Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 2 June 2002; on the web by permission, September 2002

No one could fault Gregory Baum, as he nears his 79th birthday, if he limited his writing to repetition of important insights published years ago. It speaks to his greatness as a scholar that he instead continues the harder, humbler work of breaking new intellectual ground. Baum stakes out reasoned positions in current debates, risking and inviting rejoinder.

By his explicit defence of Quebec nationalism in the afterword, Baum makes this book an important contribution to debate about Canada's future. The six tightly argued chapters have broader relevance, not least to the current conflict between Israeli and Palestinian aspirations.

How does one distinguish ethically acceptable from ethically unacceptable nationalism? This is the question, Baum says, that has weighed on him since his "entry into a different world" when he moved from Ontario to Quebec in 1986. Baum answers the question in this book through a systematic evaluation and synthesis of the answers given by four eminent thinkers: Martin Buber, Mohandas Gandhi, Paul Tillich, and Jacques Grand'Maison. The last-named, working in the other of Canada's two solitudes, is probably the least known to CNT readers. He is a prolific theologian and political scientist at the University of Montreal and author of the two-volume Nationalisme et religion (1970).

Baum's treatment of each of the four scholars' work is succinct and lucid. Especially engrossing is his tracing of Buber's thought from his initial absorption in existentialism and racialism, to his mature focus on relation "in critical solidarity" with the Jewish state.

Not just from his scholarship, but from his upbringing as a Jew in Nazi Germany, Baum knows what he calls the "sinister role of nationalism." So indeed do all four men whose thought he analyzes. Yet, also like them, Baum recognizes the ethical insufficiency of the rationalized, bureaucratic techno-culture of transnational capitalism. In this global context, he observes that "personal expansion and creativity take place through rootedness in a great tradition."

Baum is right: under the conditions he spells out, nationalism is defensible and good. Yet, whether this requires a vote for Quebec sovereignty in the next referendum remains an open question. Buber, as Baum points out, combined enthusiasm for the Jewish nation with opposition to the UN's creation of a sovereign Jewish state. Buber's preference was for a binational, Jewish-Arab state that would perfect and stabilize existing forms of social interaction. It is too late for that now in Buber's country. I hope it is not too late in ours.