Briefly Reviewed: January-February 1985
The Search for Christian America
By Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch and George M. Marsden
Publisher: Crossway Books
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
The Religious Right offers an enticingly facile exposition of American history: Providence called John Winthrop and his Puritan followers out of the religious corruption of England and led them to the shores of Massachusetts Bay where they established the New Israel, a people appointed by God to bear his truth to a sin-befouled world. A century and a half later the American colonists fought — with God’s approval — a successful war for independence and established a nation ordained by God as an exemplar to all mankind. The new nation flourished, grew powerful and prosperous, and elicited awe and admiration from the peoples of the earth. Sometime in the 20th century a snake slithered into the garden and proceeded to poison the republic with secular humanism. Only a crusade by militant Bible-believers can slay the monster and return America to its Christian origins.
In The Search for Christian America Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden — three respected and much-published historians — undertake to refute this interpretation of American history. There is at first glance nothing surprising in their opposition to the Religious Right; after all, it is no secret that the academy harbors as high a concentration of secularists and moral relativists as one is likely to find in America. But the authors belong to a rare and different breed of academician: they are dedicated evangelical Protestants who decry the moral decay and deleterious relativism of our society, but who also reject the mode of national salvation proffered by the Moral Majority and its allies.
They not only discredit the Religious Right’s rendition of American history but also construct an alternative view of the past, one that will enable evangelicals “to respond effectively to relativistic secularism.” Theirs is, ultimately, a labor of love for the evangelical faith they profess.
After scrutinizing the Puritan’s “Holy Commonwealth,” the authors move to the heart of their book: a careful analysis of the era of revolution and nation-building. They dismiss the idea that America is — or ever has been — God’s chosen nation, contending instead that the concept of national chosenness ended with Christ’s coming to this earth.
Even more offensive to many evangelicals, they assert that “America is not a Christian country, nor has it ever been one.” The authors agree that secular humanism threatens to cripple the Judeo-Christian tradition to which most Americans adhere, but they point out that Christians themselves have inadvertently fostered secularism through their enthusiastic participation in a civil religion that conflates Christianity and American patriotism.
Escape from the present debacle lies not in attempting to resurrect a period of Christian nationhood that never existed anyway, but in struggling to win “hearts and souls to Christian commitment” and in engaging in a politics “marked by humility” and dedicated to the promotion of morality and justice.
In recent years politically conservative Roman Catholics have furnished a fertile recruiting ground for the Rev. Falwell and the other political preachers of the Right. This situation is laden with irony, for the evangelicals’ talk of Christian nationhood and chosenness springs from a long tradition of anti-Catholicism.
If America is indeed a Christian nation chosen by God to do his will, then it would appear that the Lord is a Romanophobe. It is a dolorous commentary on the present religious and political confusion in America to realize that many Roman Catholics will probably denounce the efforts of Professors Noll, Hatch, and Marsden.
Conversions: The Christian Experience
By Edited by Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder
Review Author: Charlotte Hays
“I was born in England in 1903 with a strong hereditary predisposition toward the Established Church. My family tree burgeons on every twig with Anglican clergymen,” begins the delightfully polished selection from Evelyn Waugh in this anthology of 50 conversion experiences.
Waugh’s piece, of course, describes his famous conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930, but this book — released by a Protestant publishing house — is ecumenical in the best sense of the word. Although the book includes a variety of converts, it doesn’t come across as somehow watered down. The brief introductions are excellent.
As a modern reader, I was most interested in those writers, including Sergius Bulgakov and Malcolm Muggeridge, who left Christianity early in life for the religion of Marxism, but realized that this new form of faith only fosters a new barbarism.
Bulgakov (1871-1944) was “born in a priest’s family, and Levite blood of six generations flowed in my veins.” But after a brief, stultifying stint at an Orthodox seminary, he lost his faith and “fell victim to a gloomy revolutionary nihilism.” He repudiated Orthodoxy and began a distinguished career that eventually landed him at the University of Moscow as a political scientist.
Bulgakov became a prolific apologist for Marxism and held “a passionate emotional belief in an earthly paradise,” while “a religious emptiness reigned in my soul.” But in 1908 Bulgakov went to Dresden and stood in front of a Raphael Madonna, and he experienced intense joy. He was still a Marxist, but “I was obliged to call my contemplation of the Madonna ‘prayer.’”
Later in 1908 Bulgakov visited the hermitage of a monk. He arrived in a state of “acute distress” and was “cold and unfeeling” during the Vespers. But walking alone in the woods, he came upon the monk, whose presence triggered his complete conversion: “I heard from the elder that all human sin was like a drop of water in comparison with the ocean of divine love.” He went on to renounce Marxism and join a cluster of Russian Christian exiles in Paris.
For Malcolm Muggeridge, too, it was the Prodigal’s flight from the earthly paradise promised by Marxism that brought him to Christianity. He describes how the “dream” of such a paradise “dissolved for me, never to be revived” while in Moscow. Yet, Muggeridge writes that the communist countries “provide the perfect circumstances for the
Christian faith to bloom anew — so uncannily like the circumstances in which it first bloomed
at the beginning of the Christian era.” Muggeridge’s piece, incidentally, excerpted from his 1969 book Jesus Rediscovered, which dates from the period when he was unable “to recite with total satisfaction one of the
Church’s venerable creeds.”
Although I was especially interested in the interplay between Marxism and Christianity in this book, I enjoyed reading some of the other well-known earlier conversions, including St. Paul’s being knocked off his horse and John Henry Newman’s fastidious account of his painful departure from the Church of England.
Since the language of this book is so powerfully rich, I was appalled that the editors had a lapse of good sense and felt they had to apologize for the “sexist” language in several contributions. But the book is still an excellent anthology that reflects a variety of religious conversions.
Sacrament: A Study Guide
By Peter Stravinskas et al.
Publisher: Twin Circle Publishing Co
Review Author: Mike Knight
A careful and serious reception of the sacraments is a mark of any Roman Catholic who seeks to grow in the love and service of God. Many of us might better understand the sacraments by considering this booklet, Sacrament: A Study Guide. The major author is Fr. Peter Stravinskas, whose contributions here are reprinted from the National Catholic Register. Interspersed with these are commentaries by Henry Dieterich. Appendices are by Dieterich, James Hitchcock, and Peter Sayre.
A lot of information is packed into all these articles, but from the nature of the booklet, many ideas cannot be completely developed. Each article tries to give a sense of the sacredness and fullness of the sacrament; not only is its immediate purpose stressed, but also its broader goal and deeper meaning. Baptism, for instance, not only frees us from Original Sin but disposes us “to hear and accept God’s Word”; it is a continuing grace that enables us to grow in faith, and imposes an obligation on us (or our parents when we are children) to seek to know the teachings of our Lord and the Church.
The booklet begins with a consideration of the nature of the sacramental system and of grace. Jesus Himself “is the first and greatest sacrament,” a sign from God for our salvation. “Each sacrament is an action of Christ.”
All articles include biblical references which can be used for further consideration or meditation, but actual quotes are necessarily brief. References are also made to the documents and spirit of Vatican II and to comments of the Holy Father.
The article on Baptism has a brief but strong meditation on its essential sign, water. Little is said about the sign of Penance, but considerable emphasis is given to the proper attitude needed to receive the sacrament well. All articles emphasize the communal aspect of the sacrament: the individual not only seeks to grow in grace, but shares with the community as a witness to Christ and to each other. Confirmation turns one “outward with concern for the salvation of the world.” (I especially liked Dieterich’s comment on Confirmation: we receive it “only once, but to experience it at any time, we need only act on it.”)
A number of controversies are considered. Among them are extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, the ordination of men only, annulments in Matrimony, the current scant use of confession, and the use (and abuse) of general absolution. In these, the booklet is loyal to the mind of the Church and Vatican directives, and calls us to a spirit of fidelity.
There are three appendices, all interesting. Dieterich and Hitchcock speak of the Reformation with respect to the sacraments and the nature and meaning of liturgy. The Roman Catholic view is presented approvingly, but not in a way to offend other Christians. The final appendix by Sayre, a psychotherapist, presents the sacraments in a spirit of healing and making us whole with Jesus.
As a study guide, this booklet can be a starting point or an inspiring supplement to a fuller course on the sacraments. But it does not give further recommended readings or a full picture of the current rituals. There are two quotes from the former matrimonial service, for example, but nothing about the current ritual.
All in all, the authors give us a great deal of information that can help us appreciate what Christ has given us.
Power of God: Addresses for the Three Hours
By Dom Gregory Dix
Price: No price given
Review Author: Rosamond Kent Sprague
This is a small book, but a jewel. Dom Gregory’s meditations on the Passion are the fruit of a long life of holy scholarship, and were written, as the Foreword tells us, in the shadow of his own approaching death.
Central to the whole is the concept of Good Friday rather than Easter as the real victory over death and sin. The Resurrection is simply the consequence of that unimaginably agonizing battle in which Righteousness became sin for our sakes. The physical suffering, meticulously described, is something we can begin to understand. But the spiritual suffering from the slimy tentacles of pollution sliding into the spotless soul we can never understand because, for us, sin has become second nature.
No meditation is without an attempt to bring home to the reader the implications of the Crucifixion for his own life. So in “Father, forgive,” we are enjoined “not to leave this church today until, like Him, we have forgiven all that we have to forgive.” And there is practical help offered: the praying of the Lord’s Prayer until one has been able to say the forgiveness clause “without apprehension.”
Dom Gregory was an Anglican with a profound understanding of matters that are sometimes thought to be more Roman Catholic than Anglican. He notes, for instance, that the Sacrament of Confession, “a sure and certain channel of His grace,” was “instituted with loving haste” the moment Our Lord returned from Calvary. And “we are fools,” he adds, “ungrateful fools, if we neglect it.” Of Our Lady he writes, “you cannot be conformed to the image of Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Mary, unless you too become the child of God and in some sense the child of Mary. It is Jesus Himself who gives you to her to be her child, His own Mother to be your mother, with that sublime generosity with which He gives Himself.”
This would be a wonderful book for Lent. It has enormous print and would be a blessing to those who can read little. What it has to say cannot be written too large for any Christian soul.
Holiness and Politics
By Peter Hinchliff
Price: No price given
Review Author: Joseph A. Varacalli
Although Peter Hinchliff doesn’t explicitly make the connection, his Holiness and Politics can be interpreted as a useful application of H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture.
Niebuhr presented five ideal-typical answers to the question of the relationship of Christians to the world. Hinchliff’s work is devoted to the less inclusive but no less complex question of the relationship of Christians to political activity.
Hinchliff immediately rejects the two extreme and simplistic solutions of either total rejection or acceptance of political involvement. On the one hand, for Hinchliff, Christians are “earthed” in human society and, as such, “a Christian who does not care about what actually happens in the political sphere, who does not lift a finger to do anything practical about it, is not really a Christian at all.” On the other hand, Hinchliff equally shuns those who easily identify Christ with worldly crusades, whether in the name of the nation (as with the Moral Majority) or in the name of Marxism (as with liberation theology).
Hinchliff thus opts for a middle ground between what Niebuhr termed the “Christ against culture” and the “Christ of culture” postures.
Referring back to Niebuhr’s three middle ideal-typical solutions, Hinchliff rejects the politically conservative Lutheran “Christ and Culture in Paradox” answer which sees individuals subject to the two separate moralities of God and society and to the conviction that obedience to God requires simple obedience to government. While acknowledging the obedience required to the state as indicated in the New Testament, the author notes that the modern democratic world has altered the meaning of political loyalty to government: “In a social democracy such as ours, we occupy a mixed status. We are not simply subjects….”
Hinchliff also rejects a second middle position, called by Niebuhr the “Christ above culture” alternative. Such a position is one that posits the primacy of an otherworldly salvation that, while involving human activity, can only be obtained by power sacramentally bestowed from above — in the traditional Roman Catholic understanding it is the Church hierarchy that is the guardian and dispenser of this power. It follows from this position that Catholics ought to channel their political activity in line with the Church’s teaching authority. Hinchliff will have none of this, given his distinction between the “ideal” Church as defined as “the Body of Christ” and the “actual” Church defined empirically in various ways such as “the denomination” and the “clergy and ecclesiastical leadership.”
Hinchliff seems to prefer what Niebuhr referred to as the “Christ the transformer of culture” model which, while recognizing that human nature is fallen and that some opposition between human institutions and Christianity is inevitable, sees Christianity as the converter of man in culture and society. Most importantly, for Hinchliff the frame of reference of this Christianity is the individual: because “in a pluralist society such as ours there is no common public morality to serve as an agreed framework, the final judgement about how one ought to behave is left to the individual.”
Hinchliff’s work is profound and I recommend it. My only qualification, as a Roman Catholic, is regarding Hinchliff’s typically “Protestant” bias-placing primacy on individual conscience over collective ecclesiastical authority. The Roman Catholic concept of her teaching authority or Magisterium can better explicate, protect, and disseminate the complex social implications of Christian revelation than can, relatively speaking, the various frail intellects of theologians.
The Schillebeeckx Case: Official exchange of letters and documents in the investigation of Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1976-1980
By Edited with introduction and notes by Ted Schoof
Publisher: Paulist Press
Review Author: John F. Maguire
In his meditation on the antiphon Salve Regina, Anselm of Lucca ascribes the work of Mary in guaranteeing the Church’s doctrinal integrity to her position as Mother of God. The centuries have borne witness to Anselm’s insight. Mary, in virtue of her divine maternity — in virtue of the fact that she is the Theotokos — secures, as always, the purity of the doctrine of her Son. Indeed, as John Henry Newman, who had for so long hesitated about devotion to Mary for fear that any honor paid to her might detract from worship of God, concluded from his studies of the primitive tradition, the Theotokos is, as the Church calls her, the Turris Davidica, the Tower of David, “the high and strong defense of the King of the true Israel,” and therefore the defense of the true doctrine of the redemptive Incarnation.
This is why the Church addresses Mary in the Salve Regina, as having “alone destroyed all heresies in the whole world.” According to Newman, the recognition of Mary’s dignity as Mother of God involves in itself the rejection of all heresies. Crucially, those who acknowledge Mary’s divine maternity, Newman observes, escape the pitfalls of doctrinal error in Christology.
For Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, whose Marian devotion is attested to by his early book Mary, it must surely have been a painful moment when the Church’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, through an anonymous intervener, challenged him with the following quote, with interpolated remarks by the intervener:
Quote: “Since 1953 I [Edward Schillebeeckx] have always been opposed to the formula: ‘Jesus is God and [italics in the Dutch text — Ed. Ted Schoof] man’ [Remark by Congregation’s intervenor. But the Council of Chalcedon and later the third Council of Constantinople defined that “Jesus is truly God and truly man”: Denzinger and Schoenmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum 301 and 544], and also the confusing expression: ‘The man Jesus is God’ [Remark: The Blessed Virgin is the Mother of Christ insofar as Christ is a man, and the entire Church rightly addresses her as Mother of God]…. Such expressions as ‘Jesus is not only man but also God’ [Remark: There is nothing incorrect about such language] strip the incarnation of its deepest meaning.”
That the Congregation’s intervenor felt constrained to invoke the dogma of Mary as Mother of God, as a way of helping Fr. Schillebeeckx to disambiguate his interpretation of the meaning of the Incarnation, signals the seriousness of the issues at stake in the Congregation’s investigation of Fr. Schillebeeckx’s book Jesus: An Experiment in Christology.
For his part, Fr. Schillebeeckx conducted himself during this investigation (a “trial” in almost every sense) in such a way as to win from one and all acknowledgment of his deep sincerity, his great learning, his undaunted commitment to his work, not to say his flectar non franger, that is, his ability to accept the traditional formulations of the truths of the faith without breaking with his own way of stating these truths.
And yet: His own way of stating these truths, even when considered in the light of a number of his useful clarifications, remains very much an abiding source of ambiguities. This is particularly true with respect to his complicated discussion of anhypostasis and enhypostasis.
Regarding such crucial but complex topics, the reader is forewarned by editor Ted Schoof, O.P.: “The non-specialist…will probably find the documents [in the Schillebeeckx case] difficult going.” But difficulty must give way to need. As Franjo Cardinal Seper, then-prefect of the Congregation concludes, the great ambiguity in the book Jesus (“now known to a wide readership”) creates in the readers of Jesus “a right to have such significant information” as Schillebeeckx’s clarifications “made available to them.”
To be sure, despite these clarifications, “ambiguity persists.” Which suggests that perhaps the safest route for Schillebeeckx to take now would be to retrace all his steps up to his book Jesus from his early book Mary. For Anselm and Newman were not mistaken in their insight into the efficacy of the Theotokos in illuminating the faith in its universality.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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