Volume > Issue > Briefly: February 1999

February 1999

The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom

By John T. Noonan Jr

Publisher: University of California Press

Pages: 436

Price: $35

Review Author: David Denton

An eminent Catholic philosopher, historian, attorney, law professor, and federal judge examines, in this historical essay, the course of freedom of religion in America and speculates on its future. He begins by sketching the history of religious liberty and religious persecution in question-and-answer form, an old-style catechetical approach that neatly fills in historical and theological background stretching from the Apostles to the American colonies.

He proceeds to argue that within European Christendom a new understanding of the human person was developing, and that in the American colonies — although many of them had been chartered with established religions — the realization that the human spirit could no longer abide in medieval structures took beneficially concrete form. A virtual revolution of toleration in the new United States was achieved, and the quietly persistent hero of this revolution was James Madison, the man whose concepts of “freedom of exercise” and “non-establishment” became common intellectual currency in our country. It is from Madison — who praised the free exercise of religion as “the lustre of our country” — that Noonan takes his title.

Noonan commands a breadth of reference and a depth of learning, along with a nose for the ironic and the ridiculous, that allow him to take the reader pleasurably through such varied topics as early interpretations of the First Amendment, religion’s role in American civil life (Tocqueville called religion America’s foremost political institution), the influence of John Witherspoon (Madison’s teacher and the only clergyman among the signers of the Declaration of Independence), Deism and the French Revolution, the movements against slavery and polygamy, the movements for temperance and civil rights, and the work of the American judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court.

Noonan argues that the American experiment in religious freedom has been basically beneficial, and that religion has something to learn from it. It is his contention that the Second Vatican Council (at which Noonan was an observer and advisor) reflects an acceptance of the validity and worth of American First Amendment principles. He acknowledges problems in the development of American religious freedom — the search-and-destroy missions that judicial rulings on religion have become — but claims that our freedom of exercise and freedom from establishment are still a beacon to the world. American religious freedom, he argues, has developed and fructified, much as Catholic doctrine has developed since the Second Vatican Council.

Such an analogy leaves this reviewer more alarmed than reassured. The woes of religion in America cannot be dismissed as a few bumps in the generally smooth road of cultural development. Americans today are enduring nothing less than a cultural deconstruction, imposed upon us by the courts and academia, which are themselves governed by a liberalism in epistemological crisis.

The regnant ethos is an upper-middle-class hedonism that shrugs at neopaganism but snarls at Christian or Jewish orthodoxy. To attempt to quell worries about religious freedom in our country by pointing to the “development” of the Catholic Church since Vatican II is about as effective as dousing a smoldering fire with kerosene. “Freedom” is the byword of those in the American Catholic Church who willfully corrode the authority of Scripture and Magisterium, just as “freedom” is the byword of the elite academicians and Supreme Court justices who have virtually rewritten the U.S. Constitution in order to destroy the right to life, and who then admonish the Church and the world on the supremacy of conscience.

Noonan recounts with flair the history of American religious freedom. The degree of tarnish on its “lustre,” however, is something the reader must judge for himself.

Henri Nouwen: A Restless Searching for God

By Jurjen Beumer

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 190

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Eric M. Johnson

Modern spiritual books are much like modern diet books. Many provide facile solutions to deep problems. I suspect that most pop spiritual advice is like most pop dietary advice: It may work for a while but it doesn’t create lasting change in the hopeful seeker. Quick fixes in both realms come and go, selling millions of books year after year.

A glorious exception on the spiritual side is the work of Fr. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), who created writings of depth and substance. They don’t make you “feel good.” They do make you feel. And they may make you good. I first came across him in 1993, in an article he wrote about a severely handicapped man he cared for. Nouwen called him Adam, and his account of Adam’s life and death moved me to tearful agreement with Nouwen about the intrinsic dignity of every human life.

Jurjen Beumer, a friend of Nouwen’s and a Protestant minister, has written Henri Nouwen: A Restless Searching for God as a summary of the thought and life of this remarkable man. Beumer begins with Nouwen’s birth in the Netherlands to a modestly prosperous tax lawyer and a devoutly religious mother. From the age of six Nouwen wanted to become a priest, and in 1957 he was ordained in his native country. After his ordination he was granted permission to study psychology in the U.S. As it turned out, he never truly returned home. He accepted an offer to help found the psychology department at Notre Dame University in the late 1960s. From there he moved on to Yale, where he taught for 10 years.

The demands of Yale took their toll on the priest-professor, and to renew his interior life he lived in Latin America for a time. Although he had intended to remain there, the isolation and foreign folkways eventually convinced him to look elsewhere. After more wandering, he found a new home in 1985 in Toronto, in a community called l’Arche that ministers to the handicapped. He stayed with the group (though taking frequent trips here and there) until his death from a massive heart attack.

One impertinent question kept popping up as I read Beumer’s book: Didn’t any ecclesiastical authority hold Nouwen accountable? It seems the answer is “no,” because Nouwen apparently went wherever he wanted until he was 53 years old, and then he only settled down (more or less) because he thought God wanted him to, not because a superior told him that 28 years of wandering was enough.

So interesting a man was the peripatetic Nouwen that a reader eager to know more about him is frustrated by the inadequacies of this treatment. The book suffers, first, from an ill-conceived structure. It is divided into five sections, which is too many for only 190 pages. The first section, a straightforward biography, is but one-third of the book. Other sections sketch Nouwen’s spirituality, ethics, theological insights, and lifelong restlessness. I would have enjoyed hearing more about his life, with commentary by others who knew him and his writings.

There are also statements by Beumer that need better documentation. He asserts that Nouwen is “the most widely read author in the English-speaking world in the area of Christian spirituality.” I certainly hope this is true, but I would have thought that other authors would be more popular than a serious-minded Catholic priest. Perhaps I do not give the reading public enough credit (but I recall that the auto-idolatrous Conversations With God by Neale Donald Walsch was on the bestseller lists for approximately 1.7 million weeks).

Other assertions could use rudimentary explanation, such as Beumer’s reference to “Ronald Reagan’s oppressive administration” that “played the Cold War ‘game’ in its most risky and dangerous form by means of an enormous weapons buildup.” He does not pause to note that this buildup helped force the dissolution of the Soviet empire, which was, shall we say, more oppressive — especially to religious believers — than President Reagan’s regime. Elsewhere he states that in the 1980s “the world was poised on the brink of a third world war.” Really?

The biggest problem with the book is that the author, although he claims to be deeply sympathetic to Nouwen’s work, reads things into Nouwen’s writings that do not appear in them. Principally, the Protestant Beumer asserts that Nouwen wanted to get “beyond” Church structures because they inhibit Christian spirituality. While Nouwen was not a Catholic polemicist like Chesterton, nor a Catholic theorist like Cardinal Newman, he did see the fullest expression of the Gospel in the Catholic Church. He poignantly lamented the precipitous decline in organized religious observance in his homeland and the interior impoverishment that accompanied it.

Beumer mentions that other biographies of Nouwen are in the works. After their appearance, Henri Nouwen: A Restless Searching for God will doubtless fade into deserved obscurity.

Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography

By Gregory Wolfe

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 426

Price: $35

Review Author: Ted Atkinson

Near the end of this book, Wolfe argues, “Now that Malcolm Muggeridge’s life can be seen as a whole, it is time for a revaluation of his achievement and his place in twentieth-century letters.” But in the course of this thoroughly engaging biography of one of the most enigmatic figures of modern Western culture, Wolfe has already accomplished such a revaluation. He concludes quite forcefully that Muggeridge belongs in that honored gallery of British writers that includes his contemporaries Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and George Orwell. Comparatively, Muggeridge’s work is certainly more diversified: He wrote plays, novels, newspaper articles, essays and memoirs, and worked extensively in television as an interviewer, panelist, and documentary filmmaker. Muggeridge is widely known as one of the first “talking heads.”

One could complain that Wolfe abandons the traditionally objective stance of the biographer in order to act as an advocate for his subject. But in the case of Muggeridge one can hardly fault Wolfe, who ultimately comes much closer to a balanced viewpoint than Muggeridge’s numerous detractors have done. Moreover, Wolfe’s tone owes less to a preconceived agenda than to the simple fact that Muggeridge does not invite objectivity, given that his life’s work was devoted to incisive criticism of virtually any subject before him. And as Wolfe points out, Muggeridge’s critiques ran the gamut from insightful and cogent to mean-spirited and petty.

Whether commenting on what he viewed as secular piety in the Fabian circle, exposing human-rights abuses by a totalitarian Soviet regime, or keenly observing that the meeting of Windsor foibles and visual media would result in an ongoing Royal Soap Opera, Muggeridge had virtually oracular skills that enabled him to note with great consistency when the emperor was wearing no clothes. Wolfe’s biography does a great service in documenting the various observations made by Muggeridge that were initially met with contempt only to prove in retrospect to have been prophetic. Wolfe portrays Muggeridge as a man perpetually outside any political system, a man who maintained a consistent conviction that all utopian endeavors will fail.

A proponent of socialism early in his life, Muggeridge later aligned himself with conservative causes — anti-Communism and prolife activism, most notably. Rejecting the Enlightenment principles maintained by many of his intellectual counterparts, Muggeridge had no problem accepting a view of man as inherently flawed.

Eventually he decided that Christianity was the only viable antidote to rampant materialism in Western culture. This realization did not come easy. Like Simone Weil’s, whom he deeply admired, Muggeridge’s journey toward God took the path of most resistance. Because of his fundamental position as an outsider, Muggeridge found it difficult to join an institutional church. Finally, after achieving status as a celebrated Christian apologist, Muggeridge was confirmed as a Roman Catholic at the age of 79. For this move, Muggeridge drew harsh criticism, as his detractors accused him of insincerity, hypocrisy, and even senility. Wolfe effectively counters these charges, not just in his treatment of Muggeridge’s confirmation as a Catholic, but in his vivid chronicling of Muggeridge’s lifelong sense of being pursued by the Hound of Heaven. As Wolfe shows, the charge that Muggeridge was a Malcolm-come-lately does not hold up in the light of the extended journey made by this most intriguing pilgrim.

Toward a Theology of the Body

By Mary Timothy Prokes, FSE

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 192

Price: $21

Review Author: Monica Migliorino Miller

In March 1997, 39 members of a cult called Heaven’s Gate committed suicide, including the cult’s founder, Marshall Applewhite. Perhaps these poor misguided people would be alive today had they read Toward a Theology of the Body.

The cultists denied the goodness of the material world, most notably the goodness of the human body. Their denial was based on a neo-Gnostic view that only what is of the spiritual realm is good, while the world of matter is evil. Thus the cultists had to erase sexual differences and, ultimately, themselves, to escape this world of matter.

Of course, the Heaven’s Gate suicides are only one — though a very fresh — example of the late 20th century’s distortion of the meaning of the body and even its hatred of the corporeal self. Mary Timothy Prokes has written a much-needed book that reaffirms the truths that “Christian faith is embodied faith, deriving from the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ” and that the revelation of Christ was lived out bodily. The heavenly truth is the opposite of the Heaven’s Gate error: The body mediates the truth of God and is a sacred, liturgical symbol.

Physical existence is one of the most misunderstood realities of our time. Many people simply do not know what the body is for. This is seen so clearly with widespread contraception and abortion, artificial reproduction, the dissolution of sexual morality, and the push for euthanasia. Prokes handily takes us through the standard philosophical distortions about the body, some of which have at times negatively affected the Christian view of man’s bodily nature. Because of the influence of dualist systems such as Neoplatonism, for instance, there was a strong tendency among early Church thinkers to exalt the soul and to portray the body as an enemy of the spirit.

Prokes also helps us understand the central place of the body in the economy of salvation; indeed, since God became man, theology is in part anthropology. The chief contemporary barrier to appreciating the body, and thus the person, is the pervasive heresy that the body is something impersonal, a kind of possession, at best a useful instrument, but something we can, even should, manipulate, alter, perhaps even destroy. The antithesis of this view, its Catholic antidote, is the author’s primary insight that the body is “a perceptible gesture of divine love…made in the image and likeness of God,” and “is to be given and received as gift.”

In a provocative section, Prokes breaks away from the long-held idea that we image God or the Trinity only according to our spiritual nature or inner faculties (as St. Augustine taught when he located the divine image of man in the intellect, memory, and will, thus ignoring altogether our material nature). It is the entire human person who is in God’s image, Prokes reminds us. She provides a fine discussion of how in the earliest stages of human development even cell division is stamped by a trinitarian pattern, and she argues that the embodied person, as such, images God. In this she concurs with John Paul II.

Prokes also develops our appreciation for the human body in the context of work, prayer, and suffering. Her analysis of the Assumption of Mary is particularly rich. And yet, while this is a good book on the Christian meaning of the body, it might have been a great one if it had been unified by a cohesive theological vision. The author does offer her central insight: The body is a gift. But she does not provide an overall argument that rises to the level of a full-fledged theological statement. Still, her title, Toward a Theology of the Body, is forthrightly prelusive, and perhaps her full contribution is yet to come. I highly recommend this study to students of Christian spirituality and anthropology, as well as to any thoughtful person who wants a deeper understanding of an extraordinarily important subject.

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