The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the American Future
By Joshua Mitchell
University of Chicago Press. 264 pages, $34.95.
It is Tocqueville's hour—again. Recently, the editor of a leading journal of opinion quipped that his magazine would soon be known as the Newsletter of the Tocqueville Marching and Chowder Society, so often was the French sage's name now appearing in his pages. But there are ample reasons for the renewed enthusiasm, particularly at a time when the repair of so many of our local or nongovernmental institutions stands at the top of the nation's agenda. Joshua Mitchell ably places Democracy in America in the long conversation of Western political and theological thought, while arguing that Tocqueville's insights are peculiarly applicable to the present moment. Tocqueville was prescient in emphasizing that only the mediating institutions of religion, family, and civil society can combat the pathologies to which American democracy is prone. Along with that insight, though, came a recognition that only the diffusion of power can enable us to manage “the relationship between particularity and universality” in such a manner that “each is granted its due.” Partisans of federally mandated “diversity” should take note.
—Wilfred M. McClay
Moral Action and Christian Ethics
By Jean Porter
Cambridge University Press, 235 pages, $54.95
This important book shows that much contemporary ethical debate is wrongheaded. In a bold recasting of Christian ethics, Jean Porter urges us to abandon the false alternatives of deontological (Kantian) vs. consequentialist (utilitarian) morality, and learn from modern moral philosophy that moral rules require judgment. In difficult cases one asks not (for instance) whether the rule against murder has exceptions but whether this kind of case counts as murder-a question of analogical judgment. Porter, whose earlier The Recovery of Virtue bore the subtitle, “The Relevance of Aquinas for Christian Ethics,” here provides a brilliant synopsis of St. Thomas. Virtues, she argues, are not an alternative to rule-based ethics, but an integral part of a rational account of morality. Recasting the virtues to take into account contemporary understanding of psychological development, she enters into conversation with feminists, narrative ethicists like MacIntyre and Hauerwas, and epistemologists like Wittgenstein and Anscombe. Jean Porter has written a major modern book whose hero remains (no surprise to those who know him, or her), St. Thomas Aquinas.
—Victor L. Austin
Science, Jews, and Secular Culture
By David A. Hollinger
Princeton University Press, 178 pages, $24.95
This short and eclectic collection of essays and lectures is weakly tied together by the argument—central in some chapters, marginal in others—that science was a powerful tool in the secularization of American culture. The important essay entitled “Jewish Intellectuals and the De-Christianization of American Culture in the Twentieth Century” holds that the old Protestant cultural hegemony was defeated in no small part by the growing number of Jews championing “a secular vision of American culture” in the “American academic and literary intelligentsia” and in the best and most influential universities. They, and many allies from John Dewey to James B. Conant, posited science as the modern substitute for religion as the proper source of values and culture. To this achievement Hollinger is broadly sympathetic, and for him the harder question is, “Why is there so much Christianity in the United States in the twentieth century?” As a historian Hollinger is reliable and perceptive, but his brief political comments pointing to Protestant “resentment,” or entirely dismissing complaints about the current “privatization” of religion, or suggesting that feminism has advanced in the academy because it “is generating a number of exciting new research programs”—are disappointingly reflective of liberal dogma.
Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture
By Colleen McDannell
Yale University Press, 312 pages, $35
The use—and the buying and selling—of religious artifacts illustrates the integration of religious life and everyday life. Popular use of religious objects, the author argues, is not the result of “ignorance, superficial commercialism, status competition,” or institutional manipulation. McDannell traces the art and fashion of piety through the use of the Bible in Victorian homes, religious symbolism in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Lourdes water in healing, Mormon sacred clothing, and the rise of Christian manufacturing and retailing. Somewhat redundant—and with perhaps unavoidable generalizing about “the Catholic imagination,” “a Protestant landscape,” “working-class aesthetics,” and “middle-class notions of taste”—this study argues persuasively that “distinct categories of sacred and profane are inadequate to capture the complexity of Christian practice” in the corporeal world.
—Camille S. Williams
The Birth of Liberal Guilt in the English Novel: Charles Dickens to H. G. Wells
By Daniel Born
University of North Carolina Press, 213 pages, $39.95
This study explores the formative years of the cultural sensibility called “liberal guilt” in works by Dickens, Eliot, Gissing, Conrad, Forster, and Wells. Born takes literature seriously and writes lucidly, though he is to a great extent enmeshed in the critical paralysis of modern literary liberalism: desiring “good” while rejecting a transcendent Good. In making clear the continuation of the “Enlightenment project” through the Romantic generation and into the Victorian era, particularly its corrosive skepticism and criticism of institutions, Born inadvertently exposes the futility of moral and material progress in the absence of a transcendent standard. His analysis of H. G. Wells' Tono-Bungay, with its references to Richard Rorty and other postmodernists, particularly illuminates this dead end. It might have been instructive had Born plumbed “guilt” itself in more detail, particularly the extent to which “liberal guilt” is really guilt and not merely a refashioning of moral categories for the weak-spined.
The Struggle for Theology's Soul: Contesting Scripture in Christology
By William M. Thompson
Crossroad, 310 pages, $39.95
A welcome case for the unity of theology and Scripture—a unity largely present in theology before the late middle ages and largely absent from more recent scholarship and preaching. Thompson explores the Psalms, the Synoptic Gospels as well as John, the Wisdom literature, the current debate over the “astonishing exchange” in Christ, and the image of the child in Scripture and modern spirituality. But informing the whole is the image of Scripture as a painting, with Jesus the incarnate Word as the “ground” against the “background” of the triune God, and the Church and cosmos in the “foreground.” Thompson contests the dominant modes of doing theology and studying Scripture with a rare generosity that transforms “the struggle” into a meditative style. There are clearly things to contest in Thompson's views about Scripture here—but his use of Scripture in communion with the tradition will be a model for all those who understand the importance of his struggle.
—James J. Buckley
Finding God at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians
Edited by Kelly Monroe
HarperCollins, 368 pages, $17.95
The secular university's intolerance of the life of faith is a recurring topic of public discussion. It is a discussion, however, often conducted in the language of the academy, and not in the language of the believer. Finding God at Harvard changes that. A collection of eloquent essays by current and former faculty and students of Harvard, its contributors give personal testimony of a faith retained, deepened, or even nurtured within the stronghold of secular humanism. From these diverse stories of “thinking Christians” a common theme emerges: the search for truth demands (to paraphrase contributor Kathryn Wiegand) a willingness to die to self—even to the hopes bequeathed by one's most cherished intellectual gifts—in order to be reborn in Christ. This book offers us what we too rarely ask of educated folk: not debate, but witness.
Explorations in Metaphysics: Being-God-Person
By W. Norris Clarke, S.J.
University of Notre Dame Press, 228 pages, $19.95
Selected from forty years' worth of essays by W. Norris Clarke—the Jesuit whose work helped emphasize the “uncompromisingly existential character” of Thomas Aquinas' metaphysics—this volume offers contemporary Catholic philosophy at its best. The essays have a twofold purpose. On the one hand, Clarke brings out the “originality” of Thomas, showing both how he was influenced by Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism, and Christian doctrine, and how he systematically transformed all that with his own distinctive “existential” understanding of being. On the other hand, Clarke “develops” aspects of Thomas' thought, where there exists a lacuna in the original, to suggest a “creative completion” of it consistent with its “intrinsic dynamism.” Clarke's principal concern here is to elaborate Aquinas' philosophy of the person by connecting it with his whole notion of being “as intrinsically active and self-communicative.” A personalism grounded in “Thomistic existentialism,” he argues, can deepen contemporary insight into the dialogical and relational character of the person, while avoiding the dangers that come from the metaphysical systems of the Enlightenment. These essays succeed admirably in both objectives, in the process showing us how rediscovering the riches of its own tradition can enable Catholic philosophy to engage the contemporary intellectual world and address the critical issues of our day.
—Kenneth L. Grasso
Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis
By L. Gregory Jones
Eerdmans, 312 pages, $28
Jones teaches at Loyola College in Maryland, and here offers a bracing polemic against and constructive alternative to “the therapeutic society,” as Philip Rieff famously called it. In this analysis, there is nothing weak or sentimental about forgiveness. Forgiveness is hard work—Jones calls it a craft—to which all Christians are called and from which our society has much to learn.
How Do You Spell God? Answers to the Big Questions from Around the World
By Marc Gellman and Thomas Hartman
With a Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Morrow, 206 pages, $15
Ostensibly a children's primer on comparative religion, this book will be of interest to adults as well. The emphasis, not surprisingly, is on the similarities between the various religions, commonality being seen as a foundation for good will and tolerance. But the authors, to their credit, do not fudge the religious differences either. Rabbi Gellman and Monsignor Hartman, known to many in the New York area as “The God Squad,” frequently appear on the radio talk program of Don Imus, where a robust sense of humor is required for survival. That good humor is abundantly reflected in these pages. Plus, you can really learn something.
The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church
By James-Charles Noonan, Jr.
Viking, 553 pages, $34.95
The late John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia wrote, “James-Charles Noonan has produced a very interesting book, which as a matter of fact proceeds almost to the point of being fascinating.” As a matter of fact, it gets there. This handsome book offers a careful account of the vast array of traditions, rules, and esoterica surrounding the ruffles and flourishes, smells and bells, of the Catholic Church on parade. From ceremonies employed upon the death of a pope, to a description of all those funny vestments, to the proper way to address a bishop or abbot, to questions that almost nobody ever thought to ask—on all these Mr. Noonan has an authoritative word. Catholicism is a fleshly (i.e., incarnational) thing, and this book exults in that truth. Of course, pomp and ceremony is not everybody's cup of tea, but for those who go in for that sort of thing, The Church Visible is the book to go for.