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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Religion and Literature

The Clash of Orthodoxies:: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis by Robert P. George (ISI Books) It is a common supposition among many of our cultural elites that a constitutional "wall of separa­tion" between church and state precludes religious believers from bringing their beliefs to bear on pub­lic matters. This is because secular liberals typically as­sume that their own positions on morally charged issues of public policy are the fruit of pure reason, while those of their morally conservative opponents reflect an irra­tional religious faith. In The Clash of Orthodoxies, Princeton political theorist Robert P. George shows that this supposition is wrong on both counts.

Challenging liberalism's claim to represent the triumph of reason, George argues that on controversial issues like embryonic stem‑cell research, abortion, euthanasia, ho­mosexuality, and same‑sex marriage, traditional Judeo­Christian beliefs are actually rationally superior to secular liberal alternatives. Drawing on the natural law philo­sophical tradition, George demolishes various secularist pretenses, such as the notion that the very young and very old among us are somehow subpersonal and not worthy of full legal protection. He reveals the dubious person­body dualism implicit in secularist arguments, and he demonstrates the flawed reasoning behind the idea that the state ought to be neutral regarding competing under­standings of the nature and value of marriage.

George also revisits the controversy surrounding his par­ticipation in the First Things "End of Democracy?" sym­posium, in which he considered the relevance of Catholic teachings regarding the legitimacy of political regimes to the contemporary American situation. George argues that because natural law and natural rights doctrine lie at the foundation of the American republic, the judicial reading of the Constitution that has undermined democracy in order to enshrine the secularist agenda is deeply flawed.

In advancing his thesis, George argues for a return to old­fashioned liberalism, a worldview that he claims is best exemplified by Pope John Paul II, whose teachings laud democracy, religious liberty, and economic freedom while also recognizing the demands of civil rights, social and economic justice, and the principle of subsidiarity. These demands restrain Catholics‑and indeed all people of faith‑from making personal freedom an absolute, and George takes to task those political leaders who, though believers, have denied or ignored the political responsibility this entails.

The Clash of Orthodoxies is a profoundly important con­tribution to our contemporary national conversation about the proper role of religion in politics. The lucid and persuasive prose of Robert George, one of America's most prominent public intellectuals, will shock secular liberals out of an unwarranted complacency and provide powerful ammunition for embattled defenders of tradi­tional morality.


Renowned literary critic explores the intersection of religion and literature

Adam's Curse: Reflections on Religion and Literature by Denis Donoghue (Erasmus Institute Books: University of Notre Dame Press) Denis Donoghue is one of America's leading literary critics. Taking its title from a poem of William Butler Yeats, this collection of essays focuses on "Adam's Curse"--the burdens and harsh conditions of daily life that "make any human achievement difficult." "Putting up with these harsh conditions and turning them to some account" is the task that most interests Donoghue.

The collection of essays found in Adam's Curse: Reflections on Religion and Literature represent Donoghue's inauguration of the Erasmus Lectures at the University of Notre Dame. They are compelling explorations of issues of faith and address a dazzling range of texts and writers, including Yeats, Milton, Larkin, Heaney, Emmanuel Levinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Crowe Ransom, Henry Adams, William Lynch, and Robert Bellah. Donoghue's analysis is particularly sensitive to the social bearing of literature and the role it plays in relation to politics, religion, and ethics. 

His is an appropriate stance for a critic, though in the end its tone is as suspicious as it is critical. He richly explores an impressive range of writings as he defends the transcendence of analogy as opposed to the immanence of metaphor. Agreeing with him isn't necessary to benefit from traveling with him through the literary landscape he surveys. As usually it is his depth of perception and strong reading that bring thought to fruition. However seriousness might be at risk.

Though these essays display much wit and more learning and are loosely related thematically the execution hardly moves above occasional pieces as book reports and reviews. Denis Donoghue philosophic reach tends to not stray very far than from the predictable mainstream.

Described by Frances Oakley, President Emeritus of Williams College, as "vintage Donoghue. Rich in conception, deft in execution, astringent in analysis, and lucid in exposition," Adam's Curse: Reflections on Religion and Literature offers a compelling examination of the lasting difficulties associated with having cultural, literary, and religious values that are in "restless relation" to one another.


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