The Culture of Disbelief
By Stephen L. Carter
Review Author: Fred Beckley
Stephen L. Carter, a “moderately pro-choice” Episcopalian, has written a very readable book that drifts around a simple and almost singular idea, that the religion clauses of the Constitution should be read as assists in avoiding tyranny. To Carter, religions are “independent centers of power”; they serve as “democratic intermediaries” — sources of authority which prod adherents to question or resist the power of the state — and, as such, they help preserve democracy.
Carter deploys secular arguments to try to convince nonreligious people of the importance of religion in the public square. So targeted, his approach is at least politically expedient. But wittingly or not, his approach tends to reduce religion to a force in service of the democratic state. Carter does not satisfactorily differentiate religion from any other sort of “democratic intermediary,” such as the Kiwanis Club or the Junior League. The Constitution makes the distinction, and delineates freedom of association and freedom of religion as separate rights. If we are to take religion seriously, then whether or not it serves as a “democratic intermediary” should be either inconclusive or irrelevant to a discussion of its proper relationship to the state.
Although he does not say so explicitly, Carter suggests that as long as someone has moderate religious views not too far afield of liberal ideology, then that person’s input into the public square should be welcomed. He shies away from extremes, such as “the scary religious rhetoric of the 1992 Republican Convention.” Unfortunately, however, many important issues are addressed at the edges. To ignore less-than-respectable religious views, which Carter tends to do, precludes finding a meaningful, comprehensive solution to the relationship of religion to the state.
These criticisms boil down to faulting Carter for not taking religion seriously enough. They should not be taken too far, for Carter has given us something of true value, a level-headed treatment of a subject about which level-headedness too often fails to garner much attention.
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
By Elizabeth A. Johnson
Review Author: Janice Daurio
The theological world sorely needs articulate feminist theologians who know how to write, who can get past all the rhetoric, and, above all, who can provide satisfying solutions to important theological problems raised by women. But this book does not do that.
To begin with, the author is not articulate. The style is convoluted. Here’s a sample: “Though classical discussion deals exclusively with positive experiences, the idea of being is born in the dialectic of the negative contrast experience as much as, if not more than, in the analogical movement of mind from the wonder of things.” Got that?
Furthermore, Johnson has not gotten past the usual rhetoric. We hear about perichoresis, God as Mother, panentheism, and such. (Panentheism enthusiasts claim to have successfully avoided pantheism, but I remain unconvinced.)
The author also gets bogged down in uninteresting issues. It is not interesting to be reminded that men have abused political power far more than women have, for women haven’t had much political power. What would be interesting is to compare the abuses inflicted by men on the political level with the abuses inflicted by women in the family. It should be as hard to see women as pristinely good as it is to see the rest of humanity that way — but for Johnson it’s easy to be naïvely romantic about women.
It is not interesting to point out that women are angry. We know that. What we want are guidelines for directing anger in ways that preserve women’s personal integrity while furthering the dignity of all human beings, male and female. We don’t get that.
An interesting issue is whether to put our money on empowerment or powerlessness. A helpful solution would be the kind of brilliant synthesis Thomas Aquinas is famous for. But we don’t get that here. On this issue Johnson contradicts herself, apparently because, like many of the politically correct, she is dewy-eyed about the powerlessness of impoverished Third World women but is also pulled by the trendy concept of empowerment.
What is most needed is help in sorting out Tradition from traditions, so we can discern what, among the many suggestions given by feminists, should supplement traditions and what should replace them, and why. Here again the author is not helpful. She even quotes one theologian to the effect that although we should not discard Nicene language, we should ignore it. I fail to see the difference between discarding and ignoring.
Parts of the book could be helpful if you need a quick and dirty summary of classical theology –say, to cram for an exam in your Intro to Theology class. But by attacking simplified versions of classical theology, Johnson implies that traditional theologians assume their language excludes further refinements in language. But good classical theologians don’t assume that. Furthermore, in comparing classical theology with feminist theology, Johnson doesn’t play fair, for she deploys a superficial reading of traditional theology.
This is not the book feminists who are faithfully Christian have been waiting for.
From Cottage to Work Station: The Family's Search for Social Harmony in the Industrial Age.
By Allan C. Carlson
Review Author: Maria Valencia Vree
The dawn of the industrial era marked the end of the self-sufficient family. Home and workplace ceased being one and the same. No longer was food produced, cloth spun and made into clothing, or furniture built by family members for the family; rather, these necessities were commercialized as people moved into urban areas and worked in factories and offices. The household economy was forsaken for the industrial economy. Says Allan Carlson: “When the family structure surrenders to market organization, it disappears as a meaningful entity with the power to hold or shield its members from the degradations of rival centers of authority.”
According to Carlson, the industrial revolution, and thus the removal of the wife and mother from the home and into the workplace, have been the underlying causes of the demise of the traditional family. He identifies the patens patriae doctrine of American law (the parenthood of the state) as institutionalizing this decline of the family. More and more, the state viewed itself as protector of children and provider for families. This took the form of Social Security and the welfare state, which robbed the family of its autonomy and “subverted its integrity.” The state “became the breadwinner,” replacing and almost making obsolescent the role of the father. “Stripped of its economic, educational, and security functions, the…family lay prostrate before the looming power of its ancient rival, the state.” With industrialism, social decline, and the invasive state working to dismantle the family, it had precious few resources left with which to fight back. Suburbs, noble efforts such as the family wage, and even religion failed in the end to reverse the decline of the family.
Because market forces and state authority are here to stay, Carlson concludes that the family’s search for social harmony in an industrial age is fruitless. This leads one to ask: Is there no familial harmony in the industrial era? Cannot the family adapt to the new situation? Carlson dismisses economic reform, technological advances, religion, and even love as possible answers. He asserts that man’s biological instinct for “a stable life within a family” cannot “tame the revolutionary thrust of industrial capitalism.” Hence, Carlson creates a dichotomy: Only by dismantling the industrial state and returning to the family economy can the family be rescued. Otherwise, the family faces inevitable demise.
Experience shows, however, that Carlson has given us a false dichotomy. In the face of its extinction, family life has increasingly become valued. This family consciousness has been the impetus for widespread efforts to revive the family. One need only listen to the news to hear talk about family values, the recent family leave act, etc. Indeed, family has become a household word.
Man has been careless with his natural environment, has ruined habitats, threatened many species with extinction, and caused the extinction of countless others. Only when the effects of man’s reckless actions neared the point of no return were drastic changes made. Similarly, as man’s advances now threaten his family environment and the very survival of the family, people are making efforts to rescue their families — and the family as such.
Hence, there is a third choice. While mankind will never return to life as it was before the industrial revolution — i.e., to the household economy — the family and the industrial state can be made compatible. Carlson is wrong in equating the household economy with family life. The obstacles and challenges to keeping the family strong only make success more cherished, and more worth striving for. In a world where love, community, and compassion are rare commodities, those who have obtained them guard them much more closely, and work to assure their longevity. Unfortunately, Carlson can’t see this.
A Robert Coles Omnibus
By Robert Coles
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Review Author: Michelle Bobier
“Whether or not we live a decent life depends upon what our moral imagination makes of us.” Not, notice, what we make of it. Such concerns surface repeatedly in the work of Robert Coles, including A Robert Coles Omnibus, a gathering of over 100 of his essays (including five reprinted from the New Oxford Review).
Coles’s own moral imagination has largely been shaped by a variety of writers, especially William Carlos Williams. Coles notes that Williams was “interested in the distinction between character and intellect.” Coles is also interested in that distinction, particularly as applied to the social sciences. He comments on the impossibility of value-free social science, and notes, by way of agreement, that Flannery O’Connor “had no use for the religious uses to which many have put the social sciences…the resort to behavioral interpretation…that is meant to serve as a moral substitute for all too many of this age’s secularists.” He also quotes Christopher Lasch: “The naïve idea that sickness accounts for badness and that badness necessarily results from being misunderstood is the prejudice of a therapeutic morality.” Coles comments: “We want to ‘analyze’ everything, including our children’s behavior, and at the same time we have convinced ourselves that we lack the authority to take a firm stand on much of anything — with respect to their lives or our own.” Filling this “moral vacuum” is “a large crew of hustlers — talking ‘child development’ and ‘human motivation.'” In sum, “All these ‘experts’ are disguised moralists who want to give us answers and more answers, to put us in our place…. The covert nature of their preaching…is a measure of how uncomfortable we have learned to be with an open acknowledgment of any moral — never mind spiritual — concerns we may yet have….”
This is strong stuff, especially from a psychiatrist. Coles, though, is a psychiatrist whose upbringing was both scientific and religious. There is more than a touch of admiration in his tone when he quotes Flannery O’Connor’s statement, “My audience are the people who think God is dead.” By the same token, he speaks against the “blind, rudderless personal condition” that has urged many to plunge into self-help movements that are “quasi-religious in nature: an effort on the part of the lost to find something half-believable and at least a tiny bit transcendent.” Similarly, “psychiatrists have unwittingly (and occasionally, I fear, by conscious design) become…heirs to the religious devotion that middle-class agnostics still have, yet make a point of denying.”
A Robert Coles Omnibus treats a great variety of subjects. Rarely does one come across such a wide-ranging writer, or such a deeply humane one.
Song for Nobody: A Memory Vision of Thomas Merton
By Ron Seitz
Publisher: Triumph Books
Review Author: Patrick F. O'Connell
During the last decade of his life, Thomas Merton developed a close friendship with Ron Seitz, a Louisville poet. Now, in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of Merton’s death, Seitz has published a warm, at times humorous, and frequently insightful memoir of his mentor and friend.
The “plot line” of Song for Nobody might be described as Seitz’s ongoing efforts to come to terms with his sense of loss at Merton’s death and with the enduring impact of Merton’s life on his own. The first, shorter section, “In the beginning…,” dated a week after Merton’s death on December 10, 1968, takes the reader through an all-night writing session in Seitz’s basement study as he attempts to articulate the shock and pain attending the news of his friend’s accidental electrocution in Bangkok. It includes accounts of the funeral Mass at Gethsemane and a memorial service in Louisville. The more extensive reminiscences of the second part, entitled “…is my end” (the titles are from Eliot’s “East Coker,” slightly altered), draw principally on Seitz’s return to Merton’s hermitage and its environs in 1988, and the recollection of specific incidents and conversations the various scenes evoke.
The impressionistic approach of this “memory vision” is in the main effective. The primary intent is not to provide the reader with biographical information but to share an experience of Merton as hermit, poet, informal spiritual and literary advisor, and human being filled with vitality and gifted with a rare degree of wisdom. The author conveys vividly a sense of what it must have been like to know Merton in the flesh.
Some of the most memorable scenes are those in which the author is more observer than participant, as when he shows Merton playing and dancing with the Seitz children the day before leaving for Asia. The book is somewhat less satisfying when it is more self-conscious. Much of the language throughout is “arty,” frequently using verbs as nouns. The author’s attention to the process of writing, and his inclusion of what he himself considers false starts, prove irksome on occasion, and the movement in and out of his reveries at the hermitage often comes across as a trifle awkward and contrived. Some of the lengthy discussions Seitz recounts between himself and Merton are somewhat unconvincing. Seitz describes his methodology as “using the novelistic, fictional technique of characterization and dialogue.” In much of the reported conversation, Merton’s voice sounds indistinguishable from Seitz’s. The frequent inclusion of Seitz’s poetry at points seems intrusive. A couple of the photographs perhaps also divert the reader’s attention a bit too much from Merton to Seitz.
Despite these occasional distractions, Seitz is to be commended for giving the reader a rare glimpse of the informal Merton, “at home” in the hermitage and in the world, and for highlighting some of the paradoxical qualities of the loquacious hermit, the mystic who enjoyed a beer. This is certainly not the first book about Merton which should be read. But for those who have learned in more breadth and depth about Merton’s life through Michael Mott’s massive The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton or William Shannon’s “thematic” biography Silent Lamp, Seitz’s Song for Nobody can serve as a useful and enjoyable supplement.
Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason
By John Milbank
Publisher: Basil Blackwell
Review Author: Philip E. Devine
In discussions of the relationship between Christianity and other outlooks, a central concept is that of the secular. Secular society in the relevant sense is not a society of atheists, but one that avoids confrontation with ultimate questions. The U.S. Constitution is, in this sense, a secular document. Critics of the secular ask: How can we keep questions about God out of our public concerns except perhaps by an imposition of anti-Christian orthodoxy?
The contemporary Anglican writer John Milbank attempts to affirm theology’s own agenda and put secular society (including secular thought) on the defensive. He maintains that the claims of secularity are largely spurious.
Milbank argues that contemporary political theology has overrated Marxism and sociology, and neglected the importance of specifically Christian modes of social thought. He concludes by defending an Augustinian social theology.
One point of entry into Milbank’s rich argument is his dialogue with Marx, whom he provocatively reads as the “deconstructor of the secular.” He praises Marx for showing that the “presuppositions of liberal political theory and political economy are culturally specific.” But he criticizes Marx for, among other things, supposing that capitalism’s extraction of surplus value will necessarily be recognized as irrational, even by those disadvantaged by it. He points out the possibility — it is a reality — of a postmodern defense of capitalism for which capitalism’s failure to justify its distribution of wealth and power is its principal selling point. Pro-choice ideology of the sort that proclaims “abortion on demand and without apology” harmonizes smoothly with the logic of capitalism, which takes as central the celebration of arbitrary will (my example). For the losers in the marketplace, as for all victims, reality remains what it was for Orwell in his despair: a boot coming down on a face forever and ever. From the inadequacies of Marxian socialism, Milbank appeals to the Christian socialism of Ruskin and the republican socialism of Proudhon.
Regarding the type of postmodernism inspired by Nietzsche and Heidegger, Milbank provocatively calls it “the ontology of violence.” For this “malign” postmodernism, the existence of a multitude of incommensurable truths means that “every truth is arbitrary, every truth is the will-to-power.” Milbank argues that the only possible response to this relativism is to pledge allegiance to a particular tradition. But he is not content with the naked fideism this line of thought suggests. He sees the doctrine of the Trinity as establishing peaceful difference as an ontological paradigm. Only such a doctrine, he argues, can serve as the basis for the “other city” — or “real social practice…still faintly traceable as a pure persuasion without violence” — which he opposes to the regime of violence and deceit that is secular civilization.
He asserts that God is “the immediate source of political criticism” and that the Church is a “lived anticipation” of “the ideal community.” This argument leads to proposals that sound very theocratic.
So far Milbank looks like a socially minded paleoconservative, distinctive in that he places the end of all good things in the 11th century. But by defining Nietzsche and Christianity as precise opposites, he makes impossible any Christian presence in the realm of power. The Church can only forgive sin, however gross or bloody, not reprove it, on pain of becoming a “hellish anti-Church.”
Thus, Milbank’s argument vacillates between rule by God’s official spokesmen, and a Christian withdrawal from politics. But neither of these strategies is possible for the constitutionally pliant Anglican Communion of which Milbank is a member.
Despite the failure of his argument, intellectuals should welcome his invitation to take Christianity seriously.
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