Volume > Issue > Briefly: May 1987

May 1987

Dare to Believe: Addresses, Sermons, Interviews, 1981-1984

By Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 241

Price: $16.95

Review Author: James G. Hanink

Gathering one’s speeches and interviews and sermons for publication? It’s a risky business. Jean-Marie Lustiger, born a Jew and now the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris, likens it to collecting butterflies. Words spoken to special listeners at special times are now “pinned down” for the inspection of a wider and unseen audience. How much of the force of the original words remains? The answer: more than enough to challenge us all.

We experience, at once, Lustiger’s unflinching realism. The nature of Christian life, he tells us, is now “going against the current.” And why must this be so? A primary reason is that our culture (Lustiger speaks first to the people of France, but often to the West as a whole), in so many ways, fears life. His judgment is severe. “You know quite well that our society does not love life, it does not give life anymore — physically — to its children… too often it takes it away from them.”

He is plain enough, as well, about the historical context in which our culture has turned away from life. The West’s romance with rationalism has proved sterile. The secularism it has bequeathed undercuts the intrinsic worth of each human being as a creature fashioned in the image of God. Lustiger’s realism, though, is most penetrating when he insists that we confront the reality of evil. For if we see the world as the world would wish, we will “believe naively that love is loved.” But the Passion of Christ demonstrates that the truth is otherwise, or else the Passion would not have been undertaken.

Out of Lustiger’s realism, a striking sense of the nature of the Church emerges. For it is only against the backdrop of Christ’s life and death that we can see the world as it is; and it is in the mystery of the Church that Christ continues to make himself present. We must not make the mistake of supposing the Church to be just another institution. It is, rather, “the very body of Christ bearing the wounds of the sins of men and women.” And with all the poignancy of his personal history, Lustiger invites us to recognize how fundamentally the Church is grafted to the Jewish people.

Given such a sense of the Church, born of the sharpest realism, what mission falls to the Christian? In our confused milieu how are we to speak? Lustiger shows a canny wariness of prepackaged renewal schemes, magical TV ministries, parishes transformed into community facilities, and vocation drives calibrated to demographic studies.

Instead of these things, it is the Church’s mission to proclaim the words of Christ. As for results? “A person of faith,” Lustiger insists, “knows very well that he or she will succeed…only to the extent that the solitude and agony of Christ are shared.” The measure of the Church is, simply, its ability “to give birth to saints.” The Church offers no ideology. It offers, rather, the person of Christ and, in so doing, shows us our own identity.

In his recent visit to the United States, this Cardinal of Paris spoke of his desire to know better the American Church and to make known to us the Church of France. Dare to Believe, with its sparkling translation, gives us a chance to hear the first voice of French Catholicism.

The Divine Pity: A Study in the Social Implications of the Beatitudes

By Gerald Vann

Publisher: Christian Classics

Pages: 191

Price: $7.95

Review Author: Thomas W. Case

Gerald Vann’s The Divine Pity, first published in 1945, is generally acknowledged to be a classic of spiritual writing. It is at once a philosophical treatise, a guide for the perplexed, and a catechism for sanctity. The book is arranged around the Beatitudes, and each Beatitude is associated with a sacrament of the Church. The Beatitudes are like a ladder, each one containing within it all those preceding, and this structure allows Vann to present an ever fuller exploration of the fundamentals of the Christian religion.

This exploration is combined with a penetrating versatility in uncovering the hidden motives and foibles of the human animal, and herein lies the enduring value of the book.

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” The danger here, as Vann points out, is the pervasive human desire for comfort now, “not so much in the sense of material self-indulgence, as in the sense of a determination to arrange one’s life pleasantly…and then to let nothing and nobody interfere with its quiet and harmonious course. For this can indeed turn a man from God….” But isn’t such a pleasant arrangement of our lives something nearly all of us aim for, and, if we are lucky enough to attain it, think it a great good?

There is strong and not too pleasant food for thought here. Self-preservation, autonomy, being in control, managing life well — these are the therapeutic goals of modern psychology, and modern psychology merely taps into the spirit of the age. But is carving out a comfortable little psychological kingdom for yourself what Our Lord blessed? I think not.

This is just one example of the worrisome but finally exalted places The Divine Pity can take the reader who is serious about the Christian journey.

Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer

By William Barrett

Publisher: Anchor Press/Doubleday

Pages: 173

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Stuart Gudowitz

William Barrett is probably best known for having introduced existentialism to America. In Death of the Soul he takes on the entire modern mindset; his topic is the “maelstrom of modernity.” Barrett’s thesis, put simply, is that the idea of the soul has disappeared from modern philosophy. To support this contention he surveys the history of philosophy since the 17th century. He notes that the scientists of that century realized they were doing something radically different, since, from the beginning, they referred to their study as the “new science.” What this new science does, according to Barrett, is reduce all objects of knowledge to material things. He shows quite adeptly that the proponents of the major schools of modern philosophy — British empiricists, phenomenologists, existentialists, analysts, behaviorists, and, most recently, deconstructionists — all share this denial of a self that perdures through change. For these schools, the soul is merely an aggregate of elements: sense impressions, behavior patterns, or individual words that carry with them innumerable references.

Modernism has succeeded, says Barrett, because its assumptions go unquestioned. One of the key assumptions is that “this human consciousness of ours is an item that can be dispensed with in our theoretical explanations.” It is precisely on the grounds of the existence of a perduring consciousness, an “I” that is more than an aggregate of behavior patterns or sense impressions, that Barrett bases his critique of modernism. “Psych, in Greek, means soul, a meaning we should not let ourselves forget.” In responding to this forgetfulness, Barrett pulls no punches. “When we toss around…the terms stimulus and response too easily and mechanically, we are in fact descending into one of the forms of psychobabble which has become such a menace in our culture.” Barrett has obviously come to the same conclusion Augustine reached long ago in arguing against the skeptics: certain positions must be answered by ridicule.

Barrett imagines the case of one who treats the woman he loves as if she had no consciousness. His response is: “that way madness lies.” Most modern philosophers do not live their philosophy, precisely because it has little to do with life. In a famous interview shortly before his death, Sartre admitted that he personally had never felt the existential angst he describes so well in his novels. Of Hume’s philosophy, Barrett says that it is “curiously at odds with our ordinary experience of the world.”

Barrett is best when he questions the lack of ordinary common sense in modern thought: “Most of us live amid friends and family, where the reality of personal identity is so bedrock a fixture of our world that we hardly even single it out for special comment. We know and are known by our intimates, and in the course of our everyday life we do not take this phenomenon of persisting identity as puzzling. Why, then, should it have been turned into so puzzling a matter by the philosophers?”

Barrett sees Kant as the funnel into which flow rationalism and empiricism, and out of which stream idealism, positivism, pragmatism, and existentialism. He blames Kant, not unjustly, for bifurcating science and morality by distinguishing between “the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Barrett praises Kierkegaard who was more empirical than the empiricists, since he did not restrict his study to material things. Most modern philosophers, however, even those like the existentialists who claim Kierkegaard as a precursor, have been influenced by Kant’s dichotomy.

In a chapter entitled “Duty and Beauty” Barrett considers another element lacking in modern thought. He emphasizes the importance of the sense of community in ethics: “The sense of this community of human souls lies at the basis of our ethics. It is the a priori condition of our legitimate, nonneurotic sense of guilt; the act for which we feel guilty is one that severs us from the spiritual community. And this sense of the community of souls is at the root of our feelings of obligation or duty. In feeling that I ought to do a particular act, that indeed I am bound to do it, I take my place in this spiritual community that embraces all humanity.”

The main result of the new science is to divorce the study of science from the humanities: Renaissance man gives way to scientific man. To be respectable, philosophers must be logicians, and psychologists must quantify their observations. Barrett notes that “the discrepancy between…the world of science and the human world becomes thus a central and disturbing theme of modern thought and continues unabatedly so into our own times.” Robert Coles exemplifies the psychologist who refuses to allow this bifurcation to control his work; he tells how Perry Miller told him to take along his Melville and Hawthorne, since he would not learn anything in psychology that he could not find in them. Unfortunately, with the rise of deconstructionism, it seems that even the bastion of literature has fallen before the onslaught of modern psychology and the new science.

Barrett passionately asks us to recognize what modern science is doing to civilization, spiritually and morally. He seeks to close the gap between theory and life. He promises another book to examine more fully the questions he has raised. One hopes he will expand the Christian critique he only adumbrates in the present volume.

Women and Children Last: The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America

By Ruth Sidel

Publisher: Viking

Pages: 236

Price: $16.95

Review Author: William P. Anderson Jr.

Sociologist Ruth Sidel summarizes the existing data on female welfare recipients and adds information from interviews of her own. Her book is not a systematic study of the causes and consequences of poverty. Instead, it focuses on the human side of the condition, particularly on how it affects women and children.

These women’s stories are tragic. Family breakups contributed heavily to their landing in poverty. These women are not only the stereotypical blacks of myth and legend, but also middle-class white women who have joined the ranks in recent years. Abandoned with their children, they find it difficult to break out of poverty. Ironically, the welfare system keeps them impoverished by stigmatizing and segregating mothers and their dependent children as a matter of social policy.

Sidel offers several recommendations for a more humane family policy. But the value of Women and Children Last lies in the poignant stories of the women Sidel interviewed. These women tell us far better than reams of statistical tables the debilitating effects of being poor in affluent America.

Mother Teresa: The Early Years

By David Porter

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 100

Price: $5.95

Review Author:

One searches in vain for the biographical key that will explain how Agnes Bojaxhiu, born in Skopje, Serbia, in 1910, became Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Nothing startling, unusual, or astonishing emerges from David Porter’s portrait of the young Agnes. Her father, a prosperous merchant, gave his wife and children ease and abundance, and though he died eight years after Agnes’s birth, his demise did not plunge the family into penury. Agnes was a frail child who read voraciously, but her bouts of illness did not turn her into a reclusive bookworm; she participated energetically in community and Church, and won the affection and admiration of other youngsters. The family’s life “centred on the Church”; the Bojaxhius made annual pilgrimages to the shrine of the Madonna of Letnice in Montenegro. The parents embued their children with Christian love and benevolence, and Agnes’s mother, Drana, tended the sick and succored the poor. Agnes received her vocation at the age of 12; six years later she left Skopje to join the Sisters of Loreto.

Nothing in the early years hinted at the possibility of sainthood: no spiritual cataclysms, no dramatic summonses from Heaven, no soul-shivering epiphanies. “We children were happy and contented,” recalls Mother Teresa. Her life was appallingly normal. Her mother told her: “When you do good, do it unobtrusively as if you were tossing a pebble into the sea.” “Unobtrusive” — that describes the early life perfectly, but it would ascend to a heroic unobtrusiveness because Agnes Bojaxhiu, possessed of no extraordinary gifts, somehow caught a vision that compelled her to ache to “quench the thirst of Jesus Christ on the cross by dedicating [herself] freely to serve the poorest of the poor.” How heroism can spring from unobtrusive normality remains a mystery, save to those who know that the Spirit listeth where He will.

Duarte: My Story

By Jose Napoleon Duarte

Publisher: Putnam's

Pages: 284

Price: $18.95

Review Author:

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh agreed to write the preface to this book, “while acknowledging the risks involved.” “Risks”? Why, of course, that leftists would fly into a fury at him for placing his imprimatur upon a man whom they consider an accomplice to rightist violence in El Salvador. Hesburgh first met Duarte in 1945 when the young Salvadoran took his course in Christian Virtues at Notre Dame. After 40 years of friendship with Duarte, Hesburgh renders this verdict: “I know that Napo…is an honest man, vowed to justice and a better life for his people.”

Whatever mistakes he has made (and he admits to many), Duarte is the first freely elected Salvadoran president in 50 years, a fact of no small significance in a country that has been scourged by savage dictatorships. He seeks to transform his country into a model “democratic revolution,” one that carves out a space between the competing visions of Marxist revolutionaries and rightist oligarchs. Perhaps he will fail, but if he does, the people of El Salvador will likely lose. Fr. Hesburgh remarks: “More than all-knowing criticism from afar, he needs prayers.”

Oral Roberts: An American Life

By David Edwin Harrell Jr.

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 622

Price: $12.95

Review Author:

To couple the names of Reinhold Niebuhr and Oral Roberts in the same sentence is tantamount to mixing tenderly aged bourbon with Diet Pepsi: it combines the sublime with the ridiculous. One does so in this case only to note the appearance in paperback of two splendid biographies, both published originally in 1985.

Roberts, fresh from ransoming himself for $8 million, exemplifies the tawdriness of show-biz pentecostalism. Niebuhr, dead now for over 15 years, remains a source of wisdom, inspiriting insight, and unblinkered realism for those who seek in Christianity something more than cheap fixes and low comedy.

Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography

By Richard Fox

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 344

Price: $10.95

Review Author:

St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you.” F. Forrester Church, Pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, arranged his own confrontation with the dragon at the behest of the Vice President of Harper & Row, who suggested that “‘a civilized little book on the devil’ might prove provocative.” Dr. Church is civilized to a fault; his very civility blinds him to the suppurating iniquity of the Prince of Darkness.

One snatches at signs of hope wherever one spots them; after all, it demands a certain courage for a Unitarian preacher to blurt: “I must confess, I believe in the devil.” Dr. Church prides himself on his fearlessness; he invites the barbs of fundamentalists, who will recoil from the “blasphemy” of his book, and the howls of “my liberal friends” who will denounce it as “treasonous, ridden with superstition.” Hardly: the former will more likely label it shallow, and the latter — if the fulsome promotional blurbs from Leonard Bernstein, Laurence Rockefeller, and Robert McAfee Brown are fair indicators — will laud it as the best thing since The Screwtape Letters.

Dr. Church admirably recognizes the sinfulness that festers within the human heart, no small feat when one recalls that for 200 years Unitarians have labored to free Americans from such retrograde notions. Mainly, though, he busies himself denouncing fundamentalists and political conservatives as Satan’s bedfellows. As a counterforce to the Devil’s wiles he proposes that we love everyone, even “the president of the United States,” and especially “our neighbors” the Russians. One hopes that Dr. Church will continue to probe the nature of evil; he might begin by re-reading Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, and Niebuhr, writers he cites but scarcely comprehends.

The Devil and Dr. Church: A Guide to Hell for Atheists and True Believers

By F. Forrester Church

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 93

Price: $12.95

Review Author:

The French excel in three arts: culinary, amatory, and polemical. One cannot say how accomplished Pascal Bruckner is in the first two, but he is a virtuoso in the third. The Tears of the White Man is an angry and passionate book; it shatters complacency and disturbs equanimity. It attacks the Left, but offers no comfort to the Right; one suspects that ideologues on both sides will try to ignore it, in hopes that it will fade quietly into oblivion.

Bruckner contends that leftist intellectuals in the West have transformed the Third World into an abstraction, the better to use it to flog themselves with guilt and self-hatred. Their humanitarianism is grounded in loathing for their own societies, not in love for the suffering individuals of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. One might guess that Frenchman Bruckner is merely a right-winger who has turned to composing apologias for imperialism and colonialism; one would be wrong. He acknowledges the evils of the past, but argues that, although self-lacerating guilt may edify Western intellectuals, it does not feed the hungry and clothe the naked. He calls for more, not less, involvement in efforts to alleviate misery in the Third World, but the commitment must be founded upon a sense of responsibility, not upon guilt. “Responsibility implies the obligation of each man to all others, a feeling of common membership in the same species.” Bruckner speaks with authority: he works with the International Action Against Hunger, an organization dedicated to acts, not words.

The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt

By Pascal Bruckner

Publisher: The Free Press

Pages: 244

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

One reads literary criticism these days for much the same reason that a doctor examines a terminally ill patient: to note the disease’s progress and ascertain the nearness of death. In the lit-crit field the “disease” happens to be an especially virulent strain of hermeticism, complicated by a raging contempt for most literature. Unfortunately, the death throes threaten to last interminably.

Occasionally one discovers a literary critic in blooming good health. Walker Percy is blessed with such a one in William Allen. Allen subjects Percy’s novels (except the most recent The Thanatos Syndrome) to an exceptionally meticulous reading, and, as literary criticism should, his interpretation enhances one’s understanding and enjoyment of the novelist’s artistic accomplishment. Allen focuses on the urgency with which Percy’s protagonists struggle to come to grips with their dead fathers, invariably weak or suicidal men. For Allen, this is the “tragic autobiographical theme” that forms the leitmotif of Percy’s fiction, for Percy’s own father killed himself. Not until The Second Coming, published in 1981, did a protagonist resolve his discordant emotions; there the conflict with the lost father ends, writes Allen, “with a surrender to God” — not the sort of thing one expects to find in a novel these days.

Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer

By William Rodney Allen

Publisher: University Press of Mississippi

Pages: 160

Price: $22.50

Review Author:

Albert Menendez points out in his introductory essay that conversions to Catholicism in America increased steadily from 1920 to 1960, a period he tags “the Golden Age of Catholic Conversions.” By the 1950s more than 130,000 were occurring annually, and in the peak year, 1959, nearly 150,000 Americans journeyed to Rome. The rate of increase slackened in the 1960s, and in the 1970s, Menendez notes, “the bottom fell out.” With ecumenism and irenicism as its watchwords, the Church seemingly ceased to summon Protestants into the fullness of truth. However, the pontificate of John Paul II has engendered a “slight upturn” in conversions, notably among intellectuals.

Whatever allure the Church may hold for discontented Americans in the future, its attractiveness in the past is unquestionable. The nearly 1,500 books and articles listed by Menendez testify to the Church’s magnetic power; atheists, Jews, libertines, Mormons, Indians, Protestant preachers, Confederate generals, and Ku Kluxers have been drawn irresistibly to Rome. This has not, of course, been a uniquely American phenomenon; Menendez’s bibliography contains a wealth of English entries, as well as a scattering from France, Germany, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and Scandinavia. One is struck by the Church’s ability to persuade intellectuals; Newman springs immediately to mind, but the lengthy list includes, among others, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Sigrid Undset, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, Claude McKay, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and (in the early 1980s) Malcolm Muggeridge. Truly, the Church is a mansion with many rooms and many doors of entry.

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