Volume > Issue > Briefly: January-February 1994

January-February 1994

Christianity in the Twenty-First Century: Reflections on the Challenges Ahead

By Robert Wuthnow

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 217

Price: $25

Review Author: Gregory Doolan

The French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré once noted that “Sociology is the science with the greatest number of methods and the least results.” This observation applies to Robert Wuthnow’s Christianity in the Twenty-First Century. While Wuthnow’s work offers an effective analysis of the socio-political significance and future of Christianity, its neglect of the church’s spiritual nature results in an incomplete analysis of the faith, yielding Poincaré’s “least results.”

The purpose of this work, Wuthnow explains, is “to consider the challenges ahead [for Christianity], asking about the direction of present trends, looking at what we have and what we want, and then by considering the future, assess better where our present energies should lie.” He defines the prime challenges facing Christianity as institutional, ethical, doctrinal, political, and cultural. Yet while he emphasizes that these challenges must be met for certain sociological reasons, Wuthnow provides no explanation why Christianity should persist rather than some other ethical or theological system.

A key response to the challenges ahead, Wuthnow contends, exists in the form of story. “Everyone knows that we make sense of the past by telling stories. I suspect we make sense of the future by telling those stories as well.” Wuthnow stresses the importance of story in regard to the ethical challenges to Christianity. He offers as examples people whom he has interviewed who were affected by some story from Scripture or their personal lives which has encouraged a life of generosity. While these examples do show a cause-and-effect relation concerning stories, they do not suggest what Christian stories offer as opposed to any other moral ones — particularly since the examples he offers do not illustrate a direct relation between these people’s actions and their spiritual beliefs. Moreover, Wuthnow neglects some of the more serious challenges to Christian ethics today, such as the issues of abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia.

One important source of story, Wuthnow explains, is community, which “shapes how we think about ourselves and becomes a part of our past, our memory, our being.” He notes, however, that the communal role of the church is gradually being subsumed by other sources: the college classroom, religious magazines, emotional and 12-step support groups. With the high mobility of our culture, furthermore, he predicts that the church as community will likely be further eroded in the future.

This trend has broader significance for denominations. A diluted sense of doctrinal difference has led to a diminished sense of the importance of denominations. Wuthnow fails to acknowledge that the weakening of denominational identity highlights one of the key challenges facing Christianity: the loss of faith. A major reason that denominations have become so alike is lack of any distinct belief on the part of members, rendering Christianity in some instances indistinguishable from secular humanism.

In the latter half of his book, Wuthnow dedicates several pages to an effective analysis of fundamentalism’s significance in America. He neglects, however, to offer any consideration to the largest church in this country: the Catholic Church.

At the start of the book, Wuthnow notes that his interest in the future of the church stems from his being “an individual participant in the great experiment we call Christianity.” Unlike the American experiment, however, Christianity is not a socio-political project. It is a faith. Social theorists may have “contributed importantly to our understanding of religious doctrine by demonstrating its functional importance in the lives of individuals and for entire societies,” as he contends, but only by examining the spiritual implications of doctrine can we truly understand Christianity — both today and in the 21st century.

Meditations on Modern Political Thought: Masculine/Feminine Themes from Luther to Arendt

By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Publisher: Pennsylvania State University Press

Pages: 128

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Dale Vree

In its first incarnation, this book was mishandled and in effect buried by its publisher (Praeger), so it’s a happy event that Penn State Press has resurrected it. Elshtain is one of the most ecclectic and fertile political theorists writing today; more modestly, she describes herself as “a feminist political theorist who routinely challenges both feminism and political theory.”

Like Orwell, she has many furious detractors — in her case, among officially certified feminists — and, contrary to appearances, it’s a good bet history will vindicate her, not them.

A Protestant, she grew up Lutheran, and is now torn between Wittenberg and Rome, and so her lead essay, “Luther’s Two Kingdoms and the Eclipse of the Female (Mater Ecclesiae)” is most inviting. Indeed, it’s worth the price of the whole book — and worth this whole review.

Elshtain notes the received (Whiggish) wisdom about Luther: He was a “freedom fighter.” But as we would expect of Elshtain, she asks: “What sort of freedom and to what ends?” The picture that emerges is very mixed.

Luther sought to delegitimize the Church, “yet he simultaneously celebrates secular authority.” Luther wouldn’t have the Church checking the power of the state; rather, he would concentrate power in the hands of the state. In the process the Church-authorized “natural right to resist tyrannical rule” would be dropped, so that the prince would be hindered by neither pope nor people. The universal Church was to become a series of state churches, dependent upon princes. With this political theology, Lutheranism has been “drawn into the orbit of whatever power is dominant at the time.”

If political freedom was diminished, what about freedom for women? Of the various points Elshtain makes, the most telling is that Luther masculinized theology. He deconstructed female images: The Church he railed against understood herself in female terms: mater ecclesiae (Mother Church) and the Bride of Christ. Luther threw out devotion to the Virgin and to (female) saints. The obliteration of female religious symbols and models matters, says Elshtain. As “a female-linked transcendent moment” was lost, a “glorious new day for women” was not won. Elshtain doesn’t mention it, but the Luther-like demotion of the feminine in today’s Catholic Church in the U.S. (“Holy Mother Church” becomes merely “church”; “she” becomes “it”; devotion to the Virgin and the saints atrophy) may have a lot to do with the curiously un-Catholic clamor for priestesses among American Catholics. Can the power of the Maternal be replaced by the power of power in the economy of grace, in life itself?

Elshtain’s view of Luther winds up more negative than positive, but even some of her positives are open to question. She seems to accept the notion that in breaking with Church interpretation of Scripture, Luther left us with a viable alternative. “Authority remains,” she seems to assure us, “the authority of internal textual evidence.” But Scripture is no more self-interpreting than the U.S. Constitution — nor is it evident from “internal” evidence that it was intended to be. Not surprisingly, those who adhere to sola Scriptura have never been able to agree on “what the Bible plainly teaches.”

Yet, Elshtain pits this “democratic epistemology” against the “aristocratic epistemology” of the Magisterium. But appearances deceive: The “critical” studies of the Bible, initially given us by Protestant (often Lutheran) theologians, have, as Cardinal Ratzinger notes, once again made the Bible a closed book: The experts, now self-appointed eggheads of a positivist bent, have “erected a fence around the garden of Scripture to which the non-expert now no longer has entry.” But, Ratzinger continues, “The rule of faith, yesterday as today, is not based on the discoveries (be they true or hypotheticabpof biblical sources and layers but on the Bible just as it is, as it has been read in the Church since the time of the Fathers until now. It is precisely the fidelity to this reading of the Bible that has given us the saints, who were often uneducated…. Yet they were the ones who understood it best.” Ironically, the aristocratic epistemology of the Church is today’s guarantor of the democratic epistemology of those of simple, yet profound, faith.

Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves: An American Naturalist in Italy

By Gary Paul Nabhan

Publisher: Pantheon

Pages: 227

Price: $22

Review Author: Patty O'Connell

Like most contemplative travelers, Gary Paul Nabhan set out to discover something about another part of the world and in the process learned even more about himself. What makes Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves exceptional — and delightful — is the author’s ability to communicate complicated religious, cultural, personal, and biologic perceptions and information gracefully and succinctly.

Nabhan, a divorced and somewhat disillusioned Catholic, recently acted on a longtime fascination with and reverence for St. Francis by walking the Franciscan Way, a 200-mile route from Monte La Verna, where the saint received the stigmata in 1224, to Assisi, his birthplace. As its title would suggest, this book encompasses much discussion of the plant and animal life of Tuscany and Umbria. Nabhan found, much to his dismay, that ignorance, encroaching big-business agricultural techniques, and modernization in general have resulted in permanent damage to natural wildlife habitats. Indeed, even the spot where Francis supposedly met the wolf, as is retold in many stories of the saint, is now a street corner surrounded by suburban apartment buildings. Yet, Nabhan also finds encouraging signs — e.g., stubborn herbs growing at the edge of roads “regardless of how narrow, how frequently mowed, how incessantly sprayed.” Nabhan’s encounters with the official monuments and ceremonies honoring St. Francis are disappointing because the author seemed to anticipate simplicity and serenity in bucolic environs and instead found — at La Verna — a formidable tourist trap, complete with mammoth parking lot, and — at Assisi — a Franciscan feast-day observance at which Hare Krishnas, antivivisectionists, and Catholic clerics appeared at odds with one another.

The author at times exhibits that pain-in-the-neck American quality of expecting the rest of the world to be what he wants it to be. Nabhan does, however, acknowledge his need to lighten up, and chastises all travelers — himself included — who congratulate themselves on their “freedom” to pick up and take off when it is in fact the “freedom” of settling down and cultivating roots that we should celebrate.

Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships

By George P. Fletcher

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 211

Price: $21

Review Author: Michael Scott Feeley

During the 1992 presidential campaign, the press and public accorded substantial attention to the question of Bill Clinton’s loyalty. His fidelity to his wife (accusations of adultery), his patriotism (draft-dodging and antiwar protesting in England), and his religious commitment (a Southern Baptist who is pro-abortion) came under scrutiny as measures of his character and fitness for office. George Fletcher explores the importance and relevance of loyalty in the context of family, nation, and faith in his timely book.

Fletcher is a prolific professor of law at Columbia and the guiding force behind the relatively new periodical S’VARA: A Journal of Philosophy and Judaism. Self-described as a liberal legal scholar, Fletcher reveals himself more particularly as a communitarian in the company of Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah, Michael Walzer, and Michael Sandel. Fletcher takes issue with traditional liberalism’s sacralization of individual rights. Communitarians rank the well-being of the community above individual rights. For Fletcher individual rights are derivative of duties.

Fletcher identifies three basic types of community-based loyalties: first, the loyalty of love which involves relationships with family and friends; second, group loyalty which is distinguished not by relationship but by membership and entails ideological commitment and emotional attachment; finally, loyalty to the divine. Fletcher gives rather short shrift to this third category. He handles the subject awkwardly and incompletely, as if he isn’t quite sure how it fits. While celebrating the importance of religion in the life of the community, he indicates that if loyalty to the divine becomes pitted against another loyalty, loyalty to the divine must yield since it belongs more in the ethereal realms than with the tangible realities of family and group. Religion, then, is primarily of value in reinforcing community and the shared societal order. Fletcher fails to recognize that an individual can have a personal relationship with God or that the manner in which individuals interact may originate out of intimacy with the divine.

Fletcher asserts that the state should broaden legal protections insuring that people are not compelled “to betray their commitments to friends, lovers, family, community or God.” To this end, he advocates expanding the marital privilege not to testify in court against one’s spouse such that “no one should be required to be a witness against…those with whom he or she stands in a close bond of loyalty.” He condemns surrogate motherhood on the grounds that a contract to bear a child for another family requires a mother to act disloyally toward her offspring, with permanent consequences of estrangement and self-alienation. Fletcher wants to protect the private transfer of wealth at death, since it is an act of loyalty to loved ones and cherished causes as well as a means of encouraging continuity.

Fletcher justifies protecting the flag from abuse, including flag-burning, “as a way of developing a positive and patriotic attitude” toward the country. He rebukes the liberal criminal law philosophy that postulates that all relevant harm must occur to individuals, for the welfare of the community must be protected too. Protection for the flag as a symbol for the community trumps the individual right to desecrate it.

Fletcher believes that schools should provide a common culture, a common identity, such that “pupils must not only speak the same language, they must come to rehearse the same books and poems, cherish the same national heroes and villains, and develop common sentiments toward their shared institutions.” Fletcher endorses the Pledge of Allegiance as a patriotic ritual that reinforces the common culture. However, he fails to define what he means by the common culture.

While this book sets forth an intriguing communitarian perspective, it does not address fundamental issues such as the nature of the common culture or the problem of several communities coexisting within the same political order. In seeking to protect relationships of loyalty, Fletcher does not resolve what happens when these protections collide with other relationships of loyalty (except in the case of religion). If a particular loyalty is primary, then what happens to objective truth? Fletcher recognizes the danger that under his regime truth might be relativized to the particular community — i.e., if the community believes it, it is de facto true. Fletcher supports a search for universal truth that transcends each particular community, but he ends his book at the start of this quest.

Karl Adam: Catholicism in German Culture

By Robert Anthony Krieg

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 240

Price: $28.95

Review Author: Nick Bagileo

Fr. Robert Krieg has written the first English language biography of Fr. Karl Adam (1876-1966), a celebrated international best-selling author during his lifetime. Adam was part of the Catholic faculty at the University of Tübingen from 1919 until 1946. The Tübingen school was motivated to help modern man understand his faith afresh, to, in Adam’s words, “examine and safeguard Catholic truth in the light of new problems and with the means which are made available trough both a progressive historical method and also rigorous thought, [which is] not afraid of flying to [speculative] heights.” Following the Tübingen tradition, Adam wrote his theology in a dialogue with and against the intellectual currents of his day.

Adam was a theological pioneer and his most famous book, The Spirit of Catholicism, was a forerunner of the ecclesiology of Vatican II.

In his two Christological works — The Son of God and Christ Our Brother — Adam’s main concern was to show that Christ was truly human: “We now have among us a Man who is God. We have a Brother who is God.” Similarly, Adam wanted to correct the liberal Protestant view that there was no “historical Jesus,” that in effect Jesus never existed.

It is disturbing to note that at the beginning of Hitler’s rule, Adam believed Catholicism was reconcilable with Nazism. Though critical of the Nazis, he thought the bad elements could be weeded out. It is important to point out that Adam favored German nationalism, but he was no Nazi. In a famous 1934 speech, Adam made the distinction between “a Christian-based nationalism” and “the Nazis’ neopagan nationalism.” Adam insisted that national rebirth depended on Christian faith, not racial purity. He stressed that Christ was a Jew and that God’s revelation transcends culture and race. Surprisingly, Adam stated in 1939 that the German bishops should permit the government to conscript seminarians.

I have some misgivings with Krieg’s book. His depiction of neo-scholastic theology during this time is incomplete and unsophisticated. Krieg demonstrates how Adam influenced and inspired later theologians such as Rahner and Schillebeeckx; however, no mention is made of the controversies raised by their theologies. Krieg writes of the Vatican’s policy of making theologians clear up ambiguities in their books as “secretive,” “juridical,” and not “scholarly.” This portrayal of the Vatican seems strange when Krieg himself mentions Adam’s fuzzy language and the Vatican’s willingness to involve Adam’s bishop and Bavaria’s papal nuncio. Although Krieg writes of Adam’s influence on Rahner and Schillebeeckx, he never mentions Adam’s influence on Cardinal Ratzinger, nor that Ratzinger wrote an updated version of Adam’s masterpiece. One hopes that Krieg’s biography will lead its readers to Adam’s books themselves. Readers should start with The Spirit of Catholicism, and then read Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, which Ratzinger wrote in an “attempt to repeat, in the changed circumstances of our generation, what Karl Adam accomplished almost half a century ago.”

The Acts of the Apostles

By Luke Timothy Johnson

Publisher: The Liturgical Press

Pages: 584

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Keith A.J. Massey

The Sacra Pagina series has been prepared for theologians, graduate students, clergy, and religious educators. Within these divisions there are different needs, depending on whether the reader is primarily interested in the text from an academic or pastoral standpoint.

My biblical studies have given me occasion to use many commentaries. One of the biggest impediments I have seen to a broad accessibility in a commentary is inconsistency in applying the format, consisting of translation, followed with verse by verse critical notes, and, finally, a section of interpretation. Too often some of the most irrelevant, pedantic information can come spilling into the interpretation. Problematic issues dealing with such things as textual corruptions and philological uncertainties can be great fun, but rarely are they in need of a definitive solution before a given pericope can be interpreted (which is fortunate, because for most such issues a definitive solution will not be forthcoming this side of the Eschaton). For this reason, such problems must be left in a critical notes section where those who want them can play with them at leisure. There they will not clutter the way of those who simply want to know what the commentator thinks a passage means. For faithfully maintaining this separation, Johnson deserves the highest marks. In staying so close to this plan, Johnson seems to have accomplished something of a rarity: a commentary that can satisfy the diverse readership at which it is aimed. Critical students will be more than pleased with the storehouse of information supplied in the notes. The interpretation section, however, provides a clear explanation of the particular pericope being discussed and an explanation of how the passage fits into the author’s aims as a whole. Following the interpretation section is also a separate bibliography for each pericope.

Another welcome feature of this commentary is that it does not supply a summary of the opinions of every commentator since St. Ambrose (many commentaries read more like a history of interpretation than a new commentary). Also refreshing is the commitment to understanding the text we have, rather than assuming that any perceived unevenness results from a textual corruption or editorial alteration.

Given the stated goals of the Sacra Pagina series to provide commentaries “shaped by the context of the Catholic tradition,” it is interesting that there is an absence of “Catholic proof-texting.” To be sure, this commentary is Catholic. But never is the Catholic cause imposed upon the text. As a convert who spent many years proving Catholic claims to myself from Scripture, I can report no disappointment.

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