Volume > Issue > Briefly: March 1991

March 1991

Modernity on Endless Trial

By Leszek Kolakowski

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Pages: 261

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Philip E. Devine

Leszek Kolakowski is a perplexing figure. Expelled from Poland for ideological deviations, he was greeted in the West with an array of well-deserved and mouth-wa­tering academic honors (includ­ing invitations to give the Jef­ferson and Tanner lectures re­printed here), and has also lived to see the triumph of his friends at home. Yet he retains something of the air of a hunted fugitive. Even while a Marxist, he showed a persist­ent interest in Christian the­ology; now that (finding him­self unable to integrate Marx­ism with a belief in human rights) he has left the Marxist fold, his relationship to Chris­tianity remains undefined. Mo­dernity on Endless Trial — a collection of essays on culture and politics written between 1973 and 1986 — sheds a little light on the ambiguities and paradoxes that pervade his work.

The first two essays are best understood as responses to the Stanford slogan, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s gotta go.” His “Looking for the Barbarians” addresses the question, what is it about Eu­ropean — Americans would prefer to say “Western” — civ­ilization that deserves attention in a way Aztec culture, for example, does not? Kolakowski does not think that everything European is good, nor does he suggest that everything Aztec is bad. And he shows no taste for balance sheets of the sort favored by Richard John Neuhaus, who has gone around demanding that people swear that the impact of the United States on the world has been on the whole good. He argues, rather, that European culture is to be valued for its tradition of self-criticism, which made it possible for Bishop Bartolome de las Casas to condemn the Spanish invasion of the New World.

The title essay addresses the question, beloved both of conservatives and disappointed parents, “Where did we go wrong?” He invokes what he later calls “the self-poisoning of the open society”: the ten­dency of critical reason to erode taboos, and destroy (or expand to the point of vacuity) the sphere of the sacred. He is pessimistic about our ability to distinguish between taboos that protect human dignity, such as those that bar forced euthanasia for the homeless, and taboos that support social oppression, such as those against interracial marriage. Yet he holds that the vitality and coherence of a society re­quire that at least some of its standards be protected against challenge.

In the space defined by these two arguments, he de­velops a rich and satisfying philosophy of cultural politics. (In contrast, his general politi­cal philosophy is hopelessly tied to the cold war; without an “evil empire,” it collapses into a form of social democra­cy so moderate as to be emp­ty.) He honors the insights of exiles and utopian dreamers, while resisting schemes of en­forced fraternity. He rejects that attempt to abolish conflict which would abolish every sort of difference among people.

Thus Kolakowski effective­ly challenges both sorts of po­litical correctness that plague the academic and cultural world: that which uses words like “diversity” and “homo­phobia” to wage war against the very possibility of a coher­ent culture, and that which dismisses as smart-alecky any questioning of the Commentary line. The first sort of cultural politics would press the self-critical tendencies of the open society to their suicidal limit; the other would destroy the European tradition in order to save it.

But Kolakowski’s argu­ments have a chilling implica­tion. What we value most in the European tradition, and the sources of its dangerous instability, turn out to be the same. Both sides of our di­lemma are rooted in the Chris­tian tradition. For Christianity has always supported “tra­ditional values” such as family stability and sexual restraint, but by worshiping as God a condemned heretic and con­victed criminal, it also throws into question all schemes of hierarchy and division. But Christianity also provides a way of living with conflict and a promise of divine assistance.

The sort of Christianity Kolakowski’s argument sug­gests is Catholic (I cannot imagine Kolakowski a Protestant). It is doctrinally conserv­ative, affirming, for example, the reality of Satan. It is skep­tical both of theological elabo­ration and demythologizing schemes. It avoids using the doctrine of original sin as an apology for remediable evils, and takes as its central agenda combating all forms of hatred. Erasmus comes immediately to mind.

But it is impossible to state without qualification that Ko­lakowski accepts this form of Christianity. Clearly he regards Christianity of this sort as use­ful; equally clearly he rejects any attempt to defend it on grounds of utility alone. At one point he says that the right sort of Christianity takes “part in truth” — not quite that it is true. At another he says that both Christianity and the Enlightenment are “par­alyzed” — not quite that they are false.

Yet for all his hesitations, Kolakowski is able to show us the Christ-shaped gap in our world.

The Catholic Study Bible

By Donald Senior

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 2,122

Price: $29.95

Review Author:

Catholics need to switch off the television and study the Bible. This volume, de­signed for the non-expert, is a passable place to begin. At its heart is the faithful-to-the-text New American Bible, the pre­ferred translation for most U.S. Catholics. However, this vol­ume’s study notes and com­mentaries, while interesting, do not adequately show how distinctive Catholic teachings connect with particular biblical texts — which would be essen­tial to any “Catholic study Bible.”

The Catholic Answer Book

By Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor Books

Pages: 192

Price: $7.95

Review Author:

The Roman Catholic Church, which is almost 2,000 years old, is the most highly developed form of Christianity. Understandably, there are many complexities to Catholi­cism which cause confusion to non-Catholics and even some­times to Catholics.

Do you wonder about the Catholic Church’s views on cremation, gambling, taking the Lord’s name in vain, etc.? Are you unsure of the perpet­ual virginity of Mary, the meaning of annulments, and a host of other things? Let Fr. Stravinskas, with his handy question-and-answer format, give you a painless tour down the highways, and especially the byways, of Catholicism.

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