Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages

By Nancy Marie Brown, Basic Books, 310 pages.

The Dark Ages, including Gerbert of Aurillac's ninth century, were far from the intellectual backwater later scribes have attributed to them. Experimental science flourished, as churchmen sought the truth in astronomy, mathematics, and physics as much as they did from philosophy and the Bible.

Science was, the author shows, an extension of the search for God. Superstition as early as the tenth century was being chased away, as scholars sought to systematize knowledge and education. The cathedral schools at Chartres and Reims, where men were trained for the priesthood, were the leading places of intellectual discovery.

Brown takes readers on an interesting journey, writing biographical vignettes for the many leaders of Europe, religious and royal, who interacted with Gerbert. French Kings Lothar, Louis V, and Hugh Capet; German Emperors Otto II and III, various popes, and scholars such as Abbo of Fleury and Adalbero of Reims come to life.

Brown shows the genius of Gerbert, who as a young Benedictine traveled to Spain to study the latest science coming out of India and the Arab world. He learned how to use and make the astrolabe for measuring time and studying the night sky. He also created the best abacus of the day, and crafted or spread other mathematical advances important even to our own age.

The main argument of The Abacus and the Cross is that the Dark Ages were not dark, and that people were not as superstitious as we think. Open-minded, they eagerly sought new knowledge. The cultural and intellectual cross-fertilization of the Arabic, Visigothic Christian, and Jewish cultures in Spain of this period played an integral role in the development of modern science.

People did not believe that the earth was flat, or that everything could be explained by demons or the will of God. Surprisingly modern in their basic assumptions, they carried some of the Greek tradition of science and learning, even if the main writings had been temporarily lost.

Gerbert as a teacher and church leader in Reims and throughout Europe, including as a royal tutor, played an essential role in spreading the new or renewed science. He corresponded with emperors, popes, and other intellectuals, thereby keeping abreast of the latest intellectual developments.

This correspondence and his unlimited energy and learning helped get him involved in the highest levels of European politics, as Brown notes: "A knowledge of astrology would explain why Gerbert was so welcomed by the pope and the emperor, when he came to Rome from Spain in 970, as a master of mathesis."

Gerbert proved himself useful to rulers time and time again, as he helped design war machines and aided in correspondence and diplomacy. He hit it off so well with young emperor Otto III, the last great hope of a united Christian empire, that Otto unexpectedly made him Pope Sylvester in 999.

Otto died in 1002 and Sylvester in 1003, thus ending the dreams for what Brown, perhaps exaggerating a little, calls a great time of openness compared to the eleventh-century's more zealous, crusading form of religion. The Abacus and the Cross introduces readers not only to Gerbert, but to the entire age.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Annulment: 100 Questions and Answers for Catholics

By Pete Vere and Jacqui Rapp, 116 pages, Servant Books.

Rather than bogging the reader down in legalistic mumbo-jumbo, the authors repeatedly show the theology that inspires the canon law regarding the sacrament of marriage. Because of the sacramental nature of the faith, marriage is nothing to be trifled with. The Church takes marriage very seriously, as it does all the sacraments.

Vere and Rapp write with theological awareness, but also with the compassion of pastors. The work of the marriage tribunal should be healing and full of grace.

The theology behind canon law reflects the belief that marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman, and is for life; only God, through the death of one partner, can end a sacramentally valid marriage.

Given our fast-changing society, things are not always so simple. Does the Church presume a sacramental marriage between 2 Protestants, or between a Protestant and a non-Christian, for instance? How about a Catholic-Protestant marriage?

The authors address important terms, such as "declaration of invalidity," "annulment," and "dissolution" with precision, as well as less commonly-known terms as "monitum," "vetitum," and "sanatio in radice." Again, these terms are not merely legalisms, but originate in the deepest beliefs of the faith; they are part of the deposit of the faith because they help defend the sacramentality of marriage, the authors show.

With so many misunderstandings regarding "Catholic divorce," often also known as "annulment,", the authors take the time to correct mistaken views: Even "annulment" is a misnomer. "[T]he Church does not annul marriages; she declares them invalid."

Such a declaration means that "a Church court, when sufficient evidence is presented, declares that from the beginning something important was missing from a relationship." This obstacle "prevented the relationship from coming together as a marriage. The issue had to be serious, and it had to be present at the time of the wedding."

Clear examples in Annulment show the nature of the impediment. If one partner was alcoholic at the time of courtship and before the wedding, it could be taken to be an obstacle. The alcoholic partner was not capable at the time of making the grave decision of being in a lifelong relationship where children were a strong possibility.

If the alcoholism can be shown to have developed after the wedding, such as in the third year of marriage, one partner's alcoholism would not be considered an impediment. Perhaps the marriage tribunal would look for another obstacle present at and before the wedding. For one, the court would try to ascertain the reasons for the development of alcoholism. Perhaps these had been present on or before the wedding.

Vere and Rapp answer many of the common questions, such as the legitimacy of children. Children from a marriage declared invalid are still legitimate in the eyes of the Church. Another common question happily married couples have is whether their marriage is valid or not, such as when a priest from a neighboring diocese officiates at a wedding without the approval of the local bishop. The Church presumes marriages to be valid; it is the invalidity of a marriage that must be proven.

Annulment can put anxious hearts to rest, as the authors show the compassion and faith behind canon law.

Eastern Christianity and the Cold War, 1945-91

Edited by Lucian N. Leustean, Routledge, 363 pages.

The collection of writers show that while much of the effort of the Catholic and Orthodox churches was heroic and faithful, the oppressive environment forced church leaders into sometimes very uncomfortable dealings with the communists.

In order to safeguard the long, beautiful Christian heritage of these lands, members of the hierarchies allowed themselves to be used, as when they traveled abroad to pastor to their country's diaspora and also reported back to their governments on the situation in the West.

One curiosity was that the Orthodox churches behind the Iron Curtain did not push Western governments or organizations into loudly condemning the religious persecution they and their fellow Christians were suffering under. They feared that this would lead to even more oppression.

The various authors of this book fail to depict the deep fear under which many Christians and their leaders lived, a fear which would have compromised their judgment about how close to work with the Communist governments. From our perspective, some of their work, such as with their country's secret police, may seem traitorous to the churches, but church leaders were fighting for every favor and right they could get for the faithful.

Each of the major countries involved are discussed in some detail. As a general rule, the churches in Russia, the Ukraine, and elsewhere under the yoke of communism suffered greatly until the clash between the USSR and Nazi Germany, at which point Stalin decided to use every resource he had.

The communists from that point on, generally until the end of the Cold War, tended to favor the national Orthodox churches as a way to control and organize the people and to give them a national identity. This worked well for the Soviet Union in WWII, and would be used after the War, especially in Romania, Russia, the Ukraine (with the Orthodox Church under the Moscow patriarchate), and Bulgaria.

The Romanian Church experienced relatively strong support from the government, especially from the late 1960s onward under the Ceausescu regime. The church was allowed to print books and even to translate new theology from the West, which could have been explosive in its emphasis on human rights and individualism. Monasteries, closely controlled and sometimes oppressed, were at times allowed to flourish, and mystical movements tied to them were a vital source of Orthodox life.

The interesting chapter on the Serbian national church discusses many of the issues from WWII left unresolved by Tito for decades. The Serbian church was muzzled, as the government tried to build a federalist country and reduce Serbian nationalism.

Isolated from Russia because of the squabble between Yugolav and Soviet communists, the Serbian church was starved from its roots. Like the Bulgarian church, it was traditionally deeply influenced by Russian spirituality, and without this connection it was not as strong as the Catholic Church was in Croatia. The Catholics received much help from other Catholic countries and enjoyed strong ties with Rome.

A fascinating read of a time that seems farther from today than it really is, Eastern Christianity and the Cold War reminds us of how awful the twentieth-century was for Christians in many countries.

Isaac Newton

By Mitch Stokes, 181 pages, Thomas Nelson.

Rather than aiming to reshape the world with his scientific discoveries, Isaac Newton believed that he was serving God by deepening human knowledge of His creation. The more we understood God's creation, the more we understood God, so that science was a form of worship for the genius.

Stokes emphsizes this point repeatedly in his biography of the great scientist, noting: "Although Newton considered all his studies to be part of his worship, theology held pride of place, occupying far more of his time than anything else." More detail into Newton's theological writings would have enriched the book.

The famous scientist made most of his central discoveries in his early adulthood, and was able not only to formulate the calculus and other mathematical tools necessary for his insights into gravity and planetary motion, but could also build his own telescopes and other machines. In fact, his telescopes themselves were highly respected by the scientific community.

Ironically, Newton's love for the traditional subjects, theology and alchemy, prevented him from taking more time to clearly explain his scientific theories that would have such a deep impact on the modern world. In contrast, Leibniz, his rival claimant to the founder of calculus, obsessed about making "his theory clear and user-friendly," so much so that, unlike the monastic-like Newton, he had others help make his math more understandable.

Perhaps because Newton did not aim to improve the world with his science, he did not envision any need at making his discoveries user-friendly. He actively discouraged debate over his theories, sometimes refusing or suddenly stopping correspondence with other scientists or with the Royal Society.

Thus he purposely wrote his Principia, a work that opposed Descartes' theories of mechanics, above the understanding of most scientists. He knew that his attack on Cartesian mechanics and mathematics would arouse intense debate. In fact, the Principia "devasted [Cartesian] mechanical philosophy. Newton's entire system was so beautiful, so coherent, so accurate that it simply overwhelmed Cartesian natural philosophy – exactly as Newton intended."

Newton's determination to squash all opposition to the Principia shows the Cambridge professor as unwilling to back down from a fight when he believed he was right. His most famous quarrels were with Leibniz and the English scientist Richard Hooke. Newton hardly attended Royal Society events until Hooke's death in 1703, whereupon Newton became Society president.

Stokes portrays these personality disputes quite well, often focusing on them more than on the science itself.

With the publication of the Principia at age 44 Newton became famous. He moved to London and played a greater role in society, not only by reshaping the Royal Society as its president. He also became Warden of the London Mint, and overhauled the nation's coinage system, expecting the employees there to work as hard and intensely as he did.

Despite the groundbreaking science, Stokes does a solid job of showing that Newton was above all a great man of faith; his discoveries, such as those above, were mere glimpses into the whole of God's creation for Newton.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Billy Graham, His Life and Influence

By David Aikman, 339 pages, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Billy Graham transformed from a fire-breathing preacher who liked to describe heaven and warn of hell into someone admitting that Muslims, Jews, and even Roman Catholics might have a way to heaven. He in turn transformed American and world evangelical Protestantism, taking it into the mainstream and proving that an evangelical did not have to be a fundamentalist.

His amiable personality and energetic preaching style enabled him to change deeply the landscape of modern Christianity while he too evolved with the times. Much more open-minded in his middle and later years, he pushed for peace in the world. He preached in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and in non-aligned India before that.

Aikan describes Graham as something as a rebel, as many of these tours aggravated the State Department. His trip to Moscow at the height of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan was only accepted after Reagan himself personally encouraged the preacher to go. Graham's theological changes aggravated fundamentalist preachers of the Bob Jones variety, as they saw him selling out to the world and its trends. They kept on emphasizing the unique path of Christ to salvation.

Graham never denied that Christ was the savior. He simply broadened his view, paralleling Vatican II, that God could speak to Buddhists, Muslims, and others. Such people, if living their lives faithfully, could have a place in heaven. It was Christ who saved them, even if such believers didn't know that. The author is a good theologian, clearly distinguishing among the countless brands of American theology.

Aiken paints a fascinating portrait of Graham's relationships with the American presidents from Truman to Obama. Particularly close to Johnson and Nixon, the Watergate scandal devastated Graham, especially the manuscripts which portrayed a dirty-mouthed side of Nixon whom Graham had never seen before.

Nixon and Graham remained loyal friends to the end. In fact, Graham's loyalty and deep friendship with presidents and others would often lead him to say naive or unhelpful things, such as "forgiving" Bill Clinton for his sexual indiscretions with countless women. The media wondered who had given him the authority to forgive, and if Hillary and the president's sexual partners had also forgiven.

Billy Graham, His Life and Experience spends much time on the earlier, more magical moments of the preacher's life, in the 1950s when he began to storm the center-stage of American religious life.

Aikman argues convincingly that many foreign crusades, such as in Australia and England in that decade, while showing no long-term change to the general population of those counties, changed forever the composition of the mainline clergy of those countries. Anglican clergy in both countries started to become more evangelical. Many current Protestant and Anglican ministers consider conversions at Billy Graham Crusades as the foundation of their ministry.

Aiken quotes a well-known convert from a Graham Crusade, Sydney, Australia's Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen, noted: "Has there ever been a voice like his? There was the utter sincerity of it. He was transparently sincere, personally attractive. He was a prince among God's people."