Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 112 (April 2001): 58-61.
On Karol Wojtyla. By Peter Simpson. Wadsworth. 92 pp. $13.95 paper.
This short book provides an excellent introduction to the philosophical thought of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II as it is elaborated in Wojtyla’s major works, including selected passages of the papal encyclicals. Simpson places particular stress on Wojtyla’s “phenomenological personalism” resulting, as it does, from a creative synthesis of traditional Thomism and contemporary phenomenology. While Wojtyla took from the scholastic tradition a realistic notion of truth and an emphasis on the objectivity of being, from phenomenology he appropriated the categories of historical, lived experience and the intentionality of consciousness. Ultimately, Wojtyla uses these philosophies for the purpose of developing a unique anthropology capable of challenging the ideologies of Nazism and communism. Central to Wojtyla’s thought is the strong sense of the agency or efficacy of the acting person who is fully involved in his self–determination by his free choice of good or evil. One fully realizes oneself as a human being only through the experience of the self’s freedom in efficacious willing and acting. In general, this is a highly readable account for those seeking to understand the fundamental philosophical categories that have influenced Wojtyla’s moral thought, theory of natural law, and theology.
Icons of Evolution. By Jonathan Wells. Regnery. 362 pp. $27.95.
Everyone who has taken a biology course in the last forty years remembers the textbook drawings of embryos showing the similarities among fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and humans during development. And we remember the photos of light and dark moths resting on tree trunks demonstrating the changes in camouflage coloring as pollution darkened the trees. Both of these classic evidences for Darwinian evolution are now known to be wrong, yet they still appear in textbooks years after they have been discredited by scientists. This new book by Jonathan Wells, an expert in molecular and cell biology, demonstrates that much of what we have been taught about Darwinian evolution is wrong. Wells carefully examines what is now known about ten widely taught evidences for Darwinism. These include, in addition to the two mentioned above, experiments purporting to show the origin of life; the Darwinian tree of life; and Archaeopteryx, the supposed transition between reptiles and birds. All of these icons have either been abandoned by biologists as evidence for Darwinism or are the subject of vigorous controversy. The embryo drawings, for example, were faked, and this has been known for a hundred years. In other matters, such as the light and dark moths, evidence has been presented in the last twenty years that makes the conclusions drawn from the original experiments very shaky. In an appendix Wells evaluates ten popular high school and college biology texts and shows that they continue to present uncritically these discredited examples. That they aren’t replaced with newer, better examples only strengthens the hand of those who maintain that Darwinism is on shakier scientific ground than is commonly thought.
—Preston Simpson, M.D.
Two Religions—One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World. By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Ignatius. 113 pp. $11.95.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s book is a collection of four occasional pieces, the third of which—a brief, edifying homily—has virtually no connection with the volume’s central theme, which is the relation of the “old” and the “new” covenants. The first piece is an exposition of the Catholic Catechism’s teachings on Judaism within the economy of salvation that clearly reaffirms the dependency of the gospel upon the covenant promises made to Abraham. The second essay (the most interesting and accomplished of the lot) concerns the meaning of the word “covenant” and attempts to show that its inward mystery is the love of a God of relation, who in His gracious pact with Abraham already somehow bound Himself to death as the most extreme possibility of this relation, and who therefore proved His faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant upon the cross. The final piece is a meditation upon interreligious dialogue that is most notable for its commendable refusal to dissolve religious truth claims into a featureless and mystical unanimity, but also for its humility and charity of perspective. In all, a modest but worthwhile collection. Scott Hahn’s quite unnecessary Foreword manages to describe the Reformation as “heresy” and the Reformers as “heretics” before two pages of text have elapsed—a sentiment, whether defensible or not, that clashes jarringly with the irenic tone of the good Cardinal’s essays.
—David B. Hart
The Case for Marriage. By Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher. Doubleday. 250 pp. $24.95.
A vigorous and engrossing explanation, backed by solid research, of—in the words of the subtitle—“Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.” Waite is professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and Gallagher directs the Marriage Project at the Institute for American Values. Some of what they say may seem obvious, but in the face of the massive assault on marriage in our culture, many have become confused and tongue–tied in asserting the obvious. The authors attend very carefully to both data and theory, and the result is a book that is a necessary reference in current disputes about morality, culture, and public policy. Strongly recommended.
The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. By Ronald Rolheiser. Doubleday. 257 pp. $21.95.
A superior instance of the deluge of books under the rubric of “spirituality.” Rolheiser is a Catholic with finely honed ecumenical sensibilities, and writes for “seekers” who may harbor suspicion or hostility toward “organized religion” and its churches. The style is very simple, and at points may seem patronizing, but the substance is for the most part solid and the presentation persuasive. The author goes a bit overboard on the centrality of sex in the human condition, although what he has to say in that connection is suggestive and helpful. His concluding and rather cursory reflection on the Father/Mother aspects of God has the appearance of being an afterthought in deference to sexual correctness. These caveats aside, however, The Holy Longing is a book worth reading, and giving to cultured despisers of Christianity.
Religion as a Chain of Memory. By Daniele Hervieu–Leger. Rutgers University Press. 204 pp. $52 cloth, $20 paper.
The author is a noted sociologist of religion in France, and this book is yet another, and very valuable, contribution to the growing literature that rejects and moves beyond the older assumption that there is a necessary connection between modernity and secularization. She contends that human beings have as great a need as ever for religion that is a “chain of memory” but that it is increasingly difficult to meet this need in societies afflicted by historical amnesia. Her prognosis for “religious institutions”—and only institutions can provide communities of memory—is somewhat grim. The argument is accessible to nonspecialists willing to make the effort.
In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. By Alister McGrath. Doubleday. 352 pp. $24.95.
“The English Bible—a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power.” So said Lord Macaulay in 1828, and so says Alister McGrath in his very readable historical overview of the origins and influences of the King James Version. He does not, unfortunately, address the current proliferation of Bible translations and paraphrases, most of which show the extent of the language’s debasement.
Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction. By Stephen B. Clark. Servant Publications. 274 pp. $11.99 paper.
This is a “scriptural introduction” in that it draws deeply on biblical history and texts, but it is also informed by lively attentiveness to liturgical practice and ecumenical agreements and disagreements about the Eucharist. Both Catholics and non–Catholics can welcome this intelligent and readable reflection on the central act of Christian worship.
Blessed Are the Hungry: Meditations on the Lord’s Supper. By Peter Leithart. Canon Press. 186 pp. $11 paper.
Leithart, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America and frequent contributor to these pages, offers arresting and theologically informed reflections on the Eucharist, situating the sacrament within an ecclesiology that challenges the individualism of much Protestant—and, were the truth to be told, Catholic—eucharistic piety. Blessed Are the Hungry is “high” Calvinism, both in substance and style of presentation.
For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun. By Lucy Kaylin. Morrow. 239 pp. $24.
In 1997 Ann Carey gave us Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, which documented and persuasively analyzed the devastation of women’s religious orders in the United States. Lucy Kaylin tells the story of nuns and ex–nuns who, for the most part, welcomed the unraveling as a liberation. While sympathizing with women who hold the Church’s leadership in contempt and who dissent on teachings ranging from women’s ordination to “abortion rights,” Kaylin also longs for the preservation and growth of traditional communities sustained by faith and obedience. The reality would seem to be that one cannot have it both ways. Communities of the consecrated life that are flourishing today are composed of those who have rediscovered the ancient wisdom that liberation comes through obedience, and are prepared to pay the price of being radically and affirmatively countercultural.
Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post–Theological Era. By Stanley J. Grenz. Baker. 362 pp. $23.99.
Grenz is a Protestant theologian of distinction who here offers a historically oriented analysis of what went wrong in evangelical thought about the Church and its mission, and how the wrong might be righted. Of course, almost everybody wants to define themselves and their views as “the center,” but Grenz’s proposal of a “generous orthodoxy” does provide a commodious yet not indeterminate place of meeting for those now separated. His treatment of the project “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is intelligently sympathetic, which is among the features recommending this book as a useful introduction, also for Catholics, to the current state of evangelical Protestant theology.
Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church. By Phyllis Zagano. Crossroad/Herder & Herder. 182 pp. $16.95 paper.
The Catholic Church holds that she is not authorized to ordain women to the priesthood. The most recent and authoritative restatements of that holding, however, say nothing about ordaining women to the diaconate. With intelligence and determination, Zagano marshals the arguments—historical, theological, liturgical, pastoral—for ordaining women to the diaconate. Those who argue for the ordination of women to the priesthood will criticize Zagano for being prepared to accept “second best” (or third best, since the office of bishop is the fullness of holy orders); others will protest her “clericalizing” the idea of vocation at the expense of the dignity of the laity; yet others will note that the problem today is not, as she suggests, sanctuaries filled only with men but sanctuaries filled with women (lectors, eucharistic ministers, etc.) where the priest is the only man. Zagano is aware of these and other objections but she presses on in making her case, and in doing so may be laying groundwork for the consideration of this question if and when it becomes a live issue in the life of the Church.
The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture. By Ruth R. Wisse. Free Press. 395 pp. $28.
Anyone who tries to propose a literary “canon” today is likely to draw flak. Wisse, who is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, well understands the intellectual currents against which she offers this judicious and wide–ranging proposal. She knows that any such canon will leave out what others think should be included, and include what others will deem less than essential; indeed she specifies likely candidates for both categories. There is no people more book–obsessed than the Jews, which means that there are so many authors that major figures (one thinks of Chaim Grade, for example) sometimes get only a paragraph or less. “In the modern period,” Wisse writes, “the God–intoxicated Jews became intoxicated with the world, and the result of their creative experimentation is registered in the diversity of this book.” In fact, there is more full–bore and vestigial God–intoxication among these authors than that generalization would suggest, but Wisse is surely right in saying of the future of Jewish literature, “As with the Bible, the world will also value what the Jews find of value to themselves.” The same, it might be observed, is true of other communities that are, alas, less productive of literature of distinction.
Morality: The Catholic View. By Servais Pinckaers, O.P. St. Augustine’s Press. 139 pp. $19.
As Alasdair MacIntyre notes in the preface, the work of Pinckaers attracted
strong and fully justified notice in this country with the publication in English
of his The Sources of Christian Ethics. As Pinckaers himself notes in
the text, excellently translated by Michael Sherwin, the interest should in
no way be limited to Roman Catholics. Morality recasts the earlier book
in an argument that is both lower and upper case “catholic,” and is accessible
to readers and teachers outside the limited circle of moral theologians and
academic ethicists. Drawing richly on Scripture and the Fathers, Pinckaers contends
that Christian morality is not first of all about obligations but about happiness,
understanding that the happiness of union with God is our natural destiny made
possible by grace. The Sermon on the Mount is at the center of an approach to
morality that turns on the distinction between “freedom for excellence” and
“freedom of indifference,” the former understood as human flourishing and the
latter as a “neutral” capacity to choose between contraries. The proposal of
Morality is thoroughly Christ–centered, hu manistic, and faithful to
the magisterial teaching of the Church. Warmly recommended.