Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Discipline of Grace: God's Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness

By Jerry Bridges, 253 pages softcover, Navpress.

The Discipline of Grace offers a terrific introduction to basic evangelical theology, something that the author calls a necessity given that few evangelical leaders, in his opinion, have a sufficient grounding in the faith:

“[P]art of the problem is our tendency to give an unbeliever just enough of the gospel to get him or her to pray a prayer to receive the Christ. Then we immediately put the gospel on the shelf, so to speak, and go on to the duties of discipleship. As a result, Christians are not instructed in the gospel.”

The integrity of The Discipline of Grace issues from its simplicity and clarity as well as a love for Jesus -- three basic ingredients to evangelization. These lead the author to make keen insights into the Christian spiritual life, as in the relationship between justification and our conscience. Though justification means that God has freed us of our guilt, even after this event “Our consciences, however, are continually pronouncing us guilty.”

This key relationship leads to an central theme of the book: “[W]e must by faith bring the verdict of conscience into line with the verdict of Heaven,” something Bridges calls “the pursuit of holiness.”

The author makes clear that those who have accepted Christ's forgiveness must avoid the attitude that because they are living under grace they do not have to watch their sins. He is calling for what some Christians refer to as critical self-awareness.

Repeated sinning by the saved might indicate that the saving event reflects a formula rather than the real thing. The real thing leads to a life of grace, and a life of grace leads people to really struggle with sin rather than to cave in. The leading of this conflict has concrete results in a person's life.

Nevertheless, Bridges warns against the dangers of guilt: “To the degree that we feel we are on a legal or performance relationship with God, to that degree our progress in sanctification is impeded ... because nothing cuts the nerve of the desire to pursue holiness as much as a sense of sin.”

Only after all the basic, solid theology (including excellent biblical exegesis), does The Discipline of Grace turn to spiritual practice. Because he has carefully laid the prior theological foundation, when discussing spiritual practice, he doesn't sound airy-fairy or preachy. Christian spirituality with integrity follows from Christian theology with integrity.

The Beautiful Ache: Finding the God Who Satisfies When Life Does Not

By Leigh McLeroy, 252 pages.

Leigh McLeroy makes biblical stories strikingly, powerfully immediate to her own life. Individual episodes from her life, such as escaping a hurricane on hopelessly clogged highways with one million other people evokes straightforward and clear, yet intimate, theological reflection on the exodus of the Israelites.

With modern readers in mind, she notes that the goal-oriented Israelites simply aimed to run away from the Egyptians, while process-oriented Yahweh pushed them to understand the deeper meaning of the journey of the exodus and how the experience could change their hearts.

The Beautiful Ache exemplifies a living biblical theology, which is central to Christianity since many under-enthusiastic Christians characterize church as boring or unconnected to their personal lives. McLeroy shows how these complaints reflect not the essence the faith but only the boredom and mediocrity of many believers.

Interestingly, the author roots this practice in her deep, C.S. Lewis-inspired contention that her lack of fulfillment in this life must point to the fact that we were not made for this world, but for another. Paradoxically, this doesn't mean that she has an attitude problem with this world:

“I live en route, in between. And as much as I dream of heaven, I love this life on earth. I love the sights and sounds and smells of it, the faces of family and friends, and the comforts of music and art and laughter and delicious meals.... Still, I yearn for what I haven't gained but have only glimpsed. I long for more than the simple goodnesses I have known.”

She likens her life, in other words, to the journey of the exodus – a simple, traditional point made relentlessly and countlessly over the centuries. When Christians fail to live out and preach simple points like this, our churches get into all sorts of trouble by wandering off into agendas and utopia-building.

The author reads her life's stories into biblical episodes so well because she understands the ingredients to a great and meaningful tale. She tells of attending a horse-whispering show, where untamed horses befriend humans for the first time, and weaves it into her own life by finding its deeper meaning:

“Something big had happened here. We had been given text and subtext. A story had unfolded before us with all its integrative parts: antagonist, protagonist, conflict, climax, resolution.”

Thinking of life's tidbits as part of one long-running movie -- one's life -- which in turn is participating in a longer-running movie -- Sacred or Biblical-Christian History -- undergirds a lot of powerful Christian imagery. Rather than meaningless, our individual lives are participating in something enormously big and important.

McLeroy's humility and spiritual sense bring this out in her book, addressing topics such as work, home, and suffering.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Family and Civilization

By Carle C. Zimmerman, 335 pages, ISI Books.

“There is little left now within the family or the moral code to hold this [atomistic] family together. Mankind has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well....Under any assumptions, the implications will be far-reaching for the future not only of the family but of our civilization as well. The question is no longer a moral one; it is cultural. The very continuation of our culture seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.”

The author's above words reflect his broad view. He focuses not so much on the sociological theory of the family and its disintegration over the last decades and centuries. Perhaps he goes too far by mocking the theorists as lonely or in “sterile, or unhappy marriages.”

Rather than building theories divorced from reality, Zimmerman finds from history that family and resulting civilizational patterns repeat themselves. The trustee family system, with weak religion and outside political authority, establishes itself first. The family essentially rules itself and maintains its own religious traditions. This is the time of extended family feuds and polytheism, as in the beginnings of ancient Greece, then ancient Rome, and lastly the Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages.

Next, Church or state limit the power of kinship, especially the never-ending feuding, and implement political and religious laws. In the European Middle Ages, canon law and feudalism determined who could marry whom and what kinds of households they could have. Beginning in the eleventh century, urban development limited family power even more, severely punishing blood feuds.

Historical eras with a mixture of trustee and domestic families feature many children and obedience to rules of right and wrong out of respect for one another and common decency. This allows the state to grow increasingly powerful by, for instance, taking the many male offspring for the army. The great Greek and then Roman armies that conquered vast lands and peoples were built at such times.

The downfall of both of these great and powerful civilizations was not caused by the barbarians, since barbarians had always been around. Instead, when atomized families developed, people no longer cared for kin or nation. They focused on pleasure and money. Women refused to stay at home to tend to their offspring, and wanted to travel and live independently instead. With fewer sons serving the army, building businesses, and working he fields, the nation could no longer fight off invaders. Empires fell, first the Greek and then centuries later, the Roman.

For Zimmerman it is as simple as that. The ancient Greeks, then the ancient Romans, were great because their families were great. After the atomization of households, these civilizations imported people to fight in the army, look after the crops, and do menial work in the cities. This led to societal tensions and a lack of social cohesion and shared values.

Zimmerman spends a great deal of time on the development of the intellectual and sociological basis for the modern atomistic household, which started to develop with the Reformation. He warns that civilizations without meaning die off because people refuse to have families, and invest in immediate pleasure rather than in having children.

Books like Family and Civilization that offer sweeping generalizations usually fall prey to hefty criticism. Yet Family and Civilization prophetically examines the spiritual crises of Western countries, something best analyzed from this broad view. If readers can stop themselves from picking apart minor inconsistencies, this book makes satisfying, challenging reading.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Complete Julian of Norwich

By Fr John Julian ONJ, Paraclete Press, £21.50

In her Revelations Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) wrote: "It is necessary for us to have awareness of the littleness of created things and to set at naught everything that is created, in order to love and have God who is uncreated." The Revelations is based on the series of mystical experiences of the Persons of the Trinity the "simple creature" Julian underwent in 1373.

While she remained ever faithful to the Church and its teachings, Norwich's theology gave an almost revolutionary sense of optimism to late medieval English Christians.

This positive thinking is startling given all that the people had to encounter in the 14th century: a terrible famine around 1315, the Peasants' Rebellion (1381), the Black Death (from 1348), the Hundred Years War, and the assassination of an English king and archbishop.

The political, social and economic upheavals of the time contributed to changing religious practices, of which Julian was an essential part. As more Europeans moved into the cities and left their ancient communal ties behind, their faith became more individual and inner-directed, something that the Franciscans and Dominicans helped to foster as they evangelised in the growing cities. The 14th century was the age of mystics just as the 13th had been the century of scholastics such as Ss Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. While the scholastics had specialised in philosophy and theology, the mystics of the next century focused on the inner life; such mystics as Julian combined doctrine with keen psychological insights.

The following from Julian's Revelations echoes St Augustine's psychological understanding of the Christian inner life: "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 recognise not our God who is all powerful, all wise, all good, for He is the true rest."

Throughout her Revelations Julian moves between discussing the Trinity and the nature of God to the human being and the nature of sin and virtue, and how these, along with grace, influence the inner life.

Human nature is profoundly touched by God. In fact, central to her optimistic theology, she asserts that within the soul grace overpowers the effects of Original Sin.

This leads to some fairly skilful balancing between, on the one hand, the medieval Church's emphasis on sin and the depravity of human life, and, on the other hand, the deep love God has for us. She considers love to be the determining good. It forms the heart of her theological optimism. While she doesn't go so far as to argue for universal salvation, one can easily read such a dogma into her "And all shall be well" mystical experience from Jesus, wherein Jesus promised her the world's well-being with these famous words.

Given this reassurance, Julian does not fear God's judgment, unlike, we can assume, most Christians at the time: "God judges us based on the essence of our human nature which is always kept constantly within Him, whole and safe without end; and this judgment comes from His rightfulness," she writes.

However novel this approach seems, in fact her notion that sin has no substance follows the traditional thinking of Latin theologians dating back to St Augustine and centuries later reiterated by Aquinas. Her development of this gave a better balance to the thinking of the time, focused as it was on the agony of Christ's Passion and the potential everlasting agony of hell.

One thing Norwich did borrow from her time was this focus on physical suffering as a way to participate in the suffering of Christ. She writes of her prayers to God for physical and psychological pain, for through this she would be purified and redeemed. She does not develop at length such a theology because it was such a given of the theology of the day. She articulates well the goal of such suffering; it is for the unity of the soul with God. While the soul is already united with God, something she makes clear many times, she is aiming for an even deeper unity, or a unity that she can more clearly perceive.

She refers to this unity with God as "one-ing" or being "one-ed," a term which the editor leaves for the modern translation. This search for unity with God originates in her mystical experience, which gave her the spiritual knowledge of this oneness. Again, we see the focus on the interior life, rather than on sacramental or ethical practices.

One's experience of God becomes the central goal of being a Christian, perhaps even more than helping the poor, living ethical lives, or participating in the Church's sacramental life. The kingdom of God is an interior reality, rather than something to be achieved on the outside, in the world.

At times, then, her spirituality seems to follow the logic of many 21st century evangelicals, focused as they are on a therapeutic, individualised spiritual experience: "We can have knowledge of our self in this life by the continual help and strength of our own transcendent human nature. In this [self]-knowledge, we can increase and grow by the furthering and aiding of mercy and grace, but we can never fully know our self, until the last point, and at that point this passing life and all manner of pain and woe shall have an end," Norwich writes.

Her interior vision of Christianity will undoubtedly strike a note with countless modern-day Christians, though it is unclear if it is healthy that we today should be further encouraged to focus on ourselves.

Friday, January 22, 2010

How to Become a Saint: A Beginner's Guide

By Jack Bernard, 159 pages paperback, Brazos Press.

The late Jack Bernard doesn't waste his reader's time with a version of Christian political-correctness: He is theologically demanding yet refers to many heart-felt Catholic saints, recent and medieval. He criticizes some of these much-loved saints' stories for their excessive idealization, yet develops the essence of these stories.

Most of all, he doesn't want to hear a bunch of excuses: “Holiness is as available to a single working parent as to a monk, missionary, or pastor.” Bernard calls readers to do their duty and become a saint as God is calling them to be.

One strength of How to Become a Saint is Bernard's avoidance of romantic notions of sainthood, as he looks to the everyday and the banal for the perfect places to become a saint, starting with the church. Christians cannot think of great, romantic mission work or other sorts of achievements. Christians must take that basic step of commitment to the church, with all its imperfect people.

In addition to well-explained theology and a tough-love attitude (so welcome after heaps of wimpy politically-correct Christian books), Bernard's entertaining, comical writing helps get his demanding point across:

“Trying to live as saints without the Holy Spirit would be like jumping out of an airplane and trying to fly by flapping your arms. On the other hand, not trying to become a saint with the Holy Spirit as the effective means would be like refusing to travel to Hawaii because you know you can't swim that far.”

Bernard belongs to that school of thought that says that while sainthood is not easy, it is simple. You simply need to believe, and he offers terribly difficult standards:

“Believing that God is going to deliver you and me from the snare of the human condition and make us true saints can't be any harder than it was for the Israelites to believe that God was actually going to defeat the Medianite army with Gideon and his three hundred men.”

Bernard adds to the stock of evangelical spiritual practices by focusing on old-fashioned virtues - humility, rigor, and obedience. He discusses these in terms of grace, and all with excellent biblical exegesis, thus giving them solid theological foundations.

Although How to Become a Saint is aimed at every curious, book-loving Christian, its appreciation of the wider, even Roman Catholic, spiritual tradition gives it the potential to enlarge the boundaries of academic evangelical theology, and to provide ecumenical bridges to Catholics.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

5 Cities that Ruled the World

By Douglas Wilson, 236 pages,, $14.99.

Wilson offers readers a Christian view of history, which is a refreshing departure from the usual deconstructing, anti-Caucasian, anti-Western, and anti-Christian views. Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York played central roles in the founding of the creative, dynamic, free West that the author admires. He shows how the ancient Greco-Roman genius for philosophy and law grafted onto the Hebrew and thence Christian spiritual views and produced Western culture. This lead to the lofty literature of London and the capitalist genius of New York City.

He argues rather successfully that these five cities are the cities of liberty. Each contributed in their own way to the modern multi-faceted view of freedom. Athens' intellectual dynamism went well with Roman rule of law. Jerusalem completed them by offering the inner liberty of the spirit.

In a short book such as 5 Cities that Ruled the World, Wilson is unable to develop more fully the interactions among these different notions. Nor does he offer a critical examination of his thesis. He believes wholeheartedly in American capitalism, and offers short shrift to other cultures, such as Islamic. He fails to criticize capitalism for its global upheaval of human ecology or its role in environmental degradation.

The author does critique the common misconception that dour Puritans never had fun and were simple-minded Bible-thumpers. He counters: “Their swashbuckling Calvinism, their classical education, and their love of beauty were culturally compelling,” in contrast to the “rigorist” papacy of the time.

Despite the lack of critical examination of capitalism, it's nice to read a book that highlights the many great achievements of Western culture, rather than focusing on the bad side.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command

By James Kalb, ISI Books, 317 pages.

James Kalb, an American Catholic lawyer, closely examines the new, feminist-liberal paternalism under which most Western countries, including Canada, have fallen. This movement has created a bureaucratic mindset that empowers the state against the family. Procedure firmly pushes people to act in certain ways, as in accepting many forms of sexuality that were once considered aberrant and sinful.

Education is used to form secular, even anti-Christian mindsets. It guides people towards hyper-individualism and a romantic view of careers, leaving traditional family and community behind.

A case in point is the changing notion of rights, which were originally seen as a limitation of the government's power over the individual. Rights limited power. The police could not arbitrarily throw someone in jail. Then liberals interpreted rights in a way that expanded the power of individuals: “I have the right to do what I want with my body.”

The problem here is that the rights of 1 person could clash with a second person (such as the unborn) or with the community (through a dramatic drop in the birth-rate). The left tries to solve such contradictions through interest group politics, where governments use bureaucratic control such as Canada's notorious Human Rights Tribunals to empower itself against a freely-acting person.

Repeatedly, Kalb explains how this bureaucratic intrusion into our daily lives goes against the normal flow of human and communal interactions: “Terms such as 'zero tolerance,' and 'political correctness' reveal how an official outlook deeply at odds with normal ways of thinking has become oppressive while claiming to have reached an unprecedented level of fairness and rationality.”

The left has decided that through interest group and entitlement politics it will use the notion of rights to actually empower the government against the individual, thus upending the very notion of rights. With this new power, the state has taken the place of the family, as Kalb writes, in “a wholly abstract and radically depersonalized order that abolishes connections and distinctions by which humans have always lived in favor of more formal ones such as wealth, education, and bureaucratic position.”

Kalb identifies the hypocrisy of such thinking. The very people who claim to be inaugurating this new society in the hopes of an egalitarian, free society, are simply setting up their own hierarchies and restrictions. Their state and corporate hierarchies are no less democratic, and it is not clear that meritocracies, much less sexual confusion, flimsy drug laws, and anti-family attitudes, are good for people and community.

Our market-oriented, bureaucratic society believes that the utilitarian principle is the best ideal by which to live – to give the most things to the most people in the most efficient way possible. This mindset allows for the abortion of millions of unborn as well as the horrendous conditions of factories around the world, as people in the first world frantically pursue careers, vacations, and new cars; in other words, as they frantically climb their way up the new hierarchy.

This is where Kalb's Catholicism comes in handy. He asks again and again if there is anything more to life than spiritless consumerism and careerism. The Tyranny of Liberalism calls for a return to traditional values, but even more, the author warns that to be human is to search for meaning. Ideally, it is the very nature of Catholics and Catholic societies to spend a great deal of time thinking about the meaning of life.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Catholic Ethics in Today's World / An Introduction to Health Care Ethics

By Jozef D. Zalot and Benedict Guevin, OSB, 275 pages; By Michael R. Panicola and others, 310 pages.

Catholic Ethics in Today's World offers a general overview of the various areas of ethical contention, including sexual, business, medical, and military ethics. The chapter on Catholic social teaching (CST) states that CST is “grounded in practical reality. CST does not arise from speculative theology or from technical theological arguments, but from the reality of people's lives.”

CST and other areas of Church teaching leave a lit of leeway for individual circumstances because there can be no blanket, one-size-fits-all teaching. Nor does the Church engage in micro-management of the issues. Rather, it strives to form proper consciences so that the individual can make the right moral choice in a given situation. For instance, the Church prescribes no specific economic system, but declares that any given system should allow for the flourishing of human talents, and the respect for everyone.

The great ideal is the respect for the dignity of the person, who is made in the image of God. In economics, owners and workers must respect each other. In health care issues, human life and dignity is to be the highest good. Humans can flourish sexually only within the confines of marriage, where each has given their gift of sexuality to the other.

An Introduction to Health Care Ethics offers a solid theological-ethical introduction to the remaining chapters, which examine such topics as stem cell research, abortion, and end-of-life issues. It examines the broad theories of ethics, such as virtue theories, deontological theories, and consequentialist theories. Even the non-specialist reader can understand the straightforward explanations for each of these.

The following chapters on specific applications of these foundations highlight the importance of human dignity, and love for each other. Rather than harshly judgmental, the authors emphasize the extreme emotional and psychological difficulties that surround these ethics. Moral decisions are never made in a vacuum, but are taken by people often under duress, who might have a hard time thinking clearly.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Meet John Paul II: The People's Pope

By Janel Rodriguez, 156 pages, Servant Books.

Meet John Paul II begins with the story of a French nun who believes she was cured of Parkinson's through the intercession of the late pontiff. After the pope's death, she and her sisters in their hope asked the pontiff to pray for her healing, something that happened. The story of John Paul II is the story of hope.

This simple book spends a little time on the pope's childhood, though unlike fuller biographies of the man, it fails to give a sense of the deeply traditional, rural, slow-moving, and Catholic culture in which he grew up. It does show to some extent the major male mentors in his first few decades, including his father, several priests, and pious laymen. As in any traditional culture, mentoring through the generations played a vital role in the maturation of the young man. Such a supporting environment that reinforced Catholic spirituality enabled the pontiff to grow into the faithful and strong leader so needed by the Church.

Though Rodriguez leaves much out of this short biography, she explains the central pillars of John Paul II's philosophical and theological outlooks exceptionally well: “Karol used phenomenology as a way of explaining ethics and the reality, meaning and importance of morality. Morality, he believed, is not a learned set of behaviors but the truth about how we are structurally made to be. Therefore, moral choices and actions are what give people the most emotional, spiritual and physical ... satisfaction.”

Rodiguez also makes the important point that as a university professor in Poland he avoided lecturing his students, and “instead engaged them in debates and discussions.” Echoing his leadership as Archbishop and eventually pope, his unique style originated from his deep-rooted belief in the dignity of humans, something reinforced by Vatican II.

John Paul II the Marian pope credited Our Lady of Fatima with saving his life in 1981 from Turkish gunman Ali Agca. As is well known, the bullet that so terribly damaged him is now in Fatima, in a twist of irony.

In addition to this prophet-like faith in God's protection, John Paul wrote about contemporary society, criticizing the Culture of Death in weighty, influential encyclicals such as Evangelium vitae. He had prophetically reached out to AIDS sufferers in the 1980s, when many were afraid of even touching them.

Most readers of Meet John Paul II already need no convincing of the greatness of the pontiff, though they are also reminded of his outreach to Jews, Orthodox Christians, and people of other religions, such as at the World Day of Prayer in Assisi. He continues to influence the Church and the world through the World Youth Day, which he began in 1984, and through his interpretation of Vatican II. With this last project, he strove to end drift and excessive experimentation. He reminded Catholics that Vatican II did not call for endless reformations and renewal for renewal's sake. Rodriguez briefly touches on all of these elements in her book.

While Meet John Paul II adds nothing new to the scholarly and biographical information on Pope John Paul II, it is worthwhile because much written about the late pontiff is excessively academic and philosophical, and therefore of little interest to casual readers.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism

By Robert Barron, 352 pages, Brazos Press.

The Priority of Christ unearths the Bible's rich complexity by employing Christian and Thomistic doctrine in its critique of modern philosophy. This Thomism establishes God as the primary being, and humans as secondary beings. Not only are we therefore dependent on God, but the more we live our lives as how our creator intends us to act, the freer we become.

Contrary to the modern secular attitude that God and religion threaten liberty, Barron argues that human freedom increases rather than decreases with fidelity to God: “Thus, in this context, the human will of Jesus is most itself precisely when it enters into a coinherent harmony with the noncompetitive and noncontrastively transcendent divine will....And it is this move that strengthens him for the fight against those powers which operate out of a metaphysical misalignment.”

Barron's discussion is so powerful because he identifies and discusses the psychological, spiritual, and social meanings of the tense, emotional passages of the mystery of Jesus' betrayal. He concludes: “When a dysfunctional group is bent on scapegoating, it is utterly indifferent to questions of truth or falsity, for all it wants is a victim.”

Barron's following words show how the gospel condemns our modern world, as they bring to mind the rivalry and competitiveness of our society: The “violent pseudocommunity is sustained by negative mimesis, each person looking rivalrously at the desire of the others. The positive, redeemed community, on the other hand, is animated by a positive mimesis, people learning how to desire by imitating the wholesome desire of those around them.”

The Priority of Christ directly challenges modern ways of thinking. Barron claims, for example, that modern philosophy ties its own hands by figuring out ahead of time the limits of possible knowledge. He suggests that a better way is to approach knowledge in a more open-ended, possibly more ambitious way by seeking knowledge through the Bible and in particular the knowledge of the resurrection.

He asks the vital question of whether Christians think differently – do they have a different way of reasoning? Do Christians come to know Christ after a long intellectual journey, or “does that awareness condition all modes of their intellection from the beginning?”

The Priority of Christ adopts the holistic, integrating tendency of Christian tradition, showing the shallowness of modern thought's fragmentation of the world. The modern breakdown has been occasioned by the utilitarian, materialist mindset that the Church so strongly opposes. Barron offers theological, philosophical, and psychological understanding of the current situation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

By Christopher Hitchens, 307 pages.

At the beginning of God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens attempts to cloak his book in academic, social scientific jargon so that it reads less like a rant – which it clearly is – and more like a sober, balanced study of religion – which it clearly is not:

In some cases he even resorts to sounding like a philosopher. Thus there exist “four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.”

Hitchens engages in his own wish-thinking and misrepresentation. He judges past history by today's standards, thus committing the imperialist's error of universalizing to all times and places his own values. One of the contentions of God Is Not Great is that Christians, Muslims, and Jews do this universalizing towards others. Hitchens never admits to this double standard – so basic to the book – nor explains it. He criticizes the Bible for silly, non-issues:

“[T]he context is oppressively confined and local. None of these provincials, of their deity, seems to have any idea of a world beyond the desert, the flocks and herds, and the imperatives of nomadic subsistence. This is forgivable on the part of the provincial yokels, obviously, but then what of their supreme guide and wrathful tyrant? Perhaps he was made in their image, even if not graven?”

Hitchens' lack of respect for religious believers reflects a common attitude of atheists. Having decided that religious people are stupid, violent hypocrites, he acts as if he has the duty and right to debunk their “stupid” beliefs in as rude, shocking, and disrespectful a manner as possible.

In addition to using words like “yokel” to describe believers, he engages in something that is essential to the bigot's arsenal – crude anecdotalism:

“In 1844, one of the greatest American religious 'revivals' occurred, led by a semiliterate lunatic named George Millar. Mr. Millar managed to crowd the mountaintops of America with credulous fools who (having sold their belongings cheap) became persuaded that the world would end on October 22 that year....When the ultimate failed to arrive, Miller's choice of terms was highly suggestive. It was, he announced, 'The Great Disappointment.'”

In this story, as in many others, the author choses a happening that exposes the supposed falsehood, backwardness, or stupidity of religion and the religious. As an extension of this, he also follows the well-worn path of anti-religionists of cherry-picking the Bible, taking biblical scenes or injunctions out of the scriptural and historical context, rather than at least explaining why certain practices seem so foreign or strange.

Hitchens is equally disrespectful of Islam as he is of Christianity. He displays ignorance about how religious tradition develops and comes to function. He targets with empty though strongly-worded criticism the Islamic hadith, the series of stories about Muhammed and the earliest beginnings of Islam:

“Great chunks of more or less straight biblical quotation can be found in the hadith, including the parable of the workers hired at the last moment, and the injunction 'Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand does,' the last example meaning that this piece of pointless pseudoprofundity has a place in two sets of revealed scripture.”

Given that Islam acknowledges Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” and its own tradition as in some way following on these earlier traditions, why wouldn't Islam have borrowed greatly from the Hebrew and Greek Christian Scriptures?

God is Not Great is not a serious study of religion.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation

By Strobe Talbott, 479 pages hardcover.

Strobe Talbott, long-time political affairs journalist for Time magazine and Deputy Secretary of State from 1994-2001, examines the often scarcely-visible tendency of Western civilization towards unification. The groundwork laid by the ancient Hebrews towards universalism under one God, even if that people did not proselytize, has undergirded the blood-soaked West for centuries.

Talbott offers a refreshing light on Western military and political expansionism. Rather than the usual politically-correct emasculation, he emphasizes the culture-building that such figures as Alexander the Great and the non-Western Genghis Khan promoted.

He takes a fresh look at the “barbarian” and Viking “invasions”, which he terms “migrations”: “Like earlier waves from the east, these northern tribes set down roots that became entwined with those of the indigenous peoples and earlier invaders.”

While Talbott avoids the traps of left-wing defeatism, he offers an overly-bright survey of humanism and the Enlightenment, focusing almost uniquely on its positive accomplishments. The Great Experiment fails to investigate with any depth the violence – communal, military, and spiritual – that the eighteenth-century spawned.

Firstly, any Catholic-oriented assessment of this period must question the anti-Church violence as well as the Enlightenment's destruction of centuries-old spiritual life and community. France went in a few short centuries from being the dynamic intellectual and spiritual center of Catholicism to being overtly antagonistic philosophically and politically to Rome and to traditional Catholic community and society. The Church and the French nation have suffered immeasurably from this loss. The author's one-sided analysis of the Enlightenment reflects the weakness of the book as a whole for a Catholic audience.

Secondly, Talbott offers a very American and very Calvinist rendition of political, social, and military events over the past few centuries, spending the majority of the book analyzing the twentieth century and its murderous tragedies. This leads to an inflation of the importance of certain players, such as Bill Clinton, and events, such as speeches made by American senators, who with the passing of time will become less important characters of history.

In contrast, Talbott says nothing about such realities as the transforming demography of Europe and Japan in comparison with that of Muslim communities in Europe, parts of Africa, and southeast Asia. These energetic and densely-populated Islamic cultures will have a greater say in world affairs in the twenty-first century than old-stock Europeans and the Japanese will. In this sense, Talbott's optimism about world unification under Western leadership comes up a bit short when applied to the present and the future.

Also, Talbott falls into the same trap that every political dreamer does, which is to discount the spiritual for the temporal and naked power. He tends to overemphasize realpolitik, which denotes the cynical use of power in international relations.

In the latter part, Talbott fails because while he correctly points us toward some supranational organization with much more punch than the current U.N., he offers no reason as to why this is so important. Why should America or any other country give up giant pieces of its sovereignty for a politically-correct, inefficient group of anti-Western bureaucrats and Western feminist-liberal snobs?

The Great Experiment
offers nothing new or grand for Catholics or other traditionalists because he latches onto the same philosophical nonsense that most modern Westerns do – something along the lines of Kant's Enlightenment belief that we can know right from wrong without a spiritual sense of things. That is to say without guarding our spiritual, Christian heritage in the West. This heritage in North America and Europe requires a sense of God's role in creation and the world, and therefore a belief that right and wrong come from God's revelation rather than from some supposedly enlightened, grown-up civilization.

Talbott fails to recognize that many earlier, religious societies that he sweeps through in his analysis were in some respects more mature than ours today.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

American Crescent: A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice, and the Future of Islam and America

By Imam Hassan Qazwini, 282 pages.

Imam Hassan Qazwini's life has somehow managed to contain many of the most important elements of Islamic, Arabic, and American political and spiritual life. Though he has faced hardship at many times in his life, typical of the strong spiritual teacher, not once does he see himself as a victim.

Qazwini, a true spiritual sage, gains psychological and spiritual strength from life's injustices, including the horror of losing family members to the evils of Saddam Hussein's prison network. Unfortunately, Imam Qazwini's life personifies some of the nastier as well as nobler aspects of recent events.

The nobler parts have to do with his upbringing in the family of a great Shia Ayatollah – in fact he is a seventh-generation Islamic scholar. His early life mirrored the trials of countless Iraqis who had to run from the brutality of Saddam's security forces. Yet his father, who taught in seminaries and mosques across the Middle East and, eventually, America, was able to escape with the family to Kuwait.

Eventually, Imam Qazwini ended up with his family in Iran, as many Iraqi Shia did. His description of the life of a seminary student at Qom is fascinating, as it offers North American readers a glimpse of an unknown theological world:

“Seminary life was humble, intense, and rigidly scheduled. Classes started at six A.M. I would attend five sessions, one after another, and stop at noon for prayer.... There were no projectors or movie reels, no chalkboards or easels, and no desks or chairs.... We would follow along as he [the lecturer] read passages from texts hundreds of years old and offered his interpretation of the historical scholarship. With such a bare-bones approach, the teachers' passion and rapport with the class were essential.”

Imam Qazwini weaves his personal history into the history of Islam, as when referring to the great Islamic scholars who had studied and taught at Qom throughout the centuries. In this way, we get a good sense of the life and energy of the Islamic tradition, and of how individuals like Qazwini fit into the whole.

Qazwini emphasizes the centrality of the community for Islam, and the important place of imams in this. He brings alive the rich, varied Arab, Iranian, Shia and Islamic cultures, seeing the deeper meaning in everyday things:

“Once a student is accepted to the seminary, he is permitted, though not required, to wear the robe and turban of a religious leader. Most do so within the first two or three years of study. You can see the change a student undergoes when he begins wearing his seminary attire. He becomes more disciplined and dignified. Gone are the ribald jokes, loud laughing, fast walking, casual eating ..., and any reaction to insults or taunts.”

While offering North American readers a fascinating glance into the family life of conservative Arab Muslims, Qazwini also argues against some of the ruder bigotries of American feminists regarding the status of women in the Islamic world. He notes that “within the traditional Muslim family, women in most countries have broad license to pursue their ambitions,” adding that “Iran ... has more female members of Parliament on a percentage basis than the United States does in both houses of Congress.”

Qazwini also robustly defends Shia traditions, which come across in American Crescent as rich, varied, and mystical. He decries the destruction in Saudi Arabia of some very important Shia sites, refuting the Wahhabi accusation of polytheism. This kind of robust religious debate, whether between religions or within one religion, is sorely needed, and brings about more progress than whining or keeping silent do.

As well, Qazwini, who has lived in America for many years and has become a citizen, discusses delicate political issues such as the war in Iraq as an American. He thus shows that Muslims can be Americans, and that it is okay for Muslim Americans to speak out against American foreign policy while remaining loyal to the U.S.

Qazwini is a good teacher. Not only does the reader get a very real sense of the deeply devotional Islamic life he has led, but American Crescent also makes the reader want to learn more.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

In Defense of Atheism: The Case Against Christianity Judaism, and Islam

By Michel Onfray, hardcover 219 pages.

French writer Michael Onfray wants a return to the good old Enlightenment values of reason-based anti-religion. Onfray cannot imagine how reason can co-exist with a religious viewpoint. Religion is for the nutty and the stupid who must, to be religious, reject an intelligent life.

No higher, alternative, or spiritual thinking occurs in our brain. “Thus, no learning occurs while standing at the Wailing Wall or while the Muslim is performing his five daily prayers. He prays, he recites the responses, he exercises his memory but not his intelligence.” The long and rich Christian spiritual tradition, including that of Benedictine and Cistercian monks, holds no intellectual value for the author.

In fact, given the elegance of this Catholic tradition, his rejection of religion is, echoing many of his ilk, rather crude: “The community is marked rather by the triumph of parrotlike repetition and the recycling of fables, with the help of well-oiled machinery that repeats but never innovates, which solicits not the intelligence but the memory.” His discussion is really a series of sweeping generalizations, one after the other, without any documentary or even anecdotal or case study evidence besides cheat-notes-based references to the various movers and shakers of monotheism.

The evidence that he does offer is often skewed, half-true, or just plain incorrect (but always incendiary): “The partnership of the church and Nazism likewise aimed at extermination of a race reconfigured for the purposes of the cause into a people of God-killers.” Only ignorant dimwits believe such nonsense.

He skews the evidence by jumping from one sweeping generalization or supposedly God-inspired historical outrage to another in the matter of a couple of paragraphs. His five paragraphs examining the Catholic church's involvement in the Rwanda massacre of the Tutsis by the Hutus, naturally highlights the murderous actions of priests and nuns, followed by the supposed Catholic cover-up and use of church property to protect murderers.

No doubt, many thousands of Catholics behaved badly during this massacre, but why not mention the thousands of people who gave their lives or otherwise tried to stop the violence precisely because of their faith? And why not highlight the racial tensions and the Belgian-French involvement as causes for the violence?

Stacking up a series of events, and condemning the Catholic church or individual believers as responsible, seems more like propaganda than a serious discussion on the merits of establishing an atheistic theology. If such a theology must be established only by condemning with half-truths the age-old monotheistic religions, then perhaps such an undertaking is unworthy of our attention. Onfray seems to prove that atheism cannot stand on its own, but must forever be a juvenile reaction against its parent religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Atheism's whole identity is a childish, reactionary, negative, and blaming identity.

Thus when the author does try to stand his atheism on its own two feet, he quickly lapses back into his old ways: The work of “restored mental health ... requires philosophy. Not faith, belief, fables, but reason and properly directed thought. We must fight against obscurantism, that fertile loam of all religions, with the weapons of the Western rationalist tradition.”

And again: “The God of philosophers often enters into conflict with the God of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammed. First because the former proceeds from intelligence, reason, deduction, argument, and second because the latter proposes instead dogma, revelation, and obedience.”

Onfray's mediocrity parallels the mediocrity of atheism in general (sorry for my own sweeping generalization). Like many such thinkers, he sounds like a recycled Nietzschean, without, of course, the panache and unparalleled Sturm und Drang of the great nihilist. Onfray-as-Nietzsche sounds forced and childish:

“God was not content with that one prohibition on the forbidden fruit. Ever since, he has revealed himself to us only through taboos. The monotheist religions live exclusively by prescriptions and constraints.”

Who can argue with that?