Religion Booknotes

Against the Tide
Love in a Time of Petty Dreams and Persisting Enmities
Miroslav Volf
Eerdmans, $18, 222 pp.

Anyone, a friend of mine once observed, can write a long book, but it requires a real mastery of one’s material and a decent prose style to write a good short essay. The British writer Cyril Connolly described this challenge as the “tyranny of eight hundred words.” Miroslav Volf, a Free Church theologian who teaches at Yale, proves equal to the challenge in Against the Tide, a new collection of essays first published separately in the Christian Century. Volf has a knack for bringing theological light to everyday issues, and whatever the occasion of these essays, few of them read as if they were written just to meet a deadline.

The range of topics is broad. He writes about big political and social issues, but also about what it’s like to adopt children, or to be a member of a minority religious community in Croatia, a country acrimoniously divided between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. (Volf’s father was a Pentecostal minister.) What I found most interesting is how Volf’s Free Church theology rubs up against doctrines and practices that belong to other Christian traditions. He muses over the function of pilgrimages and sacred places. He talks about how sacraments speak to Christians independently of whatever preachers say.

In a piece about visiting the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in India, Volf explains that, while there is no commerce within the temple precincts, each visitor gets a bowl of food as a “ticket.” One is supposed to eat some of it and put the rest in a larger bowl, which is then distributed to the poor. Volf’s reflection on this beautiful practice highlights a theme he returns to again and again in this book: the relationship between praxis and faith.

 

Angels
A History
David Albert Jones
Oxford University Press, $19.95, 224 pp.

The late Jean Leclercq once received an invitation to the home of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain for their Sunday-afternoon tea and conversation. The note said, “On palera des anges” (We’ll talk about angels). Since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, if not before, there has been much to talk about: Are angels purely spiritual? Can they sin and, if so, how? Are they of one or many species? How do they move? What St. Thomas had to say on the subject is discussed succinctly in David Albert Jones’s Angels: A History, which surveys the topic of angels in the sacred texts, creeds, and art of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

One thing all three faiths have in common is the unyielding conviction that angels are not to be adored. Like us, they are creatures, not minor divinities. The word “angel” comes from the Greek word for messenger, ’´aggeloV; but, as Jones points out, angels function in more ways than one. They are also guardians, ministering spirits, and worshipers before the throne of God. Demons are angels who rebelled against God, led by the one who is known as the Tempter (Satan). Angels are pure spirits, but in Western pictorial art they have been imagined mainly as chubby putti or winged warriors. In film they have been everything from the scruffy Clarence of It’s a Wonderful Life to a winged John Travolta in a trench coat.

A few years ago we had a full-blown angel fad in the United States, with bestselling books about angels, boutiques selling angel tchotchkes, and expensive seminars about how to get in touch with your own angel. The fad seemed to have as much to do with the American genius for making money as with any spiritual trend, but of course interest in angels is not unique to the United States. During this time a visiting German theologian told me that a poll had recently shown that more people in Germany believed in angels than in God. When journalists spoke with me about this trend, their last question would always be whether I believed in angels myself, to which I invariably replied that I began to pray to my guardian angel around the age of four or five and would be mightily disappointed if, after death, I discovered that there are no angels. I was always quick to add that Christianity is not about angels but about the person of Jesus (see the Letter to the Hebrews). I wish I could have given the journalists this handy and undemanding little volume.

 

The Making of a Mystic
New and Selected Letters of Evelyn Underhill
Edited by Carol Poston
University of Illinois Press, $75, 384 pp.

Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) is so revered in the Anglican Communion that her death day is recorded in the saints calendar in the Book of Common Prayer. She was famous as a prolific spiritual writer, especially as the author of Mysticism (1911) and three follow-up volumes written for a more general audience. Under a pen name, she was also a prolific novelist and poet. She corresponded with the Quaker Rufus Jones, with T. S. Eliot, and with C. S. Lewis. She was responsible for introducing English readers to the work of Rabindranath Tagore, who would go on to win the Nobel prize for literature.

This compilation of Underhill’s letters, well annotated by Carol Poston, replaces a hastily assembled collection of her correspondence published a few years after her death. Some of the early letters are a bit tedious. Unless you have a special interest in how a typical educated Englishwoman “did” the sights in Europe, you are not likely to find Underhill’s epistolary reports about her travels with her mother very engaging. Far more important are the letters leading up to the publication of her major work on mysticism. It is amazing that she was able to write such a work in 1911, given the paucity of primary sources available at the time. She had to read the writings of St. Teresa of Ávila in a French translation; she persuaded a friend to translate Meister Eckhart’s works into English for her—and that at a time when there was no serious critical edition of either his German or his Latin works. These letters remind us how much scholarship in this area has progressed in the past century.

As a spiritual director, Underhill was a fountain of good sense (she herself had been under the direction of Baron Friedrich von Hügel until his death). The letters to those she directed advised against fancy searches for the sublime and grim self-laceration for past sins. Underhill urged her correspondents not to fall into the alone-with-the-alone pattern of self-isolated spiritual heroism: they were to go to church, receive the sacraments, and help the poor.

Underhill was a devoted but not uncritical member of the Church of England. She resisted the tug toward Rome for two reasons: first, she was appalled by the Catholic Church’s crusade against Modernism (she met Pius X once, and thought him saintly but none too bright); second, her husband worried that the practice of auricular confession would interfere with their marriage. She was convinced that the Church of England’s rich liturgy and high sacramental sense were enough to draw ordinary Christians into contemplative prayer. While she is frequently described as an “Anglo-Catholic,” she had little sympathy for the aesthetic preoccupations normally associated with that variety of Anglicanism. She loved cats, gardens, her lawyer husband, travel, art, and books. Apart from her resolute Christian pacifism, Underhill had all the prejudices of her class. But she reminds us how Christian women of the last century were able to exercise intellectual influence and unofficial leadership with faithfulness and love.

 

Nonviolence: A Brief History
The Warsaw Lectures
John Howard Yoder
Baylor University Press, $29.95, 124 pp.

When John Howard Yoder died in 1997, he left behind a large cache of essays, reviews, and memoranda. Buried in this pile was a series of lectures he had given in 1983 at the invitation of a Polish ecumenical group. Nonviolence: A Brief History is an edited version of these lectures. Yoder, a Mennonite, was best known as one of the most sophisticated exponents of Christian pacifism. His influence on a younger generation of Christian thinkers—for example, Stanley Hauerwas—was profound. Those unacquainted with Yoder’s work will benefit from reading these lectures, which summarize ideas he pursued in greater depth elsewhere.

The eleven lectures cover familiar topics in the study of nonviolence such as the American civil-rights movement and methods of “conflict resolution.” The most substantial lecture is “The Fall and Rise of the Just War Tradition.” Here Yoder’s considerable learning is on full display. He argues that it is impossible to understand and evaluate traditional just-war theory without first investigating its historical development. Hard as this theory has been to formulate, it has been much harder to apply consistently. The Vatican appealed to it when it made its case against the invasion of Iraq, but so did the Bush administration’s Catholic apologists. At the time Yoder delivered the lectures collected in this book, the Catholic bishops in the United States were working on the final draft of “The Challenge of Peace,” which Yoder saw as a test case for the useful application of traditional just-war theory in an age of nuclear weapons.

Yoder was a ferocious worker, a generous colleague of mine at Notre Dame (I still have materials he gave me from the famous “peace” retreat he attended at Thomas Merton’s hermitage), and a rigorous thinker. One hopes that the publication of these lectures will encourage new readers to take up Yoder’s classic book The Politics of Jesus.

Published in the 2011-01-14 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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