William James: His Life and Thought
By Gerald E. Myers
Publisher: Yale University Press
A strong case can be made that William James is America’s greatest philosopher. Not only was James important in his own time, but he continues to exert influence today. The philosophical pragmatism which is currently being discussed so earnestly by American philosophers begins in James’s Pragmatism, and the debt is usually acknowledged. Not only is James great, but both he and his philosophy are peculiarly American. It is not hard to uncover the New England roots of the proposition that the test of truth is conduct.
Gerald Myers’s book on James is especially timely. With its thoroughness, analytical power, and exhaustive use of original sources to provide new evidence on James’s life and thought, it sets a new standard in the field of James studies.
The book began as an attempt to plumb James’s writings “for a historical perspective on contemporary arguments in philosophical psychology,” and only later became a full-scale treatment of both his life and thought. The origins show: fully half of the book amounts to a commentary on The Principles of Psychology. Myers’s treatment of religion, morality, and social thought also concentrates on psychological aspects; at times this gives the book an airless quality. The text also does not often explicitly address the many contemporary issues to which James is relevant, although the invaluable footnotes contain extensive references to such topics.
One is struck by the comprehensiveness of James’s thought. For James, psychological questions led to philosophical ones, but those philosophical questions, he thought, always bear the mark of empirical psychology. James’s belief that conduct is the test of truth resulted from his radical empiricism and a definite distaste for materialism. Nor was his pragmatism morally and religiously neutral. As Myers makes clear, James’s pragmatism completes his psychology, but that pragmatism culminates in religion and morality. He was rare among his colleagues at Harvard for his explicit belief in a divine thinker, and he firmly insisted that such belief is important to how one lives. James’s philosophy continues to differ on this point from most other versions of pragmatism.
The quality and importance of James’s moral and religious thought need remarking in this context. While morality and religion complete his pragmatism philosophically, James had no taste for system making. Rejecting Josiah Royce’s Absolute (his exact words were “Damn the Absolute!”), he insisted that we need a “man-like God of common people.” James also threw himself energetically into 19th-century social causes, some of which were unpopular. His ethics clearly implied such activism, but the activism in turn affected his ethics and religion. We see this, for example, in that James did not attempt to ground religion philosophically; rather he sought to discern how religion and belief widen our thought and moral sense.
Religious thinkers have not embraced philosophical pragmatism to any great extent. This is due, in good part, to the unsympathetic attitude toward religion of many pragmatists. Also, “pragmatism” has connotations that cause many religious thinkers of professed pure and high ideals to avoid anything that smacks of it. Closer study of James, however, reveals important religious aspects of pragmatism that have been ignored in professional philosophy. The religious perspective may have something to contribute which is currently being missed. Conversely, pragmatism may be important for religious thought, by showing how belief is coordinated with action and experience, and pointing out, as James contended, that the purpose of thought is to produce action, the fruit by which any idea is known.
Faith's Answer: The Mystery of Jesus
By Vittorio Messori
Publisher: Don Bosco Publications
Vittorio Messori, the Italian journalist whose recent interviews with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger took form as the famous Ratzinger Report, earlier set out to look at Jesus in an experimental way. The resulting book, first published in Italy in 1976 and now available in English, is not a smooth, academic exercise, but an intense, personal, even idiosyncratic investigation. It is essentially an exploration into the truth or falsity of Jesus, of the Gospels, of Christianity.
The bulk of Messori’s book concerns the historical reliability of the Gospels. He examines the arguments of critical scholarship which posit a Jesus who was a mere man whom others subsequently “deified.” He also discusses the mythological school that argues that Jesus is a concoction of minds steeped in myth. Messori spiritedly debunks both lines of argument, but what is particularly intriguing is how he reveals that each of these schools makes trenchant criticisms of the other, to some degree canceling each other out.
For Messori, as for any fair-minded reader, things such as the latter-of-fact tone of the Gospels and the extent to which their historical setting and details have seen supported by independent evidence point toward the reliability of the texts. Similarly, the unreconciled genealogies in Matthew and Luke, as well as the silence of the Gospels on burning issues in the early Church (like circumcision), indicate that the Church did not feel itself free to revise, much less invent, the events in the Gospels, even to make her own job of evangelization easier.
Messori has written a book that boldly and passionately presents the unique challenge that Jesus poses for all men, and that forcefully argues for the truth of Jesus as God Incarnate and of Christianity as the truth concerning God and man.
Newman's Vision of Faith: A Theology for Times of General Apostasy
By Louis Bouyer
Fame is a prize publicly scorned but secretly desired. It first came to the diffident John Henry Newman in the 1830s and 1840s for his key role in the Oxford Movement.
Fr. Louis Bouyer — like Newman a theologian, a convert to Catholicism, and a priest of the Oratory — examines Newman’s sermons from this period. Mixing his own observations with generous excerpts from Newman, he presents the great Cardinal’s relevance for today. For this we can only be grateful to Bouyer, and yet, and yet….
Ultimately, this book is a disappointment. Some of the problem lies in the sermons themselves. Newman titled this Oxford collection Plain and Parochial Sermons. Just so! We have here a kind of minor league Newman uttering splendid commonplaces. Newman the preacher holds forth far more eloquently in his later sermon collection Discourses to Mixed Congregations. Newman the thinker handles grander themes more insightfully in works like Apologia pro Vita Sua and The Idea of a University.
It is never easy to bring a book of sermons to life. In essays, thoughts (their connecting phrasing) are key. In preaching, the man is central. Bouyer multiplies this difficulty with his tendency to ramble. Bouyer the theologian seems to lack the journalist’s art of the arresting headline. His ideas don’t leap; they peep.
Add to this Bouyer’s irritating habit of peppering his book with panegyrics on Newman’s “astonishing capacity,” “penetrating analysis,” etc. — only to serve up as an example a completely unremarkable truism. Better to restrain his praise and let the reader come to his own conclusion.
This book will be of interest to the Newman specialist. However, the first-time reader of Newman, eager to come to grips with his undeniable greatness, will find little of importance here.
Censorship: Evidence of Bias in Our Children's Textbooks
By Paul C. Vitz
The little red schoolhouse of yesteryear, where Johnny and Susie read of Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, has been metamorphosed into an educational factory where students study books that exalt feminist heroines, denigrate the traditional family, ignore religion, and inculcate secularist values. The parents of today’s Johnnys and Susies find this distressing, but their protests bounce harmlessly off the stone wall of resistance erected by the education establishment. They can ill afford to send their children to a private school while simultaneously forking out tax dollars to support the public schools. “It is,” writes Paul Vitz, “a classic case of ‘taxation without representation.'”
Vitz’s Censorship meticulously documents the secular, anti-family bias of the books foisted upon youngsters in classes in social studies, history, and reading. “What should be done?” asks Vitz. Given the political clout and mulishness of the National Education Association, Vitz dismisses school reform as tantamount to spitting into the wind. He urges instead that tax support be extended to nonpublic schools, a solution that appears to work in such countries as England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Would it work here? It might be worth a try, for as Vitz observes, “the alternative…is for America’s school wars to escalate still further, to generate still more anger and animosity.”
Adam & Eve and the City
By Francine du Plessix Gray
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Francine du Plessix Gray has wearied of the intellectuals’ penchant for Marxism and Freudianism, “rationalization and secularization,” science-worship, and random sexual coupling — all those things once celebrated as components of the good society. Where does she look for a radical alternative? “Since childhood,” she confesses, “I have been mysteriously attracted by the Catholic Church….”
Adam & Eve and the City is not a conversion narrative or a profession of orthodox Catholicism; it is a collection of journalistic pieces on subjects as diverse as Klaus Barbie, Hawaii, the Berrigan brothers, and Coco Chanel. But behind the shrewd observations of a practiced journalist there lies the heart of a God-seeker who knows that man needs ritual and transcendence “if our psychic balance is to survive.”
In decrying the “sexual-industrial complex,” she advances the possibility that virginity and celibacy “could suddenly become the most radical values of all, and that “fidelity in marriage…might soon become very fashionable….” She even has a good word for nuns — not hip, with-it, New Nuns, but those who have maintained “rigid observance of ritual tradition.”
As Walker Percy would say, Francine Gray is onto something.
Southern Capitalists: The Ideological Leadership of An Elite, 1832-1885
By Laurence Shore
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Laurence Shore might better have entitled his book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Redivivus.” On second thought, that would be unfair to Mrs. Stowe, for not even she — the queen bee of abolitionism — evinced the unrelenting hostility toward Southern slaveholders that debouches from Shore’s pages. Nor did she accuse them — as Shore does — of being “planter-capitalists” motivated solely by the pecuniary itch. Shore argues that slave owners were nothing more than prewar robber barons with an ideology and rhetoric adapted to the South’s peculiar institution; with the abolition of slavery the dispossessed masters embraced industrial capitalism and clasped hands with their fellow exploiters north of the Mason-Dixon line. As an antidote to Shore’s brittle interpretation, one should consult the neo-Marxist historian Eugene Genovese — or read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Pat Robertson: A Personal, Political and Religious Portrait
By David Edwin Harrell Jr
Publisher: Harper & Row
Virginia’s grimmest humiliation did not occur on April 9, 1865, when General Lee surrendered the troops; it happened 122 years later, when one of its sons, Pat Robertson, merrily disclosed his intention to join the distinguished company of presidents that state had given the nation. Meteorologists didn’t mention it, but on the day of Robertson’s announcement, black clouds must have hovered over Mt. Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Ash Lawn.
David Harrell, a gifted historian and no Robertson enthusiast, bends over backwards to be fair to his subject; he bends so far, in fact, that he comes nigh to falling flat on his back. The Robertson who emerges from these pages is “persuasive,” “extremely bright,” “informed”; a man of “gifted intellect and broad education”; a canny businessman who exudes “sincerity and honesty.” He is, by Harrell’s reckoning, a serious aspirant to the nation’s highest office.
Harrell notes that “a healthy and hungry ego is Pat Robertson’s strongest asset and his most dangerous threat.” It is a mystery how a “hungry ego” could be an “asset” to one who professes to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The “dangerous threat” is palpable; one need only weigh Robertson’s words when he announced his candidacy: “I have walked with the Lord for more than 25 years. I know His voice. I know this is His direction. I know this is His will for my life.” That is why his bid for office gave some people (not all of whom are secular humanists) the creeps. Humility, Pat: read your New Testament. If Robertson still nurtures presidential aspirations, one has this to suggest: he should take the next plane to Calcutta and spend at least a year working with Mother Teresa and bathing the ravaged flesh of lepers. After that, if he still wants to run for president — well, we can talk about it.
The Flight from Woman
By Karl Stern
Publisher: Paragon House
We are wedged between a rock and a hard place. On the one side is feminism, smashing and pulverizing with an implacable urge to reduce male and female to incidental cultural categories; on the other, a male intransigence vowed to “keep ’em in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.”
Karl Stern, a German-Jewish psychiatrist who converted to Catholicism, published The Flight from Woman in 1965; had feminists and antifeminists alike pondered his words we might have avoided — or at least palliated — today’s sexual debacle. With a sagacity and percipience drawn from Catholicism, Freudianism, and philosophical erudition, Stern touched the quick of sexual confusion. There are few villains in his elucidation of Western deterioration since Descartes, mainly bewildered victims. In modern man’s apotheosis of science, technology, analytic reason, and rationalism he has denigrated the female principle of poetic, intuitive knowledge. Power over love, manipulation over creation, empiricism over faith, exploitation over conservation, action over contemplation, objectivity over subjectivity: all these flow from the Cartesian derailment and man’s “flight from woman.” Maleness and femaleness are rooted in man’s being; each needs the other, each is equal to the other. (“Whatever one’s definition of ‘male’ and ‘female’ may be, nothing justifies an inequality of rights.”) Rationalistic feminism, unwitting descendant of Descartes, conflates equality with sameness and violates “an immanent principle of order.”
Inflamed with the arrogance of science and rationalism, modern man hurls himself upon the world, heedless of the destruction he wreaks. “The march of conquest is actually a flight in perpetuity, and the only resting place, the haven of delivery, is the Eternal Feminine.” Without a restoration of essential being — without a recovery of the female principle — modern man will remain a “haunted fugitive” in a world he has objectified and mastered, but failed to comprehend at the deepest level of being.
Toward a Perfect Love
By Walter Hilton
Walter Hilton, an English Augustinian canon of the 14th century, has not enjoyed the fame of such mystics as Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, or St. John of the Cross. Hilton’s Letters to a Layman and The Scale of Perfection — both reprinted in this volume — challenge one to the awesome task of reforming the image of God in a soul marred by sin. Out of the English language of his day Hilton forged striking metaphors and homely images of hearth and field, figures of speech that rooted his spiritual counsel in the quotidian world of his contemporaries. To quote one of his most felicitous phrasings: “No meat flies dare to rest upon the edge of a pot once it is boiling over the fire. Neither may any carnal appetite light upon the pure soul that is covered and heated in the fire of love, boiling and bubbling up psalms and praises to Jesus.”
One cannot resist a mischievous question: What’s a nice evangelical publishing house doing in a place like this — the Middle Ages? Could it be that Protestants are rediscovering a heritage that many Catholics have discarded? Whatever its motives, Multnomah Press is engaged in an ecumenical endeavor far more profound that the vaporous “dialoging” that beguiles so many Protestants and Catholics of dubious belief and wobbly faith.
Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times
By Carol Zaleski
Publisher: Oxford University Press
By now everyone has heard accounts of people who have “died” and returned to tell of the spirit’s separation from the bodily husk, its journey through a murky tunnel, and its emergence into a realm of ineffable effulgence. Fundamentalists tend, as Carol Zaleski points out in her perspicacious study, to damn the Near-Death Experience (NDE) as a “satanic trick.” At the other extreme, aficionados hail it as harbinger of a “New Age,” an Aquarian era that will witness the transformation of human consciousness. Despite our society’s preoccupation with the here-and-now, the old longing will not down: man wants to know what awaits him in the “undiscover’d country” beyond the grave.
“To discover death,” wrote Miguel de Unamuno, “is to discover the hunger of immortality.” Premodern Western man satisfied that hunger, in part, with the Christian doctrine of purgatory, an idea whose rise and full emergence is deftly traced by the French historian Jacques Le Goff in The Birth of Purgatory (published in English in 1984 and now available in paperback). The purging fires that Le Goff graphically describes hold no appeal for modern man; not even Catholics talk much about purgatory anymore. Zaleski demonstrates that the NDE has expelled all the bad elements of death associated with purgatory, not to mention hell. “By comparison,” she argues, “the modern other world is a congenial place, a democracy, a school for continuing education, a garden of unearthly delights.” But Le Goff, for one, defends the imaginative power, the hope, the justice, the reasonableness, the “measure in every sense of the word” embodied in the concept of purgatory. Whatever his own religious convictions may be, he upholds a doctrine many Catholics seem eager to relinquish.
NDE accounts do not prove the existence of life after death. Mainly they reveal modern man’s banality and paucity of imagination in filling Unamuno’s “hunger.”
The Birth of Purgatory
By Jacques Le Goff
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Select 8,000 11th-graders, test them on the basics of history and literature, and what do you get? Answer: a pit of ignorance that makes the Grand Canyon resemble a gopher-hole by comparison.
Although Americans are a cheerful and optimistic people, they love to be alarmed, especially when Cassandra scatters graphs, charts, and shocking statistics in her path. Crises are sexy and fun; Dan Rather and company give us a new one every day at 6 P.M. The latest titillation is the crisis in education; witness the box-office smash of Allan Bloom’s book. Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn contribute their own brand of lubricity to the subject; one picks up their book expecting it to fall open to the dirty parts.
At the risk of being castigated as a defender of ignorance, one might offer a few caveats about all this tocsin-sounding. There are worse things than ignorance. One suspects, for example, that the denizens of Wall Street, Madison Avenue, the halls of Congress, and think-tank cubbyholes received a fair amount of learning at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other cathedrals of knowledge. And didn’t David Halberstam’s “best and brightest” favor us with a nasty war in Southeast Asia? It is well to remember, too, that you can lead ol’ Dobbin to the trough, but you can’t force him to drink if he is not thirsty: in other words, teenagers will be teenagers.
On a deeper level, one discerns among the educational reformers the hoary American conviction that more and better education will heal many of our ailments. Inject enough culture and learning into the nation’s bloodstream, and we can move closer toward a society of enlightened well-being. To believe that is to be truly ignorant.
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