Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1987

September 1987

Simone Weil & the Suffering of Love

By Eric O. Springsted

Publisher: Cowley

Pages: 140

Price: $8.95

Review Author: James G. Hanink

Simone Weil requires interpretation, and Springsted offers us a masterful analysis of her thought.

Against the ruling doctrine of self-love, she preached an astringent disregard for personality. In her challenge to the Zeitgeist, there were plainly elements of distortion. One thinks especially of her death, hastened by her refusal to eat more than that rationed to those under Nazi occupation. But Springsted, while recognizing Weil’s imbalances, scorns psychological reductionism.

At the heart of Weil’s vision he finds a finely developed theology of the Cross. In outline it is this: Christ redeems us not through power but through suffering. But Christ’s suffering, the essence of which was his sense of being abandoned, must be seen in light of the Incarnation and of Creation. In the Incarnation Christ yields his place with the Father, an emptying of self that foreshadows the Cross. In Creation the Father makes room, as it were, for autonomous creatures – withdrawing to leave a place for others to be. There is a single testimony here: love shows itself not through self-aggrandizement but through a radical shift away from self and to the other.

Can we accept such a truth? This question leads to major themes in Weil’s social theory and her response to secularity. In a rooted society the clamor of self is not so strong; in modernity it almost deafens us. How can we hear the teaching of the Cross? We hear it if we attend to the nature of work, for there we must turn to the objects of labor and away from self. We hear it, too, if we consider the dynamics of science and art, for both scientist and artist transcend the limits of self. Most especially, we hear the message of the Cross if we take up the search for the common good, since this transcends the limited good of self. Here, too, we find a way of correcting Weil’s distortions. The common good, after all, includes both the good of neighbor and the good of self. And the Christian transposition of this? The seed must be buried in the ground – but this in order to bear fruit.

French Fascism: The First Wave, 1924-1933

By Robert Soucy

Publisher: Yale University Press

Pages: 276

Price: $25

Review Author: Lee Congdon

In a recent interview, a Hollywood producer bemoaned the fact that several newspapers had refused to accept advertisements for his latest film, the title of which was in dubious taste. After all, he complained, “we’re not a country of fascists.” I am not certain Robert Soucy would agree, for whether by design or not, he has identified “fascism” with political and social positions taken by American conservatives. He has done so in a determined effort to refute those scholars who have argued that fascism was a movement of the Left. Dusting off the old and discredited Marxist view, he maintains that fascism was but a “hysterical” version of conservatism, which is always the self-serving ideology of capitalists who feel threatened by the proletariat.

Soucy recounts the rise and fall of three short-lived organizations: the Légion, the Jeunesses Patriotes, and the Faisceau. In addition, he takes a close look at Faisceau leader Georges Valois, a Catholic convert who began his career as a revolutionary syndicalist, later joined the Resistance, and perished at Bergen-Belsen. He portrays this man and similar villains as Reaganites avant la lettre who defended capitalism, abhorred pacifism, ignored feminism, condemned hedonism, campaigned against inflationary policies, and maintained traditionalist views on education and the family. Worse, they opposed the advance of communism at home and abroad. Some went so far as to enter the Church. Truly, if this be fascism, the Hollywood producer deceives himself.

I do not think it necessary to marshal evidence against Soucy’s thesis; he has provided it himself in his well-researched book. But I am bound to add that he set for himself a difficult task; fascism is notoriously contradictory and elusive. The best we can do, Gilbert Allardyce once wrote, is to say “what fascism is not.” Very well then; it is not embattled capitalism. If anything, fascists were anti-capitalist because they despised the corrupting power of money and the individualistic logic of competition. Far from being exponents of the free market, they were often syndicalists of one sort or another.

Indeed, many fascists, as Soucy points out, were quondam communists who simply carried on the principal struggle – against liberal democracy – in shirts of a different color. On behalf of the “fascist” Cercle Proudhon, Valois and his comrades issued this declaration: “Democracy is the greatest error of the past century…. If we wish to conserve and to extend the moral, intellectual, and material capital of civilization, we must without fail destroy democratic institutions.” Here was the crux of the matter and that is why Soucy is partially right, though for the wrong reasons; fascism did appeal to conservatives who hated democracy and the moral decadence that seemed so often to accompany it. That is why Georges Sorel, who admired Lenin and Mussolini, looms so large in the history of fascism.

It was Sorel, the political alchemist, who recognized the explosive potential that a mixture of nationalism and socialism possessed; Sorel, the historical pessimist, who rejected the “illusions of progress” and counseled violent action to make a new world; and Sorel, the antidemocratic moraliste, who agonized over liberal Europe’s moral crisis and resolved to do something about it. As Jack Roth has pointed out, Sorel “saw religion lose ground daily as a moral force and worried lest there be nothing to replace it. The morale of democracy was no morality at all.” In place of Christianity, therefore, he proclaimed a revolutionary “myth” that was to serve as a new basis for morality. Following Sorel, fascists sought nothing less than a substitute religion that would make possible Europe’s moral regeneration.

This was the essence of fascism and this is why Valois and other Catholics were not fascists in the strict sense. Just so, Mussolini and Hitler, their personal nihilism notwithstanding, were fascists because they attempted to make of Fascism and National Socialism mass religions, complete with martyrs and public rituals. As much, then, as conservative Christians may admire certain varieties of antidemocratic thought – Henry Adams’s work, for example – they can never embrace fascism and remain faithful to Christianity. The conservative Christian T.S. Eliot, who admitted that he preferred fascism to communism, recognized this when he observed that “the fundamental objection to fascist doctrine, the one which we conceal from ourselves because it might condemn ourselves as well, is that it is pagan.”

The Compact History of the Catholic Church

By Alan Schreck

Publisher: Servant

Pages: 189

Price: $4.95

Review Author: C.H. Ross

Any one-volume history of a 2,000-year-old institution is bound to leave a lot out. In this book the problem is aggravated, for the text is only 153 pages long. The career of St. Augustine is described in five sentences. In one section, five centuries flash by in nine pages. Medieval art? “Gothic cathedrals soared to the heavens, and artists produced great works.” That is real condensation! Anything more compact would be the literary equivalent of a black hole.

Books of this type by orthodox writers are needed, and Schreck’s orthodoxy is unimpeachable. The anti-Roman animus of many recent “Catholic” books is refreshingly absent here.

Aside from over-condensation, this book suffers from other defects. One is factual error. Schreck, a theologian, appears to have limited knowledge of the general history of the world. One glaring example: he needs to bone up on Napoleon, who did not “take over the throne of France in 1796” and who did not “crown himself Holy Roman Emperor in 1804” (or at any other time). There is shakiness in the religious sphere as well. Constantine’s vision of the cross is presented as though it were undisputed fact. And it is not true, as Schreck implies, that theological differences between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy concern only the filioque.

These and other errors are relatively minor. But a book like this fails completely unless it whets the reader’s interest and points him toward resources for further study. Incredibly, there is no bibliography. As for the footnotes, they cite only nine works, some of them undistinguished.

Schreck’s history could have been a much more useful work. As it is, an important need remains unfulfilled.

Unsecular America

By Richard John Neuhaus

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 160

Price: $8.95

Review Author: William P. Anderson Jr

This outstanding volume, the second in Eerdmans’ Encounter Series, comes from a conference sponsored by the Rockford Institute on Religion and Society in New York City in 1985. It addresses the extent of secularity in American society and features essays by Paul Johnson, Everett Carll Ladd Jr., George M. Marsden, and Richard John Neuhaus.

Ladd’s essay forms the centerpiece of the book. He concludes that modernity does not necessarily undermine religious practice. Using valuable survey data included in the book’s appendix, he contends that American society is both strongly religious and intensely secular. This duality is not contradictory: the two forces are in harmony. The public sphere is comfortably secular, while the personal dimension continues to be religious. Conflict between the two occurs on the extremes of each.

Johnson argues that the political culture of America has always been strongly religious. He adduces two reasons for this. One, religion and democracy reinforce one another, and religious and political institutions have not been perceived to be in conflict, as they are in Europe. Second, religious pluralism has been accepted and even encouraged throughout the nation’s history. Common morals, not diverse allegiances, matter most.

The last two essays mesh nicely. Continuing his argument from The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus contends that religious values should play a vital role in American life by recasting the nation’s public philosophy. Marsden counters that the naked public square may be good for America, not bad. It protects the nation from untrue religions by forcing religious groups to couch their agendas in terms appealing to those not of their faith. Constantinianism distorts the presence of the Kingdom and risks the capture of the public square by a false Christianity.

This lively and provocative book closes with a special bonus. The authors participate in a sprightly panel discussion with people such as Peter Berger, Michael Novak, Dean Kelley, Brian Benestad, and Theodore Caplow. This section is the most stimulating part of this fine book, for confronted by a group of diverse participants, the authors defend and refine their views.

The Fire of God

By John Michael Talbot

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 158

Price: $7.95

Review Author:

In the modern, complacent West, talk of the “fire of God” seems rather out of place. Oh yes, we know the fire of sin all too well – be it materialism, lust, or the other all-consuming passions discussed by former rock musician John Michael Talbot – but we are embarrassed by anything like passion for God.

Now a charismatic Catholic, Franciscan monk, and world-renowned troubadour/balladeer, Talbot is mercifully uninhibited about his faith. With an unashamed Franciscan radicalism, he invites us to place ourselves in God’s flame, and “let Him burn away all the wood and the hay and the stubble” in our lives. While some Christians are “on fire” for sexual purity but lukewarm about social justice, and others are “white-hot” for disarmament and aid to the poor but tepid about abortion and sexual ethics, Talbot’s fire burns on all fronts.

He tells how the fires of lust quench the fires of the Spirit, and what he says about sex will surely warm the heart of Cardinal Ratzinger. And, with equal fervor, he scores the selfish consumerism of the West, and chides those “born-again” Christians who serve as cheerleaders for a U.S. government that “deprives the poor in order to build the machinery of war.” He even makes bold to say that perhaps we need a “Christian socialism.”

But Talbot encounters the reader armed, not with political blueprints but with the power of the Holy Spirit. He calls for a “gentle revolution,” a spiritual revolution which is “built from the inside out.” If we are on fire with the Spirit, we will want to spread that fire “to every dry branch, leaf, or twig” we meet up with. Talbot calls us to be evangelists, in word and deed both. He even offers some practical advice to Catholics, who are woefully unfamiliar with vocal evangelism, on how to go about it.

This is a book for Christians of all affiliations, especially those whose faith has been reduced to a flicker of late. Here is a book that will get the fires burning again.

Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy

By Judith C. Brown

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 214

Price: $14.95

Review Author:

One winces at the title: “lesbian nun” and “immodest acts” do not bode well. They evoke thoughts of autobiographical titillations from a freshly liberated sister bent on cashing in on society’s appetite for kinky sex. In such matters it is generally best to assume the worst. But Judith Brown treats one to a pleasant surprise.

Immodest Acts has less to do with lesbianism than with the transporting ecstasies of an overly excitable nun in a convent near 17th-century Florence. After a brief introduction in which Brown illuminates the question of lesbianism in Western culture, she recounts the case of Benedetta Carlini; lesbianism does not crop up again until near the end of the book. The author handles Sr. Benedetta’s sexual transgressions with scholarly exactitude and graceful analysis. She has no ideological axes to grind, nor, mirabile dictu, does she use the case to flail the Church.

The clerics who investigated Sr. Benedetta’s claims treated her sexual offenses as a peripheral issue; the real problem lay in the potential for mischief posed by visionaries who skirt the Church and plunge headlong toward the divine. How to separate the legitimate mystic from the spurious? That is the question the Church always confronts, today as surely as in 17th-century Italy. The quest for mystic union with God offers ineffable exaltation; it also lends itself to soul-ravaging delusion. Small wonder that Sr. Benedetta’s examiners appraised her claims meticulously before concluding that she had been beguiled by the Master Dissembler.

As for the existence of sexual flagitiousness in a place dedicated to prayer and holiness, one should recall the words of the wise old counselor in Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest: “You wait for the Judgement Day and see what the angels’ll be sweeping out of even the most saintly monasteries. Some filth!”

The Glittering Illusion: English Sympathy for the Southern Confederacy

By Sheldon Vanauken

Publisher: The Southron Press

Pages: 182

Price: $14.45

Review Author:

The subject of this book lies outside the concerns of NOR; the author does not. As readers of this magazine realize, anything by Sheldon Vanauken is worth reading. Vanauken is known primarily as a convert who has brought to the Catholic Church a sagacious mind and an elegant pen. What many may not know is that he is a Virginian, steeped in the traditions and ethos of the Old Dominion: devotion to family, love of the land, respect for the past, and what Flannery O’Connor called an “inburnt knowledge” of a great war and a devastating defeat. O’Connor also remarked that “the writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.” For Sheldon Vanauken, Virginia and England (past and present) and the Church form his “peculiar crossroads”; his vision is shaped by that intersection.

Drawing upon his extensive research in the pamphlet collection of the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, he adduces the thoroughly pro-Southern nature of British opinion and traces the formation of “the glittering illusion,” the English conviction that the Confederacy would win without British aid. His conclusions – and viewpoint – clash with the received wisdom among historians. No matter: if more historians wrote with the grace and percipience of Vanauken, Clio could hold her head higher among her fellow muses.

Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World

By Alexander Bloom

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 461

Price: $24.95

Review Author:

Fifty years ago most “New York Intellectuals” subscribed to one or another variety of socialism; today a fair number occupy the highest echelons of neoconservatism. The whys and hows of this transformation form the substance of Alexander Bloom’s Prodigal Sons.

Lionel Trilling, the subject of Mark Krupnick’s book, may have been the quintessential New York Intellectual. Urbane, erudite, and always the gentleman, Trilling set the standard for the “cultural critic” – the intellectual who “explains America to its people.” After a turn with Karl Marx in the 1930s, he took up with Freud, not the crudely reductionist Freud of psychologizing pedants, but the subtle poet of the psyche who explored the shadowy caverns of the unconscious. Until his death in 1975 Trilling served, in Krupnick’s words, “as exponent of traditional humanism.” He was appealing in that role – and how one misses him today amidst the rancorous din of vulgar ideologues!

Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism

By Mark Krupnick

Publisher: Northwestern University Press

Pages: 207

Price: $10.95

Review Author:

Not surprisingly, Michael Novak gets the fundamental question about liberation theology wrong. It is not, “Will it liberate?” but “Is it Christian, is it Catholic?” Since Novak is a dissenter from Humanae Vitae and a critic of Catholic social teaching, whether emanating from the U.S. bishops or the popes, it is understandable that he might be relatively uncomfortable with that latter question.

Novak states in this book that “the most necessary and fruitful arguments” between liberation theologians and himself “now concern economic, rather than theological disagreements.” It is comprehensible that Novak, a born-again apologist for “liberating” North American capitalism and something of an unofficial Catholic lapdog of Wall Street, would see things that way. A theologically focused orthodox Catholic would see things differently.

Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology

By Michael Novak

Publisher: Paulist

Pages: 311

Price: $14.95

Review Author:

Roy Train, the spiritual hero of this novel, bears more than a passing resemblance to the late Episcopalian bishop, James A. Pike. Train sees himself (as did Bishop Pike) as a prophet called to modernize antiquated belief and practice: obsolete notions such as the Trinity and the Virgin Birth must be junked; the church must hoist the banners of civil rights and feminism; women must be ordained, Christ humanized, and stuffy congregations thrown open to the invigorating airs of the Zeitgeist. Replicating Pike’s course, Roy Train provokes cries of heresy from his fellow bishops. Pike died in the Israeli desert in 1969 while accompanying his second (and ludicrously younger) wife in search of biblical antiquities. Roy Train meets the same fate under similar circumstances (save for his choosing the Egyptian desert).

Many churchmen dismissed Bp. Pike as a loopy eccentric; Roy Train enjoys a similar distinction at the time of his death. Among many Episcopalians, however, yesterday’s loopiness is today’s routine wisdom. As the Church’s Presiding Bishop says several years after Train’s death: “Well, you know, when all’s said and done, if we hadn’t had a Roy Train we’d have had to invent one.” John Leggett, a skilled and veteran novelist, invented Roy Train; James Pike cavorted among Episcopalians in the flesh. Although Leggett did not intend to (Train, after all, is the novel’s hero), he charts the descent of a large portion of the Episcopal Church into nuttiness. Neither Train nor Pike would evoke much more than a raised eyebrow (if that) today.

Making Believe

By John Leggett

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Pages: 295

Price: $16.95

Review Author:

Philosopher Josef Pieper here offers us an elegant analysis of the virtue of hope – the hope for one’s redemption and fulfillment in God. The opposites of hope are despair and presumption, “two things that kill the soul,” says St. Augustine.

For Pieper, a youthful spirit is a sign of a buoyant hope. Against all despair, especially that which comes with the withering of our natural youth, Pieper says: “The youthfulness of the individual who longs for eternal life is fundamentally imperishable…. There are no other words in Holy Scripture or in human speech…that let resound as triumphantly the youthfulness of one who remains firm in hope against all destruction and through a veil of tears as do those of the patient Job: ‘Although he [God] should slay me, I will trust in him.

Presumption, on the other hand, is the absolute certainty of one’s redemption. It denies the “pilgrim character” of our existence, and corrupts the “not yet” of hope into an “already.” Presumption grows out of an inordinate desire for security – as well as “a lack of humility, a denial of one’s actual creatureliness, and an unnatural claim to being like God.” Interestingly, it is “a sin in the real and strict sense.”

Presumption relaxes the “arduousness” involved in the lifelong process of being saved. It results in overconfidence, forgetting “the ever-present possibility of voluntary defection” from the faith, which is “inevitably present even in the lives of the saints.” It forgets that we do not judge ourselves, but are judged by God. It forgets that the uncertainty of our existence “cannot be totally removed,” but “can be ‘overcome’ – by hope, and only by hope.”

Presumption is literally presumptuous, thereby inviting us to pride and arrogance. So, beware of those cars bearing bumper strips proclaiming, “I FOUND IT.” The more Christian expression would perhaps be, “I hope I found it” or “I am finding it.” Not so catchy, of course, but even St. Paul (ironically, a favorite of the “I FOUND IT” crowd) proclaimed, “Brethren, I do not consider that I have laid hold of it [the goal] already” (Phil. 3: 13).

On Hope

By Josef Pieper

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 99

Price: $6.95

Review Author:

Martin Marty’s cast of characters could shiver the faith of even the staunchest of believers; between 1893 and 1919 Americans managed to pervert, distort, and travesty Christianity in ways that would compel the angels to weep. They seized upon the faith as an invitation to experiment in freakishness; seeking to exalt the Gospel, they warped it into something suited to a music-hall comedy or a vaudeville farce.

Blustering evangelists; crabbed biblical literalists; overwrought premillennialists; modernists “in love with the Zeitgeist of banality”; racists, imperialists, and eulogizers of war who hammered Christianity into a weapon; Social Gospelers who diluted the faith into social work; prophets of mind-cure who swapped the Beatific Vision for earthly balm; insecure Catholics who locked their minds (and threw away the key); de-Christianized intellectuals who elevated philosophy into (to borrow T.E. Hulme’s slap at the Romantics) “spilt religion”: Edifying? No. Colorful? Yes. Christian? Problematical.

Marty has a strong stomach for this sort of thing, and he surveys the scene with a seriousness and equanimity that can only be termed heroic. The ultimate “irony” – one he does not pursue – is that Americans of the era congratulated themselves as citizens of the first truly “Christian” nation in the history of mankind. When Marty completes his four-volume history of American religion in the 20th century, it will stand as a monument of scholarship, sculpted by our foremost historian of this nation’s religion. It will also, one fears, chronicle definitively the harebrained eccentricities that Americans of our century have confused with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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