Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society.
By David Sloan Wilson.
University of Chicago Press. 260 pp. $25.
This is a lucid and entertaining addition to the long list of recent books on what evolutionary theory can tell us about religion. Its author teaches biology and anthropology at Binghamton University and has written previously on the evolutionary significance of altruism, among other topics. His hypothesis (only a hypothesis because establishing it would require further testing) is that long-lived religions are best understood as adaptive social organisms, and that studying them as such will permit them to be understood better (more deeply, more comprehensively) than will studying them in any other way. This hypothesis suggests what Wilson calls the adaptationist program for the study of religion. The predictive part of the program studies and attempts “to explain religious groups as adaptive units purely in terms of survival and reproduction.” Wilson’s program thus espouses evolutionary functionalism and is methodologically naturalist. His final explanation (note the “purely”) of any religion refers only to what that religion does for its adherents, and only to the mechanisms of the evolution of social organisms. This method rules out as a procedural matter explanatory (or indeed any other) appeal to a supernatural agent or agents. This program gives Wilson many opponents: anti-functionalists among theorists and historians of religion (it’s no accident that among theorists of religion Wilson chooses arch-functionalist Émile Durkheim as his hero); evolutionary theorists who don’t think that such theory is usefully applicable to social groups; those who think it is applicable to social groups, but conclude that religious groups are maladaptive; and theological realists, who think the whole enterprise vitiated by its procedural naturalism. All these (except the last) are wittily engaged and dispatched. By the end of the book, Wilson takes himself to have demonstrated the initial plausibility of his hypothesis, and to have laid out the program that would test it further. Is there good reason to think that (at least some) religions might usefully be considered as adaptive social organisms? Yes: Wilson shows this with abundant argument and convincing clarity, and there is no reason why religious and nonreligious people can’t agree about this claim. Is there good reason to think that when a particular religion has been so studied and explained, a complete and final explanation has been given? No: this could only be true if Wilson’s naturalism were true, and he offers no reason whatever for thinking it so. And then there is the familiar contradiction in which Wilson (apparently unknowingly) becomes enmeshed in the book’s final chapter. That is, if Wilson’s purely functionalist explanation of religion were to become widely accepted by religious people, it would then be rendered false—for the adaptive features of religions depend, on Wilson’s account, upon religious people thinking it false that their religions are best understood as adaptive social organisms. Fortunately, since Wilson’s final explanation of religion is in fact not final, this is a problem only for him and for those with views like his.
— Paul J. Griffiths
Among seriously Christian environmentalists with a biocentric bent, Lutheran pastor Paul Santmire stands out as one of the ablest and most careful students of the history of theology. Determined to make the tradition serve ecological responsibility against what he considers its wrongheaded anthropocentrism, he reexamines writers from the Bible to the twentieth century and finds that God has a story with the natural world quite apart from His way with humanity. Santmire quite proudly calls himself a “revisionist,” distinguishing his course from those he calls “apologists”—that is, “defenders of the classical Christian tradition,” chief among them this reviewer (I take the term as one of honor, fidei defensor). He begins with the now-familiar thesis that the planet is in ecological crisis due to human rapaciousness, advances his theological revisionism as essential to the cure, and ends with the dire warning that unless a program like his is adopted it will be seen soon enough that “Christian theology is ecologically bankrupt.” His most serious opponents are those determined to show that faithful stewardship of God’s creation is and always has been the heart of Christian environmentalism. The heart of Santmire’s quarrel with us is that he thinks biblical theology, read correctly, allows a kind of parallel track alongside the drama of human redemption. Here the natural world has independent standing before its Maker, its own inherent value, and is to be honored “for its own sake.” Or, put somewhat differently, the salvation of humanity occurs within a larger framework, a cosmological drama where the whole of creation is destined for redemption, for being made whole. Once we begin to think in this way (entailing, of course, a “paradigm shift”) we are able to get beyond our narrow and destructive anthropocentrism and respect nature almost as we respect our fellow humans. Santmire can even, he says, “salute the maple tree in [his] front yard as a member of [his] own extended family.” This conclusion is to a large extent made possible by a selective, even somewhat arbitrary reading of texts: Adam was not to “till” the garden as active manager, but to “serve” it; the animals in Genesis 2 are “partners” with people, not just present for our well-being; Noah’s taking all the animals into the ark shows that they are meant to be our companions, even though he took only breeding pairs in what looks like smart animal husbandry—perfect ecological stewardship. By contrast, the Genesis injunction to man to have “dominion” over the other creatures does actually mean “domination”—hence it should be “retired.” Also scheduled for retirement, banished from the Christian vocabulary, is “steward,” despite its biblical ubiquity. It’s just too managerial and not sufficiently awestruck by nature. The differences between these interpretations, and the larger disagreement they point to, are easy to state but harder to resolve. Santmire’s “revisionism” is a choice, but one may doubt his claim that a Christian environmentalism depends on it. On the contrary, “apologists” point out that in many important ways, from pollution to population, the health of the planet is improving, thanks not to biocentrism or any paradigm shifts, but to smart science and adept technology, intelligent humanity exercising its dominion and stewardship.
— Thomas Sieger Derr
Too often neglected or obscured by the long shadow of Ludwig von Mises, the German economist Wilhelm Röpke has enjoyed a revival in recent years. An institute bears his name, two of his best books were re-issued in the late 1990s, Liberty Fund symposiarchs have dined out handsomely on him, and politicians (ever attuned to a rising market) have ransacked his work for justification of their various Third Ways and Compassionate Conservatisms. It has even been reported, a shade improbably, that Governor Bush kept a copy of A Humane Economy by his bedside during the last election. For a junior economics professor forced to flee the Nazis in 1933, this represents considerable redemption. Now, in the shape of John Zmirak, he boasts a new biographer who, it is good to report, has done him proud. The two are indeed well matched. Röpke possessed a supple intelligence, a superb pen, and a keen sense of the fundamentally moral purposes served by economics. Zmirak is similarly gifted. His monograph deserves, and will surely receive, a wide and grateful readership. The Röpke boom has had several causes, chief among them a sense that all is not well in the global marketplace. Communism has collapsed, unlamented except in its last redoubts, Cuba and Cambridge. Impoverishing those it claimed to enrich, collectivism had contempt for liberty and human dignity. When it fell, civilized people rejoiced. For all that, it does not follow that a future of unbridled individualism would be much better. Getting and spending are all very well, but do we want the whole world to be turned into a vast Hong Kong? Between these extremes lies a more humane economic order: one in which, as Röpke put it, “wealth [is] widely dispersed, genuine communities, from the family upwards, form a background of moral support for the individual, and a healthy balance [exists] between town and country, industry and agriculture.” Economics, in sum, is not a dismal science but a form of soulcraft. As Zmirak writes, Röpke “centered his economics in the dignity of the human person, who lives not alone but as part of a family and a community; who thrives or suffers according to the health of those institutions; and who regulates his own economic activity according toýfinancial and personal incentives that he—and not the State—is best equipped to interpret.” Here, surely, is the heart of the appeal. Free markets are preferable to tyranny not because they enrich us but because they help to make us moral. They offer us the freedom of self-discipline. They show us the beauty of self-reliance and honorable dependence on others. This is a lesson for the ages. Röpke, one of the great economic personalists of the last century, has found in Zmirak an admirable advocate.
— Dermot Quinn
The nineteenth-century Italian poet Lampedusa wrote: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” That, in nuce, is Michele Renee Salzman’s argument. By the end of the fourth century the educated bureaucratic class realized that the future lay with Christianity and that the best way to preserve what was good and true in Roman culture was to embrace the new religion. In the process, Christianity absorbed much from the aristocracy—in attitudes toward wealth, family, honor, the importance of friendship, and political power. The study of the Greek and Roman classics, staples of the literary culture, was not displaced by the Scriptures. By the end of the fourth century, becoming a Christian did not mean a radical change in an aristocrat’s way of life. Yet changes there were. In worship, art, architecture, literature, communal life, language, beliefs, moral values, models of a virtuous life, views of the past, the persistence of an aristocratic culture—in all of these aspects of life, a profound and far-reaching transformation of the society was underway, and the book would have benefited from greater attention to at least some of them. As it is, Salzman has a hard time accounting for the rise of a distinctly Christian culture and civilization. Nonetheless, she is surely correct that conversion narratives (such as, most famously, Augustine’s Confessions) are of little help in plotting these social changes and that Christianity was indeed influenced by the values of aristocratic culture. A subsidiary theme is the role of women in the gradual conversion of the ruling class. Salzman lays to rest the view that women were the central motivation behind such conversions. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that men (who set the religious tone of the Roman family) were largely responsible for the spread of Christianity among the nobility.
— Robert Louis Wilken
Over the past forty years, James V. Schall, S.J., has earned a reputation as an untimely thinker. While many social scientists in the 1970s issued apocalyptic warnings about a pending world overpopulation crisis, Schall published a book titled Welcome Number 4,000,000,000. And when the majority of his fellow Jesuits in the 1980s rallied behind the cause of liberation theology, he wrote Liberation Theology in Latin America to explain why Christianity and Marxism are fundamentally incompatible. Schall’s latest book will no doubt add to this well-deserved reputation. Each of the eleven essays in On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs reflects upon an important, but all-too-often overlooked, fact: “It is only when we realize that human affairs stand not simply by themselves but relate us to our end—to our transcendent destiny—that we can relax about what we are, indeed, become what we are.” Drawing on the wisdom of thinkers as diverse as St. Augustine and Leon Kass, and on the common sense of such figures as Charlie Brown and former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski, Schall wittily argues that “unserious activities” help make human life worth living. Participation in and enjoyment of such unserious activities as writing, singing, praying, contemplating, and dancing help to bring human beings into contact with an order of reality that stands apart from the realm of human making. Over and against the excessive value that modern thought places on the practical and the useful, Schall defends the importance of leisure. Through our participation in leisurely activities, we come to delight in an order of things “that we do not make, but discover . . . to be somehow given to us.” Reflecting on the mystery of teachers one never meets or on the practical uselessness of philosophy, Schall here reminds increasingly busy people that human beings are most fully human when they are engaging in such unserious and impractical activities.
— Marc Guerra
The author, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, was attached to the U.S. Mission to the UN in 1993-1994. In the spring of 1994 the Hutus slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis in the most massive instance of genocide since World War II. Barnett’s question is, Who was responsible? Of course the people who actually carried out the genocide, but what about the UN itself, and the major members of the Security Council, above all the U.S. under the Clinton Administration? Barnett explores these questions in an exquisitely, even painfully, fair-minded and balanced manner, concentrating on the bureaucratized ethic of the UN and employing Hannah Arendt’s controversial understanding of “the banality of evil.” In Rwanda, President Clinton would later apologize, on behalf of the U.S. and “the international community,” for not having done enough to prevent the genocide. Barnett argues that, after Somalia and other misadventures with “humanitarian intervention,” the U.S. played the primary role in preventing other nations from doing what they might have done. Also France, both in Rwanda and at the UN, exploited the horror for purposes of petty geopolitical advantage. But at least equal blame falls on Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Secretary General, his successor, Kofi Annan, and other officials who put the security of the UN as an organization above the security of the people of Rwanda. This is a chilling story, thoughtfully recounted. About the only person who comes out of it with his reputation intact is General Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian, who headed up the pitifully undermanned and under-supplied UN peacekeeping force on the ground. The other players, with a few exceptions, were honorable people who, for reasons that seemed to them morally compelling at the time, were deeply complicit in unspeakable wickedness. The banality of evil indeed.
Bulgakov (1879-1944) was one of the greats among Russian Orthodox theologians who established an astonishingly productive theological community in Paris after the Bolshevik revolution. The Bride of the Lamb ýs considered by some to be his masterwork. It is an adventurous work of theological speculation on creation “out of nothing,” the Church and her sacraments, and the meaning of eschatology, including an imaginatively orthodox (and Orthodox) treatment of whether all, including the evil angels, will at last be redeemed. The work is immensely learned, frequently prolix, and always intellectually provocative. On almost every subject, Bulgakov employs Western, and especially Thomistic, thought as a foil by which to illuminate the distinctiveness of Orthodoxy’s accent on the cosmological and Sophialogical in the Christian construal of reality. The Bride of the Lamb is not always easy reading, but Orthodox readers will welcome the appearance of a master in a new translation by Boris Jakim that makes him as accessible as possible, and Western Christians should welcome a theological challenge that can enrich their own understanding of the Christian mystery.
Watch out when all men praise you. There is no poet of our time more praised than Geoffrey Hill. In response to this new and, it seems, contrivedly obscure eclogue, Donald Hall writes, “When in the future flustered doctoral students confuse Auden and Austen, when Larkin becomes a small figure in the shadow of Hardy, Geoffrey Hill will remain the monumental English poet of the latter twentieth century.” That seems absurdly improbable. For readers who have the many hours to invest in picking at tangled verbal threads in order to decode the signs and countersigns, The Orchards of Syon may yield the payoff that some critics claim to have discovered. Without detracting from his earlier achievements, or those of such as Auden and Larkin, one may suggest that the present book will not be terribly helpful in explaining for future generations why Geoffrey Hill was so highly, and rightly, praised.
This is not a “how to” book on pastoral care, but it is a book on pastoral care. Care as in “cure,” as in “redemptive change.” Those in search of healing, and those charged with the task of guiding that search, are offered a wealth of reflection on how various thinkers have understood what it means to be whole. This study of the history of ideas leads also through practical experience to a Christological conclusion that undergirds a vibrant humanism that makes secular humanisms pale by comparison.
The author is professor of philosophy at Niagara University, and this is a decidedly philosophical approach to current controversies over evolution, intelligent design, creationism, and other accounts of how our very odd species came to be. Bonnette writes from a Christian and sometimes specifically Catholic perspective, and obviously strives to be fair to those with whom he disagrees, except for the most dogmatic proponents of scientistic materialism, whom he effectively skewers. The argument will be more accessible to readers with a measure of familiarity with the pertinent philosophical and scientific questions.
A contribution to the growing literature by non-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. As a young man fighting in the Polish resistance, Wiernicki was captured by the Germans and spent almost two years in Auschwitz. Of particular interest is his account of the everyday details of bartering and bargaining in the camp, as well as the persistence of anti-Semitism and of ethnic and national rivalries in the face of unspeakable horror.
Author of The Trouble with Canada and The War Against the Familyý Gairdner offers a bracing critique of democracy understood as a mix of autonomous individualism and social entitlement, and expressed in terms Mary Ann Glendon has depicted as “rights talk.” He is a convinced and convincing proponent of classical liberalism, which means he is today what is called a conservative, and is especially effective in urging that we recover the role of the institutions of civil society—most importantly the family—in constructing a democracy less troubling to the common good.
The book is dedicated “To those religious leaders who refuse to be pushed to the margins and out of public life,” and with ten winning profiles ranging from Rabbi Daniel Lapin to T. D. Jakes to Elder Dallin H. Oaks, it makes sure they’ll remain squarely in the mix.
Move over Max Weber. Yes, there was a Calvinist connection, but it had nothing on antebellum Methodists and Baptist revivalists who were exuberantly successful in making religion itself a source of capitalist enterprise. These essays also provide useful background for understanding the very entrepreneurial world of Evangelicaldom’s para-church kingdoms. The book helps fill a gap in the history of thought and practice that aims at serving God through serving Mammon.
This is the first entry in the new Catholic Moral Thought series from Catholic University of America Press, which seeks to renew moral theology in the light of the suggestions contained in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). The author, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, does a splendid job of introducing the series, addressing such topics as natural law, principles of human action, the determination of the moral good, and the connection between virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the Beatitudes. Essential reading for advanced undergraduate and graduate students of theology.
We have previously commended the argument so persuasively made in this little book for sex au naturel (see Public Square, January 2002 and February 2002). So this is simply to let you know the book is now available, with a splendid foreword by a favorite FT author, J. Budziszewski.