Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 2001

September 2001

Visions: The Soul's Path to the Sacred

By Eddie Ensley

Publisher: Loyola University Press

Pages: 285

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Chris Dodson

In the Nicene Creed, Christians profess belief in the “seen and unseen” or, in the current English formulation, the “visible and invisible.” The latter usage has the advantage of reminding us that there exists in the world that which is not only unseen, but perhaps not capable of being seen. Indeed, the invisible is real and part of the world. Trying to understand humanity without accepting the existence of the invisible gives us, at best, an incomplete picture and, at worse, one that is false.

Ensley’s Visions is about how the seemingly unseen touches, shapes, and guides humanity and individuals. One of the tragic consequences of the Enlightenment is the loss of belief in the invisible. This less-than-enlightened view can be seen today in the aimless longing for spiritual and human completeness. Ensley’s hope is that we reawaken ourselves to the invisible so that we can see, hear, and understand visions from God.

Ensley demonstrates that, prior to the Enlightenment, visions were considered the usual way God spoke to people, whether through dreams, miracles, memories, chance encounters with nature or other people, or moments of profound understanding. God was not distant. Before rationalism, encounters with God through visions and miracles were considered common. With the rise of rationalism, such beliefs were, at first, not discussed, and then dismissed as a product of ignorance. Christianity itself responded to the trend by redefining miracles as occurrences that break the laws of the universe, relegating what was considered common to the ranks of the uncommon.

Ensley’s “visions” are not, typically, the miraculous breaking of universal laws. They are characteristically the small things that may have great import in our lives if we listen to or see them, things Ensley thinks we are missing in our contemporary world. Our rationalistic minds block them out — or we look for “big” miracles.

Ensley guides the reader through the various ways visions can be recognized and can affect our lives. Visions give hope, heal, guide, console, and help shape the world. They can even be found in those moments when answers or ideas just seem to “come from nowhere.” They do, of course, come from somewhere.

Ensley, a convert to Catholicism, is respectful of other faith traditions, but his perspective comes primarily from a Catholic view. Perhaps for this reason, his call for people to re-open themselves to visions is tempered by the need for guidance, caution, and balance: What may seem like a vision is not; we may misinterpret visions. The discerning wisdom of the Church exists for a reason.

Categorizing Visions is difficult; it is part Church history, part devotional guide, part autobiography, part hagiography, part storytelling, and part reflection. Some readers may find the shift from analysis to devotion at the end of each chapter unsettling. Ensley’s reason for this, however, is understandable: The author believes that God speaks to us constantly, and that we only need to listen and be accepting. The book is written as though each chapter is another opportunity to experience God’s gift of visions.

Visions is a well written, though unusual type of book, with an important subject. It is not a book to be rushed. Readers would be advised to take time and let the book speak to them — a vision may be experienced in the process.

Surprised by Truth 2

By Patrick Madrid

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 296

Price: $14.95

Review Author: David Denton

In early 1991 an increasingly agitated Protestant was contending with the terminal stages of a conversion to Catholicism. A lover of history and philosophy, active in the prolife movement, and a great fan of C.S. Lewis, it was, we may suppose, only inevitable that he would eventually convert. But, as was his wont, he had been turning what should have been a joyful process into a maddening ordeal. Teetering on the brink one afternoon shortly before Easter, he had an inspiration. He called Karl Keating’s Catholic Answers in San Diego and reached Patrick Madrid and told him of his predicament. Madrid was very understanding and helpful, and sent our apprehensive pilgrim an anthology of Catholic conversion stories.

As our pilgrim began to work his way through the anthology of conversions, a clergyman friend accused him of being a “closet” Catholic and suggested he speak with a gifted local Presbyterian minister who, the friend assured him, would banish those Catholic leanings. The minister was Marcus Grodi, but our pilgrim did not make his acquaintance. But some two years later, our now converted (finally) pilgrim, who you may have guessed is this reviewer, met Mr. Grodi at Franciscan University where he was a featured speaker at a convocation. You can imagine my delight in hearing Grodi powerfully recount his own conversion to Catholicism. Grodi is now on Mother Angelica’s EWTN, where he has his own program, Coming Home. His conversion was movingly recounted in Madrid’s first anthology of conversions, Surprised by Truth. And — guess what! — Madrid’s Surprised by Truth 2 is introduced by Marcus Grodi.

For converts to Catholicism there are few greater duties (pleasures, really) than telling the story of our conversions — may we be forgiven by long-suffering hearers! But for those who are considering the claims of Catholicism there is often no more powerful impetus than reading or hearing conversion stories. The 15 personal accounts in Surprised by Truth 2, including Madrid’s own pilgrimage from a renewal of his Catholic faith to a calling in Catholic apologetics, are each a provocative witness.

But these stories should not be considered as written only for the non-Catholic. In these times especially, another readership must be given the witness of conversion stories: cradle Catholics who may have lost their sense of wonder and appreciation for the Faith that was given them, who may now view it with boredom, if not resentment. For them, conversion stories might just quicken a renewal, a reclaiming of their Faith. I know that lifelong Catholics have kept and defended the Faith and served and sacrificed for the Church so that she would be here, available and accessible, waiting patiently for our conversions. But I often wish every bored, blasé cradle Catholic could somehow experience the sense of awakening, of growing conviction, of leaping out, of risking and sacrificing for Truth, of coming Home. Because then, it would be impossible for those Catholics to settle for deliberately execrable translations of Scripture, puerile hymns, inane liturgies, salacious dress at Mass — could ever condone the bishop who desperately seeks relevance or, worst of all, embraces dissent against the Faith which was so dearly obtained.

As one whose own conversion owes so much to the witness of others, I deeply appreciate and highly commend Madrid’s effort in this work of Catholic apologetics.

Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology

By William A. Dembski

Publisher: InterVarsity Press

Pages: 312

Price: $19.99

Review Author: Brendan Hodge

General wisdom has maintained that there is a war between science and theology. While many have sought to destroy one of these fields by championing the other, a few have attempted to lay down a positive relationship through which the two disciplines can interact. Steven Jay Gould made one such attempt in Rocks of Ages, in which he claimed religion and science could never be in conflict because they dealt with non-overlapping areas of knowledge: the spiritual world and the physical world. William Dembski approaches the question from a specifically Christian perspective in Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology.

The relationship between science and theology, for Dembski, involves “epistemic support” and “explanatory power.” For example, the Big Bang is an event described by physicists based on empirical research. On the principle of epistemic support, theologians may then take the Big Bang as data and conclude that since the physical phenomenon described is what the creation event of Genesis might have looked like from a physical point of view, they have found physical “support” for the creation account. Theology and science describe the same world, and so each field can make extrapolative predictions which will be borne out by the other. This constructive relationship between science and theology allows the scientific investigation of intelligent design. Intelligent design (ID) is empirically verifiable evidence of creation or planning by an intelligent force: the fingerprints of God.

Proving God’s existence from the order of the material world is hardly a new idea. It found perhaps its best expression in Aquinas’s Summa (Q 2, Art. 3), where the fifth proof for God’s existence is the argument from the order of the universe. However, Aquinas cites not the actual form of individual objects in nature but rather the apparent ends toward which the system of nature and its components are designed. Dembski’s proof from nature is more empirical. For him, if nature is to prove God’s existence, orderly laws of nature are not enough, for the materialist can simply claim that the laws simply exist without having a divine origin. Rather, in Dembski’s thinking, there must be individual objects in nature which bear the prints of direct design by God.

Such empirical proof is a tall order, but Dembski seeks to fill it with “specified complexity,” which is sufficiently complex so as to be highly improbable while also being rationally discernible rather than random. To provide the classic example, the phrase “Methinks ’tis like a weasel” is specified and complex while “sikd thlskdf thlskdf sdflp” is not. Both possess similar complexity, but only the former is specified. Complex biological systems, according to Dembski, are both specified and complex. For instance, DNA is undoubtedly complex, and if it is not reproduced precisely correctly it does not function, therefore it is specified. According to Dembski, it is mathematically impossible for such a thing to have arisen by random chance. Since evolution is posited to be the filtering of random chance by natural selection, it is therefore impossible for DNA to be the product of evolution.

Thus far Dembski is not far from the scientific mainstream. Over the last 10 to 20 years, one of the greatest topics of debate in evolutionary circles has been the method by which natural forces could produce biological structures which even such a hard-boiled atheist as Richard Dawkins admits have the appearance of having been designed. Dembski’s solution to the dilemma, however, is radical by any standard. He proposes a revolution in science, a new movement of young scientists who will use the insights of ID to take scientific inquiry to the next level. While methodological materialism has in the past caused scientists to turn a blind eye to the evidence of God’s design, they will now embrace the concept of divine structure through examining the processes and purposes with which God designed things.

While many Catholics may find themselves in sympathy with Dembski’s criticisms of the scientific establishment, his plans for the revolution may strike many as going too far. Aquinas, who formulated the Catholic understanding of intelligent design, quite rightly placed the material branch of science as the lowest of intellectual disciplines. Although modern science has produced technologies never imagined in Aquinas’s day, his categorization of the discipline still holds true to the extent that science investigates merely what makes the heavens go, not how one goes to Heaven. ID speaks to a great truth when it points out the glory of God’s power as seen through His creation (whether that creation was formed through sudden miracles or evolutionary development). If the last few hundred years have taught us anything, however, it is that the pursuit of ultimate truth is something best not left to scientists.

The Belief of Catholics

By Ronald Knox

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 221

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Elizabeth C. Hanink

Whether deciphering German military codes, editing Punch, or writing apologetics, the four sons of a prominent Anglican bishop of Manchester (England) have always made for interesting reading. Two recent reprints are no exception. Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography, The Knox Brothers (Counterpoint, 2000), is a glance at early 20th-century Great Britain via exploration of the illustrious and individually fascinating lives of her father and uncles, one of whom was the well-known convert and biblical scholar Ronald Knox.

Fr. Ronald Knox’s book The Belief of Catholics is a lucid account of apologetics unlike many others which can read like extended crossword puzzles: Give the objection, fill in the citation, and win the prize! Fr. Knox’s approach is fuller and carefully builds upon a well-laid foundation. Written in a graceful, deceptively simple style, the book is easy enough for a novice, but will also hold the interest of a more experienced reader. Fr. Knox’s keen insights into pre-World War II Anglican controversies are cautionary for Catholics today.

The book is rich in defense of the Tradition of the Church and elegant in its explanation of why we honor even those teachings about which we lack full understanding. For all her failings in guidance and execution, the Church cannot err in her most solemn pronouncements. About this, Fr. Knox is unequivocal and delightfully unapologetic!

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