Vocation of Peace
By Gordon C. Zahn
Publisher: Fortkamp (202 Edgevale Rd., Baltimore MD 21210)
Review Author: Dale Vree
Religious pacifists. You know the type: They believe all wars are evil, except maybe revolutionary wars in the Third World; they think the Gospel is about peace and justice and nothing more; their hearts quake for AIDS victims but their tongues cannot find a word to say for biblical morality; they display excruciating concern for whales and wolves and worms, and they reverence life to the point of declaring themselves vegetarians, but their hearts turn cold as ice when the abortionist’s knife is aimed at the human baby in the womb. You know the type. But that doesn’t mean you know Gordon Zahn, the grand old man of Catholic pacifism.
That he probably represents a dying breed is all the more reason to get this book, a collection of some of his previously published essays. Get it, that is, before his lucid light is but a memory, before the mutation of pacifism from the sublime to the ridiculous has played itself out.
The jewel in the crown is his essay “A Religious Pacifist Looks at Abortion,” wherein he argues masterfully that for a pacifist to be unconcerned about “the destruction of human life in the womb” is a failure in “consistency” and a triumph of “hypocrisy.”
But is the fetus human life? “We know for certain that [the] fertilized ovum is not going to develop into a dog or cat….” And obviously it is alive — were it not, there would be no need to kill it, which is what an abortion does.
Zahn has never been afraid of being unpopular or unfashionable, so he notes that “the presence of the fetus suggests a decision that could have been made earlier.” Yes, freedom of choice, but that choice is made before hopping into bed.
Also included in this book is an essay in which Zahn recalls his experience as a conscientious objector during World War II. Zahn has been true to his convictions for over 50 years. Agree with him or not, his is a voice of integrity.
The Catholic Vision
By Edward D. O'Connor
Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor Books
Review Author: Justin W. Gullekson
The duty of Catholics to proclaim truth is paramount, and, happily, the age-old discipline of apologetics is beginning to flourish.
Fr. Edward D. O’Connor, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, presents us with a unified theological view of Catholicism. His book is lucid; he is able to make theological points without being overly technical; and the entire message adheres unabashedly to the Church of the popes, the bishops, the Magisterium. His main thrust is one of such importance that it deserves lengthy quotation: “the biggest threat to Catholicism comes not from attacks on the outside nor even from dissent within but from a watery substitute which might be called naturalistic humanism. This is not a systematic philosophical position but an attitude or mentality which combines an admirable sensitivity to humane values with disregard for the supernatural. Where classic Catholic theology sees human life as determined by the three factors, nature, grace, and sin, naturalistic humanism honors nature but neglects grace and sin. It [naturalistic humanism] is not secular humanism. It believes in God and in fact is somewhat pious, capable of producing impressive liturgies and architecture. It is quite appreciative of the cultural riches of religion. But what it esteems in religion is the latter’s contribution to the fullness of human life, rather than the divine life which it brings to us.”
This naturalistic humanism can subtly influence us, often without our realization; we are not secularized in the sense of rejecting religion, but we find ourselves adhering to certain religious values while rejecting the fount from which they come.
This “watery substitute” kills evangelization and, sadly, has become the sum and substance of much of our religious education. O’Connor, however, does not belabor the contemporary situation; rather, he simply states the case for undiluted Catholicism, and he does that well.
Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work
By Miroslav Volf
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Author: Matthew Markovic
The average person not only spends a good part of his life working, but also spends much time preparing and learning skills for work, traveling to and from work, thinking about work, worrying about work (or lack of work), complaining about work, recuperating from work, scheming to avoid work, and planning to retire from work. Yet, despite the amount of time we put into all these things, few of us take time (is any left?) to consider the nature of work. Fewer still reflect on their work in a religious light. One who has is Miroslav Volf, whose Work in the Spirit claims to be the first academic attempt to develop a comprehensive Protestant theology of work.
Volf defines work as an instrumental activity that is the opposite of leisure, which is an end in itself. Yet work is also our “highest destiny,” he insists, for although humans are not exclusively workers, they exist in God’s plan “only as working beings.”
Martin Luther had a “vocational” understanding of work. He moved beyond the established idea that a “calling” could only be to a religious life, and believed that Christians could have vocations in secular work as well. But he did not display concern for the alienating aspects of work. Volf views his own theology of work as an update to Luther’s, and develops an approach based on the charisms: He views vocations as gifts of the Holy Spirit, which can be used to co-operate with God in this world (or not), and to aid in accomplishing a “new creation” in Christ. Even non-Christians may help this mission, depending on their unconscious level of co-operation with the Holy Spirit. Until the final destruction of this world, in Volf’s eschatological terms, our task is to co-operate with God through our callings and to act as His stewards in our dominion of the earth. Work therefore offers humans the chance to advance God’s purposes.
While the Old Testament and to a lesser extent the New Testament have passages relating to work, Volf frankly admits that they do not add up to a comprehensive theology of work. Rather, he sensibly explains that it is necessary to consider work in terms of the Bible’s message as a whole, and then to integrate (deductively) the specific biblical passages on work.
For Adam Smith, people are what they do, which suggests the centrality of work. Marx agreed that work was central, but also recognized that it could alienate. For Volf, work can reflect both our being in the image of God and our estrangement. Similarly, technology has increased our material standards while at the same time de-skilling some of us and enslaving most of us.
Work in the Spirit is carefully considered, sophisticated, and ecumenical. While its first three ground-laying chapters are dull, much of what follows is alive with insight, some of it profound. Unfortunately, while he is sensitive to alienation in work, Volf deals with it in abstractions, offering very little flesh and blood. Also, he is silent about drudgery work: Where does it fit into his scheme?
How does all this connect with the American obsession with work? During the career frenzy of the 1980s, many speculated as to what motivated the legion of upwardly mobile young people to claw their way through the corporations. No one had a clue. Volf argues that such striving is based upon a narcissistic craving for self-realization, and is therefore incompatible with concern for God’s creation. Realistically, self-interest is necessary in the world of work, but work must also have “moral meaning.”
The Ethics of Authenticity
By Charles Taylor
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Review Author: Phillip Devine
Charles Taylor’s analysis of the “malaises of modernity” is a contribution to the debate between its “knockers” and “boosters.” Among the knockers of modernity he ranks Allan Bloom, Daniel Bell, and Christopher Lasch; the clearest example of a booster (though Taylor doesn’t cite him) is Richard Rorty. The debate between boosters and knockers centers on the concept of authenticity — whether it licenses a limitless profusion of “styles” of life, and whether, if true, this is good or bad. In Taylor’s view, the concept of authenticity represents a valid (and inescapable) ideal, but one that is often degraded in practice. Hence he attempts to provide a more discriminating analysis of contemporary problems than either the knockers or the boosters provide — one which does not call for a trade-off between the advantages and disadvantages of modernity.
Taylor agrees with Bloom in rejecting soft relativism: Choosing one’s own mode of life becomes trivial unless one has some independent sense of what is important. As he puts it, “I couldn’t just decide that the most significant action was wriggling my toes in warm mud.” Advocates of “gay” rights, who argue that “all options are equally worthy because they are freely chosen, and it is choice that confers worth,” undercut their own position, for they implicitly deny “the existence of a pre-existing horizon of significance, whereby some things are worthwhile and others less so, and others not at all….”
But Taylor rejects any attempt to return to the age before we learned to look for personally fulfilling modes of life, and thus came to be tempted to define fulfillment in self-centered terms. Yet, he assures us, triviality and decline are not inevitable: “The nature of a free society is that it will always be the locus of a struggle between the higher and the lower forms of freedom…. I suggest that we look not for the Trend…but that we break with our temptation to discern irreversible trends, and see that there is a struggle here, whose outcome is continually up for grabs.” Those who struggle against cultural degradation should not conclude that the spirit of the age is irresistible, but should carry on their fight with determination, resourcefulness, and hope. There is no inexorable force favoring contemporary demands for a right to pursue one’s chosen “lifestyle,” however trivial or damaging to self or others. Taylor’s ideas might well inspire a politics that escapes both the latent nihilism of the Left and the structural defeatism of the Right, without merely attempting to “manage” the status quo.
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