Religion Booknotes: Winter 2017

The Letters of
Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton

Edited and Annotated
by Patrick Samway, SJ

University of Notre Dame Press,
$29, 397 pp.

Even casual readers of Thomas Merton catch frequent glimpses of the talented group of men—including Ed Rice, Jay Laughlin, and Robert Lax— who remained his loyal friends from college days to his death. Among them, Robert Giroux was perhaps most prominent as the gifted editor of such notable authors as T. S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, and many others, first at Harcourt Brace, then at Farrar, Strauss and Cudahy. Giroux’s secure place as one of the most successful editors and publishers of the twentieth century was enhanced by his being Merton’s editor from The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) to Mystics and Zen Masters (1967), and was considerably complicated by his also being the devoted friend of an author who was both astonishingly prolific and consistently unpredictable.

The extensive professional and personal correspondence between Giroux and Merton is here presented with extremely helpful footnotes, biographical introduction, epilogue, and index. Readers are thus able to follow the sometimes complex interactions between the two correspondents and the many other people whom they name and events to which they allude. The letters make clear the critical role played by Giroux, especially in the early days: his editing hand is deft and decisive, and he is responsible for some of Merton’s most memorable titles, such as Sign of Jonas, and No Man Is an Island. They also reveal how Merton grew increasingly restive under his contractual obligations, and found a variety of ways (conscious or unconscious) to subvert them.

Letters dealing primarily with the business of editing and publishing may not appear to be a promising source of insight, but this collection yields more than might be expected. Take for example the realization of how much business could be done efficiently before e-mail through dictaphones, secretaries, typewriters, and the U.S. mail: at times, letters go back and forth between Giroux and Merton every few days, and a single manuscript of Bread in the Wilderness floated from place to place without being lost. Such efficiency, however, was also inhibited by the constraints of monastic obedience: Merton and Giroux sometimes had to wait inordinate periods of time for censors to do their work, and the vagaries of monastic practice with Merton’s mail exacerbated misunderstandings between writer and publisher. By the same token, the burden placed on Merton’s superiors in handling all the business matters generated by the prolific monk becomes more evident. 

 Concerning Merton himself, the correspondence mostly confirms what we learn from his journals: his movement from a total concentration on monastic life to a wider engagement with the world in politics, literature, and spirituality; his restlessness and energy that enabled him to produce a prodigious body of work; his desire to please, which entangled him in countless small enterprises that drew him away from larger projects; and, in the end, his willingness to live under obedience, with all its difficulties, as a monk of Gethsemane. The correspondence shows how hard Merton was willing to work to make his manuscripts better. But it also reveals that he could test the friendship of his editor and publisher by his frequent indecisiveness, inattention, and occasional inability to concentrate.

 

The Triumph of Faith
Why the World Is More Religious than Ever
Rodney Stark
ISI Books, $24.95, 258 pp.

Rodney Stark is notable as a creative and contrarian sociologist of religion who is nothing if not bold. “The world is more religious than it has ever been,” he begins, and enters into a sustained attack against what he calls “the secularization faithful”—the social scientists and students of religion who adhere to the opposite theory—who hold that particularly in North America and Europe, religion is in steep decline. Stark quotes a 2015 Pew report on the United States: “The country is becoming less religious as a whole, and it’s happening across the board.” Among those holding the position that religion is on the decline in the First World is the philosopher Charles Taylor, who proposes that people in the West no longer inhabit an “enchanted” world (A Secular Age).

Stark’s counter to this popular thesis rests on three foundations. First, he gathers material from every part of the globe, thereby enabling a far sounder basis for comparisons. Second, he uses the numbers of the Gallup Organization’s World Poll, which began an unusually broad and thick assemblage of statistics in 2007; Stark then combines the findings of all those years to yield still more significant quantitative data. Third, he makes a critical distinction between “churched” and “unchurched” forms of religiosity, or what might be called “organized religion” and “spirituality.” As a consequence, he insists that the numbers concerning people who profess belief in spirits or who visit the graves of relatives are as significant for determining levels of “faith” as are those for people who claim to have attended church, synagogue, or mosque in any given seven days.

He opens with a set of framing questions that directly challenge the sociological conventional wisdom about secularization. Even taking the most conventional markers of religiosity (“Did you attend worship?” “Is religion important in daily life?”) respondents in the United States scored significantly higher than the average of European respondents, and only slightly lower than respondents in Muslim lands and sub-Saharan Africa. And around the globe, over 70 percent of respondents declared religion to be important in their lives. In contrast, the numbers of those declaring themselves to be atheists is far lower than supposed by apologists of the “New Atheism” (in the United States, 4.4 percent; in Western Europe, 6.7 percent, in Asia, 11.3 percent, and in Islamic nations, 1.1 percent). When Stark’s more expansive definition of religiosity is factored in, the case for the world-wide “triumph of faith” is strengthened.

It is in his more detailed analysis of religion in different regions that Stark’s most provocative pronouncements appear. Europe never was that churchgoing, he declares of the myth of medieval piety, and the reason why religion is relatively stagnant today is because of “lazy, obstructionist state churches.” In contrast, he regards healthy competition as the key to the renaissance of religion in both Americas. In South America, Catholicism was stimulated by the success of Pentecostal Protestantism, and its resurgence owes nothing to liberation theology and everything to a competitive form of charismatic Catholicism. Similarly, in the United States the comatose condition of more liberal “mainline” Protestantism that creates such hand-wringing obscures the powerful emergence of non-denominational Evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics. Given relative birthrates, these versions of Christianity will win out, just as for the same reason, Orthodox Jews will eventually far outnumber Conservative and Reform Jews.

As valuable as his numbers are, and as stimulating as many of his arguments may be, Stark sometimes swings wildly and misses. He insists that modern science, for example, arose “because only Christians and Jews conceived of God as a rational creature and concluded that therefore the universe must run according to rational principles that could be discovered.” Well, no. This broad statement leaves out ancient Greek, Roman, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese science. Ponder the numbers, enjoy the arguments, but test Stark’s conclusions.  

 

We Have Been
Friends Together & Adventures in Grace

Raïssa Maritain
St. Augustine’s Press, $40, 416 pp.

In 1940, when she and her husband Jacques were exiles from their beloved France and living in a New York apartment, Raïssa Maritain began a memoir of her childhood in Russia and her coming of age as an intellectual at the Sorbonne. The tone of We Have Been Friends Together is elegiac; she had little hope for an allied victory, and the rich intellectual and cultural life she and her friends had enjoyed seem irretrievably lost. She wrote a second volume, Adventures in Grace, in 1944, when victory over Hitler seemed more possible and the recovery of France something more than a dream. A third volume was planned but never written. This reissue of the two volumes together uses the original translation by Julie Kernan, with some emendations by the editor, Michael S. Sherwin, OP, who has also added a substantial body of footnotes, including some illuminating reflection and remembrance by Jacques Maritain himself.  

A distinct pleasure in reading this memoir is learning Raïssa’s own story. She was a precocious intellectual in her own right, who walked with her young husband through the same stages of disenchantment, discovery, and faith, and actually preceded Jacques in finding Thomas Aquinas. The Angel of the School, as her short biography of Aquinas terms him, gave a foundation for their faith-based philosophy. She also had, consistent with the delicate prose and indirect style of speaking hard truths in her memoir, a more irenic and gracious spirit than that of her husband, who tended toward active proselytizing and polemics.

More broadly, Maritain’s memories of her husband and their friends represent an important first-hand witness to a time of remarkable spiritual awakening in French Catholicism in the early years of the twentieth century, in which both Jacques and Raïssa Maritain played key roles. Together they found the philosopher Henri Bergson, and through him the possibility of thinking about reality in a manner more fruitful than that offered by the Sorbonne’s social scientists. Together they became intimates of the complex and compelling Léon Bloy, whose simultaneous embrace of poverty and the pursuit of sanctity drew many to the faith. Their circle of friends included intellectual Dominicans like Humbert Clerissac and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the great poet Charles Péguy, and the soldier-writer Ernest Psichari—both of whom were killed in the early days of the Great War—the painter Georges Rouault, and the actress Eve LaValliere, and embraced such unbelievers as Charles Maurras and André Gide. Spiritual transformation and religious conversion among such talented folk testifies to the power of personal influence.  

There is some shadow to this mostly sunny account. Raïssa carefully distances herself and Jacques from the intimations of anti-Judaism that seemed to be a corollary to this newly resurgent Catholicism, particularly in the work of her great hero, Léon Bloy. Not only is she touchingly loyal to her own heritage as a Russian Jew, but the events of the World War II made any form of anti-Judaism more repugnant. Similarly, she must deal gingerly with Jacques’ embarrassing (if temporary) infatuation with Charles Maurras’s Action Française, which wedded Catholicism to an antidemocratic politics that presaged mid-century fascism. In her proposed third volume, we would have found more of an exposition of Jacques’ philosophy, which she began to write in the latter part of the second volume. She gives us just enough to suggest that she was not only the soul-mate and intellectual inspiration of her husband, but also one of the best interpreters of arguably the most important Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century.  

 

Flourishing
Why We Need Religion
in a Globalized World
Miroslav Volf
Yale University Press, $28, 280 pp.

Miroslav Volf teaches theology at Yale Divinity School and is best known for his award-winning Exclusion and Embrace (1996). Readers of that impressive work will find similar traits here: an engagement with large public issues, a firm evangelical perspective, and a desire for reconciliation and peace among humans. The difference in this effort is its higher level of generalization. Volf recognizes the difficulties in speaking about something so huge and unwieldly as “globalization,” which are matched by the difficulties of speaking coherently about “world religions,” and which are multiplied when trying to address the ways globalization and religion intersect. So conscious is Volf of these difficulties that he spends considerable effort in acknowledging them, while still trying to say something meaningful.

His basic argument is that “a vision of flourishing found in the quarreling family of world religions is essential to individual thriving and global common good.” He recognizes that the current version of globalization, grounded in economic interdependence and technological progress, has enabled an unprecedented level of prosperity and comfort for many. At the same time, it falls short in providing such “flourishing” for all the world’s peoples—the disparity of rich and poor grows ever greater, and the risk of ecological disaster draws ever nearer. Nor does it offer a meaning of life greater than mere material prosperity. Thus, a globalized world “needs religion” if it is to extend well-being to all humans through the alterity proclaimed by religion at its best. Although Volf shows no sign of having read Rodney Stark (see above), he emphatically agrees that religion is not disappearing, but is more pervasive and powerful than ever. But can religions, which historically have tended to exclusivity and self-interest, actually perform the leavening function Volf proposes? Are they not more the problem than the solution? Might a globalized world “need religion” only if religions stop acting the way they almost always have?

Volf’s argument, then, proceeds by way of mutual correction between his two great abstractions. For example, as a product of the Enlightenment globalization has much to say to rivalrous religions on the question of mutual acceptance and toleration. And the best truth claims of religion on the nature and destiny of humans can instruct a world enthralled by technology on a meaning of existence that transcends physical well-being. But because Volf works at such a high level of abstraction, the reader can be distracted by the irritant of particularity: is globalization really as regnant as proposed? Are Judaism and Hinduism really “world religions” in the manner that Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity are? Can we bracket the contemporary forces of hatred and violence fomented in the name of religion as incidental rather than essential to a religious outlook? How, specifically, does “religion” as an abstraction speak to “globalization” as an abstraction? When Volf does touch ground, his analysis can be helpful, as when he shows how religious exclusivism need not be translated into political exclusivism; his appeal to Roger Williams is powerful precisely because it is particular. 

The phrase “well-meaning” might have been coined for books like this. Volf is fair, generous, large-minded, and in the best sense liberal; he seeks only what is good for the world. His final chapter on “Conflict, Violence, and Reconciliation” revisits the themes of Exclusion and Embrace with a plea for mutual understanding and support rather than mutual destruction. No one can complain about this ideal, but carrying it out in the highly particular and resistant arena of actual human behavior is the real task.

Published in the February 10, 2017 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

Also by this author
After the Big Chill

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections