Month: December 2013

Written and Spoken Word

In a famous passage of the Phaedrus (274c-276b), Plato argues that the spoken word is superior to the written word. There, Plato asserts that writing is an “elixir not of memory, but of reminding” (275a), which, by is very nature, is inferior to the spoken word and a pale image thereof. There is, however, an obvious tension in Plato’s thought as this very condemnation of writing survives for us to consider today precisely because Plato wrote it down. As Alan Jacobs has pointed out, Plato “condemns what he does; he does what he condemns.” Through a Christian interpretation of Plato, there is a bridge over this apparent gap in the communal reading of Scripture, an ancient and central aspect of Christian worship.

Scripture seems on some points to agree with Plato’s assessment that the written word is not for memory, but for reminding. In Deuteronomy 11:18, for example, God orders the Hebrews to use the law he has revealed to them as a constant reminder to cling to righteousness, saying “lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes” (KJV). In the Psalms (119:97), Scripture rejects Plato’s overall negative assessment of the written word but agrees with his assertion concerning its use as a reminder rather than memory: “O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.”

There are passages in Scripture, however, which point out clearly the insufficiency of the written word. Jeremiah 31:33, for example, looks forward to a time when the covenant of the written law which God made with the Hebrew people through Moses will be surpassed by another covenant in which God “will put [his] law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” In other words, the textual reminders will no longer be necessary as real memory will totally replace it. According Jacobs, Plato “has understood the problem of writing quite exactly: it is a copy, an imitation, one step away from the real. The spoken word, on the other hand, is fully present in the soul and for this reason is a guarantee of ‘legitimate’ and certain meaning.” The choice of the Apostle John to describe Christ as the Logos of God, a Greek word primarily associated with the word spoken by a living voice, indicates that Scripture has similarly recognized this problem. In the Incarnation, the Word of God became man, a living voice has supplanted the written word for God’s people.

The communal reading of Scripture in the Christian community is an ancient tradition that may present a bridge between the written and spoken word. In one of the earliest accounts of the Sunday morning Christian worship service, written in the middle of the second century, St. Justin Martyr writes that “all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” Matthew 18:20 records Christ’s promise that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” In this gathering together of Christians for the communal reading of Scripture, then, which was followed immediately, according to Justin, by the Eucharistic rite, an act of communion with Christ and one’s fellow Christians, is the answer to Plato’s concerns. Both the written and the human spoken word are present, but both are transcended by a third voice, that of God, and a third mode of communication, the mystical communion of believers and God in love and faith.

1 Alan Jacobs, “Deconstruction,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, eds., Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 180.
2 Ibid.
3 St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67.

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Satisfaction, Distraction, and the Human Condition

One of the most remarkable features of the age we live in is that the most meaningful and important things in the lives of individuals and societies — things like religion, ethics, and education — must struggle for relevance against a tide of nihilism. The comfort which has come with the satisfaction of all of the basic material needs of humans in the modern world along with the various distractions that have been invented to occupy and pacify the human mind have made the task of educators, missionaries, and anyone else who still believes in the importance of ideas perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. Whereas Christians of earlier generations had to confront the passionately held beliefs of those with rival philosophies and religions, Christians today must confront an enemy which is far more destructive, a sort of passion for apathy, or what might appropriately and simply be called nihilism.

It is a universal truth of the human condition, elucidated by St. Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions, that “the human soul on earth is always restless.”1 The combination of satisfaction and distraction in the modern world, however, has provided a seemingly endless string of temporary alleviations for this restlessness, preventing the restless human soul from ever finally reaching a point of satiation or boredom with worldly things. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven,” not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with wealth but because the rich man is so entrapped by his wealth that he fails to search after something higher and more ultimately satisfactory.2

The rich man of Christ’s statement, who is nearly synonymous with modern man generally, has separated himself from the human condition and so, in a sense, from his own human nature. He does not “redeem the time” by seeking to live a life of meaning and significance but instead merely passes the time.3 As Henry David Thoreau pointed out already about those around him in the middle of the nineteenth century, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. … A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”4 Most of these “games and amusements” have assumed a nature that is unrelated to the life of man in the truest sense of that phrase. As Fr. William F. Lynch has pointed out, modern man has “create[d] a night-time culture, and a kind of time within it that has no relation to the day or to the work we do during the day.”5

One of the oldest forms of play, and the most essential, is the communal play of religious ritual. Religious ritual, however, is not a mere amusement, unlike the play of modern man. Just as the play of children, such as the care little girls give to their baby dolls or the war games of boys, is a kind of preparation for the sorts of tasks they will have to encounter as adults, liturgy is a form of pure play for the soul. Fr. Romano Guardini, a Catholic priest and thinker, once wrote, “it [the soul] must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.”6

Even when modern man does find himself, usually through accident or coercion, confronting something of significance, such as one of the great books, he refuses to confront it with his whole being. He confronts it as if he were a neutral observer. As Michael Vander Weele writes, there has been an “attempt to defuse reading by separating it from the rest of life.”7 We must, however, “read with our lives.”8 Modern man has forgotten the fundamental truth enunciated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that “God and the devil are fighting … and the battlefield is the heart of man.”9

The first and most basic question, then, for the Christian, for the educator, for anyone interested in a life of thought and meaning, is what to do to overcome this indifference to the great existential questions. The only really viable answer to that question is to live such a life oneself. Mahatma Gandhi perhaps more than any other well-known figure of the last hundred years embodied and most succinctly stated this principle: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. … We need not wait to see what others do.”10

1 Michael Vander Weele, “Reader-Response Theories,” in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, eds. Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 128.
2 Matthew 19:24 (King James Version).
3 Ephesians 5:16 (KJV).
4 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ch. 1.
5 Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 55.
6 Fr. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, http://fdlc.org/Liturgy_Resources/Guardini/Chapter5.htm (accessed 12 November 2013).
7 Weele, 128.
8 Ibid.
9 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book III, Chapter 3.
10 Mahatma Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 12 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964), 158.

Don Quixote: Eternity and Death

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”1 In Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes presents a plethora of madmen of nearly every vocation and class, from priests and dukes to barbers and shepherds. All of these characters live in a world where the ordinary reigns supreme. In this ordinary world of the utterly realistic, time becomes a source of decay and death, an ever-present reminder of impending doom. The one sane man in the novel is Don Quixote, regarded by all of the others as a madman, who, through his embrace of the mystery of the world around him, is able to transform time from a sequence of events and inevitabilities into an eternal present which creates a self-renewing repository of surprise.

Don Quixote is separated from his contemporaries by his epistemology and his historiography, two elements of his worldview which are quite closely connected and which form the foundation for the rest. For Don Quixote, history is no mere reliquary filled with dry, old bones. It is, instead, a living reality. The stories of chivalry, courtly love, and knightly adventure are not records of a distant past, but invitations into a fuller experience of the present.

Before beginning his adventures, Don Quixote takes out his great-great-grandfather’s old suit of armor, which, “being mouldy and rust-eaten, had lain by, many long years, forgotten in a corner.”2 He cleans and restores this, preparing it for use as his own armor. In this action, Don Quixote takes an initial step toward redeeming the past from the decay brought on by ordinary time. In this act of redemption and transcendence, Don Quixote has brought two periods of time into confluence and thereby brought time and eternity closer together. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains that “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it has already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future).”3 God, according to Lewis, experiences time as an eternal now. Don Quixote, in salvaging the armor of his ancestor, has moved closer to a God’s-eye view of the cosmos and therefore closer to reality.

Don Quixote’s choice to adopt this God’s-eye view of time is also exhibited in his choice to become a knight-errant, a knight who travels about searching for adventure. This wandering life is a perfect embodiment of Don Quixote’s perception of time. For him, time is not linear but, in a sense, simultaneous. A pictographic representation of time for Don Quixote would not be a straight line but a scribble in which the line intersects itself at nearly every point.

This historiography leads Don Quixote to adopt an epistemology which refuses to accept the merely directly empirical as the sum total. For Don Quixote, there is always a deeper reality behind that which can be immediately observed. One of Don Quixote’s earliest adventures, for instance, pits him against a troop of giants disguised as windmills. Sancho, Don Quixote’s simpleminded squire, is unable to see past the immediately observable and peer deeper into the secrets hidden behind the apparent. For Sancho, the windmills are simply windmills. Don Quixote, however, is able to see past the apparent and stand in a world where the enormity of an other can still evoke awe. As an exasperated Don Quixote flippantly informs Sancho, “one may easily see … that you are not versed in the business of adventures.”4

Throughout the novel, Don Quixote is able to consistently maintain his devotion to his special insights about time and the world in spite of the persistent attempts of the novel’s many characters to drag him back into the ordinary through reason, deception, and mockery. Though Don Quixote is frequently shown to by his enemies and their schemes to be a less than entirely perfect knight, his resistance to their frequent assaults on his worldview is proof of his true heroism. A famous saying attributed to St. Anthony the Great, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, is the claim that “a time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”5 Grace M. Jantzen’s explanation of this saying is illuminating:

If sanity is defined by the conventions and expectations of a society preoccupied with defeating mortality first by securing their own welfare in food and material possessions and then by procreation and establishing households and families that would continue after they were gone, then those who defied these conventions – despised greed, renounced violence, defied death – were mad.6

In his preface to his English translation of Don Quixote, John Ormsby identifies the vocation of a knight-errant as “to right wrongs, redress injuries, and succour the distressed.”7 To put such a vocation into practice, says Ormsby, the knight-errant must “cast fear aside.” In other words, Don Quixote has chosen to defy conventions, to despise greed, to renounce violence (that is, the use of force against others for one’s own gain), and to defy death. Significantly, Ormsby asserts of Don Quixote that “it is his madness [which] makes him virtuous.”8

It is only when he is finally defeated by the Knight of the White Moon and must renounce the life of a knight-errant that he begins to lose faith in his insight. At first, he attempts to hang on to his view of time as an eternal now. He proposes that he and Sancho adopt the pastoral life, telling his squire, “we will range the mountains, the woods and meadows, singing here, and complaining there.”9 Through their exploits as shepherds, Don Quixote assures Sancho, “we shall make ourselves famous and immortal, not only in the present, but in future ages.”10 This tenuous grasp on eternity, however, inevitably slips away and Don Quixote plunges headlong into the ordinary.

In the ordinary, Don Quixote’s immediate experience is like that of the young Siddhartha Gautama on his famous journey outside of his pleasure-palace. Don Quixote falls sick, experiences the decay of old age, and, finally, dies. The difference between Don Quixote and the Buddha, however, highlights what makes Don Quixote significant. Siddhartha’s timelessness was an attempt to rise above time by hiding from it, a project doomed to failure. Don Quixote’s timelessness, however, was an embrace of time. By gathering all of time into one embrace, Don Quixote had transcended time by entering into all of it simultaneously. He, like God, had no particular location in time because he was present in all of it at once. In other words, the difference between Siddhartha’s timelessness and Don Quixote’s timelessness is synonymous with the difference between the Buddhist idea of eternity as perpetual stagnation and the Christian belief in an eternity that is dynamic in its continual growth, newness, and surprise. To fall from this dynamic eternality into the ordinary is to fall into the inevitability of death as a final end rather than death as the great commencement of a new beginning.

1 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), 32.
2 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 1.
3 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 169-170.
4 Cervantes, Part I, Chapter 8.
5 Anthony the Great, quoted in Grace M. Jantzen, “Touching (in) the Desert: Who Goes There?,” in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart, eds., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), 387.
6 Jantzen, 387.
7 John Ormsby, “Don Quixote – Ormsby; English Translation,” http://cervantes.tamu.edu/english/ctxt/DonQ-JohnOrmsby/DonQ-JohnOrmsby.html (accessed 5 November 2013).
8 Ibid.
9 Cervantes, Part II, Chapter 67.
10 Ibid.

Real Conservatism

Today, many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognise everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning. This destruction of traditional values from above not only leads to negative consequences for society, but is also essentially anti-democratic, since it is carried out on the basis of abstract, speculative ideas, contrary to the will of the majority, which does not accept the changes occurring or the proposed revision of values.

We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.

Of course, this is a conservative position. But speaking in the words of Nikolai Berdyaev, the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.

Vladimir Putin, in his recent Address to the Federal Assembly

Reality and Fiction

One very popular modern opinion is that there is a disconnection between reality and fantasy. Video gamers, civil liberties groups, advocates for the entertainment industry, and other groups, for example, frequently insist that violent, misogynistic, or otherwise objectionable content in video games, music, and movies do not lead to violence in real life. Anyone who makes the contrary insistence in favor of the truth of the old adage that “you are what you eat” is viewed as antiquated and curmudgeonly. This debate reflects a deeper and older disagreement over the purpose of fiction and its place in human life more generally.

On the one hand, there is the position that the purpose of fiction is to escape from real life. Though the original idea here is certainly an ancient one, in his book Christ and Apollo, Father William F. Lynch traces its current popularity to “the growing encroachments of automation and the terribly repetitive, unfeeling nature of much of our daytime work.”1  As a result, he says, “we have been led to create a night-time culture, and a kind of time within it that has no relation to the day or to the work we do during the day.”2  He concludes that “this night-time culture is largely an attempt to provide a sensational and sentimental dream life in which real time is arrested or forgotten, and the coming of the next morning indefinitely put off.”3  In other words, under the oppression of the tedium of real life, man has come to turn to fiction as a temporary escape.

From this view of fiction emerges the assertion of a separation between reality and fiction. If the primary purpose of fiction is to provide an escape from reality, there must not be a connection between the two. Just as fiction is designed to remove one from reality, reality must stand at a remove from fiction.

The opposite assertion was perhaps first clearly put forward by Plato in his Republic. There, he pointed out that life imitates art and concluded from this that only the highest ideals should be allowed to be exhibited. From these, the audience can draw examples to imitate. While Plato’s ideas of banishing poets from the ideal state and allowing art to contain only positive examples for imitation are extreme and ultimately untenable, there is little doubt that his position is closer to the truth than is its opposite.

All art makes an impression on its viewers, even if they do not believe that it does or desire that it do so. All art derives its existence from the philosophy of the artist. It reflects his values, his concerns, and his desires. Even the idea of art as mere amusement, as a simple pastime and escape, is itself a philosophy which produces a certain kind of art. There must be something the artist and his audience choose to escape from and a reason for what they choose to escape to. Clay Motley, for example, has pointed out that there is a definite link between the popularity of Western movies, which overemphasize masculinity, to periods in which cultural movements which may seem threatening to men, such as feminism, are in the ascendancy.4

The careful cultural consumer, then, must be aware of trends while remaining mindful of the influence everything consumed has upon him. Just as there is no food or medicine taken into the body which does not somehow affect the body, there is nothing taken in by the mind which does not somehow affect the mind. Cognizance of this fact should shape and inform one’s approach to arts and entertainment, whether one is reading a classic or a comic book. The questions that must be at the forefront of one’s mind are those provided by James Vanden Bosch in his explanation of moral criticism of literature: “What does it want me to be, or do, or assume, or assent to, or value?”5  Every artistic creation seeks to make its viewers want to be, do, assume, assent to, or value something; the question is not whether but what.

1 William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 55.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Clay Motley, “’It’s a Hell of a Thing to Kill a Man’: Western Manhood in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven,” in Leslie Wilson, ed., Americana: Readings in Popular Culture, Revised Edition (Hollywood: Press Americana, 2010), 72.

5 James Vanden Bosch, “Moral Criticism: Promises and Prospects,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 64.

Atheism, Christianity, and Facing Facts

One common charge leveled against Christianity by its detractors is the accusation that Christianity is a flight of fancy which allows the believer to cushion himself against the cold, hard truths of the human condition, including especially the inevitability of death and the cessation of individual existence which accompanies it. My own experience, however, has been quite different. My own movement from atheism to Christianity instead allowed me to look upon and understand the reality of man with continually clearer sight. This insight, in turn, further goaded me toward faith.

As a nonbeliever, I found that my own experience and my understanding of the experience of others had always to have certain restrictions placed upon it in order to fit soundly within the interpretative framework of my worldview. There was simply no room there for such things as feeling overwhelmed by the experience of the sublime, a mystical experience of the divine, the innate desire of man for eternity and infinity, or even something as commonplace as true love. All such things had to be reduced to the merely biological and explained away as entirely psychological. None of it could be accepted at face value or, really, at any value. I was forced by my own metaphysical assumptions to assert again and again, and contrary to all evidence, that the one who understood his experience least was the one who was having the experience.

Long before making the decision to convert to Christianity I had examined the traditional logical arguments for the existence of God and found them altogether lacking. To this day, I find nearly all of them lacking and all of them ultimately unconvincing. Instead, I was persuaded to adopt the worldview of faith by my own inability to finally explain away a predilection toward belief in God and a yearning for closeness to this God. I was forced by my sincerity to myself to admit that there was a hunger within me and that hunger is proof of food.

I have found this admission extremely liberating. While I was an atheist, I had been forced to retreat into my shelter of rationalizing and psychologizing any time that ideas like eternity or divinity had been mentioned. Becoming a Christian, on the other hand, has allowed me to accept, understand, and appreciate the full scope and depth of the human experience. I am able, for example, to confirm the experiences of isolation, despair, and doubt that pervade the atheistic worldview. All of these are quite real and even indispensable aspects of the human experience. There is no need for the Christian to deny the legitimacy of the atheist’s assertions that his everyday experience indicates no existence of any divinity and that the suffering of the mass of humanity cries out in rebellion against cosmic mercy and justice. These, indeed, are experiences the Christian himself, as a student of the human condition, should enter into and readily acknowledge. As Leland Ryken points out, “to understand the universal human condition is something that Christians owe to themselves and to the human race, and it is an obligation imposed on them by the Christian faith itself.”

As a Christian, I can now also acknowledge the legitimacy and essentiality of the claims of a similarly broad swathe of people throughout history and today. Importantly, I can also acknowledge the truth of my own experiences. There is no longer any need to explain away the experience of transcendence, the thirst for eternity, and the conviction that there must be some sort of cosmic justice. Only the believer is allowed to accept the simultaneous reality and legitimacy of faith and doubt, despair and hope, and time and eternity. As I began the process of conversion, I found that in becoming a Christian I had not lost access to any aspect of what it means to be human but had instead gained the ability to be more fully human. I did not need to deny the dreadful pain of losing a loved one nor the fear of my own impending death in order to believe that there was eternal life beyond the grave.

In his book Christ and Apollo, Father William F. Lynch wisely observes that “it seems a solid mistake to feed a human being with long doses of tranquilizing pills when he is being asked by nature to confront the bereavement involved in the death of someone deeply loved.” The accusation of the atheist against the Christian is that his Christianity, with its hopes of a life after death and a loving God, is just such a tranquilizing pill. On the contrary, however, it is the atheist who has taken the tranquilizing pill and this pill has worked to numb him to and cut him off from the full experience of this death of a loved one and of his own humanity.

1 Leland Ryken, “Formalist and Archetypal Criticism,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 19.

2 William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2004), 23