June 2018

Karol Wojtyla’s Personalist Philosophy: Understanding Person and Act.  By Miguel Acosta and Adrian J. Reimers. Catholic University of America Press. 260 pages. $65.

The question of the self and how a person relates to the larger world has been a topic of debate for some time, although issues of autonomy, human rights, and personal dignity in the past 50 years have made the question especially acute. We see the power of the state to refashion our lives, and the power of corporations to refashion our desires, and we want to know how we fit into the larger picture and if anything of the self can remain in the midst of these various forces. Certainly some of the most heated policy debates of recent years have revolved around questions of the self — what constitutes personal identity and its legitimate expression, what rights does an individual have (especially in an increasingly pluralistic society), and what is the source of one’s dignity and worth throughout life? Since World War II, the philosophy of personalism has attempted to wrestle with these very topics. Throughout his pontificate, St. John Paul II reflected extensively on the dignity of the person. And now, Miguel Acosta and Adrian Reimers, in their book Karol Wojtyla’s Personalist Philosophy, explore how these reflections were influenced by personalist thought and were an extension of the philosophical project that Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) began from his earliest days as a philosopher.

One of the basic problems of looking at Wojtyla’s philosophy is justifying why one should do so. Unlike Benedict XVI, whose theological writings prior to his pontificate were well known (if not always well received), John Paul II was a more obscure figure within philosophical circles before his election as pope. As a result, it is at least fair to ask whether we would be quite so concerned with his thought had he not been pope, and whether his writings from prior to his pontificate have significance beyond a historical footnote. Acosta and Reimers acknowledge this in their introduction, noting that “the simple fact that his work was done in the Polish language prevented it from being widely known.” However, the philosophy Wojtyla developed during his philosophical career influenced not only his own papal writings but Church documents from before his pontificate — documents that have been analyzed and debated to such an extent that Wojtyla’s “philosophy has spread throughout the world and is being developed in institutes, research centers, and universities.” Whether his philosophy was popular before his papacy, it has become highly influential since then; it proposes a serious way of looking at the world, and therefore deserves to be examined.

Moreover, Acosta notes in the first section of the book that “like the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Wojtyla’s philosophy is open to theology, and in some points the faith illuminates his philosophical conceptions.” Tracing the progression of Wojtyla’s interests — from literature to scholastic metaphysics to phenomenology and theology — we see how he developed a “Christian philosophy” in the classic sense. Wojtyla drew upon a wide range of thinkers to develop his own thought, but he was always sure that whatever he drew upon, the result would be open to God and revelation. Because of this, Wojtyla’s philosophy can serve as a point of departure for other contemporary Christian thinkers who are seeking to engage current lines of thought without keeping those lines quarantined from the Gospel. Acosta observes that there are numerous ways to interpret Wojtyla’s engagement with contemporary philosophy, and various answers to how influenced he was by Thomism, on the one hand, and phenomenology and personalism on the other. Acosta notes that Wojtyla’s “main preoccupation” was “the person explained by an adequate anthropology and ethics coherent with this anthropology.” Reimers, whose primary contribution is in the second part of the book, takes it a step further, saying that for Wojtyla, “the question of man is the central issue of our time.” As challenges mount against the idea that there is something unique about being human, it becomes critical to understand who we are and our place in the cosmos.

Much of the book’s exploration of Wojtyla’s anthropology comes in the final part, authored by Acosta. This section is a double service for English-speaking readers. The first is that it clearly shows us Wojtyla’s thoughts on the human person. The second, arguably just as important, is that it does so by outlining and developing the major themes of Wojtyla’s 1976 work Person and Act. Most English-speakers will know the book under the title The Acting Person, the translation produced by Wojtyla’s long-time friend Anna Tymieniecka. However, The Acting Person does not purport to be a strict translation of the original but a new edition. As a result, there have often been disputes (which do not need to be replayed here) as to how well it represents Wojtyla’s thoughts. For his analysis, Acosta relies partly on the Polish original, Osoba i czyn, and partly on a recent translation into Spanish. Over the course of the third part (which constitutes roughly the final half of the book), we see how Wojtyla put together both the vastness of the objective world we observe outside ourselves and the depth of the subjective world we experience within ourselves — and how persons come together and experience an inter-subjectivity as subjects who influence and are influenced by other subjects in community.

Understanding John Paul II’s thought is not always an easy task — his writing is often dense, the topics are subtle, and he encourages readers to change certain of their ways of thinking about the world. Acosta and Reimers explain things as clearly as they can, but they do not shy away from the technical elements of Wojtyla’s work. As a result, it can be difficult for the first-time student of Wojtyla or phenomenology to grasp everything on the first read. However, for anyone who desires a comprehensive understanding of the human person with an openness to revelation, reading this work will be a greatly satisfying task.

- David C. Paternostro, S.J.



Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition.  By Daniel Castelo. Eerdmans. 214 pages. $30.

Daniel Castelo follows his professor Stanley Hauerwas in regarding Pentecostalism as closer to the Catholic tradition than the Protestant one. Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition is partly an answer to a question a teacher once gave him on a final exam: “Is Pentecostalism a Protestant movement?”

Castelo’s succinct discussion of Christian history highlights how in the West theology and spirituality split after the first millennium. He then aims to show how Pentecostalism can reawaken the link between the two: “Spirituality and theology are in need of reconnection so that they can mutually inform and constitute one another as they are utilized to account for the God of Christian worship.” Castelo portrays Pentecostalism as more than the domain of the uneducated hillbilly or the ecstatic anti-intellectual, as commonly imagined. His Pentecostal spirituality is sophisticated and refined.

The author builds a sort of ecumenical bridge, but not a sentimental one, the good feelings of which can’t bear the weight of important issues. Quite the opposite. He distances Pentecostals from evangelicals, claiming very basic differences, including in scriptural hermeneutics. He critiques evangelicals for what he calls their scholastic reliance on reason to make sense of every aspect of the Bible. This stems from their discomfort with mystery. The Pentecostal attraction to mystery, he argues, is a strength.

There is, Castelo notes, a Pentecostal “sense” of things, though he is not at pains to dissect what, precisely, this means. Pentecostals see in Western Christianity a poverty of the experience of God, and in evangelicalism a sole and therefore unbalanced reliance on cataphatic theology, or “positive statements about the mystery” of the faith. His critique of scholasticism includes a rejection of the need to know everything. He characterizes the Pentecostal view as pre-modern, which means that “within contemporary issues and debates, [Pentecostals] exude a particular kind of eccentricity.” And more, “This kind of eccentricity has made them wildly relevant on other scores, particularly as the modern project has shown fissures in its conceptual and rational framework.”

The Pentecostal reading of Scripture is not fundamentalist-scholastic, in which biblical interpretation fits into a systematic and reasoned theology. “Pentecostals read Scripture not so much to encounter the facts or truths of the Christian faith,” writes Castelo, but “to encounter the living God of Christian confession,” which is to say that “the Pentecostal hermeneutical orientation is relational and experiential to its core.” This encapsulates much of what he says about Pentecostal spirituality in general, which, from the scholastic perspective, may seem inconsistent and whimsical — and in part explains the evangelical/Pentecostal split.

Castelo seems at home in both the Roman Catholic tradition (with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Josef Pieper, SS Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross) and the Orthodox tradition (with SS Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo Areopagita), as evidenced in his interesting and wide-ranging discussion of apophatic theology, also called negative theology. He describes apophaticism as leading to “a kind of linguistic and conceptual humility. Apophaticism in this sense can point to many things, including the inadequacy of words, forms of silence, and different ways of engagement so as to form a collective response that signifies human limits.” Apophatic theology declares God’s unknowability, and Castelo claims that it is central to Pentecostal spirituality, and that many common mischaracterizations of Pentecostals by other Christians originate from the lack of a clear apophatic theology in their own belief system.

Pentecostal epistemology is grounded in one’s experience of God. That experience shapes how one sees the world. Apophatic theology comes in handy here because not all experience of the numinous can be expressed easily. Castelo gives readers a solid understanding of how this experience of God grounds a worldview: “For Pentecostals, the theme of encounter involves an implicit theological realism. Rather than going deeper within, Pentecostals typically urge seekers to ‘get more of God’ by pressing deeper into God’s reality.” Such analysis shows not only why Pentecostalism has seen such enormous worldwide success, but also why Christians of all backgrounds need to start taking it more seriously. The Pentecostal experience has much to say to non-Pentecostal theologians.

Given the book’s title, it is not surprising that Castelo aims to show that Pentecostalism is not entirely new. There is, he says, “a family resemblance between Pentecostalism and Christian mysticism.” Highlighting Pentecostalism’s connections to Christian history raises many interesting issues, not all of which are addressed by the author. One big disappointment is the book’s lack of a discussion of aesthetics. The shopping-mall look of many Pentecostal churches is not terribly attractive to those whose spirituality includes Bach, Mozart, and fine religious art and architecture. A fuller appreciation of Pentecostalism’s connection to wider Christian history would require a deeper engagement with traditional forms of Christian art, music, and architecture. This is especially crucial if Pentecostals do indeed worship with all their senses, as Catholics and Orthodox Christians do.

Another lack is Castelo’s recurrent criticism of “logo-centricity.” What, precisely, is logo-centricity, and why is it a bad thing? One has the impression that this is Pentecostal insider talk. But other than this singular lack of clarity, Castelo presents Pentecostalism in a clear way for the non-Pentecostal reader. Indeed, Castelo succeeds in showing that Pentecostals are not so alien after all. In fact, they offer much to the world, even while being a work in progress whose shortcomings still need to be addressed.

- Brian Welter





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