Real Ethics: Rethinking the Foundations of Morality
By John Rist.
Cambridge University Press. 295 pp. $23 paper.
John Rist’s punchy title suggests that it is possible for an ethical theory to be less than fully engaged with reality. It also hints at the author’s vigorous defense of moral realism, the view that there are objective moral standards that transcend individual preference and cultural diversity. For Plato, this view implied the existence of Forms, which served as the ground of genuine knowledge in all areas, including morals. There is something similar in the thought of every realist philosopher, such as the divine design for human nature favored by Christian moralists. The alternatives to realism range from Thrasymachus through Epicurus, Hobbes, Hume, and Nietzsche. For these thinkers, moral language is free-floating and ultimately arbitrary, the more or less sophisticated expression of someone’s perceived needs, desires, wishes, and preferences. Rist makes the compelling argument that all post-Enlightenment theories of morality (as well as the Nietzschean and various postmodern subversions of ethics) actually depend for their plausibility on the Christian metaphysics that they have chosen to abandon. Without such grounding they are not even intelligible, let alone persuasive, whether they concentrate on ethics for individual life or on social and political concerns. In Rist’s view, those genuinely committed to objective morality need to remain as vigilant as Plato to the sophistries that non-objectivists are ready to employ. Not only will the scholar of ethics find in this volume a refreshingly honest look at the vast range of ethical positions, but the generally well-educated reader will profit from the crisp, accurate presentation of the positions and arguments prominent in contemporary moral discourse. Perhaps most importantly, Rist shows that one’s ethical theory will invariably depend upon one’s view of the human person, and that one’s understanding of anthropology will depend inescapably on one’s metaphysical and religious commitments.
— Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.
The Lonely Way: Selected Essays and Letters, Volume I (1927-1939)
By Hermann Sasse. Translated by Matthew Harrison. Historical introductions and biographical sketch by Ronald Feuerhahn.
Concordia. 502 pp. $21.95.
Hermann Sasse (1895-1976) was a Lutheran theologian whose career began under the influence of the classical liberalism of his teachers, Adolf Harnack and Gustav Deissmann. A year spent as an exchange student at Hartford Theological Seminary (1925-1926) put Sasse in touch with theologians of the United Lutheran Church in America, and through them such nineteenth-century Lutheran confessionalists as Wilhelm Loehe and August Vilmar. By the time Sasse returned to Germany to take up a teaching position at Erlangen and become an active participant in the ecumenical movement, he was a convinced Lutheran. In the early 1930s, Sasse emerged as a vocal critic of the National Socialist party and Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler. In 1933, Sasse collaborated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer to produce the Bethel Confession, although he would part ways with Bonhoeffer over the Barmen Confession the following year, since he believed that this document failed to take account of the unresolved differences between the Lutheran and Reformed churches. Throughout his life, Sasse would remain a confessional ecumenist, even though in his mind the ecumenical movement had lost the ability to confess the dogma of the church catholic. With the formation ýf the unionistic Evangelical Church in Germany in 1948, Sasse judged that confessional Lutheranism had disappeared in the territorial churches. The following year, Sasse emigrated to Adelaide, Australia, where he served on the faculty of the seminary of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia (later merged into the Lutheran Church of Australia) until his death in 1976. The essays and letters in this book reflect Sasse’s early years. The title is apt, for Sasse’s life was characterized by e¦clesiastical loneliness as he contended for a Lutheranism that was dogmatically grounded, sacramentally vibrant, and ecumenically responsible. Many of the essays in The Lonely Way reflect the political situation in pre-World War II Germany. Several document Sasse’s attempt to use the Lutheran theory of the “two kingdoms” to criticize National Socialism. (See, for example, the treatise of 1930 entitled “The Social Significance of the Augsburg Confession” and “Church Government and Secular Authority according to Lutheran Doctrine,” written in 1935.) One of the most powerful and still relevant writings is “Union and Confession” of 1936. Here Sasse exposes the “pious lie” of doctrinal indifference. Sasse writes: “Where man can no longer bear the truth, he cannot live without the lie. . . . The most fearful thing about the pious lie is that it will not lie only to people, but also to God in prayer, confession, in the Holy Supper, in the sermon, and in theology.”
— John T. Pless
Catholic Women’s Colleges in America
Edited by Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett
Johns Hopkins University Press. 439 pp. $48.
Every year, colleges and universities across the country spend tens of millions of dollars developing and disseminating mission statements that are meant to differentiate them from the educational institution down the street. Strangely, these statements are rarely distinctive. In a time when one college simply blends into the next, it is odd that schools with unique missions would choose to water them down. But according to the essays collected in Catholic Women’s Colleges in America, that is exactly what has happened over the past fifty years. The first Catholic women’s colleges in the U.S. were founded and run almost entirely by groups of women religious, who received little support, financial or otherwise, from church leaders. These colleges provided the daughters of middle- and upper-class families with a strict (almost monastic) Catholic environment and a serious liberal arts education. Though there was a great deal of pressure for the administrators to turn to more practical subjects, particularly to attract tuition from recent Catholic immigrants, many colleges managed to resist. The ideal of liberal education for its own sake continued until the early 1960s, when the massive cultural shifts that marked the decade began. From that point on, many followed the trend toward coeducation. Behavioral codes were largely discarded. Religious messages were diluted. And the liberal arts were pushed out by subjects like “music therapy” and “bicultural studies.” In other words, the colleges gave up the very things that had made them distinctive. The otherwise competent scholars included in this volume refuse to see these developments as problematic, and instead praise the remaining 120 or so schools as “risk-taking” and “innovative.” Maybe the colleges can use these terms in their mission statements.
— Naomi Schaefer
Morality and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Ethics
By Alfonso Gómez-Lobo
Georgetown University Press. 142 pp. $17.95 paper.
Alfonso Gómez-Lobo addresses this book “primarily to students and readers not formally trained in philosophy who feel the need for a reliable conceptual structure for their own thinking in the midst of the confusing array of moral views expressed today.” He serves that audience well with his short, clear guide on how to employ the natural law tradition in daily moral decision-making. Gómez-Lobo begins his road map of “the mainstream tradition of the Western moral philosophy” with a quick synopsis of Plato’s Crito. It is a starting point from which he describes the universal nature of moral reasoning. He first establishes what he terms the “Formal Principle,” or the first principle of practical rationality: “One should pursue what is good and one should avoid what is bad.” Once he establishes that, the author explains that in order to live a moral life, one must do more than merely adopt the Formal Principle. Though true, the Formal Principle cannot tell us what is good or bad. It merely tells us what we should do once we determine what is good or bad. The hard—and fun—part is distinguishing the good from the bad. To make that determination, Gómez-Lobo takes the reader through the thought process of how to recognize what he terms the “basic ingredients of human flourishing.” He makes the case for each of the following: life, family, friendship, work and play, the experience of beauty, knowledge, and integrity. Throughout, he invites the reader to disagree and enter into dialogue with him, particularly when he explains why he rejects some other prime candidates (freedom, dignity, and pleasure) from the list of essential human goods. His list of rejections leads to the one reservation I have about the book: Gómez-Lobo denies that religion is one of life’s self-evident goods, because besides producing some pleasant effects for the worshiper, religion can also lead to “bigotry, intolerance, and certain forms of fanaticism.” That may be, but religion is the mechanism by which people pursue and understand the truth of their existence. That would seem an integral part of the good life, even if it can lead, as the author points out, to abuse or misunderstanding. The issue of religion’s place in the good life aside, this modest effort by Gómez-Lobo is a success. I would like to make it required reading for the members of my parish youth group who head off to college this fall. It would be a valuable inoculation against what undoubtedly awaits them on campus.
— Jay Webber
Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction
By Ron Hansen
HarperCollins Perennial. 268 pp. $13.95 paper
Ron Hansen is a penetrating and thought-provoking writer. Whether relating the tale of a mystical young nun (Mariette in Ecstasy), retelling in a contemporary context the parable of the Prodigal Son (Atticus), or breaking new ground in historical fiction (Hitler’s Nieceý, Hansen’s work manages to engage both mind and heart. This collection of essays is no exception. Hansen reflects upon the impact his childhood, his family history, and his Catholic faith have had on his writing. He talks of stories and the reasons we ýead them, and considers the sacramental nature of fiction. He explores the lives of personal heroes, from Ignatius of Loyola to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and Hansen’s literary mentor John Gardner. Especially engrossing are his meditations on the Eucharist and the phenomenon of the stigmata throughout history. Anyone interested in the general question of how faith and fiction interact will benefit from this book.
— Jeff McAlister
Niebuhr and His Age
By Charles C. BrownTrinity Press International. 333 pp. $20 paper.
A new and revised edition of the best single book we have on Reinhold Niebuhr, his strengths, his weaknesses, and why he continues to be a formative influence for so many Christian thinkers today. In an extended bibliographical essay, Brown rightly debunýs the biography by Richard Wightman Fox, with its indulgence of psychological speculation and denigration of the seriousness of Niebuhr’s Christian faith. Anyone who wants to understand the possibilities of good and evil in history, the responsibilities and temptations of the American experiment, and the strengths and limits of moral suasion will be greatly instructed by Niebuhr, and, apart from his own books, there is no better entry to his classroom than Niebuhr and His Age.
Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. By Isaiah Berlin. Edited by Henry Hardy.
Princeton University Press. 198 pp. $24.95.
Isaiah Berlin was a better intellectual historian than he was a philosopher. More precisely: he was a better philosopher when he was doing intellectual history. While in his more systematic essays he defended human liberty by appealing to a doctrine of moral “pluralism” that he could never entirely distinguish from relativism, his more historical portraits of various intellectuals contain a far more compelling account of political life. Berlin was drawn to writers who dissented from prevailing opinions—ýncluding liberalism, modernity, and the Enlightenment—and in those dissents he discovered potent passions and preoccupations that are often ignored by academic political theorists. Not that he sided with his antiliberal, antimodern, and Counter-Enlightlnment subjects, but he did possess in abundance what one of his favorite dissenters—Johann Gottfried Herder—called Einfühlungý the capacity to sympathetically “feel oneself” into the views of those whose outlook differs profoundly from one’s own. In helping us to understand the motivations behind the enemies of modern freedom—and thus also freedom’s distinctive vulnerabilities—Berlin did us a great service. Since Berlin’s death in 1997, Henry Hardy has been bringing out his previously unpublished writings. This collection consists of six radio lectures he prepared for the BBC in 1952. In them, he discusses Helvétius, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Maistre. Each lecture contains important insights, though more polished treatment of all six can be found elsewhere in Berlin’s previously published work.
Being After Rousseau: Philosophy and Culture in Question
By Richard L. Velkley
University of Chicago Press. 192 pp. $18 paper.
It has been said that modern philosophy began with René Descartes’ declaration of intellectual autonomy and came to an end with Martin Heidegger’s project of “deconstructing” the history of Western thought. For Richard L. Velkley, professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, these two moments are linked together by the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who set the agenda for the German philosophical tradition by pointing to a fundamental weakness in the work of such early modern philosophers as Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Hobbes. These philosophers sought to make sense of life without appealing to a sacred or transcendent realm and denied that “species, forms, [and] wholes of any sort are given parts of a natural order.” Against these authors, Rousseau argued that human beings are motivated by an ineradicable “eros for wholeness.” Ancient philosophy and Judeo-Christian religion had each taken their cues from this longing for transcendence, but Rousseau rejected the possibility of returning to premodern modes of thought. In their place, he proposed to put man back in touch with transcendence through a deepening of philosophical modernity. Man could satisfy his longing for wholeness by breaking more radically with nature and fashioning a wholly autonomous human “culture.” Beginning with Kant, the German philosophers followed Rousseau in maintaining that a transcendent realm is opened up to human beings only when “they are conscious of their free and ‘spontaneous’ power of lawgiving and creating.” In this tradition, philosophy thus comes to be identified, not with the contemplation of God, but rather with the task of preparing the way for humanity’s self-divination—a transfiguration that would enable man to satisfy his longing for transcendence within this world. Velkley traces the various twists and turns of this self-destructive tradition with considerable skill and philosophical rigor. Those with a training in philosophy will find the book to be an important reminder that, as Velkley writes, “there can be no perfect harmony . . . between the human desires ‘to be at home in the world’ and ‘to behold what is.’”
Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church
By Michael Plekon.
University of Notre Dame Press. 336 pp. $37.50.
John Paul II has persistently reminded us that the Church must again “breathe with both lungs,” meaning the East and the West. This book of loving and engaging portraits, examining ten men and women of extraordinary faith, contributes to the realization of that hope. Of particular interest are the chapters on Sergius Bulgakov, Maria Skobtsova, Alexander Men, and Alexander Schmemann. But every chapter is both instructive and edifying, as is the author’s concluding reflection, “Holiness in Our Time.”
Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture.
By Daniel Sack.
Palgrave. 262 pp. $18.95 paper
A delightful, and frequently insightful, romp through mainline Protestantism’s wrestling with the entanglements of the spiritual and material, in this case food. The author is associated with the interestingly titled Material History of American Religion Project at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Disputes over the common cup in communion service, the centrality of coffee klatches in congregational life, and moralistic fads in dieting all come in for erudite, and sometimes tongue-in-cheek, examination. The Church may collapse in doctrinal and moral confusion, Sack suggests, but so long as there is coffee and cookies at the end of the meeting, the gates of hell will not prevail.
The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning, and Public Debate
By Phillip E. Johnson.
InterVarsity. 180 pp. $16.
Over the course of his many years as a distinguished professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, Johnson’s training in forensics and rhetoric—the art of knowing and making arguments—led him to question the philosophy, typically disguised ýs science, of Darwinism. Writing also in these pages, he soon became a celebrated critic of a kind of science that, as he puts it, “left the most technologically advanced societies with a definition of knowledge that allowed knowledge only of means and relegated all questions of ultimate ends to the realm of subjectivity and speculation.” The present book is enhanced by autobiographical reflections and solid advice on how to make arguments effectively, beginning, as his title suggests, with framing the questions correctly.
Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple
By Matthew Levering
University of Notre Dame Press. 254 pp. $24 paper.
The subtitle is “Salvation according to Thomas Aquinas,” and the author explores very closely the Angelic Doctor’s reading of biblical texts in a way that offers a fresh perspective on the connections between law (including natural law) and gospel, as well as the ways in which the Church is and is not “the new Israel.” Levering’s is an illuminating argument for readers with at least a modicum of theological training.
Toward a Theory of Immigration.
By Peter C. Meilaender.
Palgrave. 259 pp. $55.
Against the conventional wisdom of liberal political theorists, who typically deny a state’s traditional right to regulate immigration according to its national identity, the author persuasively argues that states may indeed legitimately exercise wide discretion in crafting immigration policies that reflect their own particular visions of political community.
The Future Is Now: America Confronts the New Genetics.
Edited by William Kristol and Eric Cohen
Rowman & Littlefield. 357 pp. $19.95 paper.
An extremely useful collection of articles, congressional testimony, political speeches, and newspaper editorials and columns on the ethical dilemmas of the genetic revolution. Essays by frequent FT contributors Leon R. Kass, Gilbert Meilaender, Robert P. George, and J. Bottum—as well as excerpts from such classics as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Paul Ramsey’s Fabricated Man—present the case for informed skepticism about the latest “advances” in biotechnology.
Power Over Pain: How to Get the Pain Control You Need
By Eric Chevlen and Wesley Smith
ITF (P.O. Box 760, Steubenville, Ohio 43952). 236 pp. $12.95 paper.
Chevlen is a physician and Smith a lawyer. Both are FT contributors and staunch opponents of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Power Over Pain is a powerful argument, but, more than that, a very practical guide to how people suffering apparently uncontrollable pain can in fact get relief. The neglect of palliative care, the authors believe, is one of the great cruelties in contemporary medicine, and a major force in driving people to seek, for themselves and others, relief in death.
The Last Things: Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Eschatology
Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson
Eerdmans. 169 pp. $16 paper.
That the last things are among the first things is a truth of foundational importance for this journal. The rediscovery of eschatology is one of the most significant developments in the theology of the last one hundred years, and the book’s opening essay is by Wolfhart Pannenberg, who has played a premier role in that development. Other essays are by the editors, by David Novak, and by John A. McGuckin, who does patristic turns on the ever-intriguing Book of Revelation.
The Saints’ Guide to Knowing the Real Jesus
By David Mills
Servant Publications. 168 pp. $9.99 paper.
Do not be misled. The “real Jesus” here does not mean yet another quest for a historical Jesus in the author’s image. Mills means the Jesus of the Church’s faith and life, i.e., the Jesus of the Church’s book, the New Testament. Solid theology for readers who are not theologians, and a recalling to the basics for those who are.
The Ethical Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar
By Christopher Steck
Herder & Herder. 226 pp. $35 paper.
A revised dissertation that attempts to locate Balthasar’s thought within current academic theories. The author, a Jesuit, makes one passing reference to John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor as a defense of “moral absolutism,” and no reference to the work of the Dominican scholar Servais Pinckaers. Sixty-six pages of notes.
The Faith: A History of Christianity
By Brian Moynahan.
Doubleday. 806 pp. $40.
A once over lightly, but for the most part informed, history of the Christian movement from start to, well, wherever we are now. This is a popular telling by an accomplished British journalist. The tone, and sometimes the bias, is Anglican, and he really does not like John Paul II at all. An engaging read that will carry the general reader along.