Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 1987

November 1987

Prayer: The Great Conversation

By Peter Kreeft

Publisher: Servant

Pages: 169

Price: No price given.

Review Author: James G. Hanink

“The only real tragedy,” wrote Leon Bloy, “is not to have been a saint.” To be a saint requires that we pray always. Scripture itself enjoins this. Yet many of us, one suspects, find that we pray little – and not very well. What is to be done?

Peter Kreeft offers an extended, informal dialogue between two young friends, Chris and Sal, that underscores some inescapable basics of prayer. We must begin by recognizing that it is we who need prayer, not God. We must realize, too, that much of our prayer should simply be a “listening” to God. It is not easy to admit our need, and to pay attention to God: we haven’t the time, we’re not in the mood, we’d even rather read about prayer than actually pray. Here Kreeft is blunt. Prayer is the only “way” to prayer. What’s crucial is that the heart respond to God’s constant invitation.

Our culture conspires against prayer, dismissing it as a last resort or, worse, the self-deception of the powerless. Kreeft, as the Christian tradition always has, sees prayer as the joining of our wills with God’s. In this union God gives us “the dignity of causes.” How can we be sure? Faith teaches that God’s promises ultimately cannot fail and that “all things work together for good for those who love God.”

There are two caveats to raise about Kreeft’s welcome dialogue, one pedagogical and one substantive. First, an extended dialogue can become artificial. This one should be read in medium-size installments only. Second, Kreeft sometimes suggests that our life now is simply a means to eternal life. But, as he would no doubt admit, the “means” of our life now is not cut away from our life with God. It is a “means” that is, rather, the very becoming of the end. Prayer sanctifies our lives now, and nothing sacred is lost.

The Theology of Freedom: The Legacy of Jacques Maritain and Reinhold Niebuhr

By John W. Cooper

Publisher: Mercer University Press

Pages: 185

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Carl R. Schmahl

The question of the Christian’s relation to the principalities and powers of this world has exercised clergy and laity alike for almost 2,000 years. The history of Christianity reveals a bewildering array of responses to church/state relations ranging from absolute withdrawal from the world to the sanctification of worldly systems. No one answer satisfactory to every believer has yet been found, yet the question has an immediacy that won’t permit it to go away.

In the U.S. men like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus probe the theological foundations of our political system. The obvious danger in such efforts is that the church will uncritically bestow God’s blessing on particular expressions of political power. This not only sets the stage for inevitable disappointment, it also attempts to cram the infinite God into the bounds of our own finite systems. Because we are so prone to infuse our own narrow concerns with ultimate significance, it is good to ask, as John W. Cooper does in his The Theology of Freedom, whether “it is possible to construct a theologie politique which judges the temporal order in light of spiritual values, but which does not become a politische Theologie in the service of a ‘Sacred Empire.'”

In the two books reviewed here, three of the most influential theologians of our century address the question of theology and politics. Their efforts bring much clarity to the present debate.

Cooper’s study compares and contrasts the political ideals of Jacques Maritain and Reinhold Niebuhr – Maritain was a French Catholic and Thomist, Niebuhr a German-American Protestant – who represent what Cooper calls “complementary opposites,” “distinct yet converging visions of the just society which can be characterized with the phrase ‘democratic pluralism and human rights.'” Maritain’s political thought begins with a concept he names “practical wisdom.” Cooper defines this practical wisdom as “the knowledge of the judgements and actions that are most appropriate to a given, concrete situation in human society,” and uncovers its roots in Aristotle. What happens when practical wisdom is rejected can best be seen in Maritain’s discussion of three errors in understanding the relationship of the world, the church, and the Kingdom of God. Quoting Maritain, Cooper refers to the first error as “a satanocratic conception of the world and of the political city,” a situation which “consists in making of the world and of the earthly city purely and simply the kingdom of Satan.” The second error Maritain calls “theocratic,” and is a form of utopianism which would elevate certain political structures or ecclesiastical systems into the very Kingdom of God, denying Jesus’ statement that his Kingdom “is not of this world.” The third error is “anthropocentric humanism,” wherein the spiritual is expunged from the world.

While Maritain’s political thought begins with the idea of practical wisdom, Reinhold Niebuhr’s begins with the notion of “realism.” Cooper sees in Niebuhr’s realism “a political style that takes seriously the biblical view of man as corrupted by sin and potentially reconciled to God, others, and self.” It is, he says, “the capacity to take seriously those human characteristics that do not fit neatly into a rational and optimistic scheme of social organization.” This means that while we can imagine a perfect society, we cannot build such a society because human nature contains refractory elements that will not co-operate with utopian visions. But knowing this, we are to resist cynicism, for sin, though inevitable, is not normative in Niebuhr’s theology; temporal justice remains a goal we should pursue. As he reminds us, “A realist conception of human nature…should not be made into a bastion of conservatism, particularly a conservatism which defends unjust privileges.”

Departures from realism yield bitter fruit. Niebuhr recognized among America’s leaders three types of individuals whom he characterized as: the “sentimentalists” who “imagine that the life of nations can be brought into conformity with the purest standards of generosity”; the “cynics” who “deny every moral standard in political and economic life”; and the “hypocrites” who “profess one standard and practice another.” What is needed is an approach that avoids these extremes.

The Thought of Paul Tillich is a wide-ranging collection of essays about numerous aspects of Tillich’s thought. Tillich meditated deeply on the relation of faith to politics, and this area of his thought is well represented here, especially in his passionate “Open Letter to Emanuel Hirsch,” which appears in English translation here for the first time.

Tillich’s letter was prompted by a book Hirsch wrote in 1933 that attempted to interpret theologically the new direction of German history which occurred when the Nazis took power. On reading the book, Tillich perceived that Hirsch had misused his concept of Kairos, which for Tillich signified an appointed time for decision and opportunity which came in every period of history and was not to be identified with any one regime or era. In the Kairos, Tillich resisted any hint of utopia or a realized eschaton. Indeed, the very idea of Kairos meant for him that “the struggle for a new social order cannot lead to the kind of fulfillment expressed by the idea of the Kingdom of God…. The Kingdom of God will always remain transcendent, but it appears as a judgement on a given form of society and as a norm for a coming one.”

Hirsch rejected the transcendental emphasis of Tillich’s Kairos and connected Kairos to the rise of the secular, immanentist Nazi state, thus linking the church with Hitler, “The liberation of our nation” and “the uprising of a new age of history,” are, he said, “also the liberation and the uprising of evangelical Christianity.” To this, Tillich replied in the strongest words, “You have perverted the prophetic, eschatologically conceived Kairos doctrine into a sacerdotal-sacramental consecration of a current event”; “you have approximated the year 1933 so closely to the year 33, that it has gained for you the meaning of an event in the history of salvation.”

Hirsch had forgotten, Tillich was saying, that the church can never give an unqualified “yes” to any political system; its “yes” must always be accompanied by a “no” if the church is to speak with integrity and faithfulness to God. This is a lesson Christians ignore at their peril.

The Thought of Paul Tillich

By James Luther Adams, Wilhelm Pauck & Roger Lincoln Shinn

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 404

Price: $24.95

Review Author:

Sooner or later the subterfuge had to end. Ralph McInerny could not pretend indefinitely to be a professor of medieval studies at Notre Dame when he is really a novelist of considerable talent. Of late he has blown his cover: the publication of The Noonday Devil and Leave of Absence will force him to abandon pretense and admit to being a novelist first and only secondarily a professor.

One generally winces when professors take to fiction; the results are rarely edifying and almost never attain to what could be called (even with tongue in cheek) “art.” McInerny is an exception to this ironclad law. With contemporary American Catholicism as the mise-en-scene, he deftly explores the lives of Catholics grappling with the consequences of Vatican II. Although McInerny has a sharp eye for the idiocies of “progressive” Catholicism, he does not prostitute his art to polemicizing; he writes novels, not tracts.

The Noonday Devil is a thriller replete with assassination (a cardinab| murder (a papal legate), and even a dollop of sex (the bedding of Lulu van Ackeren, “the impossibly beautiful redhead from the Register”). The plot involves an effort to ferret out the identity of a bishop who is a KGB mole. It would be unforgivable to reveal the denouement of such a cleverly plotted tale; suffice it to say, neither the butler nor the liberal archbishop of San Francisco “did it.” With elegant wit McInerny skewers progressives and reactionaries alike, the former, for example, in a clerical bureaucrat who savors “the pleasures of unanchored thought”; the latter in the person of the head of a right-wing think-tank: “Forever lamenting the waning influence of religion in America, he himself believed nothing.” Everyone takes his lumps, but Catholic journalists especially: “Ye gods,” exclaims a character. “Try to find a Catholic journalist who isn’t full of neuroses and resentments.”

In Leave of Absence McInerny takes a different tack, tracing the lives of two women, former schoolmates, one of whom enters a convent, the other the law. A sorrow and melancholy reminiscent of Graham Greene hover over the book, as Andrea and Vera weather the shocks, misguided gambits, and broken promises of a Church drifting from its moorings. Andrea discovers the dubious rewards of repudiating her vows, Vera the pain of clinging to historic tenets. Both suffer and learn, and both women, to McInerny’s credit, engage one’s sympathies (although Andrea would try the patience of a Mother Teresa) as they wrestle with what it means to be a Catholic in America today. Like Greene, McInerny understands that saintliness and heroism exist in the strangest of disguises.
Andrew Greeley sells more books, but Ralph McInerny beats him hands down as a serious novelist.

The Noonday Devil

By Ralph McInerny

Publisher: Atheneum

Pages: 306

Price: $15.95

Review Author:

During World War II and the immediate post-war era, leading lights in the French Catholic Church were particularly disturbed and scandalized by the French Church’s bourgeois captivity and complacency, entanglement with ruling circles, and estrangement from the (by then de-Christianized) working class. One possible solution: let priests become workers.

And many did. It was an effort to make the catholicity of the Church more concrete, to evangelize the “paganized” working class, and to imitate Jesus Christ – God incarnate as Worker – in helping shoulder the undeniable burdens and privations of French working-class life in the late 1940s and early 1950s. While the Vatican gave the project a green light, Pope Pius XII warned the worker-priests to “be very prudent, very prudent.” Why? Because the French working class was – and to an extent still is – under the influence of the French Communist Party and its union confederation and allied movements.

The priests were sent to win the working class for Jesus Christ, but in many cases the priests were themselves won over, in varying degrees, to Marxism (and in the period under discussion, that meant Stalinism). At their worst, the worker-priests felt that to identify with workers, they had to champion – indeed, “baptize” – the cause of the workers as it was defined by Marxists. At their best they were fulfilling the Church’s option for the poor, renewing the asceticism and voluntary renunciation traditionally associated with the priestly state, and getting their hands dirty in the service of a credible evangelization. It is a fascinating saga, and one told thoroughly by Oscar Arnal, even though his perspective is limited by an insistence on celebrating the worker-priests as precursors to today’s liberation theology and by a disinclination to consider what an authentically Catholic (i.e., neither bourgeois nor Marxist) social vision and engagement with the “least brethren” consists of.

Leave of Absence

By Ralph McInerny

Publisher: Atheneum

Pages: 210

Price: $14.95

Review Author:

In April 1975 the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh; across the border in Vietnam the victorious communist troops marched into Saigon. The Cambodian whirlwind swept up 12-year-old Molyda Syzmusiak (her name after her adoption in 1981 by a Polish couple in Paris); the Vietnamese version of “national liberation” snared 30-year-old Doan Van Toai. Their respective testimonies differ sharply in detail, but ultimately they converge: both witness to the ideological madness of the 20th century.

Molyda Syzmusiak reveals the struggle for survival amidst the chaos, capriciousness, and murderous irrationality of Pol Pot’s regime. She imposes no larger meaning upon her suffering; there is only the heroic will of a child to conquer the “monotony of our misery.” The artlessness of her book enhances the power of her testimony; no literary niceties or speculative flights blunt the unrelieved horror. But one transcends the horror; hope will not die: Molyda survives, her spirit unwarped, to convey her story to the world.

Doan Van Toai brings the reflective intelligence of the intellectual to his recounting of suffering. A pro-communist student activist under General Thieu’s rule, he welcomed the expulsion of the Americans and the collapse of the southern government. His ardor for the revolution was insufficient to satisfy the new masters; arrested shortly after the fall of Saigon, he rotted for two years in Le Van Duyet prison for the “crime” of having failed to join the Communist Party. In front of the prison a sign proclaimed Ho Chi Minh’s slogan: “Nothing Is More Precious Than Independence and Liberty.” Hope nearly guttered out: Toai knew that world opinion, always eager to condemn the previous regime, cared little about the repression in “liberated” Vietnam. One thing saved him: “My strategy, my defense, would be to observe, to store up every experience against the day of my release…then to write about it.” Solzhenitsyn would understand that.

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