The October issue of First Things is out, at last. Ive spent the morning browsing in it, and Ive just about decided that my favorite pages are where Richard John Neuhaus takes up, in his monthly column The Public Square , the popes much-discussed motu proprio on the Latin Mass, Summorum Pontificum . One of Benedicts more deft moves, Fr. Neuhaus writes, is in referring to the 1962 form of the Roman Rite as the Missal of Blessed John XXIII. It is not the Tridentine Mass nor the Mass of Pius V but the Mass of John XXIII. It is the form of the Mass that was celebrated daily at the Second Vatican Council¯and with good reason, for Summorum Pontificum is a thoroughly liberal document in substance and spirit, remembering that liberal means, as once was more commonly understood, generosity of spirit.
I suppose I like it because the attempt to take the document as a liberal broadening of the Mass is both clever and convincing. Those of us who write for a living know that the clever often isnt true, and the true is often far too commonplace to be clever. So we celebrate when someone manages both.
But, now, as I keep browsing through the October issue, I think I have to change my mind. My favorite is the overwhelmingly clever, funny, and even wise Reading the Signs by Alan Jacobs. A commentary on two recent book-length collection of photographs¯ Church Signs Across America by Steve and Pam Paulson and Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape by Sam Fentress (many of which appeared in the pages of First Things back in 2001 and 2002)¯the article points out all that is mockable in these signs proclaiming JESUS SAID YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN / AREA SIZE RUG SALE 20% OFF. And yet, Jacobs concludes on a different note:
The people who write apocalyptic or consoling or hortatory messages on their houses and barns, or nail them to their fence posts, might well tell you stories, long stories if they had any opportunity at all to do so. They would weave for you tales of Gods wrath or love, and of how their lives were transformed by the very knowledge that they now are pleased to share with you.
But they never get that chance. So they shout at us and draw large startling figures for us as we speed by. The writers stay put, or at least their signs do, while we zoom through town, nearly unrecognizable blurs who may not have sense enough to ask the only question that really matters: What must I do to be saved?
But maybe my favorite article in the new issue should be the straightforwardly commonsensical God and Evolution by Avery Cardinal Dulles, this months free essay, available also to non-subscribers. With his usual calm, direct style, Cardinal Dulles lays out the possible models of Christian response to what Darwinism, taken as a philosophy, has posed. And then, of course, he sorts through them¯intelligently, clearly, and coolly¯to arrive at the commonsense answer that faith doesnt contradict science. Avery Cardinal Dulles is a national treasure, and his steady flow of contributions helps makes First Things the magazine it is.
Still hungry for major intellectuals doing major intellectual work? How about the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre? The names of Hauerwas and MacIntyre are often linked, as the instigators of the new birth of virtue ethics since the 1970s¯and they have been friends for many years. And now, in The Virtues of Alasdair MacIntyre , Hauerwas sets out for the first time to consider systematically the long career of his friend. Few dispute that Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most important philosophers of our time, Hauerwas begins.
That reputation, however, does him little good. It is as though, quite apart from the man, there exists a figure called Alasdair MacIntyre whose position you know whether or not you have read him¯and whose name has become a specter that haunts all attempts to provide constructive moral and political responses to the challenge of modernity.
Ive gradually been deciding, however, that my favorites in the issue are the poems. Gail Whites A Complaint of the Times , for instance, a updated take off on John Skelton. Or Timothy Murphys response to his conversion, No Turning Back . Or David Masons comic introspection in After the Dinner :
The friend who tells me Im a selfish ass
is drunk, so maybe I should let it pass
before his acid eats out my insides,
the torture chamber where my self abides.
It is a clean and comfortable room
with open windows that dispel the gloom,
but there on my imaginary rack
I am my own tormenter, wearing black.
But maybe I should prefer Philip Jenkins Economics as Eugenics . Thats the widely published Jenkins’ strong review of Gregory Clarks A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World , the most talked-about book of economics in recent months¯a book, Jenkins concludes, that is both interesting and nutty: At every stage, the changes offered by Clark lend themselves to startlingly obvious alternative explanations.
Or maybe my favorite should be Christian, Muslim, Jew , a study of the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig and the Abrahamic religions from the completely unexpected Spengler, a pseudonymous essayist for the Asia Times Online . As Spengler notes,
Franz Rosenzweig is widely regarded as one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the past century. Best known for The Star of Redemption , published eight years before his death in 1929 at the age of forty-three, he began a new kind of dialogue between Judaism and Christianity when he argued that the two faiths complement each other: Christianity to propagate revelation to the world, and Judaism to convert the inner pagan inside each Christian.
Less often mentioned, however, is Rosenzweigs analysis of Islam, a religion he regarded as a throwback to paganism. Indeed, Rosenzweig predicted a prolonged conflict of civilizations between Islam and the West. The coming millennium will go down in world history as a struggle between Orient and Occident, between the church and Islam, between the Germanic peoples and the Arabs, he forecast in 1920¯in part because Islam is a parody of revealed religion, while Allah is an apotheosized despot, the colorfully contending gods of the pagan pantheon rolled up into one.
Rather than three Abrahamic religions, Rosenzweig saw only two religions arising from the self-revelation of divine love, with Islam as a crypto-pagan pretender. He was no Islamophobe, observing that Islam during certain eras evinced greater tolerance and humaneness than Christian Europe. But he was emphatic that truly foundational differences distinguish Judeo-Christian religion from Islam.
But I dont know. As I look through the issue, I think I might choose Gary Andersons praising review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham. Or George McKennas less-than-praising review of new books on church-state relations from Daryl Hart and Brendan Sweetman . Or maybe even Evangelical Amnesia ,” Dean Currys demand that his evangelical students remember and understand Harry Emerson Fosdick and John Gresham Machen, the dominant figures of previous ages.
And yet now that I look again, my favorite is probably God & the Second Sex by the EWTN host Colleen Carroll Campbell¯a walk through modern feminist theology that concludes: The solution to the problem posed by feminist seekers from Betty Friedan to Sue Monk Kidd is not to ignore their questions but to search for more-complete answers. The tremendous popularity of womens spiritual memoirs and religious self-help books suggests that, while todays women may be dissatisfied with their lives, they recognize that they cannot cure their discontent by denying their sexual difference or their spiritual longings. St. Augustine said, Our hearts were made for you, O Lord, and they are restless until they find their rest in you. If recognizing that restlessness is the first step to intimacy with God, many American women are well on their way.
But, no. In the end, I think my favorite piece in the October issue of First Things is Gilbert Meilaenders entirely serious Looking for Personality , a review of the recent philosophy book Persons by Robert Spaemann. I am not sure, however, nor do I read Spaemann as sure, that any entirely compelling reason can be given us to explain why we should recognize others¯such as that little child¯as persons, Meilaender writes. This brings us up against the boundary of an essentially religious question. For we have to do here with the fundamental direction of ones will, opening us to others, and this can only be experienced as a gift¯which, like all gifts, can be refused.
Yes, thats my favorite. Except for The Public Square , of course. And Reading the Signs . And God and Evolution . And The Virtues of Alasdair MacIntyre . And . . . oh, just go read the whole issue.