Briefly Reviewed: July-August 1986
The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language
By Donald C. Bloesch
Review Author: Juli Loesch
At first glance, altering our God-talk in the direction of gender-neutrality — changing Father to Parent or He to She — may seem a minor detail, like correcting the spelling of Peking to Beijing. But, in fact, Donald Bloesch insists, it is not like that at all: it is not like changing the names on a map. It is more like using undersea explosives to pry up the continental plates, and then moving the continents around. Or, better: it is like proposing to fill in the Grand Canyon with three-quarters of the Moon. All tides, all gravity, all heaven would change — and one is permitted to doubt that the earth would be the better for it.
Educated at Tuebingen, Oxford, and the University of Chicago, Donald Bloesch is one of America’s foremost evangelical Protestant theologians. Every chapter of The Battle for the Trinity presents the contending theological and philosophical theories that have fed into the God-talk debate — process and liberation theology, scholasticism, existentialism, neo-liberalism, conservative evangelicalism — theories which ask, and try to answer, the underlying questions.
We all must ask: How much about God can be expressed by language? What do we “understand” by symbol, metaphor, and analogy — and how do these modes of understanding stand in relation to conceptual propositions and definitions? What preeminence, if any, do we give to the words of the Bible, or the formulations handed down from Chalcedon and Nicaea? What precedents do we have for campaigns to press Christian language into the service of exigent secular projects?
Using arguments that are attentive to, and respectful of, the feminist movement’s complaints against patriarchal religion, Bloesch demonstrates that changing the biblical revelation of the Name of God is not a purifying of the Christian religion, but the founding of a new religion. It is not equity, but apostasy.
In this respect, the radical feminist theologians who have openly bolted to Baalism and neo-pagan goddess religion — witches like Starhawk and extremists like Mary Daly — have a more realistic understanding of the power of God-language than do the more moderate theoreticians of the feminist spirituality movement. The radicals honestly admit that they have gone seeking new spirits, new powers, and have found them. It is the Christian reformist feminists who too often mistakenly suppose that they can dally with a hermaphrodite deity and still be chaste in worshiping the same Trinity in whose Name they were baptized.
Bloesch makes clear that a mere metaphor (God my Rock) has a far lower order of meaning than a foundational identification (God the Father). His writing is so good that I can’t resist quoting a key explanation: “Such words as Father, Son, and Lord are derived not from the experience of human fatherhood, sonship, or lordship, but from God’s act of revealing himself. They are therefore more accurately described as catalogies rather than analogies insofar as they come from above…. It is not that God resembles a Father, but in calling him Father the Bible challenges the human view of what a father should be” (italics mine).
Bloesch adds that, unlike the pagan gods and goddesses, our Father God has no consort. His consort is the Church; and thus the Church constitutes the feminine dimension of the sacred.
As an evangelical Protestant, Bloesch does not seem well-equipped to follow this up with a profound explanation of the Motherhood of the Church, or an explicit appreciation of the Mother of God. Indeed there remains a legitimate feminist hunger and thirst for the feminine face of holiness, a hunger and thirst which can only be fully satisfied with Mary. If we are to be faithful to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, then it is she, precisely, whom we need. She is the immaculate Image and Likeness of the Father from her conception, Mother of the Son, Bride of the Spirit: the Woman braided in the Trinity.
The Unbound Spirit: God’s Universal Sanctifying Works
By Charles DeCeltes
Publisher: Alba House
Review Author: Henry Dieterich
Anyone who has done evangelization or apologetics has heard the “what about” question: “What about people who never heard of Christ? Can they be saved?” It’s a vexing question, where our modern sense of fairness seems to confront the traditional Christian teaching that acceptance of Jesus Christ is a matter more important than life and death.
Charles DeCelles attempts to answer that question in this book. He does so by juxtaposing the insights of charismatic spirituality, interpretations of Vatican II, and recent theological concepts such as Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” to form a vision of the Holy Spirit as universal sanctifier whose breath blows through all world religions. Unfortunately, he fails.
While he considers many traditions, DeCelles leaves out of consideration the paganism of classical antiquity. Thus he ignores most of Christian thought on this problem between the New Testament and Vatican II. Where are Dante and Vergil? Where are Gregory the Great and the Emperor Trajan? I suspect that DeCelles has simply — and fashionably — turned his back on the West.
DeCelles does not like to make distinctions. He hesitates to describe the unbaptized as “pagans” or even “non-Christians,” for fear of giving offense. It is hard to see what distinctive feature of Christianity he finds of compelling value. This is the central problem of the book.
What is DeCelles’s canon of truth? He finds something in all religions that corresponds to it. It is not the text of sacred Scripture, since he is prepared to condemn Genesis1:28 and Psalm 8:5-6 for leading the Judeo-Christian tradition into error by “portraying man as having authority over creation.” Christian doctrine as traditionally understood does not, it seems, determine his standard, but rather evolves toward it. He rejoices, for example, that the Catholic Church has caught up to the tolerance of Native American religion. I suspect a clue to his canon can be found in his description of Rabindranath Tagore: “a beautiful person.”
The real standard that appears to run through this book is the religion of the Beautiful Person: gentle, non-dogmatic, free of distinctions, soft, warm, imprecise, full of good feelings, divorced from any unpleasant historical particularity. It draws no lines, denies nothing, seeks to offend no one, recognizes only the subjective sense of goodness. It is in fact the modem expression of Rousseau’s civil religion — it will tolerate any belief save one that claims to be correct. Who can defend harsh certainty in the face of sweet confusion?
But to be a Christian is precisely to embrace the scandal of particularity. Christians do not believe merely in the general principle of divine love: we believe in one historically and geographically locatable act of divine love. Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate only-begotten Son, was one particular man; He spoke an odd dialect, came from a certain town, and lived and died (in a way that affects our eternal destiny) at a particular place and time in history. If the sense of fairness of the modern mind is offended by this favoritism, that is nothing new; this Gospel is “a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.”
The only reason for becoming a Christian is that this Gospel is factual and true. If God chooses to save people some other way, it is his prerogative; but explicit faith in the person of Jesus Christ is the one way that he has revealed. Jesus commands his disciples to preach this Gospel, and when the hearers refuse to listen, not to excuse them, but to shake off their dust. The difficulty of the doctrine of the “anonymous Christian” in its many forms, including this book, is that it leaves no reason for doing the very thing that Jesus commanded.
Let me respond to this book on another level: autobiographically. I was once a pagan. I did not consider the term opprobrious; I gloried in it. I was, in my own way, sincerely seeking God. I found him, but only because there were some young Catholics who did not think of me as an “anonymous Christian” but as a pagan in need of redemption. They took the time and made the effort; they overwhelmed me with love and prayers and arguments.
The moral of this story: if you’re worried about the salvation of non-Christians, don’t waste your time with fancy theology. Go out and preach and live the Gospel.
Socialism and America
By Irving Howe
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
In this series of essays, Irving Howe surveys the checkered history of socialism, with primary emphasis on the American experience beginning with Eugene V. Debs.
Howe’s own socialist orientation is democratic, non-messianic, non-communist, and non-Marxist. He is a man you can easily have a sensible discussion with. Indeed, he disparages most of the nostrums people (often mistakenly) associate with modern-day democratic socialism, such as government ownership and planning of the entire economy.
Like many of his fellow socialists in contemporary Western Europe, Howe opts for a market socialism and for the extension of political democracy to the economy (known as “economic democracy”). While this position has precedent in the history of socialism, it is unclear whether this is a fall-back position for Howe (who used to be a socialist of Marxist/Trotskyist persuasion) or a putative breakthrough to the “true” socialist vision. In any case, he states: “Workers’ control [and] self-management by those who work in an enterprise — some such concept is crucial to the socialist hope…. In the end socialists have no choice but to accept the wager — either a genuine, if imperfect, economic democracy is realizable or the entire socialist enterprise must be relegated to historical fantasy.”
Oddly though, Howe does not seem to appreciate that the essence of the position he has come to was articulated as early as 1919 (by the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops in their “Program of Social Reconstruction”) and 1931 (by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno), and as recently as 1981 (by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Exercens) and 1984/86 (by the U.S. bishops’ drafts of their pastoral letter on the U.S. economy).
Sadly, this blind spot is not unique to Howe. All too many of today’s socialists — even those who have shaken free of the Marxist straightjacket — are woefully ignorant of Catholic social teaching.
Gazing on Truth: Meditations on Reality
By Kitty Muggeridge
Price: No price given
The amorphous category known as “spirituality” furnishes many publishing houses with a major source of revenue. Browse through a Christian bookstore and one discovers shelf upon shelf groaning under the weight of scores of works on meditation, mysticism, prayer, devotional exercises, and spiritual muscularity. Much of it is drivel. Tricked out in fake profundity, cast in syrupy prose, and replete with promises of instantaneous solutions to the myriad ills of life, this literature substitutes cheap solace for the arduous realities of Christian discipleship. It offers the religious equivalent of the self-help books on diet, fitness, personality development, financial success, and sexual acrobatics that Americans pursue with a crazed intensity.
Occasionally one happens upon a work of spirituality that, if it fails to redeem the genre, at least persuades one to refrain from advocacy of book burning. Kitty Muggeridge’s Gazing on Truth is such a volume. In 40 brief meditations she achieves her stated purpose: “to help strengthen our faith and to defy the ‘dictatorship of the consensus’; to help us forget our preoccupation with the fantasies of our earthly existence, and to discover and be aware of spiritual reality…. ”
“‘Health, wealth and happiness’ is the Devil’s motto,” writes Muggeridge; through the apotheosis of this triumvirate we cloud our vision and distort the meaning of life. Against this tendency, Muggeridge pits the example of the spiritual giants of the ages, men and women who, as Blake wrote, see “thro’ “ the eye and not merely “with” it: St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Pascal, John Bunyan, St. Teresa, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Kitty Muggeridge invites one to join these people in “gazing on truth” and in penetrating to the spiritual reality that lies at the heart of existence.
The Courage to Be Chaste
By Benedict J. Groeschel
Publisher: Paulist Press
In the 1960s a war cry resounded across America: “If it feels good, do it!” The troops responded with alacrity: copulating like demented rabbits, they banished sin and unbridled the dark, subterranean forces of sexual hunger. Since sex sells, Madison Avenue appropriated this ethic of immediate and infinite gratification and parlayed it into fat profits.
Twenty years later the old radicalism has been transformed into the new status quo, and a culture saturated with lubricity flourishes. Amidst this complacent self-indulgence what could be more shocking than a summons to revivify the ideal of chastity? This truly scandalizes the bourgeoisie. Perhaps the role of radical scandalizer ill befits the Director of Spiritual Development for the Archdiocese of New York, but Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel must bear the onus.
Belying the stale canard that priests know nothing about sex, Groeschel speaks with wisdom and understanding to those whose blighted lives and shattered dreams expose the false promises of bliss purveyed by the feel-it-and-do-it crowd. No neurotic guilt or flesh-hating asceticism vitiate Groeschel’s counsel; instead, he invites the unmarried — both heterosexual and homosexual — to a life of selflessness, love, courage, and heroism. And trial — for the clamorings of the genitals will not be easily quelled. But as Groeschel writes: “A Christian who struggles to overcome them, even with little apparent success, is doing the work of discipleship.”
In a society where yesterday’s radicalism becomes today’s cultural norm, the only enduring radical act is to follow Christ. The Courage to Be Chaste probably poses a greater threat to the American Way than all the fevered imaginings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao rolled into one.
© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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