By Edward J. Alam
Special to the Intermountain Catholic
The Diocese of Salt Lake City is fortunate indeed to have a Catholic scholar of the caliber of Professor Glenn W. Olsen (retired University of Utah history professor) in its midst. Witness his latest book, The Turn to Transcendence: The Role of Religion in the Twenty-First Century, published by The Catholic University of America Press, 2010.
The only words on the dedicatory page, Uxori Carissimae, embody the Catholic impetus driving the whole book: "beloved wife." Yes, from beginning to end, it’s a work of Christian charity achieved for his wife and his Church, and captures deeply the living out of Christ’s commandment to husbands: "Husbands love your wife, as Christ loves the Church and gave himself up for her. . ." (Ephesians 5: 25).
For Olsen, St. Paul’s vision of Christian marriage rooted in the relation between Christ and his bride, the Church, is not mere abstract theology. Wading through a plethora of over a thousand dense footnotes that reveal the painstaking research of his study, one senses how his scholarly life has indeed been a giving up of self for the bride of Christ. For those who persevere to the end of his long account of both the failures and achievements of modernity, the admonition at the very end of the book, "our principal effort must be to build up the life of the Church," rings true precisely because in presenting us with a work of immense magnitude and insight, he has practiced what he has preached.
An extremely well-balanced and refreshing anthropology that walks the tightrope between Romans 7:14-25 and the various anthropological insights related to the pagan appreciation of cosmic harmony is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the book, as this anthropology deeply informs his thorough historical accounts of music, literature, art and liturgy, allowing him to draw conclusions in these spheres which are thereby just as balanced and refreshing. While attempting to tell us what a "second enlightenment," ought to look and "feel" like, virtually every important thinker in the West from Plato to Bob Dylan gets a mention; one is left with the sense that Olsen has read and thought about everyone and everything.
But all human capacity is limited; the subtitle, The Role of Religion in the Twenty-First Century, promises more than can be humanly achieved in 325 pages, and indeed, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and to a lesser extent, Islam, do not get the attention one might first expect from the subtitle. But even here, there is enough in the footnotes to keep one busy for decades, not to mention that the global awareness and deep philosophical understanding of world-wide movements and global trends can be detected on literally every page.
I would not hesitate to compare Olsen’s work, in this last regard, to Charles Taylor’s 1,000-page tome, A Secular Age, and would hasten to add that I found Olsen’s book even more helpful precisely because of the final chapter titled "Alternatives."
Both Taylor and Olsen masterfully document and illuminate the good and bad story of modernity, but Olsen offers clear and attractive political, architectural, artistic, liturgical, philosophical, and theological solutions that one can get one’s teeth into.
Now that Professor Olsen is retired from the university, it occurs to me that the Diocese of Salt Lake City would be wise to put him to work in another part of the vineyard of Christ – so that the task of, in his own words, "uniting earth and heaven, [and] anticipating in this life the [life of] the world to come" may gain some ground in the great and beautiful state of Utah.
Professor Alam has taught philosophy and theology at Notre Dame University in Lebanon near Beirut for the last 15 years. A graduate of Kearns-St. Ann School and Judge Memorial Catholic High School, he periodically visits his native Utah to visit family and friends who belong to St. Jude’s Maronite Catholic Church. He is also General Secretary of an NGO Research Council with centers in D.C. and Beirut, see www.crvp.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.