The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons
By Henri J.M. Nouwen
Review Author: Luis R. Gamez
This handsome volume bears superficial resemblance to pop-meditation coffee-table books. But appearances deceive: no soft spirituality here. Rich with discerning wisdom and gentle warmth, Fr. Henri Nouwen’s work pricks and goads its reader to a life transformation, to metanoia.
The book takes its name from the Rembrandt painting of the prodigal son being embraced by his aged father, as the sullen elder brother looks on. Using the painting’s three major figures as an organizing rubric, Nouwen recounts a spiritual journey spanning the last 10 years of his life — from 1983 when he first encountered a poster of the Rembrandt, to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg where he viewed the painting, to the l’Arche community in Toronto where he is now based. Rembrandt’s painting allows Nouwen to recount his recent spiritual life in three phases: a triptych of meditations on “the mystery of homecoming” from the viewpoints of the Younger Son, the Elder Son, and the Father. Within each phase Nouwen reflects on the figure, first from the context of Rembrandt’s life, then from that of his own spiritual progress, and finally from that of Christ.
The most distinctive feature of Nouwen’s book is his ecphrasis, or pointed interpretation, of the Rembrandt painting as a means of awakening the spirit. For Nouwen, Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” functions as an icon. In his The Road to Daybreak, Nouwen noted that icons are “windows that give us a glimpse of the transcendent.” In his Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Nouwen demonstrated the spiritual potency of “gazing” at classic Russian icons, stated that icons are “created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible,” and added that Western art is different. But to gaze at Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” through Nouwen’s eyes is to catch a glimpse of the transcendent. Note how Nouwen’s language recalls the power of the icon: “I came to see [“Prodigal Son”] as somehow, my personal painting…. All my life is there…. The painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God. It is like a huge gate that allows me to move to the other side of existence and look from there back into the odd assortment of people and events that make up my daily life.”
A second way in which Nouwen’s Rembrandt meditation draws on his experience with icons relates to Christian action and service. In Behold the Beauty of the Lord, he wrote that we gaze at icons to avoid being “passive victims” of the world, that by our attentive prayer we can make “decisions and choices.” Similarly, Nouwen’s gazing at the “Prodigal Son” is filled with a sense of the urgent need to serve. His accepting of divine sonship leads inexorably to spiritual fatherhood: “stepping over” grief, forgiving unconditionally, blessing generously. The relevance to Nouwen’s work with handicapped people at l’Arche is clear, but his elegant style — crisp and spare like the parable itself — allows his urgency to speak to all readers.
My only disappointment with the book is the poor quality of the photographs with which Nouwen guides our gazing. These photos are not glossy plates, so many details central to the ecphrasis escape the reader, are lost in the murky finish. Nouwen includes a number of close?ups, intended to guide the reader’s eye; unfortunately, the enlargement process grossly distorted the color. These close-ups look as if the painting had been basted in egg yolks and saffron.
But these are quibbles. The Return of the Prodigal Son is a beautiful book, as beautiful in the simple clarity of its wisdom as in the terrible beauty of the transformation to which it calls us. Do not be surprised to find yourself reading with tears in your eyes. And do not resist for long Nouwen’s challenge to become the Father.
The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories
By Roy A. Clouser
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Review Author: Phillip E. Devine
Philosophy in the English-speaking world is in methodological crisis. According to the once regnant logical positivists, the natural sciences (and their auxiliaries, such as mathematics) formed an island of rational discourse, surrounded by an ocean of “value judgments” whose expression was neither true nor false. The most decisive arguments against positivism were those directed against its picture of scientific theories as value-neutral hypotheses checked against theoretically innocent “data.” Instead, many now argue, our theories are value driven constructions that invade the very data that are supposed to confirm them. It is difficult for contemporary philosophers to avoid the conclusion that all intellectual activity is a form of warfare, in which the closest thing to an argument is the removal of the mask of objectivity to expose one’s opponents’ speciesistic, phallogocentric, or secular humanistic presuppositions.
Roy Clouser here argues, in the tradition of the Calvinist philosopher and theologian Herman Dooyeweerd, that scientific and other theories are never religiously neutral. All attempts at explanation, he argues, depend on assumptions about the sorts of entities there are and the sorts of relations in which they can stand. And all such sets of assumptions include a belief that some entity or group of entities is self-existent, in other words, divine. So, all theories, even in mathematics, have religious presuppositions. Hence Jews and Christians must view with suspicion theories developed, like most contemporary theories, under pantheistic or (more commonly) pagan sponsorship, and not only when they deal with sensitive topics like the origin of the human species. Christians and Jews should therefore be prepared to develop religiously controlled theories of their own (though not of the sort proposed by fundamentalists).
Clouser rejects any view of beings other than God as self-existent, as well as the “scholastic” view that some domains of knowledge have a certain autonomy so that Christians can accept theories proposed by unbelievers so long as they do not contradict the Faith. He proposes theories of society and the state, whose central principle is that no institution, including the state, enjoys sovereignty over the other institutions that make up society, but each gets its authority (or “sphere sovereignty”) directly from the “law framework” created by God.
Clouser’s argument turns in part on his definition of religion. All beliefs that some aspects of reality are basic, and others dependent, count as religious for him. Hence materialism (and not just Marxism) turns out to be a religion.
But Clouser needs to show that a right relationship to matter (say, “living without illusion”) is important to materialists in the way a right relation to God is important to Christians and Jews. Meanwhile, a less misleading way of stating his argument is that all theorizing has metaphysical presuppositions — which seems to be true, at least if we count as metaphysical the pragmatist axiom of the contingency of all things.
Sometimes Clouser writes as a dogmatic theologian, or in his words “a Christian seeking to persuade [his] brothers and sisters in the religious family of those who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that their faith mandates a distinct perspective for the interpretation of every aspect of life.” But he makes many arguments that, if sound at all, should convince the unbeliever. His theories, as he in practice acknowledges, require defense on philosophical as well as theological grounds. Moreover, we cannot find plain scriptural warrant for the proposition that business enjoys “sphere sovereignty” of a sort that makes Amtrak and the Postal Service theologically questionable.
If Clouser is right, materialists will conclude that they can discuss questions of theory only with other materialists, and theories developed by professed Christians will be suspect in all but Christian circles. Sometimes this sort of thing occurs, but not always. Isaac Newton’s bizarre personal theology, though it no doubt influenced the construction of his theories, did not prevent their acceptance by deists, materialists, or traditional Christians.
The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America
By Thomas R. Cole
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Review Author: James T. Mathieu
Aging, as a popular issue in America, has been with us since the 1960s. This well-researched volume reminds us that the ancient archetypal theme of aging as spiritual “pilgrimage” may be as appropriate today as it was in the distant past — hence the topic, “journey” of life.
Cole’s book covers three cultural ideals of later life in three parts: classical and Protestant perspectives based on a cosmic sense of meaning, the Victorian ideal based on the priority of secular progress, and scientific ideals of “successful” aging based on the priority of individual meaning. Let’s consider each part in turn.
Part 1, which Cole designates “The Ages of Life and the Journey of Life: Transcendent Ideals,” contains brilliant theological reflections on aging and death, which offer the reader one of the very best synopses of early 18th and 19th century American religious and cultural views that has been written.
In Part 2, “The Dualism of Aging in Victorian America,” Cole writes of the ideological origins of ageism. He notes, for example, that revivalist sermons were often hostile to old age — old people were seen as impediments to progress. Part 3, “Science and the Ideal of Normal Aging,” focuses on the modern context. Cole brings us up to the early part of the 20th century, concluding with G. Stanley Hall’s call for the establishment of gerontology. Cole writes that “Hall’s position reflects [the] erosion of Protestantism’s vision of life as a spiritual journey. In effect, he was calling for a new ‘curriculum,’ based on science rather than religion…. Scientists and helping professionals would become the new ‘initiators’ into the last stage of life.” Cole’s epilogue addresses the postmodern situation.
In spite of this book’s scholarly workmanship, certain questions gnaw at one as the book ends. A couple of these are: Has mankind ever faced aging and death with the “existential integrity” that Cole attributes to the American Puritans? Is there, in our increasingly shared heritage, no Jewish or Catholic or Southern contribution to the discussion of aging and death?
Theories of Everything
By John D. Barrow
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Author: Theodore Rebard
The University of Sussex’s John Barrow has given the general audience an attractive and well laid out survey of competing and sometimes complementary theories by physicists, and especially of their aim, in our time, to work out a coherent “theory of everything.” In the not too distant past, such an ideal might have been regarded as quixotic, for non-compatible theories were often invoked to explain different physical events of even different aspects of the same event. But in the present, mainstream physicists often concern themselves with the quest for just such a “mathematical secret at the heart of the universe,” pointing them “towards a monumental ‘theory of everything which will unite the laws of Nature into a single statement that reveals the inevitability of everything was, is, and is to come in the physical world.” The range and goal of the undertaking may well leave the novice slack-jawed.
Barrow helps, though. While his book seeks more to present alternative theories than to defend any particular one, he does suggest elements that such a theory must contain. Among these are: coherent accounts of the laws of nature, the original condition of the universe, the forces and particles which are, as it were, the warp and woof of the universe, the orders of time and space, and the like.
Even though Barrow offers no thesis in his own persona, he seems sometimes to let his slip show: Aristotle is “out”; evolution is “in”; the boundary between science and philosophy is at least challenged, if not indeed rendered hazy. In matters such as these there is risk.
When, after all, one ceases experimentation and calculation in laboratory and library, and begins to ask what science is and what its boundaries are, then one leaves off being a scientist and becomes a philosopher.
The physical scientist may seek to discover the truth about the physical world in its entirety, but the work of science finds its place among other intellectual work according to its role.
If a physicist conflates the “everything” of the physical world with “everything absolutely,” then what must inevitably be lost is rational coherence. In a wholly material world there could be no universal theoretical knowledge at all, for such knowledge is itself spiritual — “transphysical,” if one likes. Any theory whose very affirmation as true contains its own contradiction can only be false. And this is to pass over the impact of such materialism upon morality, meaning in life, freedom, and God.
The physicist might, however, with apparent modesty, say that the “enquiry” is only the confection of a theory which will work as an instrument for prediction, retrodiction, and application to the practical world of microwave ovens and atom bombs. Then, though, what must inevitably be lost is any claim to an inherently rightful place of such science among the disciplines of the mind and the schools. In a physics which is wholly pragmatic, knowledge is subservient to results. (By way of analogy, an ordinary driver’s knowledge is of this sort: Utterly in ignorance of mechanics, such a person need merely know which pedals and levers to operate in order to make the car go. The destination is purely a matter of the driver’s will or whim. The reality of the engine is insignificant; reaching the end is everything.) The mere desire to reach a given result is a matter only of force (whether of numbers or of arms matters little). Should the desired result be, for example, social domination by a given sector (let us say, white males), then science is “free” to be the instrument of this end, and may be so researched in laboratories, so written in articles and books, and so taught in universities. Here one can have “coherence” for just 30 pieces of silver.
John Barrow’s book is a tantalizing overview of a panoply of theories; it is also a survey of a minefield.
Living on the Border of Disorder: How to Cope with an Addictive Person
By Cherry Boone O'Neill and Dan O'Neill
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers (6820 Auto Club Rd., Minneapolis MN 55438)
Price: No price given
Review Author: Maria Valencia Vree
Living on the Border of Disorder appears to be just a new synonym for co-dependency. The title and dramatic cover graphics suggest another self-help book, of which we don’t need yet another. But the words within speak a language of compassion and reconciliation, proving once again that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
After writing Starving for Attention, an account of her struggles with anorexia nervosa and bulimia, Cherry Boone O’Neill was swarmed with pleas for help. This book, written with her husband, Dan, attempts to help those who were encouraged by her personal story of recovery. The authors offer advice — friendly encouragement, not stern directives — based on first-hand experience. Most importantly, Living on the Border of Disorder will be a friend to those who are struggling with loved ones who suffer from an impulse-control disorder, providing hope and a strategy for recovery. The use of “we” when the authors describe attitudes and/ or actions of those on the border is a telling symbol of their genuine empathy.
The authors dispel the myth of the “quick fix,” for disorders take years to develop and accordingly will take years to overcome. Instead, those living on the border of disorder should provide a loving and sympathetic atmosphere for change. The authors avoid sensationalist cures that inaccurately boil down all disorders into one formula for a fast cure. Instead they offer an honest and straightforward first step to recovery (which acknowledges the importance of therapy, medication, and hospitalization): “if you can provide a disordered person with genuine love, honesty, and empathy, you can be that person’s best therapy.”
Despite its honorable objective, Living on the Border of Disorder may frustrate its readers. Each of its 14 chapters is subdivided into several topics. The authors write about many new and interesting aspects of impulse-control disorders, but just as the reader’s interest is peaking, they prematurely advance to the next topic. They give the reader a glimpse at certain topics which are said to be important, such as forgiveness and counseling, but do not go into depth. Conversely, the authors go into depth on subjects that bear less weight, such as descriptions of attitudes typical of those on the border. The chapters jump around and have no apparent order.
The authors are experienced in the disorders of anorexia and bulimia, and not only draw upon their experience for examples but give a comprehensive account of the disorders. While this is a strong point of the book, it may also alienate others whom the authors aim to help, namely, those whose problems relate to overeating, sexual addiction, gambling, and pornography. These readers may not be able to identify with anorexia and bulimia. There are only token references made to the other disorders.
The authors do not purport to have all the answers, but instead give basic guidelines and a wealth of suggestions for recovery. “Though we have no formulas to offer, we believe that some of our personal experiences can at least demonstrate how genuine caring strategies might be hammered out in the admittedly difficult circumstances surrounding an impulse-control disorder.”
Cherry Boone O’Neill and’ Dan O’Neill not only offer a realistic alternative to all the popular “quick fixes,” but also a welcome and much needed alternative to “self-help” books themselves. Theirs is a humble and valuable story of recovery that lets readers learn from their mistakes.
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