An Eastern Aquinas?

Yesterday, we posted a new book from Baylor’s Frank Beckwith on the relevance of Aquinas for Evangelical Christians. Here’s another book out this month from Catholic University Press, Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers, a collection of essays on Aquinas’s debt to the Greek Church Fathers. The editors are Michael Dauphinais (Ave Maria), Andrew Hofer ( Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception), and Roger Nutt (Ave Maria). The publisher’s description follows.

Scholars have often been quick to acknowledge Thomas Aquinas’s distinctive retrieval of Aristotle’s Greek philosophical heritage. Often lagging, however, has been a proper appreciation of both his originality and indebtedness in appropriating the great theological insights of the Greek Fathers of the Church. In a similar way to his integration of the Aristotelian philosophical corpus, Aquinas successfully interwove the often newly received and translated Greek patristic sources into a thirteenth-century theological framework, one dominated by the Latin Fathers. His use of the Greek Fathers definitively shaped his exposition of sacra doctrina in the fundamental areas of God and creation, Trinitarian theology, the moral life, and Christ and the Sacraments.

For the sake of filling this lacuna and of piquing scholarly interest in Aquinas’s relation to the Fathers of the Christian East, the Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal at Ave Maria University and the Thomistic Institute of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies co-sponsored an international gathering of scholars that took place at Ave Maria University under the title Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers. Sensitive to the commonalities and the differences between Aquinas and the Greek Fathers, the essays in this volume have sprung from the theme of this conference and offer a harvest of some of the conference’s fruits. At long last, scholars have a rich volume of diverse, penetrating essays that both underscore Aquinas’s unique standing among the Latin scholastics in relationship to the Greek Fathers and point the way toward avenues of further study.

A Protestant Aquinas?

The importance of Thomism for Catholic legal theory goes without saying. This week, we highlight two new books that explore the relevance of Aquinas for other Christian communions. In a book to be released by Baylor University Press next month, Never Doubt Thomas: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant, our friend Frank Beckwith (Baylor) argues that Aquinas is an important resource for Evangelicals. Here’s the description of the book from the publisher’s website:

Theologian, philosopher, teacher. There are few religious figures more Catholic than Saint Thomas Aquinas, a man credited with helping to shape Catholicism of the second millennium. In Never Doubt Thomas, Francis J. Beckwith employs his own spiritual journey from Catholicism to Evangelicalism and then back to Catholicism to reveal the signal importance of Aquinas not only for Catholics but also for Protestants.

Beckwith begins by outlining Aquinas’ history and philosophy, noting misconceptions and inaccurate caricatures of Thomist traditions. He explores the legitimacy of a “Protestant” Aquinas by examining Aquinas’ views on natural law and natural theology in light of several Protestant critiques. Not only did Aquinas’ presentation of natural law assume some of the very inadequacies Protestant critics have leveled against it, Aquinas did not, as is often supposed, believe that one must first prove God’s existence through human reasoning before having faith in God. Rather, Aquinas held that one may know God through reason and employ it to understand more fully the truths of faith. Beckwith also uses Aquinas’ preambles of faith—what a person can know about God before fully believing in Him—to argue for a pluralist Aquinas, explaining how followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can all worship the same God, yet adhere to different faiths. 

Beckwith turns to Aquinas’ doctrine of creation to question theories of Intelligent Design, before, finally, coming to the heart of the matter: in what sense can Aquinas be considered an Evangelical? Aquinas’ views on justification are often depicted by some Evangelicals as discontinuous with those articulated in the Council of Trent. Beckwith counters this assessment, revealing not only that Aquinas’ doctrine fully aligns with the tenets laid out by the Council, but also that this doctrine is more Evangelical than critics care to admit.

Beckwith’s careful reading makes it hard to doubt that Thomas Aquinas is a theologian, philosopher, and teacher for the universal church—Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical.

Balkanization

When American law professors hear the word “Balkanization” today, they’re likely to think of the homonymous blog. But of course the word originally refers to the peninsula in southeastern Europe, where a patchwork of fissiparous nations and religions have contended for centuries. A new book from Harvard, The Great Cauldron: A History of Southeastern Europe, by Marie-Janine Calic (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität – Munich) explores the history. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

A sweeping history of southeastern Europe from antiquity to the present that reveals it to be a vibrant crossroads of trade, ideas, and religions.

We often think of the Balkans as a region beset by turmoil and backwardness, but from late antiquity to the present it has been a dynamic meeting place of cultures and religions. Combining deep insight with narrative flair, The Great Cauldron invites us to reconsider the history of this intriguing, diverse region as essential to the story of global Europe.

Marie-Janine Calic reveals the many ways in which southeastern Europe’s position at the crossroads of East and West shaped continental and global developments. The nascent merchant capitalism of the Mediterranean world helped the Balkan knights fight the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. The deep pull of nationalism led a young Serbian bookworm to spark the conflagration of World War I. The late twentieth century saw political Islam spread like wildfire in a region where Christians and Muslims had long lived side by side. Along with vivid snapshots of revealing moments in time, including Krujë in 1450 and Sarajevo in 1984, Calic introduces fascinating figures rarely found in standard European histories. We meet the Greek merchant and poet Rhigas Velestinlis, whose revolutionary pamphlet called for a general uprising against Ottoman tyranny in 1797. And the Croatian bishop Ivan Dominik Stratiko, who argued passionately for equality of the sexes and whose success with women astonished even his friend Casanova.
Calic’s ambitious reappraisal expands and deepens our understanding of the ever-changing mixture of peoples, faiths, and civilizations in this much-neglected nexus of empire.

Roosevelt the Christian

Here is what looks like a useful new book on FDR’s Christian beliefs and how they influenced his progressive politics: A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Eerdmans), by John F. Woolverton.

“When asked at a press conference about the roots of his political philosophy, President Franklin Roosevelt responded, “I am a Christian and a Democrat.” This volume—part of the popular and widely acclaimed Library of Religious Biography series—tells the story of how the first informed the second, showing how FDR’s upbringing in the Episcopal Church and education at the Groton School under legendary headmaster and minister Endicott Peabody formed him into a leader whose politics were fundamentally shaped by the social gospel.

A work begun by religious historian John Woolverton (1926-2014) and recently completed by James Bratt, A Christian and a Democrat is an engaging analysis of the surprisingly significant religious life of one of the most important presidents in US history. Reading Woolverton’s account of FDR’s response to the toxic demagoguery of his day will reassure readers today that a constructive way forward is possible for Christians, for Americans, for the world.”

A Demography of Evangelicalism

We have noted Thomas Kidd’s fine work here before. I’m particularly enthusiastic about his biography of Patrick Henry which, together with Jon Kukla’s book, is one of the few comprehensive treatments of Henry.

In this new book, Kidd investigates the demographics of Christian Evangelicals. The book is Who Is An Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press), and looks very worthwhile.

“Evangelicalism is arguably America’s most controversial religious movement. Nonevangelical people who follow the news may have a variety of impressions about what “evangelical” means. But one certain association they make with evangelicals in America is white Republicans. Many may recall that 81 percent of self-described white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and they may well wonder at the seeming hypocrisy of doing so.

In this illuminating book, Thomas Kidd draws on his expertise in American religious history to re-narrate the arc of this spiritual movement, illustrating just how historically peculiar that political and ethnic definition (white Republican) of evangelicals is. He traces distortions in the public understanding of evangelicals, and shows how a group of “Republican insider evangelicals” aided the politicization of the movement. This book will be a must-read for those trying to better understand the shifting religious and political landscape of America today.”

Urban Exceptionalism?

Here is a new book that explores the idea of American exceptionalism reflected in the Puritan John Winthrop’s famous line that America would be “as a city upon a hill” in the history of America’s urban life. The book is City on a Hill: Urban Idealism from the Puritans to the Present (Harvard University Press), by Alex Krieger.

“The first European settlers saw America as a paradise regained. The continent seemed to offer a God-given opportunity to start again and build the perfect community. Those messianic days are gone. But as Alex Krieger argues in City on a Hill, any attempt at deep understanding of how the country has developed must recognize the persistent and dramatic consequences of utopian dreaming. Even as ideals have changed, idealism itself has for better and worse shaped our world of bricks and mortar, macadam, parks, and farmland. As he traces this uniquely American story from the Pilgrims to the “smart city,” Krieger delivers a striking new history of our built environment.

The Puritans were the first utopians, seeking a New Jerusalem in the New England villages that still stand as models of small-town life. In the Age of Revolution, Thomas Jefferson dreamed of citizen farmers tending plots laid out across the continent in a grid of enlightened rationality. As industrialization brought urbanization, reformers answered emerging slums with a zealous crusade of grand civic architecture and designed the vast urban parks vital to so many cities today. The twentieth century brought cycles of suburban dreaming and urban renewal—one generation’s utopia forming the next one’s nightmare—and experiments as diverse as Walt Disney’s EPCOT, hippie communes, and Las Vegas.

Krieger’s compelling and richly illustrated narrative reminds us, as we formulate new ideals today, that we chase our visions surrounded by the glories and failures of dreams gone by.”

Pathologies of Higher Education

Not strictly speaking a law and religion book, yet nevertheless relevant to both law, which might take a more aggressive regulatory hand, and religion, inasmuch as religious institutions of higher education surely are comprehended. At any rate, here is a new book documenting extensive and deep-seated pathologies in just about every element of the modern university: Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education (Oxford University Press), by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness.

“Academics extol high-minded ideals, such as serving the common good and promoting social justice. Universities aim to be centers of learning that find the best and brightest students, treat them fairly, and equip them with the knowledge they need to lead better lives. 

But as Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness show in Cracks in the Ivory Tower, American universities fall far short of this ideal. At almost every level, they find that students, professors, and administrators are guided by self-interest rather than ethical concerns. College bureaucratic structures also often incentivize and reward bad behavior, while disincentivizing and even punishing good behavior. Most students, faculty, and administrators are out to serve themselves and pass their costs onto others. 

The problems are deep and pervasive: most academic marketing and advertising is semi-fraudulent. To justify their own pay raises and higher budgets, administrators hire expensive and unnecessary staff. Faculty exploit students for tuition dollars through gen-ed requirements. Students hardly learn anything and cheating is pervasive. At every level, academics disguise their pursuit of self-interest with highfalutin moral language. 

Marshaling an array of data, Brennan and Magness expose many of the ethical failings of academia and in turn reshape our understanding of how such high power institutions run their business. Everyone knows academia is dysfunctional. Brennan and Magness show the problems are worse than anyone realized. Academics have only themselves to blame.”

The Church of Capitalism

A relatively new style of criticism is emerging that describes modern commitments to ostensibly non-religious institutions and ideas–for example, the market, the international order, the liberal state, and others–in explicitly religious terms. This kind of criticism is not brand new, but what may be new is that one sees it from both the political right and left, though targeted at different institutions.

Here is a new book that seems to fit within this larger style of critique: The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Harvard University Press), by Eugene McCarraher.

“Far from displacing religions, as has been supposed, capitalism became one, with money as its deity. Eugene McCarraher reveals how mammon ensnared us and how we can find a more humane, sacramental way of being in the world.

If socialists and Wall Street bankers can agree on anything, it is the extreme rationalism of capital. At least since Max Weber, capitalism has been understood as part of the “disenchantment” of the world, stripping material objects and social relations of their mystery and sacredness. Ignoring the motive force of the spirit, capitalism rejects the awe-inspiring divine for the economics of supply and demand.

Eugene McCarraher challenges this conventional view. Capitalism, he argues, is full of sacrament, whether or not it is acknowledged. Capitalist enchantment first flowered in the fields and factories of England and was brought to America by Puritans and evangelicals whose doctrine made ample room for industry and profit. Later, the corporation was mystically animated with human personhood, to preside over the Fordist endeavor to build a heavenly city of mechanized production and communion. By the twenty-first century, capitalism has become thoroughly enchanted by the neoliberal deification of “the market.”

Informed by cultural history and theology as well as economics, management theory, and marketing, The Enchantments of Mammon looks not to Marx and progressivism but to nineteenth-century Romantics for salvation. The Romantic imagination favors craft, the commons, and sensitivity to natural wonder. It promotes labor that, for the sake of the person, combines reason, creativity, and mutual aid. In this impassioned challenge, McCarraher makes the case that capitalism has hijacked and redirected our intrinsic longing for divinity—and urges us to break its hold on our souls.”

Episcopalians’ Influence in American Culture

Speaking simply in terms of social status, Episcopalians have traditionally been at the top of America’s informal religious hierarchy. This was much more the case a few generations ago, perhaps, and even more so in the early part of the 20th Century. (When Golden Age Hollywood wanted to portray the upper class at church, it almost invariably depicted Episcopalians–just think of The Philadelphia Story and The Bishop’s Wife). A forthcoming book from the University of North Carolina Press, Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression, by Peter Williams (Miami University), explores the influence of wealthy Episcopalians on urban culture in America. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This cultural history of mainline Protestantism and American cities–most notably, New York City–focuses on wealthy, urban Episcopalians and the influential ways they used their money. Peter W. Williams argues that such Episcopalians, many of them the country’s most successful industrialists and financiers, left a deep and lasting mark on American urban culture. Their sense of public responsibility derived from a sacramental theology that gave credit to the material realm as a vehicle for religious experience and moral formation, and they came to be distinguished by their participation in major aesthetic and social welfare endeavors.

Williams traces how the church helped transmit a European-inflected artistic patronage that was adapted to the American scene by clergy and laity intent upon providing moral and aesthetic leadership for a society in flux. Episcopalian influence is most visible today in the churches, cathedrals, and elite boarding schools that stand in many cities and other locations, but Episcopalians also provided major support to the formation of stellar art collections, the performing arts, and the Arts and Crafts movement. Williams argues that Episcopalians thus helped smooth the way for acceptance of materiality in religious culture in a previously iconoclastic, Puritan-influenced society.

Have Americans Lost Their Sense of Imagination?

The Marxist political theorist Benedict Anderson famously defined nations as “imagined communities” that depend on people’s illusion of membership in a shared national identity. The bonds that form as a result of this imagination can be remarkably strong. And when people lose the sense of common identity–when they no longer see themselves as part of a shared national heritage, even an imagined one–political dissolution can follow very quickly.

A new collection of essays from the University of Nebraska Press, Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative, edited by Joshua Claybourn, argues that Americans have lost a common store of symbols to unite us. The results seem obvious. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Over the past few decades, the complicated divides of geography, class, religion, and race created deep fractures in the United States, each side fighting to advance its own mythology and political interests. We lack a central story, a common ground we can celebrate and enrich with deeper meaning. Unable to agree on first principles, we cannot agree on what it means to be American. As we dismantle or disregard symbols and themes that previously united us, can we replace them with stories and rites that unite our tribes and maintain meaning in our American identity?

Against this backdrop, Our American Story features leading thinkers from across the political spectrum—Jim Banks, Pulitzer Prize–winner David W. Blight, Spencer P. Boyer, Eleanor Clift, John C. Danforth, Cody Delistraty, Richard A. Epstein, Nikolas Gvosdev, Cherie Harder, Jason Kuznicki, Gerard N. Magliocca, Markos Moulitsas, Ilya Somin, Cass R. Sunstein, Alan Taylor, James V. Wertsch, Gordon S. Wood, and Ali Wyne. Each draws on expertise within their respective fields of history, law, politics, and public policy to contribute a unique perspective about the American story. This collection explores whether a unifying story can be achieved and, if so, what that story could be.

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