“There is kindness in Love: but Love & kindness are not coterminous, & when kindness. . . is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, & even something like contempt of it. Kindness consents very readily to the removal of its object—we have all met people whose kindness to animals is constantly leading them to kill animals lest they should suffer. . . . If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked us & condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.” —CS Lewis
Kindness these days often kills, or at least provides the theoretical justification for killing those who need release from their suffering, like the animals Lewis mentions in the above quote. Having just passed through the teaching of Peter Singer in my Philosophy course, I am again struck by how so many people, including students, understand compassion in so abstract a sense that they see little problem with killing in its name. I don’t know how many books I’ve read, but there are a handful or two that repay visiting again & again. The Problem of Pain, from which the above quote is taken, is one of those books.
“The remaking of an old culture by the birth of a new hope was not the conscious aim of the Christians themselves. They tended, like St. Cyprian, to believe that the world was growing old, that the empire was irremediably pagan and that some world catastrophe was imminent. Nevertheless they lived in a spiritual atmosphere of hope, and this atmosphere gradually spread until the climate of the world was changed. The heartless, hopeless Rome which found its monstrous expression in the Colosseum and the gladiatorial games became the Rome of St. Leo and St. Gregory — a city which laid the foundations of a new world while its own world was falling in ruin around it. We see the same process at work in northern Europe during the Dark Ages. The men who converted the warrior peoples of the north and laid the foundations of medieval culture had no conception of the new world they were creating and no belief in the temporal future of civilization. But they were men of hope, as they were men of faith, and therefore their work endured for a thousand years and bore rich fruit in every field of cultural activity, as well as on its own religious level.” —Christopher Dawson
“A spiritual atmosphere of hope”: How necessary is it to cultivate this today? At any time, actually, as the times don’t change in essentials, as Dawson acknowledges. From gladiatorial games to abortion, we have always been surrounded by hopelessness & death. The political language & ideological posturing may change over the centuries, but the Church’s task to demonstrate through a life of faith, hope, & love that the ideals & loves of the City of Man are insufficient for human flourishing remains the same. We take the long view of history, & seek fidelity to Christ rather than success as our principal goal. This is not to accept defeatism in the social & political realms, but can anyone be reasonably surprised when the inherent logic of liberal democracy unfolds & produces charismatic leaders who profess that the culture of death is actually nothing more than the full flowering of human rights? I wonder how prepared we are as Catholics in this country to deal with real losses of freedom, with real assaults on our ability to live faithfully, & to continue to live in hope.
On a similar note, cf. what John Paul II said in his 1980 visit to Lisieux:
“Saints never grow old. They never become figures of the past, men & women of ‘yesterday’. On the contrary, they are always men & women of the future, witnesses of the world to come.”
The virtue of hope opens us to possibilities of a future that extends beyond our plans & machinations, clever though they may be. No wonder we Catholics recoil from the ideology that views fertility as a disease to be cured by the methods derived from the contraceptive mentality. The arrogance in assuming we are the sole guardians of a future of our own making is stunning. We are all called to be witnesses “of the world to come”, regardless of whether or not we are pessimistic about the immediate prospects of that world. One of the ways we do this is through the rearing of children; hence the truth of David Bentley Hart’s quip that the way to “win the culture wars” is through “militant fecundity.” Perhaps we will live to see new coliseums erected, new forms of gladiatorial games sold to a willing public, & our world fall into the dark ruin lamented by those in late antiquity as Rome, the empire & the idea, withered away. Resist we must, but always in the recognition that the battles will never be decisively won by us, or by our elected officials, as they are not primarily political or cultural, & history is not a linear narrative that always leads forward. The loves & values of the City of Man, St. Augustine knew, are always in competition with those of the City of God, ensuring that every age is mixed. And we fight against powers & principalities who can’t be shown the door in a November election that goes our way. The “how” of our battle in every age remains the question, though we have guidance. God always has saints, acknowledged as such or not, who address the issues of the age with creativity & clarify for us what it means to be good & faithful servants of our time. And Servais Pinckaers, whose writings draw the reader into the riches of Catholic moral theology, speaks of the Sermon of the Mount as possessing all the force of a “legislative text determining the life & actions of a people & powerful enough to form a new society, a Kingdom which shall be the special province of the Wisdom & Providence of God.” Faith & hope join together to enable us to work for the formation of that new society, always in the midst of the one we inhabit. St. Augustine’s discussion of the 2 cities is on point here. As is Fr. Zosima, who points us to the “greatest of these” as the manifestation of poverty of spirit, meekness, etc.:
“There will be moments when you will feel perplexed, especially in the presence of human sin. You will ask yourself, ‘Must I combat it by force or try to overcome it by humble love?’ Always choose humble love, always. Once you have chosen it, you will always have what you need to conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a powerful force, the most powerful, & there is nothing in the world to approach it.”
“One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children as a way to discredit God, & once you have discredited His goodness, you are done with Him.” —Flannery O’Connor
As was the case with Ivan Karamazov. He was not an atheist, as is sometimes assumed. His rebellion led him not to reject God’s existence, but his goodness. At the heart of his “returning the ticket” was incomprehension at the suffering of children, along with a conception of God more consistent with deism than with Christianity. The young C.S. Lewis similarly rejected, not God’s existence, but his goodness when his mother died. As for Adam & Eve, they came to doubt his goodness when the serpent skillfully suggested that God really did not want what was best for them. “He’s holding out on you,” he taunts; “& if he is not really all that good, why should you trust what he commands?” Acknowledging the greatness of God, perhaps because it is easier to turn into a series of propositions that allow for abstraction, is less demanding than acknowledging his goodness. The recently-liberated Hebrews were able to receive the Sinai covenant only after God revealed not just his power in overcoming Pharaoh & the gods of Egypt, but his fidelity in remembering his promise. They learned that they could trust him; his liberating acts vouchsafed his character, something you see in the Psalms with great frequency. “How I love your law, O Lord.” What a foreign concept to most of us moderns, who are taught to separate God’s will from his character & see, in neat nominalistic fashion, his laws as arbitrary commands with little if any connection to his goodness or own good.
I would add to O’Connor’s comment one of the particular emphases of modernism. Aldous Huxley once said that modernism was such an attractive option for he & his friends because it allowed them to sleep with whomever they wanted. The demands of chastity have no doubt always been a challenge, but in the 20th century they became, clinically & morally, an outrage that makes their source not only suspect, but a tyrant. “Did God really say. . .? No, surely you will not die, & he knows this. Better for you to be done with him.”
“. . . the major achievement of Northanger Abbey is. . . the creation of complex villains. Both the General & John Thorpe are believable as more or less ordinary members of society. They are not so clearly vicious that they are shunned by all rational people. The fortune-hunting greed of both of them, the intemperance of the General, & the foolish & inconsiderate behavior of Thorpe are complicated by the fact that they are generally accepted in society & approved by Catherine’s chaperones, the Allens. That villains can be ordinary people is radical, just as the idea that heroines can be ordinary girls is radical. Both the vicious & the virtuous are shown in all their ordinariness. They are, quite simply, human. Catherine must learn to distinguish between ordinary people who are actively good or at least mostly harmless, & ordinary people whose vices impinge on her own virtue. Northanger Abbey shows that villains can be complicated & that novels can be morally serious & bitingly comic at the same time.” —Sarah Emsley, Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues
Good book, Emsley’s; expensive as all get out, though, as I bought a used copy for $65. Such is the burden of the teacher, forced to buy expensive books that you love to read. At any rate, this calls to mind GK Chesterton’s piece, “On Jane Austen in the General Election.” There GKC responds to the view, circulated in a leading daily paper, that “a modern girl would see through the insincerity on Mr. Wickham, in Pride & Prejudice, in five minutes.” Because women are more liberated & enjoy a new attitude to men, so it goes, & because Jane Austen is read badly if it all, according to GKC, such an idea is able to be held.
Not so fast. Austen has given us in Wickham (as in General Tilney, John Thorpe, John Willoughby from Sense & Sensibility, Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park, & William Elliot from Persuasion) an example of a “quiet & plausible liar.” Austen, according to GKC, “did not make Elizabeth Bennett to be a person easily deceived, & she did not make her deceiver a vulgar impostor. Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth.” Just not the whole truth, which leads Lizzy to see only what Wickham (&, as Lizzy comes to realize, she herself) wants to see. This makes him a convincing villain, even if he comes without the horns & pitchfork. And, for GKC, a typical politician, as he possesses “good manners & good nature & a light touch.” As Emsley recognizes, it is part of Austen’s literary skill & moral acuity to give us in her novels rogues like Wickham et al. whose character is revealed only over time by those whose goodness has been severely put to the test.
“Most of us still visit the cinema for entertainment, or escapism, not for spiritual sustenance, for revelations & benedictions. Yet those of us who are ‘Tarkovsky-marked’ experience his films in just such religious terms. Analysis is not usually conducive to this type of experience, yet through it one hopes to unravel something of the mysterious & ineffable process of creation.” —Natasha Synessios
Tarkovsky made only 7 feature films (perhaps “Andrei Rublev” is his most famous), yet he is widely considered as one of cinema’s greatest directors. Comparisons are sometimes made between him & Terrence Malick, & probably for good reason. As I noted on “The Tree of Life” page, trying to analyze Malick’s latest film is difficult. It seems that so much of what has been said about the film is not really about the film, but about we filmgoers & our expectations, as well as the imaginative & intellectual limitations of some of the critics themselves. I don’t want to sound too condescending here, but some critics fail to recognize the need for patience & humility. This from Jim Tudor, a critic who does get it in his review:
“Like any great work of metaphysical wonder, multiple viewings are not only rewarding, but essential. This is why so many of the early reviews are scattered and frustrated. And while I can’t safely claim that this review hasn’t been one of them, I will refrain from any expanded discussion of my interpretation of the film at this juncture. This is one film that will be referenced, debated and discussed for years to come. Like the mythical tree of life itself, of which there are many variations and versions of spanning the course of human history and religions, so too will this film be considered.”
“What are we looking for when we watch a film?” is perhaps a necessary first question before analyzing the films of directors like Tarkovsky & Malick. A very helpful piece by Ron Reed from Soul Food Movies is appropriate here, & something I assign to my students to help them think about the experience of watching & thinking about films. For those who look to cinema for more than escapism & a few hours of entertainment, I recommend it highly.
“Her youth had passed without distinction, & her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, & the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman. . . . She loved every body, was interested in every bod’s happiness, quicksighted to every body’s merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, & contented with blessings.” —Jane Austen, on Miss Bates in Emma
Thanks to Austen scholar William Deresiewicz for drawing me to these lines. His latest offering is A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, which I’m working through right now. Great premise: grad student in Lit, adopting the world-weary pose of the Modernist writers he so admired, stumbles onto more than he bargained for when reading Jane Austen for a class. Comes gradually to realize how much Austen knows about the important things through her focus on the little things, which, despite the common stereotypes, actually are the important things. In his discussion of Emma Deresiewicz contrasts the wordy, ridiculous Miss Bates with the young, attractive, wealthy Emma & finds the latter lacking when compared with the former. Here’s the paragraph that follows the above quote:
“Emma, who had it all, was forever discontented with the world around her—just like me, in my perpetual fog of resentful gloom. Instead it was Miss Bates—scraping by, facing a lonely old age, dependent on everybody else’s goodwill—who was the happy one. If her speech bubbled & flowed in an endless stream of little matters, that was only because, like Austen herself, she found everything around her so very interesting.”
His discussion of Emma is filled with an appreciation of these “little” things that make up our life, things we often ignore in pursuit of The Important Things. “Where do we live our lives?” is the question he poses in this chapter, & finds in Austen the wise recognition that it is in the moment, surrounded as it is by the minute particularities of a life lived among others, some of whom may bore or annoy us with seemingly irrelevant babbling & concerns. To those critics, past & present, who dismiss Austen as too narrowly focused on matters inconsequential or merely “romantic,” Deresiewicz counters with a narrative of his discovery that Austen presents us with an entire world within the narrow boundaries of the lives of the few families her novels introduce to us, a world in which the quotidian particulars of a seemingly irrelevant person or conversation lead the reader into self discoveries reserved for those brave rebels who spend their reading time with the supposedly more sophisticated modernists. I look forward to finishing this book. As I’ll be using Emma for my Sophomore Great Books course next year, I’m sure I’ll often return to Austen & her commentators for blog entries.
“Art is an instrument thoroughly of this world; it is not revelation and has no theology. It is poorly suited to the spiritual burdens laid upon it. Artists themselves are not up to the task of defining or divining the Kingdom. In his small gem of a book The Responsibility of the Artist, Maritain defines the artist as ‘a man using Art.’ He is bound, like any other artisan, to the perfection of the work of his hands: ‘Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work.’
“Believing this—as I do—the term ‘Catholic artist’ seems precious and self- conscious. It risks becoming one more assault against humility, a quality already close to running on empty in the arts. It would be an act of mercy to scrap the category ‘Catholic art’ altogether. There is no longer any such entity; there is only art made by Catholics. This might or might not make use of religious imagery; it might or might not be successful or praiseworthy. Faith is not the origin of talent and cannot stand bail for it. Neither is piety an index of good taste or guarantor of good craftsmanship.There is only good art and bad art; Catholicism is no determiner of either.” —Maureen Mullarkey
This is from an article originally published in Crisis. I don’t know much about Mullarkey (sorry, couldn’t verify a picture of her); her website has some interesting essays, including the one from which the above quote was taken, along with drawings & paintings. Can’t remember where I first found her stuff; I think it might have been in Image. Some of what she writes in this article, titled “An Unmanifesto: A Proposal to Retire ‘Catholic Art'”, reminds me of Flannery O’Connor, especially the latter’s claim that Catholic art need not be made by a Catholic & that the integrity of the work itself, & not its maker’s faith or intentions, is what counts most. Both writers seem to be protesting the same things, such as the proliferation of tawdry religiously-inspired kitsch that hawks itself as art, & both appeal to Jacques Maritain for guidance on how to understand the main responsibilities of the artist. This is a touchy issue for many people. Shouldn’t the desire to praise God & lead people to a deeper faith count more than anything else? Here’s O’Connor from her essay “Catholic Novelists & Their Readers”:
“Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying. Now a statement like this creates problems. An individual may be highly edified by a sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better. We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.
“A good example of a very indifferent novel being used for some good purpose is The Foundling, by Cardinal Spellman. It’s nobody’s business to judge Cardinal Spellman except as a novelist, and as a novelist he’s a bit short. You do have the satisfaction of knowing that if you buy a copy of The Foundling, you are helping the orphans to whom the proceeds go; and afterwards you can always use the book as a doorstop. But what you owe yourself here is to know that what you are helping are the orphans and not the standards of Catholic letters in this country. Which you prefer to do, if it must be a matter of choice, is up to you.”
No respecter of persons, that O’Connor. At least in the sense of accepting that authority in one sphere—as in Spellman being a Cardinal—has any connection to literary skill or judgment. This is, as she wrote elsewhere, a different matter than a Cardinal’s or Bishop’s authority to declare a work spiritually dangerous, which for O’Connor was rather liberating. Nevertheless, the Cardinal’s literary skills were paltry, in her view, which doesn’t detract from the good its earnings will do for the orphans. Or as a doorstop.
My thoughts inevitably turn to those ubiquitous Italian prayer cards one sees, well, everywhere. You know the ones. They make the saints look rather pasty & unreal, almost as if gnosticism decided to take a run at the prayer card market. “How can we make these folks look as inhuman as possible?” seems to be the implied question. Likewise, some of the statuary I routinely see makes me turn away. I know, I know. The intentions are good. But the results are not. Nor are the long term consequences, the gradual diminishment of the aesthetic sensibilities of a people who should be known by the beauty of their churches, their music, their art, & their lives.
Nicely complementing Mullarkey’s essay is the following from Maritain, which is typical of what he writes in his works on aesthetics, the 2 best-known of which are Art & Scholasticism & The Responsibility of the Artist:
“Religion saves poetry from the absurdity of believing itself destined to transform ethics and life; religion saves the poet from over-weaning arrogance.”
“Theologically (if the term is not too grandiose) I imagine the picture (of reality in Middle-earth) to be less dissonant from what some (including myself) believe to be the truth. But since I have deliberately written a tale, which is built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas, but is not an allegory of them (or anything else), & does not mention them overtly, still less preach them, I will not now depart from that mode, & venture on theological disquisition for which I am not fitted. But I might say that if the tale is ‘about’ anything (other than itself), it is not as seems widely supposed about ‘power’. Power-seeking is only the motive-power that sets events going & is relatively unimportant, I think. It is mainly concerned with Death & Immortality, & the ‘escapes’: serial longevity, & hoarding memory.”
“. . . ‘death’ is not part of human nature, but a punishment for sin (rebellion), a result of the ‘Fall’. A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, & the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained: a ‘mortal’ Man has probably (an elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one. To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly & wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Eā) is the chief bait of Sauron—it leads the small to a Gollum, & the great to a Ringwraith.” —JRR Tolkien
Because death hangs over us & all our endeavors it stands to reason that most of our great literature is in one or more ways “about” death: learning to face it, struggling to avoid or delay it, dealing with its consequences. Tolkien’s mythology is one of the more interesting explorations of the diverse ways people (elves & men) wrestle with the implications of time. The story of the fall of the Numenoreans in The Silmarillion is a fascinating account of how the fear of death can be manipulated, in this case by Sauron, to lead a noble race to its ruin. Interestingly, JK Rowling has stated that the Harry Potter books are primarily about death; critics who accuse her of glorifying the selfish manipulation of nature through magic or, worse still, of endorsing a gnostic elitism that disparages Muggles, miss entirely how Rowling echoes Tolkien in her treatment of the foolishness of the search for immortality. Tolkien treats death as a blessing of Iluvatar for men, something that the elves, & men, struggle to understand. A refusal to accept its inevitability leads to disaster, as in Harry Potter, something Tom Riddle doesn’t understand. “Nothing is worse than death!” he screams at Dumbledore, who has said that there are. This theme requires a longer entry at some point. I’ve addressed Peter Singer several times on this site, & his work, along with that of the folks who advocate post- or transhumanism, is ultimately rooted in an attempt to escape the vulnerabilities of life & love that are the lot of all humans. There’s a topic: Peter Singer, posthumanism, & the sins of the Numenoreans.
“Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning, but that is a part of the problem with which I am not equipped to deal. The devil of Educationism that possesses us is the kind that can be cast out only by prayer & fasting. No one has yet come along strong enough to do it. In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer & Virgil, among others, but by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.” —Flannery O’Connor
I can imagine O’Connor’s response to those who say teachers should allow students to use their cell phones in class, since they are such a large part of their lives. I can also imagine my students’ response if I suggested that they were too stupid to read Virgil or Homer, or any other author, that required an imaginative move into the past. Yikes. Tough old bird, that Flannery O’Connor. Would that she were at least a small part of the English curriculum in our schools.
“Dear Lord, give me the truths which are veiled by the doctrines & articles of faith, which are masked by the pious words of sermons & books. Let my eyes penetrate the veil, & tear off the mask, that I can see your truth face to face.” —St. John of the Cross
One of the main reasons I found Catholicism so appealing during my period of conversion from evangelical Protestantism was its refusal to place undue emphasis on doctrine & dogma while ignoring more essential elements of the faith. Some would find this idea odd, if not mistaken; don’t Catholics insist on a rigidly dogmatic faith? Don’t they sacrifice compassion, love, care for people, etc., for strict adherence to the dogmas of the Church? Certainly, this is how much of the bluster concerning Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s declaration that St. Joe’s could no longer be considered a Catholic hospital went. A cold, unfeeling Church leader elevating cold, lifeless dogma above real people in real-life situations. Yadda yadda. . . . At any rate, we Catholics do have that reputation. Or, to be more precise: some Catholics have this reputation, as there are other Catholics who join the chorus of angry, yet compassionate, people who mock & deride the Bishop Olmsteds of the world. All, of course, in the name of compassion. Flannery O’Connor could write a story or two about that, as she skillfully revealed the pretense behind so much of the “compassion” of modern liberalism in her fiction.
It is, though, an unearned reputation, at least insofar as Catholic theologians, & saints (they used to be the same people; isn’t Cardinal Newman the first serious intellectual since Bellarmine to head down the road of canonization? I’m assuming he will arrive), have been careful to point out that doctrines & dogmas are not at the heart of the faith. When I was Protestant, this message easily got lost, as doctrines were marched out against other doctrines to prove that we were closer doctrinally to the apostolic proclamation. Doctrine was the only thing one could really appeal to, as liturgy, sacrament, sacramentals, etc. were absent. Yes, we had baptism &, on occasion, the Lord’s Supper, but both were drained of their fuller significance. At the heart of the “church service” was the sermon. Which highlights doctrine. St. John of the Cross nicely illustrates in the above quote the relative nature of all doctrine, theology, etc. It’s important, necessary, even vital to the life of faith., & Catholics don’t neglect or disparage it. But it remains at a distance from what it is witnessing to, the event that Benedict XVI highlights in the introduction to Deus Caritas Est. And this event is experienced in the liturgy & in prayer far more dramatically than in the doctrines of the Church, which more than anything else serve to safeguard that event from erroneous interpretations. As a Catholic, this is all common sense, “common” as in communio, “sense” as in sensus fidelium.
Yet this is, as a genuine small “c” catholic truth, something the best Protestants recognized. This is from a letter from CS Lewis, shortly after that momentous conversation with Tolkien & Hugo Dyson that helped him to a better understanding of Christianity as articulating the “true myth”:
“The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts & ideas of that (which) God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, & resurrection.”
That “language more adequate” is the event Benedict refers to, which we are drawn into & participate in during the sacrifice of the Mass. All our doctrines & dogmas are an attempt to clarify & safeguard that event, but which, because they are expressed in human language, must keep us at a distance from it. This is not a bad thing, or cause for grief. It’s just the way things are
“There are those who tear out the eyes of living children, who shoot children in the eyes, who beat animals across their eyes. These facts overwhelm me with desolate loathing. . . . At the maddening centre of despair is the insistent instinct—again, I can put it no other way—of a broken contract. Of an appalling & specific cataclysm. In the futile scream of the child, in the mute agony of the tortured animal, sounds the ‘background noise’ of a horror after creation. . . . Something—how helpless language can be—has gone hideously wrong. . . . I am possessed, as by a midnight clarity, by the intuition of the Fall. Only some such happening, irretrievable to reason, can make intelligible, though always near to unbearable, the actualities of our history on this wasted earth.” —George Steiner
A couple things worth noting here. First, how impotent we are when relying on “reason” alone to explain key features our world. Steiner, so adept at articulation, here notes “how helpless language can be.” Reason, expressing itself through language, is necessary, but hardly sufficient when considering the great horrors of our world. The Christian doctrine of original sin is “irretrievable to reason” in the sense that it is a mystery until unveiled for us in Christ. We won’t reach it on our own, no matter how brilliant our insights. Despair or hubris awaits those unwilling to accept our dependence, & God will break the backs of the proud.
Second, a measure of any philosophy or religion is how well it can address both the great suffering we experience—the result of a “broken contract,” “an appalling & specific cataclysm” we know as the Fall—&, at the same time, the great beauty & splendor of that same world which knows such heartrending grief. “Whence beauty?” is as pressing a question as that of pain. A Christian reading of Genesis 2 & 3, one guided by God’s revelation in Christ & where we see both Paradise Given & Paradise Returned, offers the most persuasive account of what we experience in this glorious vale of tears.
“Saint Thomas Aquinas says that art does not require rectitude of the appetite, that it is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made. He says that a work of art is good in itself, & this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations & make something that is simply a good in & of itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full & does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.” —Flannery O’Connor, quoted by Ron Hansen in “Writing as Sacrament”
Ron Hansen is a fine Catholic novelist who, like Flannery O’Connor in Mystery & Manners, has published a collection of essays on his craft that deals explicitly with what it means to write as a Catholic (A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith & Fiction).
Go to this link for an (older) article on Hansen from National Catholic Register. The film “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (with Brad Pitt!) is based on his novel; it is magnificent.
The above quote is not a silly art-for-art’s-sake bit of nonsense, but a reminder of the integrity of the creative process in the face of the utilitarian impulse so prevalent in modernity.
“‘Reason’ in language: oh, what a tricky old woman she is! I’m afraid we’re not rid of God because we still believe in grammar. . .” —Friedrich Nietzsche
From a great discussion in Twilight of the Idols on what Nietzsche considers one of the idols of the philosophers. This claim about what underwrites “grammar” has been discussed quite a bit, sometimes interestingly, sometimes not; cf. George Steiner’s Real Presences for a challenging & rewarding series of meditations on the theme, extended into the arts. (Tough book; if you think David Bentley Hart’s prose is loaded with challenges to your vocabulary, try Steiner.) Atheism, it would seem, is not such a casual thing after all. My friend Larry Chapp of DeSales University has a humorous way of discussing something of what often motivates the youthful atheism of many students, when he lays out the following syllogism:
Major Premise: I want to have sex with my girlfriend.
Minor Premise: The Church says premarital sex is wrong.
Conclusion: There is no God.
Get ’em, Larry. Of course there is a more responsible, mature form of atheism, one that is morally & intellectually serious. Nietzsche should be seen as a spokesman for this, as he recognized how serious & far-reaching a claim it is that God, as understood in the Christian tradition, is dead. One will have to grapple with the loss of “meaning” as traditionally understood, as well as with the challenge to remake ourselves apart from the image of the biblical God. And the claim above becomes a central part of the attempt of practicioners of “deconstruction” to do their odd, often nonsensical things.
Here’s another quote, this one from Malcolm Guite in an essay on literature & the incarnation, which offers an interesting take on the grammar/God link, drawing it into a consideration of the Incarnation:
“It may be that language itself, & the very possibility of communication through words, bears witness to the primal act of communication in the incarnation of the eternal Word: every effort to incarnate our own thoughts in the web of language is underwritten by God’s expression of his Word in Christ. In that all literary art, even self-consciously atheist literary art, is in some way, consciously or unconsciously modelling & bearing witness to the mystery of incarnation.”
“You can’t travel very far in this country without finding, bubbling all around you, the constant demand that we look at things through the lens of the moment, express them in the language of immediate issues, test them against the touchstones of contemporary politics, and weigh them in the scales of pressing concerns. What Christian faith offers is a place to stand outside all of that — a lens through which to examine other lenses, a language by which to judge other languages, a touchstone with which to test other touchstones, and a scale in which to weigh other scales.
Catholicism, in other words, is not a worldview like other worldviews. It doesn’t live on the same level of explanation as feminism, communism, capitalism, republicanism, utilitarianism, or any other -ism you might name. All such -isms may say that Catholicism is false; indeed, the vast majority of them require Catholicism to be false. But what Christian faith always resists is the attempt to rise above it — the attempt to surmount it, to surround it, to explain it away with some superior account of history, sociology, psychology, or philosophy. The hard brilliance of Christianity — the thing theologians have spent 2,000 years trying to make clear to us — lies in the fact that it pushes human experience and reason to that ultimate point at which there’s no further explanation: All you can do there is believe it to be true or believe it to be false.” —Joseph Bottum
This is from an article Bottum wrote on the banning of the works of Flannery O’Connor by the bishop of Lafayette, Louisiana, back in 2000. An ugly story, for reasons Bottum explains. “Flannery O’Connor Banned” originally appeared in Crisis. Check out the O’Connor links on this site for more essays, reviews, etc. of O’Connor.
“Why does God’s existence even matter?” is a questions students will often pose. Here’s the beginning of a reply from Alasdair MacIntryre recent God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.
“Theistic belief is not just belief that there happens to exist a being with such & such attributes, a belief such that someone might allow that there is indeed such a being, but then say, ‘So what? God exists, as do neutrons & coconuts, but I happen to be interested in none of them.’ Of such a one theists would have to say that he is not using the word ‘God’ as they use it, for to believe that God exists is to believe that there is a being on my relationship to whom depends everything I do or might value. And this being requires of me unqualified trust & unqualified obedience, so that I cannot be indifferent to claims about His existence & nature. We finite beings would not exist if God had not created us. We would not continue to exist if he did not sustain us. The outcome of our every project & the fulfillment of our every desire depend on him. Or so theists believe.”
Like everything by MacIntyre, this book is dense but rewarding. The review in First Things suggests that a book like this is the best antidote to the shrill cries of the new atheists, as it enters directly into an intellectual tradition that reveals itself as a serious & substantial attempt to articulate & answer some of the deepest questions that have yet been raised. The new atheists would have us believe either that such questions are nonsensical, or that “Christianity” & “intellectual” can never be joined. While this book will likely escape the notice of the new atheists & their audience, it is a helpful introduction for those who take intellectual history seriously.
A couple quotes that nicely illustrate the consequences of changing conceptions of truth (forcing it between quotation marks, for example) on what it means to be human. The first is from the introduction to A Nietzsche Reader by R.J. Hollingdale, on Nietzsche’s influence; the second is from G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World.
“I see his distinctive contribution to European thought to lie in his perception that Western man was facing a radical change in his relationship with ‘truth’; a change that would come about when he recognized that the metaphysical, religious, moral & rational truths which were formerly both backbone & substance of the Western tradition were in fact errors. This conclusion is, or will be, a consequence of the pretension of such truths to absoluteness, a pretension which is being undercut by the evolutionism of Hegel & Darwin. Modern man is acquiring the idea of ‘becoming’ as his ruling idea: & if everything evolves, the ‘truth’, too, evolves—so that, if ‘truth’ is synonymous with absolute truth true for all time & for everybody, a loss of belief in the truth of truth is on the way. ‘Everything evolves’ will come to mean ‘nothing is true’.”
“The subconscious popular instinct against Darwinism was not a mere offense at the grotesque notion of visiting one’s grandfather in a cage in the Regent’s Park. Men go in for drink, practical jokes & many other grotesque things; they do not much mind making beasts of themselves, & would not much mind having beasts made of their forefathers. The real instinct was much deeper & much more valuable. It was this: that when once one begins to think of man as a shifting & alterable thing, it is always easy for the strong & crafty to twist him into new shapes for all kinds of unnatural purposes. The popular instinct sees in such developments the possibility of backs bowed & hunchbacked for their burden, or limbs twisted for their task. . . . It has therefore a vision of inhuman hybrids & half-human experiments.”
“We know what is really meant by saying that the Church is merely conservative & the modern world progressive. It means that the Church is always continuous & the heresies always contradictory. . . . But one effect of this contrast between continuity & bewildering variety is that the Church is generally seen in the light of the last heresy. The Church is supposed to consist chiefly of the things of which that heresy happens to disapprove. . . . [A] hundred years hence the Church may look to her enemies something utterly different from what she looked like a hundred years ago. She will look different because she will be the same.” —G.K. Chesterton
Does the sexual revolution qualify as a Christian heresy? Not in the classical sense, but what GKC says here about heresy & the conservative nature of the Church makes sense of how the Church looks to its contemporary despisers, cultured or not. How many stories have you read in which someone blames the Church not only for its medieval views on chastity & abstinence, contraception, divorce, & marriage, but also for being so obsessed with all matters sexual? The critic is of course reading into the Church his own obsessions, & protesting its disagreement with him regarding them, as GKC notes. A hundred years from now, new critics will complain about how the Church is now too obsessed with ______, despite the fact that she remains, in all essentials, ever the same.
“You will always have Freud with you.” A lot can be, & has been, said about the ongoing influence of the work of Sigmund Freud. While many of his most important claims & theories are widely rejected today, his influence continues, particular in what used to be known as the Humanities. Roger Scruton, who knows a thing or two about a great many things, is certainly no fan of Freud, for reasons found in his “An unhappy birthday to Sigmund the Fraud,” published near the 150th anniversary of Freud’s birth & the title of which leaves few people guessing. Here’s a sample from the article:
“It is especially hard to recognise the true nature of Freud’s genius, which lay not in his theories, which are bunkum, nor in his practice, which was inspired quackery, but in his astonishment. Freud saw mysteries where others saw facts. He recognised that the influence of parents on their children ran through deep and hidden channels, that it showed itself in every aspect of their future lives, and in no matter more fatefully than that of sexual desire. He pondered the mysteries of guilt, anxiety and mourning and tried to fathom them. He was amazed by both jokes and dreams, and offered a crazy diagnosis of their meaning. Where others saw muddle and eccentricity he imagined diseases of the soul, and set out to vanquish them. And in his case studies he presented unforgettable portraits of wrecked human beings, about whose flailing carcasses he patrolled like a jackal, tearing off pieces and holding them up to the light, which he imagined to be a light of science, but which was in fact a light of the imagination, transfiguring all on which it fell.”
Another assessment which recently caught my attention is that of Anthony Storr, at the end of his contribution to the Past Masters series published by Oxford (now titled Freud: A Very Short Introduction). This is very good, & touches on the damage that the so-called hermeneutics of suspicion has caused. Paraphrasing Flannery O’Connor’s advice to a college student struggling with his faith, one can say that suspicion is fine & good, as long as it is applied consistently. Those of us in the Church know the attacks made on our faith by those supposedly critical thinkers, especially from the social sciences, who claim to have gotten underneath our beliefs, all the while embracing theories that require more than a bit of credulity. Here’s Storr on some of what we have lost:
“Freudian theory made Western man suspicious of conduct previously regarded as virtuous, often with unfortunate consequences. In 1900 the person who displayed altruism & self-sacrifice would simply have been regarded as ‘good’. Since Freud, people are inclined to suspect unselfishness as masochistic self-punishment, & altruism as concealing a wish to patronize. Unselfishness & generosity are still virtues; but Freud has made it easier for those who do not wish to cultivate these virtues to justify their avoidance of them. Celibacy used to be admired. Now it is invariably interpreted as concealing perversion or as an ignominious flight from sex, rather than as self-control or evidence of spiritual excellence.”
“Again & again man correlates himself with the world, racked with longing to acquire, & become one with, the ideal which lies outside him, which he apprehends as some kind of intuitively sensed first principle. The unattainability of that becoming one, the inadequacy of his own ‘I’, is the perpetual source of man’s dissatisfaction & pain.” —Andrei Tarkovsky
Yeah, that sounds like something you’ll hear from a director at the next Academy Awards. Tarkovsky made wildly challenging films (go here for a nice website dedicated to his work), & his Sculpting in Time is a challenging, informative read. The above quote is from Chapter 2, “Art—a yearning for the ideal.” It nicely echoes what other writers have said about eros, & sounds a little bit like Luigi Giussani in The Religious Sense. It makes sense that, along with Robert Bresson & Ingmar Bergman, Tarkovsky is considered to be one of the greatest directors, even if he made relatively few films. He was a humanist in the truest sense of the word, one who knew that the fundamental orientation of the person is toward that which transcends the material world.
“Once I was asked by somebody: ‘How is it that you speak with such reverence and awe of Mozart’s profundity?’ It was the wife of a star virtuoso to whom I once spoke in almost deliberately exaggerated terms of the depth of Mozart’s music, the unfathomable, transcendental qualities. She said: ‘We too love Mozart, but we think his music is just sweet and lovely and graceful. If your valuation,’ she continued, ‘is the right one, Mr. Schnabel, how do you explain the fact that all children play Mozart so well?’ I answered: ‘Well, children have at least one very important element in common with Mozart, namely purity. They are not yet spoiled and prejudiced and personally involved. But these are, of course, not the reasons why their teachers give them Mozart to play. Children are given Mozart because of the small quantity of the notes; grown-ups avoid Mozart because of the great quality of the notes—which, to be true, is elusive!’” —Artur Schnabel
Artur Schnabel was one of the most important pianists of the first half of the 20th century, known for his advocacy of the solo piano work of Franz Schubert at a time when it was generally ignored by other pianists, as well as for his cycle of Beethoven sonatas, the first complete set to be recorded. He also spoke highly of Mozart’s music, despite the widely held belief in the early 20th century that it was too simple for serious musicians. In his reflections on his career in music, published in My Life and Music, he recounted this defense of Mozart’s art against the claim it was less challenging that that of other composers.
Schnabel was not alone in his views on Mozart. In a 1962 interview, Arthur Rubinstein, maybe the most beloved pianist of the 2oth century & the best-known for his recordings of Chopin, had this to say:
“For me Mozart can express in a few bars more than Beethoven in a whole movement of a sonata. I adore Mozart; he is my great, great, great, deep love. The thing is simply that Mozart was able to put all his heart & soul, his musical talent, his genius, into the forms, into the mould. . .”
Likewise, the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who recorded relatively little of Mozart & is better known for his Liszt, Brahms, & Rachmaninoff, nevertheless often claimed that Mozart’s music was the most difficult to play convincingly. All of this calls to mind Jesus’ words about childlikeness, & the theological reflections they have stimulated. See, for example, Unless You Become Like This Child by Hans Urs von Balthasar, a brief work that is far more than its length might suggest. What Schnabel’s conversation partner reduced to “sweet & lovely & graceful,” which is often how adults marginalize the characteristics associated with childhood, was, in the estimation of the 3 pianists quoted above, of profound depth. Balthasar, too, nicely analyzes the depths of childlikeness in relation to the childhood of Christ & our continuing growth in grace.
For Volume 61 of the Rubinstein Collection, which contains later recordings of piano concertos 17, 20, 21, 23, & 24, go here.
For Arthur Schnabel Plays Mozart: the Complete EMI Recordings, a 5-disc set containing recordings of several sonatas & concertos, go here.
“There will be moments when you will feel perplexed, especially in the presence of human sin. You will ask yourself, ‘Must I combat it by force or try to overcome it by humble love?’ Always choose humble love, always. Once you have chosen it, you will always have what you need to conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a powerful force, the most powerful, & there is nothing in the world to approach it.” —Fr. Zosima, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I think an interesting dissertation topic would be Zosima/Dostoevsky & Nietzsche on the theme of conquest. Nietzsche uses militaristic imagery quite a bit. Force, overcoming, conquest, & related terms seem an essential part of his attempt to articulate the new ethos he called his contemporaries to embrace. Zosima uses similar language, though to different ends. “Blessed are the meek” fits Zosima, but enrages Nietzsche, in part due to their differing assessments of goodness, truth, & beauty. “What do we have to overcome?” will thus be understood differently. Both Zosima & Nietzsche see the need for self-conquest; the battle is not just against external foes, but begins, & ends, within in each person (see below for more on this in Dostoevsky). On this point Nietzsche gets it right, & avoids the mistake of simply blaming others for our shared plight. The liberal interpretation of society will always be uneasy with Nietzsche, even as he echoes its call to push religion out of the way, precisely because he knows too much about the dynamics of human psychology. Zosima better understands the root causes of our interval division & its consequences, & knows that Genesis 3 offers more insight on our world than any notion of ressentiment, decadence, & the gradual victory of slave morality over master morality.
Here’s another quote on the topic:
“When you love people, you see all the good in them, all the Christ in them. God sees his Son in us. And so we should see Christ in others, & nothing else, & love them. There can never be enough of it. There can never be enough thinking about it. St. John of the Cross said that where there was no love, put love, & you would draw love out.” —Dorothy Day
“If the truth were ultimate in God, we could look into its abysses with open eyes. Our eyes might be blinded by so much light, but our yearning for truth would have free rein. But because love is ultimate, the seraphim cover their faces with their wings, for the mystery of eternal love is one whose superluminous light may be glorified only through adoration.” —Hans Urs von Balthasar
Balthasar may challenging to read, but does anyone have more great quotes? Not just pithy, GKC-ish statements that charm through wit & paradox, but provocative lines that you’d love to hear a qualified homilist preach on for awhile. When he speaks about love he is second to none in his ability to turn a memorable phrase in the service of truth.
“Only God, acting in Christ, takes man’s finitude, guilt, and death seriously into account. He does not stand aloof in contempt for the things of this world and the activities to which it is tragically committed, in order to resettle man in a spiritual world on the other side; he relates the whole fiasco of life in this world to the beyond, so that it makes sense, making all man’s troubles in the world the foundation for his work of resurrection, salvaging the ‘mark of the nails’ [Jn 20:25] in the glory of eternal life. The sweat and blood of man were not in vain; God acting freely salvages everything when the world is cast in its final and perfect form. Hence in the solution that God offers to this mystery which is man, the tensions still exist, and no aspect of man’s being is merely suppressed. For God is great enough to embrace this eternally open being in the even greater expanse of his own openness.”
Balthasar recognized the gnostic temptation, & knew that the Incarnation is the definitive response to every attempt to “resettle man” by suppressing key aspects of our being. Thanks to Rodney Howsare for drawing my attention to this quote.
“He told me that all the good simple people in his novels [like Little Nell] are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.” —Fyodor Dostoevsky, on his interview with Charles Dickens in 1862
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, & it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us & destroy them. But the line dividing good & evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
“During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil & sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One & the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, & to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good & evil.
“Socrates taught us: Know thyself!” —Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
“I do not understand my own actions,” St. Paul wrote. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I am torn, divided between two selves. There are, as Dickens said, two people in me, one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. To deny this is to deny self-knowledge. “Why do I wrestle with myself? Why am I seemingly torn in two, & why do I long to be one, with myself & with others? And why do I also know that love is not merely self-aggrandizement, a learned social response necessary to keep chaos at the gates, or a puffy emotional response shaped by democratic capitalism at its consumeristic worst?” Folks like St. Paul, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, & Dickens help clarify for us, reasonably, without recourse to totalizing explanations that wrap up the enigma of human moral psychology in trendy pseudo-scientific language, the moral struggles we all must face up to if we wish to know ourselves. They know both the dark side of the human will & the Love that not only moves the sun & the other stars, but also inspires the divided heart to perform works of forgiveness, compassion, & charity.
A few from SOREN KIERKEGAARD, one of the more quotable of the good guys:
“The majority of the people are not so afraid of holding a wrong opinion, as they are of holding an opinion alone.”
The high school classroom, & the New York Times, give good evidence of this.
“The theological world is like the road along the coast on a Sunday afternoon during the races. People storm past one another, shouting & yelling, laugh & make fools of each other, drive their horses to death, upset each other, are run over, & when at last they arrive, covered with dust & out of breath—they look at each other—& go home.”
I have no idea what this means, but it sounds impressive. And sort of like what happens when theology teachers get together.
“It is claimed that arguments against Christianity arise from doubt. This is a complete misunderstanding. The arguments against Christianity arise out of rebellion, out of a reluctance to obey. The battle against objections is but shadow-boxing, because it is intellectual combat with doubt instead of ethical combat against mutiny.”
This could have been written by Pascal, who loved to write on this theme as much as Kierkegaard did. According to Pascal, the “battle against objections” is valuable insofar as we can answer misunderstandings & show that it is not unreasonable to believe. Yet, like Kierkegaard, he also knew that unbelief is ultimately a matter of the will, not the intellect. Cf. the discussion under the Bernanos quote below for more on this. And, one more on this general topic:
“The objections to Christianity may be dismissed with one single comment: Do these objections come from someone who has carried out the commands of Christ? If not, all his objections are nonsense. Christ continually declares that we must do what he says—& then we will know that it is truth.”
“Now think for a moment about the meaning of this word ‘peace.’ Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War & the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, & that the promise was a disappointment & a cheat?
Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples, ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men, His disciples, knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land & sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, ‘Not as the world gives, give I unto you.’ So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.” —T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape tries to convince his young charge Wormwood that the outbreak of another war is not necessarily a cause for demonic rejoicing. “Does it draw people away from, or closer to, God?” is the only question he thinks relevant. Current events, in other words, should be seen as raw material, & are not terribly significant in themselves, at least from the perspective of eternity. Screwtape wants to know, “What use can we make of them? Can we turn the war to our favor, & prevent humans from turning to God by acting with courage, honor, & charity?”
The peace Christ promises us does not depend upon the absence of war, victory in the culture wars, or election results. I have little doubt that the Catholic position on many issues, including marriage, abortion, euthanasia, & related issues will continue to lose ground, & that the crass utilitarianism apparent in our society today will continue to manifest itself in shocking new ways. Wars will continue, the media will continue to encourage & exploit the public’s prurient interests, presidents will continue to appoint Supreme Court justices who embrace “compassion” while furthering the culture of death, & Church leaders like Thomas Becket will continue to suffer martyrdom, real & metaphorical. In other words, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I’ve had recent conversations with Christians who think the current administration here in the U.S. spells the doom of everything good & true, that something newly sinister is afoot, & that the Catholic Church is facing an unprecedented challenge. Some see the attacks on Benedict XVI as further evidence of a massive & successful conspiracy against the Church. They are, I think, driven by an unreasonable fear, a poor grasp of the history of the Church, & a presumption that they can read the future from the present. What Christ promises & always gives us is a peace that passes understanding, a peace that ultimately has little to do with social, cultural, & political victories. Augustine’s De Civitate Dei remains so compelling today because he provides a blueprint for understanding how current events, including political gains & losses, can not affect the Church’s faith. Fidelity to Christ, & sharing in the peace he provides, remains the same goal for believers in any age, & we shouldn’t get too excited about headlines & elections. Augustine’s perspective was at odds with many in the Christian world of the early 5th century, who seemed to equate earthly peace, especially that enjoyed by the Church, with the promise of the kingdom soon arriving. He knew better. One can hear Screwtape asking, “Does this event etc. draw them closer to God? Do they respond with prayer & trust, or can we exploit their fear & outrage, & even tempt them into cynicism & despair?” A very Augustinian question, & one that reminds us that the apostles & martyrs knew a peace that seemed impossible by any worldly standard.
“No one had in fact done anything to Satan; he was not hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from his place, nor shunned, nor hated—he only thought himself impaired. In the midst of a world of light & love, of song & feast & dance, he could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige.”
“Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven & all the furniture of earth’. Satan has been in the Heaven of Heavens & in the abyss of Hell, & surveyed all that that lies between them, & in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. . . . To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies & propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography.” —CS Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost
A world of incessant autobiography: one in which my prestige, my status, my comfort & convenience becomes the sun around which all the planets revolve. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters nicely captures this mood, & his chapter on Satan in A Preface to Paradise Lost reveals how the fall of the angels results from & renders habitual the need to see every event in terms of how it affects me. When a co-worker receives commendation; when good things happen to those around me; when change is happening all around me; when someone else is praised or placed at the center of attention: do I feel slighted or left out or saddened or just a bit resentful that I have not been consulted or acknowledged? Lewis does a masterful job in The Screwtape Letters & The Great Divorce of showing how even that little bit of resentment can develop into a habitual bitterness that can lead one to eternal ruin. His chapter on Satan in A Preface to Paradise Lost is both a masterpiece of literary criticism on an epic work & a perceptive theological analysis of pride. Bring this chapter together with the chapter on pride from Mere Christianity & the chapter on hell from The Problem of Pain & you have material for lenten meditation throughout the year. ___________________________________________________________________
“For sanctity is an adventure; it is indeed the only adventure. Those who have once realized this have found their way to the very heart of the Catholic faith; they have felt in their mortal flesh the shuddering of another terror than the terror of death: the shudder of supernatural hope.” —George Bernanos
Sounds a lot like GKC. Another one, also from “Joan, Heretic & Saint.” Love the phrase “priest-diplomatists”:
“Our Church is the Church of the saints. From the Pope down to the little altar-boy drinking the wine left over from the cruets, everyone knows that there are not many famous preachers in the Calendar—not many priest-diplomatists. The only people to question this are the respectable believers with stomachs & gold chains, who think that the saints are in far too much of a hurry, & who would like to go to Heaven with decent deliberation, just as they walk up to the church-wardens’ pew, with the parish priest for company.”
Ouch. Does this at all relate to Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 about the kingdom of heaven & how the violent “bear it away”? Does the violence of love strike the “respectable believer” as a touch too extremist? Certainly, Joan of Arc can’t be accused of “decent deliberation” in her attempts to be faithful to God. For Bernanos, the beating heart of the world is the type of childhood seen in saints like Joan & Thérése. “Were it not for the sweet scandal of childhood,” he writes, avarice & cunning would have dried up the world in a century or so.” It was in fact the avarice & cunning of “all these old men, many of them under thirty” that doomed young Joan, & threaten the saints of every generation.
More from Bernanos:
“There remains the unforeseen. And the unforeseen is never negligible. Am I where Our Lord would have me be? Twenty times a day I ask this question. For the Master whom we serve not only judges our life but shares it, takes it upon Himself. It would be far easier to satisfy a geometrical & moralistic God.” —George Bernanos, in Diary of a Country Priest
Still from Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest”
“It would be far easier to satisfy a geometrical & moralistic God”: sounds like Pascal, or Dostoevsky’s Zosima. Kierkegaard also comes to mind. The “hidden God” Pascal writes about refuses to play according to our rules of disclosure, & this can be met with differing responses. Mother Teresa, Bernanos’ priest, & the great mystics all yield to the logic of the incarnate Word, resisting the temptation to recreate God in their own image & force him to be predictable, “fair.” This is the path of humility, & it is always an uncertain one filled with shocks & surprises. Contrast this with the Grand Inquisitor, scolding Christ for being so un-geometrical:
“And then, instead of giving clear-cut rules that would have set men’s consciences at rest once & for all, you put forward things that are unfamiliar, puzzling, & uncertain. . .. By so doing you acted as if you did not love mankind.”
“Couldn’t God have made things easier for us?” is hardly an unusual question, whether we’re talking about proofs for his existence or guidance in our daily lives. Nor is it an unfair one. It can, however, reflect pride, despair, or a measure of both. For example, this little gem comes from the late Norwood Russell Hanson in his essay “What I Don’t Believe.” It is, he claimed, unreasonable to believe that God exists, as there isn’t enough evidence to warrant such a conclusion. What would qualify as good evidence?
Immense Zeus-like figure frowning darkly
“Suppose . . . that on next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive & ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls; leaves drop from trees; the earth heaves & buckles; buildings topple & towers tumble; the sky is ablaze with an eerie, silvery light. Just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open—the clouds pull apart—revealing an unbelievably immense & Zeus-like figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightning plays across the features of his Michaelangeloid face. He then points down—at me!—& exclaims, for every man, woman & child to hear “I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping & word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured, N.R. Hanson, that I do most certainly exist.”
Such a display, Hanson admits, would do the trick; he would surrender his unbelief in the face of such a remarkable event & believe that God does in fact exist.
“How perfectly geometrical!” one can hear Bernanos’ priest saying. And how perfectly delusional. “I have 5 brothers; let some one warn them, Father Abraham, lest they also come into this place of torment,” said the rich man in Luke 16 as he suffered the torments reserved for the unjust.
Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach
“They have Moses & the prophets,” Abraham replied. “Let them hear them.” They have all the evidence they need already; God is a generous giver of precisely the gifts we all need.
“If only someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Or, let the skies rip open, a Zeus-like figure speak, someone turn stones into bread or leap off the Temple & be saved by angels, etc.
“If they do not hear Moses & the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.” Let’s not pretend this is all some intellectual puzzle, “as if reason were the only way we could learn” (Pascal) & the will has nothing to do with our capacity to believe. “Give alms,” Hopkins told the poet Robert Bridges when asked about how to believe. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Love the Lord your God with all your heart. I know more than all my teachers, for I have obeyed your law. And the lover demands no impressive displays or experimental results: “God is found by those who do not put him to the test, & manifests himself to those who do not distrust him” (Wisdom 1.2).
“We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart” (again, Pascal). The heart does not desire a geometrical God, for such an invention has nothing to do with love. “Does the loving bride,” Kierkegaard asked, “in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive & well? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love & ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that he exists?”
As the former Cardinal Ratzinger said regarding the demand for clear signs of God’s existence:
“If we want to, so to speak, test God—are you there or not?—& undertake certain things to which we think he must either react or not react, if we make him the object, so to speak, of our experiment, then we have set off in a direction that will not lead us to find him. God is not prepared to submit to experiments. He is not a thing we can hold in our hands.”
Really, one could continue on this for some time. So many great writers have said something about the demand for clear & unambiguous signs of God’s presence. As is to be expected, C.S. Lewis had some interesting things to offer on this theme. Here’s Screwtape, writing to his nephew Wormwood about the strangeness of God’s plans (Letter 8):
“You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses & at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible & the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest & most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake & to have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, & easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long.”
This is set in the context of an insightful discussion of the usefulness of the “trough” periods of the spiritual life, when God seems absent to the believer. It is through these that we learn to stumble forward & grow into the person that God wants us to become. “He wants them to learn to walk & must therefore take away His hand; & if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.”
Not very moralistic or geometrical, which is why the Grand Inquisitor found Christ so cruel & unloving, & why Dives & the N.R. Hansons of the world will keep missing what is right in front of them.
“The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendour of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of Hell.” —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
“It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” —Charles Peguy
I suppose this includes acts of intellectual & political, as well as moral, cowardice. See immediately below for one example.
“Jesus Was A Liberal/Hitler Was A Conservative” —Bumper sticker on the car in front of me at the Starbucks drive through
Many things came to mind as I was reading this pearl of wisdom while ordering my iced venti Americano, none of which seem fit to reveal here.
“The essence of being human is that. . . one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” —George Orwell
I bring this out when I read The Giving Tree with my students & talk about Gaudium et Spes 24 & the “sincere gift of self.” It also reminds me of Golgotha. The “broken up” part is right on, though Easter challenges the “defeated” part.
“I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through & survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man & a woman, as such, are incompatible.” —G.K. Chesterton
Bono sings about “the mysterious distance/between a man & a woman” in one of the less-celebrated songs on “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” In this song, as in “Miracle Drug,” he gives a perspective on eros that is unusual for a pop singer. “I’ve had enough of romantic love/I’d give it up, yeah I’d give it up/For a miracle, a miracle drug.” Of course, few pop stars have been married to the same person for as long as Bono has been married to his wife. The years together bring perspective, as GKC illustrates in the above quote.
“The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein
Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland” from Orthodoxy contains some deep thoughts on this subject. Ramandu’s reply to Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to the effect that a star is much more than what it is made of, also comes to mind. Likewise, Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” raises the right questions about the silly reductionism too often assumed by those who embrace what C.S. Lewis & others called “scientism.” And, finally, check out what Gabriel Marcel had to say about the necessary distinction between mystery & problem.
“All disrespect, all irreverence, all hard heartedness, all contempt is nothing else than killing. And it is possible to kill not only what is in the present, but also that which is in the future. With just a little witty skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a child or young person.” —Herman Hesse
This reminds me of what C.S. Lewis wrote about the moral cynicism he was attacking in The Abolition of Man. Those who peddle it to the young student, knowingly or not, can “cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, & humane.” I read Hesse here in the context of Lewis’s concerns regarding education, probably because I am teacher. And Lewis is right in saying that the great enemy is not Ignorance as much as it is Indifference & Cynicism, qualities our students & children learn from indifferent & cynical adults. The authors of the book Lewis was shredding were worried about teachers inculcating the wrong values in their students, & so set out to inculcate the “right” values, namely, that there are no right or wrong values. Like so many contemporary cynics, they seem to have forgotten, or, more likely, never read Plato & Aristotle on the formation of virtuous citizens. We hear the fears of indoctrination expressed by those claiming that education is about “opening the minds of the young” so they can think for themselves, not filling them with specific ideas about right, wrong, etc. Yet, as Lewis points out, following Plato & what Lewis terms “the Tao,” it is a basic fact of education & human development that “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, & hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting & hateful.” “Indoctrination” is simply how our children learn; it is not a dirty word, or the preferred method only of right-wing fanatics. Rather than dismiss it altogether as enforcing biases (by which is usually meant “religious” or “traditional”) on innocent young minds, we should be more clear about which biases we want them to learn & grow into, or, what kind of person we want them to become. Of course, this means believing that some values are better than others, as even the cynics implicitly acknowledge. And woe unto him who corrupts a young mind & kills a good deal of their future through their witty skepticism. It would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck etc. etc.
“Coexist.” —bumper sticker seen just about everywhere
Far be it from me to say that getting along is an unworthy goal, or that religious & cultural tolerance are bad things. They have always been important, which means we are obliged to understand what they are, & are not. So as long as we refuse to make tolerance the most important virtue (“the greatest of these” remains love), or the only one, & rightly see it as part of the cardinal virtue of justice & the theological virtue of charity, I’ll gladly stress its importance. But in order to get tolerance right, we do need to carefully relate it to things like justice & charity. Too often it seems that, in the words of a former student, what many people mean by “tolerance” is actually indifference, which makes justice impossible to achieve & mocks charity. The just person is one who gives to each what they are owed, &, as Christians, we know that this must be understood in light of agape. God, though he is the source of all genuine peace, respect, etc., is hardly “tolerant,” if we mean by that allowing us to do our own thing “as long as no one gets hurt,” which is how many people understand tolerance. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently wrote in the 4th book of Mere Christianity, God demands perfection from us, & will not leave us alone until we achieve it, even if it causes us great discomfort. Likewise, he calls us to live the beatitudes, which includes being peacemakers & suffering for it. This is some distance from the message to “coexist” with others, but in the popular imagination a sappy relativism seems to form the foundation of such cliches.
And I often wonder what, or whom, messages like this are for. The people who most need to reflect on the virtues required for public life, including justice, are unlikely to read this bumper sticker & think, “You know, that bumper sticker is right; I should change my intolerant, racist, xenophobic ways.” And the people who already agree already agree, & are not likely to do anything more than nod in approval. Moreover, this is a truism, in the form of an implied exhortation that is probably as useful & necessary as telling someone that since the human body requires oxygen, they shouldn’t hold their breath for too long. In other words, No kidding. “If we don’t get along, & coexist with others who are different from us, there’s bound to be trouble,” you can hear in the background. “Because intolerance & hatred leads to violence.” Well, yes. This is beyond obvious.
Similar bumper-sticker silliness: “Just be nice.” Saw that one recently, & I can’t say that I became any nicer that day. Or my favorite bit of hypocrisy: “Mean people suck” (just found the above image online, nicely combining the 2 sentiments). I would think that a “mean person” is someone who goes around telling people, mean or not, that they suck. And do mean people really “suck”? I suppose their behavior may require modification, but I’m not sure if their temperament or personality altogether defines them, & I am certain that what some people mean by “nice” & “mean” is highly suspect & worthy of a challenge. As I’m certain that using the word “suck” in this way reflects a lack of both imagination & decorum.
Making mountains out of molehills doesn’t help anyone, & I hope that these ramblings are not an example of that. But I do see, especially in young people with too much confidence in their inexperience, a tendency to treat cliches as revelations from above that other people, especially us religious folk, are deaf to. Bumper stickers should not substitute for common sense or deeper reflection on virtues like justice & love, & I wonder if a few of the folks who evangelize with these banalities may be trying to draw some attention to themselves & their elevated values & sensibilities. Perhaps. Or maybe they are just following the crowd in thinking that everything they think is worthy of public broadcast. Kind of like blogging etc. Hey, wait a minute. . . . Just don’t forget to breathe.