Volume > Issue > Briefly: December 1992

December 1992

The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons

By Henri J.M. Nouwen

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 160

Price: $25

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

Pages: 330

Price: $39.95

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

Pages: 251

Price: $27.95

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

Pages: 210

Price: $22.95

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)

Pages: 205

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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