Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 109 (January 2001): xx-xx.
The Camel Knows the Way. By Lorna Kelly. Self–published, available on Amazon.com. 266 pp. $18.95.
Lorna Kelly has given us a book about Mother Teresa that shows the essence of what she really was about: being fully human by embracing humanity with all its foibles. The author, after experiencing the high life as Sotheby’s first female auctioneer—and the lows of alcohol, drugs, and depression—went wandering to find the meaning of life, and ended up working with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity for fifteen years. Upon meeting the author for the first time, Mother took one look at Kelly’s red nail polish and told her to stop adorning herself in luxuries and to spend her money on the poor, to which Ms. Kelly brazenly replied that that’s exactly what Judas said to Jesus. After an icy and terrorizing minute of silence, Mother cut loose in laughter. An unusual bond based on bare–boned honesty was forged. Kelly is refreshingly candid throughout. Somehow she got to talking with one of the Missionaries of Charity sisters about her past drug use. She told the sister that “making love on acid, well, that was something else. It felt as if we were one and that the lovemaking could last forever,” to which the sister replied, “Ah, what heaven must be like!” Ms. Kelly writes of how difficult it is to confront a culture gap in India, how local residents in Calcutta all too blithely accept severe degradation, chalking it up to a karmic debt owed for a past life’s mistakes. In one episode, a husband’s family burnt his new wife almost to death because he didn’t like her dowry. After villagers ignored her smoldering body left on the local railroad tracks, assuming it was a karma thing, the sisters picked her up and put her in Kelly’s care. Kelly laments how she had to cut away burnt skin without the use of anesthetics. The woman survived, and Kelly came away permanently changed. Kelly tells us that what really counts is not that we are all on a singular journey, but who accompanies us along the way. And that following Christ’s example by loving humans is what opens the heart.
Natural Law and Practical Reason: A Thomist View of Moral Autonomy. By Martin Rhonheimer. Translated by Gerald Malsbary. Fordham University Press. $45 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Martin Rhonheimer’s book fruitfully engages the deeper questions and conundrums of the natural law. The book critically dispatches theories that identify genuine freedom and autonomy with subjectivism and proportionalism or “teleologism.” It also well maps out a number of problems within natural law theory. For example, it gives an account of the speculum—the element of purely contemplative knowledge—that is embedded pearl–like within practical knowledge. And it sets forth an account of the “participated theonomy” that constitutes the natural law and is definitive for a true understanding of human autonomy. Rhonheimer also criticizes earlier species of natural law theory, such as that of Heinrich Rommen, that he judges to be, as it were, too “naturalistic” or physicalist: i.e., to lean too heavily upon deriving natural law precepts from nature rather than emphasizing the constitutive role of reason. Rhonheimer believes that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”—a heavily criticized position. Yet in Rhonheimer’s hands this view seems plausible, in part because of his trenchant criticism of its consequence—you cannot, he argues, deduce ethical norms from an understanding of human essence. He goes further, however, and argues for the epistemic priority of practical knowledge to speculative knowledge. As noted above, Rhonheimer admits that practical reason always bears within itself the speculative light defining knowledge as such. To this reviewer, these conclusions—epistemic priority of practical experience, and a speculative element within every practical knowing—seem to clash. Whether we speak of God or (as Aristotle did) of friendship, man’s ends—especially the higher ones—must first be known before they can be pursued by the will. This being so, it is hard to see how reason in pursuit of an end comes before knowledge of the end. Rhonheimer’s account occupies, as it were, the middle ground between an older Thomism emphasizing natural law as a speculative doctrine, and the more recent insistence of authors such as Grisez or Finnis upon the supposed independence of practical reason. Bracing and insightful arguments abound throughout this book, and one is frequently struck by the originality and freshness with which the author takes up themes in Thomas’ work. This is a book that philosophers and theologians alike ought to read, because its questions are questions for all who are concerned for the doctrine of natural law.
Philosemitism: Admiration and Support in the English–Speaking World for Jews, 1840–1939. By William D. Rubinstein and Hilary L. Rubinstein. St. Martin’s. 276 pp. $59.95.
Compared to anti–Semitism, the phenomenon of “philo–Semitism”—defined as admiration and support for the Jewish people—has received relatively little attention in recent Jewish historiography. In Philo semitism, William D. and Hilary L. Rubinstein seek to round out the picture of modern Jewish history with a comprehensive record of pro–Jewish sentiment and action—in rallies, petitions, sermons, editorials, and diplomatic protests—by gentiles in the English–speaking world. The story of philo–Semitism is not presented as an alternative way of considering the modern Jewish experience: indeed, as the Rubinsteins show, it arose in large part in response to worldwide persecution and violence against Jews—from the infamous Damascus “blood libel,” to the institution of anti–Jewish laws in Italy, to pogroms in Russia, to the Dreyfus case, and on into the Nazi era. Although philo–Semites could not stop the Holocaust, they did save many lives and help prepare the way for the creation of the State of Israel. While the Rubinsteins take into account the occasional underside of philo–Semitism (some gentiles favored Zionism in order to remove Jews from their midst), they conclude that it was overwhelmingly motivated by hu manitarian, religious, and moral concerns. In its own quiet way, this brief, well–written book is a source of inspiration; like Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, it provides witness to the great deeds of “the righteous among the nations.”
The Best Spiritual Writing 2000. Edited by Philip Zaleski. HarperSanFrancisco. 353 pp. $16 paper.
Forty essays, almost all of them elegantly written, on a wide range of topics fitting the capacious category called “spiritual.” Among the better known authors are Harvey Cox, John Updike, Annie Dillard, and William Gass. There is also an essay by Richard John Neuhaus, “Born Toward Dying,” that first appeared in these pages. Zaleski’s discriminating taste results in a book to be kept by the bedside or wherever one indulges the impulse for a short read that occasions long reflections.
The Legacy of Pope John Paul II. Edited by Geoffrey Gneuhs. Herder and Herder. 128 pp. $12.95 paper.
Five thoughtful examinations of the Pope’s “contribution to Cath olic thought” by John F. Crosby, Russell Hittinger, Joseph Koterski, David Schindler, and William Smith. These essays clearly establish that the “legacy” is, first, securing and advancing the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and, second, setting the agenda for the Church’s faith and life in the twenty–first century.
Christianity in Jewish Terms. Edited by Tikva Frymer–Kensky et al. Westview. 411 pp. $30.
An invaluable gathering of fourteen essays, with multiple responses, by Jewish and Christian scholars, this book represents the very best in contemporary Jewish–Christian dialogue. These reflections constitute the scholarly undergirding of the historic statement on Jewish understandings of Christianity published in the November 2000 issue of FT. The exchanges are wide–ranging and candid in acknowledging both agreements and disagreements on questions such as the God of Israel and the Trinity, Christian responsibility for the Shoah, the meaning of covenant and election, differing views of redemption, and the relationship between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Bible. Contributions by David Novak and George Lindbeck are particularly suggestive in proposing possible futures for the interaction between Christians and Jews. Christianity in Jewish Terms is, quite simply, an indispensable volume for those who would, two thousand years after Paul’s letter to the Romans, understand the continuing promise and perplexities of the mystery of living Judaism.
Will to Freedom: A Perilous Journey Through Fascism and Communism. By Egon Balas. Syracuse University Press. 469 pp. $29.95.
The compelling story of a young man who, in resistance to Nazism, signed up with the Communists in Hungary and Romania. After rising in the Communist hierarchy, he discovered that the enemy of his enemy was most decidedly not his friend. He was imprisoned until Stalin’s death and, through much trouble, made his way to America, where he has been professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon since 1967. Much of the grim truth about the century past is to be found in this personal tale.
The Many Faces of Virtue. By Donald DeMarco. Emmaus Road. 226 pp. $14.95 paper.
A collection of little essays on a host of virtues—personal, social, and sacred—by a Canadian philosopher well–versed in the traditions of both Athens and Jerusalem. Recommended not for one sitting but for putting one’s life in order day by day.
The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet. By Thomas Dubay. Ignatius. 364 pp. $14.95 paper.
Keats said that beauty is truth and truth is beauty, and today many scientists agree that beauty and simplicity are indeed evidences of truth. Among theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar has most notably lifted up the importance of the aesthetic. The present book serves the worthy cause of bringing together converging arguments and making them accessible to a general audience.
God–Sent: A History of the Accredited Apparitions of Mary. By Roy Abraham Varghese. Crossroad. 240 pp. $39.95.
Beginning in the first century, and accelerating in the nineteenth, there have been some twenty thousand reported apparitions of Mary, of which about thirty have received varying degrees of approval from the Catholic Church. Varghese offers a popular survey of the phenomenon, including an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger cautioning against excesses of Marian enthusiasm.
The Closer We Are to Dying: A Memoir of Father and Family. By Joe Fiorito. Picador. 321 pp. $24.
A son keeps vigil for three weeks by the side of his hard–drinking, fun–loving, and frequently abusive father who is dying of cancer. In the long hours of waiting, and in intermittent conversation with his father who floats in and out of consciousness, he recounts the crazy and colorful stories that serve as the history of an Italian–Canadian family that never found a place to settle. The depiction of death and dying is utterly bleak and untouched by eternal hope, which is no doubt related to the author’s bitter account of an Irish–dominated Church that had nothing but contempt for “wops” like him and his.
Consecrated Venom: The Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge. By Caryl Johnston. Floris. 158 pp. $26.
An imaginative reflection on the story of “the fall into history,” in the vein of the Genesis reflections by Leon Kass in these pages. The venom, writes Johnston, is our permanent legacy; the great task is to consecrate it to truth. Written in informed engagement with current debates over the possibility of knowledge and truth, this small book will reward careful reading also by those who may dispute the author’s interpretation of biblical texts.
Soul of a Lion: Dietrich von Hildebrand. By Alice von Hildebrand. Ignatius. 322 pp. $14.95 paper.
Reared in the most privileged of circumstances in Florence and Munich, Dietrich
von Hildebrand fled the Nazis in 1933, edited an anti–Nazi newspaper in Austria
until the Anschluss, and finally arrived in America in 1940, where he taught
philosophy at Fordham University for many years, writing numerous and widely
appreciated books on philosophy, ethics, and Catholic thought. His wife, a distinguished
thinker in her own right, has written this admiring memoir, taking the story
up to 1940, on the basis of Dietrich’s notes made shortly before he died. In
his foreword, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger calls von Hildebrand “a man whose life
and work have left an indelible mark on the history of the Church in the twentieth
century.” Of particular historical interest is von Hildebrand’s intense and
complicated relationship with such thinkers as Max Scheler and Edmund Husserl,
his youthful in volvement with the family and cult of Richard Wagner, and his
friendship with Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XII), whose adamant opposition to Nazism
von Hildebrand greatly admired. Soul of a Lion is a valuable addition
to our understanding of European, and especially Catholic, intellectual life
in the first part of the twentieth century.