Glenn W. Olsen’s “The Turn to Transcendence” is a must-read for us who desire to topple the dictatorship of relativism and culture of death, and replace it with the only alternative: a civilization of love turned to the Face of Transcendence revealed in Jesus Christ.

The Turn to Transcendence: The Role of Religion in the Twenty-First Century by Glenn W. Olsen (404 pages, Catholic University of America Press, 2010)

We may assert without any paradox that every branch of science pursued home would lead to the other sciences, science to poetry, poetry and science to ethics, and then to politics and even to religion on its human side. Everything is in everything, and partitions are only possible by abstraction…. When one knows something thoroughly, provided one has some inkling of the rest, this rest in its full extent gains by the probing of its depths. All abysses resemble one another, and all foundations have communicating passages. —A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life 

To review this phenomenal book, it is necessary, a la T.S. Eliot, to begin at the end:

In terms of what is most central for us, we are to work for a proper expression of the relation of time and eternity, immanence and transcendence. Rather than flee the world, we are to continue the Ignatian program of finding God in all things. If we receive a tawdry and banal ecclesiastical architecture, we are to reassert the idea that the Church must both express—say, in images of the communion of saints in which we stand—the fact that we are on pilgrimage and have no abiding place; but that here in this place the Lord of the universe is truly present. Whether in church or not, we are to oppose a music or art that is lost in noisiness or busyness, in being caught up in a mindless urge to change for its own sake, with a music or art which either helps bring another world to us, or us to another world. Finally, we are to realize that our first home is the Church, not any other community. Though political duties or politics are not to be neglected, our principle effort must be to build up the Church. In doing this we are uniting earth and heaven, anticipating in this life the world to come (325).

To get a sense of Glenn W. Olsen’s The Turn to Transcendence: The Role of Religion in the Twenty-First Century, imagine each political, aesthetic, moral, intellectual, and spiritual prescription in this paragraph fleshed out in 325 pages of exhaustively researched, exquisitely documented, and creatively synthesized historical, theological, philosophical, psychological, architectural, sociological, and social analysis. What we have here is the ripe fruit of decades of study and prayer by one of the foremost thinkers of our time. Dr. Olsen portrays personal, institutional, intellectual, and cultural protagonists and antagonists in a world-dramatic struggle for and against Transcendence: “My own view is that all along, in all periods, desacralization and resacralization have taken place simultaneously” (ix). To read this book is to stand on the shoulders of a giant and see vast swaths of human action, creativity, and contemplation in a double pattern of centripetal and centrifugal motion around the eternally still center of God. This is a, perhaps the, “history of history” for our time, rivaled perhaps—perhaps—only by the monumental, zeitgeist changing A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.

The Summae of old were the Bibles of knowledge: we have now no Summae, and no one among us is capable of writing one. Everything is in chaos. But at least, if a collective Summa is premature, every man who thinks and really desires to know can try to establish his personal Summa, that is, to introduce order into his knowledge by an appeal to the principles of order; in a word, by philosophizing, and by crowning his philosophy with a concise but profound theology.

Add history to Sertillanges’ recipe, and here in this book we have a new Summa for our postmodern, historically hyper-aware yet philosophically and theologically challenged age.

For those progressivists or traditionalists looking for a facile celebration or condemnation of modernity, they should choose another author; Dr. Olsen is as detached and impartial a historian as he is a faithful and devoted Catholic. This is no personal polemic:

The approach this book takes is intended to be neither reactionary nor modernist, that is, neither disapproving of all break with tradition nor desiring systematic abandonment of the past. The question rather is how, under the conditions of modern life, some form of the sacred and some form of the secular might both flourish at the same time (x).

On the other hand, Dr. Olsen is no Pollyanna about the grave problems inherent in modernity, and because he recognizes the peculiar potential for evil of the globalist, postmodern, technocratic, totalitarian, “atheist-with-a-smile” secularism, its capacity virtually to eclipse the transcendent for a vast majority of people, his book is simultaneously description, proscription, and prescription. Dr. Olsen tracks the trajectory history has followed to its present location, but he attempts to redirect its course to meet God intimately along the way: “The author’s hope is to stimulate reconsideration of the most basic premises of our life in society today… a religion unwilling to maintain itself with its own overt architecture, language, and calendars, ‘face to face’ against an enveloping secular culture, is destined for oblivion” (xi).

The book contains six chapters, including a rich introduction that sets out the present state of affairs in the West with respect to the Transcendent and in light of Christopher Dawson’s work on the relationship of religious and culture (Dr. Olsen is a preeminent Dawson scholar). The picture is not a pretty one: “Without a response to Dawson’s problem, the relation of religion and mass culture, it seems that the future will be divided between jihad and ‘McWorld’” (22). What both of these apparently antithetical scenarios have in common is a hidden nihilistic fundamentalism, a collapse of the transcendent into the immanent whereby only naked human will, disguised as religious fervor and sentimentalist humanism, is left. Jihadic and secular fundamentalism, both inherently violent and inhumane, are what shall remain of authentic religious civilizations if the Incarnation of the God-man is rejected. Archbishop Javier Martinez Gran­ada, part of the Communio theological school of which Dr. Olsen is both student and teacher, has written:

Nihilism is today not a philosophy, it is above all a practice, and a practice of suicide even if is a soft suicide. It is the suicide of the depressed. It is also a practice of violence. The secular society lives in daily violence, violence with reality. This violence shows that nihilism cannot and does not correspond to our being. But it shows also, in a very concrete way, how the secular society annihilates itself by engendering the very monsters that terrify it most and that itself hates most: the twin monsters of fundamentalism and terrorism. After 11th September 2001 and 11th March 2004, it is more and more obvious that Islamic terrorism, like Islamic fundamentalism, by all its Muslim coloring and a certain vague connection with traditional Muslim ideas and practices, is not understandable or thinkable without the West, it is mostly a creature of Western secular ideologies. It is pragmatic nihilism using Islam instrumentally, very much like the emergent modern nation-states used in their own political interest a Church institution like the Inquisition.

Chapter Two is entitled “Three Premises,” and Dr. Olsen outlines his thesis in three claims:

1) the claim that there is a natural fit between a religious and a communal existence, that is, the claim for the superiority of a ‘communitarian’ over and ‘individualistic’ form of life for nurturing the religious individual: 2) the claim that, despite increasing attacks on ideas of progress during the past century and the demonstration of the inadequacy of such ideas for understanding history and politics, they largely continue, to our detriment, to shape our lives; and 3) the claim that politics must be founded on a non- or anti-utopian view of the world. (40)

What is most striking about Dr. Olsen is his synthetic acumen: One finds citations ranging from obscure but important historical texts and cutting-edge theological and philosophical tomes, to the latest news articles and book reviews (the New York Review of Books is his favorite lens on the contemporary scene), to works of literary criticism, sociological analysis, and musicology. And all of this myriad, multi-perspective research is put at the service of Dr. Olsen’s penetrating intellect and towering vantage. His is an analysis that both actively negotiates and scours historical particularity and biographical idiosyncrasy, and passively contemplates and digests great vistas of philosophical and theological wisdom.

In the three main chapters, Dr. Olsen provides a diagnosis of “Modernism” in its various symptoms and causes: historical, economic, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical, theological, and existential; he then muses on the “Music of the Spheres,” contrasting the ancient and medieval connection among God, cosmos, and art with its modern severance; mourning the “Loss of Transcendence,” Dr. Olsen provides a tour de force intellectual history of modern theoretical and practical atheism; and finally with “Alternatives,” a chapter worth the price of the book, Dr. Olsen brings together his vast scholarship and creative power in a prophetic sketch of what lies ahead for Western man if he continues to reject transcendence while setting foundations for an alternative model: a “second Enlightenment” in which religion and culture, grace and nature, history and idea, Church and state, person and community, and transcendence and immanence become—this time around—married friends and lovers, properly related and integrated unto the full flourishing of man and glory of God.

The only criticism I have for the book is that perhaps it is too documented, which is to say, Dr. Olsen’s scholarship gets the better of him: The reader is witness to such a multitude of source citations and scholarly opinions in the footnotes that it is sometimes a distraction from Dr. Olsen’s own voice. (For example, on just about every page one finds a citation from the New York Review of Books, and one often feels overwhelmed with the need to read everything Dr. Olsen has read, an impossibility for most of us). This is, however, a very minor criticism of what is, if any contemporary work is, a must read for us who desire to topple the dictatorship of relativism and culture of death, and replace it with the only alternative, a civilization of love turned to the Face of Transcendence revealed in Jesus Christ.

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The featured image, uploaded by Ken & Nyetta, is a detail from a 15th century Portuguese painting of the Last Supper,  and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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