Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1988

September 1988

William James: His Life and Thought

By Gerald E. Myers

Publisher: Yale University Press

Pages: 628

Price: $34.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 299

Price: $12.95

Review Author:

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

Publisher: Ig­natius

Pages: 210

Price: $5.95

Review Author:

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

Publisher: Servant

Pages: 142

Price: $6.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 396

Price: $19.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 282

Price: $25.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 246

Price: $15.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 310

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

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

Publisher: Multnomah

Pages: 182

Price: $10.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 275

Price: $18.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 430

Price: $13.95

Review Author:

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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