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Walking in Ernest Fortin's scholarly universe is a great pleasure. One breathes an atmosphere of serenity, good sense, and profound erudition. Fortin is at once highly serious yet often amusing; he is both learned and unpretentious; he is frequently skeptical but never unpleasant or destructive. The traveler in his universe encounters not only a great number of interesting discussions but also particularly brilliant pieces, such as "The Bible Made Me Do It: Christianity, Science, and the Environment," where the author fully exposes the absurdity of the claim that Genesis 1, in which God grants humanity dominion over the rest of creation, bears responsibility for the damage done in recent times to the physical environment. In bringing together the essays and reviews that make up these volumes, Brian Benestad has performed an important service not only for the community of Christian scholars and thinkers but for all who are interested in the history of philosophy and political theory.
The pleasures to be found in Fortin's universe, however, are those not only of contemplation but also of critical thought. On the first page of his foreword, Fortin states that the essays making up these volumes were "born of a desire to know more about the world in which we live, the philosophic, religious, and political forces that shaped it, and the type of human being it tends to produce," and he adds that they are devoted particularly to "achieving a measure of clarity about the ends of human existence" (I, ix). With these words he invites readers to articulate and to examine critically the major themes that emerge from the essays. Even the former task - articulating his major themes - is somewhat risky in that Fortin himself is content to let the essays stand as separate scholarly and philosophic forays. Nowhere does he try systematically to summarize his discoveries. Hence different readers will find different centers of interest, and in the present essay much will have to be omitted. As one example, there are numerous interesting discussions of the relations of state and church, and these apparently are connected, in Fortin's mind, with the relations of nature and grace. To say the least, nothing here is oversimplified. Fortin is doubtful that either duality can be reduced to a clear, final formula, and while he sees the two dualities as interconnected, he is quite cognizant of the difficulty of specifying the connections. His observations on these matters are nuanced and wise, and his comments on the political undertakings of the American Catholic bishops are of particular interest. All of this, however, from considerations of space, I shall have to leave aside.
As for critically examining the main themes in the essays, this too is somewhat risky, since Fortin is both judicious and extremely well-informed. It is manifest, however, that he is not the kind of writer who is looking simply for assent. He is conscious that his views are debatable; hence, a reader meets him on his own ground only by adopting a critical stance. I shall do this. I shall perforce be limited, however, to one line of thought - arguably the principal line of thought running through the three volumes. This concerns the character and value of modern liberalism.
Overall dissatisfaction with modernity, with the historical period running from the time of the Reformation to the present, is perhaps the dominant mood in Fortin's essays. "Religion and philosophy are still with us," he writes, in a characteristic utterance, "but in their present form they hardly give us an inkling of what it might mean to live in a world that is permeated with divine and human meaning. The former is either divorced from reason or condescendingly subsumed under the category of myth; the latter, even when not reduced to a desiccating empiricism or the mere therapeutization of our language games, has retreated into a metaphysical and ethical neutrality that deprives it of any possibility of guiding our choices as human beings and citizens" (I, 249). The key to modernity - "the heart of the modern project" - lies in the decision "to lower the standards of human behavior in order to increase their effectiveness" (III, 208). Earlier ages were seen as unrealistically rigorous in their moral demands. Hence, it was thought, morality had to be refashioned to conform with human possibilities. The one who carried out this …