Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: March 1985

Briefly Reviewed: March 1985

The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation

By E. Harris Harbison

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 177

Price: No price given

Review Author: Carl R. Schmahl

Can a Christian, without spiritual loss, engage in scholar­ship that is based on assump­tions about the world that are antagonistic to Christian assump­tions? Can a scholar retain his scholarly integrity if he is also committed to a religious worldview that is inconsistent with the presuppositions of his discipline? These questions have engaged the attention of the Church ever since Paul told the Corinthians, “The wisdom of this world is fol­ly with God,” and Tertullian wondered, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church?” E. Harris Harbison address­ed himself to them in a series of lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1955. The book that resulted from those lectures has been reissued as an Eerdmans paperback that will interest anyone who is concerned about Christian faith and its relation­ship to scholarly endeavor.

Harbison illustrates the tra­dition of Christian scholarship from the fourth century to the Reformation with a number of deft portraits. There is St. Jer­ome, lover of the pagan classics, who was confronted in a dream by an angry Christ with the words, “Thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ.” De­spite his inner struggle between faith and learning, Jerome never renounced his study of the clas­sics, and went on to produce that version of the Bible known as the Vulgate.

There is Augustine who, Harbison says, believed that “re­ligious conversion and moral in­tegrity are the indispensable con­dition of scholarly achievement.” There is poor Peter Abelard in the 12th century who “tried to bring his passion for learning un­der the control of his Christian ideals and failed — and knew he failed.” There are Thomas Aqui­nas and Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, Pico del la Mirandola, and John Colet, all of whom attempted, with more or less success, to bal­ance the conflicting demands of their Christian faith with their love of learning.

In Erasmus of Rotterdam, according to Harbison, we have “the greatest scholar of his age, the Christian Humanist par excellance who loved both Socrates and Jesus, both Plato and Paul, with almost equal enthusiasm.” As a scholar Erasmus was con­cerned with reconstructing the Christian past “as it actually was, not as it appeared to be in the distorted theology of medieval Schoolmen.” To this end he em­phasized study of Greek and He­brew (he produced a Greek New Testament which Luther used when he translated his German Bible), history, and geography. He saw himself as restoring the Christian past, cleansing it of Scholastic accretions.

For Martin Luther, a man of great scholarly achievement who never thought of himself as a scholar, Christian learning must begin with religious experience. In fact, “it is quite obviously im­possible to separate Luther the man of faith and Luther the man of learning.” Like Erasmus, Lu­ther knew his Greek and Hebrew, insisted on getting back to the original texts, and “was histori­cally-minded in a way medieval theologians were not.” But un­like Erasmus, scholarship for Lu­ther grew out of the seething re­ligious turmoil of his life, out of periodic bouts with Anfechtung, out of his desire to restore the Church to New Testament reli­ance on faith alone.

Harbison concludes from his study that scholarship can, in­deed, be “a legitimate calling of high significance among Chris­tians.” I wonder. After all, bibli­cal study which assumes we are exploring the revelation of God to man is quite different from, say, Freudian psychology, and not just in the thing studied but in the assumptions brought to the study in the first place. Since the 17th century, Christian as­sumptions about the nature of the world — assumptions which Erasmus, Luther, and the rest, for all their differences, shared — have been elbowed out of the academy and replaced with atti­tudes about who we are, where we came from, and — most im­portant — where we are going, that are products of the Enlight­enment, not Christianity. This means that the question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusa­lem?” still confronts those of us who love both learning and our Lord. Although Harbison’s book does not answer the question for this Protestant reviewer, it certainly provides much food for thought.

Treatise on Happiness

By St. Thomas Aquinas

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 208

Price: $5.95

Review Author: Franklin Debrot

There is a certain kind of death that officialdom can con­fer on any human being, but the worst is the kind suffered by the “official philosopher.” In the days before Vatican II, when St. Thomas Aquinas seemed to fill such a role in the Roman Catho­lic Church, it was very difficult actually to read St. Thomas.

If one were a Jew, like Mor­timer Adler, or brought up in lib­eral Protestant surroundings, like Jacques Maritain, then it might happen. But if one were going through the usual required cours­es in philosophy at a Catholic college or university a generation ago, what one was confronted with in the name of St. Thomas were secondary texts and manu­als by Thomists. The study of St. Thomas, therefore, was long on memory and short on reflection, and one’s most natural first reac­tion, and often only reaction, was to recoil even at the mere sound of his name.

But things may be looking up for St. Thomas nowadays, since the post of official philoso­pher appears vacant in the Church today.

The one thing anyone could say who took those courses, and managed to remember anything about them, was that St. Thomas was merely a Christianized ver­sion of Aristotle. Yet putting it this way betrays a typical failure in understanding, not because it is untrue — he did Christianize Aristotle, and they are alike — but because it fails to add that they are also profoundly differ­ent.

Consider the idea of happi­ness. Neither Aristotle nor St. Thomas identifies happiness with the modern idea of worldly plea­sure, power, or success. Both as­sociate happiness with a life lived habitually in pursuit of the highest good, which is the virtuous life. And both also speak of hap­piness in this world as subject to changes of circumstance, and therefore relative, and only per­fect when it partakes of the Di­vine.

But it is on this last point that we have to stop, for the God of Christian revelation is not the God of Aristotle. Compared to the radically God-centered uni­verse of Christian revelation, Aristotle’s universe is a pale man-centered affair. His God is not the Creator. While he describes the Prime Mover as the source of all motion through His attraction as supreme object of desire and love, the most convincing notion we have is of a remote and changeless entity, cut off from the universe in its eternal self-contemplation. Thought thinking Thought — it is a force, but more like the impersonal force of gravity, drawing everything to itself, indifferent and unconscious of the outcome.

So when Aristotle speaks of happiness partaking of the Di­vine, he has in mind, essentially, the man who, having everything necessary to a full life, lives a life as much as possible dedicated to the self-reflective contemplation of truth — a life, in other words, most like that of the Divine prin­ciple.

But when St. Thomas speaks of happiness he is clearly speaking of union with God, both here and in the afterlife. While those things Aristotle names as necessary to complete happiness in this life (health, friends, a modicum of wealth) are subject to circumstance, that which for St. Thomas is the es­sence of happiness, union with God, is not subject to chance, though it is subject to choice.

Moreover, when St. Thomas speaks of the virtuous life as the life lived in accord with man’s ra­tional nature, he means a nature created by God. Thus human rea­son and the law of human reason are comprehended under a larger infinite reason and a grander na­tural law than with Aristotle. For Aristotle there simply is no end that goes beyond man’s rationality; virtue resides in being ra­tional. This is why Aristotle’s ethics, while seeking valiantly to center moral principles on more than human self-interest, in this respect fails.

I have ventured momentar­ily into the dialectical thicket to illustrate the considerable ad­vance Thomistic ethics makes over Aristotelian ethics.

The present text, a reprint of a translation of a portion of the Summa Theologiae, titled Treatise on Happiness, performs an extremely useful task. It makes an important part of Thomas’s moral thought readily available to those with little or no knowledge of Latin, and with­out the wherewithal to approach the large and costly English edi­tions. It is a step in the right di­rection, not of returning to some Catholic version of fundamentalist bibliolatry, but of reading a Christian theologian and philoso­pher whose immense wisdom re­pays careful study by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Single Issues: Essays on the Crucial Social Questions

By Joseph Sobran

Publisher: The Human Life Press

Pages: 189

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Steven Hayward

A year or so ago, southern California residents turned each morning to the “Metro” section of the Los Angeles Times to read the latest episode in the soap opera of Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler and, as he bills himself, the “smut peddler who cares.” Flynt was appearing daily in Superior Court over a variety of legal issues, but he became a newsworthy spectacle because of courtroom antics: shouting obscenities at judges, defying contempt citations, and wearing an American flag as a diaper.

Flynt might seem merely an isolated example of a strange pornographer whose deeds, while distasteful, must nevertheless be protected by the “free speech” guarantees of the First Amend­ment. There is seemingly no nex­us between the debate about por­nography and the other “single issues,” such as abortion, gay rights, or sex education. But Jo­seph Sobran cogently argues that the same assumptions and men­tality of secularism are operative in all these issues. Opponents of abortion are pejoratively por­trayed as “single issue” partisans and censured for wanting to “im­pose” their views in a “divisive” manner. Sobran recognizes that this is a deliberate smokescreen, intended to shift the terms of the debate away from morality and to change public sentiment sim­ply by attrition. On the contrary, Sobran argues, these “single is­sues” should be more properly regarded as “crucial issues.”

They are crucial issues be­cause at the heart of each is the ultimate political and ethical question. “The debate about abortion,” Sobran writes, “is really the kind of debate Ameri­ca shies away from: a debate about what man is, and about what society should be.” Sobran proceeds through several of these social issues, dissecting the ruling clichés with the skill of a microsurgeon.

A Way in the World: Family Life as Spiritual Discipline

By Ernest Boyer

Publisher: Harper & Row


Price: $12.95

Review Author: Robert Coles

“No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams has the narrator of the epic poem Paterson (his great lyrical examination of America’s social and cultural values) keep repeating. A particu­lar writer was reminding himself, never mind the reader, that big theories, grand proposals, and major pronouncements have a way of turning sour — breeding hypocrisy and pretense. The test of any ideal is in the nature of its realization — how we work lofty thoughts into the texture of our everyday lives, if indeed we ever do.

I thought of those words of Williams, and of others I heard him speak in the course of his working life as a physician (who wrote at night, when all the pa­tients had been seen) as I read this touching, poignant, and quite energetic book: it is a Ro­man Catholic lay minister’s ef­fort to celebrate the spiritual re­wards that ordinary family life and unpretentious living and working can offer us, if we would only give such humble oc­casions their God-given chance. Williams knew that prophetic voices are a mere beginning; that the pastoral side of this life is our real and continuing (everyday) challenge. Ernest Boyer knows likewise — the sacramental char­acter of family life. He tells us he once was inspired by the exam­ple of the desert fathers, those divinely inspired seekers who gladly endured hardship, isola­tion, and ascetic submission to the most demanding of prayerful lives. Now he sees God’s plans for us as exceedingly diverse, and is grateful to find plenty of spir­itual sustenance and inspiration in his life as a husband and fath­er, as a member of a (working-class Massachusetts) family.

The sin of pride is, needless to say, a constant threat to all of us, as Boyer well knows. He is striving hard to restrain his spir­itual grandiosity, his earlier de­sire to take on the biggest reli­gious challenges in the most dra­matic way possible. He has re­treated (well, advanced may be the better word) to the kind of daily tasks that go with a concern for others, rather than one­self. We have a fighting chance with our egoism only through the help of others, whose pres­ence offer us an opportunity to forget ourselves, turn gratefully as well as affectionately to cer­tain fellow human beings. The hours given to them are blessed for us — a healing time, indeed. It is not an exaggeration when the author refers to such a time, such “family life,” as constitut­ing “spiritual discipline.” Surely there is no harder requirement in any desert monastery than that presented daily in a husband’s life, a wife’s life — to find the grace that enables love to tame the self’s pushy assertiveness.

This is a book whose story starts at Harvard’s Divinity School and ends in a humble home where a father and mother are struggling to be good and lov­ing parents — to instill Christian values in the life of their family, and in so doing to edge nearer to God, approaching Him through a search for the everyday, small, undramatic household gestures that make up what the author calls “a way in the world.”

Such a journey is construc­tive, indeed — a wonderful con­trast to the direction all too many of us seem to crave: more and more association with big deal educational or commercial or political institutions as a means of becoming a winner. But long ago Jesus warned us of the topsy-turvy world ahead, making it quite clear that God’s notion of what counts (and who counts!) is by no means to be equated with those standards held by various “principalities and powers.” Put differently, the journey from the high and mighty Harvard part of Cam­bridge to nearby working-class Somerville, where Boyer now lives, may well have been a re­demptive one, for reasons his book manages to spell out quite well: lots of ideas now put to the test of daily family and commun­ity life — “the things of this world,” as the saying goes.


©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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