Religion Booknotes

The Eyes of Faith
The Sense of the Faithful and the Church’s Reception of Revelation
Ormond Rush
CUA Press, $79.95, 330 pp.

The Eyes of Faith is one of the better theological works to come across my desk in the past few years. Its author, the Australian theologian Ormond Rush, is interested in the sensus fidei—that spiritual sense (or faculty or capacity or capability: Rush uses all these words) by which the Christian believer knows how to discern, understand, and apply God’s revelation to us in Jesus. Rush distinguishes this capacity from the sensus fidelium, which is constituted by the ordinary Catholics, theologians, and bishops who, guided by the Spirit, together give expression to the sensus fidei.

Rush argues that there was already in the early second century a consensus around some core issues related to the meaning of God’s revelation in Christ. He doesn’t enter into open polemics against rival accounts of the formation of doctrine, but he would certainly deny the claim that the first few centuries of the church’s history were a mishmash of competing ideas from which “orthodoxy” finally emerged only after alternative beliefs and interpretations had been suppressed. As he puts it at one point, Irenaeus of Lyons was not the creator of “orthodoxy”; he was created by it. Rush goes on to point out, in lucid detail, how the canon of Scripture emerged in the early church. The sensus fidei intuited that Marcion’s Gnostic mid-second-century account of what was and was not canonical had noxious consequences: it detached Jesus from his Jewish roots and erased his solidarity with human beings. The instinct to be faithful to the apostolic preaching was a bulwark against the inanities of Gnosticism. The sense of the faithful was that judgments about canonicity need to be “in continuity with and faithful to the culminating event of revelation, the Christ event.”

Rush goes on to argue that in the late second century the sensus fidei developed into the “canon” or “rule” of faith, from which the tradition of creeds (baptismal, conciliar, etc.) emerged. These articulations of faith eventually took on what David Tracy, following Hans-Georg Gadamer, calls “classic” status. They summed up a certain understanding but also possessed within them a surplus of meaning.

What about the sensus fidei in terms of the individual believer? Rush has some very good things to say on this topic. In order to make sense of what God has revealed in Christ one needs to take into account not only the usual written sources but also the actual experiences of those who live out the faith in life. In other words, one can learn much about the sensus fidei from an awareness of other people’s lives.

This rather schematic summary of The Eyes of Faith doesn’t do the book full justice. Rush has here provided us with a sophisticated study of theological hermeneutics, as well as a foundational work in ecclesiology. Without quite saying so, he has also provided a response to those writers, such as Elaine Pagels, who see “orthodoxy” as just one of many valid options available in the early church.

 

The Disciples’ Jesus
Christology as Reconciling Practice
Terrence W. Tilley
Orbis, $38, 320 pp.

In The Disciples’ Jesus, Terrence W. Tilley argues that Christology “begins in the active imagination of the disciples. The disciples’ proper imagination required walking in God’s ways, not human ways; letting Christ’s mind be in one; realizing with God’s grace what it means to live under God’s reign in each time and place.” What the New Testament tells us is how the scriptural writers themselves saw the person of Jesus and understood his message; their point of view is everywhere implicit in the text. Tilley goes on to argue that this approach to Christology is open-ended, in the sense that everyone who is a follower of Jesus must learn to “walk in God’s ways.”

For Tilley, the various Gospels are to be read as scripts for a life of Christian discipleship. His argument here owes something to the work of theologians such as Nicholas Lash and Frances Young, who see the Scriptures as fundamentally performative. The Scriptures are to the Christian life what scores are to music: they make the most sense when they are performed. Some (the saints) perform the Scriptures better than others, but to live as a Christian at all requires fidelity to the Christian “score.” Tilley himself does not use the language of performance, preferring instead to speak of “exemplarism.” Jesus is the fundamental exemplar of the Christian life, but he is also much more than that. As Tilley writes: “Jesus of Nazareth taught and showed the members of the Jesus-movement how to live; as God’s divine agent, he empowered us to do so.”

This is not a perfect book. It is somewhat sprawling and baggy (Tilley himself admits that he is better at writing essays than a tightly argued monograph). Still, it is a provocative book, in the best sense of the term. I learned much from it, found myself quarreling with parts of it, but was never bored. It is a book that both irritates and stimulates, and I mean that to be taken as high praise.

 

Out of My Bone
The Letters of Joy Davidman
Edited by Don W. King
Eerdmans, $28, 421 pp.

C. S. Lewis is widely considered one of Christianity’s most compelling modern apologists. He has been influential on many young people and has attracted something like a cult following. Every scrap of his writing has been published; biographies pour out with regularity; tours of places that were dear to him are well attended; and there is a whole industry of C. S. Lewis kitsch, ranging from T-shirts to calendars. In the years since his death, his admirers have squeezed every drop of inspiration and edification out of his personal life, which has now been dramatized in plays and films. When Lewis was in his late fifties and already quite famous on both sides of the Atlantic, he married Joy Davidman, an American divorcee who had converted to Christianity under the influence of his writing. Four years after they were married, Davidman died of cancer. This new collection of her letters helps us to see her as she saw herself, and not just as the object of the great man’s devotion.

In the 1930s, Davidman was an editor of the Communist journal New Masses. The letters from that period reveal a sharp literary mind. She could be very blunt: in one letter, she tells a writer that he is woefully undereducated and provides him with a list of books he needs to read. But it turned out her own reading had some important gaps: her break with communism came after she finally read the works of communism’s leaders. Having read Lenin’s Materialism, she concluded that his views were “philosophically nonsensical, logically unsound, historically arbitrary, and scientifically half-false from the start.”

In 1942 Davidman married another writer, William Gresham; and the couple had two sons. As both became disenchanted with Marxism, Davidman became increasing interested in Christianity. By 1952 the Gresham marriage was beginning to fail. A year later, Joy moved with her two sons to England. Her letters to her estranged husband, who was by then an alcoholic and an L. Ron Hubbard enthusiast, are tedious and repetitive—full of requests for money, threats of lawsuits when money does not appear, long complaints about scraping by, and news about the boys. Her final letters relate to her marriage to Lewis and the breakdown of her health.

Fans of Lewis will want to read this book to get a fuller picture of the woman so beautifully remembered in A Grief Observed. I found the early letters interesting for the picture they give of intellectual life in 1930s New York. (Davidman was an exact contemporary of Thomas Merton at Columbia University.) The letters she wrote during her last illness are very moving; she remains plucky and hopeful to the end. And while the correspondence between Davidman and her first husband is mostly dreary, it does include wonderful descriptions of what she was seeing and doing in England, descriptions that remind us what a gifted writer she was.

 

Teresa de Ávila
Lettered Woman
Barbara Mujica
Vanderbilt University Press, $45, 272 pp.

In sixteenth-century Spain those who had a university education were known as letrados (literally “lettered ones”). Women were excluded from the university and so, by definition, were not among the letrados. But as Barbara Mujica shows in her new study of St. Teresa of Ávila, Teresa was a “lettered one” in another sense of the term. She wrote thousands of letters, hundreds of which have survived. In earlier columns I have taken note of Kieran Kavanaugh’s recent two-volume translation of those letters. Now Mujica has analyzed the saint’s life in the light of those letters. She shows that Teresa used her letters to control and administer her reform of Carmel, raise funds, negotiate religious and political disagreements, oversee the admittance of postulants, and provide practical advice on everything from diet and health to the proper care of souls. Teresa was acutely aware of class distinctions and fully alert to the hierarchy’s suspicion about religious women who showed signs of independence from clerical control. During the period in which Teresa lived, the Protestant Reformation inspired a good deal of anxiety within the church, and this anxiety sometimes expressed itself as distrust of all religious innovation. Teresa herself was especially vulnerable to this distrust because her ancestors were Jewish (a fact her family artfully concealed with a dash of chicanery, a few useful bribes, and some dubious paperwork).

Mujica, a Commonweal contributor, argues that Teresa’s incessant letter writing was an act of self-representation in response to “men who sought to limit her mobility” or “recast the reform to their own visions, or destroy it altogether.” Teresa represented herself in various ways in her correspondence: now as a foundress, administrator, and mother general; now as an educator, legislator, or diplomat.

Early commentators on Teresa’s letters often turned up their noses at her style because she did not use the formal rhetoric of Renaissance epistolary models. In Mujica’s excellent chapter on the later reception of the letters, she shows how Teresa came to be understood as a humble nun fit for canonization rather than as what a papal nuncio once called her during her lifetime: “a restless, gadabout, disobedient, and contumacious woman.” Mujica’s book is an important addition to the literature about Teresa. It ends with a set of Teresa’s letters, in both English and Spanish, as well as an exhaustive bibliography.

Published in the 2010-09-10 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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