Religion Booknotes

Philosophy and Catholic Theology
A Primer
Philip A. Egan
Glazier/Liturgical Press, $21.95, 192 pp.

From the time of Leo XIII through the 1950s, the predominant theological method in the Catholic Church was a form of Thomism, as refracted through baroque scholasticism. Within this single stream, there were various currents. Some, attempting to engage with Western philosophy’s Kantian “turn to the subject,” developed a transcendental Thomism, while others, more historically minded, focused on the context and ancestry of Thomas’s system. Finally, there were the “strict,” unreconstructed Thomists, known familiarly as the Neo-Thomists. 

This tradition is still very much alive in Catholic theology, but today other philosophical traditions have become influential among contemporary Catholic thinkers. The late John Paul II blended the Thomism he learned in Rome with an interest in phenomenology. Hans Urs von Balthasar, a favorite of John Paul, was less interested in Thomism than were most theologians of the twentieth century, while the current pontiff’s theology owes less to Thomism than to the Augustinian tradition, especially as it reappeared in the works of St. Bonaventure. Marxist social theory had a (sometimes exaggerated) impact on the first generation of liberation theologians, and even a transcendental Thomist like the late Karl Rahner was not immune to the influence of Heidegger.

This recent variety of approaches means that a book titled Philosophy and Catholic Theology will have a lot of ground to cover—perhaps too much. Many names, often introduced with the phrase “mention should be made,” race by in a blur. But to his credit, the author, Philip A. Egan, tries not to overlook anyone, or any kind of theology. He covers not only systematic theologians but also historians of theology, moral theologians, and those engaged in pastoral or biblical work. Still, Egan does have a definite point of view. He accepts Bernard Lonergan’s famous observation that we have moved from a classical worldview to a historical one. He observes that, while philosophy cannot be detached from serious theological work (a point argued vigorously by John Paul’s Fides et ratio), there is no longer a single philosophical standpoint for all the work being done in theology. Nevertheless, Egan remains committed to the proposition that reason and faith both need to be rightly appreciated if theology is to be Catholic.

The subtitle describes the book as a “primer,” and the author should be taken at his word. This is very much a tour d’horizon and, as such, it will be of most use to the theological tyro who wants to get a sense of the whole field and doesn’t need too many details about the names, movements, and tendencies he or she will encounter in these pages. The most satisfying part of the book is the long final section on the topic of theological method, which is heavily indebted to the work of Lonergan. The most disappointing part of the book is the paltry bibliography with which it concludes.

 

Becoming Fire
Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers
Edited by Tim Vivian
Cistercian Publications, $39.95, 544 pp.

There has been a persistent interest on the part of contemporary Christians in the pithy sayings of the desert fathers and mothers, which were recorded in late antiquity by those who had visited the monasteries, mainly in Egypt. There are several collections of these sayings—among them, Benedicta Ward’s translations and a selection by Thomas Merton was published nearly fifty years ago. Now Tim Vivian, an accomplished Coptic scholar and translator, has produced a book that provides excerpts from these sayings for each day of the year. Vivian is careful to account for the different calendars of the Catholic, Orthodox Coptic, Byzantine, and Anglican traditions; this requires him to include appendices for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. For every day of the year, he notes the saints commemorated that day in each of the various traditions.

The daily selections in Becoming Fire run from a page to a page and a half. Each of the sayings and anecdotes is meant to give one a deeper sense of the self in relation to God. Once transmitted orally, they were later collected in anthologies designed to preserve the wisdom of the old ascetics, who wrote little down. Some of the selections have a cutting edge. Abba Serapion once visited a monk’s cell and, when asked for a word, pointed to the monk’s giant bookshelf and told him that he “stole from widows and orphans.” I read that story in my own book-cluttered study, and winced.

Cistercian Publications has exacting standards, as this volume shows. Along with scriptural and topical indices, there is also a bibliography of the original sources and a list of where each day’s selections were taken from. Becoming Fire would make a good addition to any Christian’s library. If one is reluctant to pay nearly forty dollars for a soft-cover (what would Abba Serapion say?), one should remember that it promises an entire year’s worth of reading. Those who visited the old desert dwellers would ask them for a “good word.” Here is a whole book full of good words.

 

Longing for God
Seven Paths of Christian Devotion
Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe
InterVarsity Press, $25, 366 pp.

I have often remarked on the increasing interest among Evangelicals in traditional spirituality. Having recently attended a conference at Wheaton College on spiritual formation, I am happy to report that this interest is even deeper than I had supposed, and that it draws broadly from both Catholic and Orthodox sources. Longing for God by Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe is further evidence of such interest.

Foster and Beebe divide their work into seven large topical sections: the right ordering of the love of God; spiritual life as a journey; recovering the knowledge of God after the Fall; intimacy with Jesus Christ; the right ordering of our experiences of God; action and contemplation; and the divine ascent. Under these seven headings they include short biographies of major Christian figures from both Catholic and Protestant traditions, along with an account of the salient features of each figure’s spirituality. (The Christian East is covered only briefly in an appendix.) Under the section on the spiritual journey, there are portraits of Evagrius of Pontus, George Herbert, John Bunyan, and Thomas Merton. Unfortunately, one must cull further information about each author from the book’s end notes. It would have been better in a book like this to append a “further reading” section, including both primary and secondary sources, to the end of each individual chapter. In addition to the appendix on the Christian East, there’s one devoted to pre-Christian influences on the Christian spiritual tradition (mainly Plato and Aristotle) and another devoted specifically to the contributions of women.

This is very much a survey work, useful as an introduction to a wide range of spiritual masters—and especially useful if it inspires one to read some of the classic texts it summarizes.

 

Glittering Vices
A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
Brazos Press, $14.99, 160 pp.

Rebecca DeYoung, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College, has once again turned her attention to the subject of sin. Apart from a brief introduction that explains the transformation of the eight logismoi into the seven deadly sins, the chapters are each devoted to one of the sins. A Thomist, DeYoung follows the master’s model by pairing the sins with opposing virtues: seven sins, seven virtues. This is an old device. In the Middle Ages the seven deadly sins were often presented with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit or the seven petitions, or even, with some sleight of hand, the eight beatitudes. This made things easier to remember.

Glittering Vices is a felicitous blend of the scholarly and the hortatory. DeYoung is too sophisticated—and too much of a Thomist—to reduce sin to sociology or therapy. Her chapter on gluttony, for example, does not get hung up on the American obesity epidemic; she knows that gluttony is about far more than taking in too many calories.

Unfortunately, this kind of nuance is mostly absent from DeYoung’s chapter on lust. She sees this sin the same way Wikipedia does: purely as a matter of sexual excess. She appears to forget that, according to her beloved St. Thomas, lust can be about other kinds of excess (see the Summa theologiae [II, IIae, q.153]). This is suggested by the fact that the Latin word for lust is luxuria, from which we get “luxury.” In a consumer society especially, the ravages of lust may have little to do with animal appetite.

That one chapter aside, this book is full of subtlety. DeYoung is very good at explaining why “deadly” sins are not always the sins that threaten violence and danger. What the deadly sins all have in common is their tendency to feed, and to by fed by, a false sense of autonomy—a sense in which the self becomes the primary locus of one’s concern. The list of deadly sins has monastic roots, and it is helpful to remember that many early monks saw anger (ira) as the most pernicious sin, not mainly because it could erupt in physical violence but because it often smoldered within the soul, poisoning one’s view of everything and everybody.

Last year I wrote several short essays on the seven deadly sins for an in-house magazine here at Notre Dame. When asked by friends what I was working on, I insouciantly replied that I was doing research on lust. Glittering Vices arrived too late to help with that research, but I am nevertheless glad to have it—both for its own sake and because it shows that my own essays were not entirely wrong.

Published in the 2010-06-04 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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