The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
By Sam Harris
W.W. Norton 256pp. $24.95
Sam Harris, who took his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Stanford University, endeavors here to accomplish in brief compass the following goals: to discredit all forms of religious faith as irrational threats to human survival; to put forward a “rational” approach to ethics that avoids relativism and intolerance; and to substitute an empirically based pursuit of “spirituality” for the attachment to religious dogma that seems to afflict so many people who live without the benefit of a Stanford education. Because religious beliefs are “simply beyond the scope of rational discourse,” they are deemed life-threatening. His easiest target is radical Islam, and Harris, via biblical proof-texting, readily transfers that faith’s embrace of militant jihad (expressed clearly in the writings of the Hadith) to the Jewish and Christian traditions also. As to good things that seem to be linked to religious traditions, Harris is content to declare that they can be secured elsewhere, and notes that religion’s historical accomplishments count for nothing since almost everyone, in the past, was religious. No corresponding ex-emption from blame, however, excuses religion from responsibility for witch-burnings, the Inquisition, or even a Holocaust sponsored by a secular regime that declared its philosophical contempt for Christianity. Nor does Harris spend any time pondering, for instance, the infanticidal teachings of prominent philosophers and ethicists (such as Princeton’s Peter Singer) who share Harris’ “rational” utilitarian perspective. Not surprisingly, the conclusions to which “reason” leads Harris correspond largely with the passions that permeate many American campuses: legalizing marijuana, affirming homosexuality, and believing in Noam Chomsky. This remarkable coincidence might suggest to impartial, rational observers the presence of an unexamined secular faith at the base of Harris’ analysis. This short book purporting to tackle profound philosophical issues turns out to be more of a partisan pamphlet on political issues. The good news is that Harris is now working on a doctorate in neuroscience.
The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America
By Russell Shorto
Doubleday 325pp. $39.95
Shorto provides an exciting telling of the founding of the “middle colonies” by the Dutch West India Company, incorporating recently translated seventeenth-century Dutch archives housed in the New York state library in Albany, and asserting that the inhabitants of the original New Amsterdam “shaped America” in important ways. At the center of Dutch New World commerce was the island of Manhattan (New Amsterdam) where lucrative business was done and to which Dutch religious tolerance attracted varied immigrant groups looking for a better life. This situation lent itself, according to Shorto, to a multiculturalism that made New York City the prototypical American “melting pot.” A second Dutch contribution to America is representative government, says Shorto, who finds the political struggle for the soul of America epitomized in the conflict between the governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, a strict Calvinist with a medieval, hierarchal view of authority as descending from God, and Adrian Van der Donck, a lawyer schooled at the then avant-garde University of Leiden, where Hugo Grotius was teaching legal theories supportive of the emerging modern nation-state. Van der Donck held that government should be based not on the Bible but rather on natural law that was discoverable by human reason. Shorto contends that it was these ideas that led Van der Donck to demand from the States General at The Hague some form of representative government and freedom of conscience for the inhabitants of New Amsterdam. Although Van der Donck’s efforts did not bear fruit immediately (due to the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which ended in 1664 with the Dutch ceding Manhattan to the British), these principles were included in the first charter of the modern city, drawn up in 1686. Portraying Manhattan as the cultural, economic, and political womb of what was to become America, Shorto begins what could be the first serious revision of our understanding of when and where our ideas of freedom of conscience, individualism, and political rights originated. His book deserves serious consideration.
—Michael P. Orsi
The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era
By Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
Columbia University Press 226pp. $29.50
Woods argues that the Catholic Church in America, in its confrontation with Progressive ideas, neither fully embraced nor completely rejected theological modernism, which Pope Pius X condemned in 1907 as the “synthesis of all heresies.” Instead, Catholic leaders accepted what they found useful and left the rest, maintaining, however, a rigorous insistence on the superiority of Catholic teaching. Thus, says Woods, Catholics could test new ideas and enter the public discussion without adopting the secular bases for such discussion. Woods focuses on four areas in the years from 1900 to about 1925: pragmatism, sociology, education, and economics. Pragmatism, that odd assemblage of rationalism, technocratic solutions, and a romanticized ideal of democracy, aroused the most Catholic ire; prescinding from discussing ultimate truths or the ends of human conduct, pragmatism offered no connection with the Catholic understanding of the nature of political society. In education, Catholic intellectuals could not reconcile their faith with the value-free learning that pragmatism required, whereas, in economics, Catholics often made common cause with their secular opponents in the name of reform. Ultimately, however, the Progressives’ disdain for natural law arguments and their preference for state control and technocratic solutions conflicted with Catholic teaching. All this is a valuable reminder of a Catholic culture that was unafraid to be confrontational. Woods goes on to argue that Catholic culture has been damaged in the post-Vatican II age by the “apparent retreat in the post-conciliar milieu from the kinds of exclusive claims that for so long had seemed to form the essential backbone of Catholic teaching.” Pope John PaulII’s “reputation for conservatism” may be overstated, because his “disciplinary regime has in fact been relatively lax,” and the Progressive-era Catholic habit of relying on the stability and authority of Rome has become a liability as the center has weakened. This argument is less than convincing. If Catholics in the Progressive era found Rome the touchstone, so do millions today. While one may find the confident Catholic prelates of the era inspiring, especially in comparison to some of the current episcopate, contemporary lay movements (as well as a few prelates) are vigorously presenting the faith to the modern world. As for pronouncements from Rome meant to gather the faithful, one can look in areas other than the “disciplinary regime” for signs of papal strength; see Evangelium Vitae. Woods largely ignores the cultural significance of the changes in theological tone he sees, preferring an easier correlation between absolutism and orthodoxy, which limits the book’s appeal.
—Gerald J. Russello
Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights
By Allen D. Hertzke
Rowman & Littlefield 349 pp. $27.95
An unlikely alliance indeed. Christians—evangelical, pentecostal, Ro-man Catholic, mainline, politically left and right—and Jews are today the most important network of human rights activists in the world. They have been the major influence in putting human rights near the center of U.S. foreign policy and, at least occasionally, into the headlines. Hertzke brilliantly traces the emergence of this network, including a sympathetic treatment of the lonely voices who during the Cold War were often shunned for advocating on behalf of those persecuted behind the “Iron Curtain.” As A.M. Rosenthal, formerly of the New York Times, points out, the persecution of Christians around the world was and still is, in the view of media and cultural elites in this country, not “politically interesting.” Rosenthal is among the many heroes and heroines recognized by Hertzke for their courage and persistence, often at a great personal price, in demanding that attention be paid to hundreds of thousands of people whom most of the world would rather forget. This is an informative, candid, and, for all the blood and sorrow, finally an inspiring book. Warmly recommended.
Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries.
By Stanley Hauerwas
Cascade. 252 pp. $26.
Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words.
By Stanley Hauerwas
Brazos. 96 pp. $14.99.
Disrupting Time is an omnium gatherum on familiar Hauerwasian themes, ranging in style from the incisive to the outrageous to the whimsical. It will be a feast for Hauerwas fans, of whom there are many, and a very uneven introduction to his thought for the uninitiated. Cross-Shattered Christ is a very different genre for Hauerwas. Here, as he explains, Hauerwas is displaying more of the theologian and believer that he is as he invites readers to explore with him, and with much guidance from Hans Urs von Balthasar, the central mysteries of the faith. The title is from John Deane’s poem “Mercy,” by which, it is evident throughout, Hauerwas has been graced in myriad ways. Although the author is a Methodist, the book is redolent of catholic and Catholic sensibilities.
The Catholic Mystique: Women Converts Tell Their Stories.
Edited by Jennifer Ferrara and Patricia Sodano Ireland
Our Sunday Visitor 304pp. $14.95 paper
A book of conversion stories will strike some as quaint, but the fourteen women contributing to this volume make their decisions, and the events leading up to their decisions, seem urgently contemporary. The stories are in various ways embroiled with the cultural and religious churnings of our time and each bears testimony to the appropriateness of the decision of the editors, both of whom were Lutheran clergy, to conclude the book with Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven.”
Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way
By John Paul II
Warner 230 pp. $22.95
Ten years ago, Crossing the Threshold of Hope was a publishing sensation, and deservedly so. Those personal reflections by John Paul II provided a remarkably fresh and intimate entree to understanding his life and ministry, and along the way touched interestingly, even provocatively, on sundry controverted questions in contemporary Catholicism. The new book is similarly packaged but is much more limited in scope. He is writing mainly to bishops about what it means to be a bishop and, while students of the Pope will relish revealing autobiographical passages, the book is unlikely to have the mass appeal of Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Sections on the connections that he believes have been providentially forged between Christ and the history of Poland are especially striking. Those who believe that he will in the future be known as John Paul the Great will not fail to find in this new book additional evidence in support of their confidence.
The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm
Edited by Joseph Loconte
Rowman & Littlefield 254 pp. $24.95 paper
Some of the names are still familiar to the literate: Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Lewis Mumford, and Stephen Wise. The great question was U.S. entry into World War II and Loconte divides the fourteen authors collected here into “The Peacemakers” and “The Prophets.” Seldom in Christian history, Loconte writes in his historically illuminating introduction, were piety and pacifism so closely identified as in 1940. Of course the U.S. did enter and most of the “peacemakers” came around to support the war. It is easy to point out dissimilarities between Hitler and the current threat of terrorism, but Loconte is surely right in accenting that the religious and moral arguments, then and now, are strikingly similar. The book is a useful contribution toward putting today's debates into historical context.
A Passion for Freedom
By Leonard Sussman
Prometheus 432pp. $32
The author was for twenty years executive director of Freedom House, a New York–based institute that has been one of the most relentless defenders of the oppressed, no matter what the ideological stripe of the oppressor. This memoir recalls Sussman’s encounters with both world leaders and human rights activists, and has a chapter on his extensive involvement with the American Jewish Council, a longstanding opponent of Zionism. Sussman and the Council urge a delinking of the State of Israel from “the Jewish people,” letting the former become a secular democratic state. They support the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of the Reform rabbinate which declares, “America is our Zion.” Among American Jews, or at least among most Jewish organizations, that is today a distinctly minority position. Especially unwelcome is the criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians from 1948, the founding of the state, to the present. Many who admire Sussman’s leadership of Freedom House deplore his determined association with anti-Zionism, which may help explain why his very readable memoir is published by the distinctly nonmainstream Prometheus publishing house.
Street Saints: Renewing America's Cities
By Barbara J. Elliott
Templeton 320 pp. $24.95.
A textbook showcasing how George W. Bush's faith-based “armies of compassion” are fighting the good fight in cities all over America. Working with street gangs, illegal immigrants, broken families, and a host of others in deep trouble, mainly volunteer programs turn around lives and turn fate into opportunity. The accounts are largely uncritical and sometimes a bit too breathless, but this is a book to have at hand when responding to those who claim that faith-based initiatives are nothing more than a good idea.
Roman Catholic Political Philosophy
By James V. Schall
Lexington 207 pp. $65.
From his many years of teaching political philosophy at Georgetown University, Father James V. Schall distills the most important things he has learned and has tried to convey to his students. Especially valuable is his drawing out the implications for political philosophy of John Paul II’s encyclical on faith and reason (Fides et Ratio), which he does in sometimes provocative ways. Fr. Schall knows that the “Roman” in his title may offend but is unapologetic in his belief that there is something singular to be discovered by everyone in the wisdom of Rome.
Universal Salvation? The Current Debate
Edited by Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge
Eerdmans 319 pp. $27 paper
The debate over whether, in the end, all will be saved really got started with Origen in the third century and, among Catholics, was more recently reignited by Hans Urs von Balthasar. In this book, evangelical Protestant theologians and philosophers take up the debate, with philosopher Thomas Talbott strongly contending that Scripture supports universalism, and ten other writers mostly disagreeing, some with important qualifications. The debate will probably never go away short of the End Time when we will know for sure, and it is here conducted with intelligence and civility.
Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption
By Mark C. Taylor
University of Chicago Press 394 pp. $32.50
The author strings together a multitude of mini-essays on topics mainly economic while incriminating human follies from a postmodernist perspective. His most particular passion is against evangelicals and the nefarious influence of conservative Christians in the public square. His remedy is to propose that they trade in their religion for one that can “engender uncertainty, leave things fuzzy, and make people insecure.” It sounds like a winner.