Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 103 (May 2000): 62-65.
Imperfect Conceptions: Medical Knowledge, Birth Defects, and Eugenics in China. By Frank Dikötter. Columbia University Press. 288 pp. $27.50.
The evil of eugenics, practiced tragically and widely in the United States, England, and Germany earlier in the century, remains a driving force in the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, in 1995 national legislation firmly installed eugenics as official government policy. What does this mean? In a dry but disturbing book aimed at fellow academics, Frank Dikötter describes the legitimization in China of all the evils long associated with the eugenics movement: forced sterilizations of the "unfit," eugenic late–term abortions, forced abortion under the "one–child" policy, and the public promotion of the odious concept that babies born with disabilities have "zero value lives" and whose killings are to be encouraged for the good of the family and the country. After reading Imperfect Conceptions, I was left to wonder how our government can possibly promote China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization when its public policies are so eerily similar to those engaged in by Germany sixty years ago. But then I remembered: we are the country in which Princeton University appointed Peter Singer to a tenured ethics professorship despite the fact that he approves of killing disabled infants and advocates a brand of "utilitarian" philosophy that generously accommodates the ambitions of the eugenics project. If Singer ever gets tired of Princeton, he might find a warm welcome in the PRC.
—Wesley J. Smith
The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology: Wolfhart Pannenberg and the New Theological Rationality. By F. LeRon Shults. Eerdmans. 270 pp. $25 paper.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German Lutheran, is indisputably one of the theological giants of the last one hundred years. His work is not well received, however, in the current academic climate of sundry postmodernisms. Shults makes a valiant and erudite effort to remedy this by arguing that Pannenberg is not so captive to the "foundationalism" (a very dirty word) of the Enlightenment as his critics claim. Pannenberg’s understanding of theological truth largely takes for granted the perspectival, relative, and contextualizing dimensions of knowledge with which anti–foundationalists are so obsessed. One wishes Shults well in making Pannenberg’s immense achievement more attractive to those caught up in current academic fashions, but Robert Jenson probably got it right when he wrote in these pages that we should hope that Pannenberg is being neglected only long enough to be rediscovered. That will happen when theologians rediscover the inescapability of the challenge to think coherently about reason, history, revelation, and the human prospect.
Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology. By William A. Dembski. InterVarsity. 311 pp. $19.99.
Mathematician–philosopher Dembski is the author of the acclaimed The Design Inference (Cambridge University Press), and the present book is a more accessible statement of the argument for nonspecialists. Parts of the book appeared as articles in these pages. Included here, and of most particular interest, are approximately seventy–five pages of Dembski’s responses to objections that have been raised to the arguments presented by himself and others. An important book that deserves a wide audience.
American Compact: James Madison and the Problem of Founding. By Gary Rosen. University Press of Kansas. 237 pp. $29.95.
Madison has always been among the most confounding of the Founders. At once republican and aristocrat, defender of nationalism and supporter of states rights, populist and elitist, he has more than once evaded the grasp of historians. Gary Rosen, associate editor of Commentary and Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, sets out in this excellent book to explain, if not resolve, Madison’s philosophical and political inconsistencies. The key, Rosen argues, is Madison’s understanding of the social compact: his wisdom lay in combining faith in the capacity of the multitude for dignity and independence with the knowledge that, being generally unruly, they would need to be governed—not by tyrants but by men of prudence. It is this ability to bring together disparate elements in human society and political philosophy alike that most distinguishes Madison’s political vision from that of his predecessors and peers and gives it such continuing vitality. With this book, Rosen goes a long way toward bringing Madison back into our public discourse; it is a great service to the discipline of history and the legacy of an important statesman.
Christendom Awake: Reenergizing the Church in Culture. By Aidan Nichols, O.P. Eerdmans. 255 pp. $28 paper.
In a wide–ranging survey of the ills and hopes of contemporary Christianity, a prolific English Dominican sounds the trumpet of faith to wake Christendom from the slumbers induced by spiritual lethargy and fear. He cites approvingly Cristina Scott, writing on Christopher Dawson: "Christendom is simply the society which has been informed by the Church." His thoughts on what Christendom might look like today and tomorrow are informed also by the work of Oliver O’Donovan. By the Church, Nichols means chiefly the Catholic Church, but also those of "Catholic sympathies" and the many evangelicals subscribing to C. S. Lewis’ "mere Christianity." His suggestive treatment of ecumenism accents, quite appropriately, the singular place of Orthodoxy, while his thinking about a Christian social order leans, quite implausibly, upon constituting some kind of international monarchial principle combined with a Chesterton–like distributism. Flashes of insight and occasional indulgences of eccentricity mark a book that is, all in all, a tour de force in its call for Christianity to recover its theological, spiritual, and moral nerve.
The Awakening. By Friedrich Zuendel. Plough. 147 pp. $10 paper.
A stirring tale of spiritual awakening in a nineteenth–century German parish led by Johann Christoph Blumhardt, the legendary leader of the Bruderhof. Part of a biography of Blumhardt by the same author.
Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice. By Reinhard Hütter. Eerdmans. 314 pp. $25 paper.
An exceedingly technical discussion of the ideas of German and American, mainly Protestant, theologians who are exercised by sundry construals of postmodernism and what they might mean for the "pathos" of doing theology. Strictly for specialists in a subspecialty, the book might more aptly be subtitled "theology as academic practice."
Surveying the Religious Landscape. By George Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay. Morehouse. 171 pp. $17.95 paper.
Over these many years, George Gallup has been feeling the religious and spiritual pulse of Americans and the present book reports on what he finds today in the context of what he has found in the past. His diagnosis is that religion continues to be vibrantly, albeit confusedly, alive in America. Admittedly, there is not much news here, but the book is a very handy summary and overview of what survey research can tell us about, so to speak, the state of the nation’s soul.
Called to Counsel. By John R. Cheydleur. Tyndale. 229 pp. $24.95.
The author, a leader in the Salvation Army, calls this a "counseling skills handbook," and it is precisely that—a very accessible presentation of the ABCs of helping people in trouble, framed by Christian understandings of the human person, the family, and the meaning of health. Clergy, social workers, and others who are regularly called to intervene in difficult circumstances will want to give this book a careful look.
The Ever–Illuminating Wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas. By Ronald McArthur, John M. Haas, Ralph McInerny, Peter Kreeft, Russell Hittinger, and Marie I. George. Wethersfield Institute. 150 pp. $11.95.
This book brings together six papers presented at a 1994 conference sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute around the general theme of Thomas’ "philosophy and theology of the real," with topics such as the link between philosophy and personality, the relationship of nature and grace, and the rule of law. The result is winsome, engaging, and wise—the perfect volume to give to one who wants a concise introduction to the Angelic Doctor or one who needs a dose of graceful, bracing good sense. (The two, of course, may be one.)
Guarded by Mystery: Meaning in a Postmodern Age. By David Walsh. Catholic University Press. 180 pp. $19.95 paper.
A professor of politics writes about the spiritual quest in a time dubbed "postmodern," meaning that the older rational securities have been shattered. Walsh ranges widely—from literary criticism to politics and art—in lifting up the luminous hints of the transcendent in the everyday. A most thoughtful reflection that should have a broad appeal.