Friday, December 31, 2010
"What children need most are mothers and fathers. Not caregivers. Not parent-like adults. Not even 'parents.' What a child wants and needs more than anything else are the mother and father who together made the child, who love the child, and who love each other," writes Blankenhorn in a typically forceful passage from The Future of Marriage.
Taking a traditional and scientific approach to marriage, Blankenhorn doesn't believe that sentimental love is the highest ideal of marriage. Children are the heart of marriage the world-over. Even the reality of infertile couples, elderly marriages, and the like, does not void this, because procreation and the needs of children are so overwhelmingly important.
Marriage forms the heart of the family, which forms the heart of society and civilization. Marriage is not simply a private contract between 2 individuals.
With much social science research backing him up, Blankenhorn shows clearly that marriage is a social institution whose purpose is to guide the relationship of husband and wife. The couple themselves do not have the right to define for themselves what marriage is.
Marriage precedes the couple. The social meaning of this relationship, which above all else includes the duty to rear children and build families, is more important than the sentimental, emotional winds of husband or wife. Marriage molds the couple; the pair cannot alter the idea of marriage to suit their whims.
Blankenhorn argues forcefully from the historical evidence, pointing out that a monogamous notion of marriage with responsible fatherhood replaced temple prostitution and a sexually-free fatherless society in ancient Mesopotamia. The rulers of the land gradually set up the conditions for public, institutional marriage, which included the father's duty to take care of the offspring. This new concept of marriage, "social fatherhood," and stable families built the civilization of Mesopotamia.
Unlike many marriage theorists today, who are guided more by ideology and hatred of the old order than by common sense or scientific studies, Blankenhorn often emphasizes the desperate need of children for mother and father:
"As children, we are smiled into smiling and loved into loving... Helping an infant grow over the years into a flourishing human being is the most difficult, time-consuming, and important work of our species." This requires the balanced complementarity of father and mother, Blenkenhorn notes repeatedly.
He warns that only through marriage can humans cease the almost-never-ending battle of the sexes. The main sexual divide for humans, he writes, is not straight-gay, but male-female. Marriage heals that deep divide through love, sexuality, and family-building.
Because of the deep emotional, financial, cultural, and social needs that marriage answers, the social institution of marriage predates any one religion. It existed before Christianity. The Church put its stamp on marriage, as with St. Augustine's discussion of its sacramental nature, but marriage as a social institution developed along with civilization itself.
Blankenhorn's social, economic, theological, and psychological message about marriage is coherent and easy to understand. While he discusses many current hot-button issues, his wider argument is based on more timeless principles.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
By Charles Foster, 231 pages, thomas nelson publishers.Foster opposes feminized, stay-at-home Christianity, offering a more masculine, adventurous spiritual practice instead. Rejecting the sentimentality-plagued Sunday-morning nonsense of most churches, Catholic and Protestant, he argues that Christianity is about being uncomfortable and out of the routine, rather than comfy and settled in one's convictions.
Yet he does not oppose traditional Christianity. Refreshingly, he shows a deep respect, even reverence, for Catholic and Orthodox practices, such as veneration of saints and their relics, and of course pilgrimage. He takes Protestants to task for lacking imagination. More than anything, in fact, he seems interested in waking the Christian imagination, which has been in a deep slumber for much of the past few centuries.
It is certain, uptight Protestants, not Catholics, who are strange. Pilgrimage and sacred spaces have been a central part of the human imagination ever since humans imagined -- ever since, in other words, they began to think symbolically. Symbolic thinking and religion go hand-in-hand, he argues convincingly, and those Christians who still practice it are all the richer.
Saints, relics, and pilgrimage all attest to the profoundly materialistic characteristic of Christianity. Repeatedly, Foster rejects gnosticism, the spiritualization of everything, and accuses many contemporary Christians of this grave sin. They fail to see the fun and the truth in an embodied spirituality.
Foster also rejects an overly-institutionalized Christianity, but refuses to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as many Calvinists have done. They have erred deeply in getting rid of some of the most moving, powerful aspects of ancient and medieval Christian practice.
The Sacred Journey is a more balanced discussion than many other books on the subject of Christian spiritual practice.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Murchison repeatedly succeeds at showing what happens to a church when its leaders adopt the secular, relativist, entitlement culture, even as church leaders wrap their changes in the good intentions of liberation and equality.
The Episcopal church (American Anglicans) has undergone profound changes while convincing itself that it remains Christian. The author describes the transformations well:
"take the relationship between the sexes. Is the main question, who runs the show around here? Or is the question more slippery: What is the who about? Has God a stake in the outcome? The Christian churches of the United States grow tongue-tied at the notion of actually rebuking sins that lack a political foundation."
Mortal Follies examines all the hot-button issues, showing how they are united under the same mindset, prompted by the same cabal of liberal-feminist leaders who took over control of the Episcopal church. They began their move in the 1970s by taking the beloved Book of Common Prayer away from the laity.
Murchison is at his best showing how the revised prayer book used profoundly different language, reflecting radically new theology. Religion no longer revealed the truth, but talked a lot about feelings. It was therapeutic and prophetic.
Sin was social, not committed by the individual. Sin was explained away psychologically. A thief was not a "sinner," but a victim of society, of her upbringing.
For the revised Prayer Book, marriage was no longer a life-long covenant between man and wife, with God as the deeply-involved and binding third actor in the relationship. Marriage was a blessing, a fun, sentimental journey. This focus on feelings and sentimentality, and on subjective over objective truth, led logically to no-fault divorce and fuzzy sexual ethics.
Much of the changes of the 1970s and after is rooted in ethical thinking from the 1960s called "situational ethics." This thinking is a backbone of the relativism we see today throughout much of Western society.
Such ethical thinkers, rejecting traditional views of right and wrong, see subjectivity and experience as the cornerstone of ethical "values." The best ethical choice depends on the situation, rather than on a normative set of right and wrong. These thinkers were dismantling the entire Christian tradition, both ethics and doctrine.
A revised Prayer Book, new moral standards, and then in 1976 the first test in the real world: the ordination of women. This came with new feminist language about God that, once again, emphasized the personal, subjective, and emotional over the everlasting truth. Women were oppressed by patriarchy, including the patriarchy of the church, and since the emancipated woman could be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, why not priest?
Murchison notes that the ordination of women gave the Episcopal church a taste for radical change, which has since been applied in every domain, often forced through by the elite without the approval of the laity.
Monday, December 6, 2010
While the author, a Christian salesman, aims Jungle Warfare at other Christians in sales, any churchperson can benefit. Believers must live their lives as part of the great struggle between good and evil which Christ came to fight and win. We are on the winning side, the reader is reminded, but the work is strenuous nonetheless. The author characterizes Christian living as a struggle; I don't become a Christian to feel warm and fuzzy but to engage in daily spiritual warfare.
We have to keep our wits about us and be prepared for the next challenge. The world flings all sorts of evil things at us, and, worst of all, our own pride brings us to sin.
The author recaptures well the militaristic side of Christian spirituality, which was developed by the earliest Christians, including the apostle Paul. He notes the importance of developing a fear of God. This understanding of God goes hand-in-hand with a sense of our own sinfulness. Fear of God and human sinfulness hold each other up as doctrines. We fear God because we know how sinful we are.
From this comes the call to total dependence on the Lord, the heart of the militia Christi. Christ is our commander and we are lost without Him. The Bible gives us a clear command code to follow.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Art of Renaissance Florence shows how the Italian High Renaissance was classical, moneyed, courtly, and above all Christian, even if the author does not fully appreciate the last quality. He does nevertheless discuss the theology behind many of the paintings, such as “Shaw Madonna” by Donatello:
"[B]y seating her triumphantly in heaven on a throne of clouds within a circular arrangement of haloed angelic heads and representing her in shallow, almost ethereal relief, Donatello also evoked her spiritual perfection and her role of mediator between earth and heaven."
While the discussion for much of the book follows this theological reading, sometimes Partridge's secularist biases lead him to incorrect assumptions, such as calling Carmelite spirituality "Carmelite ideology," reflecting our period's own concern with political power before all else.
Authors such as Partridge fail to understand the elegant spirituality of late medieval and Renaissance Europe even though they appreciate the elegant culture that the spirituality created.
Partridge does have a great understanding of the political and social forces behind the Renaissance, and how this affected the artists of the day. He shows how art played an important role in the politics of Florence during a time when Italy was seriously divided and at almost constant low-level civil war.
City-states such as Florence would commemorate a victory over another state with art, to be prominently displayed in a public office where all could see. Defeat was also portrayed, as in Michelangelo's “Battle of Cascina,” where the Florentines were caught literally with their pants down by the Pisans, as the soldiers were bathing when Pisa's military came by.
Michelangelo couldn't resist, as Partridge notes: "The scene provided an ideal opportunity for Michelangelo to demonstrate his superb command of classicizing nude male anatomy in the most widely varied postures imaginable."
When power changed hands, as with the rise of the Medici family, these new players would have great palaces constructed. These buildings would showcase the city's art, both in sculpture and paintings, as well as in the architecture itself. Above all, they demonstrated who the mighty were.
Partridge explains this political function of art in Renaissance Florence quite well. This is a key to understanding the great artistic energy of the time. Italy was a vibrant though chaotic place, and this led to a unique dynamism in the arts.
Art of Renaissance Florence also explains the "conflation" between classical pagan and late medieval Christian motifs. Both Donatello and Michelangelo, in their respective Davids, combined ancient ideas of Hercules with the biblical David, whom Christians saw as a precursor to Christ.
With Michelangelo's David, Partridge portrays the politics at work: It relocation "from the cathedral to the Prior's Palace altered the work's meaning... From prophet, Christ-type, and savior most appropriate for its original ecclesiastical context, the emphasis shifted in its new secular setting to slayer of tyrants, embodiment of civic strength and justice, and defender of the Florentine republic."
Despite the author's sometimes short-sighted theology, the beautiful pictures and otherwise learned discussion reflect the dynamism of the Renaissance, which harmonized classical culture with late medieval Christian society.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Franklin shows that, more than ever, science and the Church need each other. Both scientists and theologians are fighting against the current lack of confidence in the existence of truth. Atheists batter the Church's teaching on the existence of God and the need for absolute moral truths, and many people batter the scientist's ability to build our understanding of physical reality.
Franklin discusses the extent to which some current thinkers, including American feminists, French philosophers, and many other academics, question even the mathematical truth of 3*2=2*3. These philosophers try to distort mathematical truth and scientific hypotheses regarding such discoveries as New Zealand being comprised of 2 major islands.
What Science Knows criticizes this kind of skepticism. Franklin notes that many thinkers have set up their own arguments against the truth in such a way that it's no use even arguing with them. No matter what you say in favor of the truth, they will accuse you of being overly-situated in your culture.
Certain sociologists, in other words, have argued that truth is only relative to the culture and sociological situation in which someone lives. The argument goes like this: Pre-industrial, pre-scientific people living near a volcano who believe that the gods live in the volcano, are every bit as truthful as scientists are about the nature of the volcano - and no one has the right to challenge this traditional theology.
Thus we have ended up in our culture with the fuzzy idea that everyone is entitled to their opinions, and that no one opinion is more correct than another. (This becomes problematic when we think of a neo-Nazi's views on Jews or Slavic people.)
What Science Knows takes the very strong position that truth does indeed exist. However, the author does not look to science for all answers. Refreshingly for a scientist, Franklin argues that ethical and religious truths also exist, and that science cannot always investigate these 2 exhaustively.
He is a humble scientist, who avoids the scientific arrogance which says that science will eventually know everything. He points to the problem of human consciousness, and how after more than a century of science and billions of dollars in research grants, we are no closer to scientifically understanding this basic human condition than we were 100 years ago.
Thus Franklin believes that the truth exists, but that more than science is needed to understand it. The greatest part of this book, however, is taken up with refuting the feminist and sociological attacks against the scientific method itself, and explaining how the method works.
What Science Knows argues that science is not so far-fetched and not unattainable to the common person: "Science agrees in large part with common sense on the role of space and time." As Franklin notes, it is the professional skeptics who knock every teaching on the truth, including ethical, religious, and scientific, who lack common sense.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
"For this is the reason why we are not fully at ease in heart and soul: because here we seek rest in these things that are so little, in which there is no rest, and we recognize not our God who is all powerful, all wise, all good, for He is the true rest," writes Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) in her Revelations.
As editor Fr. John Julian points out in the Introduction, Julian of Norwich was a theological optimist living in a century of great upheaval – starvation, plague, the 100 Years War, and, closer to home, the assassination of a king and archbishop.
She experienced a series of mystical revelations as an anchorite (a solitary individual living in a room attached to a parish church), and thus became quite well known and sought out by all sorts of people for her guidance.
The late medieval Church preached endlessly about sin and damnation, and how hard it was to enter heaven. While Julian never rejected that theology, she did believe that her showings revealed a merciful God who could never be wrathful. God is love, and “all shall be well,” Jesus showed her. She often compared the preaching of the Church on sinfulness, necessary to awaken people to their fallen nature, with the grace and love she experienced from God directly or through His Son.
Like her medieval counterparts, Julian focused on Jesus' Passion and strongly wished to share physically in that suffering. Physical and emotional affliction were redemptive because they made one share in Christ's pain.
Julian also writes of the spiritual pain which she wished for herself: "I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds while I was alive; that is to say, the wound of true contrition, the wound of kind compassion, and the wound of wish-filled yearning for God."
Like countless other fourteenth-century mystics, the Revelations represents the turn towards the individual. As Europe was urbanizing, Christians became less attached to the sacramental work of the Church (though the sacraments were still vital) and searched for an inner connection with Jesus. They became preoccupied with their inner state. Experts at diagnosing psychological and spiritual conditions, they believed in the complete interaction of the spiritual and physical world.
Given the medieval Church's preoccupation with hell and sin, Julian's theology is jarring. She emphasizes the joy of knowing God, who is motherly love and fatherly grace. No doubt, she connects with readers interested in more feminine imagery of God. Showing how consistent Catholic spirituality can be, her keen psychology previews not only St. Teresa of Avila's notions of the soul's relationship with God, but also St. Therese de Lisieux' practice of the Little Way.
Julian's deep belief in the unity of the human soul with God assured her of divine love rather than wrath: "[B]etween God and our soul is neither anger nor forgiveness.... For our soul is so completely one-ed to God by His own goodness, that there can be absolutely nothing at all separating God and soul." Herein lies the heart of Julian's optimistic theology.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Christianity has so deeply feminized, that it stands little chance. Too many doilies at churches, ladies. The men are emasculated. An emasculated man might as well be 100 years old. Henri Nouwen was the final nail in the coffin, fully articulating the vision of a therapeutic, sentimental, moralizing church with no vigor whatsoever. He is possibly the most popular writer across the Protestant-Catholic, liberal-traditional-conservative divides.
Western men have forgotten what it means to be a man, and churches are largely to blame for this. A "good" Christian man is a useful idiot for a woman. He serves her. Does she ever serve him? Hell no. She's supposed to be "empowered." Empowered to do what? In any case, feminism and feminization destroy everything they touch. Churches need to become places where men can be men, or it's over. Perhaps we can learn from African Christians, where the pastors have some testosterone. Still, anyways.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Humans are "strange, in-between sort of creatures," Mailaender argues, and this gives us our unique dignity. We are lower than God yet higher than animals. This leads to creative and ethical tension. Anytime we make ourselves into God, we take on ethical questions and power that overwhelm us.
Our relationship to death is of paramount importance, since death is the ultimate “No!” to our claims to divinity. We do not live forever. Death gives a finality to life, and a commonality to all humans. When we fail to acknowledge this defining aspect of the human condition, we begin to think we are gods. We try to master life and creation, and become like god ourselves.
Only God can choose when we live and die, yet we try to deny our Creator this power. We want to live forever. One of the major thrusts of contemporary medical science is the attempt to relentlessly push our death into the future. Mailaender reminds us of the importance of death: "Our ability to remain interested and engaged in life depends upon our knowledge that it will end."
In other words, our attempts to play god actually make us less than human, as we lose sight of the importance of our moral decisions and the sacredness and urgency of life. Mailaender explains well how this hurts our dignity. He warns that we must stop seeing death as evil, and start seeing it as a part of life – as a part of divinely-ordained life.
Neither Beast Nor God thus adds to the chorus of voices opposing the Culture of Death. We have been enraptured with the power of science and technology for so long that we have lost the sense of enchantment that should come automatically to us as humans. Life should be enchanting, but when we ask too much, it becomes empty.
The God-given life-cycle is itself a spiritual journey, Mailaender makes clear. The various stages of life, including childhood, are good in and of themselves, and we should have no agenda for each stage. Children should be allowed to grow at a healthy pace, rather than pushed into every sort of activity and schooling that will ensure a big career. We also need to respect the aging process as a significant part of the journey towards God:
"It is aging that keeps us from imagining that everything our hearts desire could be given through more of the same kind of life. And it is aging, wearing down, that enables us to cultivate within ourselves the capacity for self-giving and self-sacrifice that makes place for those who come after us."
Neither Beast Nor God offers a traditionalist view of the individual, community, and religion. Mailaender calls for us to be loyal to friends and family, since only by being responsible for our actions towards those closest to us can we hope to love humanity. Responsibility and loyalty give depth and a sacred sense to our love for humanity. Without these goods, in fact, love of the world is empty and impotent.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
This vast survey of twentieth-century Western secular and Christian thought gives the feeling that philosophy, having long ago shelved its Christian guide, is drifting and pointless. It no longer believes in anything, even in itself, as witnessed by thinkers such as Richard Rorty, who advocated an American pragmatism critical of any claims to truth.
In dealing with the succession of tragedies to hit the Western world in the last century, including 2 world wars and the deepening loss of faith, philosophers seem to have gone in circles, discarding much of tradition, including previous philosophical insights.
Christian & Western Thought shows how philosophers seem to have specialized in the same transient way of thinking that motors consumerism and marketing. They have become less serious and more faddish. Some thinkers, such as Jean Paul Sartre, pop stars in their day, quickly fell from the popular and academic imagination, to be replaced by the next round of thinkers hoping to cast aside Western civilization in another supposedly novel way.
Rather than the love of wisdom, philo-sophia, we have an anti-wisdom, a constant attempt at “correcting” the civilization in which philosophers no longer believe. Padgett and Wilkens keenly identify this “loss of the center” and “sense of anarchy” in philosophy.
The Frenchman Henri Bergson (1859-1941), the most famous philosopher of his day, has largely been forgotten. Influenced by Edmund Husserl, he tried to combine science with a vague post-Christian spirituality, as noted by Padgett and Wilkens:
“By intuition we grasp the dynamic, temporal aspect of reality which mathematics and science are incapable of communicating. This intuition is qualitative, while intelligence is quantitative. Intuition grants us knowledge of the most basic aspect of reality: its constant flux.”
This grew into the existentialism of other thinkers, but in its own right attempted to make sense of a world profoundly and rapidly changed by science and technology. People looked less and less to Christianity for answers, and fused science, philosophy, and spirituality. Bergson's thought, foreshadowing twentieth-century philosophy, contains an uneasiness with scientific and industrial progress, which led him to identify other forms of knowledge besides scientific without having to return to the old Christian model.
Philosophers such as the Englishman Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) rejected the all-encompassing German-inspired philosophical systems of the nineteenth century and turned to the close analysis of language, “to the circumstances in which truth can be expressed,” Padgett and Wilkens note. Russell was a famous atheist, penning the essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian” in 1927.
Yet he couldn't escape the need for certainty, and chose logic, math, and science to replace God. He limited his thinking about the world to one possibility, a rational, scientific worldview that did not consider any higher or spiritual forms of thinking. This typifies most of the century's philosophers.
Russell also attacked religion from a moral perspective, claiming that belief slows progress in scientific knowledge and in ethics, pointing to the Church's condemnation of Galileo and to the Crusades. These ideas eventually became widespread among the general public, and dominate the intellectual landscape today through the writings of such atheists as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Russell (like Dawkins) refused to admit that science had been used for evil, especially in his century.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), widely remembered for his adherence to Nazism, has often been called the father of existentialism, though he disliked other existentialists. Influenced by his Catholic upbringing, he focused on Being in his writings, coming to the now-widespread belief that “Neither philosophy nor science is pure, abstract or neutral.” This challenged Russell's hopes for certainty in the sciences and logic.
This limited view of the sciences led Heidegger to a more spiritual search for the truth, but one that followed the Western emphasis on the individual. For Heidegger, “there is no 'generic' form of being.... Rather, each person owns their particular way of life, their own Dasein, within the manifold possibilities for human Being.”
Christianity & Western Thought is at its best in simplifying the complex, abstract, easily misunderstood thinking of philosophers such as Heidegger.
Heidegger also turned to the notion of authenticity, something that Sartre and other existentialists would likewise do. As individuals, we are confronted with choices that make us authentic or inauthentic: We either follow the herd or become our own independent person.This idea led Sartre to dwell on the fearsome notion that we are alone in the universe and that freedom means that there is no true essence to being. Thus, modern philosophy reaches an absurd degree of separation between the individual and society, to the point where British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would, years later, remark, “There is no society,” and where Sartre himself had written, “Hell is other people.”
Unhinged from the truth of its Christian past, Western philosophy also unhinged the individual from society and tradition, something sketched out quite well in Christianity & Western Thought. The book concludes with the French deconstructionists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Foucault saw illegitimate power coursing through history, rather than seeing structures that maintain community. Society's very institutions were about power alone, the hospital and the prison looking similar because they are both power institutions. Following Nietzsche and the “will to power” mentality, “Foucault makes the radical claim that divisions between truth and untruth, good and evil, pleasure and unhappiness, are always already implicit systems of power and individuation,” the authors note.
Padgett and Wilkens offer readers a good analysis of the modern/post-modern drift into nihilism and the fragmentation of culture at its highest levels.
Christianity & Western Thought includes much on the Christian perspective, including those theologians such as Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, who were at pains to speak to modern philosophy in their own theological reflections. While Padgett and Wilkens include a section on Thomistic theologians, such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, they give this discussion short shrift, considering how important John Paul II's Fides et ratio has become to modern Catholic thinking. Catholic thinking just might end up being the ticket out of the West's intellectual morass, and needs to be developed further.
Except for this too-limited view of the wealth of Catholic philosophy in the century, the book is a hearty introduction to a most important, influential topic.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
By Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Much of On This Day tells the story of American history, and of how Christians played an enormous role in building the country. Their efforts sometimes seemed to exceed human capacity, as with Samuel Berry, who "worked tirelessly," making brooms in the day and working the fields until 2 a.m.
Readers can begin to appreciate, in other words, how much poorer their country would be without Christian sacrifice.
Other stories familiar to fans of Christian history are told, such as German Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow in repentance outside the castle of Canossa, begging the pope, Gregory VII, for forgiveness and reconciliation, something that Gregory, as a priest, was obliged to give.
Thus Robert Morgan offers readers American Christian history, Protestantism's beginnings, and the ancient persecutions of the Christians. He shows both sides of things. Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli had to fight many obstacles to achieve his reforming work in Geneva, yet Anabaptists were persecuted, even to death, by the Genevans under Zwingli's nose. He was both a victim and an agent of persecution.
The success of people such as Eric Liddell, who would become a prisoner of war in China from 1943-5, when he died, started each day in prayer and Bible reading. This was the source of his great strength and ministry to the other POWs.
This faith contrasts, the author notes, with the faith in reason for which the French Revolution is famous: "Liberty, equality, and fraternity deteriorated into fear, bloodshed, and the guillotine," he writes. Readers get a sense of the importance of faith to the building of people's lives.