Religion Booknotes

Firmly I Believe and Truly
The Spiritual Tradition of Catholic England
Edited by John Saward, John Morrill, and Michael Tomko
Oxford University Press, $65, 832 pp.

 

The parameters of Firmly I Believe and Truly, an anthology of English Catholic spiritual texts, are strict. The book includes nothing written before the introduction of printing into England by William Caxton (died 1492). Every text was written by an author who was Catholic when he or she wrote it: if the author was a convert, none of their pre-conversion writings is included. Thus we get nothing written by Newman before 1845. And the “English” in “English spiritual texts” is geographical as well as linguistic: the texts were all written by authors who, whatever their origins, wrote in England (and not Scotland, say, or Ireland). The only flexible term in the book’s subtitle is “spirituality,” which is understood by the editors to include texts on liturgy, church life, and theology.

This is a perfect book for browsing. You look for favorite authors to see which of their works has been chosen; along the way, you discover new authors, or authors you’d forgotten. Those of a certain age might look for important writers of the last century whose work has gone out of style (Gerald Vann! Hubert Von Zeller!). There is a resurgent interest in the writings of G. K. Chesterton, but few now read the somewhat eccentric Vincent McNabb, OP, or Maisie Ward or her husband, Frank Sheed. There are, of course, the Elizabethan martyrs—both the famous, like Thomas More, and the less known. Many of the old recusant families, mainly from Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north, find their place in this volume, as do the late-nineteenth-century converts, who, under the influence of the Tractarians, invigorated the English Catholic Church (for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins).

The editors point out that this book can be used as a source of readings for meditation and prayer. Not surprisingly, then, they include not only discursive prose but also poems and prayers. There are generous selections of women writers from Margaret Beaufort in the early sixteenth century to Caryll Houselander in the twentieth. The last writer in the book is the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who died in 1999, just before the beginning of a new millennium, and just as the digital word was beginning to rival the printed word. Each section in the book has a thoughtful introductory essay, and each author receives a biographical note with suggestions for further reading. For some, Firmly I Believe and Truly will function mainly as a well-chosen collection of highlights of already familiar works; for others, as an introduction to important but now-neglected texts. But it will be valuable to any English-speaking Catholic, young or old, British or American.

 

 

Retrieving Nicaea
The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine
Khaled Anatolios
Baker Academic, $39.99, 400 pp.

 

Less-than-careful accounts of the fourth-century debates about Christ’s nature pit Arius against Athanasius, with the Council of Nicaea settling the matter definitively in 325. Careful narratives note that Arian theologies persisted for centuries afterward. But from the orthodox perspective, the creedal formulations of the early ecumenical councils, culminating in Chalcedon in 451, represented the triumph of truth over error.

In Retrieving Nicaea, Khaled Anatolios tells a more complicated story. He focuses mainly on the debates that occurred between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople in 381. He notes that among those who participated in these debates, certain presuppositions were held in common. All parties believed in the Trinity, used Trinitarian language in their worship, and rejected Manichean dualism and the Gnostic theory of emanationism. They all believed that Christ existed before the Incarnation, that the world was made through him, that Jesus was both human and divine, and that he was the savior of the world. What was at issue was one vexatious question: How did Christ, the Word, relate to the Father? Was the connection to be found in the unity of the will between Father and Son, or was there also a unity in their very being? This was not simply a debate about Greek metaphysics; it was an attempt to express with some clarity both the testimony of scripture and the liturgical practice of the church.

Three theologians—two in the East (Athanasius of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa) and one in the West (Augustine of Hippo)—constructed coherent theologies rooted in the resolution of these fourth-century debates. But Anatolios’s interest in the topic is more than historical. As his subtitle hints, he is convinced that one can still draw from the various elements of this theological tradition to restate Trinitarian theologies (note the plural!) in a contemporary idiom. He presents themes drawn from his study of Athanasius, Gregory, and Augustine that are, in his words, “valuable in informing a contemporary experience of Trinitarian faith.” Anatolios does not attempt to reformulate Trinitarian theology himself; instead, he provides contemporary theologians with a fresh understanding of the original formulations and their relationship to the needs of those who still worship in the name of the Holy Trinity.

 

 

Ultimate Price
Testimonies of Christians who Resisted the Third Reich
Edited by Annemarie S. Kidder
Orbis, $22, 208 pp.

 

Ultimate Price, edited by Annemarie S. Kidder, is an anthology of writings by Christian opponents of the Nazi regime. Kidder’s brief introduction surveys the various reactions of Christians to the rise of the National Socialism Party in Germany. She has selected texts by seven anti-Nazis, three of them Protestant, four Catholic. Among them are a few famous names: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sophie Scholl (who recently became much better known because of an excellent film about the White Rose circle), and Franz Jägerstätter.

Those unfamiliar with the story of Christian resistance to the Nazis will learn a bit about some of the main dramatis personae, but, in truth, this modest book doesn’t offer much new information. Still, it does invite readers to face up to a fundamental question: What allows a Christian to articulate a resounding no to the predominant culture, even when that means risking his or her life? For Franz Jägerstätter, it was his firm grasp of the simple catechesis he received as an Austrian farm boy. For Bonhoeffer, it required an intellectual struggle to overcome his traditional Lutheran understanding of one’s obligations to the state. Sophie Scholl’s deep faith sustained her resistance to Nazism even as she faced the guillotine. Jochen Klepper, a well-known Protestant hymn writer whose wife was Jewish by birth, was driven to despair by Nazi persecution, and died by his own hand.

Different as they were from one another, these seven resistors all had a few important things in common. They all rejected the Marcionite attempt to free Christianity from its Hebraic roots; they all considered Nazism a kind of idolatry; and they all rejected the notion that some people were not made in the image and likeness of God.

 

 

Psalm-Shaped Prayerfulness
A Guide to the Christian Reception of the Psalms
Margaret M. Daly-Denton
Liturgical Press, $24.95, 224 pp.

 

A few years ago I wrote a brief “catechism on the Psalms” for the use of my students in a course about prayer. I wish Margaret Daly-Denton’s Psalm-Shaped Prayerfulness had been available at the time. For this book is not only an excellent and readable scholarly resource; it’s also an extremely sensitive exploration of the psalter’s significance for both church and synagogue. Daly-Denton describes how the psalter first took shape, what its setting was in the life of Israel, how it was adopted and adapted by early Christians, and, finally, how it fits into Christian worship today. In the book’s final section, there is a fine examination of the violence expressed in some of the psalms.

Christians use the psalms, first, because Jesus knew and used them in his own life. Whenever we pray the psalms now, we are praying them in company with Jesus himself and, hence, with the whole praying community of Israel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the psalms are an “essential and permanent element” of the prayer life of the church. Daly-Denton shows us in detail why this is so.

Published in the 2012-06-01 issue: 
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Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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