Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 1999

October 1999

Fighting the Good Fight

By Reggie White and Andrew Peyton Thomas

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Pages: 229

Price: $19.99

Review Author: Gerard Einhaus

If the enemy of our enemy is indeed our friend, the National Football League’s all-time sack leader is clearly a trusted brother of orthodox Catholics. Reggie White’s book, released in conjunction with his retirement from the Green Bay Packers, pursues the moral issues of our time with the same passion that he demonstrated in hunting enemy quarterbacks. Written with Andrew Peyton Thomas, an attorney and experienced writer, it has no more connection to the standard “puff piece” account by an athlete than Reggie White has to “gay” rights organizations. White’s condemnation of the activities of those organizations, and his other remarks, in a March 1998 speech to the Wisconsin Assembly turned him — for one brief but intense moment — into America’s Enemy Number One of Political Correctness. White begins the book with the firestorm resulting from his speech against the practice of homosexuality. Here, as in other chapters, the ex-bruiser and the barrister have done their homework, reviewing scholarship with admirable thoroughness and in the light of orthodox Christian morality.

White, an ordained evangelical Protestant minister since his teens, saves his hardest blows against our libertine culture for page 120, where we find this searing three-sentence condemnation: “I accuse the abortion industry of pursuing genocide against the African-American community, I accuse the government of permitting and even funding this genocide. And I accuse the media of covering it up.” His follow-up research into abortion practices in the U.S. and the sordid history of Planned Parenthood, including the aspirations to “racial purity” of its founder, Margaret Sanger, is enough to bar him from the councils of the Liberal Establishment.

The very audacity of the book, from a prominent young African-American very much at odds with the aging generation of leaders from the civil rights era who march in lockstep with the liberal program, should encourage orthodox Catholics to examine it. Reggie White is clearly the kind of ally we Catholics need in the culture war.

Living the Drama of Faith

By Romano Guardini

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 157

Price: $11.95

Review Author: Michael Berg

God calls us to Himself in ways as varied as we are various. Individual Christian faith has the character of a life’s story. And the life of faith is the response each of us offers to the God who speaks to us out of His incomparable love. But the dramas of our individual lives are subsumed in the drama of the life of Christ through His death on the Cross and His glorious Resurrection. Guardini characterizes the New Testament faith by which we live as “the answer given by man to the God who came in Christ…. Belief is the living movement toward Him in whom one believes. It is the living answer to the call of Him who appears in revelation and draws men to Him in grace.” In giving this “living answer” the believer will discover his authentic self, whose source is God’s will.

This is the premise of the recently reissued Living the Drama of Faith. In this book Guardini, by likening the stages of development of the individual Christian spirit to the stages of a human life, naturally arrives at something like a psychology of the spiritual man.

What shapes our spiritual selves is our response to Christ, to the “One Who is more myself than I.” So Guardini characterizes his book as a meditation on the “saying of Christ [that] may serve as our guide: ‘Do what I tell you, and you will see that you are in truth’ (John 8:31-32).” Guardini constructs, in his inimitable style, a meditation on the Christian life that possesses both accuracy and poetic passion. This compact book is also filled with moving passages that, even in translation, are lyrical: “What is the name of that process in Holy Scripture that lies at the basis of faith and creates a new life? It is new birth. This must not be understood as a vague expression…. The genesis of faith means to be taken up into the creative womb of God. The old being dies, in a certain sense, and a new being is born. This newly conceived life comes from God Himself and means that the believer…comes from ‘the same blood’ as God.”

Guardini recognizes that one of our difficulties is that our response of love must flow out to a “God we cannot see.” Guardini considers, in a passage of surpassing beauty, how we may learn to love the unseen God as a mother loves her unseen child: “How does the mother love her child? How does this love come about? He who…will someday be formed in her body is first of all loved by the mother through her disposition to conceive him. Then she feels in herself something alive, and her love grows in proportion as this body develops distinct from her own…. And when she has brought him forth and looks at him in her arms, her eyes are then capable of the most profound kind of knowledge, for her heart has now passed through the hard school of patience and love.”

Living the Drama of Faith is a beautiful book and a valuable aid at all stages of our journey with Christ, the journey that leads us home to the Father.

The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma

By Maurice Blondel

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 310

Price: $19

Review Author: Graham McAleer

There is something very enigmatic about Maurice Blondel, the brilliant French Catholic thinker who lived from 1861 to 1949. I do not mean about his thought, which is presented in a systematic and densely structured way that will both challenge and delight the patient reader. Blondel is enigmatic because his influence on 20th-century Catholic thought is indisputable, and yet his thought is seldom the object of sustained study.

The philosophical anthropology of Catholic thinkers in this century has stressed the dynamism of the human spirit toward making itself concrete in action, and I doubt it can be denied that Blondel is the inspiration behind modern Catholicism’s sustained meditation upon what Blondel called “the dynamism of our experience” (The Letter on Apologetics). Yet, as I say, one finds Blondel acknowledged only in passing. For instance, in Karol Wojtyla’s Acting Person, Blondel is mentioned in a footnote only; in Karl Rahner’s Spirit in the World he is not cited at all.

Adding to the enigma are the frequent citations of Blondel by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty, one of the most important thinkers in the intellectual movement called phenomenology, began his intellectual career as a Catholic but soon left the Church for Marxism. He appears to have relied heavily upon some of Blondel’s major insights. Merleau-Ponty picks up on the phenomenological dimension of Blondel’s thought to explore “the most concrete living experience,” which of course links Blondel’s fundamental project to the phenomenological Thomism characteristic of Wojtyla.

If the paucity of editions of Blondel’s works accounts for the absence of Blondel’s name and thus of the recognition he deserves, then we must welcome the publication in the Ressourcement series of this book containing translations of The Letter on Apologetics (1896) and History and Dogma (1897). Blondel’s texts are accompanied by two essays by the translators, Dru and Trethowan, which were written in the 1950s but are still useful to a reader today.

Blondel’s texts contain many striking formulations, such as the following from History and Dogma: “He [Christ] is the universal stigmatic marked by all our human miseries.” With such orthodox piety underlying his philosophy, Blondel was shocked when in 1893 the publication of his L’Action was heavily criticized in certain Catholic circles. The Letter on Apologetics (LA) defends L’Action against criticism of that work’s central motif, the “method of immanence.” The insight Blondel expresses in L’Action — that human desire remains unfulfilled by the immanent as our “imperious appetite” and “inner aspiration” are in need of a truth sufficiently satisfying (LA) — also pervades his work in the volume under review. Blondel’s method is ambitious, and seeks to do no less than “to bring back the men of our time to Christianity” (LA). It is a method designed “to go to others so that they may come to us” (LA). As Blondel makes clear, his method does not compel assent to the Christian faith, but is rather meant to make “the philosopher’s reason” — the consciousness of modernity — “ripe for conversion” (LA) and rendered open to the grace of God.

The two essays in this volume nicely complement each other, for The Letter on Apologetics in a sense confirms History and Dogma. The latter essay both argues for the legitimacy of Tradition and seeks to show how Tradition is properly understood. “Thus we see,” Blondel writes, “that even things which have been said may still need to be insinuated in a new and more intimate way.” It is in some such vein that the relationship between Blondel and Thomism should be understood. Some of the critics of L’Action were Thomists, and Blondel returns the compliment in The Letter on Apologetics when he accuses Thomism of being “static.” It is quite likely that the Thomistic systems Blondel knew merited such a description.

But within a generation, Thomists of the stature of Marechal — and then Rahner — fully understood that Blondel had indeed “insinuated in a new and more intimate way” some of the central insights of Thomas Aquinas. Rahner, for example, would cast Thomist human nature as the mystery of the potentia obedientialis, a conception clearly echoing Blondel’s claim that the “supernatural is at home with our nature” (LA). It is also clear that Blondel’s abiding interest in the vinculum is identical to Thomas’s abiding interest in the concreatum, a way of conceiving of human desire that would be integrative, a chain in which the natural and supernatural orders penetrate each other (LA). When Blondel in LA portrays desire, quite beautifully, as sacramental (“The baptism of desire” presupposes “God’s secret touch” — desire and grace united is “a mysterious marriage”) he could be speaking for Thomas. And surely we can recognize in Blondel’s “method of immanence” a repetition of the fundamental demonstration of Thomas’s Summa Theologica: that if we desire happiness, only the supernatural will satisfy.

Let us hope that the publication of this volume recalls Catholic thinkers to the richness of Tradition and stimulates the Church’s intellectuals to “insinuate in a new and more intimate way” the truths of the Tradition, so that, with Blondel, her intellectuals may “go to others so that they may come to us.”

What Evil Means to Us

By C. Fred Alford

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Pages: 171

Price: $No price given.

Review Author: Patrick Coffin

What if you put an ad in the paper asking for volunteers for a study of evil? What if you interviewed them, paid them for their time, and analyzed their often extraordinary answers? What if some were inmates of a maximum security prison, whose crimes included rape, torture, and murder?

C. Fred Alford, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, ran just such a study, with over 60 respondents, 18 of whom were prisoners. From the interviews he fashioned What Evil Means to Us, which he calls a “domestic anthropology of evil.” Provocative chapter titles such as “Identifying with Eichmann,” “Splatter Movies or Shiva? A Culture of Vampires,” and “Evil Spelled Backward Is Live” promise new twists on the ancient problem of evil.

There surely are twists, but not quite a fulfilled promise. One would expect at least some reference to the standard correlates to evil such as free will, personal responsibility, physical vs. moral evil, sin, or even Satan. Not here. Except for some brief glimpses into the poetic realm of Dante and Milton, evil as personal is off the hook.

From the outset Alford admits that his study is neither representative nor rigorously empirical. As he says, the book is “my story about their stories.” Using his subjects’ answers as springboards from which to launch his own theses, he offers reflections in which he calls upon an array of authorities, mostly psychoanalysts, such as Melanie Klein, Otto Rank, and Thomas Ogden. Snippets of their work pepper his narrative. The movie version could be called Psychoanalyze This.

Alford frequently invokes Ogden’s theory of the autistic-contiguous position — the fear of the self dissolving — as a way of making sense of evil acts. Those suffering from this mental malady are said to compensate for their fear of “not being” by projecting their angst onto another. “I hurt therefore I am.” But it is never quite clear whether Alford means evil as dread or evil as committing evil. I take it that Alford’s purpose is to help us understand evil by having us listen first to some of its worst perpetrators and then to his explanations of what it all means. But he never commits to a single viewpoint. In fact, on page one he expresses disdain for definitions: “A definition is just a name. It does not help us understand the concept, the experience, the reality of evil.” But dispensing with the very idea of defining terms — especially when it comes to a vexing and notoriously impenetrable concept such as evil — is a recipe for fuzziness. And any fundamental distinction between evil as noun and evil as adjective is nowhere to be found. For example, the first chapter is entitled, “I Felt Evil.” Does this mean “I felt myself to be evil” or “I felt the presence of evil”? We are never sure.

The closest we get is Alford’s merely “psychological” (and tautologicabpdefinition: “Evil is the special quality of badness called envy, the desire to destroy innocence and goodness for its own sake, because the very existence of innocence and goodness outside the self is an intolerable insult to the grandiose but empty self.” Here is a morally based definition. And yet, one of his key premises — splashed on the book jacket — is that the primary experience of evil is not moral but existential. Why can’t it be both?

Near the end of the book Alford notes that “the trouble with complex performances is that they readily segue into confusing performances.” In many ways his study is an example. If the Western religious and philosophical tradition is correct, and God is utterly simple, then evil may be the most complex “performance” of all. Hence, his analysis never resolves any confusion.

In a world that has produced the Nazi Shoah, the Columbine High School massacre, and babies with AIDS, the musings of What Evil Means to Us are of little help, for they never reach to that inner place where one cries out “Why?”

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