The Way of Life John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity
by Carson Holloway
Baylor University Press, 189 pages, $29.95
The late John Paul II, no systematic political thinker, nonetheless mounted one of the late twentieth century's most sophisticated, if critical, affirmations of the democratic project. The medium through which he did so would have astonished Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Jefferson, and Madison: the magisterium of the Bishop of Rome. The method through which he constructed his theory of democracy was equally foreign to the conventions of political philosophy in his time: a rich philosophical anthropology, grounded in a phenomenological analysis of human moral agency aimed at demonstrating the human capacity to get at the truth of things. Singular in its “location” and method, John Paul II's thinking on democracy and political modernity has a depth of philosophical texture that is only now beginning to be seriously engaged.
In this fine addition to the growing library of commentaries on virtually every aspect of the thought of Karol Wojtyla, Carson Holloway of the University of Nebraska at Omaha puts the late pope's unique way of “thinking politics” into conversation with the chief political theorists of the Anglophone Enlightenment and the American Founding, and with the ever-present (and always interesting) Alexis de Toqueville. The conclusion Holloway reaches from this learned intellectual to-and-fro poses a sharp challenge to Rawlsians and other secular political theorists: “John Paul II, while deeply critical of liberal modernity, was nevertheless reconciled to it and to some extent sympathetic to it. Liberal modernity therefore need not view him as an enemy to be ignored or resisted.”
That conclusion, which I think correct, poses a serious challenge to the proponents of a Catholic version of “radical orthodoxy,” who have for some time now been attempting to recruit John Paul II to the project of declaring liberal political modernity a hopelessly flawed project that can only be replaced, not repaired.
Interestingly, and some might say curiously, Holloway takes the 1995 encyclical on the life issues, Evangelium Vitae, as his basic reference point for John Paul II's political thought. “[It] is surely reasonable,” he writes, “to treat Evangelium Vitae as offering the most mature assessment of John Paul II's view of the politics and culture of the modern West.” I wouldn't be quite so sure. The 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus contains a more developed theory of democracy than Evangelium Vitae; Centesimus Annus was also prescient in its look into the challenges of the post-communist future, including the challenges analyzed with considerable passion in Evangelium Vitae. Then there is Ecclesia in Europa, the 2003 apostolic exhortation in which John Paul II mounted his sharpest critique of the crisis of moral reason and civilizational morale that he believed was debasing the politics of the newly-expanding European Union—a critique that is eminently applicable to blue-state America and the high culture that shapes its politics. Still, Evangelium Vitae's analysis of the democratic project and the threats posed to it by abortion, euthanasia, and the other encroachments of the “culture of death” contains enough of a synthesis of John Paul II's political thought to carry the weight of Holloway's argument; it's simply a question of strengthening the argument by reference to other relevant materials.
One stylistic crotchet: It is somewhat disconcerting—no, that's wrong, it's actually quite annoying—to find the authorial “we” cropping up time and again in an insightful and important analysis of the thought of the man who self-consciously abandoned the traditional “we” of papal public discourse. So there is something else for all concerned to learn from the example of John Paul II.
— George Weigel
God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570–1215
by David Levering Lewis
W.W. Norton, 384 pages, $29.95
Muslim Spain, Al-Andalus, has only a minor role to play in most accounts of Western history. Yet for five centuries Muslims created a unique culture more brilliant than the civilization being constructed by the Carolingians and their successors. Lewis' aim is to set the developments in Spain into the larger history of Islam and the West and to show how the intellectual advances in Andalusia influenced Christian European culture. His hero is Abd-ar-Rahman, the Falcon of Andalus, the eighth-century Muslim ruler responsible for building the Mezquita, the exquisite mosque in Cordoba, one of the architectural wonders of the world. Lewis writes well and has an eye for arresting details. But, in his zeal to celebrate convivenzia, cultural and civic collaboration among Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Andalusia, and to applaud Muslim openness to new scientific and philosophical ideas, he has constructed a caricature of Western medieval society. To wit: The Carolingians were “religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive”; Thomas Aquinas took from Jewish and Muslim philosophers what was “theologically safe” and serviceable for his purposes; only during the Renaissance did the West learn “to live with the risks of reason.” Lewis wonders out loud whether the world would have been better off had Charles Martel not halted the advance of the Muslim armies at Poitiers in a.d. 732. This bias is unfortunate because there is much good here and the story is one that needs to be told afresh. But serious readers will find Lewis' one-sidedness distracting.
—Robert Louis Wilken
Christians in China: a.d. 600–2000
by Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
Ignatius, 605 pages, $29.95
In 1983, a priest in Singapore was approached by a young Chinese sailor. Although the sailor identified himself as Catholic and prayed the rosary every night, he did not know what Mass and confession were, having never been to either. He explained that since his hometown priest had gotten married, most local Catholics no longer went to church.
Later, the sailor approached the priest again, this time with a list of books requested by a Chinese nun. The priest remembers the paper was damp and crumpled, as though imparting “a powerful message from a community, which had been buried for a long time in the shadows and was now struggling to reappear in the light of day.”
Jean-Pierre Charbonnier was that priest, and Christians in China is his attempt to answer some of the questions prompted by the encounter: How has Christianity developed in a Chinese culture, and what obstacles has it faced? How do Chinese Christians give witness to their faith, and how do they fit into the Church?
Recognizing that other scholars tend to tell the story of Christianity in China from a Western perspective, Charbonnier writes with the intent of letting Chinese Christians speak for themselves.
His volume spans the breadth of Christian history in China, from the Xi'an Stele and its record of the first Christian missionaries in 636, to the opening of China toward foreign governments and international exchanges in recent years.
While packing in quite a bit of history, Charbonnier manages to communicate both the larger picture as well as the finer details concerning the personal lives, interactions, and cultural exchanges of key historical figures. His attention to these details is impressive, and his re-creation of the conversations and sentiments that shaped the course of each era adds valuable nuance.
For example, in writing about the rites controversy of the early 1700s, Charbonnier reconstructs the interview between the Kangxi emperor and Bishop Charles Maigrot, contextualizing their discussion with such salient factors as the differences in their education, vocabulary, and understanding of social etiquette.
Looking to the future of Christianity in China, the reader might wish that Charbonnier gave his narrative a fuller international context, especially regarding Sino-Vatican relations. Nevertheless, this book is an excellent resource for those interested in how cultural interactions shaped the course of Christian history in China.
Tradition in the Public Square: A David Novak Reader
edited by Randi L. Rashkover and Martin Kavka
Eerdmans, 372 pages, $42
This reader provides a companion volume to Novak's Talking with Christians (2005), which emphasized Novak's dialogic gifts, as befits a thinker whose first major book was Jewish-Christian Dialogue (published the year that he entered academia after two decades as a full-time rabbi).
The collection highlights another side of Novak: his work as a natural-law theoretician and ethicist. Two-thirds focuses on natural law and contemporary moral issues. Novak integrates traditional Jewish sources with philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Rosenzweig, all for the purpose of actually doing Jewish ethics rather than simply offering historical or comparative reflections. The result is an exemplification both of what ethics should be in the academy, and of how theological ressourcement should be practiced.
Novak's greatest contribution consists in his critical retrieval of the Maimonidean tradition—what the editors call the “Jewish rationalist tradition”—which lost its theological bearings in the hands of anthropocentric thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn and Hermann Cohen.
This is why the most valuable essays are those that have been less easily accessible or unpublished: “Heschel on Revelation,” “Philosophy and the Possibility of Revelation,” “The Dialectic between Theory and Practice in Rabbinic Thought,” and “The Role of Dogma in Judaism.” These essays exhibit the theological commitments that give Novak's moral thought its distinctive character.
Reading Novak's work, one sees how a normative tradition sifts contemporary insights within the process of theological development. God willing, Novak has years of writing ahead of him, but readers of his book will recognize that he has already secured an eminent position in the tradition that he embodies. We should hope that readers also will increasingly follow the path he has charted. Jews and Christians can learn how to be theologians by reading David Novak.
— Matthew Levering
The Perspective of the Acting Person: Essays in the Renewal of Thomistic Philosophy
by Martin Rhonheimer
Catholic University of America Press, 329 pages, $39.95
Martin Rhonheimer first appeared in the pages of an American theological journal in January 1994 when The Thomist published as the lead article his essay on intrinsically evil acts.
Since that time, the name of Martin Rhonheimer has become a familiar one among English-speaking moral philosophers and theologians. He ranks with such scholars as William May, Germain Grisez, Ralph McInerny, Steven Long, and Benedict Ashley. These are the authors who helped post-Vatican II Catholics figure out the fundamentals of moral theology.
Before 1965, moral theologians, more likely than not, also practiced canon law. After the Council, the best moral theologians either are themselves moral philosophers or are well read in moral philosophy. The 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor set certain directions for Catholic moral theology. Natural teleology and the beatific vision fit together just as natural law finds completion in the Sermon on the Mount. The imitation of Christ, right moral judgment, and the cruciform virtuous life, even to martyrdom, constitute the hermeneutical thread that ties together the diverse elements of what arguably represents the most important magisterial document of the John Paul II pontificate.
Martin Rhonheimer has published in the major European languages books and essays that advance a certain outlook on Catholic moral theology and social thought. He also proposes an adroit interpretation of Veritatis Splendor.
On the one hand, he has engaged critically several Catholic authors, such as the late Richard McCormick, S.J., and Jean Porter, whose expressed views sometimes contest received Catholic teaching on important moral issues. At the same time, Rhonheimer draws criticism from what I would call classical Thomist authors, who find that his reading of Aquinas owes more to the perspectives of Immanuel Kant than they consider either reasonable or consistent with the teaching of St. Thomas.
The Perspective of the Acting Person is a collection of essays, most previously published. A Swiss German priest, Rhonheimer writes with a density and distinction that one would expect from Germanic scholarship. Well known for his suggestion that the teaching of Humanae Vitae be construed by the Church to permit some condomistic sexual acts between spouses, he considers this judgment to be in greater conformity with the actual teaching of Thomas Aquinas than with what he takes to be a merely “physicalist” emphasis on natural teleology. Needless to say, many Thomist authors keenly contest this reduction of natura to the “merely physical” along with its denial of the foundational role of natural teleology.
The editor's introduction presents an overly roseate picture of Rhonheimer's place among the Thomists. The interested reader may proceed directly to Rhonheimer's essays. To ensure balance, the same benevolent reader then should investigate Rhonheimer's Thomist critics.
—Romanus Cessario, O.P.
Hitler's Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism
by Kevin P. Spicer
Northern Illinois University Press, 385 pages, $34.95
Coming after John Cornwell's sensational Hitler's Pope (recently disowned by Cornwell himself), the title of Fr. Kevin Spicer's new book is not exactly original. Nor is its jacket. Just as Cornwell's book had a misleading cover, so too does Hitler's Priests: a picture of Fr. Albanus Schachleiter, a German abbot, marching in a Nazi parade, making the infamous “Heil Hitler” salute. One has to read the book to find out how unrepresentative the abbot was of German Catholic clergymen, and that he had his ecclesiastical faculties suspended.
That said, Spicer's book does have value. It is the first comprehensive work that uses primary sources to examine those Catholic priests who openly collaborated with Hitler. Spicer admits these priests were relatively few (barely over a hundred) and often disciplined, but he writes: “Still, I found it difficult to comprehend how a person ordained to serve others and preach Christ's commandment of love could so wholeheartedly embrace the hate-filled ideology of National Socialism.”
Spicer's indignation is justified, but somewhat naive. The history of the Church is rich in saintliness but also tainted by sin. No priest, especially one steeped in history, should act surprised.
Examining the writings and sermons of priests who embraced the Third Reich, Spicer uncovered some interesting facts, including the hatred “Hitler's priests” had for Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pius XII), whose anti-Nazi credentials are vindicated once again.
Along the way, however, Fr. Spicer makes some blunders. He depicts the famous theologian Karl Adam as a fellow traveler of National Socialism, without stressing how Adam drew back, and the Nazis threatened him with death. Spicer accuses ordinary German Catholics of being anti-Semitic, because of an alleged “lack of theological sympathy” with Jews. But historian Michael Burleigh, an outstanding authority on the Third Reich, argues just the reverse. After Kristallnacht, he notes, “significant swathes of German opinion, especially, according to [Nazi] Reports, in the Roman Catholic south and west, regarded the pogrom with disgust. This was partly because Nazi attacks on the Roman Catholic Church were implicitly elided with the assault on people of a cognate faith, and because traditions of ‘love thy neighbor' proved stronger than incitement to kill him or her. Nazi racial anti-Semitism seemed of a piece with Nazi anti-clericalism and neo-paganism.”
Such reactions tell us that the gospel of Christ did indeed survive the nightmare years, even as it was continually assaulted and betrayed by others who failed to live up to their religion.
—William Doino Jr.
Looking Before and After
by Alan Jacobs
Eerdmans, 114 pages, $12
In the opening pages of Looking Before and After, Alan Jacobs makes the bold claim that Christians are obliged to make their own lives into stories—“but,” he adds, “we are obliged to do it properly.”
Jacobs is an expert at the art of evaluating fictional literature, and here he extends his talent to the evaluation of “life genres.” The book is addressed to proponents of narrative theology, whom the author suggests have focused almost exclusively on the communal life of the Church at the cost of neglecting the “narrative dimension of individual Christian lives.” At the same time, Jacobs is quick to note that the updated OED tellingly marks the word testimony as obsolete or archaic—“except in Evangelical circles.” In response, he wants to help evangelicals use testimony more responsibly and intelligently as a mode of narration, to reconnect it with Christian theology as its “moral and intellectual source.”
He does this first by telling his own story, his own testimony, which serves as a reference point throughout the work, and then by breaking down the human acts of recollection and retelling. Finally, Jacobs considers several lives to see how testimony—Christian and non-Christian—may be used. Throughout, he draws from a host of sources, making his volume seem, at times, more like a compilation of essays than a linear argument, a feeling augmented by its conversational style. But there are some real gems tucked beneath the slightly uneven surface, especially the beautiful reflections on Isaak Dinesen, Henri Nouwen, and Csezaw Miosz. Looking Before and After reminds readers of the often overlooked power of personal conversion narratives, and it prompts them to examine their own.
Justification and Participation in Christ
by Olli-Pekka Vainio
Brill, 259 pages, $129
There has been a long tradition of Luther studies at the University of Helsinki. But there emerged in Finland, sometime around the 1970s, not simply a continuation of earlier considerations of Luther's work but a fundamentally new interpretation of his view of salvation. Much of this research was introduced to the English-speaking world in the book Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson.
The Finnish school has argued that Luther's understanding of justification necessarily involves the notion that, in faith, there is true union with Christ and therefore participation in the divine nature as well. Luther's doctrine of salvation may be interpreted, then, along the traditional lines of theopoiesis, or deification, a theme found in many early Christian writers. Building upon and advancing earlier scholarship, Vainio traces the development of the doctrine of justification from Luther to the Formula of Concord, with particular attention to the theme of union with Christ. His conclusion is that the unitive, participatory dimension of justification may be found, in varying measures, in Luther, Melanchthon, Osiander and Chemnitz right up until the Formula of 1580.
One wonders if this book, together with the entire Finnish interpretation of Luther, will modify a certain narrative which has traced the line of medieval nominalism from William of Occam to Gabriel Biel to Luther's allegedly forensic view of justification—a narrative which (as the Finnish school has argued) was intensified by the unfortunate marriage between Luther and neo-Kantian idealism fostered by mainstream German Luther-forschung.
Forensic justification has seemed to Catholicism to be an extension of this late medieval nominalism, with a notion of humanity not truly transformed by God's grace, with divine action not resulting in the efficacious ontological renewal of men and women and with justification occurring as an imputed reality purely extrinsic to personal being. So the illustrious Reformer, despite his incisive and vigorous religious thought, is often lumped with those whose anthropology suffers precisely because of a significantly wrong turn on the ontological implications of the gospel.
Vainio's well-wrought book, with its emphasis on the indwelling presence of Christ through faith (a theme present in the Joint Declaration on Justification) continues the rehabilitation of profoundly important elements in the Reformers' authentic thought.
—Thomas G. Guarino
God's Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office
by Joseph Ratzinger
translated by Henry Taylor
Ignatius, 126 pages, $14.95
Much to the edification of the English-speaking world, Ignatius Press continues to churn out translations of Joseph Ratzinger's work from before his election to the Chair of Peter.
God's Word contains two essays. The first, from before Vatican II, focuses on the nature and role of apostolic succession, with particular emphasis on the successors of the apostles as “the living presence of the word” in communion with an apostolic see, chief among them Rome.
The second, written during the final year of the Council, emphasizes the concept of tradition as it relates to Scripture, with a special focus on the Council of Trent's decree on the subject. The book also contains Cardinal Ratzinger's 1989 Erasmus lecture on the recovery of a proper philosophy of exegesis. Such a philosophy, Ratzinger writes, must allow us to read the Bible in the spirit of the faith “from which the Scriptures were born,” for only then can we uncover the true meaning of the text.
Solomon Among the Postmoderns
by Peter J. Leithart
Brazos Press, 176 pages, $19.99
Peter Leithart is both a pastor (of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho) and a professor of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College. The combination is more than adequate for helping the the reader come to grips with the omnipresent and often confusing thing known as postmodernity.
Many contemporary Christians seem either to condemn all things postmodern or to make the opposite error of swallowing postmodernism whole. Leithart, who begins his study with a meditation on the Renaissance and early modernity, attempts instead to honestly interpret postmodernism and its relation to modernism, discussing such writers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and exploring the dynamics of globalization, multiculturalism, and relativity.
Modernity, he tells us, sought to impose an order on things through science, technology, or secularization: “By sculpting the vapor and shepherding the wind, modernity promises to liberate humanity from the uncertainties and imperfections that mankind has long, but wrongly, believed inherent in existence.” But as the experience of the last century has shown, much of modernity's promise was unfulfilled, or fulfilled in negative ways.
Enter postmodernism, “a knot of cultural, philosophical, and social developments, arising from intensifications, inversions, and unmaskings of modernity, which challenges, doubts, and rejects the modern trinity of control, liberation, and progress.” Throughout the book, Leithart works at persuading us that Ecclesiastes, proclaiming that all life is a vapor, would understand the postmodern dilemma.
He succeeds rather well.