For my entire adult life the American conservative movement has been in a "crisis." That is at least what has come from the pens of various pundits for at least the last 25 years or so. This may or may not be true (I suspect it is), but if one wants to read an intriguing book by an intriguing man, it would be worth the time to pick up Bill Kauffman's book, Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism (Metropolitan, 2008). Kauffman stands in the noble tradition of those conservatives who have been skeptical of an interventionist foreign policy. In the not-too-distant past it tended to be liberals of various sorts who would advocate for a large-scale interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, as Richard Gamble argues in his The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (ISI, 2003), it was the "progressive" Christians who saw the U.S. in messianic terms and who used messianic terminology to describe the role of the U.S. in the world (a viewpoint now generally found amongst "conservatives"--although "liberals" chime in along these lines fairly often as well). Indeed, it is fascinating to realize that some of the strongest and most principled resistance to various twentieth-century wars has tended to come from various persons on the political right. For interesting speeches and essays in this regard, one can turn to the work by Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr., We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now (Basic Books, 2008). But Kauffman is a provocative and engaging writer, and in a world full of double-speak and spin, it is helpful to have such a no-nonsense writer to turn to.
I have been reading Michael O'Brien's novels for a number of years. I think I read the first one almost ten years ago. I have just purchased Theophilos (Ignatius, 2010), as in the "Theophilos" from the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke. His last novel was Island of the Sun (Ignatius, 2007), and is one of the best novels I have ever read. It is set in the aftermath of certain atrocities in World War II in Croatia. Some of his novels have an apocalyptic theme, and are very well done. Particularly compelling (and haunting) was Eclipse of the Sun (Ignatius, 1998), which rings true for our own day, given the fragile nature of political liberty which exists in our (and I suppose every) age. O'Brien is a traditional Catholic, and I have found that his novels are some of the most penetrating and profound I have read. His picture of political tyranny in Eclipse of the Sun is unsettling and frightening. His portrayal of determination, love, loss, and contentment in Island of the Sun was virtually second to no other novel I know of. His novel, Plague Journal (Ignatius) also has an apocalyptic theme, and is utterly believable. If you are looking for good reading for the summer, it would be hard to improve upon O'Brien.
Russell Kirk is always good reading, particularly as we live in a day when many people including (inexplicably) Christians, hanker for the growth of the leviathan state. Intercollegiate Studies Institute has published a judicious selection of Kirk's writings: The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, edited by George A. Panichas (ISI, 2007). Kirk was one of the founders of twentieth-century American conservative thought, even though it might be hard to see the similarities between contemporary "conservatives" and Kirk himself. Kirks is helpful reading for contemporary folks who intuitively know something is wrong with our contemporary cultural moment, but who may have a hard time putting their finger on the issue (or issues!). If someone has not read Kirk, this is a good place to begin.
A year or two ago I worked carefully through Stephen N. Williams' book, Revelation and Reconciliation: A Window on Modernity (Cambridge, 1995). I found it particularly helpful because Williams was offering a certain interpretation of modernity which differed from the account I would normally read. Williams, who teaches theology in Belfast (Northern Ireland), argues that modernity is not first and foremost simply an epistemological issue (that is part of the picture), but rather a moral issue, or an issue of the will. That is, it is common for folks to try and unpack or diagnose modernity as a question of how do we know, and particularly how do we know anything like a divine being or this divine being's will. Williams suggests that the more fundamental issue in coming to terms with modernity is to see that modernity is fundamentally a moral issue. Williams follows thinkers like Pascal and Kierkegaard in arguing that modern man tends not to believe in a divine being because modern man simply does not want to believe. Williams can quote Karl Barth, who in speaking of Friedrich Nietzsche (a prototypical modern man) can speak of Nietzsche's "crusade against the cross" (what a wonderful phrase!). Thus, for Williams modern man's problem is that he resists the fact that he is a creature in need of reconciliation (hence the title of the book). We do see certain epistemological issues as central to modernity. However, it is likely the case that the moral issue is prior, and leads to, or influences, the epistemological issues. As Williams writes, "The theology of the Reformers themselves consistently reminds us that the biblical drama is about the tragedy of a world alienated and loved in spiritual rebellion, root of our cognitive dysfunction" (p. 173). In short, as Christians think through the nature of the modern age, we must do so with a thoroughly biblical and theologically-rich understanding of what it means to be human (and now fallen), and that there is every reason to think that often apparently simply "intellectual" conundrums or difficulties often have a much deeper and difficult root.
I mentioned in a recent post that while on sabbatical in England I found myself reading a good bit on the question of origins (of man and created order) and on the nature of science. Another wonderful find has been the work of Peter Harrison. The book I am reading is his The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge, 2007). In this volume Harrison argues that there is a correlation of sorts between one's anthropology (doctrine of man) and one's view of science. If one sees man as truly fallen, where sin effects one's ability to think, reason, understand, etc., then this will manifest itself in a view of science which advocates strenuous efforts to think hard and long about the created order and what it means (i.e., since we are fallen science is a lot of work). If one does not have as serious/rigorous view of the fall, then the scientific endeavor is not saddled with such an uphill and difficult intellectual battle.To cut to the point, the Reformation traditions (themselves indebted to Augustine) took seriously the noetic effects of the fall, and that one of the goals of science was to repair what Adam lost in the fall. Having just wrapped up my book, The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Crossway, 2010), I found myself quite intrigued with his argument. As Harrison sees it, at the inception of modern science was a type of theological quest--the quest to restore what Adam lost in the fall--and one of the things he lost was a greater and more expansive knowledge of things. I think it is clearly biblical that sin effects our intellectual life (and hence the gospel is necessary to any meaningful recovery of the intellectual life). Thus, modern science was--at least in part, and at one point--rooted in a theological understanding of reality (man as created and fallen and in need of redemption), and (1) there was a theological rationale motivating science, and (2) science had a transcendent and theological telos (end or goal)--to help man become what he might become (now in light of his fallen status).
During my recent sabbatical I found myself enjoying reading a variety of things on the question of origins--as in the origin of man and the world. One of the most fascinating persons I discovered was Steve Fuller. Fuller teaches Sociology at the University of Warwick (remember--in the UK it is pronounced "Warick" :)).
Fuller is a fascinating man. Not a confessing Christian, he nonetheless argues that the Christian faith has historically been an impetus, not a hindrance, for science. Indeed, Fuller ultimately argues that contemporary science (on the whole) can no longer justify its own existence, at least in the sense of providing some sort of captivating and compelling reason for why someone would want to spend a lifetime exploring the traditional domains of science: man and the created order. Fuller argues that (1) the traditional evolutionary/Darwinian mechanism (random mutations and natural selection) cannot ultimately account for the nature of reality as we know it, and (2) that it is traditional Christianity (or what Fuller sometimes calls the "Abrahamic faiths"--a broader category) which provides a compelling justification for the scientific quest. The book I read of Fuller's was his Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design's Challenge to Darwinism (Icon Books, 2008). Another book by Fuller, Science Vs Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution (Polity, 2007) is perhaps a tad less provocative and punchy in its tone and presentation, but it is perhaps a bit clearer.
Fuller is interesing for lots of reasons, not the least being that he testified in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case (2005), and he testified on behalf of the Intelligent Design folks. This was the case where the judge parroted the "Intelligent Design is creationism, and is not science at all" line. Fuller offers a compelling criticism of the judge's thinking and decision. Fuller is prolific, and has a number of additional books in the works.