March 1997

Darwin's Black Box.  By Michael J. Behe. Free Press. 253 pages. $25.

Darwinism, once sacrosanct, is coming under increasing attack not from creationists, but from scientists. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, makes the case that the latest discoveries in molecular biology make it inconceivable that the fantastically intricate structures of the cell could have evolved gradually through natural selection.

Behe strongly resists being labeled a creationist. Rather, he is suggesting that science may simply have to acknowledge that there is a designer of the universe. But his book's weakness is that it offers us too little of an alternative to Darwinism. Behe uses 186 pages for a detailed discussion of molecular biochemistry and Darwin's theories, then uses a mere 67 pages to make the case for intelligent design. More is needed.

Darwin convinced an age partly because of the heft of his Origin of Species, and also because of its passionate ambition as a theory. Agnosticism seldom beats passionate belief, even in science. Moreover, people prefer a well-defined idea that may be false to a vague idea that may be true. If the argument from design is a valid alternative to Darwin on any level, it must be put forward passionately and overwhelmingly.

Perhaps the time is ripe for that. Other critics of Darwin are gaining public exposure. Perhaps the time is right for an Einstein of biology to create an alternative to Darwin. All that will require much work, however.

In his acknowledgments, Behe apologizes to his children "for trips to the playground not taken and games of Frisbee not played," adding: "That will now change." If he thought his work done, he was mistaken. The work is only just barely begun -- splendidly in this case -- and for Behe and all who think there is an intelligent designer shepherding the world, an exciting work it is.

- James E. Tynen



The Religious Metaphysics of Simone Weil.  By Miklos Veto. State University of New York Press. 219 pages. $$16 95..

"Man," Friedrich Nietzsche noted in the sonorous final sentence of The Genealogy of Morals, "would rather have the void for a purpose than be void of purpose." The prophet of modernism intended his statement as a condemnation of what he saw as the essential weakness of humanity. But only a few generations later another philosopher, Simone Weil, inverted these terms and made them the centerpiece of a religious outlook in which man is only reconciled to both God and humanity by abdicating his autonomy. By "purposing the void," according to Weil, man becomes "decreated," transfigured and absorbed into the reconciliation of God and His universe.

Despite their opposite viewpoint, Weil's philosophical writings are similar to Nietzsche's, in their idiosyncratic, often aphoristic character, their tendency to draw freely from Christian, classical, and Eastern traditions, and their irreducibility to mere "system." Miklos Veto's achievement is to survey the disparate strands of Weil's religious thought and synthesize them into a one-volume whole that is accessible to the general reader.

Many contemporary readers who see Weil's name regularly cited but are unfamiliar with her work have some intuition of her as a "Christian" thinker, but have trouble setting this aspect of her alongside that of the Spanish Civil War anarchist. Veto's text sets up the parameters of Weil's Christian vision, details the ways in which many of her ideas stem from Plato and Kant as much as, say, Church tradition, and notes the ways in which Weil's thought deviates from Christian orthodoxy, or is simply sui generis.

Weil's central focus on the necessity of man's "decreation" logically emanates from her conception of God and the consequences of Creation. Rather than as the all-powerful Jehovah of Jewish and Christian tradition, Weil views God as having abdicated His essential unity in the act of the Creation. Such was the force of the Creation that it served to "rend" God Himself into two parts: What Weil designates as His "Necessity" -- order, power, or intellectual structure -- is thereby separated from His "Love." There, in the middle of His two selves and separating them, are we, the independent beings who constitute His creation.

Within this framework, the concept of sin denotes for Weil human desire for autonomy and independent existence. "Our sin consists in wanting to be," Weil notes solemnly. In other words, we imagine ourselves to be God.

And what is the hope of God's reconciliation with Himself, the reuniting of His two halves? The model for the decreative process is Christ Himself, both in the Incarnation and the Passion -- i.e., His surrendering of divine autonomy and His consent to suffering. Through their decreation, by emulating God's sacrifice, men no longer stand as obstacles to the reunion of God. By surrendering autonomy, we help to make God once again a seamless garment, and in ceasing to exist ourselves, are absorbed into God.

This is the larger picture of Weil's vision. The bulk of Veto's analysis, however, is devoted to the mechanics by which decreation takes place. Veto analyzes Weil's conception of the various faculties contributing to the decreative process, and it is here that Veto's critical acumen shines: He carefully traces the various roots of Weil's terms and their implications. Despite intrinsic differences between the modes of decreation, the general thrust of all of them is that they serve to carry man outside of himself, into non-existence that contributes to the reunion of God.

At the same time, Veto critiques Weil's metaphysical shortcomings and deviations from orthodoxy. The grand drama of human decreation in the soldering of God's halves necessarily detracts from God's omnipotence and omniscience, veering toward monism rather than monotheism. He faults her ahistoricity, exemplified in her tendency to view "the crucifixion of Christ [as] an eternal thing."

Veto also notes the irony that "Weil, the implacable critic of human baseness and nothingness…represent[s] humanity as armed with the most precious power: that of being the indispensable collaborator in the restoration of harmony within God." Nevertheless, he justly affirms the intellectual breadth of Weil's thought, and what cannot be described as other than her personal "passion for the Cross." In an era in which intellectual Christianity often seems curiously divided from sacrificial zeal, Weil's work is a valuable, even inspirational means of mending that rift.

- Caroline A. Langston



The Harmony of the Soul: Mental Health and Moral Virtue Reconsidered.  By Neal O. Weiner. State University of New York Press. 196 pages. $49.50.

Only in the modern West, Weiner contends, has the connection between goodness and nature been denied. That moral goodness depends on fidelity to human nature was the conviction of the biblical writers, and Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. But modernity sees happiness as the fulfillment of an endless succession of indiscriminate desires. Weiner thinks philosophers have largely lost sight of the connection between human nature and proper functioning. Natural law and the language of virtue have largely disappeared.

The language of virtue, however, has resurfaced in some of the discourse of psychological therapy, where health is seen as the norm. Weiner contends that nature -- the general structure of health and illness -- corresponds to the general structure of virtue and vice.

But Weiner doesn't elaborate on the main arenas of appropriate human behavior. He offers no schema of the virtues, no picture of the typical vices that constitute illness of soul. I would have liked to see his theory supplemented with a theory of basic goods and needs, so we might have a more precise sense of what constitutes harmony of the soul.

- Carroll Kearley



Invisible Allies.  By Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Counterpoint. 334 pages. $29.95.

This is a book Solzhenitsyn groupies will love. Others may not care for it so much.

Invisible Allies was written in 1974-1975 as part of one of Solzhenitsyn's most famous works, The Oak and the Calf, but for the safety of those in Invisible Allies, it was held aside and only recently released. While it was awaiting publication, Solzhenitsyn added notes and comments to the text.

His fans will like the book because it is another book and because it describes production problems of his previous works -- how and by whom they were typed, hidden, and distributed in the U.S.S.R. and exported to the West before his expulsion. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn's goal in writing Invisible Allies was to acknowledge those who helped him solve these production problems.

And he had a lot of help -- scores of people devoted to him, who all seemed to know one another and to be acquainted with the methods of his enemy, the KGB, an organization that does not come across here as a very polished secret service. The bad guys here are petty, vindictive, and frequently ineffective. Not that Solzhenitsyn and his conspirators are so slick in getting around the government. Many of their schemes would make the characters in a boy's adventure story blush in embarrassment. The amateurism of each side gives the U.S.S.R. in this book a curiously small-town quality.

Readers other than Solzhenitsyn's fans may dislike Invisible Allies because the faults in style of earlier works are continued here -- e.g., he provides too many details with too few conclusions for the reader to be completely aware of the pattern of what is being written about.

The style, however, is not all C minus. The prose has a well-nourished readability to it with occasional unusual images ("And so, like a puddle of water stamped on by a heavy boot, my archives were scattered to the four winds…"). In an addendum, the translators provide helpful notes, explaining incidents and identifying characters that otherwise might be obscure. And, also in the addendum, there is a long excerpt from a former KGB agent's memoirs giving the government's estimation of the threat Solzhenitsyn was thought to be.

Other readers may dislike Invisible Allies because Solzhenitsyn's ego, irritating in the past, is still with us. Those irritants are his arrogance, condescension, lack of compassion, damning with faint praise, and tiresome solemnity.

Well, life's not perfect. So the nitty gritty of Solzhenitsyn's writing and personality is not heroic or saintly. Nevertheless, with these faults, he probably did more than any other single person to wreck Communism as a political system. Solzhenitsyn's power had imperfections, but it helped stop a force that many thought could not be contained. Whatever its lack of elegance, it got the job done. This book shows how.

- Richard J. Lanham





Back to March 1997 Issue