Archive for October, 2012


On Being Maurice Blondel – Derek Jeter

October 31, 2012

Maurice Blondel was born in Dijon, France in 1861, entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1881, and passed the aggregation in 1886. Like many in his generation, he was profoundly affected by the tensions in French life, particularly those between the French academic establishment and Catholicism. Blondel defended his thesis, L’action in 1893, at the Sorbonne. His thesis, which argues for the inescapability of the “religious problem”, brought him into the heart of theological and philosophical controversy of his time. Controversies that seem even more pronounced to this day.

Sunday the 21st I was off to my Communio group to discuss an article by Maurice Blondel. When the assignment first came up, I confess I knew little about this Catholic philosopher, save that he is part of an almost celestial group of intellectuals who populated the early 20th century and into the 1960s – names that I group with Maritain, Dawson, Lewis, Gilson and others. You can find their writings and articles about them on PayingAttentiontotheSky. I thought before I added Maurice Blondel I would attempt to perform an introduction of sorts. The background information  comes from Oliva Blanchette’s Why We Need Maurice Blondel which was part of Communio’s tribute issue to Blondel, the 150th anniversary of his birth, in the Spring issue of 2011.  I was so taken with the subject I immediately got Blanchette’s biography, Maurice Blondel A Philosophical Life.

Two things stand out for me about Blondel. The first is how his life so neatly folded about his vocation. He came to it early on, hitting upon the issues that would concern him as a Catholic philosopher and scholar for the rest of his life. (This is stupid, I know, but) I couldn’t help but think of the young Derek Jeter who in his childhood conceived of playing shortstop for the New York Yankees. Some people get such an early start on life, scholars or ball players and they pursue their vocations or dreams with an intensity that brings them great achievements. Their greatness is derived from their excellence, something the disciples in Mark left out of their discussions of who was the greatest amongst them and never quite got.

What were the issues that so consumed the young Blondel with his vocation as philosopher and identity as a member of the Catholic faith?

Maurice Blondel can best be understood as a philosopher, but as a philosopher who sought to expand the scope of philosophy, so that it would include the most authentic religious spirit as it is lived in human thought and action. He was a religious man who had to think his religious life philosophically. But at the same time he was a philosopher for whom religion, even in its supernatural aspect, had to be seen as a necessary part, not only of human life itself, but also of philosophical reflection on that life.

In this resolve Blondel found himself at odds with both sides of the anti-religious atmosphere that ruled in French intellectual life at the end of the century, those who attacked religion or relegated it to something insignificant in rational life, and those who defended religion and asserted its right to propagate in secular society. At first he was seen as a defender of religion in defender of religion in philosophy in a University that was resolutely secular, and as a threat to the autonomy of reason.

As the defenders of reason feared for their conception of philosophy, the defenders of religion, who were mostly Catholic in France at the time, as was Blondel, rejoiced in having a champion of religion at the University. But this joy soon turned to suspicion on the part of some, when it became clear how Blondel proposed to “defend” religion, not by cutting reason short as even many philosophers were quite willing to do in the spirit of neo Kantianism, but by extending its power of inquiry into the very idea of supernatural religion, thus apparently bringing the very content of such religion, supposedly the exclusive domain of a theology based on revelation, under the domain of critical philosophy.

This was not what the established theologians of the time had had in mind as a proper defense of religion, and while philosophers found some reassurance in Blondel’s protestations concerning the philosophical nature of his method, theologians began to fear for the autonomy of their own method in discoursing about religion.

Blondel left neither side complacent about its method in trying to bring them together into the unity of a single method which was essentially philosophical, but which was also no less essentially open to the transcendence of the supernatural in religion. This was clear from the two important publications that appeared under his name in the 1890s, the Thesis on Action of 1893 and the so-called Letter on Apologetics of 1896. In the first he took issue with the attitude of the University and philosophy regarding religion.

In the second he took issue with certain interpretations of his “defense” of religion and certain ways of dealing with questions of religion that were not in keeping with the exigencies of modern philosophy, as he claimed his was. In short, it could be said that in breaking into the intellectual scene of his day Blondel was breaking it up as it was established on either side of the controversy over religion, by beginning a new journey inward to the human spirit that was at once philosophical and religious.
Oliva Blanchette, Maurice Blondel A Philosophical Life

The second thing I noted about Blondel’s life was the terrible physical crosses he bore. What could be a greater cross to bear to a scholar than to lose both his sight and his hearing? One recalls Beethoven and his hearing loss. Here in the 21st century, technology allows a minimal loss in productivity but in the 20thso little was in place to help someone like Blondel. All this appears to have happened to Blondel following the death of this wife Rose in 1919. In 1927, his vision combined with deafness had degenerated so that it necessitated his retirement, and required his being able to work only by dictation. From 1934 to 1937, however, he published the five volumes, La Pensée (2 vol.), L’être et les êtres, and L’action (2 vol.) of the metaphysical trilogy, followed by L’Esprit chrétien, only two volumes of which were completely finished at his death in 1949.

I couldn’t understand how Blondel could have ever accomplished the work he did, struggling with blindness and deafness, until I read the following marvelous story in Blanchette’s definitive biography. The problem it refers to in the beginning was with a friend, Jean Wehrlé, who attempted to fill the workload for companion and collaborator and nearly had a breakdown doing it. It turns out that perfect combination was found, in turn shaped by circumstances and evolved into the perfect situation for Blondel. All of that was accomplished in the person of Mlle Nathalie Panis.

The problem was not solved for him until a few months later when, out of the blue, or providentially, as he more likely would have said, a certain Mlle. Nathalie Panis, having heard of his plight, wrote to him from Paris to offer her services as secretary on a long-term basis. She had been a graduate student of Blondel in Aix during the First World War and, after getting her Licentiate in Philosophy, had gone on to teach at a French Lycee in Athens, Greece, for years.

In 1931 she was back in Paris, relatively unattached, but still very much interested in the thought of her former teacher and perhaps even more devoted to him than his friend Wehrlé. Blondel had no problem remembering her and began to think that perhaps she could do on a long-term basis what others could not do on a short-term basis. Seeing that she was eager and that she was ready to make a long-term commitment to the task, he invited her down to the house a Aix.

She came in December 1931, and, as she was fond of saying, she never left its side after that. This became for her a second career in which she would look after the intellectual affairs of the one she would call Maitre, not in the sense of Master, but in the sense of Magister, Teacher. She moved into the large house on rue Roux-Alphéran with Blondel, to be at his side, just the two of them for the most part, except when family and friends came to visit, and worked with him or the rest of his life and beyond, taking care of the Blondel Archives after his death for as long as they were in that house.

The arrangement was as simple as could be. There was not even any question of a salary. Blondel assured her that she would be taken care of as a member of the family in exchange for dedicating herself totally to the support of Blondel in his work, becoming his eyes and his hands, as it were, by reading to him and taking down dictation, and most importantly by being there consistently at his side day in and day out with her enthusiasm and her interest in seeing that Blondel’s work be brought to completion and broadcast as widely as possible, including through translation into different languages, which she was always eager to urge on those who came to visit the Blondel Archives from abroad.

This proved to be the answer to Blondel’s problem, short of restoring his sight. It enabled him to start a second career of writing from his solitude in Aix, not unlike the first one, when he first conceived his original dissertation on Action in the solitude of Saint-Seine. It was what he had been dreaming of being able to do for a long time in order to give a more complete expression to his philosophy in terms of Thought and Being as well as Action.

Together, he and Mlle. Panis developed a daily routine of work that would take them through the five volumes of the Trilogy and way beyond. Each morning they would attend the early mass at the nearby parish church of Saint Jean de Malte and come back to the second floor study to prepare for the morning’s work. While Mlle. Panis prepared the coffee and bread for their petit dejeuner, before the arrival of the housekeeper who took care of the other meals, Blondel would sit by himself scribbling notes and preparing in his mind what he wanted to get into for that day.

Morning sessions, which lasted three or four hours, were reserved exclusively for work on the books that Blondel wanted to compose. Afternoon sessions, after dejeuner and a siesta, were devoted to other business, such as the ample flow of correspondence that never slowed down, keeping up with the literature on philosophy and education that always interested Blondel, and responding to proposals of others in discussions that went on in the Societe de Philosophie Francaise in connection with Lalande’s Vocabulaire or in Les Etudes Philosophiques, a journal edited by Gaston Berger, a former student of Blondel. Also included was a certain amount of political commentary as a regular contributor to the review Politique, which his son-in-law, Charles Flory, had founded in 1926. With the collaboration of Mlle. Panis, Blondel was able to get back into the swing of things almost as well as when he had been able to see for himself, in what has been called his second career as a publicist.

Isn’t that just amazing?  Another illustration of how “Give us this day, our daily bread,” is all we need to pray for, it seems.


The Art of Dying Well – St. Robert Bellarmine

October 30, 2012

Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church.

Bellarmine is a name that pushed its way into my consciousness as I listened to a series of lectures on Church history. Cardinal Francis George named him as the man who set up the juridical framework of the Church-as-State back in the 16th century that Vatican II sought to reassess when it looked to encounter the world in the 1960s. And there he was again in the Galileo controversy. And finally, as scholar and thinker of the faith, I liked the thin volume he left behind, “The Art of Dying Well.” Some reading selections here. It also makes a nice segue from Michelangelo’s The Deluge now that Hurricane Sandy might be bearing down upon us all.


The Most Important Of All Sciences
Being now free from Public business and enabled to attend to myself, when in my usual retreat I consider, what is the reason why so very few endeavor to learn the “Art of dying well,” (which all men ought to know,) I can find no other cause than that mentioned by the Wise man: “The perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15) For what folly can be imagined greater than to neglect that Art, on which depend our highest and eternal interests; whilst on the other hand we learn with great labor, and practice with no less ardor, other almost innumerable arts, in order either to preserve or to increase perishable things?

Now every one will admit, that the “Art of dying Well” is the most important of all sciences; at least every one who seriously reflects, how after death we shall have to give an account to God of everything we did, spoke, or thought of, during our whole life, even of every idle word; and that the devil being our accuser, our conscience a witness, and God the Judge, a sentence of happiness or misery everlasting awaits us. We daily see, how when judgment is expected to be given, even on affairs of the slightest consequence, the interested party enjoy no rest, but consult at one time the lawyers, at another the solicitors, now the judges, and then their friends or relations.

But in death when a “Cause” is pending before the Supreme Judge, connected with life or death eternal, often is the sinner compelled, when unprepared, oppressed by disease, and scarcely possessed of reason, to give an account of those things on which when in health, he had perhaps never once reflected. This is the reason why miserable mortals rush in crowds to hell; and as St. Peter saith, “If the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1Peter 4:1)

I have therefore considered it would be useful to exhort myself, in the first place, and then my Brethren, highly to esteem the “Art of dying Well.” And if there be any who, as yet, have not acquired this Art from other learned teachers, I trust they will not despise, at least those Precepts which I have endeavored to collect, from Holy Writ and the Ancient Fathers.

But before I treat of these Precepts, I think it useful to inquire into the nature of death; whether it is to be ranked among good or among evil things. Now if death be considered absolutely in itself, without doubt it must be called an evil, because that which is opposed to life we must admit cannot be good.

By The Envy Of The Devil
Moreover, as the Wise man saith: “God made not death, but by the envy of the devil, death came into the world.” (Wisdom 11:13-24) With these words St. Paul also agrees, when he saith: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men in whom all have sinned.” Romans 5:12. If then God did not make death, certainly it cannot be good, because everything which God hath made is good, according to the words of Moses: “And God saw all things that he had made, and they were very good.”

But although death cannot be considered good in itself, yet the wisdom of God hath so seasoned it as it were, that from death many blessings arise. Hence David exclaims; “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints:” and the Church speaking of Christ saith: Who by His death hath destroyed our death, and by His resurrection hath regained life.” Now death that hath destroyed death and regained life, cannot but be very good: wherefore if every death cannot be called good, yet at least some may. Hence St. Ambrose did not hesitate to write a book entitled, “On the Advantages of Death;” in which treatise he clearly proves that death, although produced by sin, possesses its peculiar advantages.

An End To The Miseries Of This Life
There is also another reason which proves that death, although an evil in itself, can, by the grace of God, produce many blessings
. For, first, there is this great blessing, that death puts an end to the numerous miseries of this life. Job thus eloquently complains of the evils of this our present state: “Man born of a woman, living for a short time, is filled with many miseries. Who cometh forth like a flower and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow, and never continueth in the same state.” Job: 14:1

And Ecclesiastes saith: “I praised the dead rather than the living: and I judged him happier than them both, that is not yet born, nor hath seen the evils that are under the sun” (Ecclesiasticus 4: 2-3) likewise adds: “Great labor is created for all men, and a heavy yoke is upon the children of Adam, from the day of their coming out of their mother’s womb, until the day of their burial into the mother of all.” (Ecclesiasticus 40) The Apostle too complains of the miseries of this life: “Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Epistle to Romans 7: 24.)

The Grace Of Christ
From these testimonies, therefore, of Holy Writ it is quite evident, that death possesses an advantage, in freeing us from the miseries of this life. But it also hath a still more excellent advantage, because it may become the gate from a prison to a Kingdom. This was revealed by our Lord to St. John the Evangelist, when for his faith he had been exiled into, the isle of Patmos: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying to me: Write, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. From henceforth now, saith the spirit, that they may rest from their labors: for their works follow them.” (Apocalypse 14:13)

Truly “blessed” is the death of the saints, which by the command of the Heavenly King frees the soul from the prison of the flesh, and conducts her to a celestial Kingdom; where just souls sweetly rest after all their labors, and for the reward of their good works, receive a crown of glory. To the souls in purgatory also, death brings no slight benefit, for it delivers them from the fear of death, and makes them certain of possessing one day, eternal Happiness. Even to wicked men themselves, death seems to be of some advantage; for in freeing them from the body, it prevents the measure of their punishment from increasing.

On account of these excellent advantages, death to good men seems not horrible, but sweet; not terrible, but lovely. Hence St. Paul securely exclaims: “For to me, to live is Christ; and to die is gain having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ:” and his first Epistle to the Thessalonians, he saith: “We will not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, even as others who have not hope” (4:12.)

There lived some time ago a certain holy lady, named Catherine Adorna, of Genoa; she was so inflamed with the love of Christ, that with the most ardent desires she wished to be “dissolved,” and to depart to her Beloved: hence, seized as it were with a love for death, she often praised it as most beautiful and most lovely, blaming it only for this that it fled from those who desired it, and was found by those who fled from it.

From these considerations then we may conclude, that death, as produced by sin, is an evil; but that, by the grace of Christ who condescended to suffer death for us, it hath become in many ways salutary, lovely, and to be desired.


A Picture That God Can Unpaint — Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 29, 2012

The nine narrative paintings that span the vault of the Sistine Chapel climax in a catastrophic scene of universal destruction illustrating the events of The Deluge. Although it comes near the end of the sequence, it was the very first picture to be painted. The fresco is the largest of the three images in the cycle telling the story of Noah. Its theme is human sinfulness punished by the omnipotent Almighty, the moment when the vengeful and unpredictable God of the Old Testament saw

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
Genesis 6: 5-7

Noah alone is exempt, for God finds that he is `righteous’. He is told to build an ark from gopher wood, and to take on board all of his family. He must also give shelter to every species of animal, `to keep seed alive on all the face of the earth’, for God intends to send a great flood to cleanse the wicked world. As the waters rise, Noah and his family board the ark; `the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened … And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground:

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”

And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him. Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.

The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.

And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
(Genesis 7).

Michelangelo fleshed out this, starkly told tale, transforming it into a panorama of human misery. A disjointed crowd of refugees seek their last haven in a drowning world. The floods of divine vengeance, which despite a raging tempest are not storm-tossed but eerily still, stretch to the horizon, forming a blue-grey field of watery nothingness that will, inexorably, engulf and erase all. In places, especially on the right-hand side of the composition, this dull-colored void is so extensive that the artist might almost have left the fresco bare. This effect has been accidentally exaggerated by a patch of actual paint loss, caused by an explosion in the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo in 1797, which made a section of painted plaster fall to the ground. But a contrast between emptiness and fullness was, in any case, certainly part of Michelangelo’s intention. It is an apt pictorial metaphor for his subject — which is, itself, a great unmaking. A vigorous crowd of the damned is being encroached upon by an expanse so blank as to be virtually abstract. Seen through half-closed eyes The Deluge resembles a picture that has been partly whitewashed. The world is a picture that God can unpaint at any moment.

Michelangelo envisages a moment when the flood has risen so high that only two mountainous outcrops protrude above the waters. To these precarious points of refuge the last remnants of humanity cling, as if washed up by the tides like so much flotsam and jetsam. On the right-hand side of the picture, a group of lamenting figures takes shelter beneath a makeshift tent strung between two tree trunks. To the left, a tribe of antediluvian humanity winds its way up towards the cramped, plateau-like summit of a mountain.

Scale is hard to determine in this blasted, almost empty place, but the considerable height of these stunned unfortunates, measured against the single leafless tree that fails to offer them shelter, suggests they are beings of gargantuan stature. `There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bear children to them, the same became mighty men, which were of old …’ (Genesis 6: 4). Forming a procession of the damned, these doomed titans concentrate on carrying their possessions — pots and pans, articles of clothing and furniture — to safety.

Michelangelo rarely descends to such detail, being one of the least circumstantial artists of the Italian Renaissance. His principal instrument of self-expression is the nude, on which he plays innumerable variations, the corollary of which is that as an artist he shows little interest in the mundane details of day-to-day existence. For him, painting and sculpture, like poetry, were essentially means by which spiritual ideas might be expressed.

Francisco de Holanda, a Portuguese illuminator who made his acquaintance in Rome in the 1540s, recorded a conversation in which Michelangelo expressed a revealing level of disdain for the oil painters of the Flemish tradition. `They paint in Flanders,’ he said to de Holanda, `only to deceive the external eye, things that gladden you and of which you cannot speak ill. Their painting is of stuffs, bricks and mortar, the grass of the fields, the shadows of trees, and bridges and rivers, which they call landscapes, and little figures here and there. And all this, though it may appear good to some eyes, is in truth done without reason, without symmetry or proportion, without care in selecting or rejecting.‘ He added, dismissively, that such .an art was capable of pleasing only `young women, monks and nuns, or certain noble persons who have no ear for true harmony’.7

By Michelangelo’s own stern standards, The Deluge pays an unparalleled degree of attention to the minutiae of ordinary life. At the back of the group of hapless figures hurrying uphill away from the waters, the artist includes an impassive woman in a simple turban. She balances an upturned kitchen stool on her head, on which are poised a conical clay soup jar — inventories reveal that Michelangelo’s own kitchen contained a similar vessel — some loaves of unleavened bread, a stack of crockery, a knife and a spit for turning meat. Painted in muted tones of earth and off-white, this is the artist’s only recorded still-life. The woman carrying it is preceded, in the headlong rush to safety, by two male figures who are similarly laden.

The first, a youth whose long tresses of blond hair are blown sideways by the gale-force wind that courses through the whole scene, carries in his left hand a roll of salmon-pink cloth and a long-handled frying pan. The second bears a heavy bundle wrapped in a blanket, stooping under his load like Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. On the island to the right, the group of sheltering figures has managed to salvage a keg of wine. One slumped and almost comatose figure, supported by two others, has clearly drunk deeply from it, in an attempt to anaesthetize himself from the terror of imminent death. Another fearful young man, his body curled up in a fetus-like position, lies across that same, presumably emptied, keg. Staring out across the waters with a blank-eyed expression, he seems petrified by fear.

Michelangelo draws attention to these small details but does so in a way devoid of all compassion. The objects that these people have stored against their ruin are not intended to evoke pathos; they are items of incriminatory evidence. These men and women are doomed precisely because they have taken too much pleasure in the things of this world, while paying too little heed to the state of their souls. The objects depicted are themselves pointedly symbolic. One group has loaves of bread; the other has wine.

To Michelangelo’s audience, bread and wine would inevitably have evoked the Eucharist, the mystical body of Christ consumed by the faithful during communion. But the bread and wine in The Deluge are unsanctified remains of impious feasts, symbolizing the sins of an irredeemable multitude.

The painting contains numerous pointed inversions of this kind, parodies of the language of high and sacred art that serve to underline the cursed state of this antediluvian multitude. The naked young man curled against the wine keg resembles a Roman river god — in antique art, the gods of the rivers were conventionally depicted leaning on upturned, gushing water vessels. But instead of presiding over a life-giving flow of water, Michelangelo’s youth prepares to die a watery death. The reclining woman in the other group, to the far left of the composition, also resembles a Roman river deity. But she too is a symbol of death and aridity, rather than fertile life. Her breasts are empty and will bear no more milk, as the weeping infant at her shoulder makes clear.

This pattern of inversion is carried through to several other figures to the left of the painting, which seem calculated to evoke sacred associations, only for those associations to be simultaneously denied. A young man bearing his wife on his back recalls St Christopher carrying the Christ child across the waters. A young woman, who is haloed by a wind-blown arc of plum-colored drapery, and who holds her smiling and oblivious baby close to her, calls to mind innumerable images of the Madonna and Child.

A group truncated by the edge of the frame, to the extreme left, includes another woman with a baby, next to whom patiently stands a donkey — imagery that evokes the Holy Family’s rest on the flight to Egypt. But there is to be no rest for these people, no blessing, no salvation. Michelangelo takes a particular and even cruel relish in forcing the message home, by filling his work with such echoes of other, happier themes. He imparts a brutish, crude quality to these figures, that makes them seem both primitive and irredeemably earthbound. The standing mother is confirmed as an anti-Madonna by the set, sullen, stupid expression on her face. Not one of the doomed titans looks up, or makes time to pray.


Living A Life As Other — Derek Jeter

October 27, 2012

When loving the other as other becomes living a life fully in the gospel as other.


Complicating The Seen With The Unseen by John Wilmerding

October 26, 2012

Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. Detail, “Second Story Sunlight.”

Hopper is one of my favorite painters,  probably for the reason last mentioned in the following essay:  This summary work by Mr. Hopper epitomizes his ability to complicate the seen with the unseen.

Edward Hopper was a prominent American realist painter and printmaker. While he was most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolorist and printmaker in etching. By 1923, Hopper’s slow career climb had finally produced a breakthrough. He re-encountered his future wife Josephine Nivison, an artist and former student of Robert Henri, during a summer painting trip in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

They were opposites: she was short, open, gregarious, sociable, and liberal, while he was tall, secretive, shy, quiet, introspective, and conservative. They married a year later. She remarked famously, “Sometimes talking to Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” She subordinated her career to his and shared his reclusive life style. The rest of their lives revolved around their spare walk-up apartment in the city and their summers in South Truro on Cape Cod. She managed his career and his interviews, was his primary model, and was his life companion. I grew up in South Wellfleet, the town next to Truro and when I encountered Hopper in the 60s was instantly drawn to his work. I have three of his paintings (prints) in my bedroom.  


Edward Hopper (1882-1967) holds the reputation of being one of the great American realists of the 20th century. His painting career spans the first two thirds of that century, and includes numerous indelible images of rural and urban scenes, from the lighthouse series painted near Portland, Maine, in the 1920s to “Nighthawks” (1942) set in New York City. Often he depicted three of his favorite themes together: isolated human figures, landscape and architecture — usually defined by a bright but cold light. But while his scenes are grounded in observed reality, the most compelling pictures have an unsettled and even mysterious character. Often simplicity of design shields a complexity of emotions, and an impending narrative yields only to inexplicability.

Such is the case with one of his great later works, “Second Story Sunlight.” The title itself suggests doubled visual and verbal meanings: We are looking at the upper floors of two gabled houses, while on the balcony in the foreground sit two women of different generations, thus introducing a second personal story. Mr. Hopper’s descriptive impulses, economies of design and stagelike settings have not accidentally drawn the critical attention of novelists like Ann Beattie, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, the poets John Hollander and Mark Strand, and actor-writer Steve Martin.

Pairings are everywhere in this picture: Each figure sits framed by two windows behind; single matching windows are repeated above in each gable, and each window is divided into equal upper and lower rectangles. Even the yellow square window shade at the left balances its counterpart of sunlight on the wall within. And of course the severely drawn and illuminated architecture plays off against the amorphous green landscape of woods to the right, with the four second-floor windows in front contrasted with the four sunlit tree trunks, which also frame dark spaces behind. (At the same time Mr. Hopper always allows for irregularities, lest we overlook the lone side window and sliver of a third structure on the left side.)

Where are we? It’s not entirely clear. Certainly not within a town, such as Gloucester or Provincetown, nor in open rural landscape. With the summer sunlight, young bather and poses of leisure, we seem to be near the shore, probably somewhere on Cape Cod. Mr. Strand notes that the rising angle of trees would indicate a hillside, and indeed the soft rounded crests above almost read like hilly dunes on the Cape. The repeated row houses suggest a middle-class rather than spacious resort community. The style of the buildings is a simple country classical, with its plain wood cornices, corner pilasters and flat-planked balcony. In front no ground or road or further open space is evident.

And who are the women? Because they sit on the same balcony we presume they are related, as grandmother and granddaughter, though Mr. Updike speculated that the older woman was thinking about her younger self. The first is reading, most viewers initially assume, but appears rather to be looking up from her magazine or newspaper, interrupted by something or someone in the unseen distance off to the right. The girl is in a bathing suit the color of the ocean. She sits up straight with her chest thrust out as if to catch attention, and looks out to the same space beyond the picture’s frame.

Close as the two figures are physically within the balcony, the older is more confined by it, the younger on the edge of open space. Also, the darkened sidewall of the farther building creates a strong vertical panel visually separating them. Whatever they share, they are a contrast not only in age, but also of the cerebral and the physical.

Windows regularly play a crucial role in Mr. Hopper’s compositions, whether in indicating or hiding the human presence. Besides their geometries, here the shade levels appear to amplify the inner nature of the sitters. Behind the girl the shades are half or fully lowered, hinting at a closed-off or unformed private life, while the elder woman sits by a more open, sun-flooded interior. Revealing a glimpse of a sofa arm and hanging picture, the room within is spare and orderly, the taste of someone set in her ways. Both women are relaxing in their own manner; are they vacationing? There is no indication whether this is a permanent residence or a second home just for the season. We do not know what brings them together.

Then there is Mr. Hopper’s control of color and light. Of the latter he once famously, if disconcertingly, declared that he was only “interested in painting sunlight on buildings.” Light and shadow for him served both formal and emotional roles in a painting’s expression, clarifying as well as obscuring. In this instance the strong sun falls directly on the front facade of the buildings, anchoring our attention on the center of the composition. Blues of varying intensity frame this white geometry: the cloudless sky above, bluish tree trunks and blue shadowed sides of the houses and balcony. The yellow shades and red building details complete a design based on primary colors. Subordinate contrasts exist in the complementary juxtapositions of red-green and lavender-yellow.

Countering the sunshine that crosses the view from outside the right frame are the diagonals leading the eye from upper left to lower right: the large steps from building cornice to balcony railing to lower porch roof, reinforced by two bright red forms of chimney above left and roof below right. All this sets up a visual and even psychological dialogue between what is painted within the canvas and what or who may be imagined if we, too, were to look off to the right. This summary work by Mr. Hopper epitomizes his ability to complicate the seen with the unseen.


The Error in Liberal Protestantism – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

October 25, 2012

The Christian religion presents itself not as a creation superimposed on nature, but as an elevation, an assumption, a transfiguration, a grace that makes use of normal faculties, fortifies them without destroying them, rests on rational foundations, and perfects without suppressing. Moreover, if it is true that the mysteries of faith remain impenetrable to our intellectual insight, just as the life of grace as such remains unconscious, still mysteries and grace bring with them a light that shines in what we know and in our conscience.
Maurice Blondel

The Error in Liberal Protestantism
This grave misconception concerning our supernatural life, reducing it essentially to faith in Christ and excluding sanctifying grace, charity and meritorious works, was destined to lead gradually to Naturalism; it was to result finally in considering as “just” the man who, whatever his beliefs, valued and practiced those natural virtues which were known even to the pagan philosophers who lived before Christ.
[Footnote: J. Maritain explains very clearly how Naturalism arises necessarily from the principles of Protestantism: “According to the Lutheran theology, it is we ourselves, and only we ourselves, who lay hold of the mantle of Christ so that with it we may “cover all our shame.” It is we who exercise this “ability to jump from our own sin on to the justice of Christ, thus becoming as sure of possessing the holiness of Christ as we are of possessing our own bodies.”]

The Lutheran theory of justification by faith may be called a Pelagianism born of despair. In ultimate analysis it is man who is left to work out his own redemption by stimulating himself to a despairing confidence in Christ. Human nature has then only to cast aside, as a useless theological accessory, the mantle of a grace which means nothing to him, and to transfer its faith-confidence from Christ to itself — and there you have that admirable emancipated brute, whose unfailing and continuous progress is an object of wonder to the universe. In Luther and his doctrine we witness — on the spiritual and religious plane — the advent of the Ego.

“We say that it is so in fact; it is the inevitable outcome of Luther’s theology. But this does not prevent the same theology in theory from committing the contrary excess…And so Luther tells us that salvation and faith are to such an extent the work of God and of Christ that these alone are active in the business of our redemption, without any co-operation on our part. . . .

Luther’s theology was to oscillate between these two solutions: in theory it is the first, apparently, that must prevail: Christ alone, without our co-operation, is the author of our salvation. But since it is psychologically impossible to suppress human activity, the second has inevitably prevailed in fact. It is a matter of history that liberal Protestantism has issued in Naturalism.

In such an outlook, the question which is actually of the first importance does not even arise: Is man capable in his present state, without divine grace, of observing all the precepts of the natural law, including those that relate to God? Is he able without grace to love God the sovereign Good, the author of our nature, and to love Him, not with a merely inoperative affection, but with a truly efficacious love, more than he loves himself and more than he loves anything else?

The early Protestants would have answered in the negative, as Catholic theologians have always done.[ Cf. St. Thomas, I-IIae, Q. cfx, art 3] Liberal Protestantism, the offspring of Luther’s theology, does not even ask the question; because it does not admit the necessity of grace, the necessity of an infused supernatural life. Nevertheless, the question still recurs under a more general form: Is man able, without some help from on high, to get beyond himself, and truly and efficaciously to love Truth and Goodness more than he loves himself? Clearly, these problems are essentially connected with that of the nature of our interior life; for our interior life is nothing else than a knowledge of the True and a love of the Good; or better, a knowledge and love of God.

A Fundamental Truth Of The Christian Spiritual Life Is Sanctifying Grace
Nevertheless, we may here emphasize a fundamental truth of the Christian spiritual life, or of Christian mysticism, which has always been taught by the Catholic Church.

In the first place it is clear that according to the Scriptures the justification or conversion of the sinner does not merely cover his sins as with a mantle; it blots them out by the infusion of a new life. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy,” so the Psalmist implores; “and according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity, Wash me yet more from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; thou shalt wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow…Blot out all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me, O God; and renew a right spirit within my bowels, Cast me not away from thy face, and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.” [Psalms. 1, 3-14]

The Prophets use similar language. Thus God says, through the prophet Isaiah: “I am he that blot out thy iniquities for my own sake.” [Isaiah, 43:25] And the same expression recurs throughout the Bible: God is not content merely to cover our sins; He blots them out, He takes them away. And therefore, when John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him, he says: “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who taketh away the sin of the world!”

We find the same idea in St. John’s first Epistle:[1 John 1:7] “The blood of Jesus Christ…cleanseth us from all sin.” St. Paul writes, similarly, in his first Epistle to the Corinthians: “Not the effeminate nor the impure nor thieves nor Covetous nor drunkards nor railers nor extortioners shall possess the kingdom of God. And such some of you were. But you are washed; but you are sanctified; but you are justified; in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God.”[1 Corinthians 6:10

If it were true that by conversion sins were only veiled, and not blotted out, it would follow that a man is at once both just and ungodly, both justified, and yet still in the state of sin. God would love the sinner as His friend, despite the corruption of his soul, which He is apparently incapable of healing. The Savior would not have taken away the sins of the world if He had not delivered the just man from the servitude of sin. Again, for the Christian these truths are elementary; the profound understanding of them, the continual and quasi-experiment living of them is what we call the contemplation of the saints.

An Effective And Operative Love Produces Lovableness
The blotting out and remission of Sins thus described by the Scriptures can be effected only by the infusion of sanctifying grace and charity -- which is the supernatural love of God and of men for God’s sake.
Ezekiel, speaking in the name of God, tells us that this is so: “I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness; and I will cleanse you from all your idols, And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; and Iwill take away the stony heart out of your flesh and will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit in the midst of you; and Iwill cause you to walk in my commandments.”[ Ezekiel  36:25]

This pure water which regenerates is the water of grace, of which it is said in the Gospel of St. John [John 1:16] “Of his fullness we have all received; and grace for grace.” “By (our Lord Jesus Christ) we have received grace,” we read in the Epistle to the Romans[Romans 1:5]:, “the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost who is given to us” [Romans 5:5] and in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “To every one of us is given grace, according to the measure of the giving of Christ.”[Ephesians 4:7]

If it were otherwise, God’s uncreated love for the man whom He converts would be merely an idle affection, and not an effective and operative love. But God’s uncreated love for us, as St. Thomas shows, is a love which, far from presupposing in us any lovableness, actually produces that lovableness within us. His creative love gives and preserves in us our nature and our existence; but his life-giving love gives and preserves in us the life of grace which makes us lovable in His eyes, and lovable not merely as His servants but as His sons. (I, Q, xx, art, 2),

Sanctifying grace, the principle of our interior life, makes us truly the children of God because it makes us partakers of His nature. We cannot be sons of God by nature, as the Word is; but we are truly sons of God by grace and by adoption. And whereas a man who adopts a child brings about no interior change in him, but simply declares him his heir, God, when He loves us as adoptive sons, transforms us inwardly, giving us a share in His own intimate divine life.

The Nature Of Sanctifying Grace
Hence we read in the Gospel of St. John: “(The Word) came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name. Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”[John1 11-13] And our Lord Himself said to Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of Water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Wonder not that I said to thee: You must be born again”[John 3:5]

St. John himself, moreover, writes in his first Epistle [John 3:9]: “Whosoever is born of God committeth not sin; for God’s seed abideth in him. And he cannot sin because he is born of God.” In other words, the seed of God, which is grace — accompanied by charity, or the love of God — cannot exist together with mortal sin which turns a man away from God; and, though it can exist together with venial sin, of which St. John had spoken earlier[John 1:8]yet grace is not the source of venial sins; on the contrary, it makes them gradually disappear.

Still clearer, if possible, is the language of St. Peter, who writes: “By (Christ) he hath given us most great and precious promises, that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature,”[2 Peter 1:4]  and St. James thus expresses the same idea: “Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration. For of his own will hath he begotten us by the word of truth, that we might be some beginning of his creature.” [2 Peter 1:17]

Truly sanctifying grace is a real and formal participation of the divine nature, for it is the principle of operations which are specifically divine.

When in heaven it has reached its full development, and can no longer be lost, it will be the source of operations which will have absolutely the same formal object as the eternal and uncreated operations of God’s own inner life; it will make us able to see Him immediately as He sees Himself, and to love Him as He loves Himself: “Dearly beloved,” says St. John, [1 John 3:2] “we are now the Sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when it shall appear we shall be like to him, for we shall see him as he is.”


The Importance Of The Interior Life And The Unum Necessarium – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

October 24, 2012

Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (February 21, 1877, Auch, France – February 15, 1964, Rome) was a Catholic theologian and, among Thomists of the scholastic tradition, is generally thought to be the greatest Catholic Thomist of the 20th century. Outside the ranks of Thomists of that sort, his reputation is somewhat more mixed. He taught at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, commonly known as the Angelicum, in Rome from 1909 to 1960.

By 1917 a special professorship in ascetical and mystical theology was created for him at the Angelicum, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. His great achievement was to synthesise the highly abstract writings of St Thomas Aquinas with the experiential writings of St John of the Cross, showing how they are in perfect harmony with each other.

Father Garrigou-Lagrange, the leading proponent of “strict observance Thomism,” initially attracted attention when he wrote against the Modernist Nouvelle Théologie theological movement. He is also said to be the drafter or “ghostwriter” of Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, subtitled “Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine.”

He is best known for his spiritual theology. His magnum opus in the field is The Three Ages of the Interior Life, in which he propounded the thesis that infused contemplation and the resulting mystical life are in the normal way of holiness of Christian perfection. This influenced the section entitled “Chapter V: The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church” in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium

He taught many eminent Catholic theologians during his academic career, the most illustrious being the future Pope John Paul II, whose encyclical Fides et Ratio is the mature fruit of his training under the learned Dominican. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange is also known to have introduced Thomism to fellow theologian and priest Yves Congar, an expert on historical theology.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The following are some reading selections from Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s classic The Three Ages of the Interior Life. Yes, you should buy a copy and become a monk.  Maybe get a blog and become like me, a living icon of Derek Jeter.


The Importance Of The Interior Life
The interior life is for all the one thing necessary
. It ought to be constantly developing in our souls; more so than what we call our intellectual life, more so than our scientific, artistic or literary life. The interior life is lived in the depths of the soul; it is the life of the whole man, not merely of one or other of his faculties.

And our intellectual life would gain immeasurably by appreciating this; it would receive an inestimable advantage if, instead of attempting to supplant the spiritual life, it recognized its necessity and importance, and welcomed its beneficial influence — the influence of the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

How deeply important our subject is may be seen in the very words we have used: Intellectuality and Spirituality. And it is important to us not only as individuals, but also in our social relations; for it is evident that we can exert no real or profound influence upon our fellow-men unless we live a truly interior life ourselves.

Material Vs Spiritual Goods
The pressing need of devoting ourselves to the consideration of the one thing necessary is especially manifest in these days of general chaos and unrest, when so many men and nations, neglecting their true destiny, give themselves up entirely to acquiring earthly possessions, failing to realize how inferior these are to the everlasting riches of the spirit.

And yet St. Augustine’s saying is so clearly true, that “material goods, unlike those of the spirit, cannot belong wholly and simultaneously to more than one person.”[ St. Thomas often quotes this Augustinian thought: cf. I-IIae, Q, Xxviii, art, 4, ad ~ III, Q. xxiii, art, i, ad 3] The same house, the same land, cannot belong completely to several people at once, nor the same territory to several nations, And herein lies the reason of that unhappy conflict of interests which arises from the feverish quest of these earthly possessions.

On the other hand, as St. Augustine often reminds us, the same spiritual treasure can belong in its entirety to all men, and at the same time to each, without any disturbance of peace between them, Indeed, the more there are to enjoy them in common the more completely do we possess them. The same truth, the same virtue, the same God, can belong to us all in like manner, and yet none of us embarrasses his fellow-possessors. Such are the inexhaustible riches of the spirit that they can be the property of all and yet satisfy the desires of each. Indeed, only then do we possess a truth completely when we teach it to others, when we make others share our contemplation; only then do we truly love a virtue when we wish others to love it also; only then do we wholly love God, when we desire to make Him loved by all. Give money away, or spend it, and it is no longer yours. But give God to others, and you possess Him more fully for yourself. We may go even further and say that, if we desired only one soul to be deprived of Him, if we excluded only one soul — even the soul of one who persecutes and calumniates us — from our own love, then God Himself would be lost to us.

An Illuminating Principle About Spiritual Goods
This truth, so simple and yet so sublime, gives rise to an illuminating principle; it is that whereas material goods, the more they are sought for their own sake, tend to cause disunion among men, spiritual goods unite men more closely in proportion as they are more greatly loved. This principle helps us to appreciate how necessary is the interior life; and, incidentally, it virtually contains the solution of the social question and of the economic crisis which afflicts the world to-day. The Gospel puts it very simply: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” If the world to-day is on its death-bed, it is because it has lost sight of a fundamental truth which for every Christian is elementary.

The profoundest truths of all, and the most vital, are in fact those elementary verities which, through long meditation and deep thought, have become the norm of our laws; those truths, in other words, which are the object of our habitual contemplation

The Unum Necessarium And The Modern Unemployment Crisis
God is now showing men what a great mistake they make when they try to do without Him, when they regard earthly enjoyment as their highest good, and thus reverse, the whole scale of values, or, as the ancient philosophers put it, the subordination of ends.
As though in the hope of compensating for the poor quality of earthly goods, men are striving to increase their quantity; they are trying to produce as much as possible in the order of material enjoyment. They are constructing machinery with the object of increasing production at a greater profit. This is the ultimate objective.

But what is the consequence? The surplus cannot be disposed of; it is wasted, and unemployment is the result. The worker starves in enforced idleness while others die of surfeit, The present state of the world is called a crisis. But in fact it is more than a crisis; it is a condition of affairs which, if men only had eyes to see, ought to be revealing; it ought to show men that they have sought their last end where it is not to be found, in earthly enjoyment — instead of God. They are seeking happiness in an abundance of material possessions which are incapable of giving it; possessions which sow discord among those that seek them, and a greater discord according as they are sought with greater avidity.

Do what you will with these material goods: share them out equally, make them the common property of all. It will be no remedy for the evil; for, so long as earthly possessions retain their nature and man retains the nature which is his, he will never find his happiness in them. The remedy is this, and this only: to consider the one thing necessary, and to ask God to give us saints who live only on this thought, saints who will give the world the spirit that it needs. God has always sent us saints in troubled times. We need them especially to-day.

A Radical Corruption Of The Notion Of The Interior Life
The notion of the interior life is radically corrupted in the Lutheran theory of justification or conversion. According to this theory the mortal sins of the convert are not positively blotted out by the infusion of the new life of grace and charity; they are simply covered over, veiled by faith in the Redeemer, and they cease to be imputed to the person who has committed them. There is no intrinsic justification, no interior renewal of the soul; a man is reputed just merely by the extrinsic imputation of the justice of Christ.

According to this view, in order to be just in the eyes of God it is not necessary to possess that infused charity by which we love God supernaturally and our fellow-men for God’s sake. Actually, according to this conception, however firmly the just man may believe in Christ the Redeemer, he remains in his sin, in his corruption or spiritual death. [Footnote: Luther went so far as to say “ Pecca fortiter et crede firznius, “Sin mightily and believe more mightily still; you will be saved.” Not that Luther intended thereby to exhort men to sin; it was merely an emphatic way of saying that good works are useless for salvation -- that faith in Christ alone suffices. He says, truly enough  that “if you believe, good works will follow necessarily from your faith.”]

But, as Maritain justly observes, in his thought these good works follow from salutary faith as a sort of epiphenomenon,” Moreover, the charity which will follow this faith is the love of our neighbor rather than the love of God. And thus the notion of charity is degraded, emptied gradually of its supernatural and God-ward content and made equivalent to works of mercy. In any case, it remains true that for Luther a man is justified simply by faith in Christ, even though the sin is not blotted out by the infusion of charity, or the supernatural love of God.


Signs & Wonders — Todd Buras

October 23, 2012

Thomas Reid believed that common sense (in a special philosophical sense of sensus communis) is, or at least should be, at the foundation of all philosophical inquiry. He disagreed with Hume, who asserted that we can never know what an external world consists of as our knowledge is limited to the ideas in the mind, and George Berkeley, who asserted that the external world is merely ideas in the mind. By contrast, Reid claimed that the foundations upon which our sensus communis are built justify our belief that there is an external world. In his day and for some years into the 19th century, he was regarded as more important than David Hume. He advocated direct realism, or common sense realism, and argued strongly against the Theory of Ideas advocated by John Locke, René Descartes, and (in varying forms) nearly all Early Modern philosophers who came after them. He had a great admiration for Hume and had a mutual friend send Hume an early manuscript of Reid’s Inquiry. Hume responded that the “deeply philosophical” work “is wrote in a lively and entertaining matter,” but that “there seems to be some defect in method,” and criticized Reid for implying the presence of innate ideas.

Todd Burasis associate professor of philosophy at Baylor University. He reviewed C. Stephen Evans’ Natural Signs and Knowledge of God A New Look at Theistic Arguments  in a recent issue of Books and Culture. It hasn’t been released yet but you can sign up for a copy when it is released.  (like I have).


Imagine an utterly irrepressible smile stretching across a child’s face. Almost anyone seeing such an expression believes the child is experiencing some sort of delight. But why do we believe this? Reasoning from premises about bodily demeanor to conclusions about mental states is fraught with difficulty — famously so. Even the most promising arguments are halting gestures at our effortless movement in thought. From a very early age, we just find ourselves possessed of a conviction about the state of mind behind beaming faces — a conviction that neither claims the aid of arguments nor fears their failure. This tendency to form beliefs about the mental states of others on the basis of facial expressions is, of course, resistible and responsive to cultural influences. But a tendency is there to be shaped or resisted, and to blaze the trail our painstaking arguments attempt to follow.

For some time now philosophers have been interested in exploring the idea that belief in God is based on similar tendencies. But why think so? How should we understand the proposal? What implications does the idea have for the traditional arguments of natural theology? Does the proposal support or undermine the claim that belief in God is based on evidence, perhaps even good evidence? Is the proposal supported or undermined by the emerging scientific accounts of the origin of religious belief? In Natural Signs and Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments, C.Stephen Evans offers excellent answers to these excellent questions.

Evans’ book is a characteristic combination of careful attention to neglected historical ideas and insightful analysis of a broad range of contemporary issues. This slim volume rewards readers with a theory of natural signs, a state-of-the-art assessment of three traditional arguments for the existence of God, and a fresh approach to the issue of natural knowledge of God. Readers will also be left with some large, partly interdisciplinary questions. That’s only fitting: the questions that emerge mark the fecundity, not the failure, of the approach.

Evans’ reasoning unfolds from a simple question, often rushed past in discussions of natural theology. If the God of classical theism exists, what should we expect in the way of grounds for belief in God? Evans answers in a Pascalian vein: in light of God’s love for creatures, we should expect belief in God to be grounded in a way that balances two competing considerations. Knowledge of God’s reality is ultimately necessary for the development of loving divine-human relationships.

So it would be contrary to God’s loving purposes for existence to be exceptionally difficult to acheive, say, that belief in God is accessible only to those with advanced degrees in cosmology or philosophy. At the same time, loving relationships must ultimately be freely embraced. So it would be similarly contrary to God’s purposes if the existence of God were coercively – so obvious that those who are uninterested in, or resistant to, relationship with God are forced by reason to live in light of the reality of God. Evans thus expects the grounds for belief in God to be, in his words, widely accessible yet easily resistible.

Beliefs based on some sort of natural proclivity fill the Pascalian bill nicely. In the case of the smiling child, normal adults find belief in the child’s inner state hard to suppress. Consequently, the belief is very widespread. Yet the belief is not fully determinate, nor are its grounds fully compelling. Rational people, subject to influences, interpret the content of the belief in a variety of competing ways. Some manage to suspend belief in the mental life of others altogether. The fit between the Pascalian constraints and the appeal to natural tendencies is, very briefly, the motivation for Evans’ approach, which he elaborates under the tutelage of a very different thinker, Thomas Reid.

The lesson Evans takes from Reid has been a long time coming. Reid himself never applied his most original ideas to belief in God, opting instead (as best we can tell) for a traditional evidentialist approach to natural theology.

In our own day, those who have applied Reidian ideas to belief in God draw less from his theory of natural signs than from his (early externalist) account of knowledge. Oddly enough those who come closest to anticipating the Reidian ideas that interest Evans are not Reid’s allies but his great competitors, Hume and Kant. We will return to the irony here shortly, as Evans uses it to great effect.

Reid famously argued that certain beliefs — like the case of the smiling child and, more important for his purposes, the existence of the external world — are grounded in the operation of natural signs. To get quickly to the heart of Reid’s sign theory, think of natural signs as the mental parallel of bodily reflexes. Certain bodily stimuli are regularly connected with instantaneous and involuntary bodily motions — as in the case of sneezing, blinking, startling, and the like.

These responses are not explicable in terms of other known principles of bodily change; they are not the result of conscious decisions, for example, or of the autonomic processes governing the motion of our internal organs. Thus we posit original principles of our nature — i.e., reflexes — to account for these patterns of change. Attributing these patterns to nature, however, is not incompatible with recognizing the influence of other factors. Thanks to the startle reflex, the rapid encroachment of a projectile triggers a burst of protective motion.

But the precise manner and extent of the motion is partly the result of conditioning. Failure to respond appropriately to such stimuli can lead to very vigorous evasive maneuvers indeed! A pattern of successful responses, on the other hand, produces more athletically adept movements (e.g., catching the projectile). Some reflexes, like the reflex to withdraw from painful stimuli, may even be completely suppressed by such influences.

Reid sees the situation with respect to certain movements in thought as perfectly similar. Some thoughts have what Reid calls the power of suggestion, a technical term designating the ability of a thought about one thing (the sign) to bring immediately to mind a thought about another thing (the signified). The words you are reading are signs in this sense. Perceiving these words brings immediately to mind thoughts about Reid’s theory.

But these words are not natural signs. The connection between these words and the things they bring to mind is easily explained in terms of known principles of association. (Reid attributes the suggestive power of words to implicit human compact.) Where the power of suggestion is not explicable in terms of known principles for establishing connections between ideas, Reid sensibly attributes the power to original principles of our constitution.

Original principles of our constitution determine that one thought triggers another, but in at least some cases (Reid calls them acquired perceptions) the precise content of the second thought is variable and subject to the influence of other factors (e.g., prior reasoning and experience). Thanks to the operation of such open-textured principles, we see smoke and immediately think of fire; we hear a sound and immediately perceive the direction from which it comes; and a sommelier tastes a wine and immediately perceives its vintage. In some cases the response to natural signs is even completely suppressible. All bets are off, Reid thinks, about the direction of a sound heard in an echo chamber.

Arguments that retrace the connections established by natural signs inevitably fail, at least as strict proofs. It is precisely because the connection between the sign and thing signified is not fully explicable in terms of other known principles governing movements of thought that we invoke natural principles in the first place. But, equally predictably, the failure of such arguments does little to erode belief, and even the harshest critics of the arguments acknowledge the naturalness of belief. We are typically undeterred by the lack of decisive arguments for the external world or for the child’s delight, for example, and the critics of such arguments themselves happily succumb to the power of the sign when they leave the philosophical parlor.

The idea that there are natural signs for the existence of God thus not only coheres with what we should expect if there is a God, it provides the basis of the new look at theistic arguments promised byEvans’ subtitle. If theistic arguments attempt to capture movements of thought grounded in natural signs, we should expect them to fail as strict proofs — arguments that should convince any rational person. Yet we should also expect these arguments to express a very natural and compelling basis of belief.

The central chapters of Evans’ book argue that this is exactly what we find in the case of three traditional theistic arguments — cosmological, teleological, and moral. We find experiences of cosmic wonder, beneficial order, moral obligation, and human dignity motivating belief with a force that arguments fail to capture.

It is with respect to this last point that Evans calls on the testimony of Hume and Kant to such great effect. Hume and Kant are among the most withering critics of natural theology in the history of philosophy. Yet each in turn recognizes a powerful natural tendency to believe in God on the basis of the beneficial order experienced in nature, and each concedes the naturalness of theistic belief on the basis of this tendency.

Evans’ treatment of the theistic arguments may seem to be making the best of a bad situation in natural theology. Some will surely protest that the traditional theistic arguments are more successful than Evans’ analysis suggests. Others will claim that the arguments are much worse off than he allows; not only do they fail strictly speaking, they have no appeal that survives critical scrutiny. If Evans is right, of course, the situation is not really bad to begin with, but is instead in the ballpark of what we should expect if there is a God. These issues deserve more attention than they can receive in this short review. But a final assessment of Evans’ approach is likely to turn on other issues that cannot be adequately treated even within the confines of a large book.

At the end of the day, Evans offers a story about the grounds of belief in God where “grounds” has strongly psychological connotations concerning the mechanism by which belief in God is produced. Such proposals — like Reid’s origin of belief in the child’s delight – face two large questions, both of which Evan broaches by way of conclusion.

The first question for his approach is philosophical. How does such an account of the grounds for belief in God bear on the epistemic merits of theistic belief, and specifically on the merits required for knowledge? Surprisingly, the answer depends entirely upon one’s account of the nature of various epistemic merits, and of the kind and degree of such merits required for knowledge.

Evans can hardly be faulted for failing to settle the central question of epistemology in this book. He wisely tries, instead, to show that the epistemic merits of beliefs based on natural signs can be articulated in a variety of epistemological frameworks. The most promising of frameworks all have a place for knowledge that is well-grounded but not acquired by inference. In this way Evans shows that a case can be made for the reasonableness of belief in God on the basis of natural signs regardless of the way one resolves questions in epistemology.

The second crucial question for Evans’ approach is empirical. Is his hypothesis about the triggers of belief in God borne out by research in psychology a cognitive science? The sheer prevalence of some form of theistic belief in human communities offers some evidence that belief in God is grounded in natural mechanism of some kind or another.

But Evans rightly notes that it would take more, research, and indeed fairly sophisticated research, to determine whether the experiences he describes are among the natural mechanisms at work. The rarity of philosophy that relates so directly to research makes that last sentence particularly noteworthy. Given the ascendancy of debunking naturalistic accounts of the origin of theistic belief in the human sciences, the empirical questions Evans’ approach raises are not only noteworthy, they are urgent. Natural Signs And Knowledge Of God has much to offer philosophers and theologians, but the most significant contribution of Evans’ book may well be to motivate and otherwise support broadly theistic research programs in the human sciences.


Dickens At 200 by M. D. Aeschliman

October 22, 2012

Hi, Chuck. It’s Derek. We are all reading and rereading your novels, your journalism, and, every year, your story A Christmas Carol, with its message that a decent society depends on the rich learning to be generous and the poor being saved from ignorance and want. Thank you so much.

Mr Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. He has just published a new edition of A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Critical Editions).


DICKENS was born in 1812, and there are celebrations and commemorative activities taking place in this bicentennial year all over the English-speaking world and beyond it. Along with the works of Shakespeare, his fictions now define what English-speaking people have come to mean by “classic” literary art,. and although his critical reception has been variable over the 140 years since his death — it stands supremely high now — his popularity has never waned: The dozen great novels have never been out of print.

In the lowest period of critical opinion of Dickens, G K. Chesterton wrote a great 1906 book on him and followed it with introductions to each of the novels in the Everyman edition. Chesterton saw something radically Christian and radically democratic in Dickens, in this regard unwittingly supporting Dostoevsky’s earlier view of him. In a 1965 reprint of Chesterton’s book on Dickens, the American literary critic Steven Marcus asserted that Chesterton was right to trace Dickens’s profound “feeling for” and sympathy with “common humanity … not only to the French Revolution and the radical humanitarianism of Dickens’s time, but to Dickens’s Christianity, his literal, his primitive Christianity. Dostoevsky, who called Dickens his master, also called him `the great Christian’ [and he] knew whereof he spoke.”

This is evident in Dostoevsky’s well-known January 1868 letter to his niece about Dickens, whom he had first read in Russian translation in prison in Siberia in the early 1850s. But we also now know that Dostoevsky and Dickens actually met and conversed in London in 1862 and that they discussed the internal duality of the human person — that perennial inner moral conflict — the frequent, eloquent, often unforgettable depiction of which makes both of them among the very greatest moralists and imaginative writers who ever lived.

Like their great novelist-contemporaries Tolstoy and Alessandro Manzoni, Dickens and Dostoevsky were initial inspired by the liberal reform ideals identified with the American and French revolutions: all men being “created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights” and desires for “liberty, equality and fraternity.” But all of them knew that the French Revolution went badly, Burke had predicted as early as 1790: that it passed through anarchic, sanguine violence and ended in the wolfish military despotism of Napoleon.

Simon Schama’s celebrated bicentennial volume on the French Revolution, Citizens (1989), asserted that violence was the very essence of the French Revolution affirming much of Carlyle’s view in his 1837 history The French Revolution which had such a massive influence on Dickens and especially on his Tale of Two Cities (1859). The conservative French Catholic émigré and critic of the Revolution Joseph de Maistre exercised important influence on Tolstoy and the characterizations in War and Peace.

The repeated disappointment of revolutionary and utopian hopes and outbursts in France in the 19th century led to a wild oscillation between secular messianism and brutal Realpolitik-based cynicism. That cynicism, in turn, produced a literature of sinister “realism,” absurdist irony and aestheticism in Stendhal, Flaubert, Balzac, Maupassant, and many others, and went on to stain and disfigure much subsequent literature, not only in France

Dickens dealt with social and political issues in a uniquely sensitive way. I depicted and critiqued the cynical selfishness in the upper classes in England, well as the outraged reaction to it of the “anti-popery” English mobs of the Gordon Riots in London in 1780 (Barnaby Rudge) and the anger of the Parisans-culotte mobs of Paris a decade later (A Tale of Two Cities). Like Dostoevsky, he had a prophetic insight into the human dynamics.

The tormented Rousseau’s explosive, revolutionary critique the competitive, invidious social egotism, or “amour propre,” that he thought characterized most aristocrats, bourgeois and intellectuals (“philosophes”) in pre revolutionary France was probably known to Dickens, but he apprehended it imaginatively in ways that have proved to be unforgettably vivid and profound, not only in A Tale of Two Cities but also in the genteel, satanic figure of the Frenchman Blandois in Little Dorrit.

It is a mark of Dickens’s supreme, almost angelic disinterestedness and fairness that he also depicts it in English characters such as Sir John Chester in Barnaby Rudge. As Lionel Trilling pointed out, in one of the greatest essays on Dickens, figures such as Chester and Blandois are exemplifications of the line in King Lear that “the prince of darkness is” often “a gentleman.” Trilling goes on to argue that the heartlessly clever cosmopolitanism of these figures is “rationalistic and subversive of the very assumption of society.” Dostoevsky and Dickens felt and depicted this invidious, egotistical social snobbery, and its terrible effects, with hallucinatory clarity and force.

Both writers imaginatively apprehended the fact that the ascendant utilitarian accounts of ethics were profoundly wrong, despite being articulated by the most influential intellectuals of their time — the philosophes and Jacobins in France, Bentham and the Mills in England, Chernyshevsky in Russia. As orthodox moralists from Bishop Butler, Burke, Tocqueville, and Newman to Reinhold Niebuhr have cogently argued, no ethical or political theory affirming the primacy of self-interest can provide a basis for ethics; and Dickens and Dostoevsky mocked and assaulted such utilitarian conceptions in their fictions.

In his superb The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), Chesterton asserted that the great secular, progressive “utilitarian citadel” was “heavily bombarded by one lonely and unlettered man of genius”: Dickens, who knew that the “fundamental sense of human fraternity can only exist in the presence of positive religion.” The final triumph of Polish Catholicism over Communist utilitarianism at the end of the 20th century, the first domino in the destruction of European Communism, may be said to illustrate the point.

Fagin in Oliver Twist, Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, and Gradgrind in Hard Times are particularly explicit and effective satires on “looking out for number one” as a basis for society, ethics, education, or even self-respect. Lester G. Crocker showed in detail 50 years ago in Nature and Culture: Ethical Thought in the French Enlightenment that scientistic French naturalism led logically and inevitably to the “nihilist dissolution” of ethics that has intermittently tormented and distorted Western societies since the 18th century, a point also made apologetically by the reformed cynic Aldous Huxley in 1938 in Ends and Means.

In 1972, Lionel Trilling noted the disfiguring “scientistic conception of the mind that prevailed among intellectuals at the time of the French Revolution.” Dickens’s moral imagination intuitively apprehended and powerfully depicted these truths in fictional forms that remain triumphs of psychological, social, and ethical insight, narrative energy, and literary excellence, astonishing feats of human perception by that “unlettered man of genius.”

To read Dickens is, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “to grow in mental health,” because he has capacities of moral imagination that characterize only the greatest of artists in any medium: to “hold up the mirror to nature”; to “instruct by delighting”; to “paint virtue,” making us love the good and hate the bad, rejuvenating our sense of justice and moral beauty; to make us, in the phrase from King Lear, “see feelingly” the value, sufferings, and pathos of the lives of others; “to assert Eternal Providence /And justify the ways of God to men”; to refresh hope and commend moral earnestness.

After Dickens’s death, this “moral earnestness,” so characteristic of him and other great Victorian writers such as Carlyle, Hawthorne, Newman, Tennyson, Melville, Longfellow, and Ruskin, came to be mocked by aesthetes, atheists, and cynics such as Oscar Wilde (“The Importance of Being Earnest,” 1895) and his Bloomsbury successors such as Lytton Strachey, who cleverly attacked such earnest Victorians as the nurse Florence Nightingale, the Christian educator Thomas Arnold, and the Catholic convert Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, quite effectively distorting and wounding the reputations of these noble individuals.

Of Strachey’s portrayal of Queen Victoria (1921) and other eminent Victorians (in the 1918 book of that title), Paul Johnson wrote 20 years ago: Strachey was “far more destructive to the old British values than any legion of enemies.” But no society — no decent individual — can live long or well without moral sincerity as an ideal. It is an ideal that suffuses Dickens’s life and fiction, though with humor and without self-righteousness.

F. R. Leavis claimed that Dickens was “a great poet,” arguing that in his “command of word, phrase, rhythm, and image,” his “endless resource in felicitously varied expression,” and his “ease and range,” there is “surely no greater master in English except Shakespeare.” And T. S. Eliot said of Dickens’s characters that they had “greater intensity than human beings” and a “kind of reality which is almost supernatural, which hardly seems to belong to the character by natural right, but seems rather to descend upon him by a kind of inspiration or grace.” His “figures belong to poetry, like figures of Dante or Shakespeare, in that a single phrase, either by them or about them, may be enough to set them wholly before us.”

But we may leave a last word on Dickens, mysterious but pregnant with good tidings, to that ambiguous and acerbic figure George Santayana: Dickens is “one of the best friends mankind has ever had.”


Psalm 91 (92): Praise of God, the Creator

October 20, 2012

It is good to make music to your name, O Most High,
to proclaim your love in the morning.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to make music to your name, O Most High,
to proclaim your love in the morning
and your truth in the watches of the night,
on the ten-stringed lyre and the lute,
with the murmuring sound of the harp.

Your deeds, O Lord, have made me glad;
for the work of your hands I shout with joy.
O Lord, how great are your works!
How deep are your designs!
The foolish man cannot know this
and the fool cannot understand.

Though the wicked spring up like grass
and all who do evil thrive,
they are doomed to be eternally destroyed.
But you, Lord, are eternally on high.
See how your enemies perish;
all doers of evil are scattered.

To me you give the wild ox’s strength;
you anoint me with the purest oil.
My eyes looked in triumph on my foes;
my ears heard gladly of their fall.
The just will flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a Lebanon cedar.

Planted in the house of the Lord
they will flourish in the courts of our God,
still bearing fruit when they are old,
still full of sap, still green,
to proclaim that the Lord is just.
In him, my rock, there is no wrong.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.


It is good to make music to your name, O Most High,
to proclaim your love in the morning.


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