An Affirming Theological Synthesis

The New World of Faithby Avery Dulles, S.J.Our Sunday Visitor. 176p $14.95 paperback original

Avery Dulles’s first article for America appeared in the issue of May 5, 1951. It was already five years since he had published his first book, A Testimonial to Grace, a narrative of his conversion to Catholicism while an undergraduate at Harvard. For half a century Dulles has continued to turn out books and articles, many of the latter in America, and there are few if any theologically literate American Catholics who have not been shaped intellectually by his work.

Now in 2000, Dulles offers another testimonial of sorts. These pages...are written from a Roman Catholic perspective, by an author who came to Christianity and to the Catholic Church as a young adult. Everything in my life since that time has confirmed the rightness of that decision. I hope that as many as possible may share with me the joy and excitement of the adventure of faith. The New World of Faith is not a retrospective look at Dulles’s 60 years in the Catholic Church, nor an original theological synthesis in the manner of Karl Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith, though we may hope the author lives to write such books. Rather, it is a straightforward, semi-popular presentation of basic Catholic teaching.

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Dulles begins by describing and responding to three contemporary obstacles to faith: historical consciousness, pluralism and the free market of ideas. Far from making faith impossible, these conditions call for a personal and explicit adherence to faith. Christian faith, says Dulles, constitutes a new world, in sharp contrast to the dominant values of the secular world. Clear and well-structured chapters, none more than 15 pages long, address our knowledge of God; Jesus’ person and work; the church, and the Holy Spirit as its soul; the saints and Mary; the sacraments; Scripture, tradition and magisterium; evangelization; ecumenism; moral and social teaching; and eschatology. Dulles has been critical, especially in recent years, of mainstream American Catholic theology, and in this book he briefly defends teachings that theologians often challenge, such as the prohibitions of contraception and the ordination of women. The tone, however, is affirmative and free of polemic; criticisms of theologians are rare, vague and never by name.

The chapters are not of equal quality. The treatment of our knowledge of God might have been published almost verbatim in 1951. Dulles reviews the traditional proofs (from contingency, order, etc.) as being what philosophers saynever mind that most contemporary philosophers, including Catholics like Louis Dupré, have great difficulty with the proofs. Then he begins his treatment of the Trinity with the scholastic analogy of the Son as the Father’s knowledge and the Spirit as the love between Father and Son, rather than, as most contemporary approaches do, with the economic trinity: the Son as incarnate in Jesus, the Spirit as present in the community. By contrast, the chapters on ecumenism and eschatology are balanced statements of the contemporary state of those questions. Dulles presents ecumenism as a serious obligation and charts its progress through the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification. He gives favorable mention, though not outright endorsement, to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s hope that all will be saved.

That is the sole mention of a contemporary theologian (other than Pope John Paul II) in the entire book. In order to avoid getting lost in scholarly references and debates, Dulles says, I have tried to write this book as much as possible in my own name, without reference to the many authors to whose thinking I am indebted. But in fact Dulles rarely speaks in the first person, as if offering his own unique perspective; rather, the voice is third-person and magisterial. It leaves the impression of Catholic doctrine and theology as too nearly a closed system, not so much the product of dialogue and disagreement and open to further dialogue as a splendid, divinely crafted artifact. Only in the chapter on eschatology (and to a limited degree in the chapter on ecumenism) does Dulles seem comfortable with the modesty of our knowledge and the legitimacy of differing speculations.

Dulles’s desire is to present the Catholic faith as a unified whole, so that readers might, in Balthasarian fashion, see the form and be captivated by its beauty. The new world of faith must be seen as a new and enduring order, next to which the world of daily experience is tired and old. It is not time to be modest and tentative. The times call for a more confident and knowledgeable assertion of the bedrock truths of faith. Dulles’s sense of the contrast between the modern world and the life of faith has, it seems, come back to what it was in A Testimonial to Grace, where conversion to Catholicism saved him from (to quote its preface) the skepticism, materialism, and liberalism that set the tenor of our intellectual life. Likewise now, to enter the new world of faith by baptism is a revolutionary [step], especially when we consider the dominant values of the secular world, including perhaps especially the world of our own day.

This is the language of an adult convert. Those of us who have been Catholic from infancy have grown into the worlds of faith and daily secular experience in the same process, and our life of faith is not so much a matter of revolutionary steps as of daily negotiation between those worlds. For some of us, that negotiation has taken an intellectual form called theologyand, yes, theologians are not the intended audience of this book. Still, not only I but many of the undergraduates and even the adult catechumens and candidates for full communion whom I teach are, I think, less attracted by the faith as splendid artifact than by the life of the Church as a pilgrim community renewing itself by creative interaction with its changing environment. These words are from Dulles’s 1978 book, The Resilient Church. Faith, Dulles went on to say, is not simply a matter of accepting a fixed body of doctrine. More fundamentally, it is a committed and trustful participation in an ongoing process. This ongoing process is what I miss in The New World of Faith.

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