Religion Booknotes

The Future of Christian Theology
David F. Ford
Wiley-Blackwell, $34.95, 239 pp.


David F. Ford, a theologian at Cambridge University and author of the excellent book Christian Wisdom (2007), has a generous view of theology. In his new book, The Future of Christian Theology, he has some salutary words about theology as it’s taught in the university, but, for him, theology is more than an academic discipline. Before it’s anything else, it’s faith seeking understanding.

Ford argues that theology must be rooted not only in intelligence but in wisdom. It must engage in a wise retrieval of its sources and in a wise dialogue with God, church, and world. And it must be wise in its expression as well as in its thought. Most of The Future of Christian Theology is an elaboration on these four basic imperatives.

In the United Kingdom, there has been an ongoing debate about the vexatious relationship between religious studies and the study of theology. Ford believes that these two disciplines can live in harmony, and can even be mutually enriching. The question of theology’s future is a bit thornier in the American setting. For constitutional reasons, most public institutions of higher learning don’t offer courses in theology, though a satisfactory accommodation has been worked out in some places, such as the University of Virginia.

To my mind, the richest part of this book is Ford’s reflection on how to mentor young theologians—or, as he calls them, “apprentice theologians.” He encourages young theologians to read and reread the original sources in the company of a wise reader, and to reflect on their own relationship to the text as they do so. The model he proposes for this exercise is John the theologian of the Fourth Gospel. Ford is not afraid to think of these theological labors as a kind of prayer. The theologian must seek out companions with whom he or she can acquire a distinctively Christian language, and then use the resources of that language to discuss the situation of the church, society, and the world. The basic wisdom of theological communication comes, Ford writes, only by way of “daily prayer, study, conversation, and new learning.” This book exemplifies the kind of wisdom it calls for. Ford’s vision of theology rescues it from pedantry and careerism and places it squarely where it has always belonged: in the middle of the Christian community.   


Enlightened Monks
The German Benedictines 1740–1803

Ulrich L. Lehner
Oxford University Press, $99, 356 pp.


At first glance, Ulrich L. Lehner’s Enlightened Monks might seem of interest only to students of monasticism or German religious history. As Pope Benedict has reminded us, the Benedictines have had an enormous influence on German Christianity, an influence that extended into the last century (think, for example, of their influence on the modern liturgy thanks to abbeys such as Beuron and Maria Laach). But Lehner’s focus is not on monasticism itself but rather on how the Enlightenment affected monastic life. How could a basically religious institution that went back to the eighth century absorb (or resist) the new developments in science, philosophy, economics, law, and the arts? The German Benedictines prided themselves on the vigor of their intellectual life in the eighteenth century (they looked down their noses at the oafish mendicants and haughtily despised the Jesuits), so it was perhaps inevitable that Enlightenment ideas would find their way into the cloister, shaping both Benedictine formation and Benedictine scholarly life.

Lehner divides his subject into two parts: Enlightenment ideals as they influenced monastic reform (and, by extension, larger reform within the church) and as they influenced broader changes in Benedictine education and culture. When it came to monastic reform, the “enlightened” monks wanted to subtract the night office from the liturgy of the hours (in order to reserve more time to study). They wanted to give monks more freedom to travel and more flexibility with respect to personal possessions. They wanted to get rid of prisons for monks and the monastic tonsure. And, inevitably, they wanted better food and drink. These German Benedictine reforms anticipated so many later changes in religious life that it is hard not to think of the period covered by Lehner’s book as a kind of dress rehearsal for the period after Vatican II.

But even more important than these practical changes and the turmoil they occasioned were the radical shifts in the monks’ intellectual life. Among the “enlightened,” there was a deep disdain for the second-hand scholasticism that still dominated much of the church’s intellectual life and a keen appetite for the new thinking abroad in Europe. In Lehner’s words, the enlightened monks proposed “a more optimistic anthropology, a positive view of Leibniz and Locke, a focus on experimental physics, and a clear preference for the vernacular as the new language of academia.” At the end of the eighteenth century, the figure of Kant loomed as large in German Benedictine cloisters as it did throughout the rest of the German-speaking world. Some monks wanted to move toward “natural religion”—a kind of religion less dependent on divine revelation and more accessible to reason—and some even believed the state should directly govern religious institutions to keep them from being cut off from the rest of society. In theology, meanwhile, one of the more able reformers was Abbot Martin Gerbert (d. 1793), who, while sympathetic to the desire of the scholastics for precision and clarity, emphasized the scriptural roots of theology and the importance of the writings of the church fathers.

This little summary doesn’t do justice to the book’s range and depth of research. Lehner offers, among other things, an excellent description of monastic prisons, as well as deftly drawn portraits of various savants, rogues, and dreamers in and out of the monasteries. Enlightened Monks also provides important context for the later German revival of theology centered in nineteenth-century Tübingen. Despite its somewhat recherché title, this is one the most interesting books I’ve read this year.


Praying with Confidence
Aquinas on the Lord’s Prayer
Paul Murray, OP
Continuum, $17.95, 128 pp.


Paul Murray is an Irish Dominican priest who has taught for years at Rome’s Angelicum University. In this brief but meaty volume, he examines St. Thomas Aquinas’s reflections on the Lord’s Prayer. Thomas wrote on this prayer in a number of places: in the Summa; in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew; in his Compendium; in selections from the Fathers he compiled in the Catena Aurea; and, touchingly, in sermons he gave in a church in Naples during the last years of his short life. Murray reminds us that Aquinas was not just a philosopher; he was also a commentator on the Bible—a “Master of the Sacred Page.” Thomas was steeped in the commentary tradition that came before him, and he made generous use of it in his own commentaries. This is the proper context in which to set his reflections of the central prayer of the church.

The mature Aquinas argued that all prayer is first and foremost petition. This is not an uncontested claim, but Murray helps us understand it better by quoting the wonderful contemporary Carmelite writer Ruth Burrows: “Even the acts of praise reveal that we depend on divine aid to enable us to praise: God must praise God within us.” Closely allied to this fundamental notion in Aquinas is a second fundamental idea: that prayer is the “interpreter of desire.” When we pray, we speak of our most intimate desire, which is God. (Aquinas knew his Augustine!)

Praying with Confidence offers a painless introduction to the spirituality of the Angelic Doctor. It’s a little book (just over a hundred pages), but it provides solid spiritual nourishment. It is also engagingly written and very affordable. It would be a good book to take on retreat.


A Public Faith
How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good
Miroslav Volf
Brazos, $21.99, 192 pp.


In A Public Faith, the Evangelical theologian Miroslav Volf writes about how Christianity ought to function in a society where it is neither the established religion nor proscribed by law. To put it another way, he addresses the question famously posed by H. Richard Niebuhr: How does Christ relate to culture?

Volf, who teaches at Yale, discusses Niebuhr’s work, but he thinks Niebuhr’s famous quintet of possible relationships between Christ and culture is too schematic. Instead, Volf argues that Christians cannot be silent in the public square precisely because Christianity is a prophetic religion. That assertion is a quintessentially Protestant one, favoring as it does the prophetic dimension of Christianity over its other dimensions (such as the priestly). Volf argues that Christians must resist assimilation into the surrounding secular culture while not imagining that they can ever dominate it. They must “keep asserting a difference into a given culture without ever stepping outside that culture to do so.”

It is hard to build a detailed argument about how Christians should serve the common good (to paraphrase the subtitle) in a book as brief as this one, but Volf does manage to provide some provocative insights. For example, I very much like the way he contrasts “thin” descriptions of Christianity with “thick” ones. A thin account of Christianity might note that Christianity has often been a cause of violence, and might go from there to concluding that it—and maybe monotheistic religion in general—tends to generate violence. No thick description of Christianity would allow this false extrapolation. It would of course consider the historical record, but it would also consider the central claims of the gospel and the important elements of real Christian societies that have been at odds with Christianity itself. Volf’s reflections on the meaning of wisdom for Christians—and on the idea of Christ himself as wisdom—are also very useful, though I wish he had given himself the space to develop them further. In other words, this is a thin book crying out to become a thick one.


The World’s Christians
Who they are, Where they are, and How they got there
Douglas Jacobsen
Wiley-Blackwell, $39.95, 416 pp.


My suspicion is that few will read every page of The World’s Christians. Instead, most will browse through it ad libitum as I did over the past few weeks. Douglas Jacobsen attempts a comprehensive account of contemporary Christianity, an account organized by the who, where, and how of his book’s subtitle. The first part describes the various divisions within Christianity; the second, the places where most Christians actually reside. The third outlines how particular groups of Christians arrived where they are now and details their evolution. The book is filled with valuable information. Its inevitably brief descriptions of various beliefs and practices seem fair, and the historical-cultural description of each tradition’s place in its society is balanced.

What makes this work particularly useful, though, is its abundance of maps (some made by Jacobsen himself), informative timelines, and boxed statistics. Because this material is so large a part of the mix, The World’s Christians is essentially a reference work, despite its long narrative passages. Say you want to know something about Norwegian Christians. This is the perfect book for you: it will tell you that roughly 85 percent of Norway’s population belongs to the Lutheran State Church, though only about 10 percent attend church regularly. It will tell you that, by law, half the cabinet ministers must belong to the state church. Jacobsen wryly adds that, while there is no great affection for the state church in Norway, people feel the same way toward it that they feel toward the waterworks and electricity board: its existence reassures them.

Published in the 2012-03-09 issue: 

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

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