Volume > Issue > Briefly: July-August 1993

July-August 1993

God Without Being

By Jean-Luc Marion

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Pages: 258

Price: No price given

Review Author: Brendan Sweetman

Jean-Luc Marion, a French Catholic philosopher known to English-speaking readers for his work on Descartes, at­tempts in this book a bold and ambitious task: to challenge, and propose an alternative to, the dominant conception of God in traditional philosophy and theology. He does this with the help of Heidegger and Derrida and the philo­sophical approach of post­modernism. The result is a creative work of postmodernist theology, but one which will leave those with a taste for even very general traditional metaphysical categories some­what dissatisfied.

Marion falls into the class of theologians that believes that revelation alone is the­ology’s foundation, and that reason must find its place in this larger scheme. His central point is that while reason, or conceptual thinking, is neces­sary for understanding theolo­gy, it is not capable by itself of disclosing the reality of God, because the category of Being itself is not capable of fully dis­closing the reality of God. In other words, that which conceptual knowledge is trying to know — “Being” — is not itself adequate to capture God’s reality.

Marion thus concludes that the traditional metaphysical category of Being (St. Thomas’s esse) is really a form of idolatry because it imprisons God in metaphysical categories. True theology, therefore, must de­velop new concepts to help us better approach the disclosure of God. Marion understands God primarily in terms of love (agape) and gift.

Although Marion’s view is interesting, it throws up a serious problem which studies from his perspective are not good at addressing. Marion hints at this problem in the Preface, where he briefly discusses how the French edition of the book was received. Critics wondered whether he was saying that a God without Being does not actually exist. Marion answers that the issue is not the possibility of God’s attaining to Being, but the possibility of Being’s attaining to God. Yet Marion acknowl­edges that “with respect to God, it is self-evident that the first question comes down to asking, before anything else, whether he is.”

The central issue here re­volves around the fact that, as Marion admits, the primary question about God must con­cern the being of God. This is because before God can be of any particular nature (however conceived), God first of all has to be, to exist. Thus Marion’s approach does not transcend the old metaphysical category of Being after all.

The central problem facing Marion’s view is one that faces all postmodernist theological approaches: Can one deal ex­clusively with God’s nature without logically first dealing with God’s existence, as if God’s nature is in some way so profound (or so beyond being) that questions about God’s existence can be tran­scended? To put the issue another way: Can one continue to talk about the existence of God — the fact that God is — and yet still claim to transcend the category of Being? My point is that if one admits that the first question about God concerns God’s existence (and what else could it concern?), then one does not (indeed cannot) avoid the traditional metaphysical category of Being. It is one thing to claim that conceptual knowledge is not adequate to discover the reality of God; it is quite another claim, and much more prob­lematic to hold, that God transcends the category of Being altogether.

The Case for Christian Human­ism

By R. William Franklin and Joseph M. Shaw

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 270

Price: $18.95

Review Author: Michael Stebbins

In this country the most vociferous present-day critics of the notion of Christian human­ism tend to fall into two groups. On the one side are humanists of the secular sort who contend that Christianity, with its freight of revealed doctrine and morality, has been and will always remain an impediment to humanity’s progress toward autonomy. On the other side are certain voic­es, I emanating from the Christian Right who have met this secular critique with a slashing counterattack of their own, classifying all humanism as es­sentially irreligious and hence as radically hostile to any reali­ty that transcends the merely human. Despite their widely divergent points of view, the two groups share the adamant conviction that no one can be both a humanist and a Chris­tian.

The Case for Christian Hu­manism is an effort to correct this misapprehension. Authen­tic Christian living, Franklin and Shaw argue, takes its bearings from the doctrine of the Incarnation, which leaves no doubt as to the profundity of God’s care for human be­ings in their very humanness. By sanctifying matter, by offer­ing us the true freedom that results from loving submission to divine authority, and by giving human history an eter­nal significance, Christ’s re­demptive activity “not only leads people to heaven; it also points the way to a truly human life on earth.” This “humanism of the Incarnation,” as Maritain called it, lies at the very heart of Christian identity.

Thus, the authors argue, Christianity has had a human­istic bent right from the start. Christian humanism was the dominant cultural force in the West from the early centuries of the Church through the high Middle Ages. It lost its preeminence in the modern period, when new philosophi­cal systems, inspired in great part by breakthroughs in the natural sciences, gave rise to various brands of humanism which rejected (or at least wa­tered down) the claims of the Christian tradition. But Frank­lin and Shaw see signs that Christian humanism is under­going a revival. They also single out three sources from which Christian humanism draws its unique potency: the Bible, worship, and theology.

From the Bible, the first and foremost of these sources, we learn that we are created in God’s image; even more importantly, Scripture proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who not only shows forth God’s solidar­ity with us but also “represents what humanity is and can and should be.”

The Eucharist, the central act of Christian worship, has traditionally been seen as uni­fying the Christian community, bestowing a common dignity on all its members, and empowering it for effective service to the world. This communal orientation of the Eucharist, which at several points in the history of Christianity was in danger of being lost, has in more recent times begun to regain its rightful prominence (e.g., witness the Oxford Movement, Grundtvig’s re­newal of Danish Lutheranism, the Benedictine liturgical reviv­al, the Iona Community in the Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic liturgical reform since the Second Vatican Councib~

Franklin and Shaw see contemporary theology as moving away from the old liberal strategy of accommodating Christian belief to the regnant culture. It now affirms more readily that the classical Chris­tian doctrines — especially insofar as they speak of the dig­nity and unity of the human family under God — serve as a basis for critiquing modern culture’s anti-human tendencies.

I fear, however, that this earnest book will do little to change the mind of anyone who is not already in its camp. But for those already inclined to agree with the book’s basic intentions, the authors have done a praiseworthy job of highlighting many of the enduring themes of Christian humanism (with more of a Protestant than a Catholic slant).

Disposable People? The Plight of Refugees

By Judy Mayotte

Publisher: Orbis

Pages: 347

Price: $23.95

Review Author: Maria Valencia Vree

Judy Mayotte puts a hu­man face on the news reports about refugees, and offers a comprehensive look at the causes of wars that forced mil­lions to flee their homelands.

The wars in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Ethi­opia, which Mayotte discusses, were fueled by the Cold War. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. supplied allies in each country with weapons. The United Nations was integral to the survival of refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refu­gees and the UN Border Relief Operation, along with other UN organizations and the International Red Cross, were able to sustain the life of millions living in camps, so that now that the Cold War is over, they will be able to return to their homelands. Of course, since this book was written new wars and skir­mishes have produced new refugees.

Even where fighting has ceased, many thousands are doomed to perish or suffer from the aftereffects that re­main. Both psychological and physical damage live on. There are still hundreds of thousands of mines left in place (maps of their placement were never made). A whole generation of children was brought up in the face of war and exile. These children have seen their par­ents, siblings, and friends brutally murdered in front of them. Many were forced to inform on their parents, and still more were tortured.

Famine is usually thought to be induced by nature — not so in Ethiopia and Sudan. We have all seen pictures of the swollen bellies and skeletal bodies, yet this was inten­tionally brought about by war. Soldiers sabotaged food sup­plies so that populations who were thought to be enemy sympathizers were left to starve.

The many atrocities de­scribed by Mayotte are heart-stopping. Crimes against hu­manity were covered up; only now, after the superpowers have lost their stake in the wars, are the facts surfacing. Mayotte has spoken to the refugees and recounts their experiences. An anonymous Afghan refugee says: “Con­sider us not only as we are, but also as we were.” Mayotte helps us do this since she does not begin her account when the plight of the refugees began. She describes life as it was, the circumstances that led to change, life as it is now, and life as it is expected to be in the future.

Every time we turn our heads, there is a new disaster in the world that demands our attention and causes us to forget the old disasters. These refugee populations must not be forgotten in the face of new disasters. In Cambodia profes­sionals, including doctors, nurses, and teachers, were executed, leaving no one to care for or educate the return­ing population. The generation born in the refugee camps has never known freedom, and does not know how to provide for a family, having been dependent on charity. In many cases, those assigned to be the protectors of the refugees in the camps were in actuality their abusers; they took advan­tage of their position to rape and steal from those they were assigned to protect. Mere survival was so uncertain in the camps that refugees stole food from fellow refugees. An entire generation has never learned to trust.

Those of us in advantage­ous positions have a responsi­bility to care for our neighbors, and so we must not forget these refugees, who have been treated by many as expend­able. A ninth-century Persian poet poignantly wrote, “You who absolve yourself from the suffering of others are not worthy of being called a human being.” It is all too easy to dismiss the suffering of these refugees because it is far away and not really seen, but Mayotte fights to remove from refugees the stigma of “Dis­posable People,” and puts their plight on our doorstep. It’s up to us to open the door.

With Liberty and Justice for Whom? The Recent Evangelical Debate Over Capitalism

By Craig M. Gay

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 276

Price: No price given

Review Author: Matthew Markovic

There are certain red-hot right-wing Protestant evangeli­cals who believe that property theft was and remains the or­iginal sin, and that the welfare state is the major obstacle to Christianizing the earth. By following the free enterprise outline that is in the Bible, they say, the faithful will be blessed with increased control over the earth, which will ultimately climax in the return of Christ.

There are also certain left-leaning Protestant evangelicals who espouse a kind of libera­tion theology. Many of them regard capitalism as a greedy system, controlled by a busi­ness elite, that promotes inequality, militarism, artificial consumerism, and cultural decadence. They contend that the Bible condemns private accumulation, and that Christ Himself commanded us to rid ourselves of our possessions and to redistribute our wealth to the poor.

A third group of evangeli­cals — the largest — is mod­erately conservative. Carl F.H. Henry is its elder dean. Capi­talism’s sex and gadgets have drawbacks, Henry has ac­knowledged, but Communism and socialism have been worse; they have hindered the Chris­tian cause. Henry and his followers believe that the church has failed to Christian­ize capitalism, but that it is salvageable.

These and other Protestant evangelical groups, and their debates over capitalism, form the subject of Craig M. Gay’s fine book. Originally a doctoral thesis done under the neocon­servative sociologist Peter L. Berger, this is a study in the sociology of knowledge, and Gay uses a “New Class” the­ory to explain the evangelicals’ complicated intellectual loyal­ties. His sociological sub-theme is that evangelicals tend to become intellectually secular­ized even as they ostensibly oppose secularization.

The evangelical Right likes to cite capitalism’s production efficiencies, says Gay, but not its destructive roles in culture. The evangelical Left focuses on redistribution of wealth and the excesses of capitalism, but chooses to ignore its efficien­cies. In the end, Gay espouses an intermediate position, though he emphasizes that the Gospel does not primarily concern the establishment of a particular kind of socio-eco­nomic order.

I wish Gay had been less theoretical, more historical, and most of all, that he had fleshed out some of the obscure evan­gelical writers he cites with biographical background. There is also more than a little re­dundancy in the book. But these are minor objections.

Gay proposes a “Sabbath attitude” toward capitalism to help put the material world into a more eternal perspec­tive. This appealing proposal reminds one that there was a time in this country, not that many years ago, when people at least had a Sabbath attitude on the Sabbath. Most spent their Sundays not in shopping malls, not with work brought home in briefcases, and not with work around the house, but in attending church, enjoy­ing a family meal, visiting rel­atives, and nodding off with the newspaper. But that sim­pler world is mostly gone. Now we largely ignore the commandment against work and commerce on the Sabbath — don’t we? — and the tired Monday faces show some of the consequences.

Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World

By Richard J. Mouw

Publisher: InterVarsity Press

Pages: 173

Price: No price given

Review Author: Christopher W. Decker

When asked why he never became a Christian, Gandhi replied, “I’ve never met one.” Were he alive today in this country, he might rephrase his reply, “I’ve never been able to converse with one.” It is sad, but often true, that those who try to proclaim the Christian message in the public square often do so in ways that dis­courage others from entering into conversation. Richard J. Mouw, an evangelical philosopher, explores this problem in his new book and urges Chris­tians to practice “convicted civility,” to treat those who disagree with us with respect, while simultaneously proclaim­ing our basic convictions.

Like many, Mouw is con­cerned about the deterioration of public debate in our country — from reasoned disagreement and discussion to name-calling and accusation. Discussion and debate, Mouw believes, are activities that Christians should value as ends in themselves. He points out that the Christian message is more likely to be heard and well received in a climate where such discus­sion is possible. Christians must express the Gospel point of view in the public square; but Christians should imitate the divine character, as sum­marized by St. Peter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15-16).

Mouw seems more con­cerned that his readers will fail to be civil than that they will fail to manifest the proper convictions. Thus, much of his book consists of advice on how to nurture the interior attitudes necessary to enter into dia­logue with others. To be civil requires a genuine respect for the basic dignity of the person and his right to express opinions. It requires a real openness to others and a willingness to be challenged and perhaps even corrected by them. Thus, one must cultivate humility, patience, understand­ing, empathy, and an aware­ness of one’s own sinfulness.

Mouw is not oblivious to the danger that his readers will fall into moral relativism and religious indifferentism in the name of being civil. The truths of Christianity are not negotia­ble, he insists, but one can proclaim these truths in a variety of ways.

There are, he acknowl­edges, limits to civility. “Ci­vility is a commitment to keep the conversation going,” but there are times when we must denounce evil, even if to do so brings the conversation to an abrupt end. Mouw suggests that one can apply the criteria of just-war theory to such situations and thus determine when uncivil denunciations of others and their positions are appropriate. This is an intrigu­ing suggestion, and deserves far more discussion than it re­ceives. Mouw does little to show us how to locate these boundaries and how to behave once they have been crossed.

Those who accept Mouw’s plea to practice civility may well find that his book raises more questions than it an­swers. The book helps one ap­preciate the various values to be considered when deciding how to express one’s Christian convictions in public. Once our eyes have been opened, though, we will probably have to look elsewhere to learn how to proclaim the truth without betraying it.

Valuing Life

By John Kleinig

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Pages: 284

Price: $32

Review Author: Philip E. Devine

That life is good and death bad is one proposition to which we might hope every­one would agree. But appear­ance of self-evidence conceals many differences of outlook. As John Kleinig maintains, the value of life is subject to var­ious understandings.

It is no longer the case, as it once was, that “the broad appeal to human life’s value [appears] so transparently self-evident that its rationale…bare­ly [needs] articulation,” and that those who dare to ques­tion it “thereby place them­selves outside the cultural and moral pale.” On the contrary, influences such as the declin­ing cultural position of Chris­tianity and the feminist demand for the legitimation of abortion have produced “a noticeable degree of skepticism concerning any kind of abso­lute or unconditional valuing of human life.” (Kleinig might have also mentioned two World Wars, the attempted extermination of the Jews, and the threat of nuclear annihila­tion.) While he draws back from “the view that would have us trapped within com­peting or incommensurable frameworks” in discussing the value of human life, he does little to help us escape de facto relativism. Most of his argu­ments on practical issues are inconclusive.

Kleinig does, however, manage to mount at least one weighty argument. He asks us to consider a child raised as well-fed pet or psychological subject, and thus kept from developing those capacities we think of as distinctively hu­man. “My intuition,” he writes, “is that something very wrong is being done, and it is being done precisely because this human’s potential is being ignored or frustrated…. And I believe the same might be said of the fetus…[whose] potential­ities may be frustrated by physical injury, social depriva­tion or death.” The relevant sense of potentiality, he ex­plains, is not mere possibility; it involves a “developmental trajectory” whose goal is a per­son like one of the readers of this review. But Kleinig is un­willing to confront the claims of women to dispose of an unwanted pregnancy with our duty to allow this potentiality to develop.

Perhaps Kleinig is too pes­simistic about the possibility of rationally supporting a chal­lenge to existing practice, even on the spare premises his methods allow. Even in the most secular environments babies continue to be treas­ured, despite the limited extent to which they embody distinc­tively human excellences. That they are our own kind, and that we may hope that they will, upon maturity, embody something humanly admirable, is enough (notably for grand­parents). And on this premise one can rest a persuasive case against most forms of abortion.

Kleinig’s method guaran­tees that he will have the greatest possible difficulty reaching moral conclusions. And the methodological sol­vents he applies to life and death issues can also be ap­plied to questions of honesty, sexual morals, social justice, and the respect due civil law — in fact, to any moral issue one might pose. Thus the effect of his deconstruction of some of our most important moral concepts is to allow the divisive tendencies of contem­porary Western culture the largest possible scope.

Those wishing to under­stand the appeal of authoritar­ian solutions to contemporary problems need look no further: The road from Derrida to De Maistre is short, and the road from Foucault to fascism is shorter.

Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe

By Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Timea Szell

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Pages: 315

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Sandra Meisel

The study of saints is a growth industry. Although devotional practice in the Church continues to decline, academic interest surges. Such studies aren’t dependent on the beliefs of the scholars involved. For instance, historians scrutinize hagiography for details of everyday medieval life not preserved in other sources. Lately, however, scholars have been examining saints and their cults as entities in themselves rather than as means to some end. The writings of Peters Brown on the Late Antique concept of sanctity or Carolyn Walker Bynum on feminine spirituality in the Middle Ages exemplify these trends.

Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe samples major concerns of current hagiological research. Contributions are grouped under three headings: “Hagiography and History,” “The Language of Religious Discourse,” and “Saintliness and Gender.” The approach is interdisciplinary and the scope is broad. For the contributors, traditional hagiography is “sacred biography” composed to inspire admiration, imitation, and devotion. Saints are holy heroes, far from the human average, but close to God, who act as intercessors and shields.

Wisdom’s Daughter by Joan M. Nuth is an intensive theo­logical study of a single — uncanonizable — holy person, Julian of Norwich (1340-1420?). An anchoress at Norwich, Julian is sometimes given the courtesy title “Blessed,” but too little is known of her life for official Church recognition. Nevertheless, her writings are immensely popular. Not only has Julian become a favorite subject of academic research, with entire conferences devot­ed to her, but her visions have been dramatized, her work is studied by scores of spirituality groups, and an order of Angli­can nuns has been founded in her honor.

Julian’s fame rests on a series of visions known as the Sixteen Showings of Divine Love, which she received in her 30th year while critically ill. On recovery, she wrote down what she’d seen, then spent the next two decades pondering what the visions meant and wrote a longer ac­count of them. The most literate of the female medieval mystics, she was exceptionally well educated and an excellent writer of Middle English.

Wisdom’s Daughter is a the­ological analysis of Julian from a feminist perspective. Hence Nuth emphasizes human ex­perience as the basis of faith, and theology as the reflection upon that experience. Thus God is in danger of being reduced to a catalyst for female self-expression and affirmation. Yet Wisdom’s Daughter does make a reasonable case for taking Julian seriously as a creative theologian, and not simply a “devotional writer.”

Nuth’s wishful claim that Julian teaches “a God content to be on an equal footing with human beings” cannot dimin­ish Julian’s lovely evocations of God’s courtesy and familiarity. But Nuth’s desire to extol Julian’s “modernity” affects her book’s treatment of sin and salvation, points on which Julian is open to charges of heterodoxy (Julian humbly submit­ted to Church teaching when her revelations seemed in con­flict; she did not dissent, which seems to bother Nuth). Nuth seems beholden to the questionable notions that sin cannot really sever us from God and that all human beings will eventually be saved.

Nuth’s book could be fruit­fully read in conjunction with Grace Jantzen’s excellent Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theolo­gian, which is more traditional in approach.

Wisdom's Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich

By Joan M. Nuth

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 217

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Carroll C. Kearley

Richard Jenkyns, a pro­fessor of classics at Oxford, says his concern has been to look through Victorian art at the world from which it sprang. He finds it interesting to “take the outward and visi­ble appearance of an age and ask what it can tell us about the preoccupations, conscious and unconscious, of the time.” He is trying to understand the character of the Victorian age. As the title of his book indicates, we can find both dignity and decadence in that charac­ter. And by considering classi­cal themes and images, we can perceive a lot about that char­acter.

His focus is the visual culture of the Victorian world, and he uses one element in it, the classical, to see the whole somewhat better. Looking mainly at art and architecture, he tries to see in them ingredients of English character. His book offers a model to people from any culture for reflecting on their own national charac­ter.

Many Victorians had a strong interest in ancient Greek culture. John Ruskin and Au­gustus Welby Pugin argued for the superiority of Gothic visual elements in painting and archi­tecture as being expressive of superior moral elements. Pu­gin, a prominent architect, championed the Gothic and assaulted the classical on both patriotic and religious grounds. For him the Gothic was Chris­tian and the classical pagan. He saw medieval buildings as generously three-dimensional, with deep recesses of shadow resulting from different planes, while classical buildings look angular and flat. Ruskin thought that Gothic was a more practical style than the classical and was what people really liked, if they were hon­est with themselves.

Jenkyns shows in example after example that, in spite of the verbal war between the pro-Gothics and pro-Greeks, most architects of the time were not purists. Most used classical elements, but they used them in an English way.

There was a Greek revival in England during the Victori­an Age, which permeated both high and low culture. But the classical forms, when filled with English substance, were not always restrained and ennobling. Jenkyns offers many examples, through illustrations and commentary, of paintings that are classical in theme and overall organization, but which are sentimental, decadent, or prurient.

Jenkyns gives us fascinat­ing accounts of Victorian archi­tects and painters, and as we look at the illustrations of their works and reflect on his com­ments, we can encourage our­selves to ask how we let images from both high culture and everyday culture influence the way we incorporate dignity and decadence into our own modes of living.

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