Volume > Issue > Briefly: April 1991

April 1991

A Question of Values

By Hunter Lewis

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 253

Price: $17.95

Review Author: C.H. Ross

Books that try to provide blueprints for profitable thinking often disappoint. Coleridge, for example, was constantly trying to hammer out methods of reasoning. For his trouble, Carlyle said of him that he had never seen “so great an apparatus got ready for thinking, and so little thought.” But Coleridge (considered as a prose writer) was ahead of his time. In our era of self-help literature, it was inevitable that writers would turn their attention to philosophy and make some attempt to reintegrate it with our unexamined lives.

Hunter Lewis attempts a taxonomy of moral thought. His idea is to gain an understanding of various moral outlooks by sorting them out and classifying them. In his universe of values, there are six provinces, and each of us can be pronounced a citizen of one of them. All values, in the end, are derived from authority; deductive logic; sense experience; emotion; intuition; or “science.”

Difficulties with such a scheme crop up quickly. Very often a value system will consist of two or more of these elements inextricably bound together. For example, Lewis sees Catholic belief as the paradigm of an authority-based value system. True, it is grounded in faith, which is marked by a willingness to accept God’s word because of who He is, and that supplies the Catholic’s motive for seeking sound values. But little of the content of Catholic morality purports to stem solely from direct revelation. Traditional Catholic natural law morality draws on two of Lewis’s other categories — logic and sense impressions. (Thus, St. Thomas dismissed the proposition that the world does not exist by saying that it “contradicts observation.”)

Lewis’s analysis of his moral categories is too idiosyncratic to be of general use.

Lewis also has an unfortunate tendency to give his pet thinkers a free ride. (Hume, in particular, benefits from this.) Schools of thought at variance with his favorites, on the other hand, get short shrift. (Thus, the utilitarians are cavalierly disposed of, having run afoul of Hume’s denial of the is/ought connection. I am no fan of Bentham & Co., but they deserve better than to be ignored on that old rogue’s account.)

Some of Lewis’s proposed categories are ill-developed. We are left wondering, for example, about the distinction between “emotion” and “intuition.” The latter is described as “unconscious thinking that is rational rather than emotional.” That is not much help, and the paradox is not really explained later. The unconscious mind indeed exists, and it is very powerful, but is it for that reason “rational”? The section on intuitive value systems is short and heavily focused on Oriental meditative techniques. Some acquaintance with Lonergan might have helped here.

This book will surely stimulate thought. Still, the reader is left wondering whether he has missed something and feeling unsure for whom the book was meant. It is, in substance, an outline fleshed out with the author’s (admittedly charming) pensees. “Remarks,” said Gertrude Stein to Hemingway in a lucid moment, “are not literature.” Ah, but are they philosophy?

The God Who Commands

By Richard J. Mouw

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 214

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Paul J. Weithman

John Calvin is reported to have lamented on his deathbed that the citizens of Geneva never liked him. “But then,” he conceded grudgingly, “I never liked them either.” The anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, comports well with widely held portrayals of Calvin and his theology. Calvin is thought of as a misanthrope. Calvinism is depicted as a severe regimen, especially tailored for the reprobate and as arduous as morning drills in the Alpine snows. For the Calvinist, God exercises absolute and arbitrary sovereignty over a sinful world; His command must be unthinkingly obeyed if His subjects are to escape His punishments.

In The God Who Commands, Richard J. Mouw argues that these portrayals are caricatures. In their stead, he sketches a divine command theory of morality in which Calvinism’s essential features are prominent while a wide variety of sources in the Reformed tradition are brought together to mellow the harsh lineaments of early Calvinism. The result is what Mouw, a Calvinist, calls a “softer” picture of Calvinism.

According to the gentler Calvinism of this learned book, everyone in “the drama of life” is called to build a relationship with God — not one of blind obedience to a remote sovereign, but one of intimacy responding faithfully to divine love.

Still, Mouw emphasizes that human beings must realize their sinfulness, must appreciate that they can flourish as God intended only if they follow His commands, and must follow God’s will even when strongly tempted to do otherwise. “The proper human response in the context of this will-to-will confrontation [between God and man] is not so much understanding as surrender.” The first virtues of the Calvinist are therefore trust in, and humility in the face of, the God who commands.

The centrality Calvinism accords humility and trustfulness, however, poses a troubling question: Do the cultivation and exercise of these Christian virtues harmonize with the qualities required of citizens in a well-functioning democracy? In his Radical Principles, Michael Walzer has stressed how inimical to democracy humility can be. And in Ordinary Vices, Judith Shklar has argued that liberal democrats must abandon the Christian concern with the vice of pride; humility, she says, has too often been used to excuse repressive politics.

This problem has long bothered Calvinists, as Mouw notes. His own treatment of the problem showcases an important implication of his softer Calvinism. The God of Calvinism is not, Mouw argues, a sovereign who demands of the powerless unquestioning trust. Rather, He is a God “who offers the broken chariots of the Egyptians and the nail-scarred hands of the divine Son as vindication of the right to tell us what to do.” Trust and humility are, Mouw writes, cautious and discriminating virtues which take as their object the God who commands because He loves and liberates. Thus does Mouw alter the widely held picture of Calvin’s God as Hobbes’s monarch. Thus also does he avoid the common complaint that the trustful nature Calvinism demands of its adherents is incompatible with the healthy distrust of authority a well-functioning democracy requires of its citizens.

Mouw has, however, another response to the objection that Calvinist and democratic virtues are incompatible. In a very interesting paper on John Locke, Mouw has argued that trust is indeed a democratic virtue. He claims that democracies function best when their citizens place their trust in one another, and that Locke himself thought mutual trust of great importance. The premise that citizens in a democratic society are trustworthy despite the depravity of original sin is a stark contrast to the pessimistic tones of Augustine and Hobbes. It does, however, fit with Mouw’s softened Calvinism. At some later point this view will no doubt be integrated into the ethical theory Mouw lays out in The God Who Commands.

Mouw’s book is a valuable contribution to contemporary ethics by a scholar whose profound love for the God of revelation is evident on every page.

The Logic of Solidarity

By Gregory Baum and Robert Ellsberg

Publisher: Orbis

Pages: 232

Price: $14.95

Review Author:

Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis to observe the 20th anniversary of Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. Paul’s encyclical was premised on the importance of assessing the justice of the international economy and the likelihood of international development. John Paul II’s decision to commemorate Populorum Progressio indicated the importance he too attaches to development — and to the global turn Catholic social teaching has taken in the last three decades.

The later encyclical self-consciously develops lines of reasoning first drawn in the earlier. Central to Paul’s encyclical was the claim that widely held conceptions of international development were inadequate. The goal of development, Paul argued, should be specified, not by appealing to economic values like efficiency and productivity, but by appealing to human dignity and the cultural integrity of peoples. John Paul II adds to these two the value of solidarity.

Solidarity, John Paul writes, is the proper moral response to the fact of global economic interdependence. Political and economic actions on one side of the globe, he argues, have profound consequence for the material and spiritual well-being of those on the other. The ideal the Pope propounds is therefore of a world in which the economic and political institutions that make us interdependent function for “the good of all and of each.” Only by cultivating a sense of solidarity with all human beings can the transition to such a world begin; that sense will be reinforced and proper development facilitated by a world economy in which none profits at the expense of another.

Gregory Baum and Robert Ellsberg have edited a volume that examines what they call “the logic of solidarity,” one that contains the text of Sollicitudo and 11 essays examining it. The essays are written by authors in a variety of specialties, and the diversity of topics is striking: Maria Riley gives a feminist assessment of the encyclical; editor Baum discusses the “structures of sin” of which the Pope makes mention; Donal Dorr examines the virtue of solidarity; and William Tabb spots affinities between the thought of the Pope and that of Fidel Castro. A historical essay locating Sollicitudo in the tradition of social encyclicals should, however, have been included; inexplicably, there is little sustained treatment of the crucial notion of interdependence.

Though a provocative collection, The Logic of Solidarity falls short of what the scholar might want and what Catholic social teaching certainly needs: searching technical analysis by economists, political scientists, and philosophers. If the vision of Catholic social teaching is to be realized, it must be presented systematically, with careful discussion of the costs its realization would impose and of the domestic and international institutions it would require. These are tasks inappropriate to the pastoral character of papal encyclicals, but tasks at which Catholic specialists should now be hard at work.

Outlines of Romantic Theology

By Charles Williams

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 113

Price: $14.95

Review Author:

This is the latest in Eerdmans’s invaluable series by authors in the Inklings, the Oxford literary circle around C.S. Lewis. Outlines of Romantic Theology is a hitherto unpublished, seminal essay by Anglican layman Charles Williams (the book also contains the long out of print essay “Religion and Love in Dante: The Theology of Romantic Love”).

This handsomely produced volume is edited by the premier Williams scholar, Alice M. Hadfield, and her magisterial introduction is alone worth the book’s price. She defines romantic theology as “the working out of ways in which an ordinary relationship between two people can become one that is extraordinary, one that grants us glimpses, vision of perfection.”

Anyone interested in the theology and spirituality of marriage, in Coventry Patmore (the poet of marriage), in Dante (the poet of unrequited love), or in a major influence on Anglican and Roman Catholic thinking before World War II needs to read this book.

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