Review: Armstrong’s Buddha

Karen Armstrong

A simple, stupid, introduction to Buddhism perfect for someone like me who knows less than nothing about one of the world’s most important philosophical systems / religions. What it has: a concise overview of the life of the Buddha and the central tenets of the system as it was understood at the time of his death. What it doesn’t have: an in-depth look at the ways Buddhism would come to change as it was reinterpreted throughout the world. You want the basics of the life of the buddga and how he came to his concept of he universe. This book has got it. Want to understand the difference between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism? Go elsewhere.

Buddhism is far, far too complex for a single book to cover it all, but if you’re starting from scratch, this is as good a place as any to dive in.


Review: Maimonides: Reason Above All

Maimonides: Reason Above All by Israel Drazin

This is an odd little volume on the great Jewish thinker, the Rambam. This book is worth a read for someone like me who is a novice Jewish scholar. There is a lot of good introductory material here, but the book is kind of all over the place. Chapters focus on the biography of Maimondies, his influence on his son, philosophers who agree with Maimondes, and those who do not, plus a whole lot more. It feels that much of Judaism gets five pages, but almost none of Judaism get more. The book attempts to address big questions, like the role of mysticism and rationality in Judaism, and small details like why we put salt on our bread on Shabbat.

If anything holds the book together it is Drazin’s conception of Maimonides as the great hero of a rational Judaism. If you have any interest in Judaism or Jewish thought, you know Maimonides, one of the greatest philosopher scholars in the history of Judaism his works, most notably the Guide for the Perplexed are still read today. As a Jew, (yes, my name is Sean and yes I am Jewish. It’s a long story) one of the most compelling aspects of the religion for me is that it welcomes an intellectual approach to a religious practice. Approaching Judiaism as a set of rational guidelines for living owes much to the Rambam, and it is very much the way that I practice Judaism. Drazin spends a lot of time on this rational Judaism that has developed out of Maimonides and the book’s discussions of it are informative. But I wish Drazin delved more into the distinctions between a rational approach and a mystical approach to the religion.  Perhaps that is too much to ask from a single book.

For someone like me who is just starting to dig into Jewish thought and history, it is a helpful, if scattershot, introduction. Perhaps it isn’t the best first book one should read on the Rambam, but I found it accessible and informative.

– Sean

No king but Jesus

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter, Oxford University Press (2010).

One of the major paradoxes of contemporary American politics is that Christians have never been more organized specifically as Christians, and yet the goals of their various agendas – from alleviating poverty to ending abortion – remain out of reach, regardless of the political climate and their contributions to it.

In James Davison Hunter’s insightful, valuable book, this state of affairs is revealed as not paradoxical at all, but rather the logical outcome of a process by which followers of Christ became merely one special interest group among many, identical in tactics and outlook to everyone from labor unions to package store owners. In Hunter’s telling, Christians have not co-opted the political process; rather, they’ve become completely co-opted by politics, turning their supposedly transcendent faith into a set of maxims and mottoes meant to dress up party platforms in divine garb.

Hunter identifies three principal tendencies in Christian politics: the Right, the Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists, who eschew participation in an immoral system, but who in Hunter’s view go too far in their rejection of civic participation and become, more or less, a world-hating theological community.

But he reserves most of his critique for the Right and the Left, which he argues have trivialized Christian belief, compromised their principles, and utterly failed to accomplish what they purportedly set out to do. Hunter is especially convincing when he discusses the way politics in the U.S. have become the measure by which all movements, and all public life, are judged. This nearly-universal politicization of society can be seen in very terms like “Christian conservative” and “Christian liberal”; where would someone like Dorothy Day fit in either category? Or, for that matter, John Calvin, or Gregory of Nyssa? Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, with its call for a living wage and labor unions paired with a rejection of socialism and a defense of private property, seems as inscrutable in contemporary American politics as a defense of absolute monarchy. How did Christians let themselves become so identified with the two-party system and the simplistic, Manichean politics it engenders?

Hunter’s answer is that they became seduced by the notion that politics is the simplest way to fulfill “the creation mandate” – that is, to act as salt and light in the world, changing it for the better. This has been a danger for Christianity since Constantine formally ended persecution of the church in the 4th century, and although Hunter doesn’t go into tremendous detail about caesaro-papism, the history of blending church and state offers plenty of support for his thesis that such unions rarely end well for the church.

Hunter is less surefooted when tackling the Neo-Anabaptists, whose position are very similar to his. Neo-Anabaptist thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas argue for as complete a separation as possible between the church and the world, because the latter is invariably corrupt and corrupting: “The first task of the church is to make the world the world, not to make the world more just,” as Hauerwas writes. Christians, therefore, should shun active participation in activities like politics, because of the great danger that politics will corrupt and usurp their religious convictions.

Hunter dislikes the consequences of Neo-Anabaptism, which he warns tend toward sectarianism and a quasi-gnostic dislike of the world as it exists, but he’s not as convincing in his critique of this strand as he is in his dismantling of the Christian Right and the Christian Left. Hunter clearly agrees with the Neo-Anabaptists on many points, and has trouble explaining why their logic shouldn’t lead to the conclusions they’ve adopted.

In place of world-shunning, Hunter offers the idea of “faithful presence,” which is somewhat vaguely defined, but which seems to rest on the presumption that if Christians simply act like Christians are supposed to act, they will eventually succeed in changing the world for the better, even without intending to do so.

It may be a naive notion, but it’s an attractive one. Decades of Christian participation in U.S. interest group politics has resulted in a society that is less just than it was when that participation began. It’s arresting to think that Christians could have more success living out their calling by ditching the party-building and emulating the example of Jesus Christ.

(V. Charm)