2015 in Books

This is the first year I have used Goodreads to track what I read. My books of 2015 are now listed on this report. My total was a slightly disappointing 50 titles, though it’s possible I missed a few early in the year, and I started probably another 30 or 40 that I have not yet finished. Still, I like to reflect on what I have read, and I thought I’d give here the list with brief reviews. If I posted a review of a particular work on Goodreads, I link to it in the title.

My order, within each category, is subjective and intuitive, rated roughly by significance to me. Continue reading

Baptized Imagination: A Short Review

“It is God who gives thee thy mirror of imagination, and if thou keep it clean, it will give thee back no shadow but of the truth.” (George MacDonald, Salted With Fire)

9780754655169George MacDonald’s theological vision was vivid, deep-rooted, and influential for later Christian luminaries such as G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Yet he eschewed excessively abstract theologizing and generally expressed his beliefs in an unsystematic and image-rich fashion. In this book, Kerry Dearborn attempts to piece together his thought from the range of his writings. Baptized Imagination: The Theology of George MacDonald is worth reading just for the joy of so many wonderful quotes, though as an overview of his thought and influences it will be most of interest to theologians and literary critics.

The key to MacDonald’s whole theology is his belief in the infinite yet intimate love of God, which is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. This Trinitarian love bursts all systems that seek to confine it; it washes away fear and nurtures all created life. It is the source of all genuine knowledge, which is realized through encounter and subsequent obedience. MacDonald frequently portrayed God through familial imagery, using warm paternal and maternal figures in his fiction. This love of a divine “motherly Father” lay at the center of all his writing.

Dearborn argues that to MacDonald as author and theologian, the most significant human faculty was the “baptized imagination.” This is not to be conflated with fancy. Fancy rides upon idle emotions, and the result is often illusion, distortion, and a facile approach to life. But imagination is an attribute of the creator God, part of the self-giving love that upholds reality. Human imagination, cleansed by holy rebirth and enlivened by this same love, is constrained by love and so remains always in the light of the truth. Imagination is what enables the mind to overcome the dualities imposed by the intellect and discover new depths. Thus the imagination stands above knowledge and as partner to the intellect in the discovery of truth. We have here the beginnings of a theological aesthetics.

But the implications of this go beyond how we make art; as Dearborn argues, MacDonald also understood that this problematized any theology that rendered God too abstract, remote, and theoretical. The Bible is not to be read as a scientific text, but as witness to a singular concrete truth, Christ, who is grasped by the intellect only through the heart. Any theology which claims comprehensiveness is thereby demonstrated to be false, for no system can contain the eternal. This explains the impressionistic and occasionally inconsistent quality of MacDonald’s speculations, for they arose chiefly from the richness of his spiritual life.

However, it is clear from this study that MacDonald was not, as some have regarded him, a liberal, nor, unless one accepts the severe standards of nineteenth century Scottish Calvinism, a heretic. His relationship with the Federal Calvinism of his youth was certainly troubled; but he was not a “lone mystic.” His ideas about God and scripture were developed in dialogue with a circle of devout clergymen that included F. D. Maurice and A. J. Scott. Many of these men (like MacDonald himself) had been sacked from churches and colleges for their espousal of unlimited atonement, or doubting that Hell is neverending, but they were avid readers of the Church Fathers and found support for their beliefs in classical Christian teaching. Particular British and German Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Novalis were also among his heroes, though he rejected much of the Romantic movement for its pursuit of ephemeral feeling.

Because MacDonald constantly labored to emphasize the limitless love of God, and because his own life was so full of tragedy and hurt, he was often forced to ponder the question of suffering. He believed sufferings, though they arise from evil, can work to purify and redeem; they are inadvertently appointed ministers of the divine Healer, who submits to their pain alongside us. MacDonald described old age as a blessed return to the vulnerability of childhood, a preparation for rebirth.

A striking pseudo-Platonic image used by MacDonald depicts God as the sun, and evil as shadow. The consuming fire of God’s love makes things pure and transparent as glass, and the shadows vanish. This painful process is one of un-making, but it is also one of union and recreation. It is the struggle that defines mortal life, and its end is the perfect victory of Love. “Love,” MacDonald taught, “has a lasting quarrel with time and space: the lower love fears them, while the higher defies them.” MacDonald’s infamous universalism (“death alone can die everlastingly”) was not grounded in his affirmation of a particular theo-logic, but his simple conviction that the profound and unceasing love of God would not give up on sinners even in Hell.

Dearborn occasionally attempts to put MacDonald in dialogue with later and better-known theologians such as Barth, though this rarely amounts to more than scattered comparisons. She openly confesses that she regards MacDonald as “prophetic” for contemporary theological concerns. But this book, fortunately, does not read either like an academic dissection or a hagiography. It is a sound and illuminating discussion of MacDonald’s ideals, and I highly recommend it.

Dominus Historiae: Conclusion

The younger Daniélou

Continuing my review of Jean Daniélou’s The Lord of History from here.

Before I get into the meat of this conclusion, comparing Daniélou’s views of history to those of other recent Christian thinkers, I would like to contrast him with someone whose views were opposite in just about every respect: his brother.

The spiritual trajectory of Jean Daniélou’s younger brother, Alain, was a great influence on Jean. The Daniélou family was, to put it mildly, religiously conflicted. Whereas Jean took the faith of his devout mother (while rejecting her harsh moral vision—she was considered a fanatic even among Catholics), Alain was closer to his radically anticlerical father, and in his teens repudiated Christianity altogether. Jean joined the Jesuit order at the age of twenty-four, with numerous academic honors behind and before him, but Alain was more interested in the arts, especially dance, photography, and music.

Alain was a homosexual, and identified as such from a young age. His first sexual experiences at university also marked a religious awakening; thereafter, he regarded his sexuality and spirituality as inextricable. Accompanied by a gay lover, Alain studied music and philosophy in India and eventually converted to Shaivite Hinduism. He believed that Shaivism represented a primitive, erotic, Dionysian spirituality that organized religions have by and large destroyed. He wrote prolifically, both as a polemical opponent of monotheism and a scholar of Indian history and religion.

Despite their deep differences, the famous brothers remained affectionate throughout their lives. They were, indeed, very different; Alain characterized Jean as “nervous, frail, and agitated,” whereas he regarded himself as “virile,” adventurous, and supremely confident. Alain further believed that the Catholic Church to which Jean was devoted had viciously suppressed the pure, original faith of Jesus; he seems to have regarded Catholicism as the most antihuman and masochistic institution on earth, despite his respect for certain Catholic mystics, not to mention his own brother, a cardinal.

When Jean died in a house of ill repute and the press was full of the scandal, Alain wrote a defense of his older brother, insisting that Jean’s character was saintly and humble and incapable of hypocrisy, and that Jean’s life was dedicated to the service of social outcasts (though Alain could not resist adding that he would have been very happy had his brother experienced the joys of sex before his death). Alain Daniélou continued to publish until his death in 1994 and remains esteemed in his field.

As fascinating as it would be to produce an extended comparison between the works of these brothers, I must restrict myself (partly through lack of adequate reading) to the themes raised by Jean in The Lord of History. First, however, it would be best to offer a more complete description of Alain’s position.

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Dominus Historiae: Part II

Continuing my review of Jean Daniélou’s The Lord of History from here.

In these eight chapters, Daniélou transitions to exegesis, building on the foundation laid especially by the last chapter. The examination of sacred and secular modes of history served to define the space proper to the former; now, Daniélou returns ad fontes to fill that space. What does sacred history actually look like, according to scriptural Christian theology?

Chapters 1-3 thus examine divine action, human action, and the synergism implied in the incarnation respectively. Chapters 4-6 involve typology and progress, or the relationships between historical stages, and chapters 7-8 address eschatology.

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Dominus Historiae: Part I

Continuing my review of Jean Daniélou’s The Lord of History from here.

These first ten essays explore various issues relevant to the Christian theologian of history. His primary aim is to explore the relationship between religious concepts and historical concepts, between sacred history and secular history. Repeatedly, Daniélou offers us two contrasting Christian responses, only to reject them both in favor of a way that preserves the best in each. Throughout, he remains rooted in scripture and the Church Fathers, but contemporary issues are never far from his mind.

The first five essays focus on the Church as it is incarnate in the world, dealing in turn with the difficulties of manifesting in various times, cultures, and classes. The following five essays explore theoretical questions raised in the preceding, offering a theology of history that directly responds to Marxists, secular historians, syncretists, and in general those wary of the Catholic approach. It culminates in a definition and defense of the symbolic structure of sacred history and its methodological key: typology.

Perhaps the most helpful definitions to keep in mind are those of salvation/sacred history and profane/secular history. I will repeat them here. Sacred history encompasses the progressive work of God in time for the salvation of the cosmos. In Daniélou’s view, this is the inner reality of all history, what gives time shape and meaning. Secular history includes the “surface” of history, the great deeds of nations and people, the always-changing fortunes of civilization. As Daniélou explains in his first chapter, the Church is implicated in both modes of history.

If you do not wish to read the whole thing, click here to jump to the outline. Continue reading

Dominus Historiae: Introduction

Jean Daniélou was one of Roman Catholicism’s key twentieth-century theologians. A French Jesuit and ressourcement thinker, Daniélou had a great love for the Church Fathers, notably Gregory of Nyssa, the subject of his earliest writings. But he was no antiquarian; he was a cultural critic, well-read in other religions as well as classical literature and the modern secular corpus. In 1969, he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and he died in 1974, less than two years after his election to the prestigious Académie française.

His Essai sur le Mystère de l’Histoire (1953) or, as it is commonly titled in English, The Lord of History, was composed while Daniélou was a professor at the Catholic University of Paris. His writings at this time were pioneering the Covenantal theology movement in Catholicism, which emphasized interpreting the Bible through the sequence of covenants in salvation history. It was, moreover, a deliberate move away from historical-critical methods aimed at uncovering a literal meaning, and a return to Patristic methods, including the classical “fourfold sense.”

The Lord of History can thus be seen as a seminal work in this project, especially as regards a Christian theology of history. Daniélou’s work in this respect on the Greek Fathers was later complemented by Joseph Ratzinger’s exposition of the Latin Fathers on similar themes.

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The Leper Staggers On

Six months ago, I posted a short meditation on cosmic evil. Since then, the Ebola fatalities figure has climbed from 1000 to almost 10,000. The body count in Ukraine amounts to at least 5400, over twice the estimate of last August. The immediate violence in Gaza resolved at around 2200 deaths, though of course nothing is really resolved.

Figures from ISIS and the chaos that surrounds them are still uncertain but certainly horrific. More than 210,000 have been killed in Syria in the last four years, and three and a half million have fled the country. Last year alone, 17,000 civilians died violently in Iraq. Christian communities that have occupied the Middle East for 1900 years have vanished completely. Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims are starving in refugee camps.

Meanwhile, ISIS has drawn tens of thousands of young men and women, a substantial minority of them raised in secular western states, into its vision of an Islamist utopia born from apocalyptic violence. They seem completely fearless of divine or human retribution. Their assets amount to billions of dollars. The spokesman in a video from Libyan ISIS, released last Sunday and showing a massacre of about 21 Christians, reminded viewers that Libya is just opposite Rome, the ancient heart of western Christendom.

If I am distant from the media coverage, I am not physically remote from the suffering. As the crow flies, I’m only 640 kilometers away from Mosul. That is about half the distance from my parents’ house in Virginia to my wife’s family in Mississippi. I could drive there in a day, had I a car and were the borders open.

Of course, these statistics can convey nothing of the suffering experienced by each soul. Quantification cannot touch on the true nature of the beast. But there seems no other way to even hint at the magnitude of the destruction, as the world rolls on toward judgment.

I am not raising an alarm. I am in no position to pontificate. I am simply grieving, and seeking repentance for my own part in evil.

EDIT: It is completely coincidental, but perhaps appropriate, that I have posted this on the eve of Ash Wednesday.