Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1999

September 1999

Thomas Aquinas: Theologian

By Thomas F. O'Meara, O.P

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 302

Price: $16.95

Review Author: David Arias Jr.

O’Meara’s stated purpose is twofold: to present the thought of a genius and to do so in “a somewhat vivid, contemporary exposition.” Immediately after stating this purpose, O’Meara says, “I must ask in advance the reader’s indulgence because in both directions I have had meager success.” I wholeheartedly concur.

Before getting to why I think O’Meara had meager success, let’s look at how he attempts to accomplish his goals. His work is divided into five sections. The first three are dedicated to St. Thomas’s life and historical setting, patterns in the Summa Theologica, and a presentation of St. Thomas’s theological worldview. Particularly interesting is O’Meara’s exposition concerning the macro- and micro-structures of the Summa. O’Meara points out that St. Thomas is more concerned with Catholic theology than Catholic philosophy, and so we shouldn’t read the Summa as though the sections on the Blessed Trinity and Incarnation were somehow of secondary importance. Just as these two great doctrines are central to the Faith, so they are central to the Summa. These doctrines inform it from beginning to end, and to read a section of the Summa without seeing it in terms of the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation is to risk grave misunderstanding.

The final two sections of O’Meara’s work deal with the Thomist schools and traditions up until the present, as well as with suggestions as to how St. Thomas’s thought is relevant for today. Here O’Meara traces the development and emphases of the “Three Thomisms” before Vatican II. He also gives helpful biographies of 14 modern Thomists in the form of a “Thomist spectrum,” pointing out their different interpretations and concerns.

As mentioned, O’Meara has meager success in presenting the thought of a genius in “a somewhat vivid, contemporary fashion.” O’Meara loses a lot of the genius of Thomas’s thought in his attempt to render it vivid and contemporary. Unfortunately, St. Thomas ends up sounding like a modern transcendental Thomist (i.e., a Thomist who is radically influenced by the epistemology of Immanuel Kant) concerned with multi-culturalism and pluralistic trends in Catholic theology. Not only this, but the nonscholastic terminology used by O’Meara renders very imprecise interpretations of the Angelic Doctor’s thought. At times St. Thomas even comes across as a process theologian (undoubtedly O’Meara didn’t intend to present Thomas as such since O’Meara does, on occasion, repudiate certain concepts of God as weak or powerless).

O’Meara, though, is openly hostile to the Third Thomism (1860-1960). He sees it as rigid, abstract, and based on an antiquated metaphysics. He sees the thinkers of this period as conforming the thought of the Angelic Doctor to their defensive apologetical agenda. Yet O’Meara does something similar. Unwittingly, he has conformed the thought of St. Thomas to his multi-cultural, pluralistic, transcendental Thomist agenda. O’Meara, for example, writes: “The world is not composed of Aristotelian cultures, and so the role of Aquinas, for instance in Africa, awaits an African Thomism. Francois de Mediros observes basic differences in thought-form between the African mind and Aquinas: the influence of symbol and name in the realm of act and being; a proper African ‘logic’ and ‘metaphysics’….” I point this out in order to show that O’Meara himself, just like the thinkers of the Third Thomism, is not free from philosophical presuppositions. In any case, St. Thomas is surely more nearly a dogmatic theologian who is also an apologist and metaphysician than a multi-cultural and pluralistic transcendental Thomist.

Rather than recommending O’Meara’s Thomas Aquinas, I would recommend Etienne Gilson’s The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and F.C. Copleston’s Aquinas, if one is interested in good introductory works. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s works on St. Thomas’s theology and philosophy are superb. And for an account of St. Thomas’s life and work, see the recently published Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work by Jean Pierre Torrell, O.P.

The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities From Their Christian Churches

By James Tunstead Burtchaell

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 888

Price: $30

Review Author: Jeffrey Wills

A pathologist is a useful sort of doctor, though generally not a reassuring doctor. He is not the doctor who tells you all is well and sends you home. He’s the one who figures out just what disease you have — if you’re still living. And if you’re not, he’s the one who figures out what exactly made you dead. The pathologist is a bringer of bad but needed news, a revealer of dread secrets: Something is wrong, perhaps terminally wrong, and he knows what it is.

In The Dying of the Light, Burtchaell is a pathologist of American Christian academia. He presents case studies of 17 institutions of higher learning in which a once vigorous Christian identity is either dead or terribly diseased. For a long time now, the patients on this ward have been diagnosing themselves, and Christian colleges and universities have gotten into the habit of giving themselves a clean bill of health: The administration is pleased to report that the Catholic identity (or “charism” or “rich tradition”) of good old Holy Saint Blessed U. is in excellent condition.

But Burtchaell’s investigations confirm what many both inside and outside the academy have sensed: Sickness is epidemic. Not all the academic bodies he examines have given up the Ghost, but in many of them — despite their positive self-evaluations — a religious pulse can scarcely be found. Burtchaell presents a fair cross section of Christian institutions, including schools run by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, evangelicals, and Catholics.

A reader may turn first, naturally enough, to the stories of the church affiliation he knows best. But if he stops there he may miss the wider import of Burtchaell’s findings: No tradition’s schools have proven immune to the virus of religious attenuation; and in every case the progress of the infection has been similar. In Burtchaell’s telling, the story becomes familiar. In the first phase, most of the students, faculty, administrators, and trustees of the college or university are Lutheran or Baptist or Catholic or whatever. In the second phase, as the schools improve their academic reputations and gather more resources, many students and educators of other religious affiliations (or none) seek them out. In this changed environment, “religious” soon becomes the broad identifier.

“Religious” is, of course, an exceedingly unstable term. Eventually a well-meaning but vague pietism yields to indifference, and then to secularism. Repeated elements in all these sagas include an early contest about mandatory chapel, subsequent interfaith activity on campus, faculty concern about a credal oath, the hiring of some avowedly non-Christian faculty member, the visit of a highly controversial speaker (an Allen Ginsberg, a Larry Flynt), and the school’s Department of Religion playing the role of agent of secularism.

Burtchaell’s survey ranges wide, from the Congregationalists’ Dartmouth College to the evangelicals’ Azusa Pacific University. He reports that of the 17 schools surveyed here only five still enroll an undergraduate majority from their founding church, and he says that “in most recent years the colleges have tended to identify themselves by a bouquet of reductive items thought to bespeak their distinctive heritage: character, liberal studies, free inquiry.”

Although Burtchaell shows that the basic stages are predictable, the idiosyncratic details of each college’s story are fascinating. Interestingly, it seems that the arrival on campus of Catholics has sometimes played a role in religious disestablishment, for they became the first exceptions to denominational policies, just as, at some public universities, it was protests by Catholics that led to the ending of public Protestant (and therefore any public Christian) prayers on campus.

Burtchaell is particularly interested in how the colleges have represented themselves and what they have asserted about their religious character. Typical, he finds, is the language of Paul H. Sherry, now President of the United Church of Christ, who in the 1960s already endorsed the view that it was the business of UCC colleges not to “make Christians” but to “help men to become fully men.” And Burtchaell quotes Beloit’s President Maurer: “The warrant of religion is twofold: to speak to the moral conscience of the scholar but to refrain from confronting his intellect.”

Most of Burtchaell’s writing here is done in a neutral historical style, but in his chapter epilogues he gives trenchant judgments about the fate of the patients. To hear his harshest judgment, read the pages at the end of the section on Catholic schools entitled “A Rhetoric of Fantasy” and the chapter of conclusions, which focuses on many contemporary issues.

Catholic educators who do not yet acknowledge just how slippery is the slope on which their schools are perched would be well advised to read Burtchaell’s report of how the mighty have slid down it before them. The detachment of Protestant colleges from their founding denominations has been paralleled by the disengagement of Catholic colleges from their founding orders, which started in 1967 with the “laicization” of Webster College in St. Louis and the Land O’Lakes statement by 26 Catholic educators. The Vatican has not yielded to the secularism creeping or galloping through America’s Catholic colleges, and the controversy around the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae is keeping these issues very much alive.

Burtchaell has mapped out a complete symptomatology of the disease of religious drift which will help (along with the recent work of George Marsden and Philip Gleason) to ensure that the typical progress of the malady is known to all. But the past is only prologue, and the prognosis for Christian higher education may, perhaps, be better than we sometimes think. Now that the age of innocence is over, and now that Burtchaell and others have exposed the self-deception in the colleges’ rosy self-diagnoses, the drift may reverse itself. A recent cover story in The Chronicle of Higher Education was entitled “Enrollments Surge at Christian Colleges,” and it explained that many students are seeking to avoid the life found at secular institutions. An astute college president might grasp that a Christian college could do better — could even find its “market niche” — by being re-Christened rather than by being further secularized.

Human Dignity and Contemporary Liberalism

By Brad Stetson

Publisher: Praeger

Pages: 186

Price: $No price given.

Review Author: Patrick Rooney

Stetson’s latest book might have been more accurately entitled Human Dignity versus Contemporary Liberalism. Stetson, Director of Studies at the David Institute, whacks contemporary liberalism hard.

In the preface, Stetson comes out of the blocks fast, underscoring the importance of human dignity and registering his view of liberalism (it “defaces human dignity”).

This, Stetson’s fifth book with Praeger, is divided into two parts, examinations of theoretical and practical liberal thought. In the practical section, Stetson concentrates on two “culturally contentious” areas — race and abortion — as issues critical to the future of this country. But he does not stop there. Other big issues are explored: self-esteem vs. dignity, the true definition of civil rights, who’s to blame for the epidemic of fatherlessness, content of character vs. color of skin, and more.

It has often been said that liberals have no values. That isn’t really accurate. The author enumerates many things liberals value or believe in deeply: They have an obsession with “rights” (at least for the born — the right of human life to be born doesn’t interest them); they rank “self-esteem” ahead of human dignity; they love “change” (as long as it weakens traditional values); they applaud government control over every aspect of our lives except sexual behavior; they value “openness” (to evib+ they believe in undeserved goodies for those who won’t work; and they cherish “freedom” (to do whatever they want). The author, after an exhaustive examination of liberalism, deems it to be pretty much lacking any real value.

There’s a lot to like in this book. It is well footnoted and researched. Also, Stetson’s philosophical viewpoint is well grounded and logically explained. Following his thought process leads the reader to unerring, almost mathematical conclusions. When the dust settles, liberalism is shown for what it is — and it’s far worse than the empty shell one may have believed it to be. It’s an ideological wolf in sheep’s clothing. The book re-examines and ultimately reaffirms real values, as opposed to liberal pseudo-values.

If there’s a weakness in this book, it’s a common one for conservatives — too much energy spent blaming liberals. The truth is that spineless conservatives have allowed liberals to ride roughshod over their culture. Stetson also implies that the liberal monolith is just too much to tackle head-on, that conservatives must be content with small victories for the time being. But I have seen with my own eyes the self-righteous beast blown away with simple truth spoken with unshakable conviction. Andrew Jackson said it best: “One man with courage makes a majority.”

This book is required reading for anyone truly interested in restoring dignity to our corrupt, floundering culture.

Jesus in the Image of God: A Challenge to Christlikeness

By Leslie B. Flynn

Publisher: Magnus Press (P.O. Box 41157, San Jose, CA 95160)

Pages: 147

Price: $12

Review Author: Elaine Hallett

The precept that God created man in His own image is a fruitful subject for meditation. In how many ways can this statement be true?

Leslie Flynn, pastor emeritus of Grace Baptist Church in Nanuet, New York, focuses on one of them. Jesus, God incarnate and the new Adam, is the image of God, perfect as His Father in Heaven is perfect. “He became like us,” writes Pastor Flynn, “that we might become like Him.” Jesus is “a type to be followed, a model.” We are not to imitate Jesus physically, as teenagers style themselves after film stars, nor should we imitate Him by imagining what Jesus would do in various modern situations (Would Jesus attend movies? Would He smoke?) and then following His supposed course of action. No. “Christlikeness is having the mind of Christ.” We are to catch His spirit, to cultivate His qualities, to apply those attitudes to every situation. Flynn selects ten attitudes of mind most typical of Jesus and allots a chapter to each, bringing together in each chapter those instances in which Jesus demonstrated, either through word or action, the responses most pleasing to God. For example, we see Jesus more than once being nonretaliatory in the face of verbal and physical abuse. Can we imitate Him?

This is not a how-to book teaching procedural “methods.” Its goal, rather, is to illuminate the thought processes that form the mind of Jesus, to provide a portrait of His inner being. The reader makes a deeper acquaintance with Jesus and, knowing Him better, is moved to emulate Him.

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