December 1997

Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism.  By Christopher Lasch. Norton. 196 pages. $23.

Christopher Lasch first gained attention as a leftist critic of the American Left. From The New Radicalism in America (1965) through The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Lasch seemed to be criticizing radicals mainly because they weren’t radical enough. Acutely aware of the tendency of left intellectuals to bend to prevailing bourgeois cultural fashions while advertising their militancy, Lasch nevertheless shared with those he criticized the assumption that ultimate truth was to be found in some union of Marxism and psychoanalysis.

But already in The World of Nations (1973), Lasch had sounded a different note. He expressed “a long-standing antipathy to…progressive interpretations of history.” At first merely questioning progressivist interpretations of psychoanalysis and Marxism, Lasch gradually moved toward a view of the world and history in which such systems seemed irremediably shallow. In Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Minimal Self (1984), and The True and Only Heaven (1991), Lasch was deepening his critique of contemporary society by reaching beyond progressive secularism to a reconsideration of insights available from art, literature, and religion.

In The Revolt of the Elites (1995), Lasch entertained the possibility that psychoanalysis may be “useless not only for therapeutic purposes but also as a guide to the conduct of life.” Skepticism about Freudianism prompted reconsideration of a religious alternative: “Maybe religion is the answer after all.”

Now, in Women and the Common Life, a posthumously published collection of essays, Lasch questions the feminist search for “a new sexual dispensation” based on science, on the grounds that an understanding of human life also requires all the resources of religion, literature, and the experiences embodied in custom.

Lasch proceeds to offer his description of “a feminism worthy of the name.” It would “not disparage housework, motherhood, or unpaid civic and neighborly services,” would “question the ideology of economic growth and productivity,” and would reject “not only the ‘feminine mystique’ but the mystique of technological progress and economic development.” This feminism would make no accommodation with capitalism but would “make the case for a complete transformation” of the economy. It seems unlikely that Lasch’s call for a new feminism, culturally conservative but politically radical, will be answered.

Moreover, Lasch reiterates the importance of religion, reminding us that “submission to God makes people less submissive in everyday life. It makes them less fearful…less bitter and resentful….” In a time when many people have come to feel, in Lasch’s words, “the unreliability of everything in the world except sharp, small, immediate, and more or less interchangeable pleasures,” Lasch’s corpus of works, now including Women and the Common Life, remains one of the few places we can go to gain some clues about the steps by which we got ourselves into this predicament — and some suggestions about steps we can take to get ourselves out.

- James Seaton



A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence.  By Jeffrey Burton Russell. Princeton University Press. 220 pages. $24.95.

A “history of heaven”? Written by a professor of religious studies? Published by the Princeton University Press? On the basis of title and pedigree (we know about these professors of religious studies, don’t we?) I expected a snide excursion through Christian history, asserting that the promise of heaven has all along been either the product of diseased minds or a tool for keeping the peasants down. Or both.

Many readers of this magazine will see at once that the preceding paragraph demonstrates my ignorance. If I were more informed I’d have recognized Russell’s name and known that he is the author of a highly regarded series of historical works on the history of the Christian conception of the Devil.

I am happy to report that my ignorance is cured and my wariness was unwarranted. This is a fine work of sympathetic scholarship, entirely accessible to the interested nonspecialist and full of important religious insight in addition to comprehensive historical information. The title is not strictly accurate, but it is neater than “A History of the Idea of Heaven,” which describes what Russell has actually written. More specifically, this is a history of the Christian view of heaven, beginning with its Jewish and Greek antecedents and influences and ending, significantly, with Dante. This book is intended as a “prolegomenon to a detailed multi-volume study of heaven.”

Most of us know less than we think we do about this history. From the beginning there has been within Christianity a tension between the Jewish and Greek conceptions of heaven. For Jews, the life to come was always of the body, and the soul without the body a more or less inconceivable abstraction, like the notion of sound without a medium of propagation. For the Greeks, the purely spiritual soul was the only part of a person capable of entering eternity, the body being perishable if not illusory.

The Church, of course, sided decisively against Greek dualism, but her conception of a Beatific Vision as the consummation of human life was a more spiritualized conception of heaven than was typical of Judaism. The latter conceived a paradise sometimes earthly and always earthy as compared to the Greek idea: Jews looked to a transfigured Jerusalem and a renewal of the Garden, not a bodiless return to the One.

The witness of the apostles as recorded in the New Testament is unsystematic at best, if not contradictory, on two key points. The first point is the nature of the vision itself — Timothy and the Jewish tradition (“No human [sic] sees or can see God”) versus Paul (“We shall see him as he is”). The second point is the question of what happens between a person’s death and the end of time. Russell gives a fascinating summary of the various solutions proposed to these and other problems.

More interesting, perhaps, to nontheologians are the visions of heaven he has collected. Some of these seem to be consciously allegorical; others seem to be things really seen and felt by mystics. Overflowing with vivid imagery — jeweled cities, gardens drenched with bliss as with rain, music and water, light and more light — these visions show the influence of the theological development of their times. Some, for instance, give primacy to monastics, some to the hierarchy; some emphasize the City, some the Garden.

None is so consistent and systematic as Dante Alighieri’s Il Paradiso. With a thousand years of Christian meditation at his back, the system of Aquinas open in front of him, and a prodigious poetic gift, Dante utilized enormous resources. Russell seems to believe that he may have had more: a real vision. Whether or not this is true, no one else has matched his work. And doesn’t it seem a little odd that so few have really tried?

I have long been surprised by the lack of interest many Christians seem to show in heaven. A lively conception of what we stand to gain from the struggles of this life was the lifeblood of the first Christians, but in our time we seem to have reduced the faith to something closer to Confucianism — a prudent guide to right conduct in this life, to be followed by a vague afterlife which does not seem to be much of a reward. In part this must be the result of that horribly attenuated vision which reaches its reduction to the absurd in the standard cartoon heaven: robed figures standing around on clouds with nothing much to do.

A boring or silly heaven implies a boring or silly faith. Russell knows this, and although this is not a work of direct apologetics he has done much to clear away the silliness and boredom and to show us a glimpse of what we really stand to obtain. Russell says in his preface that “the best history must be written both without bias and with personal commitment,” and his work is a fine example of that precept.

- Maclin Horton



The Fire of Love: Understanding Purgatory.  By St. Catherine of Genoa. Sophia Institute Press. 91 pages. $5.95.

How can the created soul endure the luminous radiance of divine perfection? St. Catherine of Genoa meditates profoundly on the soul’s purity and its purification. She writes, “God created the soul pure, simple, and clean of all stain of sin, with a certain beatific instinct towards Himself,” yet sin “draws it away from this instinct.” To be in God’s presence with even a trace of the stain of sin is to feel the shame that moved St. Peter to say, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinner.”

This awareness of the incompatibility between human sinfulness and divine perfection is one aspect of the Church’s doctrine of Purgatory and is basic to St. Catherine’s The Fire of Love, the visions of this 15th-century mystic.

Catherine apparently was granted the experience of Purgatory, and describes it as a state of simultaneous joy and pain. The joy occurs because the soul “sees itself drawn by God with such loving fire” that it “is melted by the heat of the glowing love for God, its most dear Lord, which it feels overflowing it.” Its single desire, to be totally united with God, takes the form of burning love. The pain results from the fact that “encrustations” on the soul — the “rust of sin” — block the desired union. “The soul, because it is hindered by sin, cannot go where God draws it; it cannot follow the uniting look by which God would draw it to Himself” and it “perceives the grievousness of being held back”; it “craves to be unhindered.” The fire of love for God, in its very intensity, “burns” away the sinfulness that causes the separation, so that, ultimately, the union can take place, at which point there is left only the pure joy of Paradise.

Catherine, like other religious writers, endeavors to make vivid to the reader the pains and deprivations of Purgatory. (A slightly earlier and much earthier popular work, St. Patrick’s Purgatory, reports in detail the noise and stench, the darkness full of demons, the tortures of “the iron and the fire” that await the unpurified but saved soul.) The fantastical and graphic nature of such descriptions does not impair the doctrinal correctness of the underlying theology. These writers wish to impress upon their readers the urgent necessity of amending their lives by the relatively mild disciplines available to the living, so as to avoid the more intense suffering required to purify the soul after death.

In this genre, Catherine’s work stands out for its more profound apprehension and felicitous portrayal of the emotional landscape of Purgatory. Unlike the author of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, she communicates to the reader something of the glory — not just the gore — of the experience of purgation. Catherine’s remarkable attribute is her assurance that in Purgatory there exists a joy that is every bit as intense as the pain. That joy derives from the fact that “the souls in Purgatory have wills accordant in all things with the will of God, who therefore sheds on them His goodness,” giving the soul “a happiness beyond what can be told.”

The timeless landscape of Catherine’s vision, the work of a gifted woman who is striving to translate experience of another order into human language and “cannot find words exalted enough,” is a salutary reminder to the present age that we have an eternal destiny. Don’t just read The Fire of Love. Read it once a month.

- Elaine Hallett





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