by Richard Morris
Prentice Hall, 244 pages, $18.95
What was happening, if anything, before there was time? And what does “before” mean in that sentence? Are physicists and cosmologists on the edge of producing a “theory of everything”? Richard Morris is a science writer with a rare gift for making the arcane accessible to the nonspecialist. He is by no means inclined to sensation, as he constantly brings to the reader’s attention the cautions of scientists who are far from happy with the tendency of contemporary physics to cross the line into metaphysics. But such crossings are being forced by the very advances of science that require new theories that go beyond what can be tested in laboratories. The result is that physics today is taking up questions previously addressed by philosophy, in a century when philosophy has, in many cases, radically pared down its ambitions, contenting itself with doing linguistic laundry. More comprehensive and less tendentious than Stephen Hawking’s best-selling A Brief History of Time, the present book can be warmly recommended to non-scientists who want an update on what is happening on the other side of the boundary between the “two cultures” of contemporary intellectual life.
Bonhoeffer’s Legacy: The Christian Way in a World Without Religion
by Edwin Robertson
Macmillan, 232 pages, $8.95 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis in the last weeks of the war, surely has a lasting place as one of the great theological and spiritual figures of this century. His mature work represented in, for instance, his Ethics will, we expect, be read with appreciation by generations to come. For a time, especially in the 1960s, Bonhoeffer’s legacy was almost torpedoed by a fashionable focus on his written fragments about the possibility of “religionless Christianity.” That, some readers will recall, was the period of highly publicized discussions about “the death of God,” or at least the death of what Christianity has usually meant by “God.” Bonhoeffer’s Legacy is very much a book of the 1960s, and it is somewhat surprising to see it show up three decades late for a discussion that is, deservedly, almost forgotten. Anyone who thinks, as Edwin Robertson does, that the century ahead poses the prospect of “a world without religion” either has an utterly singular insight into the nature of our times or is wonderfully indifferent to the massive evidence to the contrary. The present book provides slight support for the former possibility. The Tyrannies of Virtue: The Cultural Criticism of John P. Sisk
edited by Chris Anderson
University of Oklahoma Press, 264 pages, $24.95
Sisk, a frequent contributor to this journal, is surely one of the most gifted essayists writing today. Indeed, precisely as an essayist (and the term has most particular and rich significance for Sisk), there are not many who come to mind who are even in his league. His genius is to take an idea, an observation, an argument and turn it around and around, looking at it whole, while at the same time making the most unexpected connections that, once read and comprehended, were obviously crying out for notice. The present volume includes fifteen of Sisk’s best, divided into the clusters of “Culture and Counterculture: Fanaticism in the Sixties and Seventies,” “Deconstruction and Reconstruction: Fanaticism in the Eighties,” and “Chaos and Character: The Ironies of Belief.” The result is a feast of clear thinking in high style. The book is further enhanced by the admirable introduction by Chris Anderson, a former student of Sisk’s who now teaches English at Oregon State University. The warmth of our recommendation of The Tyrannies of Virtue is tempered only by the fear that we may be suspected of getting a cut of the royalties.
The Lutheran Conflict and the East German State: Political Change and Conflict Under Ulbricht and Honecker
by Robert F. Goeckel
Cornell, 326 pages, $39.95
History being no respecter of publication schedules, it may seem that Mr. Goeckel’s study has been overtaken by the Revolution of 1989. The author did manage to slip in a reference to the beginnings of that change at the end, but the gravamen of the book assumes a long and relatively stable future for the GDR. Nonetheless, the book will be valuable to both historians and students of church-state relations as an important case study in one effort to preserve some space for conscience against the voracious appetites of a totalitarian Caesar.
Modernity on Endless Trial
by Leszek Kolakowski
Chicago, 261 pages, $24.95
This Polish philosopher, perhaps most noted for his thorough critique of Marxist theory, is one of the finer minds of our time. In these essays written over the last fifteen years, Kolakowski addresses with great erudition and wit questions as various as the idolatry of politics, the relation between faith and reason, and the roots of revolutionary Utopias. Throughout, he is concerned about the fate of religion, and especially of Christianity, in this “postmodern” world. Were we in the business of rating by stars, Modernity on Endless Trial would get four.
The Confessional Mosaic: Presbyterians and Twentieth-Century Theology
edited by Milton J. Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks
Westminster/John Knox Press, 333 pages, $14.95
Very much conscious of the malaise of the mainline/oldline churches, the nine essays here explore whether the Presbyterian Church (USA) can be an active “presence,” as distinct from merely “existing,” in American life. Part of a major project funded by the Lilly Endowment, the book is a mix of sharp self-criticism and touching defensiveness. It should not be overlooked, however, by students of oldline Protestantism and its possible futures.
The Divine Good: Moral Theory and the Necessity of God
by Franklin I. Gamwell
Harper Collins, 223 pages, $30
In every sense of the term, a thoroughly academic work that doggedly sets out the argument of the subtitle. Gamwell, who teaches religious ethics at the University of Chicago, focuses on Kant, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Karl-Otto Apel. Somewhat surprisingly, MacIntyre is seen as being engaged in an “empirical teleology” that is indifferent to the reality of God. The Divine Good will undoubtedly spark an argument or two among moral theorists.
Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family
edited by David Blankenhorn, Steven Bayme, and Jean Bethke Elshtain
Family Service America, 261 pages, $16.95
Fifteen essays on the state of the American family and what might be done about it. While the writers are diverse in viewpoint, all share a strong appreciation of the importance of family and most are unafraid of being depicted as champions of “the traditional family.” In addition to the editors, contributors include Urie Bronfenbrenner, Victor Fuchs, Gilbert Meilaender, and Robert Bellah.
Walking Together: Roman Catholics and Ecumenism 25 Years After Vatican II
edited by Thaddeus Horgan
Eerdmans, 148 pages, $12.95
The questions of Christian unity and the public face of religion are necessarily entangled. The essays in this little book offer a reliable overview of the impact of the Catholic Church’s entry into the ecumenical project since the Council. Especially noteworthy are contributions by Avery Dulles, William Lazareth, and George Tavard.
Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings of the Holocaust
edited by Roger S. Gottlieb
Paulist Press, 446 pages, $14.95
The editor brings together some of the better-known reflections on the Holocaust. Among the reprinted are Robert J. Lifton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Abraham Heschel, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, and the now very controversial Bruno Bettelheim. What the editor makes of it all in his concluding essay, “Remembrance and Resistance,” is that we should be “searching our hearts and our world for the Holocausts and illnesses in our own lives.” And so forth.
Catholic Higher Education, Theology, and Academic Freedom
by Charles E. Curran
Notre Dame, 257 pages, $27.95
The celebrated “Curran case” at Catholic University kept Catholic academic guilds and journalists in an uproar for years. Curran, who has now found a resting place at Southern Methodist University, here tries to make retrospective sense of it all. His complaints about Vatican secrecy and frequent ineptitude are no doubt warranted in part. And nobody should doubt the sincerity of his intention to be a faithful Catholic theologian. At the same time, the present work ignores the ways in which Curran seemed to be deliberately provoking a confrontation with Catholic teaching authority. It also betrays a touchingly naive notion of “academic freedom” that, if it carried the day, would put higher education that is distinctively Catholic, or even distinctively Christian, out of business. That Curran’s book is self-serving is perhaps excusable. That he seems to have learned so little from his ordeal”and the church’s”is deeply disappointing.
by Garrett Barden
Notre Dame, 160 pages, $19.95
“Modern ethical rhetoric is a rhetoric of reasons,” writes the dean of University College, Cork, Ireland. It is a matter of giving reasons, and Barden contends that reasons can be elicited between people situated in quite different, and perhaps incommensurate, traditions. We are each in a tradition, but we are not exhausted by the traditions of which we are part. In this construal, moral reasoning is open-ended in a manner that might be described as eschatological. The essay is stylishly written and, except for a few sections that are unnecessarily technical, accessible to a general readership. The title obviously has Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in mind, and Barden is indebted to what might be described as the MacIntyre tradition, although a good deal more hopeful than MacIntyre about the possibility of communicating between different traditions of moral reasoning.
Religion in Public and Private Life
by Clarke E. Cochran
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 226 pages, $49.50
The author, professor of political science at Texas Tech University, offers a broad overview of arguments about the place of religion in American public life. He very much shares the view of Stanley Hauerwas that religion must make its interventions, when it does intervene, from the borders of public life. He is therefore sympathetically critical (with the emphasis on critical) of what he takes to be the view of the Editor-in-Chief of this journal. Unfortunately, he mistakes that view to be one of advocating “civil religion,” which places the emphasis upon the social utility rather than theological truth of belief. He notes that Neuhaus “avoids” the term civil religion, but Cochran appears to be unfamiliar with Neuhaus’ extensive writings against precisely the position that is attributed to him here. It is very odd. Nonetheless, this is a generally sober and thoughtful essay that warrants the attention of those who have a more specialized interest in current discussions about religion in American life.
For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future
by Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr.
Beacon Press, 482 pages, $12.95
The argument is as cumbersome as the subtitle. Daly, an economist in the environmental department of the World Bank, joins a leading proponent of “process theology” who would persuade us that sundry environmental crises imperil not only the future of man but also the future of “God.” The contention that we should assert greater political control over economic behavior does not seem to have come to terms with the collapse of socialist schemes in recent years. In addition, the poor of the world who yearn to be incorporated into the circle of economic productivity will likely view with suspicion the notion that the world cannot sustain many more rich people.