New takes on old issues: Catholicism, history, biology
The most interesting and worthwhile books to come across my desk recently include one on “the secret history of Christianity” and one on “the first humans” in the days before we had a historical record to consult. In conception, both books are quite complex. In execution, both provide what I would call permanent insights to readers willing to hear out the authors’ extended arguments.
On the “scandal” of Catholic history
In The Scandal of the Scandals, the German author Manfred Lütz attempts the daunting task of writing that “secret history” which I mentioned above. Lütz is at once a psychiatrist, a Catholic theologian, and an incredibly widely-read best-selling author. His knowledge of the Church’s trials throughout history is apparently encyclopedic, though he was assisted in this particular project by Arnold Angenendt who, at 86 years of age, has many impressive works on Christian history to his credit. Both men are widely published in German. The Ignatius text is an English translation.
To offer fair warning, it will not do to skim lightly through The Scandal of the Scandals. Lütz does not present his information on key misunderstood features of Catholic history using the typical method of clearly enumerating and labeling Protestant and secular distortions of that history. Rather, he explains the complexity of each problem and each lingering issue in our historical consciousness, without glossing over those weaknesses which tell against Church leadership. Then he evaluates the issues fairly in context, explains the Catholic principles that were in play, and shows where our current culture’s collective memory is significantly distorted.
This approach is both a strength and a weakness. For long-term reliability, it is a great strength. But it takes thorough reading and deeper understanding of the entire situation before the reader gets to the point of being able to produce handy apologetical arguments on demand. This issue of inconvenience is exacerbated by the author’s penchant for cute but confusing chapter titles and subtitles (reflected, indeed, in the very title of the book itself), which make it very difficult to pin down where any particular subject may be treated in its most concise form. For example, the third chapter is entitled “The Middle Ages and the Crusades: From the Invention of the New Human Being to the End of a Monstrosity”, and the first two subsections are entitled “When Men Give Birth without Women and Women Invent Things without Men: How the West Was Created” and “A Sly Fox and a Hesitant Shepherd: The Smoldering Wick”. These are altogether typical: It is very hard to get key points out of this book quickly, or to know where you are when you have tried to do so by jumping in without reading the whole.
But The Scandal of the Scandals repays careful reading beginning at page one and continuing on in order. On everything from the Crusades to witch hunts to Nazism, if the reader is willing to possess his soul in the patience it takes to absorb the historical context, Lütz sheds real light on difficult issues and demonstrates, again and again, how often the latest scholarship supports a more mellow—and usually favorable—appreciation of the role of the Catholic Church. In no few cases (again, witch hunts are a good example), we find that the pope and bishops were decidedly on the opposite side from what various black legends have been fabricated to convey.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the latest scholarship cited by the author is typically German scholarship, which means few English-speaking readers will be able to consult it first-hand. It is also true that the author does not flinch from admitting those cases in which many churchmen were clearly wrong—but it is hard to imagine contemporary Catholic readers being any longer upset in their faith on that account. And in every instance, a clearer understanding of the issues emerges, so that the complexity of the problems covered is far more clearly understood.
And the scandal of mankind
Another book which maintains a delicate balance—and perhaps at first glance a confusing one—is Gerard M. Verschuuren’s At the Dawn of Humanity: The First Humans. Verschuuren is a human geneticist who also holds a doctorate in the philosophy of science, and he has been one of the most prolific contemporary writers in suggesting the various ways in which what we now know about the universe, our world, and mankind points toward God—whether working from physics or biology. (I have already reviewed two of them: In the Beginning: A Catholic Scientist Explains How God Made Earth our Home and Aquinas and Modern Science).
This book will initially confuse readers who have deep reservations about the theory of evolution, because it begins with five chapters which explain the development of that theory, the principles it depends on, and the kinds of questions about human origins it can answer plausibly. In this section, Verschuuren acknowledges the various objections to the several schools of evolutionary thought, but he is at pains to identify what the theory can reasonably explain.
This makes perfect sense in context, because—having granted all that is reasonable on this score—Verschuuren turns his attention in the next six chapters to the fundamental differences in the human person which simply cannot be explained by evolutionary theory alone, no matter how hard scientists have tried. The theory of evolution is rooted deeply in a presumption of gradual change through small mutations (called “gradualism”), and Verschuuren argues cogently that this theory is incapable on its own of explaining what he identifies as the five great “divides” between the human person and animals. Thus chapters 6 through 11:
- The language divide
- The rationality divide
- The morality divide
- The self-awareness divide
- The religion divide
- The soul divide
What makes the book so fascinating—and so valuable—is that Verschuuren takes a close look at the materialist explanations scientists have offered to bridge these divides, along with the experimental evidence they have offered on the subject (for example, evidence on learning and problem solving in higher animals). Then he demonstrates conclusively that the explanations consistently fail if they are stated clearly with their unproven assumptions identified; and further that all the attempts to offer evidence, once properly documented and understood, actually support the conclusion that there is nothing even in the very “highest” animals which remotely approaches the capability of bridging any of these gaps.
In the end...
Both of these books offer fascinating accounts of human history and human life, and both will richly reward the patience of those who are willing to take the time to read rather than merely to skim and cherry pick. Depending on one’s mood at the time, the best books are often those which make us think hard, in new ways, about old problems.
Manfred Lütz, The Scandal of the Scandals: The Secret History of Christianity. Ignatius Press, 2020: 267 pp. Paper $16.11.
Gerard M. Verschuuren, At the Dawn of Humanity: The First Humans. Angelico Press, 2020, 206 pp. Paper $17.95; Hardcover $26.00.
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