R. R. Reno
I read A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right by Matthew Rose the day it arrived in the mail. Rose surveys twentieth-century anti-liberal thinkers. The writing is fluid and compelling. The analysis is succinct and on point. We are living in a time when many have lost confidence in postwar liberalism. Rose helps readers understand the allure of alternative visions for the ordering of society and the goal of life.
On my bedside table I have Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson's memoir of his years in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations when America had to face the reality of world leadership and Soviet opposition. I read the memoir five or six years ago. I'm circling back as the architecture he played a role in constructing breaks down, as we saw in the retreat from Afghanistan. It's useful to see how tentative and pragmatic his thinking was in the immediate postwar years. That's a good lesson for us as we grope our way forward.
I just got my copy of Elbridge Colby's The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. Colby offers a vision of the need for American power in the twenty-first century, a much-needed re-purposing of the thinking Acheson pioneered more than 70 years ago.
Francis X. Maier
I’m a big fan of looking back to think forward. The past can be dangerous when we give it the glow of imagined purity. But it always has good lessons to teach, because while historical circumstances change all the time, human nature and patterns of behavior don’t. My focus lately has been the Reformations, plural, both Protestant and Catholic. The turmoil of the 16th century and the events that led up to it have some useful parallels in the conditions believers face today. I have a special interest in understanding why anyone with brains and zeal at the time would have stayed with a Roman Church so clearly flawed. So, over the past two or three months I’ve read everything on the subject I could lay my hands on.
Why the Roman Church failed so miserably at broad reform in the century before Luther, despite mounting problems and plenty of local reform efforts, is told brilliantly by Hubert Jedin in his classic A History of the Council of Trent, Volume I: The Struggle for the Council. The title sounds like molasses put to music, but for history lovers, it’s an absorbing, very readable diary of a slow-motion car wreck. John C. Olin’s The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to St. Ignatius Loyola pulls together a collection of short, compelling texts from the Reformation era by Savonarola, Egidio Da Viterbo, Erasmus, John Colet, and others. It’s a great resource. Olin does similar good work in his excellent book Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus.
Louis Bouyer’s Erasmus and His Times provides valuable historical context—Erasmus was a champion of Christian humanism and among the greatest intellects of his era, but fiercely attacked by both Protestant and Catholic apologists of the time—while defending Erasmus’s Catholic fidelity. Peter Iver Kaufman does likewise in his Augustinian Piety and Catholic Reform: Augustine, Colet, and Erasmus. Finally, for hardcore history addicts, John Colet’s seminal Oxford University lectures of 1497, collected as An Exposition of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, are worth reading because of the huge influence he had on Erasmus. Colet also had a close friendship with Thomas More and other English Catholic humanists.
People learn from their mistakes more painfully, but often more vividly, than their achievements. As Christians, going forward, we might profitably take note.
In preparation for the upcoming feature film, I began reading “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece”—or so claims the flyleaf of my 40th-edition copy of Dune by Frank Herbert. The most captivating aspect of this rollicking history of the Fremen people is the relationship between their religion and their desert planet Arrakis (colloquially known as “Dune”).
Arrakis lacks any accessible water source. Below the surface, giant worms (sci-fi’s most beloved alien leviathan bar Jabba the Hutt) stalk for prey, triggered to attack by even the slightest footsteps on the sand. The hostile conditions form the people who traverse Arrakis’s surface—from the way they move, think, and form relationships, to what they wear and eat. Sleeping by day, they venture from their shaded caverns only under cover of night, when the sterile sun cannot bleach moisture from their skin. Even then, they must wear airtight stillsuits designed to recycle their bodies’ water—right down to their breath.
The Fremen faith instructs its practitioners to await a messiah who will lead them out of slavery in the desert—something of an Exodus story. Herbert crafts a religion, frightful in some ways, but rich in ritual, prayer, food, custom, sacrifice, duty, and a deep belief that contrasts with the desolate and godforsaken planet its practitioners inhabit. The very lifelessness of their world drives the Fremen people to seek another source of life—in their faith.
As a conservative Catholic living in the often hostile desert of NYC in 2021, I recognize the feeling. I find myself more and more often wandering into the cool, dark, richly incensed refuge of a church. And I am not alone.
Herbert hits on something significant: Perhaps a time of great drought prepares us better than anything for a time of great faith.
James R. Wood
I recently picked up Sergij Bulgakov’s newly translated 1927 work, The Tragedy of Philosophy. John Milbank’s foreword is worth the price of the book, and Bulgakov’s text will inspire those scholars revisiting the relationship between theology and philosophy. I also recently started another book devoted to similar themes: D. C. Schindler’s A Companion to Ferdinand Ulrich’s Homo Abyssus. As I mentioned last month, theological metaphysics is having a moment. Schindler believes it is urgent that we retrieve Ferdinand Ulrich. I cannot imagine attempting to dive into his masterpiece, Homo Abyssus, without this guide.
My main interest remains political theology. I will briefly mention two recent publications worth your consideration. In Postliberal Politics, Adrian Pabst provides the most Burke-friendly exposition of postliberal political theology to date. It is much more accessible than his previous work, Politics of Virtue, co-authored with Milbank. A strength of the work—but perhaps a drawback for American readers—is the extensive discussion of British issues in the latter portions of the book. Lastly, I read Andrew Willard Jones’s The Two Cities: A History of Christian Politics. I will share more in a future Briefly Noted, but this book is very good. More than just a survey of theories about the relation between Church and state, the spiritual and temporal, it is an exercise in theological historiography in the spirit of the Fathers, but accounting for the Church’s entire history up to our present moment.
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