Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by Alasdair MacIntyre
(Notre Dame University Press, 1988, 410 pages)
This is a classic of modern philosophical ethics. Alasdair MacIntyre follows up the argument that he previously made regarding the collapse of a coherent modern ethical theory in After Virtue. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre makes the case that rival cultural and intellectual traditions fail to come to agreement about such important issues as the nature of justice because these competing traditions have incommensurable accounts of practical rationality. In a liberal democracy, where the rights of individuals are valued above all and no particular tradition is granted supremacy, those who work to resolve serious moral disagreements are often left with consensus rather than true agreement.
MacIntyre makes his case through a narrative history of Western ethical theory, starting with Homer and progressing through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Hume. Through this history, MacIntyre shows how all rationality is conditioned by the assumptions and considerations of particular traditions. There is no such thing as reasoning from a place that is divested of historical and cultural concerns. MacIntyre gives an account of how seemingly incompatible traditions (like Aristotelian ethics and Augustinian theology) have been generously and brilliantly engaged and evaluated so as to mutually correct and inform one another (as Aquinas was able to with Aristotle and Augustine in the 13th century). He critiques modern liberalism for its assumption that individuals have recourse to universal and tradition free practical reasoning. Liberalism, in its elevation of the rights and preferences of the individual over the particular vision of the good life of a whole society, has become a default tradition – but one which has no workable way or resolving major ethical conflicts.
MacIntyre’s writing is dense, and his arguments require real concentration. That being said, his prose is very readable and it is unencumbered by footnotes and extended analysis of other texts. His grasp on the breadth of Western intellectual history and his ability to draw out a coherent and compelling narrative are staggering. For anyone who wants to seriously engage with the questions about justice and ethics in contemporary society, MacIntyre is an indispensable resource.
Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer by Rowan Williams
(Eerdmans, 2014, 96 pages)
In reviewing Rowan Williams’ The Other Mountain, I mentioned that Williams’ scholarly writing can sometimes be close to indecipherable. This is very much not the case with this wonderful little book. Being Christian is a popular introduction to the basics of Christian practice. It was originally delivered as a set of Holy Week lectures at Canterbury Cathedral.
There are plenty of introductions to Christian faith; there are many short books that attempt to get at the core beliefs and ideas that animate Christianity. What makes Williams’ book unique in its approach is his focus on Christian practices more than Christian beliefs. This is not to say that Williams prioritizes practice over intellectual content, but rather, that he gets at what is unique about Christian belief by discussing what the Christian community does. It is joining the Church through baptism, listening for God’s voice in the diverse texts of the Bible, being welcomed into God’s company at the Eucharist, and growing to reflect the divine life through prayer that, according to Williams, “makes you realize that you are part of a Christian community” (vii). For Williams, Christianity is not simply about believing certain things, but about being identified by practices that initiate and direct a community in a particular kind of life – one characterized by love, reconciliation, careful listening, gratitude, commitment, and forgiveness.
Williams’ tone is pastoral and caring. These are the seasoned reflections of someone who has spent much time participating in, meditating on, and carefully expositing for others these basic yet inexhaustible Christian practices. The final chapter on prayer is particularly good. It is marked by Williams’ skill as a historical theologian and as a practical spiritual guide. He draws out common themes on prayer from the writings of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian. Among other things, prayer is intimately connected with a concern for justice and reconciliation; so much so, in fact, that Williams makes the simple but rather stark claim that “If people prayed seriously they would be reconciled” (71). This, along with the rest of the wisdom of this book, is a testament to an academic and clerical career that has been consistently directed toward reconciliation and marked by the distinctive practices of the Christian faith.
The Other Mountain by Rowan Williams
(Carcanet Press, 2014, 64 pages)
Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and former Archbishop of Canterbury, is a profound and sometimes confounding theologian. Much of his writing, both scholarly and popular, focuses on the capacity of language to communicate the nature of faith, and the abstract (and occasionally indecipherable) quality of his prose embodies the inherent complexities of religious language. Williams’ poetry is an extension of this focus.
The poems that make up The Other Mountain depict the landscapes of Wales where Williams grew up, the Cambridge countryside, the beauty and danger of the Bosphorus (a strait that runs between Europe and Asia), and the budding spring seen from Blackden Hall in Cheshire, England. Williams’ view of nature is charged with a kind of sacramentalism that sees something of divinity communicated through the beauty of nature. He also meditates on Christian martyrs and peace advocates, like the second century North African slave girl Felicity, the Russian nun Maria Skobtsova who died in a concentration camp for her support of Jewish refugees in Paris, and the Japanese radiologist and advocate for disarmament Takashi Nagai. Also included are translations from the Welsh of two of Waldo Williams’ poems.
In his theological writings, Williams is often concerned with questions of peace, non-violence, and the nature of Christian witness. In these poems he depicts the shattering effects of violence and war while also envisioning the beauty of the world that makes struggling for peace a necessary endeavor. As he states in his preface, Williams’ task “is to do with what words resist butchery; what has to be said if manic violence is not the last word” (9). Reading these poems once through only feels like making a start – their depth requires more time and attention. However, spending that time offers a view of the graced nature of the world that can come through no other way.
The Cypress House by Michael Koryta
(Little, Brown and Company, 2011, 415 pages)
If you like mysteries, this is one that you will not be able to put down. Koryta vividly tells the story of Arlen Wagner and his special gift to communicate with the dead. When he saw smoke rising and flesh disappearing from the body he knew it foretold the person’s death. The Cypress House begins with Arlen aboard a train headed for a Florida work camp where he and others hope to find work. When Arlen see smoke rising in the eyes of his fellow workers he convinces young Paul to jump off the train. In their search for work, they come upon a broken down roadhouse, the Cypress House. Cypress wood is a very hard wood that was often used to build coffins because of its sturdiness. Rebecca, the beautiful woman who is found tending the Cypress House, allows them to stay for a night that turns out to be much longer. Arlen has weathered much during his life including life in the trenches during World War II. When he was a solider he could sense when the enemy was not to die from his hands because of the lack of the smoke. Arlen did not feel his ability was a gift, he was unable to explain why he was able to sense things. However, when Arlen was a child he witnessed his father, an undertaker, speaking to dead bodies which terrified him.
While at the Cypress House, Arlen finds that Rebecca’s brother is involved with several unsavory lawmen who are using him to smuggle drugs. When smoke is revealed in Paul’s eyes, Arlen knows he must get Paul out of there. His plot to anger the smitten Paul backfires when Paul decides to join in with the evil doers. Rebecca’s desire is to stay until her brother was released from prison, but upon his release her younger brother wants to make big money by returning to his drug running endeavors. Koryta reveals twists and turns all throughout the story as Rebecca, her brother, Paul, or Arlen try to escape from the Cypress House. The Cypress House is intended to be their coffin.
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
(Granta Books, 2004, 163 pages)
I rarely read nonfiction, but I’ve been obsessed with a podcast called Serial (from This American Life, it’s not too late to catch up) which is a 12-part series of podcasts that are looking into all aspects of a murder case from 1999. In the podcast Sarah Koenig (the journalist) speaks with Adnan Syed (convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in high school) and generally investigates what happened in 1999. So because I’m obsessed, I read everything I can about Serial and one article recommended the book The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm. Malcolm looks into the relationship between a journalist and their subject by writing about what happened when convicted murderer Jeffery MacDonald sues the author Joe McGinniss, who wrote a book about his case called Fatal Vision. It’s a short book and she kind of broadens her subject about the lawsuit into an examination of the ethics involved in the relationship that forms between a journalist and the subject they are writing about. The first sentence of the book is striking and often quoted, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
(Riverhead Hardcover, 2013, 512 pages)
The Signature of All Things revolves around the life of Alma Whittaker – the only child of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker. The family made a name for itself in 19th century Philadelphia thanks to Henry’s botanical skills and financial prowess. Alma followed in her father’s footsteps and immersed herself in the world of plants. Despite her intelligence Alma was made painfully aware that she was never going to be wanted or admired for her looks. When she meets Ambrose Pike, a lithographer, later in life she is surprised at how much they complement one another and while she envisions their relationship as one between siblings Ambrose surprises her further by requesting her hand.
This novel follows Alma from birth through the end of her life and we see her traveling from America to the South Pacific and Europe. I was initially pretty invested in the story because I wanted to know what would happen with Alma and her family. As things progressed, however, I found my interest tapering off. I also thought some elements in the story line seemed a bit superfluous. The audiobook narrator was well-suited for the novel. This was my first time reading any fiction by Gilbert, I was only introduced to her thanks to Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. I’m glad I got a chance to give it a listen.
The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D.
(Bantam, 2003, 288 pages)
A friend gave me this book after I told her I was pregnant and she said it was really helpful and that it’s best to read it before the baby arrives so you have time to actually digest/remember the information. Essentially this book revolves around how to care for your newborn in the three months after birth. The focus is on calming crying and ensuring a good night’s sleep. Karp explains that those first three months of life should be considered the 4th trimester – your baby is still getting acclimated to this new world and the best way to keep them happy is by recreating the womb experience as closely as possible. This can be done by using the 5 S’s: Swaddling, Side/Stomach placement, Shushing, Swinging, Sucking. Doing a combination of some or all of these calms the baby (thereby calming the parents).
This was a quick and helpful read that I’ve since passed on to my husband so he can familiarize himself with the techniques. I’d definitely recommend it for parents-to-be.