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.