Cool-Headed Talk Of Things Human And Divine


Edited by Gregory Wolfe

The Free Press

306 pp., $25

For those claiming conscientious-objector status in the culture wars of the late 20th century, "The New Religious Humanists: A Reader" is a comforting, commendable collection of essays on matters religious and spiritual. While intellectually rigorous, it gracefully transcends angry fundamentalism on the one hand, and situational relativism on the other.

The anthology provides a substantive look at some of the next generation of religious thinkers. It offers ways of thinking about things human and things divine that have "flourished within the Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions" for centuries. It rests on the premise that: "Humanity cannot be understood without reference to God; and neither God nor God's revelation can be understood except through the lens of thought and experience."

Religious humanism presents a new/old system of ideas by which individuals might interpret the divine in human affairs, says editor Gregory Wolfe. Humane and religious thinkers have built, or more aptly, shored up, successive cultural foundations and world views at times when social disintegration seemed to threaten civilization itself, he writes.

Addressing a generation with a television memory, Wolfe backs up this position in a historical tour de force: At the end of the Roman Empire between 350 and 450 BC, St. Augustine's "The City of God" laid the foundation for the medieval world order. As Copernicus turned that world order on its head by proving that the sun, not the earth was the center of the universe, 16th-century Christian scholars grafted the empirically friendly philosophy of Aristotle onto the religious traditions being challenged. This prepared the way for the Enlightenment.

Erasmus, Thomas Moore, and John Calvin offered new theological syntheses out of the ashes of the religious wars of the Renaissance and Reformation.

In the 18th century, writers as diverse as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Cardinal John Henry Newman led the Romantic reaction against Newton's mechanistic concept of God as the "great clockmaker." Their goal was "to unite faith, reason, and the imagination," Wolfe writes.

Tremors from the discoveries of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein still shake the faith of a pre-scientific Christianity. And looking toward the next century, for a generation contemplating a cloned reflection of itself, this volume will help illuminate the divine image in the biogenetic mirror our children stare into.

The 19 essays in this collection range from autobiographical musings about church to formal exposition about the nature of being. Grouped in six sections, they allow "readers to sense for themselves the unity of vision that lies at the heart of this book." In the first section, "Faith and Reason," creative writers Annie Dillard ("Holy the Firm") and Richard Rodriguez ("Credo"), reminisce about the hold religious traditions of their youth still have on them.

In Sections 2 and 3, spiritual wisdom from previous eras proves well suited to address the challenges our scientific and technological age pose to religious faith today. The essay by Virginia Stem Owens ("Faith, Perception, and the New Physics") is that rarest of all syntheses, scientific laws infused with lyrical descriptions. (See excerpt below.)

Sections 4 and 5 offer thoughtful, sophisticated arguments about the necessary role of religion in politics and culture. The final section, "Flesh and Spirit," deftly considers Christian witness as it pertains to the environment, biotechnology, abortion, and euthanasia.

None of the writers in this volume ask readers to substitute one religious tradition for another; nor do they propose following one path to God rather than another. Their approach is not that of lawyers arguing and winning points.

If we live in a post-Christian society as many commentators suggest, the inner life of individuals brims with Judeo-Christian norms seeking daily expression. This book proves their cup is full and being offered for drink.

* Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor.

Gauging Reality

I know a man... He survived the [brain] surgery with no complications, woke up, functioned well, even talked to the doctors and nurse. There was only one problem: he was convinced he was dreaming. Nothing could persuade him that he was actually awake and aware. Descartes would have been proud of him. Perhaps he would have gone on in this dream world forever if it hadn't been for television. He finally decided that his own mind could not possibly produce the meager and unsatisfying scenarios he found on the screen. If he had been dreaming, he would have made a better job of it....

Saint Paul, in that uncanny way saints as well as scientists have of staging possibilities before us, promised an interpenetration of consciousness, a participation in divine life. We live in Christ; he lives in us. The consciousness that upholds us in being, that attends us into being, that conceptualizes all the 'levels, domains, and aspects' of the universe simultaneously, will expand, open its arms, and ask us to dance.

- from 'The New Religious Humanists'

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