During 2013 I read a lot. That is, really, the whole point of this blog—to force me to read and reflect. Of the books I read last year, here are my top five favorites:
1) David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God.
Reviewers agree that this is David Hart’s best book since Beauty of the Infinite. Hart’s erudition, unique and sometimes difficult writing style, and sure grasp of metaphysics combine to produce a singular reading experience. For some readers it may actually evoke an experience of the divine. Others may well end up cursing my name for recommending it to them. I understand. Hart is an acquired taste. One does not attain a love for a fine single malt overnight.
2) Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait.
I have always thought that St Thomas Aquinas, along with all of his fellow scholastics, was “beyond my sympathies,” as Tolkien might say. Eight years ago I spent a few months trying to read his Summa Theologiae (in Timothy McDermott’s paraphrase, no less), and found it exceptionally hard slogging. I finally gave up. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?
Turner’s introduction to the life and thought of Aquinas has given me a totally different perspective on the Dominican preacher. Modern caricatures picture Aquinas as an academic who was more interested in philosophical precision than the life of faith. How very wrong these caricatures are. I do not know if I will ever return to the Summa Theologiae; but I am grateful to have been introduced to this great theologian who is also a saint. I have discovered that while Aquinas lies well beyond my intellectual capacity he is not beyond my sympathies. “The holiness of Thomas,” writes Turner, “is a theologian’s holiness, the holy teacher invisible otherwise than in the holy teaching itself.”
3) Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God.
When I began my blog, I decided that I would spend many months reading, and re-reading, the orations of St Gregory the Theologian. Beeley’s book became my indispensable companion in this task. Although Gregory is confessed as one of the great doctors of the Church, modern scholarship has not paid him much attention over the past century, and what attention it has given him has been restricted to his Five Theological Orations. Thanks to the work of Beeley and John McGuckin that is finally changing. Beeley takes us into the heart of St Gregory’s trinitarian theology and thus into the heart of the patristic Church.
4) Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology.
My favorite introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy is Met Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way. When I am asked for a book recommendation about Orthodoxy, this is the title to which I direct the inquirer. Louth, an eminent patristics scholar and theologian in his own right, has now written a little book that will take its place alongside The Orthodox Way. Orthodoxy’s distinctiveness is found, argues Louth, “in the way in which the traditional faith of Christians is upheld among the Orthodox. For Orthodoxy sees its faith as expressed, and tested, in prayer and worship.” Whether he is talking about the doctrines of creation, Trinity, or eschatology, the formative power of the lex orandi is apparent. I also like how Louth spells words like Athanasios and Nazianzos. The “o” looks so much more elegant than the “u.” I may well have to start imitating this (British?) usage.
5) John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory.
This would not be the first book I would put in the hands of someone interested in exploring the controversial topic of universal salvation. Kronen and Reitan are philosophers, and the audience for their book are philosophers (or at least those who are patient of philosophical analysis). We often think that the debate about universal salvation can be resolved through biblical and patristic exegesis; but this has to be wrong-headed. Underlying the debate are philosophical and theological presuppositions that we rarely think about but which govern how we read the essential texts. What is freedom? What is justice? What is love? How does one read Scripture? The book is only 200 pages long, but the argumentation is tight and sophisticated. Anyone who thinks that universalism is grounded in unreflective sentimentalism will be quickly disabused of his prejudice by God’s Final Victory, and anyone who wants to advance a vigorous opinion on the question had better read it.