Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 1997

June 1997

The Quest for God

By Paul Johnson

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 208

Price: $24

Review Author: Jeff Trapp

Historian Paul Johnson has written eloquently about Christianity and Judaism, and now he provides a personal exposition of his faith. This book is unusual for the present age, when a personal, living faith is often seen as a detriment for an “objective” historian, and this alone makes it worth reading. But the true merit of this book is that Johnson’s traditional Catholic faith is explored freshly and lovingly, with no shirking of difficult questions.

Johnson was born an English Catholic and has remained an active participant in the Church his entire life. “My faith,” he says, “is everything to me, the key to happiness in this world and the next.” This is most encouraging to those of us who share his faith, especially when it is understood that few people know better than Johnson the modern alternatives to God and their effects on the 20th century. He tells us that faith in God endures in this century partly because of the failures of alternatives to Him, such as materialism, totalitarianism, and the radical agenda of the post-Cold War age (e.g., “health” politics). That these forces have produced world wars, Auschwitz, abortion on demand, and euthanasia is proof of the danger of replacing God with idols. The latter two abominations are the products of the “health” politics which is practiced today, particularly in the Clinton administration, and which Johnson calls the “most threatening” items on today’s secular agenda.

While Johnson’s comments on social issues relating to faith are always thoughtful and edifying, it is his treatment of theological matters that most makes this book worth reading. This is especially true of his analysis of the four last things: death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. These topics are often ignored, even by Christians, but the author rightly corrects this neglect and places them at the center of his work. He hopes, he says, for a “good” death. He means this, not as a modern might have it, as a painless or easy death, but in a more “medieval” sense, as a foreseen death with time to prepare, confess his sins, and receive the Last Rites. This is a refreshingly sane hope which is not often expressed in our age, in which the great fear is a lonely death in a hospital, and a quick, sudden death is usually seen as fortunate. But Johnson correctly views death as the beginning of another state of existence and a necessary precursor to Judgment, the contemplation of which makes death hardly terrifying by comparison.

The book contains an interesting discussion of damnation. Johnson makes Hell real and frightful by incorporating the best of Christian teaching on the subject. His writings here are reminiscent of the best of C.S. Lewis. Says Johnson: “If we cannot truthfully say we are doing, or trying to do, God’s business, then Hell for us is not an academic question, but a dreadful possibility, even perhaps an imminent one.” We should not assume that only the worst of us, the Hitlers and the Stalins, are destined for Hell. According to a recent Time magazine poll, only one percent of Americans believe that they will wind up there. Johnson might help us rethink our optimism.

The book concludes with a chapter on prayer and a collection of prayers written by Johnson himself. From these sections we get a strong sense of how much writing this book meant to the author and how much he enjoys sharing his faith with others. The prayers are rich in form and content, and show us how a great scholar talks to God.

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

By Frank McCourt

Publisher: Scribners

Pages: 364

Price: $24

Review Author: Aaron Godfrey

There are many ways to read McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela’s Ashes, a biography that is at once moving, disturbing, and hilarious. My own reading is that it is all about grace.

Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn to an alcoholic father and a weak, ignorant mother. Because his father could not hold a job in New York during the Depression, the family returned to Ireland and settled in Limerick, where he grew up in grinding poverty and constant humiliation, mostly because his father could not stay away from alcohol.

The author’s memoir takes us through his early youth with an uncanny ability to articulate the wonder and speech of a child and adolescent, bringing himself to early manhood and a return to America in search of his fortune.

It was his “old-fashioned” Catholic schooling and a series of aesthetic accidents that opened his mind to literature and beauty, even though most of his teachers were not well trained academically.

There was nothing in McCourt’s early life that could have predicted redemption, or even escape, unless grace is factored in. Nor is it out of place to mention a good dollop of “Jansenistic” guilt, which is an effective force to make a person function at a higher level. He was also helped greatly by his resilience and sense of humor, often the “gallows humor” of the Irish, and the habit of forgiveness, casting no blame for his upbringing or lack of it. Nor does he blame the English, whose occupation of Ireland and religious repression were primarily responsible for the poverty and ignorance that afflicted McCourt’s youth.

On a recent visit to Ireland, I recognized that drink is still the curse of the Irish, whose social life still focuses around the pub. The anesthetic of alcohol still seems to be the antidote to the unemployment and hopelessness prevalent around the cities. As the author describes his youthful adventures, he is easily forgiven because he is “one of our own” and writes well in the idiom we Irish-Americans know well. Yet had he written his memoir in the contemporary language of the inner-city streets, we would probably have been offended at some of the strategies he used to survive and break the cycle of poverty and ignorance.

Unfortunately, most third- and fourth-generation Irish have forgotten their roots. They no longer remember the warning that “no Irish need apply” for jobs that would have supported a family. The new poor are struggling to survive and when their frustration breaks out in violence, “established” Irish, forgetful of the past, blame the poor. Many of us are not that remote from the poor of today except that we are white, and English is our native tongue.

Explorations in Metaphysics: Being, God, Person

By W. Norris Clarke

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 228

Price: $34.95

Review Author: Graham McAleer

Sadly, the sweep and verve of Clarke’s Thomism is not to be met with in the writings of younger specialists on St. Thomas. Indeed, virtually no young student of Thomas today has the ambition to master and apply the thought of the Angelic Doctor to the most pressing philosophical and social problems of our day. And this at a time when the deepest convictions of Thomas are challenged from within and without Catholicism!

How very welcome then is the republication of the essays of Norris Clarke, S.J., in one volume. The Thomism of these pages is heir to a remarkable period of intense Catholic thought. Clarke’s distinctive form of “existential Thomism” takes its origin from, among others, Maréchal, Gilson, de Finance, and the Louvain school, where Clarke did his doctoral studies. At Louvain Clarke learned of research suggesting that St. Thomas did not make a fundamental choice for Aristotle against Plato. There he began to appreciate Thomas’s metaphysical system as “an original synthesis of the strong points of both Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism, under the powerful influence of Pseudo-Dionysius.” Clarke published his seminal research findings on this synthesis in 1952 and since then has expanded these findings in his own “creative reappropriation” of Thomas. His 1952 article, reproduced in this edition, remains essential reading for students of the historical Thomas. Very rarely does an article in the history of philosophy remain seminal for as long as 45 years.

Most of the articles in this collection elaborate one theme: the metaphysics of the person. There is an urgent need for such a metaphysics to be placed at the very center of Catholic intellectual life. Pope John Paul’s recent encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae detail the dangers that take root in society when the dignity of the person is not affirmed. Indeed, not unlike Karol Wojtyla, Clarke relates his Thomist metaphysics to Personalism.

From Neoplatonism, Clarke tells us, Thomas took the idea that every being is intrinsically self-communicating. Thomas also accepted the Aristotelian position that every substance is a center of action. Thomas synthesized these two perspectives. In this system the person stands as a unique source of action, meant to communicate with others and thus “relational and dialogical” in his “very being.”

Thinking of Thomism as a metaphysics crowned by the vision of being as interpersonal dialogue gives to the insights of existential phenomenologists; like Buber and Marcel a metaphysical base that brings home an absolutely essential insight into the person. Clarke points out that existential phenomenology, the most powerful current in contemporary European thought, is so hostile to the philosophical notion of substance that it has preferred to think of the person purely in terms of the notion of relation: that the person is most fundamentally relative to some other thing. The consequences of such thinking are terrible, yet prevalent. The very being of a person is said to be relative to a culture, to another’s choice, to market demands, or to the exigencies of production. All of these familiar refrains deny that the person is an independent, unique center of action, and that attendant on this capacity for action and communication are inalienable rights and responsibilities definitive of the dignity of personhood.

Clarke points out that it is only the retention of the vision of the person as a substance that can restrain the philosophical and social reduction of the person to a mere relation. Not only better, but absolutely necessary is the conception of the person as a substance intrinsically oriented toward action and communication and thus profoundly related to society and culture, and to surrounding persons, but not thereby simply reduced to any of these.

Let’s hope this volume encourages others to explore creatively the profound insights of St. Thomas on what it is to be a person.

Toward the Beloved Community: Martin Luther King Jr. and South Africa

By Lewis V. Baldwin

Publisher: Pilgrim

Pages: 265

Price: $18.95

Review Author: Rebecca Ginsburg

As an African-American who moved to South Africa in 1987 to participate firsthand in the anti-apartheid movement, I was intrigued by this book. Baldwin suggests that the root cause of white supremacy is the need for whites to dominate people of color. According to this view, there is something particularly wicked about white supremacy, as opposed to domination by, say, Chinese (in Tibet), Indonesians (East Timor), Indians (Kashmir), or other Africans (Sudan, Chad, Eritrea). But is this so?

I wish Baldwin had spent more time considering the connectedness of different oppressions instead of making his case that Martin Luther King Jr. was involved in and has had continued impact upon the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. The evidence Baldwin has collected to demonstrate King’s contribution to the anti-apartheid cause is scanty. Even more questionable are his attempts to locate evidence of King’s influence in (selected) writings and actions of South African activists, as though King were their only inspiration. Baldwin sometimes resorts to making rather obscure and tenuous connections, as when he suggests that the ANC’s switch from the armed struggle to peaceful negotiation in 1991 followed naturally from its conformity with King’s thinking. The organization’s unbanning, and international pressure to enter into talks with the South African government, better explain its change in policy. This is not to argue that King had no influence, but the South African struggle against apartheid was informed by various sources. Although one might think so after reading this book, the rest of the world does not look solely to America for models.

Baldwin is on stronger ground when he shifts to the prescriptive mode. King’s concept of the beloved community, an integrated world whose inhabitants are committed to love, justice, and the communitarian ideal, does indeed seem pertinent to South Africa’s current, self-conscious efforts at nation-building.

Catholic Education: Homeward Bound. A Useful Guide to Catholic Homeschooling

By Kimberly Hahn & Mary Hasson

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 400

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Luis R. Gámez

I’m so sorry, Sister Emmanuel, Sister Peter Joseph, Sister Philomena, and Sister Davilyn Ann, wherever you are. I would like to say that my children will be educated and catechized in the same parochial school setting in which you nurtured me, but I want them to be homeschooled, and this book will show you why. Hahn and Hasson have compiled what may be the definitive resource on Catholic homeschooling. Their expertise draws on the experience of homeschooling a total of 10 children, graduate-level theological study, service on the Board of the National Association of Catholic Home Educators (Hasson), and the convert’s special fervor for the spiritual gifts of Catholicism (Hahn, co-author with Scott Hahn of Rome Sweet Home).

The authors realize that homeschoolers face three distinct challenges: (1) arriving at the decision (usually after much prayer and discernment) to home school; (2) answering the objections of well-meaning family, friends, and clergy who fear for the well-being of children kept at home; and (3) devising a curriculum that serves the needs of both children and parents. Catholic Education: Homeward Bound is divided into sections appropriate for meeting each challenge. The “Fact-Finding” section — filled with impressive statistics on the growth and success of homeschooling — should handle most of the objections of those who fear that the parents may not be qualified to manage a Catholic homeschool, or that the children may suffer from a supposed lack of socialization. The sections on “Decision Making” and “Extra Considerations” will answer most serious questions about what sort of books to use, how to organize your time, how to handle toddlers and older siblings, and a great variety of other practical issues.

A final section presents a “Vision for Catholic Family Life,” detailing ways to make home education truly Catholic — the well-informed catechetical précis is warmly articulated and rich in lived experience. The numerous appendices and bibliographies comprise a rich repository of suggestions and resources.

The view of Catholic home education promoted by Hahn and Hasson is eminently Church-oriented; the authors assure us that home education provides “a rich environment in which children learn about the nature of the Church as God’s Family in the context of their own family.” The arguments are consistently supported with reference to important Church documents on education and catechesis. The authors’ chapter on the spiritual and intellectual formation of teens is first-rate, as is their tough-minded analysis of the college admissions process. Their scathing critique of “outcome-based education” is superb, as are their recommendations on setting up and running homeschooling support groups.

Yet in spite of all these strengths, Catholic Education: Homeward Bound neglects to show beginning homeschoolers all the options available. The book’s main shortcoming is an inability or reluctance to imagine home education scenarios which differ from those with which Hahn and Hasson are familiar. Single and working mothers, for instance, can homeschool successfully, as the authors acknowledge — though one must wait until page 2 61 before they talk about the options. The implied norm is that of home education practiced by white middle-class soccer moms, working in a well-groomed classroom, with children sitting for opening prayers and standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. Most of the hard curricular advice assumes parents plan out schedules in six-month blocks, at the least. We are told that “clutter is the enemy of efficiency,” suggesting that tidy homes as well as tidy schedules are normative. But many families learn successfully in different ways and in messier environments. It is open minds and mutual goodwill that constitute the indispensable environment for nurturing Pope John Paul’s “civilization of love” in and between our families.

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