A Point in Time: The Search for Redemption in this Life and the Next
by David Horowitz,
Regnery, 126 pages, $24.95
Famous for his conversion from 1960s radicalism to conservatism, David Horowitz’s simple yet startling new book, A Point in Time, is a lyrical and touching meditation on a still deeper conversion. He traces three crucial “points in time” in his life, his childhood and adolescence, early adulthood as a nascent writer, and his present older-age, guided by Marcus Aurelius’ famous saying, “He who has seen present things has seen all, both everything that has taken place from all eternity and everything that will be for time without end,” and Solomon’s, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
He argues that, for those without religious belief, the search for meaning often leads to a faith in ephemeral historical progress, a faith bound to disappoint them.
He uses his father as an example that faith in a future of progress must inevitably lead to misery and frustration. An avowed communist, his father believed that the world was moving in a forward march toward a future worker’s paradise, convinced that human nature would change if it only had the proper guidance.
Needless to say, his father’s hope for a worker’s utopia was never realized, and his continual disappointment did considerable damage to himself and the relationship he had with his family. Horowitz examines his father’s false hope in light of Dostoevsky’s fictional reflections on the virtue, not condemning hope in earthly institutions as such, but suggesting that hope not grounded in anything beyond them must inevitably frustrate, as his father’s example taught him.
The little memoir is a melancholy reflection on our need to make sense out of the lives we have been given, our desire to repair the injustices we encounter, and the necessary consequences of our own finitude. While Horowitz’s Jewish heritage is rarely mentioned, his conviction that a Judeo-Christian vision of reality is the best for coming to terms with these ubiquitous problems is unambiguous.
—Mark Misulia is a junior fellow at First Things
Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace
by Steven A. Long
Fordham, 272 pages, $65
Steven Long, author of The Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act, is what Richard John Neuhaus would have called a “Thomist of the Strict Observance.” Against recent trends that would either secularize or supernaturalize man’s nature, Long argues for a recovery of what he sees as Thomas’s true teaching on man’s proximate, natural end.
Situating his study within the context of Henri de Lubac’s and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s discussions of nature and grace, Long affirms the main thrust of their project (that man is oriented toward God) while avoiding what he takes to be their errors (that nature is an empty vehicle for grace). Long argues that on a sound interpretation of Thomas’ teaching, man has a natural end that is distinct from his supernatural end, not as a hypothetical limiting concept, but “with its own created perfection positively ordered toward God within natural limits while being capable with divine aid of elevation to divine friendship and the beatific vision.”
Natura Pura offers readers a more nuanced understanding of Thomas, twentieth-century thought, and the nature–grace debates. But its writing style (full of jargon, repetition, and sentence-long italicized pontifications) will hinder some. So will its lack of essential unity: The book is a collection of loosely related essays, a significant portion of which is an appreciative essay on Lawrence Feingold’s The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters. And while Long amply defends his thesis as an interpretation of Thomas, he does too little to support it on its merits.
Finally, there are curious omissions, including discussion of “Analytical Thomism” (insofar as they are serious Thomists, Long writes in a footnote, they fail to be meaningfully analytic: John Haldane, take note), Martin Rhonhiemer’s and John Finnis’ theories of practical rationality (are these appropriately natural, or just stalking horses for secularism?), and Germain Grisez’s recent work on man’s ultimate end (“The Kingdom, Not God Alone”).
Still, Thomism of the Strict Observance never quite goes out of style, and Natura Pura deserves a wide readership.
—Ryan T. Anderson, a member of First Things’ Advisory Council, is editor of
Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute.
by Tom Perrottast
Martin’s, 368 pages, $25.99
No angel’s horn blew. The Risen Christ did not return with a shout. The dead remained in their graves. Instead, in the (sort of) Rapture of Tom Perrotta’s new novel, The Leftovers, millions of people suddenly and randomly evaporated—amusingly including Greta van Susteren—leaving emotional devastation in the wake of their silent and unexplained departure.
It’s a fascinating premise too often overlooked by most Rapture fiction authors who dwell (sometimes gleefully) on the sufferings of unbelievers left to face the Apocalypse. In contrast, the problem for the “leftovers” isn’t the Four Horsemen. It is that life banally goes on—and it is killing them.
How to cope? A tribe of neohippies discards the “tune in” portion of Timothy Leary’s formula, opting instead just to turn on and drop out. “Holy Wayne,” a former UPS delivery man with an empathetic ability to absorb his followers’ grief, becomes a world-famous cult leader (with clay feet and other body parts). Teenagers hollowly participate in sordid hookup parties. Meanwhile, the main protagonist, the mayor of a small town, strives earnestly to rebuild a normal community by organizing holiday parades and softball leagues.
Perrotta’s most interesting creation is the “Guilty Remnant,” a band of unsmiling neo-monastics who dress all in white, never speak, chain smoke (a funny bit), and grow increasingly radical to prevent people from forgetting that “God’s judgment is upon us.”
Yes, the book is written in an anti-religion font: Religious reactions to the disappearance become villainous. The town’s foremost pastor obsessively researches the most personal peccadillos of the disappeared to prove their unworthiness of being taken to heaven. In contrast, the book’s most principled character, the mayor, loses his faith and shines.
But the bashing is desultory. At its heart, Leftovers is about the struggle to recover from irremediable loss. Most of his characters simply can’t. But a few manage to love. Even in the direst circumstances, love remains a fount of hope. When all else fails, love is the pathway home.
—Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and
publishes the blog Secondhand Smoke.
Aquinas’s Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henri de Lubac
by Bernard Mulcahy, O. P.
Peter Lang, 256 pages, $79.95
Bernard Mulcahy’s new book is a critical appreciation of and response to Henri de Lubac’s claims that the notion of natura pura was a sixteenth-century innovation wholly foreign to the Church Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, and authentic Christian belief; that this notion is to blame for the rise of Enlightenment rationality, secularism, and the crisis of atheistic humanism; and that an appropriate antidote was a Christian integralism that viewed all of life, including social life, as orientated toward a supernatural end of the beatific vision.
On these points, Mulcahy argues, de Lubac simply got it wrong, and that much of his historical scholarship is thin. We must see the concept of pure nature as central to Judaism and the early Church (which appropriated aspects of the Hellenistic idea of nature).
Mulcahy presents six ways in which Thomas deployed the concept of pure nature. First, human mortality is natural, and yet Adam and Eve enjoyed the preternatural gift of avoiding bodily decay, and we now hope to enjoy the supernatural gift of bodily resurrection. Second, infused, not acquired, virtues are necessary for reaching our supernatural end of the beatific vision; our natural powers are proportionate to our natural end of simply knowing and loving God as first cause.
Third, unbaptized infants attain natural happiness but not the beatific vision. Fourth, political authority extends only to the ends of the political community (temporal peace and virtue), and not to our supernatural end, which is to be directed by God and his ministers in the Church. Fifth, the goods to which we are by nature ordained, to which the natural law pertains, include love of God but not the beatific vision. Sixth, there are many scientiae besides theology, and these natural scientiae retain their proper autonomy.
Mulcahy then explains what he thinks went wrong with the Jansenists and the Radical Orthodoxy project as well as with de Lubac’s theology. De Lubac was onto something in his response to atheistic humanism. But as Mulcahy argues, though grace perfects nature, “not everything is grace.”
Several times the author refers to his work as “this dissertation,” which is one indication that it should have been more heavily edited—its abundance of typographical errors being another. Still, the book, especially its early chapters, is insightful.
—Ryan T. Anderson
Zondervan, 208 pages, $16.99
In his introduction to this slim volume, Michael Horton, a professor of theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California, notes that in 2009 Time named “New Calvinism” as the “third of ten trends shaping the world today.” If this is true, he argues, the faith often construed as dour, cold, and heartless, surely deserves another look.
In For Calvinism, a companion to Roger E. Olson’s Against Calvinism, Horton moves methodically through the five major points of Reformed theology, popularly referred to as the “TULIP” (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints), providing ample scriptural citations to support them and drawing out their implications and their points of agreement and conflict with other systems.
In his treatment, for example, of the concept of unconditional election (the notion that God will choose whom to save “apart from their decision and effort”), Horton analogizes individual election to God’s seemingly arbitrary election of Israel. He treats common objections to the position, refuting easy caricatures (that unconditional elections implies individuals may behave however they please) but also embracing some of the tougher results (that unconditional election does mean “the Fall was included in God’s plan”).
Even for readers not firmly rooting for Team Calvin or Team Arminius, Horton has made the landscape of modern Calvinism moderately accessible without oversimplifying its core doctrines. What’s more, his overviews of various heresies, often used to start a chapter, are top-notch.
In what is perhaps the section with the broadest appeal, Horton holds up Calvinism as an alternative to liberal Protestantism, which he critiques for being rooted in Enlightenment thinkers Horton believes overemphasized human freedom at the expense of God’s sovereignty. Neither progressivism nor conservatism, he argues, is an adequate substitute for the radical transformation that comes from living a devotion to the gospel. Horton is surely right here. But this argument, though it is made well, is in some ways detachable from his discussion of Calvinism’s particular place within Christianity. And reopening that long-dormant debate is the real purpose of this book.
—Matthew Cantirino is a junior fellow at First Things.
by Roger E. Olson
Zondervan, 192 pages, $16.99
In admirable detail for such a small book, Roger E. Olson holds forth on what he calls the “conundrums” of Calvinism in Against Calvinism, the companion piece to Michael Horton’s For Calvinism. Written in lively and accessible prose, the book is a well-researched argument against the evangelical Calvinism of preachers like John Piper and R. C. Sproul, who preach Reformed faith to young congregations in contemporary language. He finds no significant revisions or modifications to classical Calvinism in today’s new manifestation.
Olson, a Baptist theologian teaching at Baylor’s seminary, doesn’t seek to present Calvinism as internally contradictory or illogical. Instead, he argues that Calvinism “has too many and too profound conundrums that have no apparent solution.”
A most confounding outcome of the Calvinist belief in divine determinism, for example, is that nothing can really be evil. If the good and omnipotent God specifically willed and rendered every historical event, how could it be evil? Does God, then, will evil? Calvinism appeals to two wills in God—decretive and preceptive. But why must God have two wills?
He engages varied theological and literary figures from Dostoevsky to John Wesley to Robert Jenson, weighing the central problems within Calvinism and their historical implications without. Olson’s survey of Calvinism is alone worth the price of the book, painting in considerable detail the significance of the major figures Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, Loraine Boettner and Paul Helm.
Pledging at the outset to maintain an irenic spirit throughout, he claims that ultimately it is enough for him that the conundrums of Calvinism (things inviting examination, thought, and a solution) cannot be satisfactorily answered but by appeals to divine inscrutability. But by the end, he shows his true colors in the exasperated statement that, though “evangelical Calvinists are some of the best Christians in the world . . . they are terribly inconsistent and teach and believe doctrines contrary to Scripture, most of Christian tradition, and reason.”
The Concept of Justice
by Thomas Patrick Burke
Continuum, 256 pages, $120
The concept of “social justice” is both incoherent and unjust, argues Thomas Patrick Burke. Incoherent because justice is a virtue that relates to the will of the acting individual, but social justice evaluates states of affairs that no one willed into existence. And unjust because social justice, particularly by violating property rights, runs afoul of the demand of ordinary justice to do no harm.
Burke, a retired professor of religion at Temple University, presents the thought of Luigi Taparelli and Antonio Rosmini, and tracks developments in social teaching from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum to Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno to Benedict XVI. He claims that Quadragesimo Anno is the primary source of the current misconception of social justice: “[F]rom being a formal concept, as it was originally, . . . it has been transformed into a material concept having for content a particular ideology.”
Burke turns his combative prose on some odd targets. In one section, he attacks recent advancements in civil rights, declaring that they unjustly criminalize instances of “peaceful discrimination,” like a business owner’s decision to hire or serve only whites. He believes such discrimination is legitimate because it involves no coercion.
After criticizing current conceptions of social justice, Burke proposes his own: “An action is just when it respects liberty. This is our definition of justice,” a riff on a Kantian claim that freedom of the will is the primary value, and coercion the primary injustice. When it comes to property, this has startling implications: “In the absence of coercion, neither poverty nor inequality infringes upon the freedom of will of the poor,” so neither is unjust. Too bad for the poor.
But lucky you if you’re rich: In a section titled “Property is sacred,” Burke develops a Hegelian line of thought that property is “the embodiment of the individual will” and that property rights are so absolute that “government can legitimately require people to pay taxes only for their own benefit.” Burke concludes that “the forcible redistribution of income or property from some individuals to others is iniquitous.”
But of course, it isn’t. Burke’s hyper-Hegelian conceptions of property and Kantian conceptions of justice fail to consider what key Catholic thinkers have said about these issues. I cite St. Thomas: “Whatever people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose says: ‘It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.’”
—Ryan T. Anderson
Taller When Prone
by Les Murray Farrar
Straus and Giroux, 96 pages, $24.95
Les Murray is an outsize talent—an outlier, in fact, in the world of poetry. He is famously sui generis (though perhaps “generous” would be the better word). At his best, he can be so dazzling as to appear to redefine the possibilities of poetry, to extend our notion of what a poet can do. Pyrotechnics are common (see “The Powerline Incarnation” or “Bats’ Ultrasound”). And yet he is as much a poet of earth as he is of the elements fire and air. His poems can have heft, but they are always light on their feet, ready to dance or flare out unexpectedly, as in this stanza from “Eucalypts in Exile”:
Standing around among shed limbs
and loose craquelure of bark
is home-country stuff
but fire is ingrained.
They explode the mansions of Malibu
because to be eucalypts
they have to shower sometimes in Hell.
Murray can push language to the breaking point, as he did in Translations from the Natural World, where various non-human entities are given a voice (see “Shellback Tick” or “Cell DNA”), but unlike many avatars of discontinuity and disruption, his language never breaks apart into fragments.
In this new collection, Taller When Prone, we have vintage Murray (the wine is recent; it’s the vineyard that’s aged). The language, manner, deftness, and themes are all there in a familiar way, and one can almost become accustomed to being surprised, especially in his treatment of otherwise mundane things, as when a police car in a speed trap becomes a “flat dog” (a crocodile) “beside the traffic stream.”
While there is genuine delight to be had in the dazzle of Murray’s verse, it is the voice, finally, that is most striking here, in its range and depth: at times phlegmatic and seemingly offhand, and elsewhere trenchant and biting; amusing and bemused often, but also deeply and darkly compassionate. In “Winding Up at the Bootmaker’s” a widow hands out her husband’s final repair jobs:
Kneeling up in Mediterranean black,
reaching down the numbered parcels
as if returning all their wedding gifts.
In “The Blame,” the tragic death of Murray’s uncle is forever imputed to his blameless father (“Neither he nor his father believed in accident. / Punishment was happening.”), and in “King Lear Had Alzheimer’s” the “great feral novel” of humans turns “ruthless” in gossip and lies.
These are poems of solidarity, moving—personally and theologically—toward agape. But most of all, what we encounter in Murray is a probing intelligence that sees and thinks otherwise in a language of astonishing inventiveness. This is Murray’s great gift, and when he lays it at our feet it does indeed appear to get taller.
—Paul Kane is professor of English at Vassar College.