St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Jane Austen. Mozart. C.S. Lewis. Luigi Giussani. G.M. Hopkins. G.K. Chesterton. Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Flannery O’Connor and Denise Levertov, Georges Rouault and Paul Klee. Red Blossom Tea Company. The Criterion Collection. “Foyle’s War,” “Monk,” and most everything on Masterpiece Theater. Bourbon and diet cream soda. Especially my wife and children, along with our five cats. These are some of what help me better to understand the mystery of God’s grandeur and to fight through the darkness that rises to obscure it.
For the past fifteen years I have taught Theology at Xavier College Preparatory, an all-girls Catholic high school in Phoenix, AZ. For the past four or so years I have played at this blog, occasionally adding things, more often forgetting about it. Teaching, along with raising a family with my wife, has taught me both the necessity and the foolhardiness of sending out words to do battle with other words, and so this blog offers me the opportunity to do so in a less formal setting. I’ll admit a love/hate relationship with blogging, and the internet as a whole, as much of the time the whole enterprise of advertising one’s thoughts seems absurd. “Who really cares what I think? Does the fact that I think it mean I have to inflict it on others? What kind of ego must anyone have to start a blog, and not shut the thing down after howling with laughter at the presumption?” And yet. . . .
The folks at despair.com nicely capture some of this with their send-up of blogging:
Clever, and very true. And yet. . . . I have read some things on blogs that have helped me; more to the point, things I have written for this blog and for Catholic Phoenix have enabled me to work through some issues and problems, as writing brings clarity of mind if done honestly, if nothing else. And so I continue to post, because I want to continue to learn. The more I read and teach, the more I realize how little I understand, and how paltry are my efforts to articulate what matters most to me. I’m reminded of a line from Jane Austen’s Emma, in which Mr. Knightley says to his beloved Emma after the truth finally comes out about his love for her: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” A little later the narrator adds this: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.” This is not a mandate for silence, or skepticism, but the kind of admission Christians with any sense have been making for a long time. Sometimes we use fancy words like “apophatic” or the via negativa to get at our need for humility in the face of Mystery. Fine and good. Talk we must; engage with others in argumentation and disputation we will; disagree, haggle, debate, quarrel, dissent, etc. we should. With this proviso, I hope: “Let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” And let them reflect a genuine progress in faith, hope, and charity, along with the wisdom that comes from living in the light of Christ.
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Part of what motivates me to run this blog is found in the following quote from the theologian Trevor Hart:
“The God made known in Jesus Christ, we must suppose, is not automatically threatened by human activity in the world, but desires our active participation in his purposes for a world which has not reached its final goal. To this end he calls us to an obedient, Spirit-filled free response & correspondence to his own activity within history (of course not all activity or every expression of human freedom is desirable to him). The creative authority of the Word who becomes flesh is of a sort which, while it certainly sets boundaries to the legitimate & possible expressions of human freedom, none the less creates space for, facilitates, & deliberately seeks the responsible exercise of such freedom in every sphere of human life.”
Nicely said. There are Christians who struggle to understand & appreciate how the human desire to create expresses something of what it means to be created in the image of God, as well as what it means to profess that in Christ God became human. They can be suspicious of human creativity, focusing on all the ways human freedom turns away from God & produces work which is a sign of their rebellion. At times this can paralyze any real effort to show forth God’s glory through the work of their hands. Yet Hart finishes the above quote with the following words, drawing our attention to the mandate to share in God’s creative work:
“Responsible creativity of an artistic sort is thus not only warranted, but may be viewed as an unconditional obligation laid upon us & called forth by God’s gracious speaking to humankind in the life, death & resurrection of his Son. Indeed we may go further, & suggest that it is not only a proper response to, but also an active sharing in (albeit in a distinct & entirely subordinate creaturely mode) God’s own creative activity within the cosmos.”
The arts—literature, poetry, film, drama, music, the fine arts, architecture, dance, etc.—are thus neither merely diversionary activities with little relation to our pursuit of truth, nor a yielding to the temptation to rebel against God. They are meant to be a faithful response to God’s creative & redemptive work, & are one of the ways we participate in his great reclamation project begun with the calling of Abraham & fulfilled in Christ. One of the ways Satan seeks to prevent or corrupt this response is by distorting the creative impulse within us to serve selfish & destructive ends, & to convince believers that participation in the arts is a sinful waste of time. To suggest to most people today that the arts are meant to lead us to a deeper participation in goodness, truth, & beauty is to be met with incomprehension, if not scorn. Such a response indicates the continuing success of the forces arrayed against God & his faithful in keeping people focused on anything but the source & fulfillment of human creativity. By contemplating works of human nobility & genius & encouraging the exercise of the artistic skills of our members, especially in the context of prayerful fellowship, we believe that we can contribute to the success of the rescue movement initiated by God.
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A word of explanation regarding Emeth Society is in order. “Emeth” is a Hebrew word meaning “true,” “loyal.” The main inspiration for choosing this name is the Calormene warrior Emeth in The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, whom Aslan embraces after his death despite his shady past as a devotee of the false god Tash.
Lewis’s reasoning for allowing this says something important not only about the theology of “mere” Christianity, but also about what we hope to highlight as we examine films, texts, etc., namely, that all truth comes from God & that devotion to the truth can take many forms, even surprising ones. For some Christians this is a controversial claim, one that threatens to undermine Christ’s salvific work. Lewis, despite his reputation as a stalwart defender of the true faith, has his detractors who think he lapses into a religious relativism in The Last Battle that implies that God’s revelation in Christ is just one form of the truth, & that even those who serve false idols can be saved because they “meant well” or performed good works. Lewis clearly taught, however, that truth is most clearly & fully revealed in & through Christ, who is himself the Way, the Truth, & the Life, that all other expressions of truth are subordinate to Christ & ultimately point one to him, & that we have no ability to save ourselves by our good deeds. Lewis believed that this allows Christians to be more “liberal” than atheists about religions, as we believe that God is the God of all people & doesn’t hide his truth from them, even if they fall short of what he reveals in Christ. They are saved only through Christ, by the grace of God, & not by whether or not they were “good” people. They will all be judged on the basis of how they responded to the goodness & truth God has revealed to them, even if this is limited to conscience & the moral law, as well as what Lewis calls “good dreams,” which include myths, rituals, & stories about the gods that are the core of religions like the one Emeth follows. See also Till We Have Faces, where the “Ungit religion” of the inhabitants of Glome contains strong, if imperfect, intimations of the fuller truth that both Psyche & Orual discover. According to Lewis, these pagan religious traditions can often fruitfully be seen as a type of praeparatio evangelica, providing people with hints of the fuller revelation that comes through Christ. Emeth meets Aslan after his death & expects judgment, as he has served Tash & fought against Aslan. Yet Aslan tells him that any “good service” done for Tash is actually done for Aslan, while any evil done, even if done in Aslan’s name, ultimately serves Tash:
“For I & he are of such different kinds that that no service which is vile can be done to me, & none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash & keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, & it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though, he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves & by Tash his deed is accepted.”
Along similar lines, Jacques Maritain, in The Responsibility of the Artist, offers this:
“Any man who, in a primary act of freedom deep enough to engage his whole personality, chooses to do the good for the sake of the good, chooses God, knowingly or unknowingly, as his supreme good; he loves God more than himself, even if he has no conceptual knowledge of God.”
This is one of the implications of the reality of natural law, which Lewis defended throughout his writings, most notably in The Abolition of Man & most succinctly in Book 1 of Mere Christianity & the essay “The Poison of Subjectivism.” It also provides the beginning of an answer to the concerns about the salvation of those who have never heard the gospel. And since Lewis shares the traditional Christian convictions that all truth is God’s truth & all acts of goodness are oriented toward God, even if his identity is imperfectly understood, Emeth can be redeemed by Aslan without any danger of confusing the nature & meaning of redemption or the one who redeems. As the Catholic Church teaches, there is goodness & truth in other religious traditions, though Christ alone is the way, the truth, & the life, & Christianity is the privileged expression of God’s redemptive work through Christ & the normal means by which he saves. This is not a simple matter to think through, & Christians have always struggled to articulate how no one goes to the Father but through Christ &, at the same time, how those who do not know the name of Christ, or who know it imperfectly, can still be saved by him. Emeth serves as a reminder that simplistic formulas about these matters do an injustice to both the mercy & justice of the God who saves. Lewis addressed this issue several times in his writings, including in a letter from 1952 when he wrote:
“I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God & that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep & the Goats . . . those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.”
“Men of Athens,” St. Paul began in Acts 17, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, & observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Then he continues with one of the most famous sermons in Christian history, concluding with reference to Christ’s resurrection. What’s notable is that Paul begins with the Athenians’ “religious sense,” their awareness, however dim, that they are beholden to some power, some divinity, & that their lives make sense only in light of this divinity. Paul is there in Athens, as are all believers today wherever we may be, to clarify this awareness & draw attention to how Christ is the fulfillment of all human desires, including the desire to know the truth about ourselves & the world we live in. I hope this blog can contribute to this mission through engagement with culture and the arts, always primary means of articulating our deepest longings & perceptions.
A word about the format of this blog: If you hit the link for “Blog” at the top of the page, you’ll be taken to another link that will get you to some longer posts on this-and-that.