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Briefly Reviewed: October 2022

How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss

By Peter J. Kreeft

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 182

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Mary Brittnacher

Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft begins his book by stating that the most effective way to save our civilization is to have children. Everything changes with the birth of a child; nothing is ever the same. He describes the self-sacrifice involved as “generous, charitable, loving, unselfish,” and Christian. In the current Western milieu, which Kreeft terms “apostate Christendom,” many adults do not want the responsibility of children. How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss takes on the secularist “logic” behind such attitudes that leads to broad moral and cultural decline.

Kreeft asks four questions, in his typically clever fashion, about the skepticism so rampant today: “Do we know that we don’t know? Is it certain that we’re not certain? Is it objective truth that truth is not objective? Are there absolutely no absolutes?” These explode the concept of relative truth. Related to this is his treatment of agnosticism. He illustrates that doubt in the existence of God is not a “default position” but a temporary stance. Time limits the agnostic to finding an answer, one way or another. God or no God? The Lord spurs a definitive answer to that question when He says, “Seek, and you will find.”

Treating contemporary society as a sick patient, Kreeft applies the four steps of observation, diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription for treatment. He determines that the sexual revolution is both a major symptom and the cause of other symptoms of the disease. The basic illness emanates from a lack of belief in God. Kreeft relates Thomas Aquinas’s conclusion that “when a man is deprived of true, spiritual joy, he must become addicted to carnal pleasures to fill the vacuum.” What is the cure? Converting the culture by converting the individual to a new way of thinking and living. Christian truths, guided by revelation, can cause this change. Kreeft promotes Catholic devotions, saying that only 15 minutes a day of eucharistic adoration by all American Catholics would effect the most powerful religious awakening ever.

Kreeft explicates some principles of metaphysics that apply to our cultural malaise. He compares visible reality to a skin-like layer on the ocean as contrasted with invisible reality, the oceanic depths. He confirms that matter is good, and even holy, for Jesus gives us the “material”: His body and blood. Spiritual reality is still more powerful. “As the wind moves the trees, spirit moves matter,” he says.

Kreeft also walks us through the critical stage of the history of philosophy during which David Hume changed the reality-based worldview of Aristotle and Aquinas to his own “Humean” view. Hume concluded that causality precludes certain knowledge, and so he severed the connection from knowing reality directly to not knowing what is real with certainty. Immanuel Kant took this stance a step further, which Kreeft describes with a pun: “I Kant accept your skeptical conclusion.” Kant decided that though reason cannot connect to the real, it is not designed to, but instead is required to construct its own reality, which it does.

Kreeft also dissects politics, the topic that is currently put before everything else and encompasses all else. To this exaggeration he applies common sense, declaring politics important but not “absolute.” He notes that if a society does not have an underlying philosophy, there is no basis for real decision-making. Kreeft calls out both libertarian individualism and socialistic collectivism as against human nature as designed by God. He determines that subsidiarity is the best road to a well-functioning society, that every healthy culture has a reverence for tradition and the natural moral law, and that sabotage on the inside is more dangerous than attack from the outside. He also emphasizes that the soul of the individual is of paramount importance, while civilizations come and go.

A powerful thread weaves through the narrative, that “everything works for good” (Rom. 8:28). Kreeft asks if that promise applies to sin also. He answers by putting it this way: “And even our own sins, through the golden door of repentance, though only through that door, can be made to work together for good if only we trust Him and love Him.” This we can do — and must do — both as individuals and societies, for our own salvation and that of the whole world. The humility required to repent is among many forgotten virtues in apostate Christendom.

Amid Kreeft’s wide-ranging treatment of Christian actions, he explains the paradox of poverty. The Beatitudes tell us that the poor are blessed, but Christians are required to alleviate their poverty. The key here is to distinguish between spiritual and material poverty. Christ came to remedy one but not the other. The Jews of Jesus’ time who were expecting to be saved from the Romans did not accept Him, for He came to save people from their sins. Jesus’ message is that He came to save not the materially poor but the spiritually poor. Further, what does He mean by “blessed are the poor in spirit”? Nietzsche, for one, misunderstood Christ’s meaning, thinking Jesus refers to those who have weak spirits. That misinterpretation caused Nietzsche to hate Christianity. The real meaning is ineffably beautiful. Kreeft explains that “Christ meant ‘Blessed are those whose spirits are willing to embrace the suffering of material poverty, whether their pockets and bank accounts are in fact poor or not.’ He meant: ‘Blessed are those whose hearts are detached from the wealth of this world so that they can be better attached to Me and to the wealth of My kingdom.’”

This mostly excellent book is an education in philosophy for those who didn’t study it, and it is a refresher course for those who did. Kreeft quotes great philosophers and thinkers of the ages, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s summation of the modern world’s ruin: “Men have forgotten God.” One minor quibble: Kreeft frequently alludes to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although he has read it many times, some (like me) still have that reading experience to look forward to. It only slightly dims Kreeft’s arguments when one doesn’t know who the Men of Numenor, Faramir, and Gondor are, but it does lessen their meaning. Frequent quotes from C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton enhance his narrative and are a delight, as always.

Knowledge and Evolution: How Theology, Philosophy, and Science Converge in the Question of Origins

By Michael Chaberek, O.P

Publisher: Resource Publications (Wipf and Stock)

Pages: 306

Price: $31

Review Author: Darrin Tebon

According to the famous joke about religious orders, there are three things you cannot know: How many Franciscan orders there are, what a Dominican just said to you, and what a Jesuit is going to say next. Do not let this quip about the Dominicans prevent you from reading this book.

The question of the origin of species is an abstract one, and people can live a good and fulfilled life without knowing, or even considering, the answer. But, being a matter of faith, yet imposed on society as a matter of scientific fact, this issue has an outsize influence on a person’s worldview and on the orientation of society at large. How science and faith relate to each other is a controversial subject in contemporary culture, and Knowledge and Evolution: How Theology, Philosophy, and Science Converge in the Question of Origins is useful in understanding this area of the controversy.

The author, Polish Dominican Fr. Michael Chaberek, defines his terms clearly, following the idea that if terms are understood correctly within each sphere of knowledge (natural science, philosophy, and theology), the various intellectual disciplines can communicate with and inform one another. Truth cannot contradict truth, no matter from which discipline it derives. Chaberek addresses and refutes the idea that the truths of the faith and the truths of natural science are independent of one another, also known as the concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).

Fr. Chaberek starts with a discussion of the nature and types of human knowledge, distinguished by method and object. He considers scientific, philosophical, and theological knowledge in their relation to the material world and to the spiritual realm. And he discusses the possibility and limits of valid theological knowledge about the material world.

Fr. Chaberek points out the limits of the applicability of natural scientific knowledge. Natural scientific knowledge is most certain when we are dealing with the world on a human scale: the physical scale our senses can perceive without instruments and within the time span of a human life. As we depart in either direction from the human scale, our natural scientific knowledge becomes increasingly more speculative. Not being able to observe directly what happened in the distant past or at the smallest or largest scale means we must rely on theory and extrapolation to understand the observations we are able to make in the present. This is not to say that the scientific method does not deliver truthful knowledge about reality, but it does put the limits of the scientific method in proper perspective. To give an example: At the scale of the smallest theorized subatomic particles, natural scientific knowledge is so speculative, relying on theory and complex equipment, that it can barely be described as empirical. Our entire understanding of this realm hinges on the dependability and accuracy of these theories and instruments. The history of science, if examined, proves the lack of reliability of this assumption. Eventually, we run up against the limits of what natural scientific knowledge can validly speak about.

The origin and spatial limits of the visible universe are examples of where scientific knowledge must give way to philosophical and/or theological knowledge, as some things in the universe are simply unobservable. On the question of the origin of species, there is no chance to observe what took place in the distant past at a particular place, rendering our natural scientific knowledge about these events entirely dependent on theory and extrapolation. There is no way to observe the coming-into-being of a new species. This is important because it means we need to judge whether a proposed scientific theory remains within the bounds of natural scientific knowledge. Fr. Chaberek concludes that the question of the origin of species, which falls outside the limits of natural scientific knowledge, is proper to theology, not to natural science.

Fr. Chaberek’s critique of the dependability of natural scientific knowledge is a breath of fresh air in a society that considers this knowledge the only source of truth. In explaining why this viewpoint is so countercultural, he includes a treatment of the relative importance and prevalence of the different types of knowledge in society over the course of human history. In addition, his discussion of Galileo’s conflict with the Church over scientific matters, which is often used polemically to try to demonstrate a contradiction between scientific and theological knowledge, explains why this incident cannot be shown to be applicable to the debate over the origin of species.

The author offers a sound refutation of species transformism, also known as biological macroevolution. Fr. Chaberek’s definition of natural species, distinguishing the varied and confused meanings of the term species, and his description of what the idea of biological macroevolution entails are exemplars of clarity and will be familiar to readers of his other books. He critiques the possibility of biological macroevolution from the perspectives of simple logic, classical metaphysics, and the continuing and increasing lack of evidence for it in natural scientific knowledge, along with increasing knowledge of the complexity and information content in living beings. He presents intelligent-design theory (ID) as an alternative to biological macroevolution and discusses its relative merits. Chaberek explains how and why ID, though commonly labeled pseudo-science, is more scientific than the neo-Darwinian theory of biological macroevolution. ID does not try to provide a mechanism for the origin of species. It provides criteria by which something in nature can be clearly recognized as not being a result of chance or necessity, thus keeping within the proper limits of natural scientific knowledge and leaving the question to another sphere of knowledge, in this case, theology. When the two methods of explaining the origin of species are compared, it is clear that neo-Darwinism is the pseudo-scientific viewpoint.

The theological aspect of the question is discussed in more detail, with a focus on the idea of divinely guided biological macroevolution, also known as theistic evolution. An overview of the traditional theological teaching on creation, which is now mostly untaught, leaves the impression that if the Church’s perennial teaching on creation were more widely known, fewer Catholics would buy into theistic evolutionism. Fr. Chaberek proposes a science-faith synthesis as a consistent worldview, with natural science, philosophy, and theology each contributing their proper portion without contradicting one another. This proposed synthesis relies on recent major gains in scientific knowledge about biology, demonstrating the advantage of cross-pollination between knowledge types and how the scientific method helps in understanding reality. The attempt to form a consistent science-faith synthesis, without rejecting perennially sound philosophy, is worth the effort, and this book is a good road map for work in that direction.

A Declaration of Dependence: Trusting God Amidst Totalitarianism, Paganism, and War

By Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

Publisher: Reprinted by Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 131

Price: $15.95

Review Author: Joseph Tuttle

A Declaration of Dependence, originally published in the middle of World War II, is Archbishop Sheen’s offering of clarity in a time of great upheaval. Sheen’s wisdom is not restricted to his lifetime but is for all ages. And this book deals not only with problems of war but also the many moral and religious problems that afflict our world.

Beginning his discourse, Sheen writes that there are three characteristics of revolutions that in turn often lead to war. These characteristics are irrationality, violence, and atheism. Sheen points out that each of these can be found in America. He writes that people are irrational because they are guided by emotion instead of reason; people make the mistake of hating others instead of hating the wrong they did, and thus become violent against others; and people have become atheistic, especially those who are considered to be among the intelligentsia, due to “a hatred of the Divine, born not of reason but of contempt for virtue, loyalty, temperance, and law.”

Sheen makes an important distinction in the definition of the word progress. The secular conception of progress means one is working toward a goal that keeps changing. This is the root of progressive ideology. “True progress is not movement as movement,” he writes, “but movement toward a point at which we know we can stop; namely a goal.” The modern world has lost this concept of working toward a goal, and it aims to set up a utopia here on earth, giving no thought to death or judgment, Heaven or Hell. Sheen points out that the Church has, for centuries, been telling the world that paradise, or utopia, is not to be found in this life but in the next.

Of particular interest is Sheen’s exposition on Catholic just-war theory. According to Sheen, every moral action has three aspects: the object, the intention, and the circumstances. Each of these aspects must be good in order for the act to be considered good. If one of these aspects is not good, then the act cannot be considered good. In order for its object to be good, a war must have a just cause. If the intention is to be considered good, the war must avoid evil while promoting the common good. Sheen explains, “The common good here means not exclusively the common good of the individual nation but the common good of the world.” Finally, for the circumstances of a war to be considered good, the methods of the war must not be evil. For example, if a pilot were to bomb hospitals in order to win a war, his actions would not be justified because he would be killing noncombatants.

Sheen also addresses the Church’s stance on extreme militarism and extreme pacifism, both of which the Church condemns. “The Church does not condemn war absolutely,” Sheen clarifies, “nor does it ever praise war; but it does admit the conditions that might justify war.”

One of Sheen’s major points is this: America, Europe, and the entire world have rejected God, and World War II was, in a certain sense, a judgment from God and an outcome of that rejection. God did not, however, cause the war; He merely allowed it to happen. Wars, according to Sheen, are simply the outward expression of a lack of peace in the soul. If one does not love God with all one’s heart, then one will not be able to love one’s neighbor as oneself (cf. Mt. 22:37-39). If the world rejects God, then the various nations will reject each other, and there will be war. This is why Sheen reminds the American people that the Declaration of Independence is also a declaration of dependence: “The Declaration of Independence asserts a double dependence: dependence on God and a dependence on law as derived from God.”

Sheen concludes that there must be an intermediary between the states of the world in order to attain a just international peace. This intermediary must have three qualities: it must have a fixed idea of justice; it must be an authority outside of the political nations; and it must be unarmed and responsible. He suggests that this intermediary be the Catholic Church — the only institution that can fulfill all these criteria.

A Declaration of Dependence is not only a treasure for the Church but is especially a gift for the Church in America. Sheen exhorts us to return to God before it is too late, before there are more and bigger wars.

 

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