Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: March 1986

Briefly Reviewed: March 1986

The House of Wisdom

By John S. Dunne

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 172

Price: $15.95

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

Pages: 101

Price:

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

Pages: 253

Price: $17.95

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.

Pages: 41

Price: $2

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

Pages: 141

Price: $12.95

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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