Top 10 Theology Books of the Last 10 Years (That I’ve Read)

Here is a list of what I consider to be the ten most important theology-related books (I’ve read) of the past ten years. They’re in no particular order (kinda). If given another chance to make this list I’d probably choose (mostly) the same books, or I’d make the list longer. The books are accompanied by publisher blurbs, which should explain why these books are so important. I’d like to see what your top 10/10 list looks like. Feel free to submit one in the comment section of this post. Please order books via the links provided here if you’d like to help put some diapers on little Rosman butts!
There's plenty of theology in there.

There’s plenty of theology in there.

The Modern Philosophical Revolution breaks new ground by demonstrating the continuity of European philosophy from Kant to Derrida. Much of the literature on European philosophy has emphasized the breaks that have occurred in the course of two centuries of thinking. But as David Walsh argues, such a reading overlooks the extent to which Kant, Hegel, and Schelling were already engaged in the turn toward existence as the only viable mode of philosophizing. Where many similar studies summarize individual thinkers, this book provides a framework for understanding the relationships between them. Walsh thus dispels much of the confusion that assails readers when they are only exposed to the bewildering range of positions taken by the philosophers he examines. His book serves as an indispensable guide to a philosophical [and theological] tradition that continues to have resonance in the post-modern world.
Hug an atheist today.

Hug an atheist today.

In this stimulating book, Denying and Disclosing God, distinguished theologian Michael J. Buckley, S.J., reflects upon the career of atheism from the beginnings of modernity to the present day. Extending the discussion he began in his highly acclaimed At the Origins of Modern Atheism, the author argues that atheism as ideology was generated neither by the rise of hostile sciences in the Renaissance nor by the medieval and inferential theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Professor Buckley locates the origins of atheistic consciousness in modernity’s bracketing of interpersonal religious experience as of no cognitive value. Atheism was generated by the very strategies formulated to counter it. This dialectical character of modern atheism suggests the further possibility of the negation of this negation, thereby bringing about the retrieval of the religious in form and content along with a new admission of the cogency of religious experience.

Lovely.

Lovely.

In seven essays that draw from metaphysics, phenomenology, literature, Christological theology, and Biblical exegesis,Marion sketches several prolegomena to a future fuller thinking and saying of love’s paradoxical reasons, exploring evil, freedom, bedazzlement, and the loving gaze; crisis, absence, and knowing.

Swirly things and a cross.

Swirly things and a cross.

Theopolitical Imagination is a critique of modern Western civilization, including contemporary concerns of consumerism, capitalism, globalization, and poverty, from the perspective of a believing Catholic.

Responding to Enlightenment and Postmodernist views of the social and economic realities of our time, Cavanaugh engages with contemporary concerns–consumerism, late capitalism, globalization, poverty–in a way reminiscent of Rowan Williams (Lost Icons), Nicholas Boyle (Who Are We Now?) and Michel de Certeau. “Consumption of the Eucharist,” he argues, “consumes one into the narrative of the pilgrim City of God, whose reach extends beyond the global to embrace all times and places.” He develops the theme of the Eucharist as the basis for Christian resistance to the violent disciplines of state, civil society and globalization.

Trust me, this book is big.

Trust me, this book is big.

In The God of Covenant and Creation Larry Chapp develops a true ‘theology of nature’ that begins and ends with strictly confessional Christian warrants. He begins by showing how modern naturalism arose out of a theological matrix and how it lost its way specifically as naturalism as soon as it rejected that theological matrix. Indeed, modern naturalism is not so much a-theological as it is a rival theology to that of the Church. All claims of ultimacy, including those of natural science, have inherently theological orientations embedded within them – however unconsciously. Therefore, what confronts us in the modern world is not so much a choice between a non-theological naturalism and a theological naturalism. Rather, what confronts us is a choice between two rival theologies – one agnostic and a-theistic in its implications while the other is revelocentric and Christian.

Not for the birds.

Not for the birds.

This landmark work presents prayer in all its richness and variety throughout history, across traditions, and around the globe. In a thorough and fascinating look at this spiritual practice, two of today’s most versatile and admired authorities on religion probe the language and fruits of prayer, its controversies, and its prospects for the future. With a focus on extraordinary stories of lives changed by prayer and on great works of literature and art inspired by it, Prayer: A History promises to be the standard on the subject for readers of all faiths.
Empty throne.

Empty throne.

Why has power in the West assumed the form of an “economy,” that is, of a government of men and things? If power is essentially government, why does it need glory, that is, the ceremonial and liturgical apparatus that has always accompanied it?

In the early centuries of the Church, in order to reconcile monotheism with God’s threefold nature, the doctrine of Trinity was introduced in the guise of an economy of divine life. It was as if the Trinity amounted to nothing more than a problem of managing and governing the heavenly house and the world. Agamben shows that, when combined with the idea of providence, this theological-economic paradigm unexpectedly lies at the origin of many of the most important categories of modern politics, from the democratic theory of the division of powers to the strategic doctrine of collateral damage, from the invisible hand of Smith’s liberalism to ideas of order and security.

But the greatest novelty to emerge from The Kingdom and the Glory is that modern power is not only government but also glory, and that the ceremonial, liturgical, and acclamatory aspects that we have regarded as vestiges of the past actually constitute the basis of Western power.

King Artur?

King Artur?

How does worship work? How exactly does liturgical formation shape people? And how does the Spirit marshal the dynamics of such transformation? In the second of James K. A. Smith’s three-volume theology of culture, the author expands and deepens the analysis of cultural liturgies and Christian worship he developed in his acclaimed Desiring the Kingdom. Drawing on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, Imagining the Kingdom helps readers understand and appreciate the bodily basis of habit formation and how liturgical formation–both “secular” and Christian–affects one’s fundamental orientation to the world. Worship “works” by leveraging one’s body to transform his or her imagination, and it does this through stories understood on a register that is closer to body than mind. This has critical implications for thinking about the nature of Christian formation and the role of the arts in Christian mission.

Hurts so good.

Hurts so good.

In this classic treatise on Christian spirituality, Rowan Williams takes us with a new eye along a road marked out by Paul, John, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and finally to Luther and St. John of the Cross. The Wound of Knowledge is a penetrating psychological and intellectual analysis of Christian spirituality.
Monkey see, monkey don't.

Monkey see, monkey don’t.

According to British scholar Conor Cunningham, the debate today between religion and evolution has been hijacked by extremists: on one side stand fundamentalist believers who reject evolution outright; on the opposing side are fundamentalist atheists who claim that Darwin’s theory rules out the possibility of God. Both sides are dead wrong, argues Cunningham, who is at once a Christian and a firm believer in the theory of evolution. In Darwin’s Pious Idea Cunningham puts forth a trenchant, compelling case for both creation and evolution, drawing skillfully on an array of philosophical, theological, historical, and scientific sources to buttress his arguments.
Glowing blurbs all over this one.

Glowing blurbs all over the back of this one.

And 1.  I’ll be reading this soon:

While philosophy believes it is impossible to have an experience of God without the senses, theology claims that such an experience is possible, though potentially idolatrous. In this engagingly creative book, John Panteleimon Manoussakis ends the impasse by proposing an aesthetic allowing for a sensuous experience of God that is not subordinated to imposed categories or concepts. In God After Metaphysics Manoussakis draws upon the theological traditions of the Eastern Church, including patristic and liturgical resources, to build a theological aesthetic founded on the inverted gaze of icons, the augmented language of hymns, and the reciprocity of touch. Manoussakis explores how a relational interpretation of being develops a fuller and more meaningful view of the phenomenology of religious experience beyond metaphysics and onto-theology.

Nota Bene: Cosmos The In Lost also features a top 10 list of books about heaven and hell.

Musical coda:

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Colm Tóibín’s Regensburg Moment & Macauley’s Catholic Dissidents

576px-StPeter_Regensburg

Regensburg solid.

Colm Tóibín’s The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe is a real treat.  There’s nothing like seeing the familiar, in this case Catholicism, from an eccentric standpoint.  It’s a roller-coaster ride where the memoirist  simultaneously plays the role of Catholic insider and outsider.  Tóibín frequently rubs me the wrong way with his pronouncements about Polish Catholicism (which I partially registered here).

His speculation that John Paul II would not even know how to fathom the profound depths of Bultmannian demythologization in the watered-down secondhand version Tóibín got from the first-rate second-rate theologian Norbert Brox is (hopefully) unintentionally comical.  Note the Dowdish bathos (again, comedy?) when he obliquely references Hamlet in  his evaluation of Brox vs. Wojtyla:

“It struck me that these new ideas [of gnostic provenance, only about 1900 years older than Bultmann (my own interjection)] were being fostered once more in the fertility of the German mind, and were so far from what is dreamed of in John Paul II’s philosophy that he probably would not know how to counteract them.”

These revelations are usually followed in the memoir by serious (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) reluctance to submit to Catholic discipline and mysteriously combined with mind-numbingly uncritical acceptance of Primal Scream therapy along with a heavy dose of ketamine.

I’m having too much fun here, but he does get serious and insightful:

“‘Protestants one, Catholics nil,’ I said to myself as I went to midnight Mass the following evening in the Catholic cathedral in Regensburg. But then I thought about it: they won on music and sheer, solemn style, and their churches were charming and pretty and neat. But their churches were small. Our Catholic cathedral in Regensburg, on the other hand, was a big soaring, shadowy Gothic structure, by far the most imposing building in the city.  They had Bach; we had buttressing.”

[Video courtesy of Fr. Joseph Koczera, SJ who runs a respectable and noteworthy blog “The City and the World.”  Give it a spin here.]

The solidity of the popish institutional buttressing came into sharp focus in yet another great column by Philip Jenkins, “Macaulay’s Catholic Dissenters” over at Real Clear Religion.   Borrowing heavily from Macauley’s review of von Ranke’s book on the popes, Jenkins notes Rome’s effectiveness in flexibly absorbing and directing the energies of eccentric figures and movements in ways Protestantism doesn’t:

“Macaulay notes that Christianity inevitably inspires great thinkers and activists, what we might call spiritual entrepreneurs. The enthusiasm of such individuals can make them hard to live with, and institutions find it very difficult to keep them within reasonable bounds. As these people know, absolutely, that they are serving God, they see no point in following merely human instructions. Inevitably, charismatic or prophetic individuals often desert their former institutions to set up new churches, sects or denominations, and that process has recurred frequently within the Protestant tradition. In fact, it is a trademark of that tradition.

The Catholic Church, in contrast, has always shown its ability to absorb an amazing range of dissidents. Its inclusive powers are not absolute — witness Martin Luther, and the various spiritual leaders condemned as heretics throughout the years. But in countless cases, the church succeeded. The Catholic genius was to provide means to absorb and channel virtually any form of charisma or inspired spirituality, while at the same time presenting itself as an unchanging and even inflexible hierarchical institution, semper eadem–always the same. We think how the wild, anarchic, spirituality of St. Francis was channeled and disciplined into the Franciscan Order. Eventually, even a pope would take his name.”

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (2017) Jenkins has the following to say to his Protestant colleagues:

“Macaulay’s vision [of Catholicism] could offer a practical recipe for modern-day churches contemplating how to survive and flourish in apparently impossible circumstances.

Not that this is new, but the formulation is striking.  Many Protestants have been moving toward a rapprochement with Rome ever since the pathbreaking pontificate of John Paul II.  This is evidenced by initiatives like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, or the intellectually vibrant Anglican and Roman Catholic scholarly cooperation under the banner of Radical Orthodoxy.  There are also many recent instances of Protestant intellectuals crossing the Tiber, among them, Christian Smith (the sociologist), Paul J. Griffiths, and Reinhard Hutter.

Get it?

Get it?

This institutional flexibility is the best example of Hegel’s most famous concept, Aufhebung, that I can think of.  What a great historical irony given how Hegel saw Catholicism as but a stage on the way to universal Protestant individualism!

Yet a Chrome browser auto-correct reminds me that indeed some things are necessarily rejected in the dialectic. Whenever I try to type “syncretism” into this very blog entry it gets a red underlining. The suggested replacement is, get this, “cretinism.”

So perhaps Alasdair MacIntyre is a necessary supplement to what I’ve been saying here? In this video he reminds us that Catholicism always defines itself as being an alternative to, “instead of,” some other movement. The most famous example is Augustine who chose Catholic Christianity instead of continued adherence to neo-Platonic gnosticism. A more recent example is pope Francis continuing the severe critiques of capitalism of his two predecessors by presenting Catholicism as an alternative.

Here is MacIntyre:

And so in the end . . . “Let me tell you, I stand with two-thousand years of darkness and bafflement and hunger behind me. My kind have harvested the souls of a million peasants! And I couldn’t give a [rat’s ass] for your Internet-assembled philosophy!” Check out the whole “Evil Vicar” clip below:

Rabelaisian Catholicism Redux or: How to Keep the Church Impure

pelikan impure

The Cappadocians: Keeping it impure

Yesterday’s post discussed (here) how early Christian theology was fundamentally “polluted” by the Greek tradition of philosophy as a way of life.   But historian Jaroslav Pelikan suggest the contagion goes down even further, right down into the marrow, into the very language used to compose the New Testament:

“It remains one of the most momentous linguistic convergences in the entire history of the human mind and spirit that the New Testament happens to have been written in Greek–not in the Hebrew of Moses and the prophets, nor in the Aramaic of Jesus and his disciples, nor yet in the Latin of the imperium Romanum; but in the Greek of Socrates and Plato, or at any rate in a reasonably accurate facsimile thereof, disguised and even disfigured though this was in the Koine by the intervening centuries of Hellenistic usage.”

He continues in Christianity and Classical Culture:

“As a result of this convergence, every attempt to translate the New Testament into andy of almost two thousand languages–including a Semitic language such as Syriac, despite all its affinities with Hebrew and Aramaic–has, on encountering any term, been obliged to consider above all its previous career in the history of the Greek language; and that was a problem of natural theology [metaphysics] no less than a problem of philology.”

god greek

Well . . . YEAH.

There’s been quite a lot of talk about divorcing God from the Greek heritage at the very least ever since Harnack (one of the great enemies of this blog . . .  The hope is to keep him continually rolling in his grave).   While trying to argue away the Greek “accretions” to some vaguely “pure” Gospel he said, “. . . Roman Catholicism has nothing to do with the Gospel, nay, is in fundamental contradiction with it.”

We’ll see about that as tomorrow we turn to the article “Farewell, Old Pagan World” by Philip Jenkins, one of our leading public commentators on religion, and modify its claims, to the advantage of impurity, with the help of Catherine Pickstock.  This being Bloomsday, listen to Joyce playing upon the theme of purity from the life of Moses here.

James Joyce sings

James Joyce sings “From the Fathers”

Meanwhile, today’s readings please our Rabelaisian sensibilities (read the manifesto here) with one of the seediest episodes from David’s life and a Gospel reading about “a sinful woman [from] the city.”

American Literary Slugfest: Papist Upstarts vs. Established Prots

Outsiders?

Outsiders?

In his essay “Religion and Literature” T.S. Eliot makes a most reasonable critical observation, especially given the longstanding close tie between literature and theology (“religion” is a problematic concept as I’ve noted here):

“Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint.”

Paul Giles takes up this mantle, when it comes to American Catholicism, in his path-breaking study American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics.  There isn’t enough time to go into the details of how he understands the Catholic imagination versus the Protestant imagination.  We’ll leave that discussion for later along with mentions of David Tracy and Andrew Greeley.

For now: wouldn’t this make for one hell of a slugfest (put away the salt Seattle residents)?

“It would seem reasonable to suggest that certain excellent writers have been undervalued because the (explicit or implicit) ideologies of their texts do not accord with what are conceived, often unconsciously, to be American literary values . . . It is this assumption also that may have contributed to the continued underestimation of Dreiser, Kerouac, Mary McCarthy, John O’Hara, J. F. Powers, Edwin O’Connor.  The Emerson-Frost-Stevens triad is a familiar combination in American literary history; Santayana-Tate-Frank O’Hara less so.”