Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith,
by Jacob Howland,
Cambridge University Press, 246 pages, $80
With the exception of Nietzsche and those he later influenced, nearly all the philosophers in the received canon of the greats paid at least lip service to the integrity of Socrates. But only Plato and Kierkegaard took him seriously enough to make him the singular model for how one should go about doing philosophy. Socrates' influence on Plato is uncontroversial, but the odd thing is that, up until Jacob Howland's fine monograph, no one has written, at least in English, a study specifically devoted to Kierkegaard's attitude toward Socrates. What immediately emerges from this book is how differently Socrates influenced Kierkegaard than he did Plato. Sure, Plato knew Socrates personally, while Kierkegaard could only take his impressions from Plato's portrait. (Neither was influenced by Xenophon's reminiscences, which make Socrates sound like Boswell's Dr. Johnson.) Still, the difference is remarkable. For whatever one thinks of Plato's philosophy, it certainly was received as a fully worked-out, totalizing doctrine. Whether that was due more to later neo-Platonists such as Plotinus is irrelevant here. What matters is that Kierkegaard stressed, more than anyone else, Socrates' radical open-endedness. The Dane's real target, needless to say, was not Plato's more metaphysical Socrates so much as it was Hegel's pretensions to a totally explanatory philosophy. The upshot, though, is that Howland calls into question the attempt to expropriate Socrates for any system, Platonic, Hegelian, whatever. That said, Kierkegaard went much further than claiming Socrates for the anti-totalizing cause. He also wanted to show that this Attic gadfly was not just a proto-Christian but also, more controversially, a proto-Christ. Although that view has certain precedents in the Church Fathers, Kierkegaard took the idea much further than any early Christian writer ever did. He famously said that he could never claim to be a Christian, given how difficult it was to become one-a lesson he partly learned from Socrates' open-ended dissatisfaction with any answer, however arrived at. To be sure, that might make Socrates a proto-Christian, but why also then a proto-Christ? Not because Christ stumbles along in the manner of his followers, vainly trying to reach a closure that never comes. As Kierkegaard said in his journals, “Socrates is the only person who solved the problem: he took everything, everything, with him to the grave.” As Christ took the sins of the world with him to his own sepulcher, leaving final judgment suspended until he comes again, so too Socrates served as his Greek “Baptist forerunner.” He did this by taking all his own contradictory wisdom with him, buried like a trousseau with his hemlock-ridden corpse. Jesus, too, took his unwritten “wisdom” to the grave, when his scourged and nail-pierced body was laid in the tomb, leaving final closure open until his Second Coming. All these issues, and more, are set forth with admirable clarity in this fine monograph.
—Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
The Listening Heart: Vocation and the Crisis of Modern Culture,
by A.J. Conyers,
Spence, 217 pages, $27.95
This deeply learned and thoughtful book, published after the death of A.J. Conyers, is less about what our contemporaries tend to think of as “vocation” and more about “the crisis of modern culture.” When we think of vocation, we almost surely think first of work for pay-which means, also, following a life course that we have chosen and in which we hope to find fulfillment. What Conyers means by vocation, however, is what the word once meant: God's call to us, the divine summons to live our life in response to God and toward the goal of rest in God. It is “the call to hear our place in the universe and the meaning of our existence.” In Conyers' view, however, this is not an individual quest. Rather, only as all members of our society begin to understand their life together as a response to God's gracious summons can “the possibilities of life together become more fully realized” and the crisis of modern culture-which alienates us from each other-be to some extent overcome. Hearing obediently that divine summons will draw us into a life shaped (as Conyers describes it in four central chapters) by genuine “attention” to all around us; by a tolerance that is more than the setting aside of deep disagreements for the sake of public peace; by a sense of deeply rooted attachment to a particular “place” in which one's identity is to be found; and by the courage to be a pilgrim from that place to the God who summons us to himself, which means, finally, a search for wisdom rather than power. In certain respects, Conyers' claims are, I think, overstated. I am not persuaded that in Western civilization we have entirely lost “the sentiments and habits that once made for community.” Moreover, I suspect we could say of every time and place-and not only of “this modern, western world”-that it “lacks something essential to the human spirit.” Such caveats aside, however, this book, the fruit of many years' reflection, is rich in both literary and theological ways.
The God that Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West,
by Robert Royal,
Encounter, 280 pages, $25.95
The past three hundred years of enlightened intellectual attempts to write God out of the human story have been disastrous. As a strictly anthropological and sociological fact, homo sapiens is homo religioso. And only if the West rediscovers its true history will we be able to move beyond the limits of our current postmodern myopia. Or so argues Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, in his new book The God that Did Not Fail. To meet the challenges posed by Islam successfully and to provide a compelling foundation for human rights, democratic governance, and market economies, contemporary thinkers need to move beyond supposedly neutral scientific reasoning to the religiously informed rationality that history tells us is our normal state. Royal's work is a welcome contribution to this end. With nuance and balance, Royal recovers our forgotten past with a deeply learned yet highly readable account of the historical sources that contributed to the making of the West. Royal starts with the ancient worlds of Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians. On he leads the reader through medieval disputations and Renaissance rediscoveries, and down through modernity's various reformations, counter-reformations, enlightenments, and revolutions-the sources of our atheistic discontents and our postmodern present. In the end, the complexity of the human condition and of man's reflection of his own place within the cosmos is readily apparent, a complexity that the art, literature, philosophy, and theology of prior ages wrestled with in great depth-and that modern man seeks to explain away by appeals to “pure reason,” genetics, and evolutionary biology. Religion isn't going away any time soon-it's a natural feature of our humanity-and modern intellectuals would do well to develop and support well-reasoned religion, rather than scorn it as mere superstition unworthy of public consideration. Robert Royal has provided us with a handy guide to prior ages of just such reflection.
—Ryan T. Anderson
Spiritual Progress: Becoming the Christian You Want to Be,
By Thomas D. Williams
FaithWords, 288 pages, $19.99
Overlook the somewhat anodyne title. This is not just another entry in the apparently insatiable market for spiritual uplift books. Fr. Williams has a remarkable gift for presenting vibrantly orthodox Christianity as an invitation to spiritual and intellectual adventure. Those who have been long on the way to more faithful discipleship and those who are at the starting gate will find help and frequent delight in these pages.
America and the Challenges of Religions Diversity,
by Robert Wuthnow,
Princeton University Press, 448 pages, $29.95
The author, a sociologist at Princeton, surveys the growth of non-Christian religions in America, discovers that Americans are very tolerant of religious diversity, but laments the fact that relatively few people are interested in learning about religions other than their own. While the growth of non-Christian religions is less dramatic and more geographically spotty than Wuthnow sometimes suggests, it is no doubt desirable that Christians learn about Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other traditions. It is perhaps more important that evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and liberal mainliners get to know one another. And it is understandable that most Christians give priority to learning more about the religion to which they claim to adhere. At least from a sociological perspective, the United States continues to be a Christian country, a reality with which the author is uneasy. Learning about other religions has made modest headway in Jewish-Christian relations. That is attributable to Jewish leadership in promoting dialogue and a recognition by Christians of their unique relationship with Judaism. Such factors are not present in relations with Islam, Buddhism, and other religions, and it therefore seems likely that learning more about them will remain an acquired interest of relatively few Americans.
The Making of the Pope 2005,
By Andrew M. Greeley
Little Brown, 288 pages, $23.95
Fr. Greeley is given to describing himself as a loud-mouthed Irish priest, and his latest book is true to form. Repeatedly asserting that he is an outsider, and viewing with deep suspicion those in a position to know what happened, Greeley offers a rambling account of his few days in Rome in April 2005, making no secret of his somewhat eccentric likes and dislikes. Deeply surprised and upset by the election of Cardinal Ratzinger, he, like Fr. Hans Küng, generously suggests that the new pope be given a grace period-he suggests a hundred days-to show that he has repented of his reactionary ways. The appeal of this book will be limited to hard-core Greeley fans.
The King's Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church,
by G.W. Bernard,
Yale University Press, 672 pages, $40
The title is the key to this well-told and persuasively revisionist history of what is called the English Reformation. King Henry would brook no opposition to his idea of ecclesiastical reform. The labels Protestant and Catholic, Bernard argues, are anachronistic in understanding what happened. The English were simply Christians, and Henry determined that he would be the head of “the Church.” Most of the people were saddened by his closing of the shrines and monasteries, and his appropriating their property to himself and those who served him, but they believed there was nothing they could do about it. Vital to his success was his rejection of continental Protestantism with respect to the Mass. As long as people had the Mass, they felt they were in substantial continuity with the Church they had known. Bernard leaves no doubt that Henry was a ruthless tyrant, but he did think he was reforming the Church of Christ. The main point is that there was no English Reformation. It was, rather, The King's Reformation.
Retrying Galileo: 1633-1992,
by Maurice A. Finocchiaro,
University of California Press, 497 pages, $50
In 1992, based on the report of a commission he appointed to study “the affair,” John Paul II “rehabilitated” Galileo, acknowledging that church authorities of the time had made serious errors. The present very scholarly account does more than tie up loose ends. Finocchiaro relates the ways in which such major figures as Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, and Pascal saw Galileo's confrontation with church authority as much more complicated, and much more intellectually interesting, than simplistic accounts portraying it as a face-off between reason and science, on the one hand, and traditionalist obscurantism, on the other. The Galileo affair has generated hundreds of books, and 1992 did not put an end to them. Retrying Galileo is one book that is essential to understanding what happened, and the continuing ramifications of what happened.
Christians in the Warsaw Ghetto: An Epitaph for the Unremembered,
by Peter F. Dembowski,
University of Notre Dame Press, 160 pages, $40
The five thousand Christians forced into the Warsaw Ghetto thought they were Christians, but, in the view of the Nazis, race trumped religion. There were for a time three functioning Catholic parishes in the ghetto, and the author, a veteran of the Warsaw Uprising and long-time professor of literature at the University of Chicago, describes with care and insight the complicated relations between Jews and Christians caught up in the machinery of death. This is a dimension of the Holocaust that is little known. Thanks to Dembowski, these victims are no longer, or are not entirely, the “unremembered.”
Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist,
by Matthew Levering,
Blackwell, 272 pages, $32.95
A scholarly and careful examination from a Thomistic viewpoint of the inseparable connections between Old Testament sacrifice and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. Levering, who teaches theology at Ave Maria University in Florida, also makes the case for transubstantiation against alternative construals of the Real Presence. The book is a valuable contribution to thinking about the nature of sacrament and sacrifice and will be of interest to professional theologians.