Religion Booknotes

Compassion
Loving Our Neighbor in an Age of Globalization
Maureen H. O’Connell
Orbis, $32, 256 pp.

Originally written by Maureen H. O’Connell as a dissertation, Compassion is a study both of compassion itself and of its conditions and implications in an era of globalization. It is easy enough to say that we sympathize with the plight of those who suffer; it is quite another thing to say that we suffer with those who suffer (com+passio). Compassion is a hard thing to understand, and even harder thing to live.

O’Connell marks out three aspects of compassion: first, the ability to see ourselves and our connection to the suffering of others; second, a humble willingness to interpret our connection to the causes of the others’ suffering; and, third, an active commitment to transform the situations that cause suffering. Thus, in her construal of the matter, compassion requires self-examination. To be compassionate is, among other things, to be rigorously truthful about ourselves and the culture that produces our sense of self.

O’Connell does not think that the marketplace, natural-law ethics, or an abstract comprehension of the church’s social teaching give us all the resources we need to do the three things compassion requires. She makes a strong case for the place of emotion, narrative, memory, and the power of the imagination. Her conclusions follow a detailed analysis of the work of both Martha Nussbaum and Johann Baptist Metz.

O’Connell’s work is fundamentally about Christian discipleship—about what Metz calls Christ’s “dangerous memory.” Compassion, then, is not just a work of philosophical ethics but also one of theology. Despite the author’s too-frequent apologies for writing from the privileged position of a Caucasian woman and some longueurs that remind the reader of the book’s previous life as a doctoral dissertation, this is an important work of scholarship, one that reminds us that we cannot have compassion for the world until we acknowledge how much we ourselves are implicated both individually and collectively in its woes.

 

Intellectual Appetite
A Theological Grammar
Paul J. Griffiths
Catholic University of America, $24.95, 236 pp.

Paul J. Griffiths uses the term “grammar” in its most capacious sense—that is, as the structure of discourse. The basic argument of Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar is that the world is not just a fact but a gift, albeit a damaged one. What ought to be a rational creature’s response to this gift? To answer that question Griffiths follows a line of thinking based mainly on some sage observations made by St. Augustine. Most of the relatively short chapters in the book are headed by longish quotations from Augustine, given first in Latin (why?) and then in translation.

The word “appetite” is in the title for a reason. Griffiths notes that conscious appetite involves a longing for an absence to become a presence. We may long for the objects of our animal appetites (for example, food) or for things like power. The goodness or badness of an appetite depends on its object. It should come as no surprise to any reader of Augustine that Griffiths thinks our good appetites involve an implicit longing for God: “Thou has created us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

For these reasons, the Christian’s intellectual appetites must be properly focused. In contemporary usage, curiosity is almost always a good thing, but Griffiths is here developing a critique of curiositas whose roots go deep into the Christian past. (Athough he doesn’t refer to it in this book, there is a vast monastic literature warning against curiosity.) In the pejorative sense Griffiths intends, curiosity is a kind of aimless poking around, as if everything were fair game for the restless mind. By contrast, the Christian mind ought to be studious, wanting to know just those things that draw us closer to God in some way. And it ought to approach the world beyond itself with the humility appropriate to a creature. The studious mind does not seek to own or control what it knows; it doesn’t herd words or ideas into its exclusive domain.

Griffiths’s prose is a little too latinate and fussy for my taste, and his book would have been better if he had cut the intrusive passages about his dog and the wonders of his suburban garden. That said, this is a very intelligent book by someone who has thought deeply and humbly about the Christian life. Centuries ago St. Peter Damian said that Christ was his grammar. Paul Griffiths helps us to understand what the old monastic reformer had in mind.

 

Einstein’s God
Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit
Krista Tippett
Penguin, $16, 304 pp.

Krista Tippett is well known to listeners of public radio as the host of Speaking of Faith (which was recently retitled Krista Tippett on Being). This volume of interviews, with an ample introduction by Tippett, is derived from some of her programs. The title and subtitle promise us a book about religion, science, and the human spirit. Many of the people whose interviews are included are not religious in any conventional sense of the term. In fact, only three of them identify themselves as adherents of a religious tradition. Some of the others admit to having some sense of a “beyond” that their empirical findings do not or cannot address. In some cases, that “beyond” is a sort of existential wonder at the profound mystery of the cosmos (what we might call “Einstein’s religion,” echoed here by Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies). In other cases, it’s a wonder at aspects of the human person that seem to exceed our most sophisticated biology.

The person who best represents traditional Christianity is, no surprise, John Polkinghorne, the physicist and Anglican priest who sees Christianity and science as complementary realities. I thought the interview with physicist V. V. Raman, who talks about the nature of science from a Hindu perspective, was also quite instructive, demonstrating that there are well-developed religious perspectives on science that are very different from the familiar Christian one.

The Turkish-born Muslim Mehmet Oz, a renowned cardiologist, makes the case for the ancient wisdom of medical usages. James Moore, who’s written a biography of Darwin, puts Darwin’s religious views into their proper context and corrects the jaundiced view of Darwin still common among religious believers.

If the word “wonder” is common currency in these discussions, so is the word “hope.” The Quaker Parker Palmer discusses the theological idea of hope in view of his own struggles with depression, while Yale physician/professor Sherwin Nuland addresses the same issue with the conviction that our drive for beauty and love—what he calls “the human spirit”—both inspires wonder (that word again) and gives meaning to life.

Despite all the talk of wonder and hope, the very variety of these interviews keeps Einstein’s God from cohering. It is an interesting collection but not a very meaty one. Tippett frequently quotes Einstein’s judgment that God does not play dice with the universe (some quantum theorists would answer, “Oh yes he does”), but there is another well-known Einstein quote she doesn’t mention, though it stands behind the convictions of most of those she talks with in this book: “The Lord God is subtle [raffiniert in German] but malicious he is not.” Otherwise put, the universe, with all its mysteries, is mysteriously intelligible. Or, as the mathematician and physicist Janna Levin, a nonbeliever, says to Tippett: “Why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what is remarkable.”

 

After You Believe
Why Christian Character Matters
N. T. Wright
HarperOne, $24.99, 320 pp.

In After You Believe, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, asks this question: Once a person has professed Christianity, how is that person to live the rest of his or her life? The easy answer is that a person should live so as to enjoy the reward of heaven. By a careful scrutiny of the biblical message, Wright arrives at a slightly different answer: We should live in such a way as to build the Kingdom of God first announced by Jesus in his public ministry.

Wright uses the term “character”—the “transforming, shaping, and markings of a life and its habit”—to describe the way a person is to live precisely as a Christian. The very word “character” might lead the unwary to think that Wright is speaking of the ethical life as it was understood in Greek ethics in general and in the ethics of Aristotle in particular. But that is just what Wright is arguing against. A major theme of this very rich book is that the moral vision of Jesus is far more capacious than the Aristotelian tradition. Wright emphasizes that, for the Christian, doing good works means “doing things which bring God’s wisdom and glory to birth in the world.”

Where the message of Jesus veers most radically away from Aristotle’s “virtue ethics” is in its insistence on the centrality of humility, charity, patience, and chastity—virtues that, as the philosopher Simon Blackburn puts it, would have been “unimaginable as ethical virtues to ancient Greeks.” The practice of these virtues forms the habit of Christian character, a character capable of reaching out beyond the self to others and the Other. Pagan virtue was what a man needed in order to thrive in the polis; it was social and self-centered at the same time and to the same degree. Christian virtue involves forgetting the self: the more you grow in the virtues of faith, hope, and love, the “less you will be thinking about yourself at all” according to Wright. Instead your mind and heart will be entirely concentrated on what Scripture calls the Body of Christ.

Readers of After You Believe will admire Wright’s close reading of Scripture, his clear prose, and his evident love for his Christian faith. While reading Wright’s book, I could not help thinking of Paul J. Griffiths’s Intellectual Appetite (reviewed above). Though very different in many ways, both books attempt to articulate a Christian vocabulary and worldview that captures what is different—indeed, radically new—about the Christian proposal. Wright adheres more closely to the biblical text, which is his area of expertise, while Griffiths ruminates more on Augustine, but both are concerned with what is most distinctive about the gospel; both highlight its sharp departure from pagan wisdom.

 

Mary
A History of Doctrine and Devotion
Hilda Graef
Ave Maria Press, $35, 608 pp.

Medieval Exegesis, Volume 3
The Four Senses of Scripture
Henri de Lubac, translated by E. M. Macierowski
Eerdmans, $55, 800 pp.

Finally, a short note about two classics that have recently been made more widely available. One is a new edition, the other is newly translated into English.

Over the years, I have often consulted Hilda Graef’s original two-volume history of Marian doctrine, which ended on the cusp of the Second Vatican Council. That fact limited the usefulness of those volumes because the council’s decision to speak of Mary within the larger context of the church marked a profound shift in Mariology. It is therefore a pleasure to see this new edition, compressed into a single volume, with a long (fifty-page) addition by Thomas A. Thomson, SM, providing a survey of developments in Marian doctrine over the past few decades. At thirty-five dollars, it’s a bargain.

Henri de Lubac’s study of medieval exegesis is one of the most admired works of twentieth-century theological scholarship. It remains an indispensable work even though it is now nearly fifty years old. Eerdmans is to be congratulated for finally getting it translated into English by E. M. Macierowki, especially given the task facing the translator: the book has 346 pages of footnotes, in addition to its 418 pages of text. De Lubac wrote much of Medieval Exegesis during the war years, and traveled from place to place carrying sacks full of notes about the rare texts he had tracked down. The translator reproduces each Latin citation of the original in those notes as well as the secondary literature. Few readers are likely to get through this book from beginning to end (I attempted to read the whole of the French original years ago but stalled somewhere in volume two), but many will find it a useful reference. Much attention has been paid to the history of exegesis over the past two generations, but de Lubac’s book is still a standard against which other such work is to be tested. Medieval Exegesis describes how the medieval church used all four senses to convey the contents of Scripture in the liturgy, art, and literature of the period. Students of biblical exegesis will want a copy of this book, as will anyone interested in things medieval.

Published in the 2010-11-19 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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