We're pleased to bring you the first issue of 2002. The Winter issue is full of entertaining reviews, but it would be difficult to overlook the somber note in many of the pieces. A large number of contributors have chosen to reflect on the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in the US. The heartless destruction of so many becomes a natural point of reference when covering such books as Sandra Birdsell's The Russlander, a novel which describes the brutal murder of Mennonites in early twentieth-century Russia, or Lorne Shirinian's Rough Landing and History of Armenia and Other Fiction, containing stories and poems which depict lives scarred by the Armenian genocide. And when looking at Another Day of Life, Ryszard Kapuscinki's journalistic account of the hell that was Angola in the 1970s, one cannot get away from feeling that one of the frightening aspects of the New York catastrophe is that it has brought the rest of the world into our very own yard, and that civilization on the whole hasn't changed all that much in the last one hundred years despite the very harsh lessons of the last century.
In this issue, reviews of books by George Steiner, Gore Vidal, Jonathan Israel, Michael Ruse, and Harris Athanasiadis, are brought together to give different but related perspectives on the current state of Western civilization. This group of reviews begins with Steiner's Grammars of Creation, in which he argues that language has suffered a cultural fall from grace: language is "used up"; it has done too much, has served too many masters, by lending itself first to the regimes of National Socialism, Fascism, and Stalinism, and presently to mind-numbing "jargon, hype, and propaganda [which] have eroded and undermined solid relationships between words and reality." Larger still is the current danger to 'creativity' itself: With the "co-existence...of Western superfluity and the starvation, the destitution, the infant mortality which now batten on some three-fifths of mankind...", "creative responses commensurate to the problems we face on a day-to-day basis are as incredible and unworkable as traditional belief in God's creation of the universe."
How did Western civilization reach this 'Godless' state? In Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750, Jonathan Israel points to the works of Benedict de Spinoza as turning a world steeped in Christianity "upside down". The writings of Spinoza disseminated ideas which "were of a distinctly radical character, that is, totally incompatible with the fundamentals of traditional authority, thought, and belief." Spinoza's philosophy, his notion of God and the role of religion in society, played a key role in the 'radical enlightenment' movement, thereby laying the groundwork for the political changes which brought about over time the secularism of modern-day nation states.
Today religion isn't dead, but it is struggling to maintain its intellectual credibility alongside the scientific 'theory of everything' and in the face of the monumental explanatory power of evolutionary biology. Michael Ruse, in Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, tries to reconcile the Christian idea of man's creation with the Darwinian notion of 'natural' evolution. Likewise, Ruse attempts to make "conceptual elbow room" within a scientific framework for central tenets of Christian belief, such as the immortality of the soul, miracles, objective morality, etc. Whether he succeeds or not is for the reviewer to determine, but Ruse's effort itself serves to remind that science, a foundation of modern liberal society, and religion have occupied opposing camps for a long time, and Ruse's book is but a recent manifestation of an age-old struggle wherein faith is pitted against scientific rationality.
For George Grant, science and liberalism have left a moral vacuum, becoming the bane of modern society. In George Grant and the Theology of the Cross: The Christian Foundations of his Thought, Grant attributes every evil befalling present-day Western civilization to liberalism, a system of beliefs which leaves mankind without a moral compass and without any higher objectives. His convictions are extreme, for surely, as is argued by the reviewer, liberalism in and of itself, doesn't strip society of a moral structure. However, considered in light of George Steiner's vision of an ailing culture, his overpowering religiosity takes on a certain legitimacy. It cannot be denied that laxity as regards values, an 'everything goes' type of thinking is undermining today's society on both cultural and practical levels. And if Grant's convictions give us pause , it is because they force us to ask what, if not religion, will reestablish that sturdier morality, those more permanent standards on which our civilization can advance. Something to think about. Enjoy the issue.