Wagering on Transcendence: The Search for Meaning in Literature

Article excerpt

Wagering on Transcendence: The Search for Meaning in Literature. Edited by Phyllis Carey. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1997. xxiii + 299 pp. $24.95 (paper). A collection of essays on literary works that express spiritual concerns, Wagering on Transcendence addresses a perceived gap in literary criticism that results from a contemporary academic dismissal of religious faith. The essays, which grew out of weekly faculty discussions at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, address texts by authors from St. Augustine to Annie Dillard and faith stances from the orthodoxy of T. S. Eliot to the comic pessimism of Samuel Beckett.

One strength of the collection is its interdisciplinarity. In addition to literary critics, essayists include a physicist (Patricia Ann Obremski, S.S.N.D.) explicating Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics; theologians discussing Dutch writer Etty Hillesum's Holocaust diaries (Joan Penzenstadler, S.S.N.D) and Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine (Paul J. McGuire, S.C.J.); and a philosopher (James Conlon) outlining Albert Camus' counter-arguments against Pascal's wager on faith.

Written predominantly by religious authors, these essays are admirable for their openness to questions about faith and acknowledgement of its difficulties. Conlon's analysis of The Stranger and The Plague, for instance, does justice to Camus' narrative arguments that believers miss some of the pleasures and engagements of this world because of their focus on the next. Conlon is never defensive, but instead acknowledges that Camus' rejection of a judgmental God matches even the views of many contemporary believers.

These essays offer an opportunity for readers to reflect on their own beliefs and to learn from the experiences of the authors. Penzenstadler's account of Etty Hillesum's growth in becoming "Attentive to Transcendence," both before and during her incarceration in the Nazi work camp at Westerbork, is instructive in this way. Faced with evidence of the Nazis' cruelties, Hillesum realizes, "each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. …


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