Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Fully Alive:
The Apocalyptic Humanism of Karl Barth

by stanley hauerwas
university of virginia, 218 pages, $29.50

At a theology conference some months ago, I mentioned to a friend that, although I think Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God is one of modern theology’s great triumphs, academic “Barthianism” seemed to me a dead end. My friend walked me over to an eminent Barth scholar, who promptly informed me that he agreed, that we were hardly alone in this view, and that the world-­renowned Barth ethicist across the room was turning back to Calvin and Melanchthon.

If his latest book is any indication, Stanley Hauerwas is unconvinced that Barthianism is dead. In Fully Alive, one of our great theological ethicists insists we have much yet to learn from Barth about being human in God’s world. Barth famously championed a God “wholly other,” who comes to us “vertically from above,” but Hauerwas reminds us that this wholly other God assumed true humanity—and therefore, according to Barth, God alone makes us “capable of being human.” ­Hauerwas applies this insight to a host of pressing issues, ­including preaching and pastoral care, friendship and disability, and political ­theology and race. In his treatment of pastoral care and disability, in particular, Hauerwas shines.

The chapters devoted primarily to Barth demonstrate, however, why Barth’s disciples have found themselves looking for life rafts. For example, Hauerwas discusses Barth’s wildly asymmetrical responses to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, forcefully condemning the former while refusing to condemn the latter; Barth justified this position by reasoning that “the church never acts on principle but judges spiritually and by individual cases.” Yet in rejecting ethical principle, “free-standing anthropology,” and “abstract norms, ideals, and sociopolitical ideologies,” Barth left his disciples with few tools to navigate the City of Man. At the same time, Hauerwas ably demonstrates the enduring power of Barth’s relentless Christocentrism and radical commitment to the truth that theology concerns the God who condescends to men in Jesus Christ.

Still, one cannot help but conclude that the real value of this book lies in Hauerwas himself. While reading Hauerwas’s chapters on Wittgenstein, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Alasdair MacIntyre—and even Hauerwas’s early-career newspaper article on the Black Power ­movement—it became clear that this is a book not for students of Barth but disciples of Hauerwas. It is for those who seek insight into Hauerwas’s intellectual trajectory and formative influences, and chiefly those who wish to read the candid and well-earned reflections of the great post-liberal Christian ethicist of our time.

—Onsi A. Kamel

The Translator of Desires:

by muhyiddin ibn ʿarabi
translated by michael sells
princeton, 368 pages, $24.95

Among Sufis, Ibn ʿArabi, the “Great Sheikh” of Andalusia, holds preeminence as a mystical philosopher. Ibn ʿArabi was astoundingly prolific up to his death in 1240, and the creativity of his philosophical vision continues to electrify those who encounter it. Michael Sells’s translation of the Tarjumán al-Ashwáq draws Anglophone readers to a lesser-known side of Islam’s Dante, a poet of mystical eros. Ibn ʿArabi’s own Beatrice was Nizam, the daughter of a Persian religious scholar, and the pilgrimage that frames his verses runs not through Hell and Paradise but the labyrinthine deserts and circular motions of the Meccan hajj. Those who wish to read the author’s allegorizing explication of the Tarjumán will have to look elsewhere—the 1911 ­Nicholson translation has an abridged version for the curious—but Ibn ʿArabi’s status as one of history’s great theophanic imaginations shines brilliantly through Sells’s delicate poetry. These sixty-one erotic nasibs form a garland of longing looks, running gazelles, dove-laden branches, haunted ruins, speaking winds, rivers of tears, and veiled moons. Ibn ʿArabi’s paradise is the multiform Beloved, the one who “bring[s] each sweet fragrance / you, who give the spring its blossom.” He celebrates a beauty that, for all its myriad manifestations in nature and in human bodies, radiates from God, “the beautiful and the lover of beauty.” Ibn ʿArabi’s literary and religious context may be alien to many readers today, but with Sells’s help, including valuable endnotes for each poem, many of us will find our own hearts responding with his in adoring contemplation.

—Rex Bradshaw

Ressourcement after Vatican II:
Essays in Honor of Joseph Fessio, S.J.

edited by nicholas h. healy jr. and matthew levering
ignatius, 425 pages, $24.95

R. R. Reno once included the ressourcement movement known as nouvelle théologie in what he referred to as the “Heroic Generation.” Joseph Fessio, S.J., is the individual most responsible for making the works of Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, ­Joseph Ratzinger, et al. available to an English-speaking audience through the publishing house he founded in 1978: Ignatius Press. This tribute to Fessio is also an exploration of the impact of the aforementioned thinkers on contemporary ­theology.

These figures left a definitive stamp on modern theology, and not just Catholic. Many Protestants, like myself, have been shaped by the ressourcement project. But I remain haunted by Reno’s critique that the Heroic Generation’s revolution against neo-scholasticism might be ultimately undone by its own success due to the collateral destruction of the theological culture that made their insights intelligible. These essays provide some reassurances, however. As is clear in the focus of this collection, the authors published by Ignatius Press were not primarily combatting neo-scholasticism after Vatican II, but progressive Catholic theologians and forces within liberal Protestantism, both of which dominated the American theological scene. The theologians associated with Communio, the journal whose American version Fessio helped launch, explicitly turned to the Word, the Fathers, and the Doctors of the Church as abiding sources of theological renewal, with the goal of making Catholic theology known and loved. The authors of the essays in this volume carry on that spirit, and one does not need to be fluent in neo-scholasticism to appreciate their significance.

These essays display the fecundity of the ressourcement project. May it continue for the good of the Church.

—James Wood

On Prayer:
Reflections of a Modern Saint

by saint sophrony, translated by rosemary edmonds
st. vladimir’s seminary, 212 pages, $22

I first attempted to read St. Sophrony’s On Prayer well over a decade ago. I had read his Saint Silouan the Athonite, an engaging and accessible biography of Sophrony’s spiritual father, and desired to learn more from these contemporary holy men. Yet I found On Prayer impenetrable. This left me disappointed, desperate for something more.

“Re-enchantment” has become a fad in some circles. Painfully aware of the flatness of the immanent ­reality we take for granted as contemporary people, some seek a higher, deeper dimension. So, we turn to gurus and crystals and any number of gimmicks to add a metaphysical spark to lives lived in a purely physical manner: to re-enchant a deeply disenchanted world. Thus did I search. And yet, when this searching was limited to books, it proved fruitless. For long years the Divine was, for me, merely a concept. So how could I hope to understand ­Sophrony when he, in the fullness of his days, “venture[d] to discuss matters hitherto jealously concealed”?

On Prayer is the mature work of a man with decades of hard-won spiritual experience: a saint. It is a work that may be (at least initially) impenetrable to the modern reader who is accustomed to a commercialized Christianity that offers comfort in the face of existential doubt. Yet Sophrony writes, not of tepid comfort, but of an experience of the living God. He conveys not the merely pretty or useful, but the beautiful and sublime. “The whole man suffers in the presence of the eternal God, but these sufferings do not destroy: they quicken.”

If this book is initially impenetrable, fear not. Return to it when your heart is quickened and ready for “matters hitherto jealously ­concealed.”

Steven Christoforou

The Enduring Tension:
Capitalism and the Moral Order

by donald j. devine
encounter books, 384 pages, $31.99

Donald J. Devine’s The Enduring Tension energetically defends liberal capitalism, less from critics hailing from the secular left than from religious and traditionalist commentators ranging from Rod Dreher and Patrick ­Deneen to Pope Francis. Devine makes challenging arguments concerning the innovative potential of market reforms and the routine incompetence of centralized institutions, though he perhaps tries to cover too much economic and sociocultural ground, leading to rather limp conclusions like “issues surrounding marriage and gender will certainly continue to divide people into opposing political ­factions.”

From a fusionist perspective, Devine agrees on the importance of faith as the spiritual foundation of a humane capitalism—“a tradition, a mythos that limits demand, or its logos will be overwhelmed.” This is doubtless true, although an emphasis on functionality will undercut the unifying and motivational value of such narratives, which depend on their acceptance as icons and not tools. To be sure, Devine echoes Professor J. Budziszewski in saying that “we must actually know that our moral sense has a real truth” and argues that “humans have a sense of a moral law written in their conscience,” but to the extent that this is true, it has been malleable enough to inspire vastly divergent and indeed conflicting religious and secular ideologies. Devine’s argument for the enduring popularity of religious belief also places too much emphasis on self-definition over revealed ­preference.

Still, this is a serious and painstakingly written book for which Devine has explored everything from medieval philosophy to the development of classical music, making it an endearingly eclectic project that embodies many of the virtues of the pluralism it defends.

—Ben Sixsmith

Thy Will Be Done:
The Ten Commandments and the Christian Life

by gilbert meilaender
baker academic, 144 pages, $24

In his Institutes, John Calvin said that the purpose of the Ten Commandments is simply that Christians might “express the image of God” in our lives. With this opening invocation of ­Geneva’s Reformer, Gilbert ­Meilaender, the Lutheran bioethicist, admits that his new, terse treatment of the Decalogue is not meant to do “anything especially creative.” Rather, the author’s aim is an ethical recovery, so to speak: to “do what Christians have done many times before,” namely, to determine the character and mission of the Christian life according to the revelation delivered to Moses on Sinai. And Meilaender’s treatment is decidedly Christian in the broadest sense: that is, ecumenical and eclectic. Karl Barth, Martin Luther, John Paul II, and others are freely invoked, often in tandem.

­Meilaender rejects the common two-table bifurcation of the ­Decalogue. Instead, he envisions the second and third commandments expressing “close connection with the bonds of community” to which the so-called second table points. Within this more fluid, actionable organization, the tables are approached under five bonds—­marriage, family, life, ­possessions, and speech—all, ultimately, housed within and directed by the first great commandment: that no ­other gods should be had or worshiped other than Yahweh, and that his name not be taken in vain.

More than that, Meilaender paints the Old Testament law in an expectant, Christological hue, serving as a “witness to the One who was to come” and continuing to “instruct us about what it means to follow Christ” (Calvin’s third use of the law, we might say). And this is how Meilaender solves St. Paul’s conundrum, like many before him, for a new generation. Followers of Christ should obey the law that, nevertheless, has been abolished in Christ.

—Timon Cline

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift