Religion Booknotes

The Decline of the Secular University
C. John Sommerville
Oxford University Press, $22, 160 pp.

In The Decline of the Secular University, C. John Sommerville describes the power of secularization in our common culture, and then identifies secularism as a militant ideology “that seeks to complete and enforce secularization.” In Sommerville’s view, secularism has had its most profound and damaging effects in our universities. There, he argues, secularism has undermined the intellectual rigor of teachers and their students by refusing to examine the presuppositions on which its vocabulary rests. Instead of such an examination, we get fatuous appeals to the “marketplace of ideas,” which make it increasingly difficult (and very impolite) to insist that some ideas are good and others bad. 

One of the consequences of this intellectual slackness, Sommerville argues, is that the influence of universities on public policy has shifted from academe to think tanks. He takes up Richard Posner’s thesis that conservative think tanks (mainly in Washington) have served as a counterbalance to the influence of “liberal” universities. Meanwhile, the postmodern tendency to resist all metaphysics or “metanarratives” has driven out substantive questions of political philosophy and replaced them with an identity politics defined entirely in terms of victimization. There is a loud clamor for empowerment and rights, but few are able to explain or defend the idea of rights.

Somerville argues that religion has provided much of the foundational vocabulary for our discourse about human values: words such as “welfare,” “truth,” “good,” “justice,” “responsibility,” and “sanity” are still loaded with theological meaning in a self-consciously post-theological age. The unwillingness to accept or explore theological meanings is an impoverishment of our intellectual discourse. Sommerville also notes that the religious-studies programs still have no coherent center—nor an argument for their own integrity as a field of studies.

The Decline of the Secular University is a brief, polemical book that often tends toward easy generalization. Still, Sommerville is not totally off the mark. One does not need to look far to find evidence of the trends this book laments. Recently the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker objected to a core course in the humanities at Harvard because the title of the proposed course included the word “faith.” The battle for, and about, secularism is unlikely to end soon, as this book reminds us.


The Good Works Reader
Thomas C. Oden
Eerdmans, $25, 360 pp.

Thomas Oden’s instructive new book argues that while faith alone suffices for salvation, good works flow inevitably from authentic faith. The Good Works Reader attempts to construct a Christian model of good works by weaving passages of sacred Scripture together with readings from a wide variety of early Christian sources. Oden divides his book into seven broad categories: the Poor, Food and Hospitality, Reaching Out for the Outcast, the Imprisoned and Persecuted, the Least of the Brethren, Philanthropy, and, finally, Deeds Not Words. Under these broad headings, he offers more particular subsections that amplify the testimony of Scripture with citations or paraphrases of patristic texts.

It would not even be possible to outline all the topics discussed in this book, but one can perhaps see the general shape of Oden’s project by looking at his treatment of philanthropy. He begins with a consideration of the problems wealth brings. Following a patristic commonplace, he sees no evil in wealth itself, but only in the temptation to misuse it. This leads naturally to a consideration of stewardship, along with a fair warning against the temptation toward unjust acquisition. Throughout this section, Oden rehearses such biblical tropes as not serving two masters, not storing up treasures on earth, and the widow’s mite. He concludes with the biblical plea for generosity to the poor and a final reflection on the fate of those who do not see Christ in the needy.

Oden looks to the witness of the ancient church to address contemporary concerns. His section on the outcast describes our modern “untouchables”: the disabled, as well as those suffering from substance abuse and other compulsive behaviors. Nowhere does he give into the temptation to reduce all psychic suffering to the terms of clinical psychology. Nor does he shy away from the demonic elements in our culture.

Preachers of the word and those who work—and teach—for justice and mercy will find much nourishment in this book. Oden has overseen, as general editor, a series called Ancient Christian Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Intervarsity Press). His immersion in the writings of the church fathers has served him well here. My only complaint about the book: It has no index.


Gandhi on Non-Violence
Edited by Thomas Merton
New Directions, $13.95, 144 pp.

Obedient to his own advice “to contemplate with a pen,” Thomas Merton copied by hand a whole series of excerpts from the writings of Mahatma Gandhi on peace and nonviolence. The original manuscript, written on both sides of the pages of a notebook, is in the Merton archives at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1965 this private anthology was published by New Directions. It has now been reissued, at a very modest price, with a new introduction by Mark Kurlansky.

Merton always liked such collections of aphorisms or short pensées. They were the stock in trade of one of his favorite spiritual writers, St. John of the Cross (many of whose reflections have been collected in Sayings of Light and Love). Merton himself wrote in this mode in such books as Thoughts in Solitude and New Seeds of Contemplation.

Gandhi’s reflections are here divided into five large sections: the principles of nonviolence, true and false nonviolence, spiritual dimensions of nonviolence, the political scope of nonviolence, the purity of nonviolence. Merton’s introduction to the text (“Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant”) is, in Kurlansky’s judgment, one of the best essays ever written on Gandhi. The brevity of the texts chosen by Merton makes it possible to read this little volume in one of two ways. First, one can get a systematic introduction to the Mahatma’s thought by following the logic of each of the sections, where one idea is developed by the next. Alternatively, this book can be thought of as a contemplative vade mecum, to be dipped into here and there as an inspiration for further thought.

Both Kurlansky and Merton remind the reader that Gandhi’s thinking and practice did not form in a void. His philosophy of nonviolence was deeply indebted to both Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy, as wells as to his education in Hindu and Jain wisdom literature. It is fascinating to think of Gandhi, as a young lawyer, learning of Tolstoy in England, and then taking his ideas to South Africa and, later, to India. Gandhi’s own ideas would be adopted by the civil-rights movement in this country and then re-exported to other parts of the world, thanks to the witness of Martin Luther King Jr. When King was murdered in 1968, twenty years after Gandhi’s assassination, the famous cartoonist Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times drew Gandhi speaking to King: “The odd thing about assassins, Doctor King, is that they think they killed you.” That wonderful line is a variation of Tertullian’s idea that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

The reflections collected in Gandhi on Non-Violence do not simply pass on information; they lead (or should lead) to action. We should be grateful that New Directions has reissued this powerful little book for a new generation of readers—and also, perhaps, for those who read these words once forty-odd years ago and need to read them again.


The Barth Lectures
Colin Gunton
Edited by P. H. Brazier
T & T Clark, $39.95, 285 pp.

The late Colin Gunton, a well-known Evangelical theologian, gave a course at King’s College, London, on the thought of Karl Barth, arguably the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. In an act of pietas toward Professor Gunton, Paul Brazier made a transcript of these lectures and has now seen them into print. Gunton himself frequently urged his classes to “read the text itself” as he explained and developed the great Swiss theologian’s work, but for those who aren’t quite ready to plunge into Barth’s Church Dogmatics, this volume is a splendid introduction.

Gunton’s book is more than just an outline of Barth’s theology. There are places where he does not agree with Barth, and he is not reluctant to say so. It has been some time since I read a lot of Barth, but going through Gunton’s exposition has reminded me how powerful a thinker Barth was and how beautifully he wrote. Many Catholic theologians, including Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hans Küng, engaged his work in the period just after World War II. Küng compared Barth’s position on justification with the teaching formulated at the Council of Trent. Gunton mentions Küng and Balthasar, but as an Evangelical theologian he is more interested in Barth’s famous revolt against the German liberal Protestantism of the generation before his own.

Although (as Gunton persuasively argues) Barth was not a fideist, he remained skeptical of the philosophical presuppositions that so many brought to theology. He rejected natural theology not only because of his animus against philosophical foundationalism, but also because he saw how easily natural theology could be appropriated and abused by the National Socialists. He was, from the beginning, a fierce critic of Nazism. Of course, not all Christian opponents of Nazism agreed with Barth about the danger of natural theology, and many Catholic theologians thought Barth’s rejection of foundationalism was unwarranted.

This book is for two kinds of readers: those who want a fair-minded introduction to Barth’s theological project, and those already acquainted with Barth’s work who want to see how a sympathetic but critical Evangelical responds to it. The Barth Lectures is a worthy tribute both to Colin Gunton and to Karl Barth. Perhaps the best compliment I can give it is that it made me want to go back and read more Barth.

Published in the 2008-03-28 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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