Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review: The Difference God Makes

The Difference God Makes. How does one write a good book that adequately explains a title such as this? Indeed, certain titles sound almost impossible to live up to; like “Paradise Lost” or “The Well at the World’s End” – how can you write a book which lives up to such titles?

That being said, I can’t give a strong enough recommendation for this book. Does the book have some flaws? Sure, all books do. But Cardinal George has far more right than he has wrong and he has established himself in this book as a premier philosopher, historian, theologian, and anthropologist. In a society increasingly placing God on the sidelines as a non-player in world affairs, Cardinal George in effect stands up and declares: “God makes a difference. God really does have something to say about the world and about the human condition.”

In other words: God cannot be taken out of the public square.

In case you don’t know, Cardinal Francis George is the out-going President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop of Chicago. He is the first cardinal ever to be elected to the position. In a shocking election last month, he was succeeded by Archbishop Dolan of New York rather than by his Vice President, Bishop Kicanus of Tucson (often described as the most liberal bishop in the United States who was the presumptive in-coming president). Unlike Kicanus, Cardinal George has been considered a “conservative” by many while others have decidedly called his pastoral actions as moderate at best.

What else can you expect in Chicago?

But while we can argue over “church politics” all we want, The Difference God Makes proves Cardinal George’s intellectual genius and offers a clear vision of God’s importance in the past, in the present, and in the future.

So let’s get down to business.

Cardinal George begins and ends his book by stating that: “Jesus is the difference God makes.” At first, given our Bible-thumping, John 3:16-yelling, door-knocking neighbors who attempt to convert with the best of intentions, the proclamation of Cardinal George may seem simplistic at best and proselytizing at worst. How can such a claim stand up in a pluralistic society? What room is there for the public proclamation of the Gospel of Christ?

This is why Cardinal George also begins and ends his book with philosophy. In a narrative tour de force, George tells us the story of modernity and shows us the roots of the modern crisis in terms of the movement away from the Thomistic understanding of God as a being utterly unlike us to a late-medieval theology which describes God as like us, just infinitely higher than us. The two ideas may sound like hair-splitting, but the latter idea leads to a God who can be in competition with us because of his ontological likeness to us. In such a conception, God can be established as over against us like a tyrant; His will versus our will. Cardinal George then goes on to explain how this theology set the stage for the Protestant Reformation and how the Enlightenment built on this and built up the present-day philosophical outlook of modernity.

An adequate understanding of God makes a difference because it leads us back to a God who is not demanding, but freeing. This conception of God enables us to see how we participate in God’s being simply through the gift of existence. We can then truly see our lives and others as a pure gift of God’s love. Furthermore, it ends the false dichotomy which pits God against culture, showing that God really does in fact form the culture and give the culture life and love. And Christ takes this to a new level: through Him we have access to God’s own inner-life and are transformed as God’s adopted children. There’s nothing more gratuitous and freeing than that!

And there is so much more in the book than just this. Cardinal George offers key insights on interfaith dialogue, leadership in the Church, priestly celibacy, the role of the laity, the Church and globalization, liberal Catholicism, inculturation, and how God informs these matters in the present in order to create a truly hopefuly future.

However, I did note above that he gets some things wrong.

But perhaps it would be better to say that what is wrong about this book is really about what is missing rather than what is specifically wrong in the content. George spoke often of a “metaphysics of communio” (i.e. that we participate in God’s being through existence and that God is calling us into a deepening of that participation through His Son, Jesus Christ), but he fails to speak of those who reject the communio altogether. What about Satan, the fallen angel who exists now in rebellion against God? What about those who in our world have also utterly rejected God and are doing violence to others (e.g. the terrorist attacks throughout the Muslim world on Christians during Christmas and the Arizona massacre perpetrator). What do we do in the face of real evil?

In philosophy, evil can be considered as a deficiency in something. Evil is kind of like a cavity in a tooth: the pain is caused by something important in the tooth which ought to be there but isn’t. Most importantly, dentists do not treat the cavity by simply speaking about the absence in the tooth; rather, concrete action must be taken against the cavity and only then can healing come about. In a similar way, we must stand opposed to the evils in our world while recognizing that there are consequences of those evils now and in the hereafter. Thus if the book is missing anything, it is the concrete ways we must fight evil here and now.

Cardinal George’s book, however, wasn’t about evil (i.e. the absence of God) but rather about God Himself and the difference He makes in Himself and through Jesus Christ. In such a way George contemplates the ultimate Reality.

And I would say that is a topic big enough for one book.