sparingly touches on his own life, though not to beat the drums of his own achievements or holiness.

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism

By Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster, CAD 17.50, 240 pages, Harper Perennial.

Authors Brinkley and Fenster tell the story of a powerful man while conveying a sense of the times in which the priest, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, lived. Parish Priest places Father McGivney in his society through familial and ecclesiastical connections. McGivney had to find a way to fit into the social customs of the times even as he went about his ministry.

For instance, the daughter of the most prominent Episcopalian clergyman in New Haven, Connecticut, where Fr. McGivney was working at the time, had converted to Catholicism and later died. McGivney fulfilled his priestly duties towards the deceased even while minimizing the scandal. He allowed the Episcopalian minister to conduct a service in the Anglican church for his late daughter, a very forward move by the Irish-American priest.

The authors' esteem for the Catholic priesthood is at the heart of the book's success: “They [parish priests] celebrate Mass, baptize infants, visit the sick and dying, and preside at weddings and funerals. It's the parish priest to whom many of America's 65 million Catholics turn in times of personal crisis or if poverty strike a family. They serve on the level of one human helping another.”

Parish Priest shows Father Michael as a heroic parish priest among many heroic Church leaders. For example, they emphasize that he was not the only Catholic pastor to die largely of exhaustion at a painfully young age, 38 in his case.

Father Michael was one among many heroic priests striving day and night to improve the lives of the poor and factory workers of New England. The authors convey the strong character of these leaders: “The many high-powered men who were drawn to the priesthood believed with a kind of determination in the ideal, protecting it with their deeds, and not just words.” Father McGivney, for one, set up the Knights to offer community to men and life insurance for the families of deceased members, two extremely important needs in this time and place.

Parish Priest also includes solid, informative theology of the priesthood. “'At the altar in Holy Mass,' [Jacques] Miller wrote, 'it is Jesus Christ who offers gifts, changes the bread and wine into His own Body and Blood, and immolates the victim. As Jesus Christ and the Church, according to St. Augustine, are not two Christs but one Christ, so the Eternal Priest and all the priests born in time are not a multitude of priests, but one Priest. The man disappears in this August mystery.'”

The authors demonstrate how American culture—at least at that time—can coexist and thrive alongside a strong, thriving Catholicism, and vice versa. This issue was a real problem in nineteenth-century America.

The Last Freedom: Religion from the Public School to the Public Square

By Joseph P. Viteritti, USD 27.95, 273 pages, hardcover, Princeton University Press.

“Once it was determined that we should all go to school together and learn from a standard curriculum, education became political” because people assumed that school would teach “fundamental values.” Who would decide those values? Increasingly, it has become the feminist-liberal-secularist group with the deciding power, and organized religion has been losing out in America (and Canada).

The Last Freedom recounts America's cultural battles between those who want to limit the role of religion and religiously-inspired institutions in society and people protecting those agencies. Focused on the judiciary and politics, the author examines the liberal-feminist-secular ideology behind much of this anti-Christian movement. He believes that secularism, though claiming to minimize religion's public face in the name of freedom, is impinging on people's freedom by replacing religiously-based, non-governmental “mediating organizations” with the state and state-dependent agencies.

“When such a narrow view of the world is emboldened by the power to govern what and how other people's children are taught, it represents a particular threat to personal freedom. When it is supported by a more pervasive popular disposition, it is a symptom of a larger problem. Ellwood Cubberley, an influential education professor at Stanford University who idealized education as an instrument for social engineering, summed up the prevailing attitude in 1909 when he rejoiced, 'Each year the child is coming to belong more to the state and less to the parent.'”

This is a thought-provoking book, because much of the same secular-inspired statism has become deeply entrenched in Canada and Europe. What will happen to society when every institution must bend to the worldview of anti-Christian liberal-feminist secularists? Though outside of the book's scope, one can turn to the experience of Central and Eastern Europe before 1989 to see the result: Everyone completely dependent on the all-powerful State and its single-minded, power-oriented ideology that served itself rather than people. Lifeless, cold bureaucratic procedure, Pope John Paul warned, replaces human relationship at this point.

The Last Freedom
recounts this process of totalitarian governance in America, as the state slowly overtakes all else in the public arena.

For instance, 1950s U.S. Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter in an important decision “was claiming, in no uncertain terms, that a state-imposed uniformity in thinking had to take precedence over the religious preferences of parents...Frankfurter portrayed religion as a divisive force that could undermine the unifying role of the public school.”

This book finds echoes in John Paul's writings such as Centesimus annus, which claimed that the problem with communist regimes was foremost the lack of mediating organizations. These are organizations, largely non-governmental, that fill out the many layers of society and take care of people's needs. They work best the closer they are to the roots of social and personal problems, and work poorest when functioning from a distant bureaucracy.

Viteritti writes: “I am troubled by the animosity that so many good people exhibit towards religious observers and institutions.” Religiously-inspired mediating institutions are in for a rough ride indeed.

Why Have You Come Here: The Jesuits and the First Evangelization of Native America

By Nicholas P. Cushner, 254 pages, Oxford University Press.

“Decades before the Jesuits arrived in Mexico, controversy raged over the character of the American Indian. Who was he? Was he man or beast? Was he a rational being? Could his lands be expropriated? Could he be made to work and pay taxes? If he were a beast, why should he not be enslaved? Could the Indian be forced to become a Christian?...These questions were never fully resolved.”

As reflected in the above words, Cushner describes the early part of the European intrusion into the New World as little more than disordered chaos, and the Jesuits marched eagerly, even passionately, into this hurricane. Why Have You Come Here introduces the reader to this religious work in Florida, Peru, New France, Brazil, and Maryland, as the Jesuits worked within the various European empires.

Unlike many accounts of this nature, the author's judgment of the intentions and prejudices of the religious authorities does not judge with an underlying anti-Catholic or anti-Western ideology on us. He highlights the subtle complexities of natives-Church interactions:

“The detail with which the Jesuits related the accounts of Indian religious beliefs indicates a degree of fascination that bordered on admiration. The missionary had come face to face not with primitive animism but with a complex of beliefs that were integrated with the daily life of the Indian. There was the glimmer of a recognition that something greater than Satan was at work, but the Jesuit did not come out and say precisely that. European society of the sixteenth century, however, was convinced that the devil was behind all forms of non-Christian religion.”

Cushner also does a good job of thinking from the native side without condescension or fictionalizing things:

“The Florida Indians resented the white men who demanded a share of their corn and suggested that they change their belief system and some of their most cherished social habits while threatening them with eternal punishment if they did not.”

Why Have You Come Here attempts to show how one faith replaces another faith, and whether this happens perfectly, or whether the old gods hang on, “underneath the altar.” The books succeeds in bringing out the slow, steady decline of the native religions and the determined growth of Christianity:

“When recovery occurred in Sinaloa, it was another proof of the effectiveness of the Christian God....The European stayed with the sick and for the most part because the missionary remained unscathed, he was thus able to confirm the power of his God.”

An important undercurrent to this change, as brought out by the author, is the close relationship between culture and religion: When the Jesuits were converting the natives, they were also changing the social structures and individual personalities of the natives regarding hair length, dress, family relationships, and the economy, so that all these things would become “Christian,” which is to say, “European.”

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Traditions in Turmoil

By Mary Ann Glendon, 471 pages, Sapientia Press.

“The position of women is linked with the fate of the entire human family. There can be no real progress for women, or men, at the expense of children or of their underprivileged brothers and sisters. Genuine advances for women cannot overlook the inequalities that exist among women themselves. Enduring progress for women must be rooted in solidarity between young and old, between male and female, as well as between those who enjoy a comfortable standard of living with ample access to basic needs and those who are suffering deprivation.”

These prophetic words, found in Traditions in Turmoil, were spoken by Pope John Paul II's representative to the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference, Mary Ann Glendon, law professor at Harvard University. She defends the faith in a contentious, anti-Catholic academic and intellectual environment.

The writings and speeches in Traditions in Turmoil, most of which are quite short and to the point, testify to Glendon's courage and intelligence. Her great Catholic faith, including her profound trust in the Church and its leadership, comes out even more powerfully.

Glendon is so refreshing because she is a female North American university professor who refuses to buy into the feminist industry's duality of Woman-as-Victim and Woman-as-Superwomen that has overtaken other conceptions of femininity and sexuality and even motherhood itself.

Yet rather than sounding dowdy or old fashioned, Glendon brings out the great wisdom of the Catholic tradition in the same manner that Pope's John Paul II and Benedict XVI have done.

Glendon's appreciation for the cultural significance of religion and of the essential link between culture and religion remind the reader of Pope John Paul II's deep connection to Poland's spiritual geography and history, which of course were Catholic geography and history. Glendon's following words remind us that leaving the Catholic church comes at a great loss:

“I am always amazed when I read of Catholics of my generation who complain that they felt stifled in the Church in the 1950s. For me, as a girl in a small Massachusetts hill town, pre-Vatican II Catholicism was a window opening out to the wide world that lay beyond the Berkshires. Its ceremonies spoke to me of a history before Plymouth Rock, and its liturgy linked me to every living Catholic on earth.”

Her intellectual boldness in the face of so much hostility to Catholicism was developed at an early age, when she read the words of Theodore Hesburgh: “When you encounter a conflict between science and religion, you're either dealing with a bad scientist or a bad theologian.”

It thus comes natural for Glendon to approach her faith with a critical view, again something that finds a parallel in the thinking of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This is a very deep current in the Catholic tradition. St Thomas Aquinas believed that the intellect was a gift of God and that he need not fear Aristotelian philosophy or any seeming conflict between faith and other ways of thinking.

Mary Ann Glendon and Traditions in Turmoil continues the great Catholic tradition of wedding brains with piety.

Ecumenism & Philosophy: Philosophical Questions for a Renewal of Dialogue

By Charles Morerod, O.P., 199 pages, Sapientia Press.

Ecumenism & Philosophy advocates a more mature ecumenism, where we can go beyond the nice-guy formalities that Vatican II seemingly encouraged and where we emphasized common ground. Father Morerod believes that if Christians are to move beyond the stagnant waters of contemporary ecumenism, we must start to discuss the divisive issues.

He also believes that ecumenism has been held back by its focus on theological issues, and that Christians must begin to address philosophical undercurrents. He argues that these latter problems contributed significantly to the lasting divisions in Western Christianity, with a significant issue being the Protestant aversion to philosophy:

“The Reformation, however, was immediately opposed to philosophy. Starting with his very first skirmishes with the representatives of Rome, Luther demanded that all argument unfold from Scripture alone. Since then, ecumenical dialogue with Protestantism has carefully avoided the forbidden ground of philosophy, and remains content to argue essentially on the basis of Scripture and history.”

Father Morerod, then, succeeds in giving the reader a historical sense of the Protestant-Catholic split in its philosophical dimensions. Given that the book is rather academic, the author grounds his discussion with three chapters on the meaning of dialogue for philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, and Paul Feyerabend. This dicsussion gives ecumenists a sensible model for their own dialogue and helps all Christians see the importance of philosophy to knowledge, including both science and theology.

The heart of Ecumenism & Philosophy discusses the Reformation's underlying philosophy, and thereby some of the basic suppositions of the reformers such as Luther and Calvin. The author argues that Luther's theology of justification, which went to the heart of the Reformation itself, stood on underlying metaphysical currents that the German reformer, because he disregarded philosophy so much, refused to acknowledge.

Ultimately, the author believes that Catholicism and Protestantism are just as much two differing metaphysical systems as anything else: “St. Thomas linked theology to metaphysics; Luther explicitly rejected metaphysics, but simply ends up creating another metaphysics from this rejection. Yet both had the same intention: to safeguard the transcendence of God.”

Father Morerod's basic questions about the relationship between the Catholic and Protestant orientations towards philosophy reflects his stated intention of highlighting the differences rather than similarities between the two Christian systems:

“Is it a scandalous intrusion of philosophy into the domain of faith to propose an approach to theology starting from metaphysics? First of all, no one can avoid philosophical presuppositions, and the more seriously the theologian takes them, the more he is free of them.”

Ecumenism & Philosophy
asks Protestants to admit the inevitability of philosophy's intrusion into theology so that they can more completely undertake ecumenical dialogue with Catholics.

John Paul II & St. Thomas Aquinas

Edited by Michael Dauphinais & Matthew Levering, 259 pages hardcover, Sapientia Press.

John Paul II & St. Thomas Aquinas is a collection of scholarly essays by different authors. It makes a very important contribution to the understanding of John Paul II's teachings. One writer in the book notes that the encyclical Evangelium vitae “with its biblically centered argumentation, draws upon Aquinas's theology of law at the very hinge of its discussion.”

Avery Dulles writes that in Love and Responsibility, John Paul's pre-papal book on sexuality, “From Aquinas he takes over the idea that love is ordered to that which is objectively true and good. He formulates a personalistic norm to the effect that one may never use other persons as means to an end...Wojtyla grounds this principle in the metaphysical insight that the person has inviolable intrinsic dignity.”

Dulles thus highlights the bridges that John Paul made between Thomism and personalism. This is important because central to Catholic thinking is the constant connection of its theology and traditional philosophical methods with modern ways of thinking. John Paul succeeded in tying a medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas, with a most modern philosophy.

Pope John Paul II was schooled in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and the centuries of development of the philosopher's thought, known as Thomism or neo-scholasticism. The pontiff was also schooled in more recent philosophy, especially personalism, which emphasized the importance and dignity of the human individual, though personalism often differs from Western individualism by often emphasizing spiritual values over materialistic ones.

Thus the late pontiff's writings are usually a mix of Thomism and personalism. He emphasizes the eternal, unchanging truths of the Church, in the style of Thomism, but applies these truths to the individual, and strives to show how they amplify the dignity of the person. His Theology of the Body is the best example of his mixture of the eternal truth with the individual human.

John Paul II & St. Thomas Aquinas reaquaints us with John Paul's major books and encyclicals by taking this philosophical reading of them. The book reviews and deepens our knowledge of writings that we think we've already digested.

Dulles writes of Veritatis splendor that it “invokes the authority of St. Thomas in maintaining that natural law is a participation in the eternal law of God...Although he speaks of natural law and divine law, he avoids all legalism. He accepts from St. Thomas the idea of natural law as the light of natural reason imprinted upon our minds by God.”

This book does more than unearth John Paul's links with Aquinas. It also places the late pope within the history of modern philosophy by discussing phenomenology, personalism, utilitarianism, Plato, and medieval scholasticism.

Michael Sherwin in his essay sums things up best: “John Paul did not speak of truth and freedom in only one way, but followed the Gospel of John in applying the terms analogically.”

Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire

By Edwin Mullins, Novalis, CAD 29.95, 239 pages.

This excellent and highly readable book offers a panorama of medieval religious and political history, since the Benedictine Cluny-monastic movement played a central role in European life in the tenth to twelfth centuries. Cluny, like the Cistercians, Franciscans, Dominicans, and lesser-known communities, reflects the fact that the Roman Church could always reform itself from within, and never needed a Luther or Calvin.

The author shows us how the Cluny network grew from not-so-humble origins into a transcendent leader of Christendom.

Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire comes with maps and beautiful sketches of Cluny-inspired architecture. The author, Edwin Mullins, tells the story without bogging himself down in academic jargon. Rather, he appreciates this history as if it's a fine glass of wine. He loves the spirit of the order and of the times, while remembering basic injustices done to various groups of people.

Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire combines scholarship with a poetic or spiritual outlook, something quite necessary to appreciate the elegance and depth of the medieval Christian period: “[L]isten carefully and we can hear the echoes of an extraordinary past. A thousand years ago this now-shattered place in southern Burgundy made an impact on the Christian world more profound and more enduring than that of any pope or emperor, or any ruling monarch of the day including the kings of France and England.”

The importance of Cluny for the cultural, agricultural, economic, and social development of Europe can't be overstated, and Mullins argues the case, again from page one: Cluny's monks “inherited a Europe that lay in ruins and proceeded to rebuild it, laying many of the foundations of Christian culture and civilization. For more than two centuries Cluny was the spiritual heart of Christianity.”

The story of Cluny is the story of that bygone era, Christendom, a high point in many ways for Catholics and their spirituality of community, masculinity, discipline, and symbolism.

Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire outlines the importance of symbolism for the medieval—and therefore Cluniac—mind. First was the importance of liturgy: “[T]here was always time in Cluny for ritual-daily life in the abbey was controlled by it. Whether it was the total silence observed throughout the period of Christmas, or the daily reading of a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict..., every hour, every day, every season at Cluny had its all-controlling ritual and ceremony.”

Second was the importance of architecture, especially Romanesque: “[I]dentified by such features as rounded arches and windows, simple classical columns with carved capitals, and usually a rounded apse beyond the altar at the eastern end.”

Mullins again emphasizes the enduring heritage, religious and otherwise, of Cluny: “To this day many of the towns and villages in the region possess Romanesque parish churches in a distinctive Burgundian style, which owes its origin ... to the power and initiative of a succession of abbots of Cluny.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dom Gabriel Sortais: An Amazing Abbot in Turbulent Times

By Guy Oury, OSB, Cistercian Publications, 333 pages.

This interesting book uses notebooks, letters, and other source materials to come close to the heart of the vocation of a French Cistercian monk who died in 1963.

“'If you want to know at what moment God first asked me to follow him, remember the fire we were watching the evening before our departure for Noirmoutier, where I saw the flames die down at the spot where the cross from my rosary was,' he wrote to one of his sisters on September 30, 1923. This was the first sign of his call.”

This was the calling of a very passionate, even reckless young man who didn't make time for his studies. Not well known, the story of this monk sheds light on the mysterious struggle of vocation and the equally riddlesome Cistercian order, whose strict monasticism and tradition of near-silence seem so odd to this busy world.

Sortais' spirituality, rather than arid and cold, was as passionate and loving towards God as that of any modern Pentecostal:

“It was then that the full light came, which touched off a great interior struggle, and the struggle became obvious because of his copious tears. God's call was no longer a hypothesis; it was there, pressing, demanding an answer. But, then, could he refuse God? Did God require such a sacrifice? 'I found myself suddenly changed interiorly,' he wrote in his notebook.'”

Dom Sortais loved France, and so the author carefully recounts the monk's life through the lens of French and European history, including World War II, when he had to leave the monastery and become a military chaplain. He experienced the terror of coming upon a crowd of frenzied French citizens who, at the time of the worst German-French fighting, turned on two French nuns, accusing them of spying for the Nazis and then killing them. They then wanted to turn on Dom Sortais, but his strong character and indignant reaction to the murders ended the riot.

As with this example, the author shows Dom Sortais to be a born leader of men.

This is a worthwhile read because most English Catholic books are presently coming out of lay Catholic or seminary and diocesan priest experiences in English North America and academia. Dom Gabriel Sortais, conversely, tells the story of a now unusual spiritual path, and one that has the full weight of the Christian and European spiritual tradition behind it.

Monastic spirituality had been integral to the life of the Church up until the Second Vatican Council, and aside from a few exceptions such as Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, these church leaders, to the extent that they are still around, are not being listened to by the wider church. This is a heavy loss, as their heroic way of life and strong sense of duty have much to counter the nonsense of current pop culture.

Dom Sortais lived a tough, real monastic life: “Feeling poor meant nothing to him.... He preferred to come back to God as to the source of all power a hundred times a day, like a beggar who gives away as quickly as he receives anything.”

Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

By James France, 435 pages, Cistercian Publications.

Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux introduces the reader to art history, so closely tied to Christianity. Saint Bernard, sometimes called the last of the Western Church Fathers even though he lived centuries after the patristic age (he died in 1153), was probably the most influential churchman of his century, preaching crusades and conversion, finding young recruits for his monasteries, as well as traveling widely and advising ecclesiastical and political leaders.

Medieval images is an interesting topic because until the late Middle Ages, the medieval imagination was not conducive to genuine portraiture. The images of Saint Bernard would have reflected the piety of the artist and the intended religious message at that time rather than the real physicality of the saint. In other words, they would have been icons.

Images of the Saint would have reflected the roles he had fulfilled: “How do we recognize Bernard in medieval iconography? The chief 'attributes' are his portrayal as the monk he became when he entered Citeaux, probably in the spring of 1113; as the abbot who founded Clairvaux in 1115; and as the saint he was officially declared when he was canonized in 1174.”

The Church's teaching and preaching depended on art for centuries because most people couldn't read. A piece of medieval or renaissance art would have contained different layers of messages, such as biblical, moral, and doctrinal.

Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux also introduces the reader to medieval monastic culture, as in the words of one monk: “'I wear the habit of a monk, I am tonsured, I am cowled'. The tonsure and the cowl were the hallmark of the monk.” This culture, along with Christian art, played a vital role in the life and teaching of the medieval and modern Church, and so these tidbits offer us a wider view of medieval life.

The book opens with an informative portrait of Saint Bernard, focusing on what his contemporaries said about his appearance (he was emaciated because of his almost-constant fasting) and popularity with the opposite sex (women were not always shy about expressing their physical desire, even climbing into his bed while he was on one of his frequent travels throughout Europe). The biography of the saint continues throughout, as Medieval Images of Saint Bernard discusses the images of the saint reflecting his various roles and career.

This academic book includes the original Latin at page bottoms for citations from medieval writers. Typical passages descriptive of given images read like this:

“He is seated with his head bowed writing at a desk, holding a pen in his right hand and a knife in his left. He has a short beard and a circular area at the top of his head is shaven while his hair is long at the sides and back. Unusually, he is shown wearing his blue tunic with white dots. His tunic has ample sleeves and a shawl is draped over his left shoulder and lap.”

The accompanying cd rom contains all known medieval images of Saint Bernard.

The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul

By Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, $32.95, 368 pages hardcover.

Mario Beauregard, neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, and Denyse O'Leary, religious-issues writer, reject any inherent opposition between science and spirituality. Instead, they identify the main contest as between materialism and spirituality. Materialism has spread into every corner of science to the point that scientists have been spending a lot of their time trying to prove a materialist ideology rather than pursuing research.

In contrast, Beauregard and O'Leary offer a simple reason for believing in the natural connection between science and spirituality: “We might expect living beings to evolve toward consciousness if consciousness underlies the universe.”

The well-supported thesis of The Spiritual Brain culminates in Beauregard's neuroscientific analysis of Carmelite religious. The researchers admit to being a bit naïve in asking the nuns to turn on a mystic experience in the lab. To the surprise of even the nuns, though, many did undergo such a happening when the researchers asked them to relive the most mystical or unitive moments of their Carmelite lives. The scientists rightly theorized that the neuronal pathways would remember these experiences and become activated.

The lab results showed two interesting things: First: subjects produced a huge amount of brainwaves from a wide variety of areas rather than from the isolated “God module” hypothesized by materialist scientists looking to explain God away; second: the nuns' brains made theta waves, which scientists have associated with meditative states, rather than beta waves, the latter of which reflect “strenuous conscious activity,” including lying.

The Spiritual Brain uses scientific data to counter common scientific claims for the irrationality or meaninglessness of religion and spirituality. Beauregard and O'Leary assert, among other things, the rational and mentally healthy nature of mystics. The mystic's search for a higher, unifying truth differs greatly from epilepsy or hallucinations. In contrast to mystical experiences, which bring clarity and understanding, these episodes confuse people.

The Spiritual Brain discusses how scientists in their atheistic materialism have themselves adopted an extreme faith position by rejecting or misusing research data. The authors criticize “promissory materialism”: Unable to explain consciousness, spiritual experiences such as Near Death Experiences, or parapsychology through their materialism, and unwilling to entertain spiritual explanations, scientists simply throw up their hands and say “Further Research Required.” After decades of this game, Beauregard and O'Leary call for another attitude. Perhaps science will never understand these things.

The authors also challenge the many scientists who sound positively scary in objectifying humans as “very complicated machines” and our brains as blobs of neurons.

Most interesting of all, Beauregard and O'Leary turn the tables on science itself, accusing materialism of countering modern physics: “The reason that consciousness is a problem for materialist neuroscience is that it does not appear to have a mechanism. Modern quantum physics conceives of the universe as superposed states. These states do not exist apart from each other, so their interaction is not governed by a mechanism.”

The Spiritual Brain's optimistic freedom beats materialist science's reductio ad absurdum, where rather than enjoying choice, our actions simply reflect billions of neurons firing off. Nonmaterialist neuroscientists such as Beauregard can use the mind to change the brain. This demonstrates that the spiritual – in this case the mind – precedes and uses the material – the brain.

One researcher used people's minds to change their compulsive-obsessive brains. Jeffrey M. Schwartz “was not simply getting patients to change their opinions, but rather to actually change their brains. He wanted them to substitute a useful neural circuit for a useless one, for example, to substitute 'go work in the garden' for 'wash hands seven more times,' until the neuronal traffic from the many different activities associated with gardening began to exceed the traffic from washing the hands.” Schwartz succeeded in getting patients to physically change the neuronal networks in their brains by first getting them to change their minds.

This leads Beauregard and O'Leary to the encouraging and anti-secularist belief that “normal humans are not feeling robots, but are quite capable of adjusting their emotional reactions. This is true even of children,” as studies they mention demonstrate.

The authors explain theological terms well, with the chapter on mysticism containing particularly effective definitions of mystical experience, such as the following: “Some mystics have attempted to describe their experiences by negation. This apophatic tradition – explanation through denial – can be rhetorically effective, as in 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.'”

The Spiritual Brain also wades into philosophy since it challenges the materialist legs on which contemporary science stands. The authors demonstrate that science has become guilty of its own blind faith. Scientists have been trying to explain religious and spiritual matters “in relation to human evolution. Unfortunately, under materialist influence, the project became not so much exploring a way, but explaining away.” In other words, scientists have acted unscientifically.

Researchers must approach spiritual and religious issues without the materialist ideological baggage, and with more empty, truly inquisitive minds. Beauregard and O'Leary show that scientists need humility to go with their natural wonder.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tradition: Concept and Claim

By Josef Pieper, translated by E. Christian Kopff, ISI Books, hardcover 97 pages, ISBN: 1-933859-54-7, $ 25.

Pieper (1904-97), a German philosopher famous for his simple writing style, succeeds in the important task of defining tradition for our busy, post-modern society, emphasizing tradition's living vitality and accessibility.

Yet the philosopher doesn't want a frozen tradition. Pieper welcomes the harsh questioning and criticizing that adolescents and young adults do towards their cultural and religious inheritance. These repeated challenges can only help sharpen tradition, and encourage the guardians to retain only the central parts.

Pieper notes the connection between reason and tradition. Reason, and philosophy as a whole, cannot indefinitely do without theology, because philosophy needs a compass to set itself towards.

Pieper shows how Western civilization is even now Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman, as he refers to Socrates and Plato again and again. Pieper recounts the Socratic teaching that the gods gave something to humans from heaven that the ancestors handed on, and that we have handed on ever since. The dignity of the ancients was found in this divine source, and not in some special holiness that they had personally attained.

Tradition, for the Greeks as well as for Judeo-Christian thought, finds its source in this original divine revelation. Modern philosophy, though distinct from theology, should also find its impetus from this original divine source, Jesus Christ and the Hebrew writings that He fulfilled. Christ is the ultimate origin of tradition.

Tradition can only succeed and survive as long as people base it on divine revelation. Perhaps with a slightly condemning eye to our modern times, soon after these words, Pieper notes that “If sons really did stop celebrating the religious holidays celebrated by their fathers, or if the tradita of the sacred tradition were no longer handed down, here alone we must talk about a 'loss of tradition,' of 'a complete lack of tradition' and a 'break with tradition.'”

As a philosopher Pieper was all-too-aware of the so-called deconstructionists and post-modernists, who assert that there is no truth, but only truths relative to individuals or, at best, to isolated cultures. Their truth is that there is no truth.

Pieper refutes this with a few choice words: “Tradition is by no means a confused mass of historically transmitted accidents, wherein everything that has been created and preserved, as long as it possesses a certain antiquity, is equally valid.”

Contemporary thought fails on two grounds. First, no individual has direct access to revelation, which must instead be handed down through the proper authorities. Tradition, in fact, is all about the handing down of an original revelation. If people did have direct revelations, tradition would not exist.

Second, the modern notion of progress fails, even when it occasionally tries to wed itself to tradition. The accumulation of more facts, Pieper notes, does not mean that we are more advanced than the church fathers or medieval saints, because progress is really a spiritual good. This is so because of the spiritual nature of tradition, where “the goal is always to represent identically what was originally shared with mankind from a divine source.... I am only interested in using the interpretation that represents the tradition as a means to help me gain access to exactly the same thing that the first recipient of the message had access to: salvation, knowledge, wisdom.”

The unique gift of Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman civilization is freedom. True freedom, as opposed to the self-oriented license of modern freedom lovers, comes from the tradition because of its core truth, which is Christ. Otherwise, Pieper warns, people become enslaved, and “worry obsessively about the cultivation of the 'traditions.'” This was the case with the ancient Romans fighting the Christians, and again seems to be the case today when secular people fight for their pseudo-freedom against the Catholic Church, which forever calls people to a higher freedom.

God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis

By Philip Jenkins, USD 28.00, hardcover 340 pages, Oxford University Press.

Bucking the trend, Philip Jenkins sees a positive future for Christian Europe: “Nothing drives activists and reformers more powerfully than the sense that their faith is about to perish in their homelands and that they urgently need to make up these losses farther afield, whether overseas or among the previously neglected lost sheep at home.”

Jenkins places his optimism in the very core of Christianity's nature: “Death and resurrection are not just fundamental doctrines of Christianity; they represent a historical model of the religion's structure and development.”

The opening chapters counter the media's announcements of the supposed death of European Christianity. Catholic vitality exists in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere through movements like Sant-Egidio and Focolore, which are lay-inspired, dynamic, and as intense as American-style Pentecostalism. According to Jenkins, these Catholic communities can potentially live out Pope Benedict XVI's call for the Church to become a “creative minority” in Europe.

God's Continent also chronicles how Christian immigrants to Europe parallel Muslim newcomers in tending to follow their practices just as intensely or more so in their new land than back in Africa, Asia, or Eastern Europe. African charismatic Christians all over Europe are building a vast network of communities intent on maintaining the religious fervor of their own people in their new European milieu. Charismatic leaders are working hard, “day and night” in the words of one pastor, to return the missionary debt to Europe by resurrecting European Christianity.

Yet the author spends a great deal of time discussing Islam, and precisely why it is not on the verge of taking over Europe. He uses countless demographic charts and tables to show how, for instance, the birth rate of Muslims, famously exaggerated, is not only comparable to Western countries among European Muslims, but also in Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and, most surprisingly, Iran. This drop has been very recent—since the turn of the millennium—and very precipitous. Even Egypt's birthrate is well under 3.0 per woman.

While Westerners only seem to take note of the youthful character of the population of Muslim countries, Jenkins argues here as elsewhere that this is due more to the fact that these populations are one or two generations behind Western peoples in terms of secularization than to an effort to out-birth the West. Aside from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and a few other places, the Muslim baby boom has pretty much ended, especially as Muslim women become increasingly educated.

God's Continent also parallels the hysteria over Islam in Europe today with the hysteria one hundred years ago among American Protestants who feared that “backward” Catholics with their “superstitious beliefs,” high birth-rate, zealous community, and adherence to authority were threatening the very democracy and individualism of the country. The Protestant mainstream eventually judged Catholics to be as American as everyone else, and Catholics have tended to adopt individualism and the separation of church and state just as eagerly as the wider culture.

Jenkins' warnings, though, are well-grounded and reflect the need for action in somehow making young Muslims feel that they are a greater fabric of European society: “[I]n prosperous Europe, we find a cultish perversion of religion in which the bombings and beheadings almost become the central tenets of practice. In Europe too, unlike north Africa or south Asia, young enthusiasts are not subject to the very powerful constraints of traditional values and social structures, the iron laws of village and clan that mandate strict customary limits to the use of violence and disorder. Older Muslims complain of losing their children to militant recruiters.” (161)

The optimism of God's Continent comes, therefore, with a few warnings.

God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, David Levering Lewis

$29.95, hardcover 476 pages, W.W. Norton.

In God's Crucible, Professor David Lewis demonstrates the close relationship between Europe and the Islamic world. Europe in particular defines itself to an important degree through its feelings about Muslims and their cultures and beliefs.

Europeans, especially the emperors and popes, learned to work together in reference to the Muslim threat. The crowning of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800 exemplifies this. Popes and emperors also collaborated against wandering, violent Germanic tribes such as the Lombards. The papacy's continued relevance, if not its continued existence, was by no means always assured.

In outlining the details of countless battles between empires or civil wars, God's Crucible takes us on a Lord of the Rings view of history -- men playing the game of power where, as Lewis writes, “peace is war by other means.” Rarely did a year go by without major conflagration, and when peace did break out, it only assured that, with the stockpiling of weapons and food for the next one, that next one would be more terrifying than ever.

As is so often the case nowadays, Lewis adopts a Friedrich Nietzsche view of religion, characterizing it, like war, as simply a power game. He regards councils, popes, preachers, and other holy people as simply players in the grand game rather than speakers of the truth. Lewis is a man spellbound by the Enlightenment and its unending cynicism, with a non-believer's skepticism in everything religious or truthful.

Having said that, his skepticism and materialism push him to do us the service of correcting the historical record, such as regards the belief that Arab Muslims spread their religion with the sword and their overwhelming numbers: “Long the conventional explanation, the human tidal-wave theory was abandoned in the early years of the last century, however, as new scholarship revealed the first Arab armies to have been dismayingly small – a few thousand at most to conquer Graeco-Roman Syria and fewer than twelve thousand, probably, to occupy Iran.”

Lewis' next words give a warning to current inhabitants of Western civilization: We have been fighting unending culture wars just as the early medieval Christian majority in the soon-to-be Muslim world had engaged in exhausting, demoralizing theological infighting for centuries. They often squabbled over the understanding of the nature of Christ's divine and human natures. The upshot of that early medieval squabbling? “Muslims also won because their enemies had exhausted themselves.”

Lewis does a particularly good job at showing how Europe became, in reaction to Islamic jihad, united through a common mythology. The Song of Roland, an eleventh-century French poem about a Christian military tragedy in Muslim Spain, was used by medieval Christendom as a template for thinking about the heroic valor of Christian knights – and Christian Europe – in their “epic struggle” against Muslims.

Though Catholic readers should be wary of Lewis' coldness towards his own Western heritage and towards Christianity, which he all-too-often assumes to be uniformly violent and degrading, the author's powerful, succinct, and poetic writing powerfully sums up his discussions, as in the following:

“Arab knowledge in politics, economics, and technology sharpened by the close of the seventh century to an edge as fine as tempered steel.”

The author replaces religion as the bottom line of history with economics, emphasizing the commerce and cultural wealth that empires and open trade routes generated for multiple nations existing together across thousands of miles of steppes or mountain ranges and vast seas:

“If the road to conversion had been well-trafficked from the beginning of the jihad, by the first decade of the eighth century the road to Islam had become a conveyor belt [of trade] at full throttle.”

Lewis' wide-ranging, intuitive understanding of Western and Islamic history make God's Crucible a great adventure for the patient reader. It is well worth the few annoyances of his academic ideology and his sometimes overly descriptive style.

In Defense of Lost Causes

By Slavoj Zizek, 504 pages, Verso Books, $38.50.

Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher and Paris-trained psychoanalyst, spends a lot of time thinking about capitalism and its spiritual, psychological, and metaphysical fallout. He examines this fallout both in the hearts and minds of individuals and in historical and recent political experiences. Zizek is a big thinker who talks about mental health, cultural studies, politics, and sexuality all at once.

In Defense of Lost Causes' steady focus on humans and how they are affected by aggressive, revolutionary capitalism is reminiscent of Carl Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Aggressive capitalism has destroyed age-old human and physical ecology. Countless cultures across the world, one by one, have fallen to America's opening up markets imperialism.

Zizek makes the point over and over that capitalism leaves no one untouched, and that the normal state of the individual nowadays is to feel overwhelmed and unhinged.

Zizek's pessimism comes from his belief that capitalism for the time being has indeed won and has become the backdrop to everything else. It is, he writes, the Big Other. Just as the West was once a Christian civilization, with religion producing all the givens, now capitalism offers all the assumptions. Money, not eternal religious truth, is the measure of all things.

Yet Zizek is not a true pessimist. He adopts Thomas Beckett's dictum, Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Opponents of capitalism must not give up. Alternatives are available. Often limp-noodle socialists and anti-capitalists in general just don't realize that they have to create the alternatives themselves. They have been uninspired, lazy, and stubborn.

Liberal bourgeois democracy, the force behind rabid capitalism, is not as all-knowing and powerful as people suppose. Zizek's psychoanalytical skills help us see the short-sighted, foolishly arrogant nature of this political way:

“[I]s bringing Western liberal democracy the real solution for getting rid of the religious-fundamentalist regimes, or are these regimes rather a symptom of liberal democracy itself? What to do in cases like those of Algeria or the Palestinian territories, where a 'free' democratic election brings 'fundamentalists' to power?”

Zizek repeatedly circles vulture-like around the same problems: The pro-Nazi philosopher Heidegger; Stalin's purges; French deconstructionists and philosophers; Mao and the Cultural Revolution; Freud; and countless other topics wound together in an analysis of utilitarianism, materialism, and scientism. Zizek philosophizes from pop culture.

Zizek's philosophy, as pessimism with a possibly rosy ending, is really Christianity-without-Christ thinking. The new original sin is capitalism and the money-mind. The new grace, as mysterious as Christian grace, comes out of the depths of suffering – from our dark side or from our ecological fate. We can build a refreshed, post-capitalist civilization if we cooperate with this post-Christian grace.

Capitalism, like anything else, can never be totally free and easy because things just don't work like that. Zizek identifies “fundamentalist populism” as socialism's replacement. Populism in its extreme simplicity finds ready scapegoats such as immigrants or, in Europe, Brussels.

Zizek sees through Islamic terrorism, humanizing the terrorists in a unique way, showing that their anti-Western bloodlust is the core of their own weakness:

“Are, however, the terrorist fundamentalists, be they Christian or Muslim, really fundamentalists in the authentic sense of the term? Do they really believe? What they lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the US: the absence of resentment and envy, deep indifference towards the non-believer's way of life.”

Zizek emasculates what our culture sees as imposing, and empowers various lost causes. He shows how our attempts at fighting capitalism or fundamentalism already point to our defeat. In Defense of Lost Causes invites us to create a new reality rather than contest these things head on. Zizek opens up new possibilities in our suffocating, money-mad world.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Greek East and Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071, by Andrew Louth

382 pages with b/w photos, SVS Press, $22.00.

Louth helps get to the bottom of the millenia-old estrangement between Latin and Greek Christianity in a way that avoids blaming or preaching. He is not interested in presenting either side as more correct.

Importantly, he shows that the basis of much theological dispute is in ethnic and linguistic differences rather than in theological difficulties per se. In other words, different nations or groupings of people didn't get along theologically because they had already developed long-standing cultural or linguistic differences.

But he first shows that especially after the Islamic invasions of large parts of the Byzantine Empire, Rome and other areas of Italy, especially Sicily, were full of Greek Christians, with their own language and customs. Such groups lived side by side with the Latins for centuries, with inevitable flare-ups. The pope would occasionally shut down some Greek churches in his area, and the patriarch in Constantinople would shut down Latin-rite churches under his jurisdiction.

On the whole, though, during this entire period, Greek and Latin Christians didn't see themselves as divided except on unimportant or cultural issues. Theologically, they saw themselves as one. Hierarchical divisions, usually more about the egos of powerful men, hardly filtered down to regular Christians.

Louth spends a great deal of time on the already well-known relationship between Charlemagne and the papacy, which was a vital turning point for Christianity. The pope went under the protection of the Frankish leaders in the West and distanced itself from the Byzantine emperor, who saw his empire as the continuation of Rome.

Greek East and Latin West also gets into the lesser-known “byzantine” politics of the Byzantine empire. These politics were about scheming generals, power-mad empresses, and sometimes weak, sometimes strong emperors. The names are unfamiliar to us, but Louth portrays well the decay and decadence of the imperial court. Though this empire enjoyed many periods of stability and power, these centuries saw the constant encroachment of the Arab and Turkish Muslims, who judged Constantinople as the greatest prize they had yet to win.

Louth does not neglect the development of Eastern Christian spirituality and theology, including the missionaries to the Slavic peoples.

Greek East and Latin West spends a great deal of time on the iconoclast controversy, which was the attempt by many church leaders and members to destroy the heritage of venerating icons. The West never had such a controversy, Louth points out, because the Latin Church saw art less as a door to heaven and more as a way to instruct the illiterate masses. Again, we see 2 different yet valid ways of following Christ.

Here Comes a Sea Followed by an Ocean: Very Simple Reflections on the Second Vatican Council, after 40 years, by Father Gianni Carparelli

179 pages, Caritas.

Carparelli remembers Vatican II as a time of excitement and joy, and believes deeply in its work. He advises the reader to go back to the original documents. He avoids a political interpretation, instead emphasizing the liturgical side.

This leads the author to emphasize the Trinity as a communion rather than a number. Vatican II addresses the communitarian nature of the Church. The author asks Catholics to extend that community to estranged Catholics, to those “who feel judged too harshly by the Church,” and to “those who have been hurt by the Church.”

Because of Carparelli's love for the pontiffs and Vatican II, these words invite the outsider back into the Church without blaming faulty priests and leaders. Carparelli one never loses sight of the mystery of Christ and community, which are the deepest aspects of the Council. The book also shows why and how Catholics should love the hierarchy and especially the magisterium.

Here Comes the Sea briefly analyzes each of the Council's documents but, again, from this liturgical- spiritual-mystical stance, as in the following words about Lumen Gentium:

“May I invite you to make an effort to read through the symbolic language and to envision yourself immersed inside this mystery, soaked with it, that throws us into the future and at the same time invites us to build it?”

Here Comes the Sea breathes new life into Vatican II because, unlike countless volumes of liberal theological discourse that weighed the Church down in the Council's aftermath, Carparelli faithfully loves and preaches the Catholic tradition:

“If we now start to think with a little bit of common sense, we will also understand that some guidance is needed. Not everything can be left to individual personal interpretation. Never forget that we are children of communion.”

The power and success of this book hinge on the spirituality of the author. The book reads more like a common sense spiritual director than a strict dogmatic theologian. Like only a few very special spiritual writers, including Pope John Paul II and Teresa of Avila, the author succeeds in communicating to the reader something of the essence of Catholicism.

Carparelli brings out the direct and simple faith of the conciliar fathers, who more than aggiornamento (updating), Carparelli notes, wanted ressourcement, a return to the original roots of Catholicism. As the author indicates through his spiritual direction for the reader, the ultimate point of ressourcement is Christ:

“[T]he discussion whether Christ is of the same nature as God or of an inferior nature, if he is only man or whether he is man-God in one person, is not as superficial as it might first seem. There is behind this a concept of faith and therefore of life, the sense of the presence of God amongst us and of the Christian vocation of citizens in history.”

The Best of 'The Public Square' Book Three,” by Richard John Neuhaus

229 pages, USD 15.00.

Neuhaus: “Berlinski is especially effective in showing how Darwinians kick any idea of purpose, design, or teleology out the front door, only to smuggle such ideas in by the back door. Nature 'selects' this or that, Nature 'chooses,' Nature 'targets,' and so forth. This Nature, whether upper or lower case, is a kind of deity in the details, ever invoked and ever denied.”

The genius of the late Father John Richard Neuhaus was his ability to engage in the intellectual life of America – both secular and religious -- with great insight and orthodox theology. A convert to Catholicism after years as a Lutheran pastor, Neuhaus engaged in the intellectual issues of the day with wit, sarcasm, and the depth that comes from reflecting the time-honored tradition of the Catholic Church.

In discussing a book on the limits of Darwinism, this cerebral bent gives intellectual legitimacy to religious believers; Neuhaus' following words reflect the fact that the faithful, contrary to the media and academia's portrayal of Christians as stupid yokels, can think as well as the rest of the world:

“One is sometimes asked whether one 'believes in' evolution. More strident Darwinists adamantly insist that it is not a matter of faith; it is not a theory to be accepted or rejected; it is a fact to be acknowledged. But of course that is silly. It is precisely, and Darwin intended it precisely as, a theory to explain how the complexity of living systems came about. And there may be something to it in terms of micro-evolution, in possibly explaining how changes happen within particular species. As for macro-evolution – a general and all-encompassing explanation of how we and all other living things came to be – Darwinism is, in my considered judgment, preposterous.”

These words are among the best Christian explanation of uneasiness with Darwinian theory. Neuhaus might be a bit witty or cagey at times, but he avoids the sort of personal slander that many other culture-warriors engage in.

Interestingly, Neuhaus' pre-Catholic ministry focused on poor black people in New York. He marched with Martin Luther King and supported civil rights in the 1960s. Many liberals would call Neuhaus a right-wing nut or a neo-con, but he most deeply represents Catholicism's ability to exist above the left-wing, right-wing political divide.

Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life, by Kathleen Norris

Hardcover 334 pages, Penguin, $28.50 ISBN 978-1-59448-996-9.

"Acedia's genius is to seize us precisely where our hope lies, to tear away at the heart of who we are, and mock that which sustains us," writes Kathleen Norris. Her precise definitions and understanding of the spiritual affliction acedia makes her spirituality-autobiography Acedia & me a most satisfying reading.

Acedia is a term usually associated with monasticism and ancient Christianity. A sinful thought and temptation, Norris explains how it is alive and well today. We ignore it at our own peril. Usually associated with depression, it differs in important aspects. While therapy can alleviate depression, spiritual practices such as simple physical labor, prayerful Bible reading, and thoughtful living work well on acedia.

The condition convinces people that their work and relationships are doomed. It tempts people not to make their beds and clean their houses, because beds and houses will become unmade the next day. It invites people to take the easy way out on a career path, rather than accomplishing one's God-given potential by fulfilling a vocation.

Since the opposite of acedia is zeal, Christians are called to overcome the temptation by being active, prayerful, and full of hope. Norris even finds hope within the affliction itself: "[I]f I am especially susceptible to acedia, it is because I harbor within myself the virtue of zeal." We must focus on doing our work, however mundane and tiresome, as best we can.

But things are not so easy. Acedia is nasty because it can hide and transform itself. People tell themselves that they are being zealous and conquering acedia by working hard. But, Norris warns us, it is actually lurking behind a lot of workaholism because it has convinced many that careers, money, and material rewards are more important than building real relationships and community, and work that is edifying for the Lord.

In other words, acedia gets people to ignore what is really important, and to focus too much on what is unimportant. Norris blames unhealed, unnamed acedia for today's runaway consumerism, including the consumerization of Christmas:

"[F]ragmented people are better consumers. It is the aim of advertising to make us anxious, doubting that what we have is enough, or enough of the best and latest stuff."

Acedia is indifference, and leads to despair. Whereas the dark night of the soul is a relatively healthy spiritual condition because people suffering from it deeply care and hope for much more from their relationship with God, acedia tells people not to care about such a relationship. A true dark night is impossible with this sinful condition.

Acedia has also reared its ugly head in the indifference that tempts people to trumpet their "freedom" when faced with social connections and obligations.

Norris brings new life to theology and its terminology simply by exploring the original and fullest sense of concepts. Acedia & me shows that theological innovation is not as daring or exciting (or pleasurable to read) as a faithful and deep understanding of the original sparks of theology.

The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, by Robert Barron

352 pages, Brazos Press.

The Priority of Christ discusses a whole swath of issues unearthed by post-Enlightenment philosophy's rejection of God, which culminated in Friedrich Nietzsche's Death of God and Jean Paul Sartre's Hell is Other People. It would be an understatement, then, to suggest that Robert Barron is ambitious.

He begins at the beginning - the source of the modern mentality. As with so much else in contemporary society, we find these roots in the High Middle Ages, between 1100-1450. The discussion is necessarily academic and presupposes a high degree of knowledge about the relevant movers and shakers, but readers who know these players are in for a treat.

His Thomistic-inspired discussion parallels Pope John Paul II's concept of freedom. This is important, because leading secularists in France and America, who always seem so influential in universities and therefore among society's leaders, assert that freedom, their most cherished value, is threatened by God or by any belief in God. They have concluded, and have caused countless millions to conclude, that freedom can only exist in a theological vacuum. Freedom and God cannot co-exist.

For Robert Barron, Thomas Aquinas' idea of freedom, based on his famous analogical theology, allows Catholic theologians great grounds for rejecting secularist philosophers. Aquinas said that God's being is primary and our being secondary. We can therefore understand God's being by analogy (An analogy is a kind of comparison: Although I cannot know something directly, in this case God, I can know something indirectly by comparing it to things that I do know and that share some qualities with this unknowable entity. From my mother's love, I can get a good sense of God's love, even though divine love is of course of an entirely different level than that of any human's):

“Aquinas maintained consistently throughout his career that God is inescapably mysterious to the human intellect, since our frame of reference remains the creaturely mode of existence, which bears only an analogical resemblance to the divine mode of being. We may say that God exists, but we're not quite sure what we mean when we say it; the 'cash-value' of the claim that God exists is that there is a finally mysterious source of the to-be of finite things.”

Briefly put, thinking about God in this analogical way means that God is of a different being than we are and that we do not have to fear God encroaching on our freedom. Since God's being is primary, his being sustains us and therefore gives us greater and greater life.

Barron locates the modern, zero-sum way of thinking in Duns Scotus: “In an effort to make the to-be of God more immediately intelligible, Duns Scotus proposed a univocal conception of existence, according to which God and creatures belong to the same basic metaphysical category, the genus of being. Though God is infinite and therefore quantitatively superior to any creature or collectivity of creatures, there is nevertheless no qualitative difference, in the metaphysical sense, between the supreme being, God, and finite beings.”

Barron makes the point that Scotus's model unhinges humans from our metaphysical anchor to God: “[N]o longer grounded in a common source, creatures lose their essential connectedness to one another. Isolated and self-contained individuals (God the supreme being and the many creatures) are now what is most basically real.”

Barron is faithful to the Catholic tradition, and so The Priority of Christ represents an important step forward in the new-evangelization.

The Apostles, by Pope Benedict XVI

$14.95, 174 pages small hardcover, Our Sunday Visitor.

Taken from a series of lectures by Pope Benedict XVI from March 15, 2006 to February 14, 2007, this handy book uncovers the essentials on Christianity's beginning. Accessible for theology beginners yet rich enough for everyone, The Apostles traces the early development of the Church through its first leaders.

The Pontiff does so by bringing out the personalities of these men and women, rather than by offering abstract or complicated dogma. The author succeeds in showing just how much Christianity revolves around not only the supreme personality of Jesus Christ and the reality of the Trinity, but also the personalities – strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures – of those trained and sent of by Jesus to the corners of the earth.

The pontiff also offers interesting information about the early Church:

“The Book [of Revelation] should be understood against the backdrop of the dramatic experiences of the seven Churches of Asia (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea) which had to face serious difficulties at the end of the first century – persecutions and also inner tensions – in their witness to Christ.”

Using the Bible, extra-biblical sources, and some Christian legends, the Holy Father establishes the basis of the Catholic Church's hierarchy. He comes therefore to justify the hierarchy.

As with all of Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI's writings, this one gently yet directly uses the wealth of the Christian tradition to discuss all sorts of theology in one small work.

Thomas Merton: Master of Attention, by Robert Waldron

101 pages, $19.95, Novalis.

Waldron develops an important aspect of the contemplative side of Merton, the use of attention in his prayer and wider spirituality, often comparing the monk with the French mystic Simone Weil. The author bases his ideas on the journals, books, and poetry of Merton rather than on other people's books about Merton. The reader therefore gets an immediate, simple notion of Merton, where the power of these original writings is drawn out.

The book's author himself groans at the idea of another Merton book. Yet the surprising depth of Master of Attention comes, no doubt, from the richness of Merton himself. The Cistercian monk's works are a jewel not only for Catholics but for all religious and spiritual types. In this way, Catholicism can sneak into the lives of people who may not otherwise have given the Church a glance.

Merton appeals to a wide audience because his elegant spirituality brings out the best in his tradition, and does so from many sides. In this sense he is one of the most important Catholic theologians of the past century.

Like Pope John Paul II or Saint Padre Pio, Merton renews the Church by unearthing the deepest, most beautiful parts of Catholicism rather than by focusing on the negatives. He reforms by bringing out the great gems of our tradition rather than by getting into all sorts of power struggles with the hierarchy.

Waldron mixes important biographical information about Merton so as to give the background and therefore fuller meaning to these spiritual insights and writings. The author discusses the importance of Merton's father, a painter and somewhat religious man, on the monk's sense of the spiritual value of art and beauty:

“Shortly after viewing the Byzantine icons, Merton sensed his [deceased] father's presence in his hotel room on the corner of Via Sistina and Via Tritone [in Rome]. He writes one of the most haunting passages in modern twentieth-century memoirs: '...The sense of his presence was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me ... I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul, and I was pierced deeply with a light that made me realize something of the condition I was in.'”

Master of Attention also examines how both Zen Buddhism and nature influenced Merton, though the author emphasizes that the monk always remained orthodox and steeped in Catholic culture and spirituality, something that not all Merton experts do.

The richness, variety, and depth of Merton's writings tempt many analysts to force their own feelings onto his thought, and Waldron falls for this trap at times. The author does a Jungian deconstuction of the monk's personality, perhaps reading too much into things. Like all books on Merton, then, readers should take this one with caution.

Jesus of Israel: Finding Christ in the Old Testament, by Father Richard Veras

$11.99, 142 pages, American Catholic.

Father Veras has written an excellent account of the Old Testament foundations for Christian beliefs about Christ. The author, as a high school teacher, knows how to present difficult and long-winded facts and connections in a simple and clear way. In fact, Jesus of Israel would be an excellent first book for someone curious about basic theology.

One reason for this is obvious: Veras builds his theology on the Hebrew writings. Many Catholic writers often forget these most foundational writings. The entirety of our beliefs rest on the religious thinking of the Israelites. We take this for granted and fail to delve into this culture and its sacred writings.

Ancient Israel's most foundational insight about God revolves around the divinity's loving, prophetic presence in world history. Veras, as the high school teacher, offers an interesting, basic insight into this given:

“God plays favorites. There is no getting around it. God's method in entering history is always to choose a particular person in a particular way. Think of Abraham, Joseph and Moses. Jesus chose twelve apostles from among his disciples, and of those twelve, Peter, James and John were closer to him than the others.”

Veras unearths an ancient spirituality that demands much of us. In this section, he goes on to show that this favoritism leads to great things for many people and “is never to exclude others. Rather, his [God's] design is that through the chosen person others may also be chosen and experience God's preferential love.”

The author then recounts how chosen people, such as a certain Catholic priest, inspired him and helped mature his own vocation.

Unlike many theology books, the words of Jesus of Israel sometimes jump out at the reader. Because Veras, unlike many Catholic writers, gets back to the sources, he has a sense of urgency and directness that refresh the message of the gospel.

Recounting Jesus' meeting his first two disciples (from John 1:38), Veras offers the full meaning of Jesus' ministry and of the entire calling of Israel, something that he succeeds at again and again throughout the book:

“This encounter between two men and God was possible because God took the initiative to enter the world so that these men could bump into him. Jesus Christ is not the fruit of his disciples' ideas; he is a fact. Familiarity with Christ comes from knowledge of him, gained from time and life shared with this carpenter from Nazareth, this Son of God.”

Jesus of Israel offers just what the Church needs in this silly age of deconstruction and disrespect for everything.

Dynamics of World History, by Christopher Dawson

ISI Books, 511 pages, $16.95.

The late Christopher Dawson, former professor at Harvard University, took a Catholic view of the past. God's breaking into human history makes history history. Without this action, humans would tend towards a belief in reincarnation.

Though Dynamics of World History, a collection of Dawson's writings, focuses mainly on Western civilization and Christianity, his sweeping understanding of the spiritual and psychological forces of the past parallel the writings of the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell who, though raised Catholic, never saw his subject matter through Catholic lenses.

Dawson, writing in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, attributed the military and political violence of his day to the spiritual vacuum in Western history since the Enlightenment. Spiritual decay led unavoidably to all sorts of violence.

Technological and economic progress thus present problems because they have come at the expense of culture and spirituality. We have more than ever materially, yet we are empty spiritually. Interestingly, while Dawson wrote many decades ago, these thoughts apply just as well today.

We have yet to solve the basic conundrum that issues from societies putting all their energies into wealth creation and technological development, and nothing into spirituality and the higher arts. This is precisely the place where the Church has its most important role to play today – to fill this spiritual and artistic vacuum.

Dawson also took a sacred view of the Church, believing that Catholicism has been fighting the same noble, spiritual battle throughout history, and that facing distortions and enemies were a normal part of its vocation. Sometimes the greatest enemy of the Church is within:

“Wherever the Church has seemed to dominate the world politically and achieves a victory within the secular sphere, she has had to pay for it in a double measure of temporal and spiritual misfortune. Thus the triumph of the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire was followed first by the loss of the East to Islam and then by the schism with the West.”

He also claimed that the Church's historical opponents, including Protestantism and the “Liberal Revolution would not have existed apart from Christianity – they are abortive or partial manifestations of the spiritual power which Christianity has brought into history.”

These writings cover a very large area of history and sociology. Dawson attributed religious schism, as between the Latin and Greek churches, and between Rome and Protestant churches, to ethnic and sociological differences. These nationalistic and cultural tensions invaded the theological arena, so that the Irish remained Catholic, for instance, just as much out of their hatred for England – which had become Protestant/Church of England - as out of their faithfulness to Rome.

Dawson applied the same Catholic, spiritual view to art, literature, history, and every other aspect of Western civilization. A big thinker, he noted: “[T]he essence of history is not to be found in facts but in traditions.” Contrary to the claims of modern historians, he never tried to transcend culture and be totally objective.

John Paul II: My Beloved Predecessor

By Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI, 121 pages, $19.95, Pauline.

“What can this sick, suffering, tired old man say, who in moments of physical fatigue speaks with visible weariness?” These words were written by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (present Pope Benedict XVI), a close associate of Pope John Paul II, concerning the late pontiff's controversial visit to France in 1996.

John Paul II's rich theological and spiritual legacy only continues to grow. My Beloved Predecessor brings together a collection of writings on John Paul, his work and ministry, by Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ratzinger the theologian writes with such clarity that his thoughts on John Paul's teachings help us understand the late pontiff, including some of the difficult-to-understand philosophical pillars of John Paul II such as phenomenology and personalism.

Ratzinger sums up the workings of these two closely-related philosophical schools on John Paul's ideas: “This precision in seeing, this comprehension of man beginning not from abstractions and theoretical principles, but seeking to grasp his reality with love, was – and remains – decisive for the pope's thought.”

Because this collection comes from writings in reaction to or in support of teachings and events during the pontificate of John Paul II, they contain a freshness and simplicity that clarifies and keeps to the original feeling and intent.

The funeral homily remains the most powerful statement on John Paul's pontificate: “The Holy Father was a priest to the last, for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family, in a daily self-oblation for the service of the Church, especially amid the sufferings of his final months.”

God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, by John F. Haught

244 pages, Westviewpress.

After all the tension and sometime mud-slinging between certain Christians and certain scientists, finally someone has reflected more creatively about science and religion. John Haught is positively riveted theologically by the insights of science. While he does admit, though, that theology must change in order to deal with the vast and revolutionary storehouse of scientific knowledge, he also warns that the arrogance of many scientists is blocking science-religious dialogue:

“If we listen to Dawkins and Dennett [two extreme anti-religion scientists], we are led to believe that Darwin's scientific legacy provides so total an account of life that it removes any need for appeal to theological explanation at any level of understanding. Religious faith's intuition that a mysterious but infinitely intelligent creativity underlies biological process is now considered unacceptable, not so much because can prove it is not there, but because science has apparently shown it to be superfluous.”

Despite science's great challenge to traditional religious beliefs, the author requires a demanding theology that faithfully adheres to basic Christian teaching about God's intimate relationship to the world rather than one that bows down to science. He rejects the deist idea that God started the universe and then left the world to run on its own:

Christian faith's image of a suffering God's eternal restraint, which allows for the world's self-creation, suggests to theology a notion of ultimate reality much more intimately involved with and powerfully effective in the world than a forcefully directive divine agency would be. God acts powerfully in the world by offering to it a virtually limitless range of new possibilities within which it can become something relatively autonomous and distinct from its creator.”

Interestingly, these above words have modern, cutting-edge science in mind while advancing humility, a very traditional Christian belief about God.

Haught takes an almost 'Don't worry, be happy' approach to science's challenge to theology because he avoids being overly ambitious with this one book, and decides instead to leave the biggest work to following generations:

By collapsing the sacred hierarchy, modern evolutionary materialism gives every appearance of having pulverized the cultural, ethical, and religious formations around which human life on this planet has been organized for many thousands of years. It is impossible to exaggerate the enormity of this great drama of dissolutions.”

The author does not mince his words about the importance of theology's dialogue with science. He adopts the position of a Muslim scholar of religion and science, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who believes that science's leveling of everything and atomizing of life has led to the ecological disaster that is now upon us. Contemporary science is nihilistic and indifferent to life because it denies the hierarchical outlook that roots all life in something mysterious and sacred. Nasr is calling for a science that is open to the sacred and therefore once again to some form of hierarchy.

God After Darwin does its intended job of setting a basic groundwork for future theologians.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Mystery of Christian Faith: A Tangible Union with the Invisible God. An Apologetic on the Borderline of Theology, Medicine, and Philosophy

By Paul Ungar, University Press, 407 pages, $50.50.

Paul Ungar reflects as a psychiatrist, psychologist, and theologian on the condition of post-modern humans. By post-modern, we mean a stage of history in Western countries such as Canada where individualism, materialism, and skepticism have replaced traditional morality, social structures such as the family, and belief in God.

The Mystery of Christian Faith testifies to the spiritual, psychological, and emotional difficulties that such a loss to society and individuals have engendered. Modern Catholic leaders have been grappling with the following for decades:

“[U]nlike previous generations that were told by their religion and traditions exactly what was good and bad, or what the correct fundamental options in life were, many of our contemporaries have lost those traditional support systems and are consequently challenged by their own freedom of choice and their responsibility to find and fulfill their life meanings. This task causes enduring tension because there is a permanent gap between that which one is and that which one ought to be.”

Using the Doubting Thomas story as an archetype for modern, indecisive humans, Ungar examines the spiritual chaos of modern individuals from an orthodox theological basis. The first part of The Mystery of Christian Faith offers a basic introduction to Christian thought, starting with the ancient Israelites and, for instance, the moral as well as political centrality of their kings.

Ungar offers an erudite synthesis of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also much more. His psychological explanations for currents in history, such as the Reformation and increasing Christian disunity, dig deeper than the usual dogmatic and historical discussions:

“The real reasons for the fragmentation of Christianity are found not in historical, cultural, or even political events, but in the progressive mutual estrangement caused by the unloving, impatient, boastful, envious ... record-keeping attitude on the part of at least some of the key players in the process of fragmentation. These psychological reasons and attitudes were those essential causes of fragmentation, that were often expressed and became visible through unessential, visible, touchable, and measurable phenomena.”

The Mystery of Christian Faith
delves into the deep currents of Christianity, and encompasses many elements because the author fearlessly examines the ancient Israelite prophets, the teachings of the New Testament, and Saints like Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm.

He also develops the idea of transempirical events as a way to reject the sense that any real chasm between science and Catholicism actually exists. These are events beyond the scientifically-measurable senses, such as the call of St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

Transmpiricism gets to the heart of Ungar's argument. Scientists who fail to “see” God in their research are looking with the eyes of pre-conversion Saul of Tarsus. They are failing to look with eyes of faith, and like countless people in post-modern Canada, are looking with cynicism and agnosticism instead.

The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to be an Educated Human Being, edited by Richard M. Gamble

668 pages hardcover, ISI Books, $30.00.

An anthology of the Western world's great thinkers on the subject of education, this book offers the corpus of Western philosophy. The editor aims to protect this great tradition from the university professors, who nowadays in the name of political correctness tend to reject these thinkers.

Many of the great writers of our civilization were Christians of course, since the Church has been the patron of education and the arts, and helped to establish science. The collection includes a few church fathers, some medieval scholastics, and humanist scholars such as Petrarch, the fourteenth-century Italian writer, who defended the Church against

“[A] set of dialecticians, who are not only ignorant but demented. Like a black army of ants from some old rotten oak, they swarm forth from their hiding-places and devastate the fields of sound learning. They condemn Plato and Aristotle, and laugh at Socrates and Pythagoras. And, good God! Under what silly and incompetent leaders these opinions are put forth!”

Petrarch's words also describe the intellectual landscape of the modern university.

The Great Tradition defends a vigorous education system that instills honor and the sense of right from wrong in people. It is a tradition that, like Plato and Aristotle – not to mention Christianity – seeks the truth, believing that opinion is not enough. These thinkers therefore support the Church's view that we must strive for the truth, which is one reason that the Church has always demanded a philosophical education for its priests.

The editor notes that occasionally these writers seemingly share little in common, as in Catholic and Protestant thinkers from the Reformation. Yet they all developed something very deep, which is the belief that humans can and should strive after the truth and live accordingly.

Nowadays, education is more like training and about getting a good job. Yet the writers in this book agree with the Church that life is worth being thought about for its own sake. “Wisdom and virtue” rather than “power and vanity” are important to a real education.

Since many of the book's selections are cautions against the prevailing greed or otherwise negative direction of the society of the time, the book offers an interesting intellectual backdrop to many of the interesting events in Western history, such as the industrialization of the US. One writer opposed the increasingly fast pace, and wondered how people could find meaning and wisdom from such lifestyles.

The great twentieth-century German-American political-philosopher, Eric Voegelin, offers the most cutting criticism of the modern world from the eyes of traditional Western philosophy, which is based on the classical Greek age. He condemned the modern world's rejection of a search for a philosophical or religious truth and adoption of opinion-based diversity. He saw in this, as the Church does, a rejection of God and a turn to human self-preoccupation.

Voegelin went so far as to say that deculturation was happening in universities and society at large because of the “destruction” of philosophy.