Volume > Issue > Briefly: December 1991

December 1991

Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America

By Mary C. Waters

Publisher: University of California Press

Pages: 197

Price: $11.95

Review Author: Aaron W. Godfrey

I am not really an “ethnic,” though I often wish I were. I went to Catholic school, but my father, who died when I was 14, was Protestant with an English name. My mother’s roots were Irish, and I related to the somewhat Jansenistic strain of Catholicism endemic to Irish Catholics of that era. After my father died, we moved to Brooklyn, which was incredibly ethnic. In spite of the rhetoric of tolerance, Catholics and Jews, then the Brooklyn majority, did not get along well; nor was there a lot of social interaction. That allowed me to absorb strong anti-Semitic prejudices. Imagine my shock when as 23 I learned that my paternal grandmother, who I though was German, was actually Jewish. It taught me a lot about the absurdity of prejudice. My mother had been at some pains to conceal my complete background from me and was profoundly annoyed when I learned the truth, trying to minimize the effect of the revelation by pointing out what a devout Protestant my father was. I suspect that I am not the only American of my age to have such a secret.

In retrospect, I realize that during the Great Depression almost all middle-class, working-class, and poor neighborhoods were essentially ethnic, prejudiced, and closed to outsiders. Wherever numbers merited, there was an ethnic parish. I still remember that my neighborhood in New York had a “regular” parish (mostly Irish), two Italian parishes, a Spanish parish, a French parish, and a Ukrainian parish. Originally these parishes offered support for newly-arrived immigrants and those most affected by the Depression. Ethnicity was an additional bond that helped communities weather hard times and ultimately enter the suburbs, where white ethnicity became diffused, but essentially united in keeping nonwhites out.

Ethnic Options explores white ethnicity in contemporary America. It is a well-written, carefully researched book, which articulates and documents what many of us have felt but have been unable or unwilling to put in words. Politically, we are American, but white Americans do retain European ethnicity.

The author points out quite trenchantly that ethnicity has reinforced racism among the new suburban middle class. She effectively counters the rather silly arguments made by Michael Novak in his The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, which fueled the white ethnic movement of the 1970s. The research questionnaire she developed was able to unlock some of the inherent prejudice.

Ethnic Options provides a most readable account of what has happened to the ethnicity of fourth or fifth generation European immigrants.

Why Narrative?

By Stanley Hauerwas and Greg Jones

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 367

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Brett Webb-Mitchell

Stanley Hauerwas and Greg Jones have put together an anthology of essays on the place of narratives in theology. This book is a treasure chest of ideas which challenge the reader to think and re-think the importance of stories in our society, especially when one places stories in the context of the Church’s Story.

The book is divided into three sections, with essays by theologians and philosophers like Alasdair Maclntyre, Hans Frei, David Ford; Julian Hartt, and Hauerwas. The first section is “Narrative Rediscovered,” which informs the reader about the primary function of narratives in theology. In this section an essay by H. Richard Niebuhr reminds us that we know God in our lives by the stories we tell and hear within the Church. The Apostle Paul preached, as did others in the early churches, through reciting the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Niebuhr reminds Christians that this is still our story, bringing us together in an inseparable union. Niebuhr’s point is affirmed in an essay by Stephen Crites, which suggests that our story, the mundane story, is given new meaning and orientation through sacred stories, like Scripture.

The second section, “Narrative as a Critical Tool,” addresses the purpose of narratives in the life of the Church. Nicholas Lash writes that the aim of story is to help readers understand the meaning in their experiences, which may seem random and chaotic at times. Through stories we discover who we are, Whose we are, where we are, and where we should be headed.

The third section, “Narrative’s Theological Significance,” explores why narratives are important in contemporary theology. Johannes Metz writes that theology is not concerned primarily with abstract ideas but with direct experiences in human lives, which are best expressed in narrative language. Metz’s point is reaffirmed in the Bible itself, which is one long narrative of God’s relationship with the human community.

This book also reminds us that when we read great storytellers there is important we should be listening for: the movement of God in our world. This book should be woven with the stories told by Iris Murdoch, Robert Coles, Elie Wiesel, and Flannery O’Connor, who provide rich illustrations of how God gives a sense of cosmos in the midst of the chaos in a character’s life.

The one concern this book fails to address is how to carry this message about narratives to parishioners who do not have graduate degrees in the theological education. The rich nuggets of truth found in these essays need to be made available to people in congregations where stories are lived out.

Uniquely Human

By Philip Lieberman

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 210

Price: $27.95

Review Author: Theodore Rebard

Philip Lieberman engagingly provides a tidy and coherent treatment of the difference between humans and other animals, and the difference it makes. It is ironic, though, that his account does not offer the greater moral progress he hopes for; rather, his book implies the meaninglessness of human life — and the death of morality.

And yet, Lieberman draws the reader gently, genially, and efficiently through his data and argumentation. There are well-ordered treatments of the structure and circuitry of the human brain, helpfully accompanied by contrasts with analogues in the brains of other animals. The purpose of this consideration of “brain mechanisms” is to reveal how they render possible (apparently give sufficient explanation to) human speech.

Human speech, somehow “strongly linked to cognition” as it is, manifests a sort of moral concern that sets off humans from brutes. Of course the derivation from evolutionary brain mechanism to morality is not direct; “moral progress instead follows from our cognitive ability, which, in turn, derives from our linguistic ability,” which in turn is a product of biological evolution.

Lieberman’s book is firmly grounded on the evolutionary credo, whose articles of faith are cited unabashedly. No less is the book dedicated to the doctrine of moral progress: “Despite, the obvious shortcomings, there has been slow and uneven progress in the way that people act towards each other and to external nature….” Indeed, “altruism” (a slippery term) has “evolved from human cognitive and linguistic ability acting on a preadaptive ’emotional’ base.” The relationship between brain mechanism and ethics is, according to Lieberman, genetically transmitted; the mechanisms of the brain are the base of altruistic behavior.

Underscoring as it does the direction of his reasoning, his concluding thought is memorable: “Our only hope is to use our unique evolutionary heritage — the powers of human language and human thought — in the service of selfless behavior and moral sense.” It is in the difference between the mechanistic base and the altruistic result that Lieberman’s weakness lies, albeit apparently unbeknownst to him. His unwittingness is altogether understandable, of course, for his work is a case study of a “scientific” mind.

For the sake of understanding the crucial difficulty of Uniquely Human, we must step back into history. At the site of the ancient town of Abdera, there is today a monument to Democritus, a Greek philosopher in the fifth century before Christ. He taught that all things are made up of homogenous material particles called “atoms.” Because these atoms were the very stuff of the universe, Democritus, much like the Sorcerer’s apprentice, no sooner affirmed them to exist and play their role than they had taken him over in their power; his explanatory strength was limited by what could be explained according to atoms. Not surprisingly, Democritus was forced to deny qualitative differences among things he experienced, for they were no more than complexes of qualitatively similar atoms. Indeed, he was forced to deny, by neglect, all purpose and order in the universe, for purpose and order are manifestations of intellect, while mere matter is blind. Beginning with matter as the only explanatory entity, Democritus was left with a world with neither meaning nor purpose nor specific distinctions among its occupants.

While Democritus is in a way greatly removed from us, the inscription on his monument is nothing short of eerie, placed as it was by scientists of our own time: “The Father of Modern Science.”

There is no doubt that brain mechanisms account for many things. In principle and practice, though, mechanistic explanations cannot account for qualitative differences between species. Nor can such explanations account for the possibility of knowledge, the intellectual insight into the meaning of things, including their order toward ultimate ends. Yet, it is Lieberman’s desperate mission to undertake to be simultaneously a materialistic mechanist and a defender of humanly available grounds of purposeful morality.

In sum, Lieberman’s hope for continued moral progress is hopelessly undercut by the very premises he uses to reach and defend it.

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