Religion Booknotes

Mystic Street
Meditations on a Spiritual Path
S. T. Georgiou
Novalis, $24.95, 319 pp.

S. T. Georgiou’s previous book, The Way of the Dreamcatcher, was an account of the author’s friendship with Robert Lax, the poet, spiritual writer, and longtime “hermit” on the island of Patmos in Greece. Lax, who was one of Thomas Merton’s best friends, is too little known on this side of the Atlantic. He is, in my estimation, one of the great spiritual masters of the postwar period.

Georgiou’s new book, Mystic Street, is a journal he began keeping while he was finishing his doctoral dissertation on Lax’s poetry at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. The journal continues into his later career as a teacher and artist in the Bay Area. (The author takes his title from the name of a street in the Berkeley hills.) Georgiou is Greek Orthodox and the spirituality of that tradition suffuses these pages, which record his intuitions about the natural world, Orthodox liturgy, and his work as a “writer” of (untraditional) icons. These intuitions are woven together with the lessons he learned from Lax himself and from Lax’s work. Fortunate is the doctoral student who can study a subject he loves, and more fortunate still if that subject can change—and sustain—his life.

Mystic Street seamlessly combines Georgiou’s own spiritual history with the story of the place in which he lives and works. Not always free of the precious tone one often finds in books of spirituality from the West Coast, this book is nonetheless a generous account of the author’s faithful engagement with the Christian tradition, and of his openness to the spiritual struggles of others. I probably wouldn’t have read Mystic Street if it hadn’t been for my interest in The Way of the Dreamcatcher and its subject. I recommend that readers start with the earlier book and then read the new one to see how one beautiful life can influence another.

 

Icons
Robin Cormack
Harvard University Press, $22.95, 144 pp. 

The late German scholar Ernst Benz once observed that to understand icons is to understand Orthodoxy. A new book, titled simply Icons, makes the same point visually. The author is Robin Cormack, the eminent Byzantinist who recently retired as professor of art history at the Coutauld Institute in London. His book offers a satisfying overview of the place of icons in the Christian East. After a brief history of iconoclasm and the defense of icons in Christian life and practice, Cormack describes how icons are made, or “written,” and then tells the reader how to “read” them. He also takes up the subject of how saints are represented in iconography and ends with a historical description of icons created after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

While Icons bears the imprint of Harvard University Press, the copyright is held by the trustees of the British Museum, which published the book in Great Britain as part of a series based largely on their holdings. The text is illuminated by wonderful color illustrations, including, at the end of the book, well over twenty pages of color images from the British Museum. Cormack notes that the first icon in this collection came to the museum in 1851 as part of a trove of old manuscripts.

I think two kinds of readers will find this volume attractive: those who are looking for a reliable introduction to icons and their role in Christianity; and lovers of well-made art books. Books about icons appear frequently in bookstores these days, and it can be difficult to choose among them. This book would be a good place to start, because of its modest price and, more important, the quality of the text and reproductions.

 

Mystics
William Harmless, SJ
Oxford University Press, $18.95, 350 pp.

The words “mystic” and “mysticism” are of early-modern coinage, but the adjective “mystical” has a long and noble history in Christianity. Originally it meant “hidden” and was applied to the Eucharist, the Scriptures, and the church itself. In the sixth century, Pseudo Dionysius used it to refer to God’s ineffable qualities. In Mystics, William Harmless sorts out the various meanings of mysticism and looks at several people in the history of Christianity who have been called mystics.

The fifteenth-century writer Jean Gerson defined mystical theology as “an experiential knowledge of God that comes through the embrace of unitive love.” Harmless explains and elaborates on this definition with the help of texts new (for example, Thomas Merton) and old (for example, the fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus). Pace William James, Harmless does not think that autobiographical texts alone can reveal mystical experience. And pace those who argue for a philosophia perennis, Harmless does not think that mystical experience is the same in all religious traditions. In this book, which is mainly a study of Christian mysticism, he offers two “control” chapters on non-Christian mystics—Rumi the Muslim Sufi and Dogen in the Zen tradition.

Harmless is a very clear writer with an impressive mastery of his material. His chapter on Meister Eckhart explicates that Dominican’s notoriously opaque speculations as well as anything I’ve read. The final chapter of Mystics could serve as a guide for anyone who wishes to go back and read the great Christian mystics intelligently. Harmless insists on reading the texts in their proper context—and, in particular, on learning something about the complicated lives behind them. More than once I have had to remind my students that John of the Cross was not constantly in ecstasy. He spent much of his day praying the psalms with his community, doing manual labor, teaching novices, etc. Finally, as Harmless reminds us, most mystics were steeped in Scripture, and they were almost never autodidacts: they were formed in communities with traditions of asceticism, prayer, and study.

Mystics is firmly rooted in the best scholarship, but it is also pitched low enough for readers new to the subject. Teachers will find that it makes an excellent introductory text. Perhaps the highest recommendation I can give this book is to say that I intend to assign it to my own students.

 

Holy Power/Holy Presence
Rediscovering Medieval Metaphors for the Holy Spirit
Elizabeth Dreyer
Paulist, $24.95, 344 pp.

The Eastern Christian world has often charged that the Latin West pays too little attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in its theology. For evidence of this problem, Orthodox theologians point to the documents issued at Vatican II, with their robust christocentrism and pallid pneumatology. A generation of Roman Catholic theologians, starting with Yves Congar in the 1960s, have tried to right that imbalance. Elizabeth Dreyer’s new book, Holy Power/Holy Presence, is another contribution to this effort.

Dreyer examines the work of several medieval writers who wrote about the Holy Spirit: Augustine, Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich. A number of these writers are also examined in William Harmless’s Mystics. Still, despite the fact that the two books discuss similar texts, there is not much overlap between them. That’s because they address the same tradition with very different questions.

There isn’t enough space here for me to list all the metaphors these medieval writers used to write about the Holy Spirit. The full list would be both long and various. Scripture refers to the Holy Spirit as “fire.” For Hildegard the third person of the Trinity is a “timbrel player”; for Bonaventure, “flowing water.” Catherine of Siena called the Holy Spirit the “waiter.” One thing these writers had in common, despite differences of tone and emphasis, was a robust Trinitarian sensibility. Dreyer’s book reminds us that if we pay adequate attention to the Trinitarian dimension of our faith, the Holy Spirit will not be neglected. The Spirit inspires, and guarantees, all prophetic witness, and is the source of all authentic spiritual discernment, as Dreyer explains in her final chapter. I think we also need to remember the Holy Spirit as we think about our relationship with the rest of creation. As the psalmist says, God sends forth his spirit to renew the face of the earth.

This book is well researched and well written, but it would have been more useful to teachers and students if the author had given us more source information in her notes (there is no bibliography). Her choice of sources is also sometimes strange. In the chapter on Augustine, for example, she inexplicably uses Jacques-Paul Migne’s nineteenth-century Patrologia Latina as her reference. Why? Does she really think there are no good translations of Augustine? Similarly, Dreyer seems not to know that most of Bonaventure is available in fine translations published by the Franciscan Institute in this country. This is not a trivial point. People should be encouraged to read the original texts, and these are available in excellent modern translations. Why intimidate readers with archaic and out-of-date secondary literature? This one problem aside, Dreyer’s book is to be recommended as a good example of how theology and history can be done in tandem.

 

The Beginning of All Things
Science and Religion
Hans Küng
Eerdmans, $22, 220 pp. 

It is now more than thirty years since the English translation of Hans Küng’s Does God Exist? appeared in bookstores. In a sense, The Beginning of All Things is an addendum to that overwritten apologia for belief in God. In this rather slight new book Küng takes up the challenge presented by modern science to an intellectually respectable theism. Happily, he does not directly confront the militant atheists who have recently written several bestsellers (this was not intended to be a polemical work). In the opening part of the book, Küng provides a useful and readable overview of scientific cosmology. He then tries to show that there are certain things within contemporary scientific models that the models themselves cannot explain. Religious belief, in Küng’s view, is reasonable and not incompatible with scientific explanation. This view is similar to one advanced in various works by John Polkinghorne, most recently in his slim book Quantum Physics and Theology.

In later chapters Küng takes up issues raised by science about the origin of life, the physical development of human beings, the evolution of the brain, the problem of consciousness, and the origins of the human ethical sense. It is obvious that Küng has read widely in the scientific literature, and he obviously learned a good deal from the scientists who participated in a seminar he ran at the Universtiy of Tübingen a few years ago. What is surprising is how superficially he treats theology. His observations about the Genesis accounts of creation do not go far beyond what I tell undergraduate students. His answer to the question “Why believe?” is basically a rehearsal of what he wrote at the end of Does God Exist? And he never misses a chance to take a swipe at the institutional church for its many failings.

The one interesting theological question he raises is whether the word “God” itself isn’t a problem because of the way most people imagine God. Finally Küng does not want to abandon the word “God,” but he does think we need to make sure it is not understood to refer to a super-being “out there” in the sky. Of course, that reminder is a commonplace in theology. Some discussion of the ways the tradition has tried to develop richer descriptions of God would have been useful. Küng might have mentioned what the mystics have to say about this subject. Some of them, such as Meister Eckhart, saw God not as a being but as the source (grund) of being; some, such as Bonaventure, thought that God is the pouring out of being (fontalis plenitudo). When Küng does reach for a specific “God language,” he opts for the metaphor of “light,” and he writes quite lyrically in the section in which he develops this metaphor.

Küng does not focus here on the Triune God of Christianity. In fact, he addresses the Trinity only very briefly, and the name Jesus Christ does not come up until page 195. But then, perhaps that should not surprise us since Küng is discussing here one stark metaphysical dilemma: God or not God. Küng has been engaged for a number of years in developing a universal ethics from a dialogical religious point of view. His closing pages make reference to this ongoing work. The main focus of his book, however, is on the problems raised by the many advances of contemporary science. He understands what those issues are, lays them out in lucid prose, and responds to them with rigor and openness.

Published in the 2008-06-06 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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