Edelstein, “On the Spirit of Rights”

Perhaps playing on Montesquieu’s famous “On the Spirit of Laws,” here is a new book Rightsthat studies the etiology and intellectual history of the 17th and 18th century political phenomenon of rights: On the Spirit of Rights (U. Chicago Press) by Dan Edelstein.

By the end of the eighteenth century, politicians in America and France were invoking the natural rights of man to wrest sovereignty away from kings and lay down universal basic entitlements. Exactly how and when did “rights” come to justify such measures?

In On the Spirit of Rights, Dan Edelstein answers this question by examining the complex genealogy of the rights regimes enshrined in the American and French Revolutions. With a lively attention to detail, he surveys a sprawling series of debates among rulers, jurists, philosophers, political reformers, writers, and others, who were all engaged in laying the groundwork for our contemporary systems of constitutional governance. Every seemingly new claim about rights turns out to be a variation on a theme, as late medieval notions were subtly repeated and refined to yield the talk of “rights” we recognize today. From the Wars of Religion to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, On the Spirit of Rights is a sweeping tour through centuries of European intellectual history and an essential guide to our ways of thinking about human rights today.

Grainger, “Church in the Wild”

The Garden and the Wilderness. The image is an eternal one, at least as old as Genesis. It Wildnerness.jpgdenotes what is a partition between the enclosed and the perfect from the external and the damaged–the garden of Eden from the wilderness of fallen man. It’s an image that was famously used by Mark DeWolf Howe in his landmark book on church-state relations in America. And it is interestingly reconceived in a new book about the central place of Evangelicals in the antebellum period in bringing the church to the wilderness, putatively for the benefit and reinvigoration of the former. The book is Church in the Wild: Evangelicals in Antebellum America (HUP) by Brett Malcolm Grainger.

We have long credited Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists with revolutionizing religious life in America and introducing a new appreciation of nature. Breaking with Protestant orthodoxy, these New Englanders claimed that God could be found not in church but in forest, fields, and streams. Their spiritual nonconformity had thrilling implications but never traveled far beyond their circle. In this essential reconsideration of American faith in the years leading up to the Civil War, Brett Malcolm Grainger argues that it was not the Transcendentalists but the Evangelical revivalists who transformed the everyday religious life of Americans and spiritualized the natural environment.

Evangelical Christianity won believers from the rural South to the industrial North: this was the true popular religion of the antebellum years. Revivalists went to the woods not to free themselves from the constraints of Christianity but to renew their ties to God. Evangelical Christianity provided a sense of enchantment for those alienated by a rapidly industrializing world. In forested camp meetings and riverside baptisms, in private contemplation and public water cures, in electrotherapy and mesmerism, American Evangelicals communed with nature, God, and one another. A distinctive spirituality emerged that paired personal piety with a mystical relationship to nature.

As Church in the Wild reveals, the revivalist attitude toward nature and the material world, which echoed that of Catholicism, spread like wildfire among Christians of all backgrounds during the years leading up to the Civil War.

Reichberg, “Thomas Aquinas on War and Peace”

9781108730167Next month, Cambridge will release what looks to be a definitive study of the Just War theory of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas on War and Peace, by Gregory Reichberg (Peace Research Institute Oslo). The book’s description from the Cambridge website speaks for itself:

Inquiring ‘whether any war can be just’, Thomas Aquinas famously responded that this may hold true, provided the war is conducted by a legitimate authority, for a just cause, and with an upright intention. Virtually all accounts of just war, from the Middle Ages to the current day, make reference to this threefold formula. But due in large measure to its very succinctness, Aquinas’s theory has prompted contrasting interpretations. This book sets the record straight by surveying the wide range of texts in his literary corpus that have bearing on peace and the ethics of war. Thereby emerges a coherent and nuanced picture of just war as set within his systematic moral theory. It is shown how Aquinas deftly combined elements from earlier authors, and how his teaching has fruitfully propelled inquiry on this important topic by his fellow scholastics, later legal theorists such as Grotius, and contemporary philosophers of just war.

Sexton, “A Nation Forged by Crisis”

97815416172301I’m ambivalent about the current polarization here in America. Sometimes, it seems to me that we really are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, in which two large parties, secular progressives and religious conservatives, truly distrust one another and can find nothing in common. At other times, it seems to me that things aren’t so bad, in historical terms. Early 19th Century America, before the Era of Good Feelings, was pretty rough. Just go back and read some of the campaign literature from 1800. There was a fair amount of political violence at the end of the nineteenth century. Two presidents were assassinated in the space of less than 20 years. There were the 1960s. And of course we did have a Civil War in this country.

History is a good antidote to despair. It teaches us that things have been bad before–and will no doubt be again! A new history of America, A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History, from Basic Books, highlights the contingencies of our past. The author is Jay Sexton (University of Missouri). The publisher’s description follows:

A concise new history of the United States revealing that crises–not unlike those of the present day–have determined our nation’s course from the start.

In A Nation Forged by Crisis, historian Jay Sexton contends that our national narrative is not one of halting yet inevitable progress, but of repeated disruptions brought about by shifts in the international system. Sexton shows that the American Revolution was a consequence of the increasing integration of the British and American economies; that a necessary precondition for the Civil War was the absence, for the first time in decades, of foreign threats; and that we cannot understand the New Deal without examining the role of European immigrants and their offspring in transforming the Democratic Party.

A necessary corrective to conventional narratives of American history, A Nation Forged by Crisis argues that we can only prepare for our unpredictable future by first acknowledging the contingencies of our collective past.

Guroian, “The Orthodox Reality”


9780801099342The Orthodox Churches–and here I speak broadly of Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches–lack a major presence in the United States. Actually, that’s an understatement, at least in terms of numbers. A recent Pew Survey put the percentage of Americans who are Orthodox Christians at only 0.5%. Many Orthodox Christians are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Yet Orthodoxy has established a foothold in this country, and attracts a steady trickle of converts, especially among intellectuals. And American Orthodoxy has established seminaries and monasteries that contribute to the Orthodox theological tradition.

Vigen Guroian, now retired from the University of Virginia, is a good example of an Orthodox (Armenian) theologian working in the US. Unlike many theologians, his work is accessible to the lay reader. His latest book, on Orthodoxy, culture, and modernity, should appeal to followers of our Center’s Tradition Project. The book is The Orthodox Reality: Culture, Theology and Ethics in the Modern World, from Baker Academic. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

This is a book about the struggle of Orthodox Christianity to establish a clear identity and mission within modernity–Western modernity in particular. As such, it offers penetrating insight into the heart and soul of Orthodoxy. Yet it also lends unusual, unexpected insight into the struggle of all the churches to engage modernity with conviction and integrity. Written by one of the leading voices of contemporary Orthodox theology, The Orthodox Reality is a treasury of the Orthodox response to the challenges of Western culture in order to answer secularism, act ecumenically, and articulate an ethics of the family that is both faithful to tradition and relevant to our day. The author honestly addresses Orthodoxy’s strengths and shortcomings as he introduces readers to Orthodoxy as a living presence in the modern world.

Scruton on Culture

Culture-Counts-2018-310x460Last year, we were honored to host Sir Roger Scruton as the keynoter for the second session of our Tradition Project, on culture and citizenship, here in New York. (You can view the video on the sidebar to the right, or on our Videos page). This fall, Sir Roger published a book on the subject of culture for Encounter Books, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Looks very worthwhile. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

What is culture? Why should we preserve it, and how? In this book renowned philosopher Roger Scruton defends Western culture against its internal critics and external enemies, and argues that rumours of its death are seriously exaggerated. He shows our culture to be a continuing source of moral knowledge, and rebuts the fashionable sarcasm which sees it as nothing more than the useless legacy of ‘dead white European males’. He is robust in defence of traditional architecture and figurative painting, critical of the fashionable relativists and urgent in his plea for our civilization, which more than ever stands in need of the self-knowledge and self-confidence that are the gift of serious culture.

Next Week in Rome: Tradition Project III

Tradition ProjectWe’re delighted to announce we’ll hold the third session of the Tradition Project, “The Value of Tradition in the Global Context,” next week in Rome. This session will feature a public address, on December 12, by Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., of the Supreme Court of the United States., and four private workshops on the conference themes. The event is hosted by our partners at LUMSA Università and is co-sponsored by Villanova’s Eleanor H. McCullen Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy. Details are available here, Programma12-13dicembre2018. Forum readers in Rome, stop by and say hello on December 12!

Velez, “The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto”

9780691174006Pope Benedict XVI famously said that art and the lives of the saints constitute the principal means for bringing people to the Christian faith. Even as a merely sociological statement, it’s quite profound. But legends are another way of spreading the faith; they often contain a germ of truth. A new book from Princeton, The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World, documents the importance of one legendary miracle in the lives of the faithful and shows how it contributed to the spread of Catholicism across the Atlantic. The author is historian Karin Vélez (Macalester College). The publisher’s description follows:

In 1295, a house fell from the evening sky onto an Italian coastal road by the Adriatic Sea. Inside, awestruck locals encountered the Virgin Mary, who explained that this humble mud-brick structure was her original residence newly arrived from Nazareth. To keep it from the hands of Muslim invaders, angels had flown it to Loreto, stopping three times along the way. This story of the house of Loreto has been read as an allegory of how Catholicism spread peacefully around the world by dropping miraculously from the heavens.

In this book, Karin Vélez calls that interpretation into question by examining historical accounts of the movement of the Holy House across the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century and the Atlantic in the seventeenth century. These records indicate vast and voluntary involvement in the project of formulating a branch of Catholic devotion. Vélez surveys the efforts of European Jesuits, Slavic migrants, and indigenous peoples in Baja California, Canada, and Peru. These individuals contributed to the expansion of Catholicism by acting as unofficial authors, inadvertent pilgrims, unlicensed architects, unacknowledged artists, and unsolicited cataloguers of Loreto. Their participation in portaging Mary’s house challenges traditional views of Christianity as a prepackaged European export, and instead suggests that Christianity is the cumulative product of thousands of self-appointed editors. Vélez also demonstrates how miracle narratives can be treated seriously as historical sources that preserve traces of real events.

Drawing on rich archival materials, The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto illustrates how global Catholicism proliferated through independent initiatives of untrained laymen.

 

Jacob, “The Secular Enlightenment”

The 17th, and especially the 18th, century Enlightenment–and particularly certain distinctively French strands of it–is often associated with the rejection of Christianity as a governing political, social, and intellectual force. Here is a new book that seems again to confirm the point, but also argues that the rejection of Christianity was not “wholesale.” Yet some of the book’s descriptions of what was rejected–by great and lesser minds alike–do, in fact, seemEnlightenment distinctively and unequivocally Christian (“People entered churches not to pray but to admire the architecture….”). The book is The Secular Enlightenment (Princeton University Press) by Margaret C. Jacob.

The Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In this landmark book, familiar Enlightenment figures share places with voices that have remained largely unheard until now, from freethinkers and freemasons to French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers.

Margaret Jacob, one of our most esteemed historians of the Enlightenment, reveals how this newly secular outlook was not a wholesale rejection of Christianity but rather a new mental space in which to encounter the world on its own terms. She takes readers from London and Amsterdam to Berlin, Vienna, Turin, and Naples, drawing on rare archival materials to show how ideas central to the emergence of secular democracy touched all facets of daily life. Human frailties once attributed to sin were now viewed through the lens of the newly conceived social sciences. People entered churches not to pray but to admire the architecture, and spent their Sunday mornings reading a newspaper or even a risqué book. The secular-minded pursued their own temporal and commercial well-being without concern for the life hereafter, regarding their successes as the rewards for their actions, their failures as the result of blind economic forces.

A majestic work of intellectual and cultural history, The Secular Enlightenment demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

Wexler, “Our Non-Christian Nation”

Here is a new book by Boston University law professor, Jay Wexler, celebrating, or perhaps offering a sympathetic view about, what has been noted as a matter of sociological reality by Mark Movsesian and many others: that the United States is decreasingly Christian and increasingly “none” or otherwise. Wexler’s book seems to be at the very least in part a celebration of the political, legal, and cultural egalitarianism that the more recent profusion of religious sects in America portends.

The book is Our Non-Christian Nation: How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans, and Others Are Demanding Their Rightful Place in Public Life (Stanford University Press). (For anotherWexler view about religious pluralism in the context of the religious accommodation debate, see this essay.)

Less and less Christian demographically, America is now home to an ever-larger number of people who say they identify with no religion at all. These non-Christians have increasingly been demanding their full participation in public life, bringing their arguments all the way to the Supreme Court. The law is on their side, but that doesn’t mean that their attempts are not met with suspicion or outright hostility. In Our Non-Christian Nation, Jay Wexler travels the country to engage the non-Christians who have called on us to maintain our ideals of inclusivity and diversity. With his characteristic sympathy and humor, he introduces us to the Summum and their Seven Aphorisms, a Wiccan priestess who would deck her City Hall with a pagan holiday wreath, and other determined champions of free religious expression. As Wexler reminds us, anyone who cares about pluralism, equality, and fairness should support a public square filled with a variety of religious and nonreligious voices. The stakes are nothing short of long-term social peace.

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