First Things - Religion and Public Life First Things on your tablet & mobile
Login forgot password? | register Close

Julian of Norwich, Theologian
by Denys Turner
Yale, 262 pages, $40

The fourteenth-century anchorite Julian of Norwich has attracted scholarly interest as one of only a few medieval female authors, while her texts born of sixteen visions from God make her work attractive to those interested in medieval mysticism and spirituality. But, argues Denys Turner, professor of theology at Yale University and Divinity School, we should not remember Julian as simply a mystic or a spiritual writer, but as a medieval systematic theologian, whose soteriology is inextricably linked to her doctrines of sin, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and most of all, the Cross.

Turner’s discussion of the tension between Julian’s personal revelation and the divinely revealed teaching of the Church will be of interest to students of theology who aspire to do theology within and for the Church. As Turner explains, Julian did not believe that her visions gave her license to disregard the teachings of the Church; rather, they encouraged her to plumb uncharted theological territory, and she was willing to leave her work “incomplete” if necessary. An example of this willingness to have hope in the Cross in the face of incomplete revelation is Julian’s oft-quoted expression “All will be well.” Although it is often cited to show that she believed in universal salvation, Turner shows that this interpretation is not consistent with her text as a whole.

As a theologian, Turner argues, Julian is worthy of comparison with Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Dante, Duns Scotus, Herbert, and Eliot. She conceived of God as universal cause of all things in a way similar to St. Thomas, while agreeing with Dante that hell is a place of false humanistic narrative concerning sin.

What distinguishes her from many Scholastic theologians is the way that she constructs her theological text: Rather than moving in a methodical, linear fashion from one question to the next, Julian’s theology is like a spiral. She begins by contemplating her visions, but through her exegesis of them engages the same sorts of questions that motivate other Scholastic theologians: Why did God become man? What is the nature of sin and hell? What is the relationship between prayer and Providence?

Turner’s interdisciplinary, anachronistic approach has its drawbacks. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish where Dante’s thoughts end and Julian’s begin, but his willingness to compare major theological and philosophical texts throughout time buttresses his primary thesis: Julian of Norwich deserves to be treated as an outstanding theologian in her own right, and her ideas are worthy of contemplation.

”Lesley-Anne Dyer is a Ph.D.
candidate in the Medieval Institute
at the University of Notre Dame.

Behaving in Public:
How to Do Christian Ethics
by Nigel Biggar
Eerdmans, 142 pages, $16

This commendably clear book examines fundamental questions concerning how Christian ethics functions in various public venues. Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, sets forth a careful argument that demonstrates his respect for his reader”a respect that he says Christians should always show for those they would engage.

Biggar addresses five questions. First, how can Christian ethics be Christian? By being faithful to Christian theology, and thus maintaining its integrity. It need not, however, strive to be distinctively Christian, for non-Christian moral views might in some cases be quite similar to Christian ones.

Second, can there be a real consensus of Christian and non-Christian ethics? Christians have theological reasons to expect to find consensus on occasion, yet there will always, be tensions.

Third, must Christian ethics present itself in public shorn of explicit theological claims? No, says Biggar, who provides a nuanced critique of the secularization thesis. Contra Habermas and Rawls, Biggar says “public space” should be “plural” with “polyglot negotiation and compromise over temporal, public goods” that are constrained “by a certain consensus about the ethics of communication.”

Fourth, if we allow theological arguments in public space, what will keep them from degenerating into coercion or violence? While Biggar rules out “sheer appeals” to authority, by which he means the sort of appeal that forecloses argument, he argues that the use of religious authority within an attempt to persuade is quite appropriate. Christian public discourse should be marked by “docility, tolerance-as-care, charity-as-respect, and charity-as-optimal-construal, critical candor (even in the ultimate form of denunciation), impatience with grave and shameless vice, patience with anything less, charity in granting forgiveness, and repentance in asking for it.”

Finally, in his last chapter he asks, what, then, is the church for? Here Biggar makes explicit the “Barthian Thomism” that informs his thinking. The church is not simply to be set over against the world. (Biggar repeatedly charges those who would make such stark dichotomies with a failure to pay attention to what’s really there.) Christians have reasons to expect that God can speak to them and to others from outside the actual, historical church. Yet the church remains important for its confession of truths in word and action, for its resources of wisdom, and for its witness that “what is implicit and individual must become explicit and ecclesial.”

Christian ethicists will appreciate Biggar’s engagement with such figures as Hauerwas, Løgstrup, Milbank, Grisez, and Rahner. His judgments strike this reviewer as unfailingly fair, and if we wish to disagree with him on this or that point, what is at stake is nonetheless nicely illuminated. Yet Biggar wears his erudition lightly. Any thoughtful Christian could profit from reading this book, and one hopes many will.

”Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence
at Saint Thomas Church in New York City

Bioethics with Liberty and Justice:
Themes in the Work of
Joseph M. Boyle

edited by Christopher Tollefsen
Springer, 190 pages, $139

For forty years, Joseph Boyle has played a central role in the revival of Catholic moral theology and natural law philosophy. As one of Germain Grisez and John Finnis’ key collaborators, he has developed the “new natural law” theory in important ways, working most on the logic of self-referential arguments, free choice, intention and action theory, and incommensurability and proportionality. His fundamental theoretical work has direct implications for much current debate in applied bioethics.

This Festschrift brings together a dozen essays by leading scholars exploring some of these themes. Robert George, for example, contributes an essay exploring justice for nascent human life. Don Marquis, author of the most frequently reproduced article on the wrong of abortion, challenges the pro-life argument advanced by Boyle and colleagues in favor of his own “future of value” account. Against Marquis, Patrick Lee defends the “substantial identity thesis” that we are valuable in virtue of what we are: rational animals. The exchange between Marquis and Lee is at the cutting edge of pro-life argumentation, refining the philosophical points about human value.

E. Christian Brugger and Timothy Chappell contribute important pieces on intention and double-effect reasoning. Brugger defends Boyle’s Thomistic account of intention against alternative interpretations of Thomas, while Chappell presents an alternative (but arguably complementary) account focused on the act-omission distinction and degrees of actionhood. For answering difficult moral questions, especially where different goods and lives compete, it is essential to achieve clarity about intention, and these two essays are invaluable contributions.

While the ethics of killing and the nature of intention are common topics in Catholic moral circles, natural law analyses of welfare rights are less common, especially in conservative circles. Mark Cherry challenges Boyle’s arguments that the natural law does support welfare rights by developing a libertarian understanding of the state, while Andrew Lustig defends Boyle by showing that Thomas’ basis for property rights requires owners to tend to the needs of the community, especially those worst off. Germain Grisez closes out this section of the book with an argument that justice may require government provision of health care.

The volume also includes engaging essays on bioethics and personalism, end-of-life decisions, global diversity as a challenge to natural law, and patient autonomy and physician guidance by, respectively, R. Mary Hayden Lemmons; Peter Ryan, S.J.; Ana Iltis; and Janet Smith. Boyle ends the volume with an appreciative conclusion. Anyone interested in Catholic moral theology, natural law philosophy, or bioethics more broadly will savor these essays.

”Ryan T. Anderson, a member of the First Things advisory council,
is editor of
Public Discourse , the online journal of the
Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey.

Psalter: A Sequence of Catholic Sonnets

by William Baer
Truman State University Press, 88 pages, $15.95

Few have done more than William Baer to advance the renaissance of rhymed and metrical poetry in America over the last generation. A poet who has won many awards, he is also a highly regarded teacher and an editor who has founded several influential journals, including The Formalist.

Baer’s best poems, in books such as The Unfortunates , “Bocage” and Other Sonnets , and “Borges” and Other Sonnets , impress with their measured and clear-eyed insight. He has written engagingly of everything from the pathology of con artists and pyromaniacs to the tenderness of a kiss between skaters on a frozen pond. Baer’s latest book, however, turns away from humanity observed to embrace orthodoxy with at best mixed literary results.

As the title Psalter implies, Baer’s project is to set biblical texts to standard English meters, creating “A Sequence of Catholic Sonnets,” as his own subtitle puts it. Baer goes well beyond the Psalms, however, glossing a wide range of passages from both the Old and New Testaments, each one identified by chapter and verse.

In paraphrasing the Old Testament to conform with English metrics, it sometimes appears that Baer is paying homage to a long tradition of poets and critics who once erroneously believed that Hebrew poetry was metrical in the same way that Latin and Greek poetry are, and therefore should be translated into English as such. This notion was not definitively put to rest until Lowth’s De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum appeared in 1753, with its identification of the parallelismus membrorum as the governing principle of Hebrew verse.

I am not suggesting that Baer believes the Bible is metrical. But one problem in Psalter is that, given how closely he hews to Scripture, his poetics conflict with the versecraft of his sources (all of them), sometimes giving the sense that he wishes the Bible would just behave, metrically speaking. As a result, his accentual-syllabic bed feels Procrustean from the start. Here is the opening quatrain of the first poem, “Genesis”:

Before the beginning, in the nothing of space,
In spaceless space, in
timelessness devoid
Of time, there was, in some unfathomed place,
The mind of God within
that endless void.

One can understand setting the Psalms metrically for music, but using tight, small forms such as the sonnet requires something more than restatement if it is to reflect light back on the original. Dante did not paraphrase; he replied.

The challenges Baer faces with his tight metrics reflect only larger problems when we consider the poems’ rhetoric. Baer’s poems present a very strict catechism. “Hoc Est Corpus Meum,” a gloss of Matthew 26:26, opens:

Hoc est . This is . Not “like,” or “as,” or “for,”
And not a symbol or similitude,
And not a figure or a metaphor,
Not “near,” or “close,” or some incertitude.

If poetry is an argument with oneself, Baer’s poetic conversation on these matters ended long ago. This question of how to attest to faith in a published (and thereby public) poem is a complex matter. Baer no doubt wrote Psalter out of deep conviction. It is a difficult truth, however, that most strong poetry, especially though not exclusively in our own time, wrestles with angels rather than simply adoring them.

”David J. Rothman directs the poetry concentration
in the MFA program at Western State College of Colorado.

A Sunlit Absence
by Martin Laird, O.S.A.
Oxford, 208 pages, $18.95

In Into the Silent Land , Martin Laird offered an introductory guide to the theology and practice of Christian contemplation. He returns to many of the same themes in A Sunlit Absence but focuses in particular on silence and awareness. He defines the latter as follows: “Awareness, consciousness, watchfulness is this vast inner space, radiating everywhere. It is not an object; rather, all objects . . . appear and disappear in this awareness, a ‘sunlit absence,’ to adapt Seamus Heaney.” Or, to put it more succinctly, “Awareness is another name for Silence itself.”

That capital letter is one of the curious aspects of Laird’s writing. By Silence, Awareness, or the Center, he uses a standard marker for the divine”capitalization”to indicate something that is not precisely God himself. Perhaps this is imprecision, but it also reminds us of how difficult it is to describe the realm where we meet the God whose Being sustains our being.

Although his vocabulary may sometimes sound borrowed from pop spirituality (which he calls “champagne for the ego”), Laird remains thoroughly grounded in Scripture and tradition, drawing on the works of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and the Desert Fathers. Indeed, Laird’s great skill lies in his ability to translate their wisdom into language more accessible to modern ears.

He notes that the great teachers of prayer rooted contemplation not in the Transfiguration or Resurrection, but in Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. He shows how they answered the cacophony of thoughts and feelings in their mind by meeting them with stillness, then looking beyond them into the silence where God resides. Contemplation happens not by a series of actions, but “by way of the engaged receptivity of release.” It is a matter of moving beyond oneself into the one in whom “we live, and move, and have our being.”

”Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral student
in theology at Boston College.

Love Poems, Letters and Remedies of Ovid

translated by David Slavitt
Harvard, 384 pages, $26.95

David Slavitt is a prolific writer of poetry, translations, fiction, and criticism, though he is controversial as a translator. His 2009 version of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso , which riffed wildly off the text, omitted and summarized an increasing number of stanzas as it progressed, as if he wearied of translating.

Slavitt’s prefatory note for Love Poems , Letters and Remedies of Ovid suggests that Ovid may expect similar treatment. He avers that Ovid and Propertius “invented” love, a claim that frivolously dismisses Greek love poetry from Callimachus to Sappho that inspired Ovid and other Roman elegists. Indeed, Slavitt seemingly forgets his text:

And Callimachus, too, even if not by genius,

shall persist by the art and
excellence of his song.

( Amores 1.15.13“14)

Slavitt claims that Ovid has been “shortchanged” by academia, then concludes with a snobby shot at the South and rapid-fire pronouncements on feminism, “enlightenment values,” social justice, gender equality, love, reason, and social order.

Michael Dirda’s introduction, which provides a thoughtful overview of Ovid’s Amores , Heroides, and Remedia Amoris , is a welcome change. Although he overstates Ovid’s “posthumous eclipse” during late antiquity and the early medieval periods, that small blemish barely mars an essay that does precisely what it should: make a reader eager to read Ovid.

Slavitt’s translation starts well with a clever, fair version of the opening epigram. While these lines show us what Slavitt is capable of doing, nothing comparable follows. The tension between the hexameter and pentameter lines of the elegiac couplets, which is so much a part of Ovid’s music, disappears in slack lines of unpredictable length. Many lines do not fit on the page:

To make away with Helen and he and his crew had
gone down
in the raging water. Then I would not have lain

( Heroides 1.9“10)

Stray enjambed words regularly run into the next couplet in a way that does violence to Ovid’s formal precision:

Every lover is a soldier. Cupid has his own
bivouac. It’s true, Atticus. Every
lover’s a soldier. Men of the right age fight in wars
as well as in the campaigns of Venus. Old
men are out of place in either kind of engagement.

( Amores 1.9.1“5)

Slavitt often disregards Ovid’s words, as in Amores 1.8.90 (1.8.74 in the original), where Slavitt inserts jokes about menstruation.

This translation takes fewer extreme liberties than Slavitt’s Orlando Furioso and does not bypass sections of the poems he finds dull. Nonetheless, Ovid’s gorgeous poetry gets swamped in a sea of sloppy free verse that some critics find “spritely,” presumably because Slavitt uses unexpected language such as ritardando , rowel, maquillage, and outré getup. To be fair, he curbs this excess for Heroides and Remedia Amoris.

Harvard University Press is thoughtfully renovating and expanding its venerable franchise in the classics. In the long-languishing Loeb series, Susanna Braund has written a superb new prose version of Juvenal’s Satires and Robert Kaster has done the same for Macrobius’ Saturnalia . Harvard’s new imprints for medieval and Renaissance literature are already spurring important scholarship. It is puzzling, then, to see this press lower its standards for the general reader. It would do better to publish classical translators such as Charles Martin, Alicia Stallings, and Aaron Poochigian, who bring passion, patience, and respect to the texts they translate.

”A. M. Juster’s translation of Tibullus’ elegies is
forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Socrates: A Man for Our Times

by Paul Johnson
Viking, 224 pages, $25.95

About halfway through the book”once he hits all the expected sights on the tour of pre-Socratic thought, Greek government, and Athenian social life”Paul Johnson suddenly opens fire in spectacular fashion on commonplace progressive assumptions about the philosopher. He dismantles the idea that Socrates was a pre-modern Richard Dawkins, seeking to overturn the pantheon with rationalistic atheism. He calls Socrates “a monotheist” who, while clearly ahead of his time, tolerated Athenian popular religion with a degree of joviality and ultimately sought to defend belief in God against cynics and epicureans who believed they knew better. Johnson also blasts the notion that Socrates was gay, or even that he thought homosexuality was beneficial, by referencing both Greek cultural trends (which by the fifth century had become derisive of male sodomy) and the philosopher’s own life, in which he repeatedly rejected advances from the flamboyant Alcibiades.

Perhaps most controversially, Johnson seeks to rescue Socrates from Plato, whom he openly disdains as an ideologue. He goes to great pains to distinguish the authentic Socrates, whose only agenda was teaching people “how to think,” from the theory-spouting “Platsoc” hybrid character of later dialogues, who is really a “marionette” suffering post-mortem “abuse” by Plato.

Calling concepts like the theory of the forms and the tripartite soul “absurd,” he endorses Karl Popper’s thesis that the Republic is the ultimate genesis of twentieth century totalitarianism. The authentic Socrates, Johnson asserts, was a sort of right-wing populist (a “radical conservative”) who never would have tolerated Plato’s elitism and authoritarianism.

Emphasizing Socrates’ humility in the face of statements that he “was the wisest man in Greece,” Johnson asserts that Socrates “never sinned” and so became a singular figure in his civilization, transcending its shortcomings while still feeling a deep affection for his fellows. Even if some of Johnson’s more speculative claims are difficult to take seriously, the British historian remains, just as he terms his subject, a “radical conservative” whose genuine love of the demos makes him an all-too-rare figure in today’s chattering classes.

”Matthew T. Cantirino is a
junior fellow at
First Things .