Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 76 (October 1997): 61-64.
Plato on the Human Paradox. By Robert J. O’Connell, S.J. Fordham University Press. 162 pp. $30 cloth, $15 paper.
Like Santayana’s famous dictum that those who don’t read history are condemned to repeat it, Whitehead’s line that all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato is one of those clever observations whose damaging effects increase the more they are repeated. Dean Rusk, after all, studied the history of the Munich Conference between Hitler and Chamberlain, and proceeded to lead his country into Vietnam. And Whitehead’s line about Plato can blind us to issues unknown in ancient Athens. Nonetheless, clichés don’t stop being true for being clichés. And Whitehead certainly was on to something, as Father O’Connell’s book so richly demonstrates. Taking Whitehead at his word, O’Connell has written an Introduction to Philosophy for undergraduates that takes up the central topics usually covered in an introductory course and treats them through Socratic/Platonic eyes. The great advantage of this approach is that, true to the Socratic method, it forces the student to think and not just regurgitate spoon-fed positions that have accumulated in the history of philosophy. And for the general reader, there is the added bonus of having one of the best short introductions to Plato available.
— Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Jerusalem and the Holy land: The First Ecumenical Pilgrim’s Guide. By James R. McCormick. Rhodes and Eastern. 207 pp. $12.95.
City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem. By Meron Benvenisti. (Translated by Maxime Kaufman Nunn.) University of California Press. 178 pp. $24.95.
Christians often travel to the Holy Land as pilgrims—only to spend their time there as tourists. Jerusalem and the Holy Land, a little book written by a trial court judge from Traverse City, Michigan, addresses both the tourist and the pilgrim. For the tourist McCormick gives useful historical and topographical information; for the pilgrim he discusses different ways of relating to the holy places (the Orthodox, for example, do not want historical lectures, they want to be in Jerusalem for the liturgies of Holy Week). There are brief chapters on Jewish and Muslim holy places, and a final practical section on how to plan a trip, suggestions on where to stay (a Christian hospice, not a first-class hotel), even a set of quizzes to pass the time while moving from one site to another on a motor coach. City of Stone is much more a reader’s book than a traveler’s, giving an informed account written by a native of the Jerusalem of today in light of the history of the last hundred years. At times Benvenisti’s sympathy exceeds his understanding, and he has the predictable liberal habit of calling any intense form of religion "fanatical," but his discussions of how the city came to take its present shape, the interaction of the several communities and the tensions within these communities, and the role of the city administration over the last two generations are thoughtful and illuminating. The most perceptive and original part of the book is a fascinating final chapter on Jerusalem’s cemeteries—Jewish, Christian, Mus lim—drawn largely from information on the tombstones.
— Robert Louis Wilken
How Wide the Divide: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation. By Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen F. Robinson. InterVarsity. 228 pp. $11.99.
Evangelicals and Mormons consistently resist ecumenical rapprochement with one another—indeed, they often denigrate one another—and so the mere fact that the evangelical Blomberg and the Mormon Robinson can hold the respectful meeting recorded in this book is an encouraging sign. Both New Testament scholars, the pair discuss scripture, God and deification, Christ and the Trinity, and salvation, and to the surprise of each other (and the reader) they find Mormons and evangelicals to be closer than expected. Some of this, it must be admitted, results from the fact that neither scholar is fully representative of his larger confession. Each frequently finds himself saying, "Most of the members of my church believe such and such, but they are wrong." Their real differences emerge in discussions of early Christianity, where Mormons believe in a second-century apostasy and evangelicals typically hold to some continuity of authoritative Christianity. The creeds, for example, form a real sticking point, Robinson rejecting them as nonbiblical and Blomberg using them as a plumb line to measure orthodoxy. Evangelicals may possibly find Blomberg’s distinction between fundamentalists and evangelicals unpersuasive, particularly when he argues that fundamentalists, not evangelicals, stir up denominational problems. Mormons will certainly find Robinson’s defense of the Book of Mormon disappointing. When he declares that the book "seems" to him ancient but "seems" to Blomberg modern, he accepts an easy—and easily refuted—relativism. Stronger arguments are available, and Robinson has some responsibility to provide more than just a shrug. But the tone of the book remains its greatest strength: Robinson and Blomberg demonstrate that conversation need entail neither compromise nor discord.
— Alan Goff
The Quest for Unity. Edited by John Borelli and John H. Erickson. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 251 pp. $11.95 paper.
Since the Great Schism of 1054, the story of the relationship between Christians East and West reads like a tragic romance story: attraction and hunger for unity, anger and rivalry, misunderstanding and confusion. The Quest for Unity records the results of the most recent phase of this stormy affair. During the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic and Orthodox clergy and lay theologians met and began a dialogue that continues to this day. The Orthodox-Catholic Consultation in the U.S. has issued over two dozen statements, reactions, and responses on topics from the Eucharist to the sanctity of life to mixed marriage. This collection of those documents will be valuable, not only to the researcher or scholar, but also to everyone who wonders, "Can this marriage be saved?"
— Frederica Mathewes-Green
A Conscience as Large as the World: Yves R. Simon versus the Catholic Neoconservatives. By Thomas R. Rourke. Rowman & Littlefield. 286 pp. $62.50 cloth, $22.95 paper.
Yet another attack on the gang of three: Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel. Rourke, who teaches political science at Florida International University in Miami, is interested in political economy and so focuses chiefly on Novak and on Neuhaus’ one book on the subject, Doing Well and Doing Good. Yves Simon (1903-1961) was a very distinguished Catholic thinker who is, in fact, frequently and sympathetically employed by Novak, but Rourke thinks Novak got him all wrong. It is hard to know what to make of a book such as this, since it seems more than possible that Simon’s views of forty and fifty years ago would have changed in the light of subsequent discoveries about the limits of the welfare state and the strength of market economies. Rourke himself is not much impressed by those discoveries, being a more or less unreconstructed "social democrat" of a markedly anticapitalist bent. What is clear enough, but hardly seems to warrant book-length exposition, is that the author does not like the gang of three. Whether or not Yves Simon is also "versus the Catholic neoconservatives," only Simon can say. We may hope for the answer to that in a better time and place.
Europe: A History. By Norman Davies. Oxford University Press. 1,365 pp. $39.95.
A great jumble of a book that attempts to encompass Europe’s story from Ancient Greece to the fall of communism in 1989-91. The author, a distinguished English historian, says the book was written in spurts and starts during dull moments at academic conferences, spare hours in hotel rooms, and even at the beach. It shows. The text betrays an erratic structure of narrative, frequent repetitions, and abundant errors of dates and names that could have been avoided by working closer to a good library. For most of the book, Davies offers few new interpretations that would warrant such an extended retelling of a familiar story, but his attentiveness throughout to the importance of Eastern and Central Europe, especially of Russia and Poland, is most refreshing. After almost nine hundred pages, the last two chapters on Europe after 1914 come alive with authorial urgency in challenging conventional wisdoms on a number of delicate questions, including responsibility for World War II and Allied mendacities in connection with the Nuremberg trials. Looking to the future, Davies thinks the influence of the U.S. has peaked and he favors European union, although he believes everything is up for grabs until the role of Russia is clarified. A potpourri of appendices and the littering of the main text with distracting "capsules" conveying incidental information of limited interest make this less than Oxford’s finest hour in the making of books. But Mr. Davies now has the really big project off his chest, and it should be welcomed by those who have an insatiable addiction to reading history, and never tire of hearing the story one more time.
The Nature and Destiny of Man. By Reinhold Niebuhr. (With an Introduction by Robin W. Lovin.) Westminster/John Knox Press. Two volumes: 305 pp. and 327 pp. $32 paper.
A theological classic that has been brought back into print at a relatively affordable price (although the poor photo-offset printing makes this edition less than a bargain). In his Gifford Lectures of 1939-40, delivered within earshot of German bombers attacking Britain, Reinhold Niebuhr gave the fullest exposition of his neoorthodox theology. "Magisterial" is an adjective frequently used to describe the volumes based on those lectures, and that is not an overstatement. The Nature and Destiny of Man is a tour de force of energy and insight that, among other things, compares and contrasts classical, modern, and biblical views of human nature; restates and demonstrates the contemporary relevance of the doctrine of original sin; distinguishes between those cultures that expect a Messiah and those that do not; explains the scriptural understanding of "progress" in history; sketches a "Christian realist" account of social ethics; and peers ahead into the end things of parousia, last judgment, and resurrection. Niebuhr, whose scholarly credentials did not quite measure up to previous Gifford lecturers, once said he was not competent to treat any specific theological subject, so in all modesty he chose to speak on the only topic he knew well—the nature and destiny of man. Though more accessible than the average work of systematic theology, these volumes still assume a minimum of theological and philosophical literacy. The story is, after an hour or two of lecturing, Niebuhr was approached by one of the locals, a pious Scotswoman who told him, "I dinna understand a word ye said, but I ken ye were makin’ God great." Indeed.
Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth-Century Theology and Philosophy. By Stanley Hauerwas. Westview. 237 pp. $28.
Few contemporary thinkers have so relentlessly and respectfully engaged their contemporaries in argument as has Stanley Hauerwas. His life’s work is an argument, and, if it sometimes seems to be only one argument, it is an argument of surpassing importance that reveals new dimensions as it encounters new challenges. Here are essays of interaction with major thinkers of such a range as to give credibility to the book’s subtitle. At least it is such a probing of mainly Protestant theology and philosophy, although the Methodist Hauerwas is increasingly in conversation with Catholics as well, notably with John Paul II. Among those who receive extensive treatment are John Cobb, Reinhold Niebuhr, James Gustafson, Paul Holmer, John Milbank, Oliver O’Donovan, and the author’s friend and mentor, Paul Ramsey. Readers of Wilderness Wanderings will come to understand, if they did not understand before, why Hauerwas and his work figure so prominently in the pages of this journal.
The Authoritarian Specter. By Bob Altemeyer. Harvard University Press. 374 pp. $39.95.
RWA stands for Right-Wing Authoritarianism, and a Canadian psychologist here evaluates questionnaire answers from hundreds of North American politicians to see where they come out on the RWA scale. Surprise! Liberals good. Conservatives bad. And when the latter favor laws protective of the unborn, they are clearly "prefascist" and the precursors of Nuremberg rallies in our future. A thoroughly silly book. From Harvard University Press yet.
Religion in the Public Square. By Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Rowman & Littlefield. 176 pp. $16.95.
Two philosophers debate and interrogate one another on perennial questions about religion and public life. Audi of the University of Nebraska takes the position of "neutrality" toward religion in the liberal order, while Wolterstorff contends for a more theological understanding of the liberal tradition. John Locke and other worthies of that tradition are very much present in this intelligent, informed, and always respectful exchange.