Andrew S · Non-Fiction · Philosophy · Religion

Gift and the Unity of Being | by Antonio López

Gift and the Unity of Being by Antonio López
(Cascade Books, 2013, 368 pages)

“Gift” is an important concept in sociology and anthropology. This idea, dealing with the way that gift giving and exchange function in societies, has been extended and applied to the field of philosophy. The theme has been picked up in recent years by theologians as well. In Gift and the Unity of Being, Antonio López employs “gift” in his broad ranging re-articulation of traditional Catholic theology. López interacts with ancient and contemporary philosophers and theologians to examine how the understanding of being as a gift can reveal the unity of the natural and the supernatural. This is a dense book, and it took me a long time to get through. However, it was well worth the effort. I think I’ll be reflecting on its themes for quite a while.

Andrew S · Essays · In the Library · Literature · Non-Fiction · Philosophy · Politics · Religion

The Givenness of Things | by Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015, 304 pages)

Not only is Marilynne Robinson one of the most important contemporary American novelists, she’s probably one of our most important political and theological thinkers. It’s good to know that she has the ear of people like President Obama, who cites her novel Gilead as a favorite and has also quoted her essay “Fear” (included in this collection) at public events. Robinson has a real love for America – a love for the theology that shaped it and the democratic ideals that it so often betrays.

These essays see Robinson covering much of the ground that she has covered in other essays. First, there is John Calvin and North America’s Calvinistic heritage. The chapter “Proofs” is a particularly good reflection on the nature of the mystery and sacredness of creation in Calvin’s thought. Next there are the failures of American democracy. “Fear” is a provocative reflection on an American approach to gun control laws, which Robinson characterizes as “cowardice.” Also, there is the phenomenon of human consciousness and the poverty of so much reductionistic science. “Givenness” looks to the 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards to critique certain attitudes in neuroscience. As usual, Robinson’s deep reserve of historical knowledge is brought to bear with eloquence and wit to address very pressing contemporary problems.

One of the features of this collection that I was excited to see was Robinson’s extended treatments of Shakespeare. As far as I can remember none of her other published essays have done so, except perhaps in passing. Shakespeare was the subject of her doctoral research, and yet it is only now that she has begun to explore his plays. Not surprisingly, her take is theological. She sees the plays, especially the later plays, as serious and brilliant engagements with the theological controversies of the Reformation.

There is no contemporary writer that I enjoy reading more than Robinson. True, her lengthy sentences and implied connections between topics can make for difficult reading. These essays require attention and reflection. However, the work pays off when you stumble across beautiful statements like these:

“Touch a limit of your understanding and it falls away, to reveal mystery upon mystery.”

“Grace is the great variable that puts any reckoning of fault or merit very far beyond human competence.”

“I have lived long enough to chalk up to age inadequacies that have been with me the whole of my conscious life.”

Andrew S · Non-Fiction · Philosophy · Religion

Returning to Reality | by Paul Tyson

Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times by Paul Tyson
(Lutterworth Press, 2015, 218 pages)

You could categorize this book as philosophical theology, theological metaphysics, or some other combination of the disciplines. Whatever you call it, it deals with the way philosophy and theology relate to one another. Specifically, Tyson argues that the philosophical viewpoint of modernity (largely based on scientific assumptions) does not offer a sufficient explanation of the world in which we live. He argues instead that the ancient tradition of Platonism, especially as it has been appropriated by the Christian tradition, provides a more effective explanation of reality as a whole. The book is a bit more technical than necessary at points, but Tyson argues his case well. A longer review of this book will also appear in the publication Theological Book Review.

Andrew S · Essays · Literature · Non-Fiction · Philosophy

Tolkien Among the Moderns | edited by Ralph C. Wood

Tolkien among the Moderns

Tolkien Among the Moderns edited by Ralph C. Wood
(University of Notre Dame Press, 2015, 272 pages)

J. R. R. Tolkien is famous for writing stories that are set in a world that is part of a mythical past. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings draw on mythic sources, but the authors of this volume argue that Tolkien’s work can benefit from being drawn into conversation with modern writers and thinkers. Tolkien’s work is compared with that of James Joyce, Friedrich Nietzsche, and other modernist figures. A full review of this book should appear later in the year in the journal Mythlore.

Andrew S · Non-Fiction · Philosophy · Religion

Gratitude: An Intellectual History | by Peter J. Leithart

Gratitude: An Intellectual History

Gratitude: An Intellectual History by Peter J. Leithart
(Baylor University Press, 2014, 350 pages)

The notion of “the gift” has played a big role in twentieth and twenty first century sociology, philosophy, and theology. For all the reflection that has been done on the nature of gift-giving, Leithart sees a lack of serious reflection on the response of gratitude. This book seeks to fill that gap in the literature by tracing ideas about gratitude from the ancient world and the advent of Christendom, to the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, and into contemporary thought.

The tight circles of gratitude between patron and benefactor in the ancient world gave way to the “ingratitude” of the Christian church toward their Roman patrons. The Enlightenment picked up this ingratitude and applied it to tradition in general. Contemporary sociology rediscovered the existence of “gift” economies, and contemporary philosophy struggled with whether true expressions of gratitude are necessary or even possible. This, in brief, is the plot of Leithart’s story about the role of gratitude in Western culture.

Leithart, demonstrates a wide-ranging command of literary, philosophical, sociological, and theological sources. The project is ambitious, and it leaves plenty of room for debate, detraction, and development. However, its overarching narrative is convincing. Leithart’s extended treatment of Shakespeare’s Corolianus as an example of shifting Renaissance understandings of gratitude is a particularly strong point. This is a creative and engaging book. Like many of Leithart’s books, it is theological at its core, even while its appeal spans multiple disciplines.

Andrew S · Non-Fiction · Philosophy · Religion

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor | by James K. A. Smith

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith
(Eerdmans, 2014, 152 pages)

Jamie Smith describes his book as, on the one hand, “a book about a book – a small field guide to a much larger scholarly volume,” and on the other hand, as “a kind of how-to manual – guidance on how (not) to live in a secular age” (xi). The book that Smith refers to is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), the magnum opus from one of the most important contemporary philosophers. Taylor’s book is an attempt to both define the different senses in which our period in history can be called “secular,” as well as to offer a historical narrative that makes sense of how we have arrived at what Taylor calls the “immanent frame,” a social space which defines reality within the natural order without appeal to the transcendent or to God.

One of the major goals of A Secular Age is to show that this “immanent frame” is a construct rather than purely natural. That is, it is not simply an inevitable byproduct of scientific progress. It is not necessarily an obvious, unsentimental, or realistic reading of the world, but rather, a particular construal of or a “take” on the world. Taylor wants to show that the world can also be plausibly read as part of a transcendent reality, a reality which makes sense of more traditional spiritual or religious beliefs. However, for Taylor, we cannot simply revert back to a premodern “enchanted” world. Even for those with religious or spiritual leanings, the “immanent frame” is the inevitable starting point, a shared set of assumptions.

Smith does an excellent job of summarizing and explaining Taylor’s ideas. His main goal is “concise commentary, identifying the thread and logic of Taylor’s argument in a condensed form” (xi). As he identifies this thread, Smith also attempts to give a sense of the “feel” of Taylor’s arguments. That is, he incorporates references to modern literature and music that express the loss or “malaise” of our disenchanted age. Sometimes these references work effectively, and other times they come off as a bit trendy or trite. Pop lyrics are quoted alongside classic literature in a way that could easily date the book. I really love Smith’s work, but this is one consistent feature of his books that is mildly irritating.

While his main task is appreciative summary, Smith also picks up and comments on some of the theological implications of Taylor’s arguments. Where Smith offers critique of Taylor’s project, it is usually from this more explicitly theological stance. One other very helpful feature is the glossary of Taylor’s unique terms like “Age of Authenticity,” “immanent frame,” and “immanentization.” Taylor’s effective and descriptive use of terminology combined with Smith’s concise definitions really help to keep the main features of the book’s expansive argument in view.

Compared to much philosophical writing, Taylor is actually quite readable. However, the length of A Secular Age means that many who could benefit from its insight might not tackle it. I have read portions of the book, but I have never attempted to make my way all the way through its nearly 900 pages. For those, like me, who appreciate Taylor or are curious about his unique take on secularization theory, Smith’s book is an invaluable resource. Even those who have read A Secular Age would benefit from Smith’s critical engagement and the literary parallels that he draws.

Andrew S · Non-Fiction · Philosophy · Religion

I Am an Impure Thinker | by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

I Am an Impure Thinker

I Am an Impure Thinker by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
(Argo Books, 2001, 243 pages)

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s social, linguistic, and religious theories makes for a fascinating and original take on the development of Western civilization. I’ve seen him cited and praised by several of my favorite contemporary theologians. I finally decided to read this collection of essays as an introduction to the basic themes of his work. W. H. Auden provided the Foreword to the original 1970 edition, and he included this warning/commendation:

I should warn anyone reading him for the first time that, to begin with, he may find as I did, certain aspects of Rosenstock-Huessy’s writings a bit hard to take. At times he seems to claim to be the only man who has ever seen the light about History and Language. But let the reader persevere, and he will find, as I did that he is richly rewarded. He will be forced to admit that, very often, the author’s claim is just: he has uncovered many truths hidden from his predecessors. (i)

Both the caution and the praise are justified. Rosenstock-Huessy’s prose is often difficult to make sense of, and some of his claims are grandiose. However, his core ideas shine through in brilliantly succinct sentences like this one: “The very essence of learning is to anticipate experience; all education is life in advance” (97).

The “impurity” of Rosenstock-Huessy’s thought refers to his rejection of the supposed scientific objectivity of modern scholarship. His educational, linguistic, and religious reflections are compromised by his passionate commitments. In an essay on William James, Rosenstock-Huessy boldly states that “Any philosophy which glosses over your duty or mine to die for a cause is eyewash” (30). This sense that intellectual reflection needs to be guided and sustained by devotion to a cause led him to found Camp William James, a volunteer labor service that formed as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. For Rosenstock-Huessy, scholarship is not about neutral observation, but about impassioned engagement.

The essays in I Am an Impure Thinker deal with the aridity of Cartesian rationalism, the stages of development in societies, and the formative influence of Christianity on Western culture. However, I found the most interesting aspect of the volume to be its focus on the education process. The essay “Teaching Too Late, Learning Too Early,” is a brilliant discussion of that process and the way that teacher’s must employ their own experience and wisdom to create a sense of expectancy in their students. It is in his more concrete comments about education that Rosenstock-Huessy’s impenetrable ideas come into clearest focus. In this respect, this book could be of real practical value to educators at all levels.

Death · Medicine · Philosophy · Rebecca

Mortality | by Christopher Hitchens

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Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
(Twelve, 2012, 104 pages)

In this book Christopher Hitchens’ writes about his fight to be one of the small percentage that would overcome his diagnosis.  This famous orator is struck down with esophageal cancer when he begins his American book tour.  Hitchens’ refers to his last months as “living dyingly”.  I found this book jolting at times.  It was hard to read about the amount of pain involved in his life the last 19 months.  He is realistic about his diagnosis, however, he retains a hopeful enthusiasm for alternative treatments.

He points out how simple questions can be taken so literally when one is faced with a limited number of days left in their life.  A question, such as, I’ll be in town next week will you be around to meet?, takes on a whole new depth in this context.

His wife, Carol Blue writes an afterword in the book recounting some of their “flawless” days.  She misses the sound of his voice, the variety of tones that his voice made throughout the day – from the first waking low octaves to the night time whispers.