Briefly Reviewed: March 1986
The House of Wisdom
By John S. Dunne
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Author: Isabel Anders
In his book The Reasons of the Heart, John S. Dunne wrote: “A person’s story can be told in different ways, with different degrees of inwardness, the most inward being that of the spiritual adventure.” In his new book, The House of Wisdom, Dunne continues to tell his own story in that most inward of forms.
Here his travels and the unfolding levels of his spiritual concerns take him on a journey in quest of wisdom, first to Ayasofya in Istanbul, the age-old shrine of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), a church for almost a thousand years, a mosque for nearly 500, and now a museum. He finds a reality alluded to in the biblical books of Wisdom. Indeed, “Wisdom has built her house” (Prov. 9:1).
His travels and meditations take him next to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, to view the abstract murals of Mark Rothko, “fourteen somber and almost featureless paintings” which suggest to Dunne unlikely stations of the cross — the absence of detail representing for him “what is felt by the suffering Christ’s heart.” They are to him an apt vision for our times because they also reflect what is seen and felt by human eyes and hearts in a time of suffering and uncertainty about the future of mankind.
His next stop is the Meditation Room at the United Nations, a “room devoted to peace…where only thoughts should speak.” We hear voices that speak down the ages to Dunne: Meister Eckhart, Dag Hammarskjold, George MacDonald, Irenaeus, Yeats, Mark Twain. The number and variety of quotes that intermingle with Dunne’s own reflections make this book very rich fare, at times almost ethereal in quality. Although he brings us back to the outer world at intervals, Dunne’s emphasis is on the priority of the inner journey, the many facets of the soul’s landscape.
The many other hearts that speak to and with Dunne do not overcome the deep impression of solitude we encounter in these pages — a visit to the quiet place of reflection where one experiences being “alone with the Alone” in order purposely to reenter the active human sphere with the fruits of reflection.
The book’s overwhelming message is that wisdom dwells in God, and we can dwell in him and he in us, which is the reward and process of a lifetime journey of faith. The House of Wisdom is not an introduction to the spiritual life, but is intended for those already familiar with the nature of the journey, beginning when “mind speaks to mind” (intellectual awakening), progressing to “heart speaks to heart” (the joys of community), and on to “soul speaks to soul” (the goal of the unitive life, that of oneness with God and others).
Basic Communities: A Practical Guide to Renewing Neighborhood Churches
By Thomas Maney
Publisher: Winston Press
Review Author: Steven Saint
Since Luther, Protestants have had one thing over Catholics: mobilization of the laity. As a Protestant, I was used to evangelical churches with 2,500 members: committed, Bible-studying, praying, and active.
Now as a Catholic, I’m getting used to urban parishes with 2,500 families, a fraction committed while three or four priests labor to exhaustion.
The answer for our exhausted clergy is not more prayers for vocations. The answer comes from Latin America, and has been waiting for concise expression in English. Fr. Thomas Maney has done that in this step-by-step handbook for establishing Base Communities in North America.
Maney served as a missionary to Chile for 22 years, where he labored to form Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). His efforts were virtually fruitless, while hundreds of thousands of such communities existed in other parts of Latin America. He had formed some BECs, but they took little initiative and waited on clergy for endless shepherding.
Just prior to the heart attack that brought Maney back to Minnesota, he learned from two Dominicans in Venezuela the secret of successful BECs: personal conversion. If the people accepted Jesus Christ as friend and Lord, they took initiative.
Maney applied the Venezuelan model to the Duluth diocese and within three years had established 300 Neighborhood Church Communities (NCCs).
Most writings in English on Base Communities are either theoretical or describe life in Latin America or the Philippines (where neighbors actually know each other). Maney’s book is for us Northerners, whose “affluence has become a barrier to neighborhood relationships. The American automobile has shattered neighborhood dependency.”
Through the vehicles of home-visiting teams and five-night neighborhood missions, NCCs come to life. The genius of the book is its cultural flexibility. The three appendices give details of the Venezuelan format. Just as this was adapted for Duluth, it invites, even expects, adaptation to any American parish.
Maney demonstrates that if individuals become converted in the context of a neighborhood group, many a priest will be relieved to find his pastoral duties shared and enlarged by renewed, energetic lay people who know the ins and outs of neighborhoods better than he ever will.
The NCCs proliferate in the parish, which mobilizes the entire diocese under the bishop. Renewed dioceses can change the nation. Behold the reformation begun by Catholic theologians at Vatican II and made flesh by the poorest peoples on earth.
The Base Community reformation could very well stop the emigration of spiritually-hungry Catholics to evangelical Protestant ranks. It could totally integrate orthodox spirituality with orthodox social ministry. It could even change the world.
Freedom with Justice: Catholic Social Thought and Liberal Institutions
By Michael Novak
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Author: Stuart Gudowitz
I didn’t find this book boring simply because I’ve read Michael Novak’s line before, but because it is, if you will, objectively dull. Why is this so? Basically because the book is largely a defense of old-fashioned liberalism, and liberalism is not merely superficial (the same, of course, can be said of Marxism), but it is also a bloodless thing (which certainly cannot be said of Marxism). That is why masses of people have never gone to the barricades or the gallows for liberalism, as they have for communism. Further, Novak is far from a deep thinker. In short, a shallow defense of a bloodless ideology results in a yawn-making read.
Here is an example of Novak’s shallowness: He argues that, in large part at least, the popes and the extremely influential German Jesuit economist Heinrich Pesch are really (unbeknownst to themselves, since they repeatedly attack liberalism) liberals because they support private property and the limited state — both of which are “liberal institutions,” Novak informs us. This is an astonishing error. For who then, aside from the most fanatical and consistent totalitarians, is not a liberal?
This same method can be used to create another equally mythical, grand, black-and-white ideological divide. One might argue that the state itself is a statist institution and that therefore anyone who believes in the necessity of the state for the commonweal is essentially (even if one does not see this) a statist. Thus even Ayn Rand, using this approach, is a statist; indeed only the most fanatical and consistent of anarchists is not.
But, of course, to maintain that private property and the limited state are uniquely liberal institutions, or that the state itself is a uniquely statist institution, is to be living in fantasy land.
Another example of Novak’s shallowness — which leads to at least part of the confusion that pervades this book — is the apparent failure to realize that no society is a perfect incarnation or projection of ideology. Thus Novak goes on and on about the American “communitarian individual” who associates and cooperates with other members of his species. Novak writes that “the actual texture of daily organizational life in the United States has a communitarian side seldom brought to consciousness. Catholic social thought has so far missed this important reality.” Well, the Catholic Church recognizes solidarity in human relationships, and it is not surprising to find some solidarity at work wherever men live. But the fact is that solidarity occurs despite, not because of, the regnant liberalism of the U.S. There is no perfectly liberal society because men, while fallen, are still not that bad. Every society is influenced by a number of philosophies and impulses, sometimes contradictory ones. This liberalism is not the sole influence in America, and the fact remains that liberalism acts as a solvent on our communitarian impulses.
Curiously, it seems that for Novak liberalism (which is often, in effect, equated with America) should be added to the creed. Indeed, so committed is Novak to a liberal-democratic-capitalist regime that he suggests our holy faith should be revised accordingly: “Are the traditional Christian virtues,” he writes, “sufficient as a base for democratic living, or do some new virtues need also to be learned?” Perhaps some day, when Novak decides to turn to writing prodigiously on nature, he will suggest adding a color or two to the rainbow.
There is also in this book, as is customary with Novak (whether intentionally or not), distortion of Catholic social teaching. He says, for example, that Catholic social thought’s “traditional predispositions are agrarian….” This is untrue. Novak cites the Distributism of G.K. Chesterton as an example, but there is no evidence that Chesterton had any influence on papal pronouncements, and indeed the popes have avoided the romantic excesses of the Distributist thinkers. And, of course, Novak’s pseudo-Catholicism — commending papal teaching here, criticizing it there — suffuses this book.
De Lubac: A Theologian Speaks
By Henri de Lubac
Publisher: Twin Circle Publ. Co.
Review Author: David Knight
It is impossible for me to review objectively anything Henri de Lubac writes, since I knew him in France as a man not only of piercing intellect and vast erudition, but above all of extraordinary self-effacing kindness. He once climbed three flights of a Paris apartment building just to pay an unannounced visit to the mother of an insignificant American studying at Fourviere, where de Lubac was in residence.
I believe de Lubac combines in his person the scholar, the saint, and the sacramental status of ecclesiastical office — a combination devoutly to be wished for in Roman Catholicism, which is committed to accepting without reserve all that is authentically human and all that is divine, the graces of charismatic insight and the grace of official teaching authority, as well as the most active intellectual effort and the passive surrender of mystical prayer.
How much of this Catholic synthesis can a reader expect to experience in this extended interview with de Lubac? The answer is only a whiff. Not even one of the interviewer’s questions could have been adequately dealt with in the 41 pages of this pamphlet — as de Lubac himself suggests at the end of it. What a reader will find here is a number of sure and incisive channel markers by which to steer a course through some of the turbulent issues of our day.
De Lubac is asked to comment on the theological and cultural climate before, during, and after Vatican II; on the relationship between nature and grace and on his own significant role in clarifying it; on the current theology of the Mystical Body; on what documents of Vatican II are most significant for our time and on certain controversies that have grown up around them. He is questioned about the place of Scripture in Catholic life; about the application of Vatican II’s doctrine of collegiality to the tensions that arise between local churches and the exercise of papal responsibility; about secularization and atheism, mysticism and modern gnosticism; and about the hope he has for the future. In his answers de Lubac gives personal opinions of and insight into the attitudes and actions Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, and various French theologians from Teilhard de Chard in to the present Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger.
How much theological background does this pamphlet presuppose? It is hard to say. Those who have followed the theological action of the past decade or more will certainly get more out of it than those who have not. Those who have little background, however, may find this booklet worth the time and money just for the orientation it provides to questions they are bound to hear discussed in the years to come.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion
By Richard Purtill
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Author: Pete Sheehan
J.R.R. Tolkien is probably the best-known least-known Catholic author. He is one of the best known because, as an author who happened to be Catholic, he is so well-known, period. Yet he is also the least-known Catholic author in that few describe him as a Roman Catholic author in the way that many regard Greene, Percy, Chesterton, Waugh, or Flannery O’Connor. One of the benefits of Richard Purtill’s book is that it points out examples of how Tolkien’s Catholicism influenced his writing.
To do so, Purtill summons a great many resources, such as a collection of Tolkien’s letters and much of the writings of Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis. In his introduction Purtill notes that he wrote this book “mainly for other lovers of Tolkien, using what skills I have…to help them understand better what we have enjoyed.”
Purtill expands on a quote from a Tolkien letter that the Lord of the Rings “is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision,” and that religion in the Rings trilogy is never explicit, but “absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” In clarifying the religious elements absorbed into Tolkien’s fiction, Purtill is convincing. Tolkien’s ideas about vocation, creation, rebellion of the Valar, and angelic beings, for example, bear the mark of his Catholicism, as does Galadriel, whose character was inspired by the Blessed Mother.
Unfortunately, Purtill focuses on the distinctly Catholic elements only haphazardly, as opposed to the more broadly Christian elements of Tolkien’s fiction, which he treats very well. I do not wish to seem harsh because Purtill treats the Catholic elements — which is the general theme of his book — well, and better than others have done. I wish, however, that he had treated the distinctly Catholic elements in a more comprehensive manner. For example, Tolkien’s ideas about free will, using war to achieve good ends, and the almost sacramental quality he finds in such earthly delights as good food and scenic beauty are perhaps additional signs that Tolkien is more of a “Catholic” writer than he is reputed to be.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed both the insights and the actual reading of this book. After the somewhat complex first chapter, which is necessary for the rest of the book, Purtill writes clearly and astutely. His tone is academic, but not coldly so (like a stern, distant professor) but rather warmly so (like a favorite “prof” you enjoy learning from). Moreover, Purtill left me wanting to reread much of Tolkien. For inspiring that desire, Purtill deserves gratitude.
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