Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 99 (January 2000): 57Ė62.
Crisis of Conscience. Edited by John M. Haas. Crossroad. 173 pp. $15.95 paper.
This collection of essays represents the fruit of an international conference, sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute in 1994, that brought together leading Catholic moral philosophers and theologians to discuss the crisis in moral reasoning of our day. Each of the contributors, echoing the thought of John Paul II, addresses the question of a "darkened conscience" and the "increasing difficulty [of Western culture] to distinguish between good and evil" (Evangelium Vitae). The Pope has warned of "a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis that can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities" (Veritatis Splendor). The essays constitute more than philosophical speculation; they are written against the backdrop of recently published "principles of pastoral care" promulgated by German bishops that have created no small controversy within the Church. (We Protestants, as it turns out, do not have a monopoly on heteropraxy after all.) Publication of the "principles" is instructive insofar as contemporary discussions of morality not infrequently focus on notions of freedom versus absolutes, autonomy versus heteronomy, or self-determination versus external authority. In the end, a morality of individual conscience and a morality of imposed supra-personal authority appear to be locked in perpetual struggle. That humans are to follow conscience is undisputed; whether the judgments of personal conscience are infallible is another matter, since these judgments vary from person to person and frequently stand in bald contradiction to each other. While other contributors to this volume assess conscience in the light of the classic Christian moral-philosophical tradition, the essays by Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, John M. Haas, Servais Pinckaers, and Robert Spaemann speak most pointedly to the present cultural situation.
ó J. Daryl Charles
Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying. Edited by Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass. University of Notre Dame Press. 629 pp. $25 cloth, $15 paper.
What once seemed self-evident connections between love and marriage are today obscured and widely denied. This bookóissuing from a project called "The Ethics of Everyday Life" and sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Lifeóis a corrective that both instructs and delights. In order to lift up the charms and complexities of man and womanís need for each other, the Kasses enlist the help of Homer, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, C. S. Lewis, and a host of other worthies. Their extended introduction is rare wisdom distilled through their own marriage and in lively conversation with the best that has been thought and said about keeping faith with the promise of love. This is a book to return to again and again, tasting and testing the wondrous diversity of ways in which that promise has been, and can be, lived. There are also powerful cautionary tales about the tragic consequences of the promise betrayed. Highly recommended for both personal reflection and classroom use. (An excerpt, "Proposing Courtship," appeared in our October 1999 issue.)
Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America. By Ronald J. Sider. Baker. 288 pp. $11.95 paper.
Ron Sider has for decades been a leading force in prodding, instructing, and inspiring evangelical Protestants in their engagement with the tasks of the public square. His book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger helped form the minds and consciences of a generation of younger evangelicals. The present book demonstrates a greater attentiveness to public policy specifics, while losing none of Siderís evangelical urgency. As Charles Colson and John J. DiIulio note in their foreword, one need not agree with all of the authorís policy analysis and prescription to "recognize a sharp mind and a kindred Christian spirit dedicated to showing how the rest of us can and should serve the least of these." Siderís persuasiveness is enhanced by his un equivocal recognition that "the least of these" includes the unborn and others who are too often excluded from the realm of "just generosity."
Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism. By Peter Berkowitz. Princeton University Press. 235 pp. $27.95.
Professor Berkowitz, formerly of Harvard and now of George Mason University, argues that early modern liberals are not as dismissive of moral virtues as commonly believed. Berkowitz begins with a brief discussion of Aristotle, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Leo Strauss in order to introduce the ancient notion of virtue, following with an equally brief discussion of contemporary liberals and communitarians who tend to dismiss virtue as a vestige of premodern Christian politics. In elegantly written studies of Hobbes, Kant, Locke, and Mill, Berkowitz finds that the fathers of modern liberalism, not unsurprisingly, believed that the virtues are necessary even in a liberal regime. Not until the end, though, does Berkowitz address the contention made by MacIntyre and others that liberalism lives off the inheritance of premodern virtue without having the resources to replenish it, and he more or less concedes that argument when he does. Thus critics of liberalism will find the book less provocative than those procedural liberals who insist that liberalism remain neutral on disputed moral questions.
Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision. By Lawrence S. Cunningham. Eerdmans. 233 pp. $16 paper.
A study of Thomas Mertonís intellectual and spiritual development from the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948 to his sudden death twenty years later. Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, presents Mertonís later life and thought in fascinating detail. He takes an extremely broad-minded approach to this controversial monk, so broad at times as to stretch the readerís patience. (His discussions of Mertonís various stratagems and follies are veritable feats of nonjudgmentalism.) Cunningham argues that Merton was first a man of the monastery, interrogating and synthesizing out of a life of prayer and faith, prophetically speaking ancient wisdom to a new age. All that is undoubtedly true, especially given a certain "vision" of the monastic vocation. But although there was much of great value in Mertonís understanding of the Christian life, especially in its contemporary context, he left some very tough, important questions unaddressedófor instance, how far ought Christians go in assimilating other traditions? at what point does "interrogation" become disobedience? in what ways can we "make the personal pronoun ĎIí an integral part of the human search for God" without our search ending up only at ourselves? That Cunningham never addresses Mertonís unaddressed questions, but rather glides over them as blithely as his subject did, leaves him open to the same suspicion in which many hold Merton himself. The result is an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying book.
A Place Called Waco: A Survivorís Story. By David Thibodeau. Public Affairs. 355 pp. $25.
Now that the Waco tragedy of April 1993 has again been busted open, if not wide open, it is extremely helpful to have the extended testimony of someone who was there. The author was a young rock musician who took up with David Koresh and his community, and is one of nine who survived the government attack on Mount Carmel (one of four who are not in jail). His telling of the story is personal, intense, and very readable. Thibodeau makes no pretense of being impartial. Nor should anyone who understands Waco as the most violent instance of the governmental persecution of religion in American history. (See Dean M. Kelleyís "Waco: A Massacre and Its Aftermath," FT, May 1995.)
Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering. Edited by Shalom Carmy. Aronson. 392 pp. $40 paper.
Editor Carmy, who teaches philosophy and Bible at Yeshiva University, has brought together original essays reflecting on the meaning and nonmeaning of suffering from the Holocaust to contemporary psychiatric hospitals. Medicine, history, theology, and other disciplines are engaged in an exploration that has, not surprisingly, suggestive overlaps with Christian thought.
Theology of Wonder. By Bishop Seraphim Sigrist. Oakwood. 147 pp. $9.95 paper.
This sustained reflection is something like a beautiful, intricately designed cloth, weaving together a surprising number of voices and insights that, left on their own, would be a little duller and dimmer. The result is a unique pattern of theology, poetry, and story-telling. Like an icon, the bookís apparently simple exterior, with chapters entitled "Tree," "Sword," "Hermit," "Grail," "Magi," and "Light," among others, functions as a portal leading into astonishing spiritual realms, truly filled with wonder.
The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man. By J. Budziszewski. Spence. 161 pp. $22.95.
Beginning with the title essay, first published in these pages (June/July 1998), University of Texas philosopher Budziszewski moves with relentless clarity to his conclusion: "How ever it is to be done, the task is a matter of calling, of vocation. We are called to a political theory that assumes the moral law which no one else dares to avouch, and poses the questions which no else dares to ask. We are called to a public apologetics that connects the dots of our nationís fragmented moral consciousness, and reminds people of what they know already. We are called to a civic rhetoric that dissipates smoke screens, and disperses self-deceptions. . . . The charge is too high for us, for we are a stunted generation. Even so, there is no one else to do it. If we neglect it, the next generation will be even shorter; if we lack the courage of our convictions, others will have the courage of their lack thereof." A book to be read alone and with others, and to give to those who have forgotten what they know.
The Calling: A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns. By Catherine Whitney. Crown. 254 pp. $23.
"Her quest is to come to terms with what it means to be called to the religious life," the inside flap tells us. Whitney is yet another defector from the Catholic Church, a one-time convent hopeful whose confusion is more touching than one might expect. In this book she tells the stories of some of the Dominican nuns who have lived at Rosary Heights convent in Edmonds, Washington, during the past few decades, some of whom were her teachers in her youth. A few of the sisters remain at Rosary Heights; a few have found, shall we say, new ways to "express" their religious vocations. In the end, though, itís not so much their story as the authorís. For all her misguided ideas (e.g., the usual silliness about "hierarchy" and "dogmatism"), Whitney really does seem to have a sense of what it means to have something like a calling. It may be that, before she fell in with í60s ideology, she really was called. But now, frustrated, regretful, yet still admiring and needing the Church she thinks she has to hate, Whitney has inadvertently given us one more testimony to the empty promises of the Catholic revolution that was not to be.
The Quest for Cosmic Justice. By Thomas Sowell. Free Press. 214 pp. $25.
A collection of four independent essays around the theme that our elite classes become absorbed in their own theoretical constructs, viewing reality through their theories rather than developing their theories in dialogue with reality. "The Quiet Repeal of the American Revolution," the fourth essay, ties these themes together nicely and is especially recommended.
The Betrayal of Liberalism: How the Disciples of Freedom and Equality Helped Foster the Illiberal Politics of Coercion and Control. Edited by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball. Ivan R. Dee. 248 pp. $28.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.
All friends of liberalism, rightly understood, the contributors explore how and why currently dominant liberalisms have gone so very wrong. Essayists include Hadley Arkes, Robert Conquest, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and John OíSullivan. The book issues from a remarkable series of articles first published in the New Criterion.
Hoodwinking the Nation. By Julian Simon. Transaction. 140 pp. $29.95.
The late Julian Simon was one of the great debunkers of environmental and other alarmisms. The telling polemic of the present volume takes particular aim at the media, for whom the maxim still holds that "good news is no news." Simon sees reason for hope in the current multiplication of media and in some indications that the establishment media are more willing to break "the gentlemanís agreement" of not challenging one another. Hoodwinking the Nation will be relished by old friends of Simon, and for new readers could be a mind-transforming experience in their thinking about economics, environment, immigration, and much else.
Against the Idols of the Age. By David Stove. Transaction. 347 pp. $39.95.
Edited by Roger Kimball of the New Criterion, who also provides a very helpful introduction, this book brings together trenchant essays and other comments by the late iconoclastic Australian philosopher little known in this country. No less than three blurbs on the dust jacket (one by the Editor-in-Chief of this journal) use the word "cant" to describe what Stove was very much and very effectively against. Stove was undoubtedly a contrarian, and at times comes across as a bit of a curmudgeon, but the incisiveness of his logic presses toward the something new and adventuresome that has been obscured by the intellectual idols of the age.
Selected Sermons, Prayers, and Devotions. By John Henry Newman. Vintage. 392 pp. $12.95 paper.
With an elegantly inviting preface by Peter J. Gomes of Harvard, this collection brings together in a form both handy and handsome some of Newmanís best. A welcome occasion for revisiting or discovering for the first time a spiritual masterís reflection on truths ever ancient, ever new.
Magnificat: The Life and Times of Timothy Cardinal Manning. By Msgr. Francis J. Weber. St. Francis Historical Society. 729 pp. $35.
A thoroughly researched biography of the man who was Archbishop of Los Angeles from 1970 to 1985. Limited printing.
The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators: American Society at the End of the Twentieth Century. By William J. Bennett. Broadway Books. 255 pp. $10.95 paper.
Yes, statistics are to be viewed with a certain skepticism, it having been statistically demonstrated that 62.3 percent of statistics are false. But the fact is that statistics are unavoidable in the making of social generalizations, which are also unavoidable. William Bennett and his colleagues have put us in their debt with this compilation and analysis of available data on family life, divorce, crime, religion, philanthropic giving, and a host of other subjects that cast light (and shadow) on our understanding of the state of the culture. Updated and expanded from the 1994 book of the same title, this book is warmly recommended.
Kosovo Crossing: American Ideals Meet Reality on the Balkan Battlefields. By David Fromkin. Free Press. 224 pp. $21.
The "crossing" in the title of this penetrating essay by a distinguished student of international affairs is the crossing of the line between responsibility and reckless adventurism. "There are limits to our strength and wealth, and more important, there are limits to our knowledge and wisdom," writes Fromkin. "There are frontiers that cannot be crossed: not even by the United States, even at the height of its glory." While the U.S., with help from other NATO nations, "won" the bombing war, the author makes a convincing case that the real ordeal in Kosovo, Serbia, the Balkans, and the larger Slavic world may be just beginning. A sober and sobering book.