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The Promise of Christian Humanism:
Thomas Aquinas on Hope

by Dominic F. Doyle
Crossroad, 248 pages, $34.95

Dominic F. Doyle offers a creative defense of the Christian humanism of Gaudium et Spes , which seeks to blend two ideas that critics such as the liberal theologian Gordon Kaufman have not always found compatible: the transcendence of human nature proposed by the Christian faith and a humanist commitment to human flourishing in the present life. Doyle, associate professor of systematic theology at Boston College, finds the key to affirming both these ideas in Thomas Aquinas’ explication of the theological virtue of hope.

For Aquinas, “grace does not destroy nature, but rather presupposes and perfects it.” For this reason, when Christian hope inclines believers to advance as pilgrims toward the transcendent end proposed by faith, it also orders their ordinary, natural hopes toward their transcendent perfection in God. Far from leading believers to overlook the goods, necessities, and sufferings of the present life, this conception of hope affirms their legitimacy and authenticity.

Doyle’s otherwise careful and creative effort is not without difficulties. He insists, for example, that Benedict XVI’s account of hope in the 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi is incompatible with that of Thomas Aquinas because, he contends, Benedict XVI “trivializes” the hopes of this world in his effort to protect man’s transcendence from the myriad of ends proposed for human nature by secularism. For Doyle, this observation is linked to a much broader critique of those who, with Benedict, would read Gaudium et Spes in continuity with the past.

Doyle suggests that those who follow such a hermeneutic of continuity lack sufficient grounding in the virtue of hope to enable them to embrace the Church’s dramatic, postconciliar change of ethosin its relationship to the modern world; he even goes so far as to contrast a humanist “Christianity of hope,” which advances confidently in a newfound embrace of the world, with a fundamentalist Christianity that seeks security from a “threat” that this change is perceived to pose to religious identity.

Momentary lapses into polemics, however, do not eclipse Doyle’s otherwise helpful contribution to the ongoing reception of the council. He helpfully applies Thomistic theology to understanding and defending the fundamental notion that man’s transcendence is not an obstacle but rather the key to our present flourishing .

” Jacob W. Wood is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology
at the Catholic University of America.

Is God Happy?: Selected Essays?
by Leszek Kolakowski
?translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska
Basic Books, 352 pages, $28.99

The eminent Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski is best known in the English-speaking world for his critique of Marxism. Yet his work is not a museum piece. Is God Happy? ,which compiles half a century of his essays (many published in English for the first time), reveals the continued relevance of his thought.

Communism, for Kolakowski, was just one theater in modernity’s titanic struggle of ideas. Understanding it required a return to the more fundamental questions of faith and reason, natural law, and the desire for transcendence in an immanent political order. Curiously, this secular, anti-communist intellectual took up the question of the legacy of religious faith in a secular age at a time when most philosophers were setting that issue aside.

Kolakowski was convinced that both religious belief and secular ideals are in decline: “The breakdown of the old faith and the collapse of the Enlightenment are taking place simultaneously.” The possibility of constructing a single, comprehensive conceptual framework without the divine has proven illusory, he believed; so too has the possibility of attaining our ultimate fulfillment through the political order.

The notion that the collapse of reason, natural law, and truth entailed a disastrous loss of meaning put him at odds with postmodern thinkers, for whom this revolution was something to be celebrated. But he was also at odds with orthodox theists, who proposed the revival of a Thomistic or similar conceptual framework. The distance between our everyday experiences and traditional theological idioms is too great”“perplexing chaos” is now part of the human condition.

In his earlier work, Kolakowski is as critical of religious dogmatism as of communist ideology, and he displays a familiar leftist anxiety about the centrality of the Catholic Church in Polish society. Yet he returns time and again to man’s inescapable desire for the sacred. He believes that if the desire for the transcendent is not satisfied by religion, it manifests itself in often perverted forms.

He is not just another dour critic lamenting the crises of modernity. In a playful, self-parodying style beloved of Eastern European intellectuals, he writes essays like “In Praise of Unpunctuality” and “In Praise of Snobbery.” The inversions and hyperbole of “My Correct Views on Everything” serve to break down the unwarranted arrogance of Western leftism. Even Kolakowski’s humor and irony, then, perform a serious purpose: They attempt to capture some essential aspect of the truth without emptying it of all sense of mystery.

”Paula Olearnik is a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University
and Ignatianum University in Poland.

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