Religion Booknotes


The Lord’s Prayer

A Text in Tradition

Kenneth W. Stevenson

Fortress, $22, 290 pp.

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When Jesus’ disciples asked him how to pray, he taught them the Lord’s Prayer (Catholics call it the Our Father). For that reason, this prayer has always held a privileged place in the personal piety of the Christian faithful. It has also attracted the attention of many Christian writers. Commentary on the Our Father began during the Roman persecutions and extends to this day. Yet before Kenneth Stevenson’s book was published, an overview of this commentary was difficult to find. One had to rely on Jean Carmignac’s books, which are four decades old and in French. This volume is therefore most welcome.

One of the earliest thinkers to write about the Our Father was Origen. He struggled to translate the Greek word epiousios, which is generally translated as “daily.” It is a confounding puzzle because the word is found nowhere else in Greek. Origen simply says that the Evangelists invented it. Jerome translated it as “supersubstantial,” but that was simply a guess at the root of the original Greek word. As Stevenson shows, the meaning of this word exercised the intelligence of writers for centuries.

The one weakness of this book is the section on the twentieth century. Stevenson provides little beyond the writings of a few major theologians and some comments on the Vatican II liturgy. This is unfortunate, because there is a significant amount of recent commentary on the Our Father: Simone Weil; the anti-Nazi martyr, Fr. Alfred Delp; and Raïssa Maritain have all written astutely on this prayer. Still, this is a slight criticism. Given the modest price and the generous coverage of the topic, The Lord’s Prayer would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.

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Art and Intellect in the Philosophy of Étienne Gilson

Francesca Aran Murphy

University of Missouri Press, $49.95, 363 pp.

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Readers of The Seven Storey Mountain will remember the intellectual and spiritual impact Étienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy had on Thomas Merton. Gilson’s description of God’s aseitas (nature) seemed to have unlocked a framework for Merton’s thinking. As Francesca Aran Murphy points out in this well-argued book, Gilson spent a lifetime thinking about being, particularly the question that has haunted Western minds for centuries: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Gilson (1884-1978) thought hard about this question during his long career as a philosopher and historian of medieval philosophy. His public life began in a troubling time: during World War I and the Modernist crisis in the church. Gilson was best known as an Aquinas scholar. There were a number of competing visions of Thomism in the twentieth century, put forward by the Jesuits, the French Dominicans, and the School of Louvain, among other groups. Gilson was sympathetic to the French Dominican understanding of Thomas, specifically the heroic work of Marie-Dominique Chenu. Gilson reacted against those Thomists who, as Murphy writes, rearranged the Summa to construct a tidy package but left a gaping hole-namely, Thomas’s reflections on revealed truth.

Gilson argued that Thomas was fundamentally a theologian, not a philosopher; he sought to bridge the supposed gap between these two disciplines. Gilson also published pioneering, and still eminently readable, works on St. Bonaventure and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He made the unfashionable argument that Thomas and Bonaventure need to be read in tandem, not merely as antagonists. More than most, Gilson made the question of Christian philosophy a live issue, while fighting a strong battle against those who accused him of fideism.

Murphy’s book tracks these arguments in detail while introducing the ancillary stories that are so much a part of the intellectual history of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. We learn about the differences between Gilson and Maritain; De Lubac’s pioneering work (condemned for a time by the Vatican) on nature and grace; Gilson’s role in founding the Pontifical Institute in Toronto; Rome’s heavy hand in theological matters; and the genesis of the infamous 1950 encyclical Humani generis. Occasionally we glimpse the human side of Gilson but, for the most part, this is not a biography. Because of its intellectual emphasis and its rather odd structure, this book may be hard going for those who do not know the writers or who are unfamiliar with the philosophical issues involved. Nonetheless, Gilson the man comes through. And an admirable man he was. Dedicated to the church, he was a tough critic and productive scholar who helped make Thomism the rigorous intellectual instrument it is to this day.

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Theology in Stone

Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley

Richard Kieckhefer

Oxford University Press, $39.95, 372 pp.

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At the start of my classes on Catholicism, I frequently give students a tour of the campus church. One can learn a lot about the Catholic tradition by simply examining what is in a church. For example, Romanesque churches feature many side altars because, at the time they were built, a profound change in the understanding of the Eucharist had made private Masses very popular. For many years, most of what I knew about church design was drawn from random reading. It was with particular joy, then, that I came across Richard Kieckhefer’s extraordinary volume.

Kieckhefer’s argument is that the interior architecture and layout of a church are informed by a distinct theology. Early Christian basilicas, for example, express something theologically quite different from what Gothic churches express. Kieckhefer contends that one can surmise the “theology of a church” by asking a few questions. Which is more prominent: the pulpit or the altar? Is the altar framed in front of an elaborate reredos, or does it stand starkly alone in front of the presider’s chair? Is there a long processional, or a set of semicircular pews arranged around the altar?

Kieckhefer addresses these questions by examining churches both ancient and modern. (Illustrations and photographs are included.) Teaching at Northwestern University, he has visited many churches in the greater Chicago area (some of architectural distinction), which he describes in a quite informative chapter. (One minor quibble: Kieckhefer is fond of the Episopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. I visited there a few years ago, and while I found the exterior of the church-which is inspired by early Byzantine architecture-wonderfully interesting, I thought the interior was quite ghastly. The eclectic borrowing from various oriental Christian traditions made me think of a clearance sale at Pier 1.)

Kieckhefer proposes four ways to think about church design: What are the spatial dynamics of a church? Where is its center? What is its aesthetic impact? Does it reflect a symbolic wholeness? Aware that church architecture is still a contentious issue, Kieckhefer also offers some suggestions about how to think about the church as a sacred space today.

One of the main challenges of modern Catholic architecture, Kieckhefer notes, is to create a space that does justice both to the proclamation of the Word and to the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Church architects must also balance the need to design a space conducive to quiet contemplation with the desire to praise God with elaborate ornamentation. This latter conundrum has preoccupied Catholic architects for many years. As Romano Guardini wrote nearly a century ago, there is a tension between stillness and the emergence of the holy in church architecture.

This is a thoughtful and rigorously argued book, grounded in abundant research. On the last page, Kieckhefer cites the French theologian and historian Louis Bouyer, who argued that, when thinking about churches, one should not be bound by a single architectural style. That is excellent advice. We must learn from the past without making it rigidly normative. After all, we are part of a living tradition, not frozen into some kind of ahistorical amber.

Published in the 2007-02-23 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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