Volume > Issue > Briefly: January-February 1992

January-February 1992

Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr

By Ursula Niebuhr

Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco

Pages: 432

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Philip E. Devine

Christian intellectuals thinking about politics are confronted these days with an awkward dilemma: We are faced with a sanctimonious radicalism whose favorite rhetorical tactic is to denounce as insensitive those who persist in calling attention to inconvenient realities. But we must also contend with a brutal conservatism — sometimes perfumed with Christian piety and professions of respect for the Western tradition — that dismisses as scoundrels and smart-alecks people whose ideas do not fit the agenda of the rich and powerful. And each of these groups uses the failings of the other as an excuse for its own.

To those in such a position, Reinhold Niebuhr can be an attractive figure. A Christian theologian emphasizing the once despised doctrine of original sin, he was nonetheless able to win the respectful attention of skeptical intellectuals, among them Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Lewis Mumford, and John Strachey. Yet, he refused to let original sin be an excuse for acquiescence in injustice.

A reader of this collection of letters and memoirs, edited by Niebuhr’s widow, gets a sense of the troubled world in which his thought arose, as well as of the exceedingly ordinary person behind the great mind.

There are no surprising revelations about Niebuhr’s life in this book. Nor are there many glimpses into the inner logic of his thought. An exception is an important letter to Morton White, written in response to White’s criticism of his use of religious ideas in politics. Here Niebuhr emphasizes the distance between himself and other writers — e.g., believers in natural law — with whom secular intellectuals are in the habit of lumping him, under the rubric “religious.”

He also sketches the relationship between his theological and political thought. He became a socialist in opposition to liberalism, whether pacifist or pietist or rationalist. Curiously, having become a socialist for Augustinian reasons — the radical insufficiency of sweet reasonableness in politics — he later abandoned socialism for the same reasons. He thus found himself a critic without a program, shrewd in his judgments of conservative and leftist ideology but unable to offer help when it came to giving politics a direction. Perhaps his thought would have been less frustrating if he had tempered his Augustinianism with a dash of natural law.

Marco Against the Church: Economic Development and Political Repression in the Philippines

By Robert Youngblood

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Pages: 211

Price: $26.95

Review Author: Santiago Sia

In February 1986 the world’s attention focused on the Philippines — at least for a few days. Suddenly the political life of this country was of extraordinary interest to the world’s media. The event was the toppling of Ferdinand Marcos, who had held power for over 20 years. It was a most unexpected occurrence. The way it happened was just as much of a surprise. Ordinary people, professionals, nuns, and clergy stopped the military — not with guns but with songs and prayers. It seemed so unreal. It was billed a great victory for “people power.”

The crisis lasted a few days. But to those who actually experienced it, the crisis represented years of struggle and innumerable attempts to change the political structure of the country. What went on before that final moment is the subject of Robert L. Youngblood’s excellent book. His work represents painstaking research into the economic, political, and religious life of the Philippines during the Marcos regime. The result is a very well-informed assessment of the Marcos years.

What is of particular value in Youngblood’s account is his coming to grips with the theological thinking that informed the resistance to Marcos. The author shows how Marcos’s polices had to be challenged by the Catholic Church because of its fundamental commitment to justice. Unless one takes serious account of that point, one will probably brush off the fall of Marcos as just another interference by the Church in politics. Youngblood’s book is an invaluable corrective of that misconception.

This book also offers the reader an important description of Marcos’s economic and political policies. The author shows that Marcos adopted a model of economic development that emphasizes the importance of foreign investment and export promotion and why this model did not work for the Filipino people. He also traces the various developments that led Marcos to adopt increasingly authoritarian rule. His analysis of Marcos’s polices illuminates the inevitable clash between him and the Church.

The turn of events in the Philippines would not have occurred without the main characters — the Filipino people. The author displays a sensitivity that reveals his deep understanding of the people — those who suffered under Marcos and his cronies as well as those who benefited. Behind the scholarly findings is a genuine concern to portray the real plight of Filipinos during the Marcos era.

This book merits serious attention. Anyone really concerned about understanding what happened in the Philippines in February 1986 and why it happened should take the trouble to read it.

The Monastic Way

By M. Basil Pennington

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 144

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Bryant Burroughs

Fr. Pennington here presents in pictures and text the life of what he calls “a place apart”: Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The abbey is one of the largest communities in the Cistercian Order, whose monks follow the rule mapped out 15 centuries ago by St. Benedict of Nursia. Founded in 1950, Saint Joseph’s Abbey was built with thousands of stones carried by its monks, and sits in sparse beauty on hundreds of acres of fields and woods.

The man who enters the abbey gate and embraces the Trappist monastic way parts from the ways of the world. St. Benedict described the monastery as a “school of the Lord’s service,” and a monk’s entire life, day by day, is lived in service to God. A monk’s life is shaped by prayer: He rises each day at 3 a.m. for Vigils, followed by two hours of individual reading and reflective prayer, then, at dawn, Lauds and the Eucharistic liturgy. Three times during the day — at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. — the monks interrupt their routine to pray. The evening brings Vespers, and the day ends with Compline at 8 p.m.

Each monk is free several hours during the day to seek solitude in his cell or in the wooded fields around St. Joseph’s. These hours are spent in sacred reading, contemplation, and silence, all exercises that foster spiritual life. The old stone statue of St. Benedict in the monastery gardens holds a finger to his lips, inviting the monks to live in silence.

St. Benedict wrote that true monks “live by the labors of their hands.” Most modern monks labor about five hours a day, following not only the example of the One who labored for daily bread, but obeying the first penance imposed upon fallen man. Forced by giant agribusiness corporations to abandon agriculture, which has marked monastic labor throughout history, today’s monks must work in other ways. Labor at St. Joseph’s includes producing a variety of jams and jellies marketed as “Trappist Preserves,” as well as fabricating liturgical vessels and vestments.

Only after six or seven years of this regimen — described by Pennington as “the process of untwining the heart from its acquired habits” — is a man prepared to be a monk. That day is marked by solemn vows in the ceremony of consecration, as each member of the community welcomes the new monk with an embrace. This is the secret of the community: Each monk lives a life apart but not alone. By themselves, few men would rise at 3 a.m. for prayer and labor; but this is natural in a community whose very rhythm breathes service to God. No monk is left alone to face the imperious demands of personal temptation.

A monk is not alone even in death. “Each goes ahead alone but not unaccompanied,” and Pennington’s words are illustrated by moving photographs of the burial of Brother Thomas. Cloaked in the white Cistercian cowl, the body of the elderly monk is accompanied by the entire community to the cemetery. To the quiet chant of prayers, dirt is thrown over the body.

The old monk’s body has been prepared for death through a life well lived in service to the One who holds the keys of death, hell, and heaven. Rightly does Pennington rejoice that “funerals are among the greatest celebrations in a monastery.”

Joyous faces leap from these pages: Brother Francis, a Polish wrestler who worked his way across the Soviet steppes to America; Brother Alfred, whose much shorter journey brought him from Wall Street; Brother Vincent, who, after spending most of his 65 years at the abbey gate welcoming new monks, promised the community gathered around his deathbed that he would welcome each one at heaven’s gate.

From cell and cloister and choir and cemetery, the monastic way eventuates in joy.

Transformation in Christ

By Dietrich von Hildebrand

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 540

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Ronda Chervin

Certain Catholics are allergic to “spiritual reading.” In my experience, the only spiritual writers who can reach them are John Henry Newman and…Dietrich von Hildebrand.

Why? Probably because the highly emotional style of most spiritual writers alienates a reader who loves God deeply but without much in the way of affective soaring. When opening a book by a mystical writer, such readers feel uncomfortable. “I try my best and actually make sacrifices for Christ, but I don’t have visions, locutions, levitations — or even burning fire in my heart.” With that, and the thought that perhaps God loves others more, a bookmark is placed in the volume of spiritual reading recommended as “just the thing for you.” Meanwhile one lives from the gleanings of favorite Catholic periodicals, good in themselves, but hardly able to provide the richness of the classics of spirituality.

A related reason why certain Catholics veer away from spiritual reading may be that they need insight as well as inspiration. They’re looking for something that can also nourish the mind.

Dietrich von Hildebrand’s classic Transformation in Christ addresses these shortcomings. First published in 1948, it was read by serious Catholics in the 1950s all over the world. Now, several years after his death, it has come out in a beautiful new edition.

Von Hildebrand was of German Protestant lineage. He studied philosophy with Husserl and became a Catholic in his early manhood. With the combination of God’s grace, a convert’s zeal, and deep insight, he quickly recognized that there was an abyss between the world of the Catholic saints and the many faithful Catholics who had never been touched by the idea of living their lives with total dedication to God and neighbor.

During the early Nazi period, von Hildebrand decided he could not live in a country headed by a criminal. With his wife and son, he left Germany. Eventually he found a haven in the U.S., where he taught philosophy for many years at Fordham. Over the years von Hildebrand devoted himself to working out a phenomenological approach to ethics. His finest contribution here isChristian Ethics.

His task, in part, in Transformation in Christ is clarifying the deep-seated reasons why Catholics are drawn to compromise in the quest for sanctity. Von Hildebrand writes not so much in terms of particular sins but rather about attitudes that reflect the negative desires of the heart. He explores spiritual stagnation, and provides a vivid and incisive description of attitudes that militate against the yearning for godly transformation: facile optimism, desires to retain ambiguous traits of character, and a solidification of personality coming with age.

In the reflections that develop, von Hildebrand contrasts unattractive pseudo forms of virtue and the authentic form we find in the saints. Thus he analyzes contrition, self-knowledge, simplicity, humility, freedom, and patience.

Transformation in Christ is spiritual literature for those who are allergic to the genre. It is, as well, a classic source for those who give spiritual direction, for parish programs in spirituality, and for the renewal movements of our time.

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