Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1993

September 1993

Time and Eternity

By Brian Leftow

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Pages: 377

Price: $42.95

Review Author: Linda Zagzebski

This book is the most ad­vanced treatment of eternity to date. Brian Leftow critically ex­amines a wide range of mate­rial, from Augustine to con­temporary discussions. Leftow then presents and defends a new account of a timeless God and his relations to a temporal creation. He argues that his picture of divine timelessness has a number of advantages. It resolves the dilemma of divine foreknowledge and human free will in a way that related views cannot, and it can be de­fended against major contem­porary attacks on timelessness, including the objections that a timeless God is not a person or cannot be the object of human experience. The relations be­tween timelessness and the at­tributes of omniscience and simplicity are given special at­tention.

Leftow is in the Anselmian tradition of a high metaphysi­cal view of the deity. On Leftow’s account God is the absolute source of everything that is not God, including time itself. Since God creates time, both God and his act of crea­tion must exist outside of time. This means, Leftow argues, that the product of creation exists in eternity simultaneous­ly with God’s creative act. All temporal beings, then, exist in eternity along with God. The temporality of temporal beings is real, but, following Augus­tine, Leftow argues that temporal beings are lower in reality than timeless beings, having an existence that is dreamlike in contrast with the reality of God. In eternity, all at once, God knows all that He ever knows, and wills all that He ever wills. This means that He knows events that to us have not yet happened and wills responses to prayers that have not yet been prayed. But in spite of His timelessness, God is actually closer to spatio­temporal creatures than any spatial or temporal creature can be.

The alleged incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and human free will is one of the most long-lived theological problems. In his attempt to re­solve the dilemma, Leftow ar­gues that the Boethian view of timelessness, along with its contemporary version ex­pounded by Stump and Kretzmann, is insufficient in that it is committed to the po­sition that in some temporal reference frame the existence of an eternal God’s knowledge is simultaneous with the exist­ence of temporal things. Lef­tow argues that this implica­tion ruins the Boethian solu­tion to the foreknowledge dilemma, but that the solution can be rescued by the Ansel­mian view that God and temporal things exist simulta­neously in eternity (which allows for the causal connec­tion between God and temporal objects), but not in time.

Leftow then proposes two ways a timeless and simple God could know the free actions of created agents without causally depending on their ac­tions for His knowledge. The first way is quasi-Molinist. God has a full intuitive knowledge of each agent’s nature, and this knowledge permits God to know the agent’s free choice to do A in circumstance C. In the second scenario God does not know what free agents would do. Still, a perfect knowledge of a free agent’s nature may permit God to “predict” just what a free agent will freely choose to do.

Time and Eternity will ap­peal most to philosophers and theologians who are looking for the latest work on time and timelessness, and who appreci­ate the metaphysical complex­ity involved. Those who are inclined to the view that God is temporal will find much to challenge their position, and those who are inclined to the view that God is timeless will find much to illuminate the concept of timelessness — a concept that too often in the history of Christian philosophy has been explicated almost solely by way of metaphor.

Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth

By John Finnis

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 113

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Gerard V. Bradley

One of this year’s movie megahits casts Robert Redford as a buyer of female attention. A million bucks, he says, for a night with the beauteous Demi Moore, who is married, faith­fully and happily, to Woody Harrelson. Redford knows it. He offers the money to them for a night with her.

Receipts for what the pro­ducers had the decency to call Indecent Proposal approach $100 million. The couple’s earnest deliberations evidently engage. The moviegoer, I suppose, wonders with Demi and Woody: Are there some things that, no matter what, it is never right to do? Are there, in other words, absolute moral prohibi­tions? Is adultery one of them?

In this formidable volume, Oxford philosopher John Finnis cogently defends the common answer (for millennia, until just a few decades ago) of Jews and Christians: There are moral absolutes. Adultery is among them. It may never be rightly chosen.

Finnis explicates and justi­fies his claim that the moral absolutes are foundational to Christian life in Chapter 1. “Clarifications” (Chapter 2) contains the most strictly phil­osophical work in the book, being a very compressed account of some of the main features of the moral theory he has work­ed out with Germain Grisez and others over the last 20 or so years. This project is in my view the most important philo­sophical achievement of our time.

Perhaps the central feature of Chapter 3 is the Pauline in­junction not to do evil that good may come out of it. It is better, therefore, to suffer wrong than to do it. Chapter 4 is an extended defense of the norm that every marital act ought to be open to new life. This of course is the teaching of Humanae Vitae: Contracep­tion may never be rightly chos­en. Finnis argues that whatev­er else is wrong with the choice to contracept, it neces­sarily proceeds from and in turn shapes a contralife will.

Contraception is therefore not necessarily a sexual sin, though commonly it is. Note well: Finnis’s defense is controversial even among Catholic moralists who accept the Church’s teach­ing. Neoscholastic defenders of the teaching, including Janet Smith in a recent book, have sharply challenged the “contralife” defense of Humanae Vitae.

In any event, Finnis is surely right that the “formal attack on the moral absolutes emerges, among Catholics, in response to the problem of contraception.” The alternative moral calculus most often proposed by dissenters is some kind of proportionalism, which characteristically holds that the right action is the one likely to produce a better state of affairs — the highest net benefit — of premoral goods. Most propor­tionalists agree that, say, adul­tery is wrong. But not always. Suppose that Demi and Woody have a handicapped infant who needs an expensive opera­tion, or wish to fund research into the causes of marital breakup.

Finnis devotes considerable space to refuting proportionalism. There can be no doubt after reading Moral Absolutes that proportionalism is not on­ly heterodox but senseless.

It is interesting to note that there is no necessary con­nection between the Grisez-­Finnis moral theory and con­servative Republican positions. Grisez and Finnis have une­quivocally condemned our counterpopulation nuclear de­terrence strategy, and are quite “liberal” when it comes to re­distributive economic pro­grams.

The natural law theory articulated by Grisez and Finnis can stand apart from Christian faith. So by anyone’s reckoning this theory is fit to inhabit the public square. The important point is that, at a time when more and more people (Justice Stevens, Bill Clinton, Ronald Dworkin among them) want to equate objective moral norms with re­ligion, so as to keep them out of the public square via constitutional restrictions or dem­ocratic theory, the most rigorous account of moral analysis extant stands athwart them.

The Mystery We Proclaim: Catechesis at the Third Millen­nium

By Francis D. Kelly

Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor Books

Pages: 134

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Justin Gullekson

Msgr. Kelly’s long career in catechetical ministry pro­vides an interesting backdrop for this short treatise. A re­spected member of the Catho­lic religious education estab­lishment, he veers sharply away from much of what that establishment has pushed for the past three decades.

The standard way of doing catechesis in America, as is evident in what comes from publishers such as BrownROA, Benziger, Sadlier, and Silver Burdett & Ginn, is experiential and subjective. Kelly outlines an entirely different approach, one that begins, not with experience, but with the Word as found in Scripture and the Church’s living Tradition as enunciated by her Magisteri­um. Like the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Kelly praises, his pedagogy relies upon God’s reaching out to humanity, rather than humani­ty’s haphazard efforts to grope toward God.

Kelly draws upon his experience as a consultor to the Redaction Committee for the Catechism, utilizing the very same structure it does in pre­senting the Catholic faith. He contends that this structure can easily be adapted for specific age groups, and he hopes that catechetical publishing houses will be greatly influenced by the new Catechism. Kelly even provides a method of evalua­tion: No later than the eighth grade, a student should be able to explain intelligently the articles of the Creed.

There are sentences scat­tered throughout The Mystery We Proclaim that encapsulate Kelly’s position:

– “Until Catholic catechesis has recovered its true purpose, it will continue to wander from one methodological fad to an­other and leave behind yet more religious illiteracy.”

– “It is not our role as catechists to pick and choose which doctrines, which moral teachings we will share.”

– “We need to be convinc­ed of the importance of solidly and systematically presenting the full scriptural, doctrinal, and historical content of our faith tradition.”

The only problem with this book is that it is too short and sketchy.

All God's Mistakes: Genetic Counseling in a Pediatric Hos­pital

By Charles L. Bosk

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Pages: 195

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Richard J. Lanham

This is a confusing book. It is an account of the work of physicians who are genetic counselors in an (unidentified) hospital from 1976 to 1978 and in 1980, by an ethnographer, “a describer of human cul­tures.”

The confusion begins with why the author waited so long to publish. He gives no reason, but while the manuscript lay in a drawer for 13 years, the field of genetic counseling changed a good deal.

A genetic counselor calcu­lates the chance of a couple’s having a genetically abnormal baby from their history, or diagnoses such an aberration in a fetus or a newborn. On the basis of this opinion, pregnancy is avoided, an abor­tion is performed, a neonate is treated or allowed to perish, or he is institutionalized or taken home. At times what is diagnosed is not a genetic abnormality but the sex of the fetus.

Since Bosk’s observations, much social and legal contro­versy has arisen over this activ­ity, new tools of genetic analy­sis have been invented, even the professions of the person­nel involved have changed. Bosk’s book is not current.

Nor is it focused. The study’s goals are mixed and unrelated (to describe the counselors and the manage­ment of clinical authority in a hospitab~ The audience is un­certain. Breezy prose and per­sonal emotions ruin it for pro­fessionals; jargon and appurte­nances of science (e.g., exces­sive footnoting) destroy it for the lay reader.

And it is poorly written. Terms are not defined. Ex­traneous material is stuffed into the text, reminiscent of an undergraduate’s paper trying to bloat itself into respectabili­ty. However, if all this is dis­regarded, Bosk does effectively describe — for anyone inter­ested — the everyday frailties of physicians at work, and parents and doctors conferring as to whether children are to live or die.

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