Archive for the 'Books' Category

de Lubac: The Drama of Atheist Humanism

March 13, 2014

The Drama of Atheist Humanism
Henri de Lubac, S.J.
(Meridian, 1967) [1950]
253 p.

As I understand it, Henri de Lubac was one of the leading theologians in the decades leading up to Vatican II who advocated and exemplified an approach to Catholic theology which emphasized engagement and dialogue with the modern world. I don’t know if that is a fair characterization of his work as a whole — for this is the first of his books that I have read — but it is a good description of what is going on in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, in which de Lubac sympathetically enters into conversation with the sources of contemporary atheism in an effort to both understand and challenge them.

For de Lubac, atheist humanism is rooted in the thought of a handful of nineteenth-century men: Feuerbach (and, through him, Marx), Nietzsche, and Comte. He considers each of them to be a “humanist,” in the sense of being one who takes a high view of the human capacity for greatness, and who wants to see that capacity developed and praised. Yet each conceives of the relationship between God and humanity as being one of competition, and it is in that apparent conflict that de Lubac identifies the principal motive of modern atheism: “Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness which, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.”

Even the atheists, however, realized that the overthrow of God would exact a price. It was Nietzsche who perceived this most clearly; he foresaw “the rising of a black tide” as God’s influence over human affairs waned. He saw that to reject God was to reject everything founded on Him, and that this would be the greatest upheaval, both intellectual and moral, that the world had ever known.

de Lubac respects the honesty and integrity of these atheist thinkers, granting them credit where it is due, though of course he stops well short of endorsement:

“The criticisms which served as their starting-point were often shrewd, with a shrewdness cruel in its accuracy; and certain of their manifestations have an imposing grandeur which, for many fascinated eyes, masks the horrors that were their purchase price.”

It is Nietzsche, especially, who earns de Lubac’s admiration. Nietzsche was thorough and fearless: he followed his thoughts to their conclusions. It is notable that although he was of course opposed to Christianity, he refused even to argue against Christian theology, for to do so would have been to concede the eminence of truth, which would have been a concession to the principles of theism. Instead, the battle was for him a matter of values expressed through culture, a struggle of wills for domination. de Lubac remarks: “…never, before Nietzsche, had so mighty an adversary arisen, one who had so clear, broad and explicit a conception of his destiny and who pursued it in all domains with such systematic and deliberate zeal.” As I have said before, Nietzsche did everyone, theist or atheist, a great good service simply by clarifying the terms of the debate and its implications.

It is interesting that de Lubac saw the atheists of his time — the mid-twentieth century — as having assumed this same mantle of courageous and integral atheism. He writes, for instance, comparing them to the French philosophes and other early modern atheists:

“How timid those men now seem who, for instance, fought against the Church but wanted to keep the Gospel! Or those who, while claiming to be released from all authority and all faith, still invoked principles derived from a Christian source! “Free thinkers,” but not very bold and not very “free” as yet! Those who have come after them deride their illogicality as much as their impotence and lump them together with believers in a common reprobation. Those of the new generation do not intend to be satisfied with “the shadow of a shadow.” They have no desire to live upon the perfume of an empty vase.”

I have to wonder, however, whether this sort of high-octane atheist has survived into the present day in any large numbers. One of the principal criticisms of the crop of so-called “New Atheists” has been precisely that they are superficial, complacent, tame, and so forth. They take “values” for granted, coasting on the fumes of a religion from which they profess to have cut themselves off. It’s an interesting question. I wonder who were the mid-twentieth-century atheists whom de Lubac had particularly in mind when he wrote the above? Sartre and Camus, perhaps? If so, I think it would be fairly uncontroversial to say that our most vocal atheists today fall well short of the standard.

Yet in the end de Lubac argues that the atheists’ efforts to disparage God have, despite their often praiseworthy intentions, only ended up hurting humanity, and this because there was an obscure truth in the claim (made by Feuerbach and Nietzche) that God was a kind of mirror of humanity, in whom we find our highest ideals and ground our self-understanding. When we rejected Him, we quenched our own guiding light, lost our own balance. From a Catholic perspective, this had to be so, for God is in truth so intimately present to humanity that He could not be forsaken without doing damage to ourselves:

“For man, God is not only a norm which is imposed upon him and, by guiding him, lifts him up again: God is the Absolute upon which he rests, the Magnet which draws him, the Beyond which calls him, the Eternal which provides him with the only atmosphere in which he can breathe and, in some sort, that third dimension in which man finds his depth. If man takes himself as god, he can, for a time, cherish the illusion that he has raised and freed himself. But it is a fleeting exaltation! In reality, he has merely abased God, and it is not long before he finds that in doing so he has abased himself.”

Thus those who, as Comte said, set out “to discover a man with no trace of God in him” were on a quixotic quest, for the man so discovered would turn out to be a pale shadow, a cipher, or a mere tool.

(Parenthetically, to move from Nietzsche to Comte is rather like switching from scotch to lukewarm tea. Although he was in his lifetime apparently considered a formidable adversary of religion, a systematic thinker who rode the crest of modern “scientific” thought into an imagined blissful future, he has none of the guts and fire of Nietzsche. In this he resembles our “New Atheists” — though as a scholar of culture and society he easily surpassed even them. It is also, I confess, difficult to take seriously any man who thought sociology the highest of the sciences (!). But de Lubac does relate a hilarious anecdote about Comte’s overtures to the Jesuit order, whom he saw as potential allies to his ambition to bring about a secular world order. Alas, his knocks on the door went unanswered.)


de Lubac’s discussion of the leading atheists constitutes only the first third of the book. In the second and third parts, he turns to two prominent humanists who wrote in opposition to atheism. The first is Søren Kierkegaard, and the second is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. About the former he has relatively little to say — the discussion focuses on Concluding Unscientific Postscript and not much else — other than that Kierkegaard was a kind of herald of transcendence to a culture that had grown almost deaf to it. He called people back from abstraction and speculation to the inner life of faith, to a personal encounter with God. de Lubac cites his maxim from the Postscript: “Preparation for becoming attentive to Christianity does not consist in reading books or in making surveys of world history, but in deeper immersion in existence.” For Kierkegaard, contra the atheists, it was precisely by more serious and devout faith, by grounding oneself more firmly in God, that one could become more fully and maturely human.

The long final section of the book is a detailed engagement with the novels of Dostoyevsky, whom de Lubac sees as something like the archetypal man of our time: “in him the crisis of our modern world was concentrated into a spearhead and reduced to its quintessence”. He describes Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche as “hostile brothers,” united in their experience and understanding of a world conceived apart from God, but responding to that vision in opposite ways. For him, Dostoyevsky is something like an antidote to Nietzsche:

“To put the matter succinctly, he forestalled Nietzsche. He overcame the temptation to which Nietzsche was to succumb. That is what gives his work its extraordinary scope. Whoever plunges into it comes out proof against the Nietzschean poison, while aware of the greatness of Nietzsche.”

There are many atheists within the pages of Dostoyevsky’s novels; de Lubac identifies three principal types: the “man-God” (the individual who is a law unto himself), the “Tower of Babel” (the social revolutionary who proposes to ensure the happiness of mankind without God), and the “palace of glass” (the philosopher who rejects every mystery). Each is portrayed by Dostoyevsky, and each is, in a sense, refuted, not by abstract argument but by a means appropriate to a novelist and humanist: by exposing its defects from the inside. Although even those most sympathetic to Dostoyevsky might wonder whether Alyosha Karamazov, wonderful as he is, quite refutes his brother Ivan. But the point is sound: Dostoyevsky has felt the force of atheism but has pushed back in a way that merits the attention of thoughtful readers.

Among whom I hesitate to number myself. As much as I admire Dostoyevsky, and as much as I saw the importance he has to de Lubac’s overall argument in this book, I confess that I found myself skimming through this final section. To really sink one’s teeth into it one would need to have read the novels recently enough to remember many details, and in some cases it has been many years, too long, for me. Regrettably.


In closing, I will make mention of a short section of the book, placed somewhere near the mid-point and called “The Spiritual Battle”, which functions as something like an extended homily. de Lubac steps back from his analysis of atheist humanism to ask an important question: why has this movement arisen in our culture, and in what ways does the Church bear responsibility for its emergence? He concedes that many of the atheist critiques of Christianity — that it is stale and timid, say, or that its adherents lack true commitment to their professed ideals — have much truth in them that ought to be of grave concern to Christians. He sees, for instance, that even Nietzsche’s scorn for Christianity had something noble in it that we could profitably emulate. In a noteworthy passage he writes:

“Nietzsche’s feelings with regard to Jesus always remained mixed, and so did his judgments on Christianity. There are times when he sees in it not so much a false ideal as one that is worn out. “It is our stricter and more finely tempered piety”, he says, “that stops us from still being Christians today.” Thus his animosity is against the Christians of our day, against us. The lash of his scorn is for our mediocrities and our hypocrisies. It searches out our weakness, adorn with fine names. In reminding us of the robust and joyous austerity of “primitive Christianity” he calls shame on our “present-day Christianity”, as “mawkish and nebulous”. Can it be contended that he is quite wrong? Should “everything that now goes by the name of Christian” be defended against him? When he says of us, for instance: “If they want me to believe in their Savior, they’ll have to sing me better hymns! His followers will have to look more like men who have been saved!”—are we entitled to be indignant? To how many of us does Christianity really seem “something big, something with joy and enthusiasm”? Do the unbelievers who jostle us at every turn observe on our brows the radiance of that gladness which, twenty centuries ago, captivated the fine flower of the pagan world? Are our hearts the hearts of men risen with Christ? Do we, in our time, bear witness to the Beatitudes? In a word, while we are full alive to the blasphemy in Nietzsche’s terrible phrase and in its whole context, are we not also forced to see in ourselves something of what drove him to such blasphemy?”

He goes on to argue that the recovery of “the radiance of that gladness” must be the keen desire of modern Christians who hope for the Gospel to attract modern souls. We need, he says, a new infusion of joy and seriousness in our religion, and we must find the resources for this renewal by delving deeper into our own tradition, not by casting about outside it: “…it is not a case of adapting it to the fashion of the day. It must come into its own again in our souls. We must give our souls back to it.” It is only if we exemplify “gentleness and goodness, considerateness toward the lowly, pity for those who suffer, rejection of perverse methods, protection for the oppressed, unostentatious self-sacrifice, resistance to lies, the courage to call evil by its proper name, love of justice, the spirit of peace and concord, open-heartedness, [and] mindfulness of heaven” that Christianity will be an effective leaven in society, for

“it will never have any real existence or make any real conquests, except by the strength of its own spirit, by the strength of charity.”

And this seems a good thought on which to draw these notes to a close.

More on Hart

February 27, 2014

There has been quite a lot of commentary on David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It has ranged from brazenly uninformed (Jerry Coyne in The New Republic) to thoughtfully engaged (William Carroll at Public Discourse). A short review of the book, by Mark Anthony Signorelli, appeared recently at The University Bookman, and it strikes me as one of the more nimble and informative overviews that I have seen. Signorelli writes, in part:

Enthralled to the mechanistic picture of reality, modern persons—even devout believers—have a hard time envisioning God’s relationship to nature through any other conceptual lens than efficient causality, positing him as the one who bestows on matter its appearance and proper functioning. Hence the ubiquitous, though irritatingly imprecise, image of God the watchmaker. But this is to turn God into only one more being among beings, robbing him of his unique status as Being itself, and the origin of all other beings, complete with the remarkable philosophical ramifications this status bears. Modern atheists, for all of their supposed fury against theistic belief, have only ever aimed their barbs at a supreme being, and thus have never “actually written a word about God.

I do wonder about that initial “enthralled to” — which surely ought to be either “enthralled by” or “in thrall to”, should it not? — but I nonetheless recommend the whole thing.

Caldecott: Secret Fire

February 5, 2014

Secret Fire
The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien
Stratford Caldecott
(Darton Longman Todd, 2003)
144 p.

This slender book is a thoughtful attempt to explore the spiritual roots and background of Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. It draws on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, of course, but also delves deeper into The Silmarillion and the fragmentary History of Middle Earth. It is not a book for casual Tolkien fans, but is accessible to readers (like myself) who have limited acquaintance with this “background” material. (The scare quotes are only because I am not sure Tolkien woould agree that it is background.)

Tolkien was a Catholic, and Caldecott argues that “an understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal beliefs and their influence on the story for which he is famous can only enhance our appreciation of this great work of art”. Some readers might contest, or at least not understand, the relevance of Tolkien’s Catholicism to the stories he told. There is no overt Catholicism in his tales (not in the best known ones, at least) and, even more remarkable, no overt religion at all. But Caldecott has a trump card in the form of a famous letter in which Tolkien wrote:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

It is an authorial claim that gets one thinking, and the Christian resonances soon become more evident: Tolkien’s stories turn on themes of humility, power in weakness, the parasitic nature of evil, Providence, and mercy. And there are some specific allusions to Christianity as well: Caldecott reminds us that the date of the destruction of the One Ring was March 25, the date of the Catholic feast of the Annunciation — the date on which the power of sin in the world was decisively (if still, in history, partially) undone.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a sacramental realm as well: material things have spiritual meanings and powers. From the background mythology Tolkien demonstrates that though the material world was created good, Morgoth’s power has disseminated through it, making it subject to corruption and decay, making it subject to his will, and making the dark magic of Saruman (for example) possible. Gold and fire are especially under his dominion, which casts the One Ring and Mount Doom in a new light (or a new shadow). Of all the elements of the natural world it is water that is most outside his influence; hence the watery backdrop of Rivendale, for instance.

There are also strong Marian themes in Middle Earth. Tolkien said that his “own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity” was founded on the Blessed Virgin, and he poured that beauty into certain characters, especially the female elves such as Galadriel. Caldecott argues that the longing for beauty, especially as experienced by the elves, is a Marian element of the mythology, and that that longing is sacramentally associated in the stories with starlight (perhaps under Mary’s title ‘star of the sea’), with music, and (again) with the sound of water.

(Incidentally, Caldecott has very interesting things to say about the place of elves in Tolkien’s world. They serve as a kind of experimental forum for him: they are immortal yet are confined to an earthly life. Their love and their longing are all directed at this world, rather than, as is fitting for men, at the next. Therefore although they long for transcendent beauty, they can never actually hope for it, and their longing is inflected by “a sense of melancholy, of infinite distance or separation.” This is an aspect of elvishness which I had not previously considered.)

One of the strongest conjunctions of Tolkien’s mythology with Catholic doctrine is to be found in the Creation myth which opens The Silmarillion. This section is one of the choicest jewels in Tolkien’s treasure chest, incredibly beautiful on its own merits. It begins with song, as Ilúvatar, the One, sings the world into being out of nothing. Caldecott spends quite a lot of time on this myth, examining its stages and various aspects in concert with Christian tradition, and it is among the most rewarding sections of the book. The notion that the Valar are “living Forms” (in the Platonic sense) was arresting; this was apparently how Tolkien himself thought of angels.

I said above that the Middle Earth mythology, however infused with Christian metaphysics and redolent of a Christian moral vision it may be, is nonetheless silent on the specific claims of Christian theology. And, of course, this is quite fitting, for the events with which Tolkien is concerned occurred long before the Incarnation. Yet I was surprised to discover that buried deep within the History of Middle Earth, in a section called “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”, Tolkien wrote of a prophecy that

“the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.”

One could hardly ask for a more direct indication that the world which Tolkien created was intended as an imaginative reconstruction of a Christian cosmos. And it was just one of many interesting things I learned from this intensely interesting little book.

Wild: The Tumbler of God

January 17, 2014

The Tumbler of God
Chesterton as Mystic
Robert Wild
(Angelico, 2013)
217 p.

In 2013 the Bishop of Northampton announced that he was appointing a priest to investigate the merits of opening a cause for the canonization of G.K. Chesterton. The announcement sent ripples of excitement, whether nervous or enthusiastic, through the ranks of Chesterton’s admirers. On the face of it, Chesterton would seem an odd candidate for sainthood: a gregarious, corpulent journalist, literary critic, controversialist, novelist, poet, and playwright who lived most of his life as a non-Catholic fits no standard template. He would seem to bear a closer resemblance to Falstaff than to St. Francis. Yet there are those who believe that Chesterton was not only an exemplary man, but a holy one, and Fr. Robert Wild’s book is a serious attempt to identify some of the reasons why.

The basic claim of the book is not that Chesterton was a saint, but that he was a mystic “in at least some of the traditional Christian meanings of the word.” In particular, Fr. Wild argues that he was, throughout his life, blessed with a special grace which gave him a heightened awareness of the dependence of the world on God for its existence. He had, in Wild’s words, a “Creator mysticism,” a steady apprehension of the “thereness-of-being-coming-forth,” in which the mystery of existence — “the wonder begotten of the contrast between something and nothing” — was habitually present to his consciousness. In his brilliant study — brilliant by reputation, for it is out of print and hard to find – Paradox in Chesterton, Hugh Kenner wrote:

“His whole habit of thought began with thankfulness, impelled him to see not lamp-posts but limited beings participating in All Being; he was accustomed to looking at grass and seeing God. And the consciousness of God introduces another dimension into consideration of grass.”

This primary awareness of Being, and of God as the ground or act of Being, is a mark of Christian mysticism. It is more than an awareness of the Presence of God in created things, and more than an affirmation of the ultimate goodness of all existing things — though it is those things too. It is, in addition, an awareness of “the dynamic power of God constantly creating, drawing the created reality into existence, from nothingness into being.” For it is central to Christian metaphysics that Creation is not an act that occurred at some specific time long ago, but a continual act by which all things are sustained in being, ceaselessly pouring forth from the plenitude of God’s own being.

Evidence that Chesterton experienced this wonder at the mystery of being and awareness of its contingency and gratuitousness is abundantly present in his writing. He was continually expressing astonishment at existence, at the sheer physical thereness of things. “I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles,” he wrote. “I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door; to hit me over the head, like a giant’s club in a fairy tale.” In poems like “By the Babe Unborn” or “A Second Childhood” he provokes us with a vision of the world that brims with wide-eyed wonder at its being and beauty. Fr. Wild  draws particular attention to a profound passage from Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi in which he describes the saint’s perception of the whole of Nature being contingent and unnecessary:

“So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism. When we say that a poet praises the whole of creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet [the mystic] does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity.

The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.”

Although this passage was written by Chesterton to describe a stage in the spiritual development of St. Francis, Fr. Wild takes it to be an a window into Chesterton’s own experience. That image of “the sons of God shouting for joy” at Creation was one to which Chesterton returned many times in his writings, and it seems to have been especially important to his own spiritual life.

St. Francis himself was important to Chesterton too, and the biography he wrote about the great medieval saint has long been recognized as one of his principal achievements. Fr. Wild reads it with some care for insight into Chesterton’s own views about the nature of mysticism. Chesterton uses the metaphor of “tumbling” to describe the progress of the nascent mystic, calling St. Francis “Our Lady’s Tumbler” (and it is the same metaphor, of course, which gives Fr. Wild’s book its title). Tumbling is — in Chesterton’s words — a “grotesque simile” for the profound interior conversion with a mystic undergoes. His world is upended before it comes right again, and during that period of crisis he is granted a view of “the earth hanging” — that is, contingent and dependent on something other than itself. There are some mystics who “land on their heads” (and into this group Chesterton put William Blake and Leo Tolstoy, among others) but others (like St. Francis) who “land on their feet”, seemingly unchanged but seeing all things now with “new eyes”.

It is because of this experience that the mystic voices praise for both the Creation and the Creator, and, interestingly, it is in the wake of this mystical conversion that a healthy and authentic asceticism arises, “as an attempt to pay the unpayable debt [of gratitude]; and as a means to keep God as the absolutely first love in one’s life (Wild, 105-6).” In Chesterton’s view, then, asceticism, so often associated with saintliness and mysticism, rightly arises not out of disdain for material things or pleasures, but out of gratitude for a vision of God’s glory manifest in material things.

The other saint to whom Chesterton was greatly indebted was St. Thomas Aquinas, and the similarities between the two men extended to more than just their portly frames. Observations of Chesterton’s “breathtakingly intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth” (J.J. Scarisbrick) and his “extraordinary comprehensive intuition of being” (Kenner) can startle the unsuspecting reader with their boldness. Out of context, the claim that “He never fumbles to reach a position because he never needs to reach a position. He occupies a central position all the time” might be taken as descriptive of St. Thomas rather than (as it is) of Chesterton (courtesy of Hugh Kenner again). Readers of the Summa and of Chesterton’s voluminous cultural journalism might be persuaded by the claim that there is a certain similarity between the two despite the very different audiences and contexts, for both Chesterton and St. Thomas routinely grasp the whole as they grasp the parts, arguing particular points while never losing sight of the architecture of the larger argument. Following up on this observation, Fr. Wild argues that Chesterton had a “charism of truth” in the form of the gift of knowledge, which St. Augustine distinguished from the gift of wisdom by applying the former to human affairs and the latter to divine. Certainly Chesterton was a man possessed of an unusually astute practical wisdom.

Summing up his central argument, Fr. Wild commends Chesterton to us as an exemplar of a “lay mysticism” that can thrive in the midst of an active life, aware of the fact that created realities reveal God to us:

“By remaining faithful to his grace, he gave us one of the great keys to understanding reality: how to live in the present moment, in wonder and thanksgiving, and how to see God there always “immortally active,” bringing everything forth instantaneously out of his unlimited power and beauty.”


Many books have been written about Chesterton, but this is the first that I know of to focus specifically on Chesterton’s relationship to God, and the argument it makes is both interesting and persuasive. The portrait of Chesterton which Fr. Wild draws is, at least, a faithful one, and the ways in which he connects the familiar “Chestertonian” qualities to the Christian mystical tradition are a good service. Whether these qualities are attributable to a special divine grace, as Fr. Wild contends, is harder to demonstrate and is, in any case, not my responsibility to judge. But I’d like to thank Fr. Wild for writing such a thought provoking and instructive book.


More of Kenner on Chesterton:

“Chesterton’s analogical perception of Being has led us from elementary wonder to the very heart of a paradoxical universe. It may be said without exaggeration that he ranks almost with St. Thomas himself in the comprehensiveness of that initial perception; and that very certainty and immediacy which makes it unnecessary for him to struggle at any time with any truth and so makes significant dramatic expression impossible for him, places him securely not in the hierarchy of the artists but in one not less distinguished: the long line of exegetists and theologians who have successively explored the same cosmos and the light of the same vision, seeing all things ordered and all things mirroring greater and lesser things: the Fathers, philosophers, and Doctors of the Church.” (quoted by Wild, p.7)

(I cannot imagine a nicer way of saying that Chesterton was a poor dramatist!)

Favourites of 2013: Books

January 3, 2014

As the pace of my life has accelerated and my hours of sleep have dwindled in recent years, I have become a little more exacting about the books I admit to my reading queue. At the beginning of 2013 I drew up a list of about thirty titles that I intended to read over the course of the year. Looking at that list again today, I see that I only half-succeeded. Well, at least I have a good start on my list for 2014.

Part of the reason for my slow progress was that I decided, mid-year, to ease up on my explorations of that vast ocean of “Books I Have Not Read.” I paused, took a deep breath, and went back to re-read some things that I had enjoyed on first acquaintance and always meant to return to. This was a good practice, and I am planning to continue it in the new year.

Among the books I did read this year, a few stood out as being particularly good.


taruskin_3DCCOxford History of Western Music, Vol.V
Richard Taruskin [2005]

Let this final volume in Taruskin’s massive, and massively enjoyable, history stand in for the whole set, which I read in its entirety over the last few years. It is an amazing tour de force of historical and critical exposition, plump with enlightening remarks and (for the most part) accessible discussion of musical developments over the past thousand years of western culture. Taruskin is reputedly one of the world’s foremost musicologists, and in these volumes he has given music lovers an invaluable gift. A treasure. [Book Note]

Into the Silent Landlaird
Martin Laird [2006]

There are many books available about Christian contemplative prayer, and I have read a few over the years. This may be the best one that has come my way, not so much for sheer profundity, but for the way it strikes a nice balance between profundity and accessibility. Laird writes with a gentle authority which seems rooted in personal experience, and with sensitivity to the impediments which the beginner can expect to encounter. I found it an instructive and edifying book. [Book Note]

wildThe Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic
Robert Wild [2013]

I intend to write more about this book in the coming weeks, but I can make some brief comments here. Many books have been written about Chesterton, but Fr. Wild attempts something that I have not seen before: to describe the basic contours of Chesterton’s spiritual life. Fr. Wild argues that Chesterton is a kind of mystic, gifted with a special awareness of what he calls ‘the thereness-of-being-coming-forth’ — that is, an habitual apprehension of the contingency of creation and its dependence on God’s creative power for its continued existence. The argument is developed carefully and persuasively, drawing on a wide range of Chesterton’s writings. He goes on to argue not only that Chesterton lived this “Creator mysticism,” but that he had it in virtue of a special divine grace. That is harder to demonstrate, but the whole line of argument will surely be of special interest to the Bishop of Northampton. A stimulating read.


Doctor FaustusDoctor Faustus
Thomas Mann [1947]

It had been about ten years since I last read this wonderful novel; I am so glad that I took the time to revisit it. It is, of course, Mann’s modernized rendering of the Faust myth. The central character, Adrian Leverkuhn, is a composer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a lifetime of creative genius and worldwide acclaim. I do not know why this book is not more widely read and more lavishly praised; few twentieth-century novels are its superior. Mann’s writing is superb: elegant, elaborate, and precise, with a charming loquacity that never wears out its welcome. It poses as a memoir written during the Second World War by Adrian’s childhood friend, and the events of Adrian’s life parallel Germany’s ill-starred bid for power under Hitler. But it would be crude to reduce the book to a political allegory: at its heart it is, I believe, a meditation on creativity and the sources and costs of artistic genius. The supernatural elements of the tale are handled deftly and with considerable subtlety: we are left in some doubt as to whether Adrian in fact encountered the devil or whether his genius and his eventual madness are together rooted in a physical malady, albeit one with a moral aspect. The book is a treat for music lovers too, as it contains some of the finest literary prose about music that I have ever encountered; the section on Beethoven’s last piano sonata is especially transporting. It is a great book from start to finish.

quest-holy-grailThe Quest of the Holy Grail
Anonymous [c.1225]

This year I devoted quite a lot of time to reading Thomas Malory’s Arthurian tales, most of them in the Middle English of Caxton’s original printing. In the course of doing so, I revisited this story about the adventures of Gawain, Lancelot, Galahad, and others as they search for the Holy Grail. For me this story, of all those in the Le Morte d’Arthur cycle (that I have so far read), is the most resonant and moving. It seems to me that, simply because of the nature of the story it is telling, it can be naturally interpreted as both a rousing adventure tale and as an allegory of the Christian soul’s quest for Christ. More effectively than in The Pilgrim’s Progress (which is so dourly moralistic), this story informs the inner life of prayer and devotion with magnanimity, gallantry, and the other splendid virtues of the Arthurian moral universe. It is a truly magnificent book.

Paradise Lostmilton-paradise-lost
John Milton [1674]

Speaking of dour — well, that’s not a fair way to begin, and “dour” is not quite the right word. Maclin Horton reminded me of Dr. Johnson’s comment about Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer than it is”, and while I admit that I cannot help smiling with recognition at the truth of that, I will also confess that there were many points at which I was truly carried away, spell-bound, by the power of Milton’s poetry. His reputation as a stern taskmaster is not the whole story. He is perhaps hard to love, but he has my respect. And we English speakers are not so richly blessed with epic poems of genius that we can afford to be cavalier toward this one. Much has been made of the alleged attractiveness of Milton’s Satan; when I first read the poem some years ago I was willing to go along with it, but this time I was less convinced; Satan may be the most characterful figure in the story (and he is certainly far less problematic than Milton’s disastrous God character), but I did not find him remotely seductive.

As I read the poem, I leaned on two sources to help me better understand and appreciate it: Yale’s “Open Courses” lectures on Milton, and C.S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost. On balance, I do not recommend the former: the lecturer is so intent on discovering subtle and unexpected meanings that he routinely overlooks the obvious and evident (and sometimes opposite) meanings, and he too often exhibits what C.S. Lewis calls the “touching innocence” of critics who believe the claims of the father of lies; Satan’s absurd claim, for instance, that because he cannot remember his own creation he might — who can say? — be self-created is treated in these lectures as a kind of provoking paradox ripe with subversive wisdom. On the other hand, there was a very interesting discussion of how Milton, in his descriptions of pre-lapsarian Eden, uses words in such a way as to restore to them morally neutral meanings (for example, “error” is used to describe the wandering course of a river rather than a moral fault); that sort of thing I find fascinating. Lewis’ book, for its part, is outstanding; it’s an indispensable companion piece in my view, loaded with good sense and helpful background.

Children’s Books

toms midnightTom’s Midnight Garden
Philippa Pearce [1958]

We read a lot of books with the kids; given their ages, these are mostly picture books short enough to get through at bedtime. But I have also been making an effort to “scout ahead,” reading a few popular children’s books that they might be ready for in 5 or 10 years. Thus it was that I came to Philippa Pearce’s magical little novel about a boy’s nocturnal adventures in a mysterious garden behind the London house he is visiting. The story has its secrets to disclose — I guessed the general shape of them fairly early on — but for me the attraction of the book is not so much in the story as the atmosphere: the book has a dreamy, hushed quality that has lingered long in my memory. Perhaps it would be an unusually sensitive child who would apprehend that tonal dimension, but my general rule is to give the children books that have more in them than they know. As such, Tom’s Midnight Garden is for keeps.

The Tale of DespereauxTale_of_Despereaux
Kate DiCamillo [2003]

We like Kate DiCamillo for her “Bink and Gollie” book, so I thought it would be fun to try this novel about a valiant little mouse who saves a princess. We actually read the whole book to our four-year old, and she followed it all the way through. There were some thematic elements early on that made me wary — tiresome tropes about rejecting the traditions one inherits and embracing one’s unique inner mouse — but of course whether that is objectionable depends very much on what is being rejected and what is being embraced, and in the end I was won over. Despereaux, with his large ears and wide eyes, is a splendid little hero. DiCamillo sets him apart from his kind by making him especially attentive to beauty, and it is his love of beauty that ennobles him and opens up for him a world that his friends and relations do not perceive or understand. This seems an unusually terrific premise for a children’s book. The writing is lively and clear, with strong but not simplistic characters. I’ve heard that there’s a film version of the book, but I’ve also heard that it’s not very good. The book, by that measure, is better.

adventures-tom-sawyer-mark-twain-paperback-cover-artTom Sawyer
Mark Twain [1876]

Would you believe that prior to taking up Tom Sawyer I had never read anything by Mark Twain? For some reason I had assumed that he was a hack, writing “exciting” adventure stories without much substance to them. I got a fitting comeuppance. It is true that the book is fairly episodic, but when the episodes are this entertaining I can hardly complain. I did not read a funnier book all year, but I love the book chiefly for its wide-eyed evocation of boyhood: granting that Tom is unusually adventurous and mischievous and exaggerated for comic effect (few boys of his time, I imagine, played at Robinson Crusoe long enough to make an appearance at their own funerals), the writing has the ring of truth to it: the awkwardness around girls, the failure to think through consequences, the inattention to schedules and cleanliness. Chesterton once wrote that childhood was “like a hundred windows open on all sides of the head,” and something of that experience makes it into these pages. Huck Finn is on my reading list for 2014.


And that’s the kind of year it’s been. Comments and recommendations welcome!

Theism as ‘total rationalism’

December 16, 2013

[There is] another essential logical intuition that recurs in various forms throughout the great theistic metaphysical systems. It is the conviction that in God lies at once the deepest truth of mind and the most universal truth of existence, and that for this reason the world can truly be known by us. Whatever else one might call this vision of things, it is most certainly, in a very real sense, a kind of “total rationalism.” Belief in God, properly understood, allows one to see all that exists — both in its own being and in our knowledge of it — as rational. It may be possible to believe in the materialist view of reality, I suppose, and in some kind of mechanical account of consciousness, but it is a belief that precludes any final trust in the power of reason to reflect the objective truth of nature. I happen to think that a coherent materialist model of mind is an impossibility. I think also that the mechanistic picture of nature is self-evidently false, nothing more than an intellectual adherence to a limited empirical method that has been ineptly mistaken for a complete metaphysical description of reality. I believe that nature is rational, that it possesses inherent meaning, that it even exhibits genuine formal and final causes, and that therefore it can be faithfully mirrored in the intentional, abstractive, formal, and final activity of rational consciousness. If I am wrong about all of those things, however, I think it also clear that what lies outside such beliefs is not some alternative rationalism, some other and more rigorous style of logic, some better way of grasping the truth of things, but only an abandonment of firm belief in any kind of reasoning at all. God explains the existence of the universe despite its ontological contingency, which is something that no form of naturalism can do; but God also explains the transparency of the universe to consciousness, despite its apparent difference from consciousness, as well as the coincidence between reason and reality, and the intentional power of the mind, and the reality of truth as a dimension of existence that is at once objective and subjective. Here, just as in the realm of ontology, atheism is simply another name for radical absurdism…

– David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God.

St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses

December 10, 2013

The Life of Moses
St. Gregory of Nyssa
(Paulist Press, 1978) [c.380]
208 p.

To read the Church Fathers is a long-standing objective toward which I have made little progress; this is my first exposure to St. Gregory of Nyssa. His The Life of Moses is, I am told, generally considered to be a good example of the practice, common to many of the Fathers, of the “spiritual interpretation” of Scripture, wherein the literal meaning of the text is enriched by allegorical, moral, and anagogical meanings as well. (Here is a brief primer.) Gregory’s approach in this book is largely moral: he takes Moses as the archetype of the virtuous man, and argues that meditation upon the events of his life is helpful to those who wish to be virtuous themselves.

To this end, he first summarizes the principal plot points in Moses’ life in a straightforward manner and then, rather like Proust writing À la recherche du temps perdu, returns to the beginning and tells the story again, but this time extending and elaborating the details, reading the life largely in allegorical and moral terms. For example, Moses’ relationships with his true mother and with his adoptive mother (Pharaoh’s daughter, of course) Gregory reads as an allegory for the relationship between study of Scripture and profane study. Or, in other place, he compares the fire which burns but does not consume to Christ in the womb of the Virgin: “the flower of her virginity was not withered in giving birth”.

Spiritual interpretation is, on many points, at odds with the general mindset of modernity, and it has fallen out of favour. Distinctively modern ways of reading Scripture, such as historical criticism, are far removed from what Gregory here advocates. Something like spiritual reading survives as an aspect of practices such as lectio divina — this, at least, was the reference point that kept coming to my mind as I was reading — but it is otherwise rare today. We are inclined to see it as arbitrary, capricious, irresponsible, wayward, fanciful, and so on. Such criticisms might be just another way of stating our prejudices. As David Bentley Hart argues in the video which is linked below, the practice was not as arbitrary as it might seem; there were criteria for assessing the value of a particular reading. Reading the Scriptures spiritually has advantages, too, which we should not overlook: it encourages an imaginative and contemplative engagement with Scripture, and so serves as a devotional, as well as a theological, labour.

The most arresting idea which I found in this book was Gregory’s doctrine of eternal progress in the spiritual life. As God is without limit, our desire for God is properly without limit, and there can therefore be no limit to our journey toward and into the life of God. God is goodness, truth, and beauty, realities which we can never exhaust. Moses desired to see God, and he was not satisfied with half-measures:

He shone with glory. And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God’s true being.

Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.

And the bold request which goes up the mountains of desire asks this: to enjoy the Beauty not in mirrors and reflections, but face to face.

And later he summarizes the same idea:

This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him. But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more. Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied.

This image of the eternal voyage as an allegory of the spiritual life is a wonderful one. We desire, and because the transcendental realities which we desire are infinite, our desire only grows stronger on satiety. “Further up and further in!”


I learned of The Life of Moses from this address by David Bentley Hart on the subject of interpretation of Scripture:

Undset: The Master of Hestviken

November 26, 2013

The Master of Hestviken
The Axe; The Snake Pit;
In the Wilderness; The Son Avenger

Sigrid Undset
[Translated from the Norwegian by Arthur G. Chater]
(A.A. Knopf, 1958) [1925-27]
994 p.

“A man’s faith is put to the test on the day God’s will is not his.”

“…whoso is minded to do as he himself wills will soon enough see the day when he will find he has done that which he had never willed.”

It has now been well over a year since I finished reading this great tetralogy. I have been putting off writing about it until I could find time and space to write something that would “do it justice”. But it is fairly evident that that time and space are not going to be found anytime in the near future or in this neighbourhood, so here I am, resigned to pecking out something inadequate but appreciative. Some spoilers follow.

The books tell the life story of Olav Audunssøn, a fourteenth-century Norwegian landowner. Olav is a Catholic, and much of the drama of the story is driven by the conflict between the moral vision of the Church, rooted in mercy, repentance, and forgiveness, and the traditional moral vision of the Scandanavian people, rooted in honour, reputation, and vengeance. Olav feels the demands of both moral systems in a very acute way, and he is crushed at the place where they press against one another.

In the first volume of the tetralogy Olav commits a murder. It is done for the best of reasons, so to speak, in order to defend his wife’s honour (and his own), and he does it without anyone knowing, or even suspecting, that anyone has died. He gets away with it, and he must keep it secret — not so much for civil reasons, for according to the honour code the murder was defensible, but because he cannot reveal his motive without revealing the shameful secret which the murder was committed to avenge.

Yet Olav’s conscience torments him, and his unwillingness to repent begins to harden his heart. His unwillingness to confess begins to disrupt his relationship to the Church. He twists and turns, rationalizing his acts. All the while he senses that Christ pursues him, offering grace which Olav refuses. “I thought I could not live if another had stained my honour and I let it go unavenged,” he says. “I thought it easier to live besmirched if I myself had stained my honour — so long as none knew of the stain. For such a cause as this I turned Judas against my Lord, armed me with the hardest sins, if but they might be hard enough to weigh upon my weakness like an armour.” The heart of the story, across all four books, is about how this internal struggle plays out. It is told with nuance and sensitivity, moral wisdom, and, I am convinced, love for Olav and sympathy with his predicament, in which he must suffer if he does not confess, yet also suffer — and not just him, but his family also — if he does.

Olav lives a long and eventful life; we travel with him to England on a commercial venture, and he joins his countrymen in a war against invading Danes. He is, in many significant respects, a good man: respected, magnanimous, protective and supportive of his family, willing to suffer for the good of others. Everything he does and sees is absorbed by his inner turmoil, casting it in new light or new shadow. He has moments of spiritual clarity (“But now he tardily understood that then he must choose, not between God and this or that upon earth, not even his worldly life, but between God and himself.”) but his general trajectory is one of growing hardness and reluctant resistance to grace. “His soul was grey and cold as a corpse,” we are told in the final volume. Yet Olav’s God is one who can raise even a corpse to new life. The offer of mercy is never foreclosed.

After his death, his son and daughter, even after learning of the great sin which had cast its long shadow over this life, call him “an upright man” for all the steady good he did them throughout his life. And he did more than they knew.


Readers of Undset’s more famous Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy might be amused to learn that Kristen’s parents make a brief appearance in these books. The two stories are quite closely related, and are, I am tempted to say, of comparable stature as literary achievements. I expect that her Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded chiefly on the strength of these two books. This English translation of The Master of Hestviken, by Arthur G. Chater, is serviceable; early in the first volume it is unpalatably sweet and somewhat stilted in its efforts to sound antiquated, but it improves as it goes. It is highly recommended nonetheless; there are no other options.

Make room for Jack.

November 18, 2013

This Friday will be the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death. I’ve just learned that on that day a memorial plaque bearing his name will be installed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. This is obviously a great honour for any English author — and for an Irish one too. More.

Reading now

November 16, 2013


I mentioned a few months ago that a new book of Flannery O’Connor’s writing was to be published. My copy arrived this week; that’s it on the left. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but plenty of other people are talking about it. (Sometimes literally talking.)

Part of the reason that I’ve not yet sat down with Ms. O’Connor is that I’ve been preoccupied with David Bentley Hart’s most recent book, which I also mentioned a while ago; that’s it on the right. When I read I have a habit of turning down the corners of pages that contain a passage I’d like to return to. Clearly, I am enjoying this book.


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