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



Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life by Douglas V. Porpora (Oxford University Press) Do you believe in God? Nine out of ten Americans unhesitatingly answer yes. But for Douglas V Porpora, the real questions begin where pollsters leave off. What, he asks, does reli­gious belief actually mean in our lives? Does it shape our identities and our actions? Or, despite our professions of faith, are we morally adrift?

Landscapes of the Soul paints a disturbing picture of American spiritual life. In his search for answers to his questions, Porpora interviewed clerks and executives, Jews, evangelical Chris­tians, Buddhists, Taoists, and even followers of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh. He asked them about God, and about what they saw as their own place in the universe. What he found was a widespread inability to articulate any grand meaning of life. We lack heroes to inspire us. We lack a sense of calling, of transcendent purpose in our existence. Many of us seem incapable of caring deeply about the suffering of others. Our society is permeated with moral indifference. Yes, we are a believing people, but God is often a distant abstraction and rarely an emotional presence in our lives. Only such an emotional connection, Porpora argues, can be the basis of a genuine moral vision.

Our emotional estrangement from God and the sacred keeps us from caring about social jus­tice, keeps us from wanting to change the world, keeps us enclosed in our own private worlds. Landscapes of the Soul is a passionate call to broaden our spiritual and moral horizons, to raise our eyes to the greater reality that unites us all.

"This book provides a powerful shock of recognition, delivered in easy doses through conversations with real people. Porpora enables us to look inside the trends Robert Putnam has so convincingly documented from the outside: the puzzle of how so many Americans can be decent and tolerant in private life yet unmoved by larger claims of justice and environmental destruction. Porpora argues that this puzzle cannot be comprehended on the social level alone. What is missing is emo­tional connection with the moral, philosophical, and ultimately, sacred dimensions of life, insid­ious spiritual entropy of a kind very different from that denounced by self-styled `conservatives.' At the very least, Landscapes of the Soul will give pause to those who believe that today's public dis­course captures what is going on in America today. More importantly, it will leave readers not just more knowledgeable about the society they share, but uncomfortable with a merely passive relation to the questions the book explores."            -William M. Sullivan, co-author of Habits of the Heart "Landscapes of the Soul is a fabulous, meticulously researched and scholarly account of the nature of religious beliefs and practice in America today. It is essential reading for all scholars and indeed all laypeople interested in the enduring phenomena of spirituality."            -Roy Bhaskar, author of From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul "Landscapes of the Soul updates and extends the work of Habits of the Heart. With rare lucidity, Porpora deftly interweaves his subjects' narratives with a realist theoretical analysis in an excep­tionally readable book. He reveals the lunar landscape of the American soul, detached from the sacred, and shows poignantly that the profane offers no substitute. It condemns us to meaning­lessness, to lives without ultimate concerns, passionate commitments or defining trajectories, lack­ing in heroes and heroics alike. At most there remains a nostalgia for transcendence lost, which is too enervated to transcend its condition. Without proselytizing, Porpora sensitively allows a diverse handful of souls to articulate pathways out of the profane."    

The Genesis of Values by Hans Joas, translated by Gregory Moore (University of Chicago Press) Among the most important issues in public and intellectual debates are the concept of value and the difficulties of defining it The Genesis of Values puts the concept of values, much neglected for decades, at the center of his inquiry, and shows how values, properly understood, can help break the conceptual deadlock between the right and the good and move us ahead in our understanding of social and ethical life. With interpretive sensitivity, Joas systematically pursues the question of the origin of values, Joas explores the nature of these difficulties in relation to some of the leading figures of twentieth‑century philosophy and social theory: Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Max Scheler, John Dewey, Georg Simmel, Charles Taylor, and Jurgen Habermas. Combining utilitarian and normativist approaches, Joas traces how these thinkers came to terms with the idea of value, then extends beyond them with his own comprehensive theory. Values, Joas suggests, arise in experiences in self-­formation and self‑transcendence; that is, in the opening of the symbolic boundaries of the self. Beginning with. Joas has the rare ability to bring forth fresh interpretations and novel insights, with a wide-ranging reach of reference and interdisciplinary grasp of detail. Only by appreciating the creative nature of human action can we understand how our values arise.

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