A Religious History of the American People
by Sidney E. Ahlstrom
Yale, 1,158 pp., $19.50
Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power
by Rosemary Radford Ruether
Paulist Press, 194 pp., $3.95
The Seduction of the Spirit: The Use and Misuse of People’s Religion
by Harvey Cox
Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $8.95 (publication date delayed until September 10)
A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation
by Gustavo Gutierrez
Orbis, 323 pp., $4.95 (paper)
When George Eliot died it was urged upon Dean Stanley that she should be buried in Westminster Abbey. T.H. Huxley argued that the Abbey was not a Pantheon.
George Eliot is known not only as a great writer, but as a person whose life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage, and Christian theory in regard to dogma. How am I to tell the Dean…to do that which, if I were in his place, I should most emphatically refuse to do? One cannot eat one’s cake and have it too.
The spiritual atmosphere in which this kind of thing can be said is crystalline. It is as though every building, every monument, every image has sharp edges, each casts its own distinct shadow, the spatial relations are grasped in a single act of vision. The clarity of the scene belongs in part to Huxley’s own vision, though he had men of similar perceptions among his opponents. From other points of view the edges may blur and the general scene may be darker and more confused. It is a piece of historical irony that one source of George Eliot’s power in fiction, above all in Adam Bede, is Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity she translated. Feuerbach may serve as the happiest model possible of one who wishes to have his cake and eat it: the substance of religion is to be enjoyed on atheist terms.
We may suspect, too, that Stanley would have yielded had the pressure been a bit greater. But Huxley’s comment shows that on the great speculative matters then thought to be in dispute between Christianity and its critics it was possible to know where one stood and to define the frontier to the satisfaction of friends and enemies.
It is pointless to argue that for many in our society such matters, speculative and practical, are no longer clear. The books under review, very different from each other and not belonging to the same school of thought, internally and in relation to each other bring out the lack of clarity. Father Gutierrez’s theology is quite traditional; it is rooted in the work of such robust thinkers as Congar, Chenu, Cullmann. But he extends the traditional theology of the Catholic schools to the institutional relations between men in the countries of South America and to the relations between these countries and the economic and political imperialism of the United States; and defends and recommends social revolution as a way out for them. The features of the revolution are necessarily not clear, but Gutierrez thinks socialism in some form the only kind of order that will serve justice and human development.
Mrs. Ruether’s collection of essays on diverse topics—black theology, celibacy, Judaism, anti-Semitism, ecological problems, and others—attacks most established theological traditions and commends fashionably iconoclastic attitudes. Harvey Cox is now enormously interested in religion, and tempers, if he does not withdraw, recent theses about …
Heretical about Heresy September 20, 1973