Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Faith.
By Peter L. Berger.
Blackwell. 187pp. $24.95.
The noted sociologist of religion offers a candid statement of what he believes, and why. Tracking the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, the author of, among many other books, The Heretical Imperative, argues that the critical modern mind must be heretical in that we choose what to believe. Berger, however, is less a heretic than an idiosyncratic Christian who ends up intelligently affirming cardinal doctrines of Christianity, while repeatedly rejecting the authority of the tradition of which he is, albeit sometimes confusedly, part. Identifying with the nineteenth-century father of Protestant liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the author displays a deep animus against Catholicism, which, along with Bible fundamentalism, offers a false sense of certainty. Unlike fundamentalism, Catholicism has, he says, a magnificent but finally seductive intellectual tradition that, like fundamentalism, provides an illusory escape from the heretical imperative of individual decision. “I like to call these suppliers the certainty-wallahs; they carry on some very successful businesses in our bazaar of worldviews and value systems,” Berger writes. Indicating but slight knowledge of or interest in Catholic or, for that matter, Protestant theology of the last half century, the author’s mode is frequently apodictic, substituting assertions of his individual preferences for persuasive argument. There is also argument, however, and none is more effective than the unpacking of the creedal phrase “Creator of Heaven and Earth” in demonstrating the irreconcilable differences between biblical religion and religions of the East, notably Buddhism and Hinduism. Questions of Faith is sometimes provocative, but is more commonly an eccentric and surprisingly individualistic exercise by an author who elsewhere has written penetratingly about the social construction of human thought. Some readers will be put off by the frequently belligerent tone and absence of self-criticism. Berger contends, for instance, that there is no distinctive Christian morality because, if he were not a Christian, he would still think and live the way he does. He does not ask how the way one thinks and lives is formed by, or may be in tension with, a distinctive Christian morality. Nonetheless, the book will be of keen interest to students of Berger’s work who have over the years wondered what he really believes about things that matter ultimately. They now have a bracingly frank answer that reveals Peter Berger to be—despite himself and to his own palpable discomfort—a more orthodox Christian than he or they may have suspected.
Democracy and Tradition.
By Jeffrey Stout.
Princeton University Press. 348 pp. $35.
A professor of religion at Princeton noted for his earlier work Ethics After Babel, Jeffrey Stout is not a Christian but thinks Christians and other religious adherents have a legitimate voice in the public square. He enthusiastically embraces the tradition of “democratic faith” represented by Emerson, Whitman, and Dewey, and sharply criticizes more recent thinkers, such as Rawls and Rorty, who would exclude “comprehensive” (i.e., religious) accounts of reality from public discourse. Stout’s main polemic, however, is directed against Alasdair MacIntyre, who in After Virtue and elsewhere, says Stout, caricatures the liberal tradition in advocating “the new traditionalism.” At least equally guilty is Stanley Hauerwas, who, Stout argues at length and with considerable persuasiveness, has allowed his rhetorical recklessness and commitment to pacifism to undermine his potentially valuable contribution to a public ethic. Theologian John Milbank, champion of “radical orthodoxy,” is also named in Stout’s indictment, but, compared with the treatment of MacIntyre and Hauerwas, the critique of Milbank’s work is surprisingly limited. Among the perpetrators of the “new traditionalism” is Richard John Neuhaus, who, Stout allows, is somewhat more sympathetic to liberal democracy but has gravitated toward militarism, unbridled capitalism, and the delusion of America’s providential purpose in history. Stout endorses George Hunsinger’s criticism of Neuhaus, a criticism that suggests that America is in a situation comparable to Nazi Germany in which the appropriate theological response is that of Karl Barth and the Barmen Declaration of 1934. We should not think, Stout declares, that America’s leaders are interested in justice. “They extol humility, tradition, compassion, and democracy, while laying plans to rule the world. They propose their own will as the standard of right and wrong.” Apparently it is the 1930s all over again. “To win the struggle against terrorism, we must win the struggle against terror within our own political community.” Hauerwas’ revival of virtue ethics, we are told at another point, plays into the hands not of approved radicals such as Dorothy Day but of reactionaries such as John Paul II. Well, there you have it. Despite the unexamined leftisms common to academic enclaves and his insouciant slanders in passing, Stout proposes a fetching view of public discourse as the disciplined practice of reason-giving beyond the boundaries of different comprehensive accounts of reality. His call for mutually respectful “conversation” as the proper mode of discursive practice is further weakened, however, by the unattractively reductive claim that the objects of his criticism are motivated by resentment of the hegemony of the liberal tradition. When one honestly disagrees with a viewpoint, one might naturally prefer that it not be so influential. That is not resentment. Stout obviously disagrees with those whom he calls the new traditionalists, but it would be grossly unfair to claim that he has written his book out of resentment of their growing influence and the support they give to traditions that he rejects. In sum, while Stout scores a few points—as in, for instance, highlighting instances of his opponents’ rhetorical hyperbole—he leaves untouched the substantive argument that his liberalism is but one rival tradition claiming to be normative for public discourse. Democracy and Tradition is in many ways a revised, updated, politicized, and academically complexified version of John Dewey’s A Common Faith, also published in 1934. Once again, liberalism, although in a somewhat chastened form, is ensconced as the arbitrator of discursive practices in public. Whether Stout’s book will be any more persuasive than A Common Faith was in its day to those who profess a different faith seems doubtful.
The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan.
By John Paul II.
Pauline. 602 pp. $24.95 paper.
The Theology of the Body Explained.
By Christopher West.
Pauline. 530 pp. $29.95 paper.
The generally informed reader has likely stumbled across the phrase “theology of the body,” vaguely aware that it has something to do with John Paul II and is causing a stir among young people who are excited about a radically different way of thinking and acting with respect to human sexuality. From 1979 to 1984, John Paul devoted 129 general audiences to exploring in great detail the anthropological, moral, and spiritual dimensions of what it means that we are created as sexual beings. At the time, the reflections occasionally prompted tittering headlines, notably when the Pope explained the evil of “lusting” for one’s husband or wife. Many of those who were really listening came to the conclusion that John Paul was proposing a dramatic development of doctrine in the Church’s teaching about sexuality, marriage, and fulfillment of personhood. Certainly there is nothing comparable in papal teaching, and one would be hard put to find anywhere a treatment of sexuality so thorough and nuanced. John Paul has said that Jesus Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question, and the theology of the body sets forth a compelling Christian answer to the restless question of sexuality with its attendant yearnings to love and be loved. The first volume above contains the texts of the 129 audiences, plus some related documents of this pontificate. Some readers will find the texts heavy going—too thorough, too nuanced, too multilayered with complex biblical exegesis and philosophical excursus. And so the need for the second volume, which, as the title suggests, aims to make the teaching accessible to the general reader. Christopher West has largely succeeded in that purpose, and it is no criticism to say that, as interest in the teaching grows, there will be a need for additional popularizations that do not betray the profundity of what John Paul has proposed. Karol Wojtyla has written that, from his earliest years as a priest, he fell in love with human loving. Human sexuality, for all the problems attending it, is not a problem but a doorway opening to the possibility of participation in nothing less than the love that is God and the love that God is. It is quite possible that, in all of Christian history, there has never been an affirmation of sex and marriage as comprehensive and strikingly fresh as the “theology of the body.” Catholics and other Christians who work with young people, prepare couples for marriage, or help people to cope with marriages in trouble will be richly rewarded in studying these books. Perhaps the best approach is to begin with the West volume, keeping John Paul’s texts close at hand for reference.