Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 82 (April 1998): 57-59.
The Flight from Science and Reason. Edited by Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, and Martin W. Lewis. New York Academy of Sciences/Johns Hopkins University Press. 593 pp. $19.95 paper.
This book contains the proceedings of a conference of the same title sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, and includes forty-two essays by a distinguished group of scholars in the sciences and humanities. Its purpose, like that of Gross and Levitt’s earlier book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, is to counter the trend towards unreason represented by such movements as social constructivism, feminist epistemology, eco-feminism, radical environmental philosophy, deconstructionism, and afrocentrism. The essays are with few exceptions excellent, and in some cases brilliant. Several contributors virtually identify reason, science, and Enlightenment rationalism, and regard the present crisis as being due to an abandonment of Enlightenment ideals. Given virtually no consideration in this book is the alternative view that what we are witnessing is not so much an attack on the Enlightenment as a decadent phase of it. Two questions are left largely unexplored: why this flight from reason is happening now, and why it is happening almost entirely on the political left. A blot on an otherwise fine book is its brief section on religion (presumably included to console the left), which treats all religion, except the most desiccated modernism, as a form of right-wing irrationality.
— Stephen M. Barr
Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. By Peter W. Williams. University of Illinois Press. 344 pp. $34.95.
The fourth of a six-volume interdisciplinary series of books on "Public Expressions of Religion in America." American religious historian Peter Williams’ Houses of God is an impressively broad and well-written illustrated survey of American religious architecture and the circumstances of its creation. Attentive to the influences of liturgy, denominational tradition, architectural style, social class, and ethnicity, Williams has nevertheless chosen to view his subject primarily through the lens of region. His seven chapters range from New England to the Pacific rim (including Alaska and Hawaii). For obvious reasons, Williams focuses much attention upon the various mainline Protestant, evangelical, and Catholic communities that have possessed the economic wherewithal to produce grand architecture. But he does not forget (except for the Seventh-day Adventists) the churches and temples of smaller and more marginal religious communities, buildings typically overlooked in standard surveys of American architecture. Houses of God should appeal to a general audience, as well as to historians ignorant of American religious architecture and architects ignorant of American church history. The book’s most irritating flaw is the author’s relentlessly polite Episcopalian-scholarly prose: readable and informative, but not the penetrating or polemical critical analysis for which this topic calls. To anyone who does not share Williams’ unarticulated but evident assumption that novelty is a primary and authenticating architectural virtue, or his equanimity in the face of the truly dreadful state of postwar religious architecture, Houses of God is irenic in the extreme. Nevertheless, highly recommended.
— Philip Bess
Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists, 1920-1948. By Heather A. Warren. Oxford University Press. 199 pp. $37.
The author, who teaches at the University of Virginia, provides an informed overview and analysis of the Protestant thinkers who laid a moral and theological foundation for American internationalism. In addition to Niebuhr, figures such as John Bennett, Francis P. Miller, Georgia Harkness, and Henry P. Van Dusen played major parts in the development of a "Christian realism" that also shaped the beginnings of the World Council of Churches and—she indicates but does not argue—continues, mutatis mutandis, to mark the efforts of groups such as the Christian Coalition today. Perhaps that will be the subject of her next book. The pres ent work evidences both a mastery of sources and analytic acuity in tracing the complex connections between the world of ideas and the direction of public affairs—connections more elusive when the ideas are theological and moral. A well-written and valuable study.
Restorers of Hope. By Amy L. Sherman. Crossway. 254 pp. $13.99 paper.
For local churches that are ready to get serious about really helping poor people, this is the book. As practical as it is hopeful, this volume reflects Sherman’s thoughtful research into dozens of programs that have been tried and tested, pointing the way toward sustained and constructive engagement with better ways of fighting poverty.
Interpreting the Free Exercise of Religion: The Constitution and American Pluralism. By Bette Novit Evans. University of North Carolina Press. 294 pp. $45 cloth, $17.95 paper.
The author makes an impressive case for an understanding of pluralism that requires a high degree of flexibility and nuance in the interpretation of the two provisions of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment—although she insists on treating them as two distinct propositions, or clauses, with the predictable result that she ends up in the separationist, albeit moderately separationist, camp in this debate. The accommodations that some seek for religious communities that have a radically different understanding of human flourishing are, she believes, incompatible with pluralism. The vision of such communities is "perhaps ultimately preferable to the plural one," but "such a vision is ultimately not consistent with the American cultural and political heritage. Whether one thinks it is better or not, it is simply not ours." Her italicized "ours" is the nub of the argument. Like John Rawls, she finally posits her universe as normative, refusing to recognize that this is a de facto establishment of religion imposed against the threat of establishing religion. Nonetheless, Professor Evans has made a well-argued and civil contribution to the never-ending debate about religion and public life.
The Protestant Face of Anglicanism. By Paul F. M. Zahl. Eerdmans. 112 pp. $19.
The dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in Birmingham, Alabama, has produced a spirited tract in unapologetic defense of the Protestantism of Anglicanism. It would not please the authors of an earlier tractarian movement, as Mr. Zahl knows full well. Whether his mix of theological orthodoxy and evangelical piety centered in unmediated grace has a future in the Episcopal Church of this country is, to say the least, uncertain.
Last Rights? Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Debated. Edited by Michael Uhlmann. Eerdmans. 656 pp. $35 paper.
A splendid achievement. Uhlmann of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., has put together a remarkable range of information and arguments bearing on continuing debates about the end, and ending, of life. The book is that unusual thing, a debate that really lets all sides have at it. There are essays by Ronald Dworkin, Hadley Arkes, Jack Kevorkian, Derek Humphry, Leon Kass, and Gilbert Meilaender, as well as the Ramsey Colloquium’s "Always to Care, Never to Kill," plus pertinent court decisions and statements by medical associations. This is an indispensable reference in a controversy that will continue to roil our public life for as long as life continues to be terminal.
The Irony of Virtue: Ethics and American Power. By Ernest W. Lefever. Westview. 254 pp. $26.
Lefever was the founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and was nominated by Ronald Reagan for the human rights desk in the Department of State but was not confirmed. Starting out as a liberal pacifist in World War II, Lefever’s was a stormy path to the Niebuhrian "realism" that he staunchly defended during the Vietnam years and defends still today. This book of essays written over several decades captures a significant part of past and present Protestant debates about the imperatives of moral responsibility in a fallen world.
Trappist: Living in the Land of Desire. By Michael Downey. Paulist. 176 pp. $35.
The land of desire is Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, a Cistercian monastery. This movingly beautiful book is adorned with striking photographs, both color and black and white, by Michael Mauney. The text by Michael Downey is an invitation to understand how people today are still finding their lives by losing their lives in prayer, work, and the contemplation of the mystery of God. Warmly recommended.
The New Religious Humanists: A Reader. Edited by Gregory Wolfe. Free Press. 306 pp. $25.
The editor of Image, a journal of religion and the arts, has brought together essays by some of the finest writers around, including several regular contributors to these pages, to address the connections between religion and the human project. He is guided by Max Stackhouse’s definition of religious humanism: "Humanity cannot be understood without reference to God; and neither God nor God’s revelation can be understood except through the lens of thought and experience." In his introduction Wolfe suggests, with some justice, that alternative humanisms have exhausted themselves, and that we just might be witnessing a resurgence of an understanding of the human that begins with our beginning and proper end. This book provides heartening support for that hope.
Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine. Edited by Russell Shaw. Our Sunday Visitor. 751 pp. $39.95.
If you have the Catechism of the Catholic Church, why would you need a book such as this? The answer is that this is much more than a clear statement of "doctrine," although it is that. The forty eminently qualified contributors have produced brief articles on almost all facets of contemporary Catholic faith and life, providing a reliable guide also to current controversies. A valuable reference for academic, parish, and personal libraries.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. By Soren Kierkegaard. Volume I. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press. 630 pp. $99.50 cloth, $29.95 paper.
The Hongs continue their inestimable contribution to Kierkegaard studies with a fresh translation of one of his most eccentrically brilliant works. The notes supplied by the editors skillfully illuminate the intellectual and spiritual world against which SK rebelled and, in his rebelling, changed.
The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today’s Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods. By Robert L. Woodson. Free Press. 158 pp. $20.
Woodson heads the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and here relates the grassroots methods by which contemporary "Josephs" use mediating institutions to triumph over the "Pharaoh" of oppressive urban poverty. The book includes an incisive essay by William A. Schambra on the contrasts between government and voluntary efforts to renew troubled communities.