Archive for the 'Books' Category

Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

August 20, 2014

I Am Charlotte Simmons
Tom Wolfe
(Harper, 2004)
738 p.

A satire about modern university life has, among the many targets that leap into view, three that are nearly irresistible. There is, first, the prevailing political correctness. A related second target is the quality of intellectual life in our halls of learning, which consistently — and, one sometimes suspects, deliberately — fails to turn out students who are educated, in the sense of being well instructed in the great intellectual tradition of the West. Third, there is the delinquent social life of undergraduates.

In his novel about freshman life at a premier American university, Tom Wolfe has touched on all three of these themes, but his focus falls very much on the last: the drunken debaucheries and sordid spectacles that pass for social functions, the predatory and exploitative sexuality that passes for dating, the inarticulate vagary that you know passes for like intellectual life, and the corrosive effect of all this on the hearts and minds of the students.

Charlotte Simmons has been raised in a small mountain town in North Carolina, but earns a full scholarship to the (fictional) Ivy League university of Dupont. She is extremely intelligent, academically far superior to anyone she has ever known, and she looks forward with anticipation to starting university, eager to live the life of the mind to its fullest. But Dupont is not what she expects. To be sure, she takes classes, and has a few moments of joy in intellectual discovery, but mostly she is appalled. Her fellow students are, if anything, more surly, debased, and vulgar than those she left at home. For a while she maintains her balance and her focus; “I Am Charlotte Simmons!” she says to herself. She is destined for greater things.

But before long a crushing loneliness together with a complete lack of privacy in the student dorm (even the bathrooms are co-ed at Dupont) conspire to break Charlotte’s spirit. It’s hard enough not having friends; it’s worse to be rejected and excluded as a killjoy or a naif. Urged on by friends (whom she meets while ‘sexiled’ from her room at the insistence of her skanky roommate), Charlotte ventures out to some parties, and begins to attract the attentions of a number of men. From there the details of the story become more complex, but the general shape of the story does not: it is the beginning of a long, slow spiral of decline for Charlotte.

Why is it, I have often wondered, that those whose lives are most debauched and corrupt also show the greatest confidence in the conduct of that life? They are the most shameful and the least shamed. This happens at Dupont, and Charlotte, to her peril, falls for it.

There are a few central male figures in the story. Each of them has an interest in Charlotte, and that interest enters into their personal struggles to grow up as men. There is Hoyt, the ultra-cool frat boy who has his pick of campus women, and sees Charlotte’s innocence and reticence merely as a special challenge. Then there is Adam, a nerdy, slightly pretentious intellectual, who nevertheless has a genuine passion for learning and a good heart, and who proves, in a time of crisis, to be the only real friend that Charlotte has. And there is ‘JoJo’, a campus basketball star (Wolfe has a lot of fun skewering the phenomenon of the ‘student-athlete’) whose friendship with Charlotte does him great good. All of them see in Charlotte something extraordinary, and respond to it in different ways. Hoyt sees her as prey, something to despoil; Adam sees beauty and intelligence, and falls in love, but is too unsure of himself to be successful; JoJo is simply, confusedly, dazzled, encountering in her something intangible that he has not known before, but which he is unable to bring into focus. The ways in which these relationships unfold and interconnect are central elements of the story.

Wolfe’s writing is, on first acquaintance, decidedly mediocre. He is no great stylist. The tone is colloquial, informal, artless. There appears to be little craftsmanship in the prose, and the dialogue is unremarkable — unremarkable, that is, except for the astonishing density of profanity. His characters speak a kind of patois in which certain four-letter words function as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection, imperative, and pretty much any other part of speech. It’s appalling.

Yet, on further acquaintance, my assessment of his craftsmanship changed; the merits of his writing become more obvious on the large scale. The novel is well-constructed, the characters are life-like and distinctive, and the story is compelling. Indeed, I liked Charlotte very much, and it was hard to watch her wander, step by painful step, off the high road. And although it is true that his dialogue is poorly written, perhaps this is only because if you were to write down what people actually say, it would be poorly written dialogue.

The book could be read as a critique of the sexual revolution, and in that respect would make excellent penitential fare for the baby boomers who raised the liberating cry in the 1960s. What hath freedom wrought? On Wolfe’s campus, the old standards of decorum and respect, which were guardians of the sense of mystery which the one sex ought to inspire in the other, are entirely gone. The moral law and its social adjuncts, which had rightly sheltered the intimacy of lovers from the wolves of appetite and power, has been forsaken. Even the tradition of dating has died, replaced by ‘hooking up’, a euphemism for casual and frank mutual sexual exploitation. These young people who have learned the technicalities of sex before having experienced love, approach sex mechanically, so that it almost fails to be interpersonal at all — a condition captured brilliantly by Wolfe in a jargon-laced depiction of Charlotte’s seduction.

Perhaps most painful was Wolfe’s canny portrayal of this crack-up on young women. In this book they have forsaken the feminine virtues of modesty and grace, yet remain strong on the feminine vices of manipulation and guile. Worse, they have begun to adopt the vices that have traditionally been the peculiar province of men: they are foulmouthed, lewd, and boorish. Is there anything less attractive? Is there anything less likely to inspire in men the honour and devotion that men are able, and, in my opinion, really want to owe a woman? It is very sad.

I said at the beginning that this is a satire of university life. Like all satires, it reveals while concealing. The world presented here is not the whole of campus life — certainly it bears little resemblance to the life I lived on campus, but then I expect that I was rather atypical. Much of what Wolfe portrays rings true (take, for example, his superbly barbed depictions of campus dance parties, so aptly called ‘clubbing’), and that is both admirable and depressing.

Books briefly noted

July 11, 2014

A few quick notes on books I’ve read over the past few months:

wolfe-backtobloodBack to Blood
Tom Wolfe
(Little, Brown, & Co., 2012)
720 p.

Tom Wolfe returned after an hiatus of nearly ten years with this cheerful mess of a novel about life in the city of Miami. It’s a diffuse sort of story, but to the extent that it has a central character that character is Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban-American police officer with an unwitting talent for stirring the racial tensions present just beneath the surface of the city’s life. Unlike Wolfe’s better novels, the central plot of Back to Blood feels disconnected from the social and moral issues that he wants to explore — principally multiculturalism in a modern urban center. Though patchy at times, it is a lively story, told with Wolfe’s usual half-unhinged winsomeness. There is a most regrettable subplot — totally inessential, as it turns out — about pornography addiction; sure, it’s “topical”, but it feels shoehorned in and I, for one, could have really, really done without it. Really.

Bring Up The Bodiesmantel-bodies
Hilary Mantel
(HarperCollins, 2012)
432 p.

Last year I wrote with mixed impressions of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which followed Thomas Cromwell’s life from his childhood up to his establishment in the court of Henry VIII. It was from that lofty perch that he presided over Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the executions of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. This sequel, which, like its predecessor, won the Man Booker Prize, has a tighter focus: the action covers the period 1535-36 and Henry’s waning devotion to Anne Boleyn as his hopes alight upon Jane Seymour. As the title of the book suggests, this volatility in the royal affections results in a bloodbath, including, of course, in the final pages, the execution of Anne herself.

Given that gruesome terminus, it might be perverse to say that I enjoyed this panel of the story, and enjoyed it more than the first, but it is nonetheless true. I objected in Wolf Hall to what I took (and take) to be Mantel’s unjust portrait of More, but here I had no reason to take such offense (perhaps simply because of my own ignorance; I make no special claim for this novel’s historical accuracy). Interestingly, one of the literary aspects of the previous novel that I had praised — namely, the way in which Mantel, through artful use of pronouns, saturated the very grammar of her story with the force of Cromwell’s character — is downplayed in this second volume; there are an abundance of clarificatory “he, Cromwell”s to steady the reader, and this I found a little disappointing. I leave open the possibility, however, that it was done precisely to begin eroding our confidence in his competence and security.

Mantel does seem to be preparing us for his eventual downfall. There is a moment in Bring up the Bodies when his position in the court is suddenly shown to be very precarious indeed, and it comes as something of a shock to realize that even so expert a political animal as Cromwell can find himself outmaneuvered by events. He has the wit to call himself “a man whose only friend is the King of England,” but there is a hard truth behind the jest that will, I expect, be brought into the foreground in the projected next volume. In the meantime, Mantel’s traversal of this much-travelled historical territory makes for engrossing reading.

esolen-ironiesIronies of Faith
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2007)
420 p.

Irony might be thought to be the special province of post-modern skeptics, who have made much hay with it: cool detachment, hip knowingness, cynical distance. Irony can be, and has been, deployed as a kind of “universal solvent,” an engine of deconstruction. But Anthony Esolen wants to rescue irony from those associations and recover its place — a joyful, enriching, surprising place — at the heart of Christian devotion. In this book he plumbs great Christian literature for ironic themes and presents them for our consideration.

Is it surprising that there should be a place for irony in Christianity? This is a religion that plays endlessly with interchanges of first and last, mighty and lowly, strong and weak; it identifies a little baby with the Creator of all things, and worships as Lord an executed criminal. Esolen wants to stress that deep irony does not arrive from mere cleverness, but is rooted in a problem of knowledge. Irony arises, he argues, when an author reveals to the reader “a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows,” and he finds it pervades the Christian imagination.

The book ranges widely, with chapters devoted to Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Spenser, Dostoyevsky, Hopkins, Tolkien, and many others. Some authors — Francois Mauriac and Alessandro Manzoni, for instance — I am not familiar with, and I confess I skipped over those chapters; I’ll return to them when the time comes. There is a very fine closing chapter devoted to the anonymous medieval poem “Pearl”, which Esolen calls “the greatest religious lyric in English”. It is indeed a superb poem, and this is the best and most accessible introduction to it that I have seen.

Literary criticism is not really my thing, but I found this book rewarding nonetheless, not so much for its ironic insights — irony is not really my thing either, I must admit — but for its thoughtful exploration of literary works that are deeper and richer than my reading can plumb. This is literary criticism born of love and informed by a long tradition of moral reflection. It is a very worthwhile book.

Oddie on Chesterton

June 13, 2014

Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy
The Making of GKC, 1874-1908
William Oddie
(Oxford, 2008)
411 p.

In this book William Oddie examines Chesterton’s early life, from his birth in (so we are told) 1874 through his boyhood, schooling, and eventual emergence into the journalistic and literary world of England in the early years of the new century, culminating in the watershed year of 1908 in which Chesterton, still in his early 30s, published two of his most enduring and widely read books, The Man who was Thursday and Orthodoxy, and had reached a point at which, in Oddie’s words, “he had fully established the intellectual foundations on which the massive oeuvre of his last three decades was to be built.” Oddie’s purpose is to trace the development of his mind and his talents, in an effort to understand how Chesterton came to be Chesterton.

He is greatly assisted in this enterprise by the British Library’s recently completed cataloguing of many previously unpublished — and even unknown — early papers, which collectively provide a good deal of new evidence about Chesterton’s intellectual and spiritual development.

Chesterton came from a lively home. He had an argumentative younger brother, Cecil, and a creative father much devoted to a variety of hobbies: painting, drawing, writing, and theatre. (Chesterton’s life-long love of toy theatres was an inheritance from his father.) It was a fine home for the cultivation of a young writer, but it was not the sort of home from which one might expect a noted establishment critic and Christian apologist to arise. He had little in the way of religious formation, and that he did have was at odds with his later views: he was anti-clerical and anti-dogmatic as a teenager and young man, though these tendencies were counter-weighted by a longstanding fascination with the Blessed Virgin and an enduring admiration for medieval culture, both of which would eventually have a hand in moving him toward Catholicism.

While still in grade school Chesterton formed, together with several friends, the Junior Debater’s Club (JDC), of which he was the official chair and the unofficial heart. It was in the context of this club that he really began to stretch his intellectual wings as a critic, a moralist, and a debater. It was here that we first begin to hear his distinctive voice. (“A dragon is certainly the most cosmopolitan of impossibilities,” began one paper, given at age 16 but already characteristically “Chestertonian”.)

After his graduation from high school, when his friends went off to university, Chesterton chose instead to enrol at the Slade School of Art. The time he spent there was probably the most unhappy of his life. This period is usually characterized as something like his “dark night of the soul,” and though Oddie cautions against overstating the case, it is true that it was during this time that he confronted, in his heart, as it were, a moral and intellectual darkness that he saw gathering around him, and indeed around Western society as a whole. “I dug quite deep enough to discover the devil,” he later wrote. He was particularly troubled by the decadents in the English artistic world, represented by Oscar Wilde, with their cry of “art for art’s sake”, a formula that filled Chesterton with dismay, and even horror, for he always saw art as having a moral purpose.

It was Walt Whitman who had a large hand in helping Chesterton through this trial. Under Whitman’s influence he was fortified in a basic belief in the goodness of all things, in the equality and solidarity of men, and in “the redemption of the world by comradeship”. He emerged from this bleak period with a fresh sense of gratitude for life and art, as captured in the famous quotation from his Autobiography:

“At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.”

Oddie argues that he began at this time to take a greater interest in theological questions, and even described himself as “becoming orthodox” because “heresy is worse even than sin”. At this time Christian theology began to be for him a point of reference. But it was only when he met Frances Blogg, his future wife, that his interest in religion and doctrine was really catalyzed. Frances was a devout Anglican, and in her social circle Chesterton met, for the first time, a group of intelligent and articulate Christians. Interestingly, the influence of this group on Chesterton’s thought is largely hidden from view to the biographer; we simply do not know very much about the arguments and ideas which Chesterton found persuasive at this time.

We do know that by 1903, being by now a well-established columnist with The Daily News and having published a well-received study of Robert Browning (which really marked his entrance into the world of serious English letters) he was ready to enter public debate in defence of traditional religious ideas — these are the so-called “Blatchford controversies,” after his principal opponent, Robert Blatchford.

There are many other threads to Chesterton’s intellectual and literary development during these years: his talent for posing fruitful paradoxes, his social and economic advocacy (in which an early socialism eventually turned into distributism), his love of the Middle Ages (in Oddie’s words, “a parallel dimension…in which truthfulness and humanity perpetually and exuberantly flourish”), his belief in the wisdom of fairy tales (in which “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition”), and many others. Oddie does a very good job of pulling them together into a unified portrait of the man.

As already mentioned, the two great books Chesterton published in 1908 mark, for Oddie, his maturity as a thinker and write, and he closes the book with an interesting analysis and appraisal of each.

Over the years I have read quite a few books about Chesterton; this is among the best. It is certainly one of the most scholarly treatments of Chesterton’s life and thought that I have encountered, but never at the expense of accessibility. What sets it apart from other biographies — of which there are quite a few now — is, first, the thoughtful detail in which these early years are treated, and, second, the access Oddie had to previously unavailable papers. The story of Chesterton’s life comes alive in these pages. I enjoyed the book thoroughly.

Chesterton: The Defendant

June 12, 2014

The Defendant
G.K. Chesterton
(Dover, 2012) [1901]
112 p.

One of Chesterton’s first writing gigs was an occasional column in the Speaker paper in London. The Defendant is a collection of those early essays, issued when he was just in his mid-20s, and the collection is so called because each of the essays bears a title of the form “A Defense of [Something]“.

Despite its early date, I was a little surprised to find that his voice in these short pieces is already recognizably his own: the wit, the playfulness, and the splendid, quixotic joy in sallies against received wisdom were already well evident. For Chesterton came bounding to the defence not of great things like beauty, art, or friendship, but overlooked or snubbed things like juvenile fiction (“A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls”), plumbers and mailmen (“A Defence of China Shepherdesses”), lower-class entertainments (“A Defence of Farce”), and trivia (“A Defence of Useful Information”). I am told that while the book was fairly well received on first publication, many readers took it as a kind of facetious provocation, a novelty item in which he defended the indefensible for mere amusement. The prevalence of paradox in these pages led one early reviewer to remark, “Mr Chesterton’s salad is all onions.” Only with time, as Chesterton’s views were reiterated and extended in his many books and articles, could his initial seriousness be fully appreciated. For the happy truth is that Chesterton really did love these unloved things, he really did regard them with gratitude, and he really did think them worthy of praise. That “Chestertonian spirit” was the gift which he was, in these essays, just beginning to bestow upon the world, and they make for good reading still.

Choice excerpts from The Defendant can be read at The Hebdomadal Chesterton; the full text is also freely available.

“So tiny a thing”

June 11, 2014

“The very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had created something that he could not understand.”

– G.K. Chesterton
The Defendant (1901).

(Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)

The Holiness of Chesterton

June 9, 2014

The Holiness of Chesterton
William Oddie (Ed.)
(Gracewing, 2010)
152 p.

In 2009 a conference was held at Oxford to explore the spiritual life of G.K. Chesterton. A group of scholars, some quite eminent, delivered lectures on the theme, which are here collected in book form. The contributors are Ian Ker (biographer and anthologist of Chesterton), Aidan Nichols, John Saward, Nicholas Madden, Robert Wild, and Sheridan Gilley. William Oddie, as editor, contributes an introduction and appendix.

John Saward focuses on the place of childhood and childlikeness in Chesterton’s life and thought, drawing on Jesus’ maxim that one must become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Saward argues that Chesterton lived this childlikeness, in the relevant sense, to an exemplary degree; spiritual childhood is, he says, “the still point around which the whole Chestertonian universe turns” and “the chief quality of his soul.” Readers of Chesterton will not be surprised by such claims; his sense of wonder, his admiration of children, his affection for children’s games, and so forth all speak to the point. Saward digs deeper, bringing out the way in which, for Chesterton, childhood represented a spiritual ideal. Upon his conversion, for instance, Chesterton said that among his principal motives was the desire to make a sacramental confession, which he saw as returning the penitent to a childlike state. Saward also briefly explores Chesterton’s thoughts about the pre-eminent child-saint of recent Catholic history, St. Therese de Lisieux.

Ian Ker takes as his subject the place of comedy in Chesterton’s spiritual life. “Laughter is as divine as tears,” he once wrote, and he is one of a relatively small number of thinkers — certainly in the past century — to see humour as a matter of great profundity and wisdom. For Chesterton the enjoyment of humour was closely linked to the virtue of humility, for it is humility that allows a man to really enjoy, to relish, the comedy of life. He said, “There is nothing to which a man must give himself with more faith and self-abandonment than to genuine laughter.” This is a stimulating address.

Aidan Nichols begins with the startling claim that Chesterton might justly be considered a Doctor of the Church. In good Chestertonian fashion, he is punning: his meaning is that Chesterton may be a Doctor of the Church as Augustine (for example) is the Doctor of grace. In other words, Nichols believes Chesterton has special insight into the nature of the Church, especially in her role as guardian of “the balance of subtlety and sanity,” and this he explores in his address. The flavour of his remarks can be gathered from this complimentary assessment:

“What commends him above all is the spaciousness of his Christian mind, the range of his experiential materials, the sense he conveys of Catholicism as a wider room than any of the competing ‘isms’ of religious — or, for that matter, secular — history. No one has written better of the gift of creation, the mystical quality of ‘ordinary’ life, the fulfilling of the pagan in the Christian, the practicality of a religion that synthesizes doctrine, ritual, and the everyday, the way the puzzle of the world and of life requires a revelation at once complex and single-minded to solve it, the liberating function of dogma for the imagination, and the self-defeating quality of schism. In a difficult age of the Church such as our own, when the invidious choice is often between, on the one hand, the vague and woolly whose religion is hardly more than humanism with a spiritual tinge, and, on the other, cribbed and cramped zelanti, he is surely the apologist-doctor of the hour.”

Two of the contributors take up the question of whether Chesterton was a Christian mystic. Robert Wild, whose book on this topic I read and reviewed recently, argues that Chesterton was blessed with a supernatural “charism of truth,” a special wisdom “to treat of human affairs in the light of faith.” Interestingly, this line of argument was only a minor theme in his subsequent book, which focused instead on Chesterton’s “Creator mysticism,” his habitual awareness of the radical dependence of created things on God. Nicholas Madden, on the other hand, though praising Chesterton’s “genius, bristling with originality, his wholesome goodness, his generous humour, [and] his massive modesty,” nonetheless raises a doubt as to whether he can rightly be considered a mystic. He questions whether Chesterton ever enjoyed the special encounters with the divine that are characteristic of Christian mystics through history, and he notes, too, that in his writings Chesterton often spoke disparagingly of “mysticism” and had a special antipathy for the way of introspective spirituality, which has, however, been followed by many Christian mystics and has the implicit endorsement of the Church. Now, Chesterton’s use of the word “mysticism” has been addressed at length by Fr. Wild in his book, and does not, I think, raise any serious concerns, but Madden’s other criticisms are worthy of consideration. His is the only sour note sounded in the book, and for that I think we must thank him.

In the appendix, William Oddie contributes an essay — relegated to the appendix only on account of its not having been delivered at the conference, rather than on account of its limited ambition — on the theme “The Philo-Semitism of G.K. Chesterton.” Those who follow these matters know that Chesterton has sometimes been accused of anti-Semitism, and such accusations will certainly be renewed if, as seems possible, the prospect of his sainthood is ever seriously considered. For this reason, Oddie’s essay is a welcome contribution to the debate — although I confess that I find such accusations, in Chesterton’s case, unpersuasive and strangely petty.

In short, this is a stimulating collection of essays on aspects of Chesterton’s life and character that have not often been considered. There is little doubt in my mind that Chesterton was a good man whom we — whom I — could profitably emulate, and this book has helped me to reflect more deeply on why. At his Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral, Ronald Knox said of Chesterton that those who knew him “found in him a living example of charity, of chivalry, of unbelievable humility which will remain with them, perhaps a more effective document of Catholic verity than any word even he wrote.” We should all hope for such an encomium. The book closes with a prayer for Chesterton’s intercession, approved by none other than Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio — now, of course, Pope Francis.

Chesterton: A Miscellany of Men

June 6, 2014

A Miscellany of Men
G.K. Chesterton
(Dufour, 1969) [1912]
180 p.

This is a collection of Chesterton’s newspaper columns, about 40 in total, written for (I believe) The Daily Mail. As the title indicates, the essays cut a wide swath, but are unified insofar as each focuses on a particular “character” or “figure” who might have been found walking the streets of London in 1910. Thus these pieces bear titles such as “The Suffragist”, “The Miser and his Friends”, “The Mummer”, “The Sentimental Scot”, and so forth. In some cases the material has become dated, but not in as many cases as you might think. This is mostly due to the fact that Chesterton was, famously and incorrigibly, unable to stick to the point. Whatever the ostensible point of any particular column was, it almost always broadened out to include interesting observations on any number of topics: gothic architecture, tourism, umbrellas, ritual, millionaires, democracy, and so on.

Today I am not really inclined to cite quotations, especially since I plan to reserve the choicest of them for The Hebdomadal Chesterton. What I can do, however, is direct the interested reader to a few of the essays that I considered the best, which can be read in their entirety at leisure. Thus: “The Man who Thinks Backwards”, “The Real Journalist”, “The Conscript and the Crisis”, “The Architect of Spears”, and “The Angry Author” (an autobiographical piece, oddly enough).

“Like a mere window”

June 4, 2014

“Humility has infinitely deeper roots than any modern men suppose; it is a metaphysical and, one might almost say, a mathematical virtue. Probably this can best be tested by a study of those who frankly disregard humility and assert the supreme duty of perfecting and expressing one’s self. These people tend, by a perfectly natural process, to bring their own great human gifts of culture, intellect, or moral power to a great perfection, successively shutting out everything that they feel to be lower than themselves.

“Now shutting out things is all very well, but it has one simple corollary—that from everything that we shut out we are ourselves shut out. When we shut our door on the wind, it would be equally true to say that the wind shuts its door on us. Whatever virtues a triumphant egoism really leads to, no one can reasonably pretend that it leads to knowledge. Turning a beggar from the door may be right enough, but pretending to know all the stories the beggar might have narrated is pure nonsense; and this is practically the claim of the egoism which thinks that self-assertion can obtain knowledge. A beetle may or may not be inferior to a man—the matter awaits demonstration; but if he were inferior by ten thousand fathoms, the fact remains that there is probably a beetle view of things of which a man is entirely ignorant. If he wishes to conceive that point of view, he will scarcely reach it by persistently revelling in the fact that he is not a beetle. The most brilliant exponent of the egoistic school, Nietzsche, with deadly and honourable logic, admitted that the philosophy of self-satisfaction led to looking down upon the weak, the cowardly, and the ignorant. Looking down on things may be a delightful experience, only there is nothing, from a mountain to a cabbage, that is really seen when it is seen from a balloon. The philosopher of the ego sees everything, no doubt, from a high and rarified heaven; only he sees everything foreshortened or deformed.

“Now if we imagine that a man wished truly, as far as possible, to see everything as it was, he would certainly proceed on a different principle. He would seek to divest himself for a time of those personal peculiarities which tend to divide him from the thing he studies. It is as difficult, for example, for a man to examine a fish without developing a certain vanity in possessing a pair of legs, as if they were the latest article of personal adornment. But if a fish is to be approximately understood, this physiological dandyism must be overcome. The earnest student of fish morality will, spiritually speaking, chop off his legs. And similarly the student of birds will eliminate his arms; the frog-lover will with one stroke of the imagination remove all his teeth, and the spirit wishing to enter into all the hopes and fears of jelly-fish will simplify his personal appearance to a really alarming extent. It would appear, therefore, that this great body of ours and all its natural instincts, of which we are proud, and justly proud, is rather an encumbrance at the moment when we attempt to appreciate things as they should be appreciated. We do actually go through a process of mental asceticism, a castration of the entire being, when we wish to feel the abounding good in all things. It is good for us at certain times that ourselves should be like a mere window—as clear, as luminous, and as invisible.

– G.K. Chesterton,
The Defendant (1901).

(Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)

Chesterton: The Victorian Age in Literature

May 30, 2014

The Victorian Age in Literature
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1989) [1913]
118 p.

Chesterton provides an opinionated survey of English literature in the Victorian period (and a bit later), covering the principal writers from John Henry Newman up through G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells. This was a period plump with major figures: Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin, Arnold, Carlyle, Kipling, Wilde, and so on, and it is delightful to read Chesterton’s thoughts on them, which are always generous though not always approving. As is evident from that list of names, he discusses not just writers of fiction, but also poets and critics.

According to Chesterton the Victorian era had made a kind of compromise with the rationalism of the eighteenth century, assenting to its premises but resisting its various implications. He sees many of the principal Victorian writers as engaged in a reaction against this rationalism:

They have succeeded in shaking it, but not in dislodging it from the modern mind. The first of these was the Oxford Movement; a bow that broke when it had let loose the flashing arrow that was Newman. The second reaction was one man; without teachers or pupils — Dickens. The third reaction was a group that tried to create a sort of new romantic Protestantism, to pit against both Reason and Rome—Carlyle, Ruskin, Kingsley, Maurice — perhaps Tennyson.

I do not know enough to judge whether this is a sensible way of framing the discussion, but it at least helps to organize the book. One thing that is early evident is that Chesterton has written the book as a critique and analysis, not as an introduction. Upon its publication an anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement noted that he “writes not for those who wish to know, but for those who know already,” and this is quite true; having myself not read some of the authors he treats, I was, at times, at sea. But this was compensated by the lively good humour of the writing and the pithy judgments that he occasionally lets drop:

[On George Eliot] [The Victorian age] took, I will not say its pleasures, but even its emancipations, sadly. Definitions seem to escape this way and that in the attempt to locate it as an idea. But every one will understand me if I call it George Eliot.

[On Jane Austen] She could keep her head, while all the after women went about looking for their brains.

[On Charles Dickens] The art of Dickens was the most exquisite of arts: it was the art of enjoying everybody.

And so on. The TLS reviewer summed it up well when he wrote that

The book is everywhere immensely alive; and no one will put it down without the sense of having taken a tonic or perhaps having received a series of impertinently administered electric shocks.

The Victorian Age in Literature is not to be counted among Chesterton’s finest works, though if we confine our attention to his works of literary criticism it might rank, on the strength of its ambitious scope, ahead of much that he wrote — though well behind his marvellous book on Dickens.


I have been posting occasional excerpts from The Victorian Age in Literature at The Hebdomadal Chesterton; more will appear in the future. The full text is also available.

Hart: The Experience of God

May 1, 2014

The Experience of God
Being, Consciousness, Bliss
David Bentley Hart
(Yale, 2013)
374 p.

Hart’s professed purpose in this book is not so much to defend or advance arguments for the existence and nature of God, but simply to explain, as a contribution to greater clarity in contemporary discussions, what the meaning of the word “God” has been understood to be in the classical theistic traditions. It is a modest goal, one would think, but it nonetheless leads into deep waters.

He deliberately pitches a capacious tent: although Hart is himself an Orthodox scholar, there is nothing in his argument that is uniquely Orthodox, nor even specifically Christian. The God he presents is one which is common, he argues, to “Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, [and] various late antique paganisms…” Despite the many unarguable differences between these religious traditions he contends that on the basic question of the nature of the one or ultimate God there is nonetheless substantial agreement:

“no one really acquainted with the metaphysical and spiritual claims of the major theistic faiths can fail to notice that on a host of fundamental philosophical issues, and especially on the issue of how divine transcendence should be understood, the areas of accord are quite vast.”

Even the seemingly basic distinction between monotheistic and polytheistic religions is not an especially troubling obstacle to this programme, for he contends that when one considers the hierarchies of angels in the monotheistic religions, on one hand, and the rumours of the One or Great god lying behind and beneath the tumult of the hierarchy of gods in the polytheistic religions, on the other, there is a basic structural resemblance between the two sides that is obscured by the relative emphases and characteristic language normally used to describe them. In particular, in many traditions, whether monotheistic or not, there is conceived a Being that is the fount and origin of all, and this is the reality for which the word “God” is specially reserved and on which Hart trains our attention.

A possible hesitation at the threshold of this project derives from its limited objective. Few theists are simply “classical”; most adhere to a specific religious tradition, not one of which describes God as identical to the God of classical theism. The God of classical theism is fount and end of all things, but is not, without remainder, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of classical theism is the resplendent reality which grounds the transcendent goods of truth and beauty, but is not, simply as such, the Trinitarian God whose Second Person was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Understanding the God of classical theism will therefore never, without further considerations, make one an adherent of a specific religious tradition, and from the viewpoint of a religious person, this may well appear as a defect. But if it is a defect, it is not a serious one. Classical theism is not intended to be the last word on God; it is, rather, the first word; it is the core around which more elaborated visions of God cluster; it is the sine qua non of theism.

There is a certain irony, therefore, in the fact that some theists today do not hold to classical theism. In Christian circles, these theists have been usefully described (by Brian Davies, I believe) as “theistic personalists”. They tend to think of God, explicitly or implicitly, as an especially powerful (even infinitely powerful) person who lives and moves through a world of lesser beings. He is the Supreme Being, greater and more powerful than any other, who intervenes at times in the world of human affairs but, perhaps more often than not, retires into silence. We have to be careful not to construct a straw-man here; I am not sure that this view is as widespread (among Christians, at least) as Hart suggests, but it would seem to be a fair description of, for instance, the “open theism” that has influenced some varieties of Protestantism.  A telling characteristic of these non-classical views of God’s nature is that they tend to conceive of his relation to the natural world principally through efficient causation, rather than (as is characteristic of classical theism) through final and formal causation. Non-classical theism is superficially compatible with the “plain sense” of certain passages of Scripture, but it has generally been considered incompatible with the claim, fundamental to all the great theistic traditions, that God is the origin of all things. Hart argues that we ought to call the God of theistic personalism by its proper philosophical name: the demiurge (from Plato’s Timeaus).

This is relevant to our current cultural moment because, as he points out, much if not most of the contemporary talk about God, both from the so-called “New Atheists” and from their opponents (who, on this view, might well be called the “New Theists”), is actually about the demiurge, and not about God at all. His express hope is that his book will be a contribution toward refocusing the conversation on the central claims of the principal theistic traditions, rather than on the parochial sideshow where it currently squanders much of its energy.


The book, as indicated by its subtitle, has a tripartite structure. Hart approaches the central claims of classical theism under three aspects: being, consciousness, and bliss, which he describes as “a particularly elegant summary of many of the most ancient metaphysical definitions of the divine nature.”

These three are doubly appropriate, for they are not only descriptive of the nature of God, but also of our experience of the divine. The reality of God, the tradition claims, is implicit in the most fundamental aspects of our experience: in our desires, in our knowledge, and in our very existence. Much of the book is concerned with describing this “transcendental structure of consciousness” by which the contours of experience are inescapably shaped. God is “the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and [...] therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of that experience.”

But these three are triply appropriate also, and for a very interesting reason:

“they perfectly designate those regions of human experience that cannot really be accounted for within the framework of philosophical naturalism… They name essential and perennial mysteries that, no matter how we may try to reduce them to purely natural phenomena, resolutely resist our efforts to do so, and continue to point beyond themselves to what is “more than nature.”

These are the three “supernatural” forms of the natural. For us, they are the prior conditions that must be in place before anything called nature can be experienced at all, and as such they precede and exceed the mechanisms of natural causality.”

He is quite right: existence, consciousness, and goodness (the ultimate object of desire and so the condition of bliss) are three aspects of reality with which naturalism seems incapable of adequately coping. This very fact should confirm for us that they are especially appropriate and interesting avenues of exploration for our purposes.


We begin with being. The basic claim which underlies classical theism — the claim which calls for the response which just is classical theism — is the claim that the natural world, in its totality, is a contingent reality, one which bears within itself no adequate account of its own existence. It is distinct from the claim that the natural world is finite or had a temporal beginning; even a universe infinite in time and space would be metaphysically contingent or, equivalently (?), logically contingent insofar as it failed to exist necessarily. The insight which gives birth to theism is that this contingency of the natural order quite reasonably opens onto the question of why, if the universe need not exist, it nonetheless does.

It is important to understand that, by its very nature, this is a question which is beyond the competence of the natural sciences to address, and Hart states the reason well:

“Physical reality cannot account for its own existence for the simple reason that nature – the physical – is that which by definition already exists; existence, even taken as a simple brute fact to which no metaphysical theory is attached, lies logically beyond the system of causes that nature comprises…”

So no experiment or discovery of the natural sciences could, even in principle, shed light upon this question of the being of things. Philosophical naturalism, insofar as it is wed to the methods and findings of the natural sciences, is therefore impotent to address the question. Its only move is to forbid the question, to somehow brand it as meaningless or pointless. It must therefore, according to Hart, be considered an intellectual project whose futility waxes in proportion to its ambition:

“…philosophical naturalism could never serve as a complete, coherent, or even provisionally plausible picture of reality as a whole. The limits of nature’s powers are the same whether they are personified as deities or not. It is at the very point where physical reality becomes questionable, and reason finds it has to venture beyond the limits of nature if it is to make sense of nature, that naturalism demands reason turn back, resigned to pure absurdity, and rest content with a non-answer…”

To a naturalist, the whole of physical reality is an “absolute contingency,” a brute fact that is ultimately inexplicable. Hart describes existence as “the single ineradicable “super-natural” fact within which all natural facts are forever contained, but about which we ought not to let ourselves think too much.” It is possible to rest content in this suspended state, not thinking too much, accepting the “just-there-ness” of things and not probing deeper, but it would seem to be a position that requires a good deal of doctrinaire compliance with the established rules of the game, so to speak. Because — let’s be honest — why not look for a reason for why things exist?

It is sometimes argued that introducing God into the discussion does nothing to address any of the issues, because all of the problems associated with contingency are simply bumped from the universe onto God, and we’re right back where we started. Thus people ask, “Who created God?” But such arguments are wide of the mark, for it is a central claim of the classical theist tradition that God just is that being which exists necessarily:

“God alone … has necessity in and of himself. That is, if the word “God” has any meaning at all, it must refer to a reality that is not just metaphysically indestructible but necessary in the fullest and most proper sense; it must refer to a reality that is logically necessary and that therefore provides the ultimate explanation of all other realities, without need of being explained in turn… When talking about the source of all reality, the distinction between metaphysical and logical necessity is merely formal, as each is inseparable from and ultimately convertible with the other: God is really metaphysically necessary only if he is logically necessary, and vice versa.”

Thus God is conceived as the being in which all of those quite legitimate questions about “why” and “how” find their terminus. God is, in a classic formulation, Being itself. And it is plain nonsense to ask what made Being, for if anything made it, that thing would itself have to first be, which is a contradiction. Being is the foundational metaphysical reality on which all else is founded. Unless this is understood — not necessarily the reasons for it, but at least the content of the claim — questions about God and his relationship to nature will never get anywhere. But once it is understood, it opens up a whole series of interesting questions about the nature of this fundamental reality.

Thinkers in the classical theist tradition have, over the centuries, invested a good deal of effort in deducing and articulating the nature of God so understood. I wish that I understood the arguments better than I do, but it seems to me that a basic “finding” is that this being which is metaphysically and logically necessary must be “unconditioned,” which seems to mean something like “independent” or “unlimited”, or even (in a venerable formulation that might or might not be equivalent) “simple”. The simplicity of God is, in any case, one of the principal axes around which classical theism pivots. “To speak of God’s metaphysical simplicity is to speak of the total absence of any of those limitations or conditions that might inhibit the power of actuality that he is.” It is from this claim of divine simplicity that many of the divine attributes are claimed to follow: God’s unity, oneness, eternity, impassibility, and so on. Hart lays great stress on divine simplicity, going so far as to state that its denial is tantamount to atheism:

“If God is to be understood as the unconditioned source of all things, rather than merely some powerful but still ontologically dependent being, then any denial of divine simplicity is equivalent to a denial of God’s reality.”

One of the rejoinders that sometimes greets the theological framework Hart is describing is that it is airy and cool: a matter of intellectual interest, perhaps, but not something to quicken the heart or inspire devotion. There is something to this feeling: God so understood is not yet a God of love, nor a God who enters into communion with humanity, or any of the other more elaborated understandings of God that are central to, and indeed constitutive of, our religious tradition. Yet Hart nonetheless finds it in himself to wax eloquent about this God who is Being and who bestows being on all things, for one of the implications of the view that God is wholly unconditioned is that God cannot stand in need of anything beyond himself, in which case the act of creation whereby all things are cannot be an act of necessity, but only of generosity, a kind of gracious overflow of being freely given. Insofar as we cultivate attentiveness to this gift and awareness of its gratuity it is possible for us to enter into a quite intimate relationship with God:

“That sudden instant of intellectual surprise is, as I have said, one of wakefulness, of attentiveness to reality as such, rather than to the impulses of the ego or of desire or of ambition; and it opens up upon the limitless beauty of being, which is to say, upon the beauty of being seen as a gift that comes from beyond all possible beings. This wakefulness can, moreover, become habitual, a kind of sustained awareness of the surfeit of being over the beings it sustains, though this may be truly possible only for saints.”


When he turns to a consideration of consciousness within the framework of classical theism, Hart is forced by the prevalence of certain prejudices in modern thought to make a long excursus into contemporary philosophy of mind. This is somewhat beside the point for his larger project, but it is probably a necessary labour, if only to clear the ground of misconceptions.

The main point he wants to make, following up on the themes of the previous section, is that being and intelligibility are intimately related, and that therefore consciousness, being the forum within which intelligible realities are made intelligible to a particular mind, is also closely linked to being. For a classical theist, the “transparency of the world to thought” is natural, for consciousness is by no means foreign to being.

The bridge from being to consciousness is via the concept of intelligibility:

“There is no such thing as ontological coherence that is not a rational coherence. There is a point then, arguably, at which being and intelligibility become conceptually indistinguishable. It is only as an intelligible order, as a coherent phenomenon (sensible or intellectual), that anything is anything at all, whether an elementary particle or a universe; perhaps it is true that only what could in principle be known can in actuality exist.”

This connection strikes me as rather surprising but not therefore misleading; on the contrary, the more I consider it the more profound it seems. But even if it strikes one as rather abstract, I think Hart is right to stress that its truth is tacitly assumed in the whole of intellectual life, and maybe especially in the sciences:

“The human striving to know the truth of things, as far as possible and in every sphere, is sustained by a tacit faith in some kind of ultimate coincidence or convertibility between being and consciousness. There is a natural orientation of the mind toward a horizon of total intelligibility — a natural intellectual appetite for immediate knowledge of what is — that requires us to venture our time, our hopes, our labors, and our contentions on the assumption that rational thought and coherent order are two sides of a single reality, or at least somehow naturally fitted to one another… There is a wonderful transparency of the world to thought, and a wonderful power of thought to interpret reality coherently through forms and principles that are of an entirely noetic nature. The world yields itself to our abstractions, and we cannot help but work upon the assumption that it always will precisely because being in itself is pure intelligibility.”

This “high view” of consciousness and intelligibility must, as I mentioned already, contend, even if only as an annoying contingency, with the fact that contemporary thought about consciousness is dominated by a “low view” of consciousness: modern philosophy of mind has much to say about computational models of mind, functional models of mind, mental epiphenomena, and even the non-existence of mind. (Hart comments: “there really is no other area in philosophy in which the outlandish, the vague, the willfully obscure, and the patently ridiculous are tolerated in such lavish quantities.”) The general assumption is that mind and consciousness are the results of physical processes and nothing more, and therefore that the ascription of consciousness to any non-corporeal being or substance must be impossible, a conclusion clearly incompatible with classical theism. As such, Hart is obliged to mount a critique of contemporary philosophy of mind and the mechanical metaphysics on which it is founded, which he does with his customary lucidity and force.

None of the arguments he presents are, as far as I can tell, original with him, and at times I wished that he would wield a sharper blade (such as the arguments offered by, for example, James Ross) but one could hardly ask for a more concentrated overview of the conceptual difficulties confronting materialist philosophies of mind than that provided in the middle sections of this book. In the interests of time I’ll not rehearse them here, but simply comment that he finally traces the apparent intractability of mental phenomena within a materialist framework to the mechanistic philosophy of nature which informs so much of modern thought. He is not the first to do so, and will not be the last. In the end, he concludes that the most consistent school of contemporary materialist philosophy of mind is the “eliminativist” school — those who deny that there is, finally, anything real or efficacious about mental experience. Such a conclusion, though self-consistent with the principles of materialist metaphysics, also has the notable defect of being, in itself, incoherent, but that is not Hart’s problem to solve. He contrasts that audacious irrationality with theism, which he describes as a kind of total rationalism before finally washing his hands of the affair and continuing on his way:

“It may well be, in fact, that the widely cherished expectation that neuroscience will one day discover an explanation of consciousness solely within the brain’s electrochemical processes is no less enormous a category error than the expectation that physics will one day discover the reason for the existence of the material universe. In either case, the problem is not one of pardonably exaggerated hope but of fundamental and incorrigible conceptual confusion.”


We said before that the mind approaches the world with a prior trust in its intelligibility. But there is more to be said, for it is not simply that the mind knows reality, but that it seeks to know reality, it desires truth, and it is this hunger that is the root of the dynamism of intellectual and moral life. Hart sees this desire as the bridge to the third aspect of our experience of God: bliss, or desire fulfilled:

“…what the mind seeks in attempting to discover the truth is a kind of delight, a kind of fulfillment… The indissoluble bond between the intellect and objective reality is forged by this faith that is also a kind of love — a kind of adherence of the will and mind to something inexhaustibly delightful.”

Yet this desire is not anarchic, not willy-nilly, but, in a venerable formulation that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, it is structured in a hierarchy of desirability that terminates in a set of goods traditionally called “transcendentals,” the desire for which is properly inexhaustible. Hart explains:

“In this world, the desirable is always desirable in respect of some yet more elementary and comprehensive need or yearning. All concretely limited aspirations of the will are sustained within formally limitless aspirations of the will.

In the end, the only objects of desire that are not reducible to other, more general objects of desire, and that may therefore truly be said to be desirable entirely in and of themselves, are a small number of universal, unconditional, and extremely abstract ideals that, according to a somewhat antique metaphysical vocabulary, are called “transcendentals.” Traditionally, these are said to be predicates or properties that in some way apply to all existing things, because they are essential aspects of existence as such: the intrinsic perfections of being in its fullness. There are both purely ontological transcendentals, such as being and unity, and critical or “criteriological” transcendentals, such as truth, goodness, and beauty; ultimately, though, they are distinct from one another only conceptually, from our necessarily limited vantage, but in themselves are wholly convertible with one another, each being only one name for the single reality that is being itself.”

The mind is naturally oriented toward and responsive to these transcendental goods; without that sensitivity and responsiveness, there would be no structure to mental life. Or, stated another way, it is impossible to experience the world without reference to these transcendental goods. Like it or not, the very structure of mental life is shaped by them:

“Whatever ontological or metaphysical substance one may or may not be willing to accord to such immense generalities as truth, goodness, and beauty, the very shape of conscious intentionality is entirely determined by them; they constitute an absolute orientation for thought … toward which the mind is always turned and against which every finite object is set off, in clear and distinct outlines, in the great middle distance of the phenomenal world.”

Hart expresses this intimate bond between experience and the transcendentals in a provocative but memorable way: “we approach nature only across the interval of the supernatural.” We are already entangled before we begin.

This is all of theological significance for a classical theist because of course the transcendentals themselves are not independent of God’s nature, but are rather part of Him — or, stated more strongly and more properly, as properties of being as such they are God’s nature as manifest to intentional consciousness. God is truth; God is goodness; God is beauty. Hart elaborates on the meaning of these traditional maxims; consider, for instance, these remarks on what it means to say that God is goodness:

“God is not just some ethical individual out there somewhere, a finite subjectivity answerable to some set of moral laws outside himself, but is rather the fullness of being, in whom all powers and perfections are infinitely realized. He is not simply someone who is good, but goodness itself, the ontological reality of that absolute object that moral desire seeks. Or, better, what we call goodness is, in its essence, God in his aspect as the original source and ultimate fulfillment of all love, drawing all things to one another by drawing them to himself. Thus, our rational appetite for being is also a longing for the good, and our longing for the good is an aboriginal longing for God.”

An intriguing (or vexing) corollary of this general view of the transcendentals is that, properly understood, it is not possible to be a rational atheist, for “if one refuses to believe in God out of one’s love of the truth, one affirms the reality of God in that very act of rejection.” The involvement of our transcendental desires with the nature of God is so thorough that it cannot be escaped:

“… faith in God is not something that can ever be wholly and coherently rejected, even if one refuses all adherence to creeds and devotions. The desires evoked by the transcendental horizon of rational consciousness are not merely occasional agitations of the will but constant dynamisms of the mind; they underlie the whole movement of thought toward the world. But for these formally excessive and ecstatic longings, which seek their satisfaction in an end beyond nature, we would know nothing of nature, could not care for it, could not delight in it. To be rational beings, capable of experiencing reality as an intelligible realm of truth, moral responsibility, and disinterested joy, is to be open at every moment before the supernatural. For classical theism, the transcendental perfections of being are simply different names for — different ways of apprehending — being itself, which is God, and are thus convertible with one another in the simplicity of the divine. In the prism of finite existence, that unity becomes a plurality of distinct aspects of reality, and we only occasionally have any sense of their ultimate unity — when, for instance. we are able to grasp a mathematical truth in part because of its elegance. or when an act of compassion strikes us with its beauty, or when our will to act morally in a certain situation allows us to see the true nature of that situation more clearly, or when we sense that the will to know the truth is also an ethical vocation of the mind (and so on). For the most part, however, we have little immediate awareness of how the transcendentals coincide with one another. Even so, any movement of the mind or will toward truth, goodness, beauty, or an other transcendental end is an adherence of the soul to God. “

Or, to quote another source, “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.”


In an effort to wrap up these notes, let me try to provide a brief summary of the overall argument. Actually, Hart has distilled the main points better than I could:

“We cannot encounter the world without encountering at the same time the being of the world, which is a mystery that can never be dispelled by any physical explanation of reality, inasmuch as it is a mystery logically prior to and in excess of the physical order. We cannot encounter the world, furthermore, except in the luminous medium of intentional and unified consciousness, which defies every reduction to purely physiological causes, but which also clearly corresponds to an essential intelligibility in being itself. We cannot encounter the world, finally, except through our conscious and intentional orientation toward the absolute, in pursuit of a final bliss that beckons to us from within those transcendental desires that constitute the very structure of rational thought, and that open all of reality to us precisely by bearing us on toward ends that lie beyond the totality of physical things. The whole of nature is something prepared for us, composed for us, given to us, delivered into our care by a “supernatural” dispensation. All this being so, one might plausibly say that God — the infinite wellspring of being, consciousness, and bliss that is the source, order, and end of all reality — is evident everywhere, inescapably present to us, while autonomous “nature” is something that has never, even for a moment, come into view.”

There is a great deal to chew on here, and in these notes I have but scratched the surface. The book’s third panel, especially, on “bliss,” is far richer in both content and rhetorical power than I have been able to convey. As usual with Hart, I can only recommend that you read the book yourself. Though there were times when I wished for a somewhat more incisive line of argument, and though there were many times when I wished that he would argue rather than simply describe the classical theist claims, and though at times I wondered how classical theism is integrated into the more specific and elaborated vision of God that comes from Judaism and Christianity, and though at times he is repetitive, with principal points coming up again and again in different contexts, I hope it is nonetheless clear that the book is excellent. There is an extensive bibliography to guide readers who want to explore classical theism in more detail — among whom I count myself, had I but world enough, and time.


But we are not quite finished. Classical theism is not merely an intellectual project, not just a set of propositions to be argued. If it is true that ultimately God’s nature is the good which underlies all our striving, beckoning us forward, then this way of knowledge cannot but also be a way of love. If we want to know this God who is, the religious traditions are united in insisting that we cannot seek him in the abstract, or with laboratory instruments, but must approach with discipline, and devotion. The “proof” will, finally, be a personal one, for we find Him “in the depth of the mind’s own act of seeking”, and especially in contemplative prayer — “the art of seeing reality as it truly is.” Hart is very good on this point, and his exhortation makes for a fitting close to these reflections:

“No matter what one’s private beliefs may be, any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be. If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one simply has misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate. It is unlikely, however, that such a person really cares to know what the true content of the concept is, or on what rational and experiential bases the concept rests. In my experience, those who make the most theatrical displays of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of absolute being, consciousness, and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not simply in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, with real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace, suffering states of both dereliction and ecstasy with the equanimity of faith, hoping but not presuming, so as to find whether the spiritual journey, when followed in earnest, can disclose its own truthfulness and conduct one into communion with a dimension of reality beyond the ontological indigence of the physical. No one is obliged to make such an effort: but, unless one does, any demands one might make for evidence of the reality of God can safely be dismissed as disingenuous.”


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