Volume > Issue > Briefly: April 1995

April 1995

The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith

By Avery Dulles

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 299

Price: $35.00

Review Author: Patrick O'Connell

Fr. Avery Dulles is perhaps the most respected American Catholic theologian currently writing. Throughout a distinguished career, he has been noted for a rare ability to combine three crucial elements of theological discourse: an encyclopedic mastery of historical and contemporary sources, an organizational and stylistic clarity which makes his work accessible to a wide audience, and a commitment to measured discussion rather than polemic. These qualities are again evident in The Assurance of Things Hoped For, which continues the author’s reflections on faith dating back at least to essays in Revelation and the Quest for Unity (1968) and The Survival of Dogma (1971).

Dulles traces the development of the Christian approach to faith from its biblical foundations to the present day. He is a reliable guide through the murkiest as well as the most luminous periods. As he approaches the present, his discussion becomes more detailed, and the positions of all the major theologians of the past century, Protestant and Catholic, are thoroughly examined. Particularly fascinating and instructive is the juxtaposition of von Balthasar and Rahner: Dulles points out their common “reaction against the ‘two-story’ extrinsicism of late Scholasticism” as well as the differences between Rahner’s “anthropological” and von Balthasar’s “aesthetic” approach to faith.

While individual readers might quibble about the relative amount of attention given to various authors (e.g., does Louis Billot really require slightly more space than St. Paul?), there is no doubt that Dulles has provided a judicious and penetrating summary of the entire course of development of ideas about Christian faith.

In his chapter on “Models and Issues,” he arranges the various approaches to faith he has surveyed into seven models: propositional, transcendental, fiducial, affective-experiential, obediential, praxis, and personalist. Each, he proposes, contains a valid and valuable insight into the meaning of faith, and each has inherent limitations which need the complementary insights of the other models. This does not of course mean that Dulles does not take a definitive position on key issues concerned with faith.

Dulles’s wisdom shines through both in the conclusions he proposes and in the process of reaching these conclusions. It is difficult to conceive of a work that could communicate so much significant information and such discriminating evaluations more thoroughly or fairly than Dulles has done here. Once again he has made a major contribution to contemporary theology.

While admiring this magisterial achievement, I must nevertheless confess to some twinges of disappointment. A case in point: For at least the past 15 years my own thinking and teaching about faith have been dependent on Dulles’s discussion of the key components of faith as conviction, trust, and commitment, first articulated in The Survival of Dogma. This triad does make brief reappearances in the new book and of course its individual components are discussed in detail throughout, but it is not used as an organizing principle, nor is it particularly emphasized. It does not appear at all in the chapter on models of faith, though it would seem to be the underlying basis for those models, and could have been helpful in making connections between some of them. An introductory chapter presenting a preliminary analysis of these three characteristics (perhaps a reworking of “The Changing Forms of Faith” from The Survival of Dogma) could have provided the reader with a helpful orientation for both the historical and systematic portions of the book.

The Way of the Lord Jesus, Volume Two: Living a Christian Life

By Germain Grisez et al.

Publisher: Franciscan Press

Pages: 950

Price: $35

Review Author: John Robert Popiden

Once upon a time, the Catholic Church took very seriously the practice of each member confessing his sins to a priest. The educators of priests established a technical course of study to prepare priests to hear confessions and be able to give an evaluation of sins in accord with the teachings of the Church. That course of study was called moral theology, and the books used were known as manuals of moral theology. The common method of moral analysis relied upon natural law in accord with the moral teaching of Scripture as taught by the Church. In practice, using natural law meant that the moral reasoning of priests was understandable to reasonable penitents everywhere.

One of Vatican II’s reforms was that moral theology “should draw more fully on the teaching of Holy Scripture.” In the blink of an eye, the manuals ceased to be used, because natural law is not all that scripturally oriented, and because of other reasons. It is ironic that a Catholic philosopher, Germain Grisez, together with a support group, has undertaken a task no prominent American Catholic moral theologian has: writing a complete and coherent course of study in moral theology for priests in training. This second volume of a projected four aims to be “in accord with Catholic doctrine” as shaped by Vatican II, Paul VI, and John Paul II.

The bulk of this second volume examines the many practical moral issues of daily life, and many of its arguments presuppose the first volume. By far the longest section covers marriage, sexual acts, and family life. This discussion is really a book within a book and provides as wide a range of topics within a coherent outlook as one can find in the relevant literature. The book is highly critical of the dominant moral theologians who dissent from particular Church teachings.

This is not a book to pick up lightly. But it provides what cannot be gotten elsewhere. My own sense is that there continues to be a scarcity of the kind of spirituality needed to sustain the coherent and systematic view of Christian living Grisez has presented. Addressing that problem is not the province of moral theology, but it is an enduring problem that also needs to be confronted.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

By Mark A. Noll

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 274

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Philip Blosser

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” So writes Wheaton College historian and first-rate evangelical mind, Mark Noll, in this well-documented and eminently readable study of the decline of American evangelical thought. Unsparing in his indictment of current evangelicalism yet deeply engaged with its fate, Noll’s cri de coeur is both an exasperated diagnosis and a desperate call for reform.

According to Noll, evangelical Protestants enjoy increasing wealth, status, political influence, and educational attainment. They claim a history of intellectual achievement — Luther, Calvin, Milton, Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards. Yet, despite this and despite their considerable numbers, they contribute little to first-order public discourse. Despite their many colleges, seminaries, and publishing houses, they don’t sponsor a single research university or support a single magazine devoted to in-depth interaction with modern culture.

How is this possible? Noll explains how many of the features responsible for the earlier success of evangelicalism in America are the very things responsible for its current weakness. He also shows how evangelicals lost the universities in the secular post-Civil War climate, and how fundamentalists at the start of this century preserved basic elements of the faith only at the cost of embracing disastrous and anti-intellectual obsessions with dispensational millenarianism, the Antichrist, and such.

The ironies of evangelicalism are well illustrated in what Noll calls the “conundrum” of Jonathan Edwards. On the one hand, Edwards was “the greatest evangelical mind in America”; on the other hand, he promoted “a program that led to the eclipse of the evangelical mind in America”: His well-meaning revivalist program fostered a populist, charismatic style of leadership that undercut the traditional authority of churches and planted the seeds of anti-historical individualism and immediatism inimical to the evangelical mind.

No less illuminating is Noll’s symbolic comparison of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) with William Jennings Bryan’s famous Cross of Gold speech before the Democratic National Convention (1896). Both appealed to religion and addressed social concerns, but beyond this the differences are telling. Leo delivered an encyclical, Bryan a speech. Leo assigned the Church a critical role in meeting the social crisis; Bryan appealed to individuals. Leo’s was an authoritative pronouncement, Bryan’s an exercise in persuasion. Leo drew on historical authorities, like Aquinas; Bryan drew on the emotive appeal of a mythic American past. One finds in Bryan the non-ecclesiastical moralism, emotivism, populism, and activism that pervade the political discourse of evangelicals today.

Significantly, Noll argues that the “evangelical intellectual renaissance” touted by some in recent decades is more apparent than real. Any renewal of evangelical thought that has occurred “is mostly a matter of evangelicals’ overcoming the encumbrances of the evangelical heritage and finding themselves in a position to exploit patterns of thought offered by other Christian traditions,” such as the Dutch Reformed and Catholic. Evangelicals have had to learn that much of what is distinctive about American evangelicalism is not essential to Christianity, and vice versa. “At this stage in our existence, evangelicals do not have a lot to offer in intellectual terms as such. We have frittered away a century or more, and we have much catching up to do. We need a lot of help, which may come from other Christian traditions…where continuous intellectual activity has been undertaken as a spiritual discipline.”

The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority

By John Patrick Diggins

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Pages: 515

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Jeaiv Bethke Elshtain

John Diggins is one of the foremost interpreters of the American ethos. How did we Americans come to be what we are? What are the major currents and tribulations in our history? His latest book is a timely effort that unpacks the charms of pragmatism, puts on display its prominence in all spheres of American life, gives equal time to its opponents, and raises questions about pragmatism’s durability as a guide through the tumults of late modernity (Diggins confesses that he is more struck by pragmatism’s limits than by its possibilities).

Pragmatism “looks to the future to undo the past,” and sees “progress growing out of the expansion of scientific intelligence alone.” Small wonder we Americans went for it. We have been a people with its shoulder to the wheel, purveying Progress hither and yon. But the strongest portions of Diggins’s text are those in which he excavates an American counter-tradition, voices not in thrall to the story of America as moving ever upward and onward. Henry Adams, for example, saw no linear trajectory in our past, present, or future. Instead, history is a story of reversals, of “disruptions” and “catastrophes.” In fact, the science we believe we can bend to our wills is more likely to “wreck us”: “We are like monkeys monkeying with a loaded shelf….” Adams looked to the past or those moments that survive, fitfully, in modernity. He was drawn to veneration of the Virgin and the construction of Chartres, to those energizing symbols “that could draw on spiritual power” and “perhaps discipline and refine the larger society itself.”

Pragmatic Americans worship at the altar of “experience,” available in principle to everyone, of course, but empty because pragmatism’s appeal to experience bypasses the most important questions: Whose experience? To what ends and purposes? By their fruits ye shall know them, we were taught — not by their experiences ye shall exculpate them. Thus, Diggins says: “in pragmatism one finds neither a deep sensibility to alienation nor much anxiety about the eclipse of authority and truth.” He worries that pragmatism has become a pain-free elixir, hawked to cure all our ills when, in fact, in the current mega-doses in which it is being administered it is making us sicker by the day.

John Henry Newman: Selected Sermons

By Ian Key

Publisher: Paulist

Pages: 416

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Ralph St. Louis

Newman composed these sermons during his more than 20 years of preaching ministry in the Church of England. The publication of both collections, one popular and the other scholarly, indicates a growing respect for a thinker who often transgressed the proprieties of his age. Newman was not especially interested, for example, in the mechanics of social improvement. He did not share an enthusiasm for the kind of answers that added such luster to the reputation of Cardinal Manning, who boldly championed some of the great causes of his day, including the rights of labor, temperance, and even antivivisectionism.

Newman sought the good society in the transformation of the individual — though such grace of course brought a social obligation. “Each Christian,” he said, “is bound to be a sign of the rising again of Christ…a monument to be seen and read of all men.” Given the astonishing success of this mandate in Newman’s own life and the range of his influence, it is not surprising that John Paul II declared him Venerable in 1991.

The sermons are worth reading because they clearly explain what coming to be a sign of the rising again of Christ means. They contain far more sustenance than one is likely to get these days from trendy homilists and religious writers. Newman is not mawkish. Above all he does not lack the mental and spiritual toughness that the fear of the Lord — that particularly challenging and often neglected gift of the Holy Spirit — can inspire.

Fortunately, the sermons are also still quite readable. Newman’s voice and style cross easily from his time to ours. Lacking his directness and simplicity, many of his literary contemporaries have not fared so well.

Part of the appeal of Newman’s voice surely lies in its harmony of feeling and reason. He acknowledged the emotional element in religion. But for Newman the faith has substance; it is precise and certain, not a shifting mass of probabilities or, however acutely experienced, sentiments.

Authentic belief and the self it shapes, Newman argues, are products of the dynamic between reason and feeling. “Let us then neither be contented with that cold faith of the mere intellect which is consistent with supreme devotion to the enjoyments of this world,” he counsels, “nor again with that hot and feverish faith of mere emotion which is powerless to work a change in the heart or cleanse it.”

Despite his emphasis on individual responsibility, Newman assumes true Christian development will take place in a supportive environment. He does not anticipate in these sermons a post-Christian West where public policy would subvert reason with ideology, and sensibility with concupiscence. For Newman civil institutions, and especially the schools, have a responsibility to sustain the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Today the neo-paganism that so garishly illumines the twilight of the West makes more critical than ever the need for Newman’s legible Christian, “a monument to be seen and read by all men.” Becoming such a text, becoming again a sign of the risen Christ, means suffering with Christ. To accept and even welcome such suffering, as Newman stresses, is to dissolve fear and desire into the lyricism of heroic and graced self-determination. “Set your face like flint, when the world ridicules, and smile at its threats,” he advises. “Learn to master your heart when it would burst forth into vehemence, or prolong a barren sorrow, or dissolve into unseasonable tenderness. Curb your tongue, and turn away your eye, lest you fall into temptation. Avoid the dangerous air which relaxes you, and brace yourself upon the heights.”

John Henry Newman: Sermons 1824-1843

By Vincent Ferrer Blehl

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 472

Price: $90

Review Author: John Noffsinger

St. Catherine of Siena is one of a number of medieval mystics whose works are being revived, scrutinized, and enjoyed in the late 20th century.

Mystics reach into a deeper level of experience to help us reconnect ourselves to a mysterious and transcendent world; their writings remind us that our being is grounded in an imperishable reality often obscured by the numbing crush of daily living.

While Catherine did not write voluminously, the range of her writing is impressive. O’Driscoll arranges her collection around the three major areas of Catherine’s work: letters, prayers, and her major work, The Dialogue. In her letters Catherine’s observations are perceptive, her advice insistent: “Come now, have you more than one soul? No. If you had two, you could give one to God and the other to the world.” She also offers loving advice to a wavering and insecure Pope Gregory XI: “Father, get up courageously, because, I tell you, there is nothing to fear! However, if you don’t do what you should, you will have every reason to be afraid.”

In her edition O’Driscoll includes a generous selection of the 26 prayers of Catherine that have come down to us. Catherine neither wrote nor dictated these prayers; some of her followers, who were present when she prayed aloud, transcribed them. Many of Catherine’s prayers read like poems, particularly in the intensity of their imagery. Some are startlingly direct in their mystical awareness.

Love is the leitmotif that runs through her thought and her theology, both of which achieve fullest expression in The Dialogue, a conversation between Catherine and God. O’Driscoll has done the reader a service by including highlights, “nuggets of theological and spiritual gold” as she terms it, from this difficult and discursive work. O’Driscoll also includes the “Song of Gratitude,” an ecstatic hymn of praise and thanksgiving that appears in the last chapter of The Dialogue. In this song Catherine movingly addresses God from the position of human finitude: “You, Light, have disregarded my darksomeness; you, Life, have not considered that I am death; nor you, Doctor, considered these grave weaknesses of mine. You, eternal Purity, have disregarded my wretched filthiness; you who are infinite have overlooked the fact that I am finite, and you, Wisdom, the fact that I am foolishness.”

This anthology makes accessible to a large reading public the extraordinary sensitivity and affection of Catherine of Siena, gifts grounded in love.

Catherine of Siena: Passion for the Truth, Compassion for Humanity -- Selected Spiritual Writings

By Mary O'Driscoll

Publisher: New City Press

Pages: 144

Price: $8.95

Review Author: Patty O'Connell

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, the cook at Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery in LaGrangeville, New York, has assembled a wonderful collection of easy-to-follow recipes, arranged seasonally, each accompanied by a thoughtful quotation and marvelous woodcuts. The book’s airy and soothing lay-out renders it lovely to browse through, and its large-format hardcover design makes it practical, for it stays open and flat during use. The deep green typeface is evocative of the leafy vegetables celebrated in the recipes here.

For his previous volume, From a Monastery Kitchen, Brother Victor chose vegetarian recipes without regard to the region of the world that inspired them. This Good Food, which does include some fish and seafood recipes, concentrates on French vegetarian cuisine, suitable for the family and monastic table. The author’s Introduction and a brief chapter entitled “Some Notes About Monastic Life” that open the book offer commentary on the wholesome natural food that is the basis of the monastic diet. In these preliminary pages Brother Victor also maps out model recipe plans for everyday and for more elaborate meals, based on the typical French meal order: soup, main course, salad, cheese and dessert. At the other end of the book he devotes chapters to sauces, pastry doughs, and sodium-free herbs, and spice blends.

But the heartbeat of This Good Food is the recipes (with both English and French titles), and they are divine. Each seasonal recipe section begins with several pages about the liturgical calendar, particular feast days, and the concomitant changes in nature, especially in the garden.

The recipes themselves are annotated with interesting comments and facts. For example, in the winter recipe for St. Scholastica Soup, a hearty mixture of lentils, beans, and carrots, Brother Victor notes that the saint, whose feast day is February 10, was St. Benedict’s twin sister and is considered the mother of nuns. In addition, a quotation from Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season…,” borders the soup text.

The one obvious imperfection of this book — other than minor typographical errors and inconsistencies — is the absence of bread from its pages. The French, who have elevated bread to the level of an art form, would be outraged! Perhaps this comment will prompt Brother Victor to devote an entire cookbook to bread and other baked goods in the future. Meanwhile, this current volume will encourage the whole family to get involved in the food preparation process, from planting a garden (even herbs on the windowsilbpor shopping for fresh produce to slicing and stirring ingredients in the kitchen. Brother Victor’s recipes may well inspire all readers to live as St. Francis de Sales urges in a quotation appearing in This Good Food: “Let us strive to make the present moment beautiful.”

This Good Food: Contemporary French Vegetarian Recipes from a Monastery Kitchen

By Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette

Publisher: The Overlook Press

Pages: 221

Price: $22.95

Review Author: Ronda Chervin

I’m sure Diana Culbertson did not have the NOR in mind when she assembled the writings of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop — also known as Mother Alphonsa, foundress of a Dominican Order devoted to caring for the cancerous poor. However, readers will be delighted to notice how Rose Hawthorne exemplified the spirit of the NOR.

Born in 1851 to one of America’s most prestigious literary families, Rose integrated the perceptive, moral sense of life so characteristic of her father Nathaniel’s writings with the deep religious yearning that permeated all the members of the family. Having spent several years in Europe as a child at the time when her transcendentalist-formed parents were drinking in Catholic culture but shying away from commitment to the Church, Rose was the one who would become an ardent Catholic.

Rose entered into an apostolate of witness through the printed word and lecture platform, and devoted herself to the needs of impoverished victims of cancer. Showing a mentality so well known to us from the Catholic Worker of Dorothy Day, Madonna House, and the Missionaries of Charity, Rose insisted on leaving her comfortable middle-class New York surroundings to live among the poorest of the poor in the Lower East Side. In this way she could bring penniless sufferers from terminal cancer, sent away from hospitals because incurable, to live with her and with the other women who gradually formed around her, first as a lay community of service and then as Dominican Sisters.

The mainstay of her work was the Mass, novena prayers, one after the other, and contributions that rolled in as a result of Rose’s fascinating articles in the secular press urging the importance of overcoming the frightful poverty of life in the slums of New York City.

Do get hold of this book and participate in the spirit of a woman whose cause for beatification has been opened in Rome.

Rose Hawthorne Lathrop: Selected Writings

By Diana Culbertson

Publisher: Paulist

Pages: 242

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Gerard V. Bradley

With so many of our inherited evaluations of sexual conduct, marriage, and family being muscled aside by the elite culture’s superhero, the antinomian self, it will surprise some readers to learn that there is a natural law revival underway in the academy. Natural law was the philosophical framework of traditional morality for centuries. What gives?

Well, the inherent soundness of the newer natural law theories (e.g., Germain Grisez’s) partly explains the renaissance. More tellingly, recent political experience, as well as academic reflection, has revealed the pressing need for a non-utilitarian philosophical defense of universal human rights. Natural law is increasingly the philosophical bulwark of choice, for, as John Paul II recently affirmed in Veritatis Splendor, the exceptionless negative moral norms, like those against torture and intentionally killing the innocent, are the backbone of any coherent theory of rights. And natural law theory is distinguished precisely by its commitment to such categorical, universal claims.

This book’s editor, Princeton legal philosopher Robert George, has assembled essays by leading natural law thinkers and their most formidable commentators and critics. The essays, according to George, “convey an idea of the diversity of contemporary natural law theories…’liberal’ and ‘conservative’…. Some theories fit comfortably into the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, others are related to that tradition remotely, if at all.”

Nowhere in this valuable collection, however, is any specific position in normative ethics defended or attacked. The book is not directly about the morality of abortion, sodomy, nuclear deterrence, or capital punishment, even though many of the contributors have elsewhere taken strong stands on those questions. The essays instead are about the possibility of objectively true answers to ethical questions like abortion, and about the effects such objectivity might have on law and action by public authority.

The first four essays (by George, Russell Hittinger, Jeffrey Stout, and Joseph Boyle) debate assumptions about the nature of reality, decision-making, and action, and the reliability of our knowledge, that need to be defended by natural lawyers. Boyle’s “Natural Law and the Ethics of Tradition” is probably the most important of this group. He defends natural law’s claim of universality against philosophers like Bernard Williams and Alasdair Maclntyre.

The pivot of the four essays on “Natural Law and Legal Theory” is John Finnis — the author of one of them. These essays, all first-rate, are required reading for anyone interested in contemporary legal theory.

This book is for anyone who reaches for the top shelf in current moral theory.

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