by robert zaretsky
harvard, 288 pages, $26.95
When James Boswell met Voltaire, he was not content to pass on after a few pleasantries. Sitting in the French philosophe’s chaletin Ferney, Boswell pressed him to declare whether he believed in immortality and eternal life. Bantering and batting away questions as long as possible, Voltaire finally conceded, “I suffer much, but I suffer with Patience & Resignation: not as a Christian—But as a man.”
Boswell himself suffered as a man, especially from the gonorrhea he contracted in the course of a too-active social life. But unlike Voltaire, he also suffered as a Christian. Boswell was riven with contradictions: delighting in lust and analyzing his sexual performances with a variety of women, yet speaking often of virtue; self-analytical to a fault and anxious, yet socially capable and successful; religious from birth, yet attracted to the atheist and deist thinkers of the day.
During his life, Boswell was known more for his associations than for his accomplishments, but it’s time, historian Robert Zaretsky thinks, to give him his moment in the spotlight. The setting is continental Europe—a playground for young English and Scottish gentlemen on their Grand Tours. Boswell set out on his travels at the age of twenty-two, and from 1763 to 1765 he traipsed from England to Utrecht to Corsica by way of Môtiers and Ferney, the homes of Rousseau and Voltaire. Zaretsky’s telling is as much an intellectual history as it is a coming-of-age tale, though one gets the sense that Boswell never quite came of age.
Zaretsky decides to make one of the major conflicts of the book the debate between religion and reason. The first chapter, “In the Kirk’s Shadow,” examines Boswell’s childhood and how a strict Scottish Calvinism imprinted on him a lifelong fear of damnation. Death and judgment hung over Boswell’s mind, Zaretsky suggests, like an inescapable shadow.
Boswell was disturbed by the complacency with which the non-Christian philosophers Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hume confronted the certainty of death: He could not make peace with mortality without thinking about the afterlife. Out of this fear of death and judgment, and perhaps out of some sort of intellectual conviction, he would not let his religion go; as Zaretsky puts it, “for Boswell, reason was not equal to the task of absorbing the reality of our end.” Boswell himself wrote: “Religious Exercise of all the Faculties and Affections is the only way which a wise man would wish to follow.”
But Boswell did not heed his own advice. During his travel years, his exercises were not often religious in nature. As he meandered, he journaled, and as the journals accumulated, he shared them with friends, revealing to them the full range of his own vices. In a letter to Rousseau he put his ambitions this way: “I shall not conceal my weaknesses and follies. I shall not even conceal my crimes.”
Crimes and seductions are not unique to Boswell. More notable are his attempts at self-description. He calls himself “a man of no uncommon clay.” He asserts: “I am in reality an original character.” Perhaps most revealing of all, he writes that “it is certain that I am not a great man, but I have an enthusiastic love of great men, and I derive a kind of glory from it.”
Zaretsky’s account of this conflicted man is a sympathetic, fluid, and very enjoyable read. We see a man in search not so much of wisdom as of seekers of wisdom. As much as he tried, Boswell never became an intellectual equal with the great thinkers of his day, but as an observer of them (and of himself) he had no peer.
—David Nolan is assistant editor at First Things.
Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters
by patrick lee and robert p. george
cambridge, 152 pages, $22.99
In 2012, Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George authored What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (reviewed by Hans Boersma in the March 2013 issue of First Things). Now, two years later, George has published Conjugal Union with Patrick Lee, and many will want to know how the two books differ. While What Is Marriage? reads more like a public lecture and Conjugal Union like an academic article, the core argument remains the same. As George and his coauthors put it in What Is Marriage?, marriage is “a distinct form of personal union and corresponding way of life . . . whose basic features do not depend on the preferences of individuals or cultures. Marriage is, of its essence, a comprehensive union: a union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preference.” Because marriages have always been the main and most effective means of rearing healthy and happy children, and because society depends on this, the law should recognize and support marriage rightly understood. To the extent that it fails to do so, social harms result.
Conjugal Union begins by grounding this argument in the New Natural Law understanding of basic human goods. However, one need not accept the theory’s anthropology and implied metaphysics in toto to affirm Lee and George’s argument about the nature of marriage. Because marriage is a union of all levels of being—body, mind, and spirit—that finds its fruition in bearing and rearing children, but not simply as a means to the end of procreation, Lee and George argue that it must be permanent, exclusive, and not only on the level of emotions. If human sexuality is meant to be expressed in such a comprehensive union, then nonmarital sexual acts violate the bodily and sexual integrity of their actors. Also, same-sex partners are unable to form the kind of comprehensive union that marriage is. No-fault divorce laws and redefining marriage to include same-sex unions both reinforce a false understanding of marriage and will continue to make it more difficult to live out marriage rightly understood.
Lee and George note that the campaign for same-sex marriage is the most recent step in a change in our understanding of marriage from a conjugal to an emotional union. Their discussion of the harm of divorce—they compare it to amputation—and the need for better divorce laws is welcome. But they never treat the first cause of this shift: contraception. According to the conjugal view, contraceptive sex—even within marriage—would thwart the essential procreative purpose of sex and therefore be just as immoral, nonmarital, and reductive of the human person as would extramarital sex.
Most Americans hold a confused amalgam of views on marriage, affirming aspects of both the emotional and the conjugal views. Lee and George have done a service for all sides of the marriage debate in making a clear and generous argument for the latter, which should help us clarify what marriage is and how the law should recognize and support it.
—Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.
Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion
by andrew steane
oxford, 272 pages, $34.95
Oxford physicist Andrew Steane sets out to debunk the bizarre conflation of science and atheism in his newest book, Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion.
The subtitle is telling. For in reality, the work of scientists takes place within the much larger metaphysical frameworks of personal and communal commitments, and these are, more often than not, far from antagonistic to one another. The real work of science, like the work of a car mechanic or a cabinet-maker, is generally more neutral than the current culture wars suggest. An atheist mechanic may be a good or bad mechanic; the same goes for a Christian one. What matters in such a situation is the quality of the work at hand.
This does not mean forswearing the influence of metaphysics upon science or claiming that scientific discoveries are irrelevant to the metaphysical views of, say, an atheist or a Christian. There is a perennial porosity between metaphysics and science; it’s just that the influence works in more subtle and labyrinthine ways than we often expect.
Science, as Steane puts it, is not an alternative to metaphysics or faith, “and the idea that the whole thing [science] is some sort of alternative to God is mere ignorance about what the word ‘God’ means.” And “to those who might be called (or be willing to be called) ‘religious’, and who have, by God’s grace, reasonably well-integrated intellects, there is not a ‘dialogue’ with science, because science is not an alien creature with whom they try to speak. Rather it is in their spinal cord and in their bloodstream; it is a considerable part of the way they already think.”
It is, then, completely arbitrary, Steane writes, that “the atheist interpretation is often presented not as an interpretation but as an ‘explanation’.” According to him, such antics have actually caused damage to the scientific endeavor, turning the real, hands-on nature of science into a pseudo-scientific ideology. Faithful to Science is a welcome addition to the growing body of works by scientists dissatisfied with the illusory wars between science and religion.
—Trevor Logan is the author of the forthcoming Sibylline Leaves:
Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia
by david greene
norton, 336 pages, $26.95
With the publication of Midnight in Siberia, David Greene joins the ranks of great travelogue-writers. This should not surprise us: The rugged landscapes of inner Asia have provided inspiration to everyone from Anton Chekhov to Marco Polo.
Equal parts sociological study and nostalgic tour of old acquaintances’ homes, Greene’s book is a mesmerizing account of his 2013 journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway—rivaled only by the Orient Express as the most famous railroad on earth.
The author’s experience with Russia began in 2009, when he became the Moscow bureau chief for NPR. He did not speak Russian—there had been no time for lessons before he left New York—and he had no prior familiarity with the place he would now call home. For the next three years, he crisscrossed Russia covering whatever was newsworthy before embarking on his rail voyage.
Greene is an excellent writer. Candid, empathetic, insightful, and clever, he knows when less is more—and also when more is more.
His description of the ritual of the Russian bath comes to mind as an example of the latter case. This, for the uninitiated reader, involves grown men whacking each other with birch switches, in a steam room, in their underwear, before dousing themselves with ice-cold water. Greene, having undertaken this rite with a near-perfect stranger, whose English was more limited than the author’s limited Russian, describes the whole endeavor in an exhaustive deadpan that goes on for five pages. It’s impossible not to laugh.
He describes with sympathetic amusement the national penchant for following rules: Greene’s colleague Sergei, for instance, faithfully collapses the handle of his rolling suitcase whenever he encounters a flight of stairs, because the instructions said he should. (How many American suitcase-owners, one wonders, have even read the instructions that came with their purchases?) While in Moscow, Greene and his wife resolved never to ask “Why?” of any phenomenon in Russia.
His American-ness does sometimes get the better of him. At the Yaroslavl train station, Greene and Sergei find themselves in line for an unattended metal detector, beeping at every passenger who passes through it with no apparent consequences. The author here makes use of the forbidden interrogative, but he also waits in line with the rest of them.
Stoicism is the highest Russian virtue, a necessary trait when hardship is considered a given. By death or divorce, alcohol has claimed a husband or father from nearly every woman interviewed by Sergei and Greene. Young men are obliged to serve in the military, often seeing violence in the Caucasus beyond what their Western counterparts can imagine. Infrastructure is spotty and the winters are vicious.
The one area in which Greene is unable to get inside the Russian mind is the realm of politics. He acknowledges this himself: Journalistic open-mindedness is a lot easier in the States, where people generally affirm representative government, basic rights, and the rule of law. In former Soviet countries, a candidate can talk openly about rolling back popular government, and increase his support by doing so: Russians polled today prefer a strong leader to democratic values.
This is one of the hardest things for Americans to understand about Russia, and despite an honest effort, Greene is too deeply committed to an American way of thinking to get there. His friends are suspicious of democracy, often supporters of Putin or nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and one proposes that the country needs another Stalin to set things right. Greene makes no secret of being disappointed in them.
A romantic, intractable place, Russia is still known in the U.S. mostly as a source of vodka and ballistic missiles. Greene shows it to us at the human level. For the many who have never seen Russia like that, Midnight in Siberia is an excellent place to start.
—Brian Hoefling writes from Boston.
Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation
by michael allen and scott r. swain
baker, 176 pages, $19.99
In this book, Michael Allen and Scott Swain issue to their fellow Evangelical theologians a “manifesto” calling for a fuller retrieval of the catholic (lowercase c) Christian tradition. As the authors admit, and as a survey of recent trends in academic Evangelical publications would verify, a movement of ressourcement is already well underway in the Evangelical world. For decades, influential Evangelicals have been calling their companions back to the sources of the patristic, medieval, and Reformation theological heritage. Yet Allen and Swain do more than simply join their voices to the chorus. In Reformed Catholicity, they offer a theological justification to this movement through a robustly dogmatic defense of the authority of tradition and an equally strong affirmation of the classic Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura.
In the first chapter of the book, entitled “Learning Theology in the School of Christ,” the authors lay out their case for why ecclesial tradition is of critical importance to the task of theology. Significantly, they do not support their case for tradition by an appeal to tradition (for example, “the Reformers honored the creeds, and therefore so should we”). This is a common argument, which, while possessing a certain rhetorical appeal, does little to persuade the person who considers all tradition to be mere human opinion. The most persuasive arguments for tradition are not historical, Allen and Swain argue, but trinitarian and christological. Tradition finds its warrant as a product of the illuminating activity of the Holy Spirit, who is the “internal cognitive principle of the church’s theology” (principium cognoscendi internum). This means that the Christian tradition is not simply a human invention. It is the human response to the work of the Spirit of Christ, who leads the Church into all truth by means of the gift of “renewed reason” and sacred Scripture (the principium cognoscendi externum). True to their Reformed heritage, Allen and Swain maintain that the fallibility of human persons means that tradition can and does err, just as those who are being sanctified by the Spirit can and do sin. Nevertheless, the Church is still the “school of Christ, taught by the Spirit of Christ,” and therefore the study of the Church’s tradition is the study of the Spirit’s pedagogy.
In defending sola Scriptura alongside the catholic tradition, Allen and Swain recognize that they are taking a road less traveled. For many, the notion of “Scripture alone” is perceived as an assault on the authority of tradition. In the judgment of its recent critics, this doctrine was the first step toward modernity and was ultimately culpable for a radically individualistic understanding of authority and a deistic conception of a God whose revelatory action ended in the completion of the Bible. According to Allen and Swain, however, this is not sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) but solo Scriptura (only Scripture), “a bastard child nursed at the breast of modern rationalism and individualism.” Early Reformers never intended to undermine the creedal or confessional tradition of the Church or the Church’s ministerial authority in interpreting the Scriptures. Originally, sola Scriptura functioned as shorthand for emphasizing the Church’s constant dependence on the written word of God. Sola Scriptura means that the Church is a “hearing Church,” that it receives its life “by water and the Word,” and that, on this side of the eschaton, it must always be willing to reform itself as it is taught by Scripture. But the authors do not stop with this historical clarification. True to their principle, they go on to demonstrate the biblical origins of sola scriptura, suggesting that even in the most visible examples of ecclesial authority, such as the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, there is an implicit recognition of Scripture as the norma normans non normata.
Although it is intended primarily for Evangelical readers, Reformed Catholicity would be read profitably by a more ecumenical audience. For those who are inclined to view Protestant theology as inherently antitraditional or blown about by the whim of every interpreter, this book could serve as a more balanced introduction into a classical Reformed perspective on the roles of Scripture and tradition in theological reflection. Its primary audience, however, is that of Evangelical theologians, and to this audience the book has a clear message: Immerse yourself in the tradition of the Church, and, by so doing, prepare yourself to read Scripture afresh and to join with the communion of saints in learning theology in the school of Christ.
—Jonathan Bailes is a PhD student in historical theology at Boston College.
Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition
by roger e. olson and christian t. collins winn
eerdmans, 204 pages, $18
Since the mid-1970s, there has been a debate over which stream of nineteenth-century Protestantism forms the headwaters of modern North American Evangelicalism. Donald Dayton has argued that a Pietist-Pentecostal stream, consisting of New School Presbyterianism, Methodism, and the broader Holiness-Pentecostal movements, forms the heart of the movement, while George Marsden has developed a more Presbyterian paradigm in which Puritanism, Old School Presbyterianism, the emergence of fundamentalism from the Reformed wing of the Holiness movement, and Carl Henry’s Neo-Evangelicalism comprise the center. In dedicating to Donald Dayton their effort to reclaim German Pietism for Evangelical audiences, Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn have clearly indicated where their sympathies reside.
Reclaiming Pietism is an Evangelical form of ressourcement. Olson and Collins Winn argue that Pietism, rightly understood, can serve as a critical resource to renew contemporary Evangelicalism. To make this case, they provide a historical survey of the movement in terms of its two branches, ecclesial or churchly Pietism and radical Pietism. The goal of this survey is twofold. First, they wish to argue that authentic Pietism is found in the ecclesial stream associated primarily with Philipp Spener and August Francke as well as in the Moravian vision of Count Zinzendorf. This stream remained orthodox in its theological vision while simultaneously criticizing Protestant orthodoxy by calling for a “religion of the heart.” To recover Pietism is not to hark back to its more radical manifestation, which developed into forms of nature mysticism at times or into the liberal German Protestant vision of Schleiermacher. Understood in terms of its ecclesial wing, Pietism has much to offer contemporary Evangelicalism.
The purpose of their survey, however, is also to show that Pietism has been an important historical influence on the conversionism and activism (to borrow two characteristics of David Bebbington’s definition) so central to Evangelicalism. It is a neglected root of contemporary Evangelicalism. Pietism’s influence on North American Evangelicalism is found in the forms of Lutheranism and Brethren churches directly affected by the Pietism of Spener and Francke. It is also present in the Moravianism of Zinzendorf, John Wesley’s incorporation of Pietist ideas into his understanding of salvation, and the influence of Johann Blumhardt and Christoph Blumhardt on the rise of divine healing in the Holiness and Pentecostal movements.
Olson and Collins Winn overstate their case at times, such as when they wonder whether Methodism would have existed without Pietism. Nevertheless, they offer a coherent picture of Pietism and its importance for Evangelical theology. Pietism generates an ethos that centers on an experiential Christianity, orthodox in orientation yet accentuating the internal regeneration of the heart that gives rise to holiness of life. This holiness always retains a visible character in the cultivation of devotional practices and forms of community (the conventicles of Spener) that foster ecumenical cooperation and social activism. Olson and Collins Winn offer this vision of an “orthodoxy on fire” as a neglected root that Evangelical theology must recover.
—Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University School