Drinking in its voluptuousness: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

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Photograph by Christopher Benson. Taken on the Air Dolomiti flight between Munich, Germany and Venice, Italy.

Whenever I travel, I read literature with settings in the places that I visit. On my recent holiday, I read the world-famous masterpiece, Death in Venice (1912), by Nobel laureate Thomas Mann. This novel could not have been more fitting because the protagonist begins in Munich, where my family started our trip, and then progressed to Venice, as we did.

Published on the eve of World War I, a decade after Buddenbrooks had established Thomas Mann as a literary celebrity, Death in Venice tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful but aging writer who follows his wanderlust to Venice in search of spiritual fulfillment that instead leads to his erotic doom. In the decaying city, besieged by an unnamed epidemic, he becomes obsessed with an exquisite Polish boy, Tadzio. “It is a story of the voluptuousness of doom,” Mann wrote. “But the problem I had especially in mind was that of the artist’s dignity.”

I am haunted by this story, with its stately prose and allusions to Greek mythology. The themes of Death in Venice are the luster of youth, the languor of age, the threat of mortality, the danger of beauty, the frustration of desire, and the infinitude of erotic longing. Mann also trained my eyes to see Venice, a city that symbolizes enervated beauty. Here are some favorite passages.

On art

On a personal level, too, art is life intensified: it delights more deeply, consumes more rapidly; it engraves the traces of imaginary and intellectual adventure on the countenance of its servant and in the long run, for all the monastic calm of his external existence, leads to self-indulgence, overrefinement, lethargy, and a restless curiosity that a lifetime of wild passions and pleasures could scarcely engender (p. 23).

Innate in every artistic nature is a wanton, treacherous penchant for accepting injustice when it creates beauty and showing beauty for and paying homage to aristocratic privilege (p. 47).

On solitude

The observations and encounters of a man of solitude and few words are at once more nebulous and more intense than those of a gregarious man, his thoughts more ponderable, more bizarre and never without a hint of sadness. Images and perceptions that might easily be dismissed with a glance, a laugh, an exchange of opinions occupy him unduly; they are heightened in the silence, gain in significance, turn into experience, adventure, emotion. Solitude begets originality, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude can also beget perversity, disparity, the absurd and the forbidden (p. 43).

On the sea

“I shall stay, then,” Aschenbach thought. “What better place could there be?” And folding his hands in his lap, he let his eyes run over the sea’s great expanse and set his gaze adrift till it blurred and broke in the monotonous mist of barren space. He loved the sea and for deep-seated reasons: the hardworking artist’s need for repose, the desire to take shelter from the demanding diversity of phenomena in the bosom of boundless simplicity, a propensity – proscribed and diametrically opposed to his mission in life and for that very reason seductive – a propensity for the unarticulated, the immoderate, the eternal, for nothingness. To repose in perfection is the desire of all those who strive for excellence, and is not nothingness a form of perfection? (p. 55).

On the sun

Was it not common knowledge that the sun diverts our attention from the intellectual to the sensual? It benumbs and bewitches both reason and memory such that the soul in its elation quite forgets its true nature and clings with rapt delight to the fairest of sun-drenched objects, nay, only with the aid of the corporeal can it ascend to more lofty considerations (p. 82).

On beauty

On the grass, its mild slope propping up their heads, two men lay sheltering from the day’s torrid heat: one elderly, one young; one ugly, one beautiful; the wise beside the desirable. And with compliments and witty, wheedling pleasantries Socrates instructed Phaedrus in the nature of longing and virtue. He spoke to him of the intense trepidation the man of feeling experiences when his eye beholds a representation of eternal beauty; he spoke to him of the desires of the base and impious man who cannot acknowledge beauty when he sees its likeness and is incapable of reverence; he spoke of the holy terror that seizes the noble man when a godlike countenance or perfect body appears before him, how he trembles and loses control and can hardly bring himself to look, yet respects it and would even make sacrifices unto it as he might unto a graven image were he not fearful of seeming foolish in the eyes of men. For beauty, my dear Phaedrus, and beauty alone is at once desirable and visible: it is, mark my words, the only form of the spiritual we can receive through our senses and tolerate thereby. Think what would become of us were the godhead or reason and virtue and truth to appear before our eyes! Should we not perish in the flames of love, as did Semele beholding Zeus? Hence beauty is the path the man of feeling takes to the spiritual, though merely the path, dear young Phaedrus, a means and no more . . . And then he made his most astute pronouncement, the crafty wooer, namely, that the lover is more divine than the beloved, because the god dwells in the former, not the latter, which is perhaps the most delicate, most derisive thought ever thought by man and the source of all the roguery and deep-seated lust in longing (pp. 83-85).

Nature trembles with bliss when the mind bows in homage to beauty (p. 85).

He was more beautiful than words can convey, and Aschenbach felt acutely, as he had often felt before, that language can only praise physical beauty, not reproduce it (p. 95).

“For beauty, Phaedrus, mark thou well, beauty and beauty alone is at once divine and visible; it is hence the path of the man of the senses, little Phaedrus, the path of the artist to the intellect. But dost thou believe, dear boy, that the man for whom the path to the intellect leads through the senses can ever find wisdom and the true dignity of man? Or dost thou rather believe (I leave it to thee to decide) that it is a perilously alluring path, indeed, a path of sin and delusion that must needs lead one astray? For surely thou knows that we poets cannot follow the path of beauty lest Eros should join forces with us and take the lead: yes, though heroes we may be after our fashion and chaste warriors, we are as women, for passion is our exultation and our longing must ever be love – such is our bliss and our shame. Now dost thou see that we poets can be neither wise nor dignified? That we must needs go astray, ever be wanton and adventurers of the emotions? The magisterial guise of our style is all falsehood and folly, our fame and prestige a farce, the faith that the public places in us nothing if not ludicrous, and the use of art to educate the nation and its youth a hazardous enterprise that should be outlawed. For how can a man be worthy as an educator if he have a natural, inborn, incorrigible penchant for the abyss? Much as we renounce it and seek dignity, we are drawn to it. Thus do we reject, say, analytical knowledge: knowledge, Phaedrus, lacks dignity and rigor; it is discerning, understanding, forgiving, and wanting in discipline and form; it is in sympathy with the abyss; it is the abyss. We do therefore firmly resolve to disavow it and devote ourselves henceforth to beauty alone, which is to say, simplicity, grandeur and a new rigor, a second innocence, and form. But form and innocence, Phaedrus, lead to intoxication and desire; they may even lead a noble man to horrifying crimes of passion that his own beautiful rigor reprehends as infamous; they lead to the abyss; they too lead to the abyss. They lead us poets thither, I tell thee, because we are incapable of taking to the heavens, we are capable only of taking to profligacy” (pp. 136-137).

On a relationship by sight alone

There is nothing more curious or delicate than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who encounter and observe each other daily – nay, hourly – yet are constrained by convention or perhaps caprice to keep up the pretense of being strangers, indifferent, avoiding a nod or word. There is a feeling of malaise and overwrought curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally stifled need for mutual knowledge and communication, and above all a sort of strained esteem. For a man loves and respects his fellow man only insofar as he is unable to assess him, and longing is a product of insufficient knowledge (pp. 92-93).

On passion

For passion, like crime, is antithetical to the smooth operation and prosperity of day-to-day existence, and can only welcome every loosening of the fabric of society, every upheaval and disaster in the world, since it can vaguely hope to profit thereby (p. 100).

Yet it cannot be said he was suffering: he was drunk in both head and heart, and his steps followed the dictates of the demon whose delight it is to trample human reason and dignity underfoot (p. 102).

Aschenbach sat at the balustrade, occasionally cooling his lips with the mixture of grenadine and soda water sparkling ruby red before him in the glass. His nerves took in the vulgar tootle and soulful melodies with avidity, for passion dulls one’s sense of discrimination and yields in all seriousness to charms that sobriety would treat as a joke or reject with indignation (p. 110).

He might then lay a farewell hand on the head of that taunting deity’s agent, turn on his heel, and flee the quagmire. Yet at the same time he felt infinitely far from seriously wishing to take such a step. It would lead him back, restore him to himself, but there is nothing so distasteful to oneself when one is beside oneself (p. 124).

Tadzio walked behind his family, usually letting the governess and his nunlike sisters pass ahead of him when the street narrowed and, sauntering along on his own, he would turn his head periodically to glance over his shoulder with his unusual twilight-gray eyes and make certain his admirer was still following him. He would see him and did not betray him. Intoxicated by this knowledge, lured forward by those eyes, tied inextricably to his passion’s apron strings, the love-smitten traveler prowled on after his unseemly hope – only to see it slip away from him in the end (p. 134).

On Venice

The air was still and noxious; the sun burned intensely through the haze, which colored the sky a slate gray. Gurgling water lapped against wood and stone. The gondolier’s call – half warning, half greeting – was answered from afar, from the silence of the labyrinth, by some curious accord. Clusters of blossoms – white and purple, redolent of almonds – hung down over crumbling walls from the small gardens overhead. Moorish window frames stood out in the murk. The marble steps of a church descended into the water, where a beggar, in affirmation of his indifference, squatted with his hat out and showed the whites of his eyes as if he were blind. An antique dealer posted outside his lair beckoned the passerby ingratiatingly in the hope of fleecing him. Such was Venice, the wheedling, shady beauty, a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose foul air the arts had once flourished luxuriantly and which had inspired musicians with undulating, lullingly licentious harmonies. The adventurer felt his eyes drinking in its voluptuousness, his ears being wooed by its melodies; he recalled, too, that the city was diseased and was concealing out of cupidity, and the look with which he peered out after the gondola floating ahead of him grew more wanton (pp. 103-104).

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The mnemonic power of scent

The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke to the mnemonic power of scent: “Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.” During my recent travel to Italy, I purchased two fragrances that will strengthen my memory of Venice and the Amalfi Coast.

With a little research, I discovered The Merchant of Venice.

The Merchant Of Venice represents the Art of Perfumery of Venice. It draws attention to the everlasting role of the city as an essential force in the perfumery tradition throughout the world, and it is intended to highlight the tradition that made Italy, and particularly Venice, central to the history of perfumery. The Merchant Of Venice is a luxury line that offers a large assortment of exclusive Eau de Parfum and Eau de Toilette, along with body care and household products and accessories.

The line is inspired by the “Mude,” the maritime trade routes that covered a very large area from Asia to Africa, and on to Europe as far as the Northern Seas. The “Mude” started from Venice and reached many different harbours, which in turn were the destination of other commercial routes. These ports were the exchange centres for raw materials and finished products.

This system enabled the Republic of Venice to acquire the knowledge and raw materials that otherwise it could not directly attain from within its own mainland. Through master craftsmen such as the muschieri (perfumers), venditori de polvere di Cipro (Cyprus powder haberdashers) and the saoneri (soap makers), new techniques of production were invented that made the Venetian perfumes and cosmetics highly sought after products in all the Royal Courts of Europe.

The flagship boutique is “housed in a prestigious, ancient chemist shop located in San Fantin, at the heart of Venice and immediately adjacent to the world famous opera theatre, La Fenice.” This video helps to visualize the space.

img_7720168522.pngI chose Byzantium Saffron from the Murano Collection: “This collection of essences speaks about the long journeys from the fascinating cities of the Orient to the enchantment of Venice, the main destination of the ancient Mediterranean routes. The spices, the aromas, and the rare essences were expertly selected by merchants from among those that were most aspired and precious.” Here is a description of Byzantium Saffron:

According to Greek mythology, saffron is central to the legend of young Crocus and Smilax. With the classic elegance of its amber notes, Byzantium Saffron embraces and enriches the passion of this ancient idyllic love. These notes, combined with Indonesian patchouli, make the perfume the olfactory pass-par-tout of those who love travelling in luxury to the most intriguing and exuberant lands.

The ingredients are Greek red saffron, white suede accord, Indonesian patchouli, and crystal amber.

To capture the Amalfi Coast, the choice was obvious: Carthusia. In the video below, Silvio Ruocco explains the heritage and craftsmanship of Carthusia, Capri’s famous perfumer.

I settled on Io Capri:

Dedicated to the goddess in whose honour Emperor Tiberius built one of the most important imperial villas in Capri, “Io” is a dynamic and decisive melange, both sophisticated and modern, that combines the sweet tones of wild fig tree with the cheerful, stimulating ones of tea leaves.

The head notes are lemon, wild mint, eucalyptus, aromatic litsea, star anise, and orange; the heart notes fig, wild flowers, tea, apple blossom, jasmine and citronella; the base notes seaweed and tobacco flowers.

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A panoramic view of the Bible: promises made, promises kept

9781433514159In a single sitting, I read What Does God Want Of Us Anyway? A Quick Overview of the Whole Bible by Mark Dever, the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Having read the Bible my whole life, I sometimes lose sight of the “big picture.” Dever’s succinct book admirably succeeds in providing a panoramic view of the Bible.

Every Christian should be able to answer these questions:

  • What is the point of the Bible?
  • How would you sum up the message of the Old Testament?
  • How would you sum up the message of the New Testament?

Here’s how Dever answers the questions:

  • The point of the Bible is Jesus Christ. “The Old Testament makes promises about Christ, and the New Testament keeps promises in Christ.” John Stott: “We love the Bible because of Christ. It is his portrait. It is his love-letter.”
  • The message of the Old Testament can be summed up in the phrase “promises made.”
  • The message of the New Testament can be summed up in the phrase “promises kept”

Here are some facts worth remembering:

  • The Bible consists of 66 separate books, authored by “at least 30 distinct writers, scattered over a period of some 1,500 years, and embrace specimens of nearly every kind of writing known among men. Histories, codes of law, ethical maxims, philosophical treatises, discourses, dramas, songs, hymns, epics, biographies, letters both official and personal, vaticinations” (B. B. Warfield, “The Divine Origin of the Bible”)
  • The Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures) consists of 39 books:
    • the beginning 17 books “form the narrative from creation to the return of the exiles from Babylon about four hundred years before Christ”
      • the first 5 books make up the Pentateuch, or the Law (Genesis to Deuteronomy)
      • the next 12 books (Joshua to Esther) are referred to as the Histories
    • the middle 5 books (Job to Song of Solomon) are called the Writings; “they focus on some of the more personal experiences of the people of God. They are  largely collections of wisdom literature, devotional poems, and ceremonial literature from the temple”
    • the last 17 books are the Prophecies (Isaiah to Malachi), divided by 5 major prophets and 12 minor prophets
  • The New Testament (or Christian Scriptures) consists of 27 books:
    • 4 documentaries on the life the Messiah, Jesus Christ: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
    • 1 account of “how Jesus continues to be active in the world as his church expands to all nations” (Acts)
    • 21 letters (or epistles) that “describe what it means to live as God’s specially covenanted people,” including 13 written by Paul and 8 written by James, Peter, John, Jude, and one unknown author (Hebrews).
    • 1 revelation that “presents the consummation of our salvation. We are finally in God’s place, under his rule, and in a perfectly right relationship to him. The heavens and the earth are re-created, and the struggling church militant becomes the resting church triumphant” (Revelation)

Here are Dever’s helpful synopses of the books in the Bible:

OLD TESTAMENT

HISTORICAL NARRATIVE: the first 17 books

  • Genesis describes how the world and the first humans were made. The garden of Eden presents the model of God and man living in perfect peace, which we will not see again until the final heavenly city in the New Testament book of Revelation. This peace is devastated by the fall, of course. God then initiates his plan of salvation through Abraham and his descendants. At the end of Genesis, God’s people – the nation of Israel – are bound in slavery in Egypt.
  • Exodus follows the history of God’s people from the death of Joseph in Egypt through the exodus to the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness, a building that symbolizes God’s presence with his people. God uses Moses both to deliver the law and to deliver his people in the exodus.
  • Leviticus presents a digest of God’s law given to his people in the wilderness. These laws highlight the problem of how sinful humans can approach a holy God. Holiness is the theme of the book of Leviticus.
  • Numbers mostly tells the story of the people of Israel traveling to the Promised Land. It describes several dramatic instances of the people’s unfaithfulness, together with God’s persevering faithfulness.
  • Deuteronomy is called Deuteronomy because it presents the second giving of the law (deutero = second; nomos = law). The people have reached the end of their forty-year wandering. The older generation has died off. So now God repeats the law for this new generation as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.
  • Joshua describes the conquest of the Promised Land and its apportionment among the twelve tribes. The people were ruled by Moses’ successor, Joshua.
  • Judges comes next with the story of fourteen judges who ruled over Israel (or regions of Israel) after Joshua. The people continually reverted to lawlessness, and the times were well summed up by the phrase, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judg. 21:25).
  • Ruth is a little story set during the days of the judges. It functions as an Old Testament annunciation story, preparing the way for the birth of David.
  • 1 and 2 Samuel are about the last judge, Samuel; a “false-start” king, Saul; and the first real king, David.
  • 1 and 2 Kings turns the focus to the reign of David’s son Solomon, followed by the fall of both Solomon and his line. The kingdom divides into two parts during the time of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, and it’s mostly downhill from there. Apart from several noteworthy revivals, both the northern and southern kingdoms gradually dissolve amid immorality and idolatry.
  • 1 and 2 Chronicles present a kind of interesting summation of everything from Adam through the beginning of the exile. Their focus is on David, Solomon, the role of the temple, and then the kings of the southern kingdom leading up to the exile.
  • Ezra describes the return of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple.
  • Nehemiah continues the story by describing the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, a partial fulfillment of God’s promises of restoration to his people.
  • Esther is the last book of history. It is a story of God’s providential deliverance of the Jewish community inside the Persian Empire late in the exile.

THE WRITINGS: the middle 5 books

  • Job is a story about a righteous man who is tried by God. We don’t know when Job was written.
  • Psalms are poetic prayers of praise, confession, and lament to God. Almost half of them appear to have been written by David. The collection was written over a wide span of time.
  • Proverbs present the wisdom of Solomon and others concerning the practical issues of life.
  • Ecclesiastes, again probably by Solomon, recounts one man’s search for the path to happiness and meaning in this world. It reads like the account of a man walking down the street at night, shining his flashlight down a number of dead-end alleys and saying, “This is no good; this is no good; this is no good . . .”
  • Song of Solomon is the collection of love songs between a bridegroom and his bride. It emphasizes the importance of loving relationships.

THE PROPHETS: the last 17 books

5 major prophets

  • Isaiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom, called Judah. The first thirty-nine chapters are composed of prophecies leading up to the captivity. Chapters 40 to 66 then point to a future restoration and redemption.
  • Jeremiah uttered his prophecies in Jerusalem during the years the city was besieged, a siege that ended in the city’s fall in 586 BC. He then continued to prophesy for seven years after the city’s fall.
  • Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah’s lament over Jerusalem’s siege and destruction.
  • Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon during this same time. He had actually been carried off from Jerusalem and taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. along with with a number of other Jews. Trained as a priest, Ezekiel prophesied against Judah up to the fall of Jerusalem, and then he turned to promising God’s judgment on the nations and the restoration of God’s people.
  • Daniel, part prophecy and part history, chronicles the story of a Jewish captive in Babylon and how God used him in that place.

12 minor prophets

  • Hosea prophesied to the northern kingdom (generally called “Israel”) at the same time that Isaiah prophesied to the southern kingdom. Hosea spoke of Israel’s unfaithfulness, while God used Hosea’s adulterous wife as a living example of how Israel had been unfaithful to God.
  • Joel preached about the coming judgment of God on the southern kingdom. Then he promised that God’s blessing would follow their repentance. (That’s really the main theme for most of these prophets.)
  • Amos predicted the judgment and restoration of Israel, the northern kingdom, while Isaiah was prophesying in the south.
  • Obadiah uttered his very short prophecy of judgment against one of Judah’s neighbors, Edom. He also promised restoration to the shattered Israelites.
  • Jonah, when called to prophesy to the Assyrian city of Ninevah, fled and was swallowed by a great fish. In the belly of the fish, he prayed, repented, was delivered, and obeyed.
  • Micah prophesied at the same time as Isaiah and Hosea. He spoke to both Israel and Judah concerning judgment and deliverance.
  • Nahum, who lived about a century after Jonah, spoke out against Ninevah concerning the coming judgment of God. He also promised a future deliverance for Judah.
  • Habakkuk reminded God’s people living in a time of evil that God’s judgment is certain, and that they can put their trust in his promise of restoration and ultimate protection.
  • Zephaniah promised that judgment would come upon Judah. He also called them to repent, and he promised future blessing.
  • Haggai was a contemporary of Zechariah. He may have been born in captivity in Babylon, but he returned to Jerusalem and prodded the people to get on with rebuilding the temple.
  • Zechariah, a contemporary of Haggai, prophesied two months after Haggai and presented a series of wild dreams that attacked the religious lethargy of the people and foresaw the messianic age.
  • Malachi, perhaps a contemporary of Nehemiah in post-exilic Jerusalem, also attacked the religious apathy of the people and promised a coming Messiah. He was the last Old Testament prophet.

NEW TESTAMENT

GOSPELS AND ACTS

  • Matthew was probably written for a Jewish community. He stresses Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, such as the many prophecies about his birth. Matthew includes five major teaching sections, each of which shows Jesus to be the great prophet promised by Moses.
  • Mark chronicles, perhaps, the apostle Peter’s recollections. The book does not say that, but various things in the book make us think Mark compiled Peter’s recollections about Jesus for the Roman Christians, maybe around the same time Peter was killed for being a Christian. Seeing the first apostle killed, the church may have wanted to commit these things to writing. Mark’s account is the shortest of all the Gospels, and it may be the oldest.
  • Luke, the third Gospel, is sometimes called the Gospel to the Gentiles. Luke stresses that the Messiah has come not just for the Jewish people but for all the nations of the world, and he puts to good use the Old Testament prophecies that make this promise. Luke also wrote a second volume, the book of Acts. Acts is “part two” of Luke’s work. It shows how Jesus actively expanded his church through the Spirit. So even after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, his work continued as the church grew and as God established this new society. Luke concluded his narrative with Paul imprisoned – but still ministering – in Rome.
  • John may be the most beloved of the Gospels. It is different from the other three Gospels in some ways. It does not teach a different theology but it has an especially clear emphasis on Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and the fact that the Messiah is God himself. John explicitly states this purpose for his Gospel in chapter 20: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ [that is, the Messiah], the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

PAUL’S EPISTLES: “His letters are ordered in the New Testament from longest to shortest – first, letters to churches, and then, letters to individuals”

  • In his first letter, Romans, Paul explains that God has been faithful to his covenant through Christ. Through Christ, God has provided a righteousness for his people, which is accounted to us by faith, as was the case with Abraham.
  • 1 and 2 Corinthians were written to a church with a lot of troubles. The church lived within a very secular society, so Paul tried to help them sort out how to live holy, special, distinct lives in an unholy culture.
  • If you want just the sharp edge of Paul’s teaching, Galatians is a good summary. He is clear about what he is saying, and he is clear about what he is not saying.
  • In Ephesians Paul writes about the church God is creating. God had always planned to create the church, and it is a new society calling together both Jews and Gentiles in Christ.
  • Philippians – often called the happiest book in the New Testament because Paul does not seem to have a cross word to say – encourages its readers to rejoice in the Lord.
  • Colossians is about Christ’s supremacy over all and some implications this has for our lives.
  • 1 and 2 Thessalonians are two of Paul’s earliest letters. Apparently, a number of people in Thessalonica had heard about Christ’s second coming and, misunderstanding it, had quit their jobs. They were just hanging around like fanatics, waiting for God to do something. So Paul writes and tells them to get a job.
  • Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy to Timothy, a young minister he discipled and trained. The letters were intended to encourage this young associate in his work as an elder. Second Timothy is probably the last letter Paul ever wrote.
  • The letter to Titus was written to a ministerial friend Paul had left on the island of Crete to establish elders in the new churches and to complete other unfinished business.
  • Paul wrote a very short letter to Philemon. Philemon was the owner of an escaped slave who had found Paul and become a believer. It is interesting to see how Paul deals with a slave owner.

GENERAL EPISTLES

  • The author of the first letter in this second set, Hebrews, is unknown. Hebrews helps us understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments as well as what it means for us to be the new-covenant people of God.
  • James is a very practical letter. He describes how to live the Christian life with a practical concern for others.
  • 1 and 2 Peter are relevant for the church today because they were written to Christians who were beginning to undergo difficulties for being Christians. . . Both of these letters encourages Christians to persevere in the faith, with Christ as their example. The second letter also warns about the danger of false teachers.
  • 1, 2, and 3 John are three brief letters written to encourage Christians in their lives of love and faithful obedience to the Lord.
  • Jude is a brief letter, similar to 2 Peter, warning against false and immoral teachers.

REVELATION

  • Revelation describes the consummation of God’s people, in God’s place, in right relationship to him. The church militant becomes the church triumphant – the victorious church in heaven. And the whole heavens and earth are re-created forever.

Why I am reading “The Aeneid”

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Andrew Wyeth, “Wind from the Sea” (1947)

This summer I am filling a lacuna in my education by reading the great Roman epic of Virgil’s Aeneid. A trip to Italy provides some extra motivation. But the deepest reason owes to one of my favorite authors, Willa Cather, who found inspiration in Virgil’s work. Her novel My Ántonia includes an epigraph from Virgil’s Georgics, “Optima dies . . . prima fugit,” which is explained later when Jim Burden studies Latin at the University of Nebraska:

One March evening in my sophomore year I was sitting alone in my room after supper. There had been a warm thaw all day, with mushy yards and little streams of dark water gurgling cheerfully into the streets out of old snowbanks. My window was open, and the earthy wind blowing through made me indolent. On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing in it. Higher up, in the utter clarity of the western slope, the evening star like a lamp suspended by silver chains – like the lamp engraved upon heavens, and waking new desires in men. It reminded me, at any rate, to shut my window and light my wick in answer. I did so regretfully, and the dim objects in the room emerged from the shadows and took their place about me with the helpfulness which custom breeds.

I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the Georgics where to-morrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. “Optima dies . . . prima fugit.” I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. “Primus ego in partiam mecum . . . deducam Musas“; “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.” Cleric had explained to us that “patria” here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country”; to his father’s fields, “sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.”

Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the Aeneid unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, “I was the first to bring the Muse into my own country.”

We left the classroom quietly, conscious that we had been brushed by the wing of a great feeling, though perhaps I alone knew Cleric intimately enough to guess what that feeling was. In the evening, as I sat staring at my book, the fervor of his voice stirred through the qualities on the page before me. I was wondering whether that particular rocky strip of New England coast about which he had so often told me was Cleric’s patria. 

As a Christian, I am reading The Aeneid to deepen my hope for a patria that claims my affections. If this earth does not provide me a little neighborhood, heaven promises being-at-home, as St. Paul said to the Philippians: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that ables him even to subject all things to himself” (3:20-21).

“You are my Beloved”

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El Greco, “The Baptism of Christ”

For 20th century Christian writing, Henri J. M. Nouwen is to spirituality what C. S. Lewis is to apologetics. I recently completed my first book by NouwenA secular Jewish friend of the Catholic priest made a request, “Say something about the Spirit that my secular friends and I can hear.” The result is Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular Age. 

Taking his cue from the baptism of Jesus, when the Spirit descends, like a dove, and a paternal voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you” (Matt. 3:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-22), Nouwen makes a surprising move by arguing that this vertical communication between the Father and Son is also a horizontal communication between the Son and humanity. What is “the most intimate truth about all human beings”? We are God’s Beloved.

These words do not “reverberate in every corner of [our] being” because we fall into “the trap of self-rejection.” Our dark side says, “I am no good  . . . I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.” The heavenly voice cannot be heard when worldly voices drown it out, saying: “Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire.” We have trouble imagining ourselves adopted into the family of God. Therefore, Nouwen says the greatest challenge is to claim our Belovedness as “the core truth of our existence.”

Here is my favorite excerpt:

Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: “May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.” But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.

Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.”

Listening to that voice with great inner attentiveness, I hear at my center words that say: “I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse . . . yes, even your child . . . wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”

Nouwen’s book deepens a longing to “hear these words as spoken to [me] with all the tenderness and force that love can hold.” Of course, these words are not new. St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome with the confidence of our baptized status as God’s Beloved: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Confessions of our modern age

Seniors at our school take Modern European Literature. We end the year with two confessions, a genre of literature that seems fitting to the burdensome question of modernity after the death of God, as Kierkegaard puts it in Repetition (1843): “Guilty—what does it mean? Is it hexing? Is it not positively known how it comes about that a person is guilty? Will no one answer me?”

We study T. S. Eliot’s major poem after his conversion to Anglicanism, “Ash Wednesday” (1930), and Albert Camus’ last novel, The Fall (1956). Both works are addressed to a silent confidant. At first blush, they seem polar opposites. Eliot’s speaker confesses at the beginning of Lent, the penitential season of the Church that anticipates the empty tomb of the risen Savior, whereas Camus’ narrator confesses from the shadow of the cross. But these speakers are in a similar predicament as they reckon with the doubleness that guilt engenders. When it comes to the condition of life in modernity, “we are in the soup together,” as Jean-Baptiste Clamence says. The Christian supplicant is riven between the old self and new creation (Romans 6:1-14, Ephesians 4:17-32). The atheist bourgeois is riven between being a sanctimonious judge and sincere penitent. Interestingly, neither author suggests a full exit is possible from this doubleness because, as the speaker of “Ash Wednesday” holds, “this is the time of tension.” For Eliot it is “the time of tension between dying and birth,” but for Camus it is the time of tension between birth and dying—a syntactical inversion that reveals the Christian hope of becoming born again (John 3:1-15) and the atheist resignation to a happy death, as declared by the protagonist in The Fall: “I am happy—I am happy, I tell you, I won’t let you think I’m not happy, I am happy unto death! Oh, sun, beaches, and the islands in the path of the trade-winds, youth whose memory drives one to despair!”

In modernity, the Christian life consists of a paideía of the soul, learning “to care and not to care,” “to sit still / Even among these rocks,” making real “Our peace in His will.” By contrast, the atheist life consists of a license to absolutized freedom, “The essential thing is to be able to permit oneself everything, even if, from time to time, one has to profess vociferously one’s own infamy. I permit myself everything all over again, and without the laughter this time.”

Choosing Christ

What is my take-away from T. S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday“?

I am fixated by this line in section V, “Will the veiled sister pray for / Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee.” First, I believe the speaker includes himself among “those who walk in darkness.” We can identify “those” as believers since the non-believer does not make the choice for Christ. Second, such believers walk in darkness because they “chose” Christ in the past but “oppose” him in the present; the verb tenses are critical to understanding the speaker’s predicament of being “torn on the horn between season and season, / time and time, between / Hour and hour, word and word, power and power.” Third, if a Christian desires to live out St. Paul’s baptismal logic—to “walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:4)—he will need to deliberately “choose” Christ in the present, season after season, time after time, hour after hour, until his very being has “opposed” Christ, as a stance in the past. “Ash Wednesday” ends on a hopeful note because the speaker is choosing Christ in the present; he intimately addresses God without the mediation of the Lady or Virgin: “And let my cry come unto Thee” (Psalm 102:1-2). The movement of the poem is from walking in darkness (“chose thee and oppose thee”) to walking in the light (choose thee and opposed thee), however bleary-eyed and dumb (1 John 1:5-10).

Murderers without malice

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Ray Fearon as Macbeth and Tara Fitzgerald as Lady Macbeth at The Globe Theatre’s production of Macbeth in June 2016

According to the poet W. H. Auden, “Macbeth is the best known of Shakespeare’s plays.” It was unknown to me until 2016 when I saw a hot-blooded production of the play at the Globe Theatre in London. Since then I have taught Macbeth two years in a row. I am enthralled by how the story explores the psychology of guilt and the nature of evil. In his Lectures on Shakespeare, Auden makes this astute observation:

Usually in tragedy a good person is made to suffer through a flaw in his goodness. In Macbeth this pattern is reversed: it is the streak of goodness that causes pathos and suffering. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth attempt to be murderers without malice. The Witches, who, like Iago, represent the world of malice, may suffer in much worse ways, but their suffering can’t be seen – they enjoy what they do. What Macbeth does can only be done without suffering if it is entirely malicious. Richard III finally breaks down, but in most murders there is no remorse, because the murderer is full of malice. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth never show direct malice. They would act as devils without becoming so, and that destroys them. Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that during the murder of Duncan, Duncan’s grooms cried “God bless us” and “Amen” in their sleep and that

“I could not say “Amen!”
When they did say “God bless us!”

Lady Macbeth: Consider it not so deeply.

Macbeth: But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
Stuck in my throat.

Lady Macbeth: These deeds must not be thought
After these ways. So, it will make us mad. (II.ii.29-35)

“Settle which side you’ll fight on”: Passages from “Where Angels Fear to Tread”

coverAs I anticipate travel to Italy this summer, I decided to watch the 1991 film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), which is set in a fictional hill town of Tuscany fashioned after the medieval town of San Gimignano near Florence. The title of this book originates from a line in Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Poetic Criticism” (1711): “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Having previously read Forster’s other novel set in Italy, A Room with a View (1908), I was eager to know the story of Where Angels Fear to Tread, as summarized by Penguin Classics:

A wonderful story of questioning, disillusionment, and conversion, Where Angels Fear to Tread tells the story of a prim English family’s encounter with the foreign land of Italy. When attractive, impulsive English widow Lilia marries Gino, a dashing and highly unsuitable Italian twelve years her junior, her snobbish former in-laws make no attempts to hide their disapproval. But their expedition to face the uncouth foreigner takes an unexpected turn when they return to Italy under tragic circumstances intending to rescue Lilia and Gino’s baby.

Here are my favorite passages from the novel.

Chapter 5

“So one would have supposed. But she never cared for her mother, and little girls of nine don’t reason clearly. She looks on it as a long visit. And it is important, most important, that she should not receive a shock. All a child’s life depends on the ideal it has of its parents. Destroy that and everything goes—morals, behaviour, everything. Absolute trust in some one else is the essence of education. That is why I have been so careful about talking of poor Lilia before her.”

Chapter 7

It was too late to go. She could not tell why, but it was too late. She turned away her head when Gino lifted his son to his lips. This was something too remote from the prettiness of the nursery. The man was majestic; he was a part of Nature; in no ordinary love scene could he ever be so great. For a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and—by some sad, strange irony—it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy. Gino passionately embracing, Miss Abbott reverently averting her eyes—both of them had parents whom they did not love so very much.

Chapter 8

“Why, yes,” he stammered. “Since we talk openly, that is all I am after just now. What else is there? If I can persuade Signor Carella to give in, so much the better. If he won’t, I must report the failure to my mother and then go home. Why, Miss Abbott, you can’t expect me to follow you through all these turns—”

“I don’t! But I do expect you to settle what is right and to follow that. Do you want the child to stop with his father, who loves him and will bring him up badly, or do you want him to come to Sawston, where no one loves him, but where he will be brought up well? There is the question put dispassionately enough even for you. Settle it. Settle which side you’ll fight on. But don’t go talking about an ‘honourable failure,’ which means simply not thinking and not acting at all.”

“Because I understand the position of Signor Carella and of you, it’s no reason that—”

“None at all. Fight as if you think us wrong. Oh, what’s the use of your fair-mindedness if you never decide for yourself? Any one gets hold of you and makes you do what they want. And you see through them and laugh at them—and do it. It’s not enough to see clearly; I’m muddle-headed and stupid, and not worth a quarter of you, but I have tried to do what seemed right at the time. And you—your brain and your insight are splendid. But when you see what’s right you’re too idle to do it. You told me once that we shall be judged by our intentions, not by our accomplishments. I thought it a grand remark. But we must intend to accomplish—not sit intending on a chair.”

“You are wonderful!” he said gravely.

“Oh, you appreciate me!” she burst out again. “I wish you didn’t. You appreciate us all—see good in all of us. And all the time you are dead—dead—dead. Look, why aren’t you angry?” She came up to him, and then her mood suddenly changed, and she took hold of both his hands. “You are so splendid, Mr. Herriton, that I can’t bear to see you wasted. I can’t bear—she has not been good to you—your mother.”

“Miss Abbott, don’t worry over me. Some people are born not to do things. I’m one of them; I never did anything at school or at the Bar. I came out to stop Lilia’s marriage, and it was too late. I came out intending to get the baby, and I shall return an ‘honourable failure.’ I never expect anything to happen now, and so I am never disappointed. You would be surprised to know what my great events are. Going to the theatre yesterday, talking to you now—I don’t suppose I shall ever meet anything greater. I seem fated to pass through the world without colliding with it or moving it—and I’m sure I can’t tell you whether the fate’s good or evil. I don’t die—I don’t fall in love. And if other people die or fall in love they always do it when I’m just not there. You are quite right; life to me is just a spectacle, which—thank God, and thank Italy, and thank you—is now more beautiful and heartening than it has ever been before.”

She said solemnly, “I wish something would happen to you, my dear friend; I wish something would happen to you.”

“But why?” he asked, smiling. “Prove to me why I don’t do as I am.”

She also smiled, very gravely. She could not prove it. No argument existed. Their discourse, splendid as it had been, resulted in nothing, and their respective opinions and policies were exactly the same when they left the church as when they had entered it.

Chapter 10

“Silly nonsense!” he exploded, suddenly moved to have the whole thing out with her. “You’re too good—about a thousand times better than I am. You can’t live in that hole; you must go among people who can hope to understand you. I mind for myself. I want to see you often—again and again.”

“Of course we shall meet whenever you come down; and I hope that it will mean often.”

“It’s not enough; it’ll only be in the old horrible way, each with a dozen relatives round us. No, Miss Abbott; it’s not good enough.”

“We can write at all events.”

“You will write?” he cried, with a flush of pleasure. At times his hopes seemed so solid.

“I will indeed.”

“But I say it’s not enough—you can’t go back to the old life if you wanted to. Too much has happened.”

“I know that,” she said sadly.

“Not only pain and sorrow, but wonderful things: that tower in the sunlight—do you remember it, and all you said to me? The theatre, even. And the next day—in the church; and our times with Gino.”

“All the wonderful things are over,” she said. “That is just where it is.”

“I don’t believe it. At all events not for me. The most wonderful things may be to come—”

“The wonderful things are over,” she repeated, and looked at him so mournfully that he dare not contradict her. The train was crawling up the last ascent towards the Campanile of Airolo and the entrance of the tunnel.

“Miss Abbott,” he murmured, speaking quickly, as if their free intercourse might soon be ended, “what is the matter with you? I thought I understood you, and I don’t. All those two great first days at Monteriano I read you as clearly as you read me still. I saw why you had come, and why you changed sides, and afterwards I saw your wonderful courage and pity. And now you’re frank with me one moment, as you used to be, and the next moment you shut me up. You see I owe too much to you—my life, and I don’t know what besides. I won’t stand it. You’ve gone too far to turn mysterious. I’ll quote what you said to me: ‘Don’t be mysterious; there isn’t the time.’ I’ll quote something else: ‘I and my life must be where I live.’ You can’t live at Sawston.”

He had moved her at last. She whispered to herself hurriedly. “It is tempting—” And those three words threw him into a tumult of joy. What was tempting to her? After all was the greatest of things possible? Perhaps, after long estrangement, after much tragedy, the South had brought them together in the end. That laughter in the theatre, those silver stars in the purple sky, even the violets of a departed spring, all had helped, and sorrow had helped also, and so had tenderness to others.

“It is tempting,” she repeated, “not to be mysterious. I’ve wanted often to tell you, and then been afraid. I could never tell any one else, certainly no woman, and I think you’re the one man who might understand and not be disgusted.”

“Are you lonely?” he whispered. “Is it anything like that?”

“Yes.” The train seemed to shake him towards her. He was resolved that though a dozen people were looking, he would yet take her in his arms. “I’m terribly lonely, or I wouldn’t speak. I think you must know already.” Their faces were crimson, as if the same thought was surging through them both.

“Perhaps I do.” He came close to her. “Perhaps I could speak instead. But if you will say the word plainly you’ll never be sorry; I will thank you for it all my life.”

She said plainly, “That I love him.” Then she broke down. Her body was shaken with sobs, and lest there should be any doubt she cried between the sobs for Gino! Gino! Gino!

He heard himself remark “Rather! I love him too! When I can forget how he hurt me that evening. Though whenever we shake hands—” One of them must have moved a step or two, for when she spoke again she was already a little way apart.

“You’ve upset me.” She stifled something that was perilously near hysterics. “I thought I was past all this. You’re taking it wrongly. I’m in love with Gino—don’t pass it off—I mean it crudely—you know what I mean. So laugh at me.”

“Laugh at love?” asked Philip.

“Yes. Pull it to pieces. Tell me I’m a fool or worse—that he’s a cad. Say all you said when Lilia fell in love with him. That’s the help I want. I dare tell you this because I like you—and because you’re without passion; you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful. So I can trust you to cure me. Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny?” She tried to laugh herself, but became frightened and had to stop. “He’s not a gentleman, nor a Christian, nor good in any way. He’s never flattered me nor honoured me. But because he’s handsome, that’s been enough. The son of an Italian dentist, with a pretty face.” She repeated the phrase as if it was a charm against passion. “Oh, Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny!” Then, to his relief, she began to cry. “I love him, and I’m not ashamed of it. I love him, and I’m going to Sawston, and if I mayn’t speak about him to you sometimes, I shall die.”

In that terrible discovery Philip managed to think not of himself but of her. He did not lament. He did not even speak to her kindly, for he saw that she could not stand it. A flippant reply was what she asked and needed—something flippant and a little cynical. And indeed it was the only reply he could trust himself to make.

“Perhaps it is what the books call ‘a passing fancy’?”

She shook her head. Even this question was too pathetic. For as far as she knew anything about herself, she knew that her passions, once aroused, were sure. “If I saw him often,” she said, “I might remember what he is like. Or he might grow old. But I dare not risk it, so nothing can alter me now.”

“Well, if the fancy does pass, let me know.” After all, he could say what he wanted.

“Oh, you shall know quick enough—”

“But before you retire to Sawston—are you so mighty sure?”

“What of?” She had stopped crying. He was treating her exactly as she had hoped.

“That you and he—” He smiled bitterly at the thought of them together. Here was the cruel antique malice of the gods, such as they once sent forth against Pasiphae. Centuries of aspiration and culture—and the world could not escape it. “I was going to say—whatever have you got in common?”

“Nothing except the times we have seen each other.” Again her face was crimson. He turned his own face away.

“Which—which times?”

“The time I thought you weak and heedless, and went instead of you to get the baby. That began it, as far as I know the beginning. Or it may have begun when you took us to the theatre, and I saw him mixed up with music and light. But didn’t understand till the morning. Then you opened the door—and I knew why I had been so happy. Afterwards, in the church, I prayed for us all; not for anything new, but that we might just be as we were—he with the child he loved, you and I and Harriet safe out of the place—and that I might never see him or speak to him again. I could have pulled through then—the thing was only coming near, like a wreath of smoke; it hadn’t wrapped me round.”

“But through my fault,” said Philip solemnly, “he is parted from the child he loves. And because my life was in danger you came and saw him and spoke to him again.” For the thing was even greater than she imagined. Nobody but himself would ever see round it now. And to see round it he was standing at an immense distance. He could even be glad that she had once held the beloved in her arms.

“Don’t talk of ‘faults.’ You’re my friend for ever, Mr. Herriton, I think. Only don’t be charitable and shift or take the blame. Get over supposing I’m refined. That’s what puzzles you. Get over that.”

As he spoke she seemed to be transfigured, and to have indeed no part with refinement or unrefinement any longer. Out of this wreck there was revealed to him something indestructible—something which she, who had given it, could never take away.

“I say again, don’t be charitable. If he had asked me, I might have given myself body and soul. That would have been the end of my rescue party. But all through he took me for a superior being—a goddess. I who was worshipping every inch of him, and every word he spoke. And that saved me.”

Philip’s eyes were fixed on the Campanile of Airolo. But he saw instead the fair myth of Endymion. This woman was a goddess to the end. For her no love could be degrading: she stood outside all degradation. This episode, which she thought so sordid, and which was so tragic for him, remained supremely beautiful. To such a height was he lifted, that without regret he could now have told her that he was her worshipper too. But what was the use of telling her? For all the wonderful things had happened.

“Thank you,” was all that he permitted himself. “Thank you for everything.”

She looked at him with great friendliness, for he had made her life endurable. At that moment the train entered the San Gothard tunnel. They hurried back to the carriage to close the windows lest the smuts should get into Harriet’s eyes.

Epistemic transformation

Philosopher John Cottingham argues that if we give up “the conception of truth as something unambiguously ‘bang in front of us’present and open to the attentive scrutiny of any responsible observer,” which has become the dominant model of truth due to scientism, we may return to “the Greek conception of truth as alêtheia (literally ‘unconcealing’): truth involves an uncovering, a bringing out of concealment.” Not all truth is “bald truth.” Many kinds of truth are hidden, as “‘humane’ modes of discourse—literary, poetic, aesthetic, religious”—make clear. To discern what is hidden, a person needs “epistemic transformation” through moral growth and spiritual conversion. Cottingham writes in Why Believe?

To set against the relatively calm and ordered process of ethical development envisaged in classical Aristoteltian virtue theory, the religious idea of conversion takes seriously both our ‘wretchedness’ and our ‘redeemability’—the two poles of the human condition described by Pascal.[1] True moral and spiritual growth, on this picture, requires us to be shaken out of our ordinary complacency; it requires us to bring to the surface those ‘reasons of the heart’ which will open to us new ways of perceiving, and new possibilities for enriched awareness. Conversion, if this is right, is not a coercive process engineered by demonstrations of power, but is a response of the whole person—intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual—that enables what was hitherto hidden to come to light. The process is not one of being brought up short by new scientific evidence or paranormal events, but the working of an interior change that generates a new openness. Nothing can force acceptance unless we have ‘ears to hear.’ And what is heard is not a barrage of confirmatory data, but a message that needs to be understood. It is, as the second epistle of Peter beautifully puts it, a word—one that must be ‘heeded, as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.'[2]

[1] ‘Christian faith serves to establish virtually only two things: the corruption of our nature, and our redemption through Jesus Christ.’ Pensées, ed. Lafuma, NO. 427. Compare No. 6: ‘the wretchedness of man without God; the felicity of man with God.’
[2] 2 Peter 1:19.