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


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.

Divine interventions are disclosures of meaning

If we do not rule out “breaks in the natural order,” more commonly known as miracles, how can we understand divine interventions? Here is philosopher John Cottingham’s answer in Why Believe?

But even from the very minimalist characterization of God so far introduced, it seems plain that divine interventions could not be capricious exercises of power, nor convenient responses to the would-be manipulations of believers. Rather, they would necessarily be expressions of God’s characteristics: they would be not arbitrary, but rational and intelligible; they would be not mere conferring of temporary advantages to one’s favorite as against another, or rewards for the performances of some mechanical ritual, but true manifestations of deep love and goodness. Perhaps most important, they would be communications between God and his creatures; they would be disclosures of meaning (94).

* * *

[Divine interventions] will be disclosures of meaning; that is, a lifting of the thin veil of mundanity that prevents us from seeing the world in its true light. The events involved will be real, but ‘real’ does not imply reducibility to, on the one hand, a demythologized natural component, and on the other hand a mere subjective occurrence in the mind of the beholder. Rather, if the picture presented here is anywhere near the mark, what will be brought about by the divine action, really and genuinely present in human history, is that the minds of the participants will, through grace, be ‘nourished and invisibly repaired’ so they can see the truth of what was really there all along (97-99).

Summer reading 2018

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8, ESV)

Aeneid.jpgAs a teacher, I am blessed with a summer recess for leisure reading. Nearly always, I plan to read more than I actually do, and I am sure this summer will be no exception. Nevertheless, I strive to be the diligent ant. Here is the plan.


  • Vergil, The Aeneid by Vergil (trans. Sarah Ruden). Supplements: Great Courses: Aeneid of Virgil by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver (12 thirty-minute audio lectures) and/or Virgil: The Aeneid: Student Guide by K. W. Gransden. My education focused on Greek rather than Roman antiquity. I want to read The Aeneid because it is a landmark work of Western literature, a vital influence to Dante’s Inferno, which I teach.
  • The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor. Having read all of O’Connor’s short fiction and her first novel, Wise Blood, I will complete her corpus by undertaking her second and final novel during the Summer Classics seminar at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Supplement: I am grateful to InterVarsity Press for sending me A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by Michael Mears Bruner.
  • Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (trans. Michael Henry Heim). Supplement: Because of this novel’s intertextuality, I will enrich my reading with Plato’s dialogue on erotic love and the art of rhetoric, Phaedrus (trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff). My family will be cruising the Italian and Dalmatian coast, beginning in Venice and ending in Positano. Travel motivates me to read literature set in the places where I go. Since I have already read both of William Shakespeare’s dramas located in the ancient canal city—The Merchant of Venice and Othello—I am opting for Mann’s acclaimed novel, although I did consider Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove or The Aspern Papers. Another contender was Shakespeare’s comedy set in Sicily, Much Ado About Nothing, where I will also be going. If I were in Rome, I would read The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne; if Florence, A Room with a View by E.M. Forster or Romola by George Eliot; if Tuscany, Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster; if various locales in Italy, Italian Journey by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens, Italian Hours by Henry James, or Sketches from Etruscan Places, Sea and Sardinia, Twilight in Italy by D. H. Lawrence.


  • Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am enriched by everything that I have read thus far from Bonhoeffer, including Prayerbook of the Bible and Letters & Papers From Prison. As a single man, I need to gain a vision for the nature of Christian community.
  • Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill. The title for Hill’s book comes from Aelred of Rievaulx, a medieval English monk, who wrote a work by the same title, which I will read at some point, too. As a single man, I also need to gain a vision for the practice of spiritual friendship.
  • Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba. Our faculty will be reading this book for the purpose of applying a healing balm to “those of us exhausted and burdened by the frenetic pace of even our ‘Christian’ busy-ness.”

The Incarnation bridges the transcendent and experiential

In a fascinating chapter on whether the divine nature is knowable, John Cottingham writes in Why Believe?:

. . . the theist needs to avoid placing God so far beyond the reach of human understanding that he ceases to become a valid object of religious worship. So the practical requirements of the worshipper, and the philosophical concerns of the Enlightenment about the limits of human understanding, converge on a single point: the need for a bridge between the transcendent and the experiential, a bridge between the divine and the human. This is course precisely what is offered by the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Someone of a skeptical Humean cast of mind would probably be inclined to say that invoking the Incarnation looks like attempting to repair the flaws in transcendent theistic mysticism by wheeling in yet another incomprehensible mystery – the mystery of God made man. Yet the bridging, the translation, as it were, of the ineffable and incomprehensible divine nature into something accessible to human experience, does have a certain internal logic. It is a logic well expressed by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who compares the transcendent God, dwelling in light inaccessible, to the brightness of the sun, which would destroy us utterly unless it were ‘sifted’ by the Earth’s blue envelope of atmosphere – a metaphor for the Virgin Mary, through whom God’s ineffable glory becomes incarnate:

Whereas, did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake
A blear and blinding ball . . .

So God was God of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind . . .

God’s glory, blinding, incomprehensible, transcendent, can nonetheless become known to humanity, and reach into our lives, but only if it is ‘sifted to suit our sight.’ Translated, as it were, into human terms, it can make itself both visible, and also, in taking human flesh, ‘much dearer to mankind’ – a pattern of goodness for us to follow, ‘full of grace and truth,’ an object of our love and devotion.

The gerundive force and objective properties of truth, beauty, and goodness

Classical educators always invoke the trinity of truth, beauty, and goodness. So, I was quite interested by what philosopher John Cottingham writes below in his book, Why Believe?:

Today, many would probably regard the idea that goodness, truth, and beauty are interconnected as outlandish. They might allow it sentimental value, and might quote with a sort of wistful nostalgia the poet Keats’s famous lines,

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on Earth or ever need to know;

but they would be unlikely to allow it a serious place in their belief system. The fact remains, however, that there are certain remarkable properties that truth, beauty, and goodness all share. In the first place, they are are all what philosophers call normative notions – they carry with them the sense of a requirement or a demand. Some languages, Latin for example, have a special grammatical form, called the gerundive, to express this notion. Thus, amandus (from amare, to love) means not just that something is loved, or even that it is ‘lovable’ (in the rather weak sense that it tends to be loved or is apt to be loved), but rather that it is to be loved, that it ought to be loved. This kind of ‘gerundive’ flavor seems to attach to truth: the true is that which is worthy of belief – to be believed. And similarly the beautiful is that which is worthy of admiration, to be admired, and the good is that which is worthy of choice, to be pursued. Truth, beauty, and goodness therefore seem to be rather ‘queer’ properties (as the late Oxford philosopher John Mackie once put it): they have this odd, magnetic aspect – they somehow have ‘to-be-pursuedness’ built into them. Why is this odd? Because it seems incompatible with any purely naturalistic or scientific account of these properties; for it is not easy to see how a purely natural or empirically definable item could have this strange ‘normativity’ or choice-worthiness somehow packed into it. So it starts to look as if thinking about the normative concepts is sooner or later going to take us beyond the purely natural or empirical domain.

In addition to their having this ‘gerundive’ or ‘normative’ force, truth, beauty, and goodness appear to be objective properties – they seem to hold independently of what you or I or anyone else may happen to think or to want or to prefer. They seem to presuppose an objective order of value that is logically independent of the beliefs and desires human beings may happen to have at any given time. Now with regard to such objectivism, there has been a remarkable shift in the philosophical climate over the past half-century or so. In the decades following the Second World War, when philosophy was slowly emerging from the shadow of logical positivism, moral beliefs (‘value judgments,’ as people often pejoratively called them) were often dismissed as subjective – either mere expressions of emotion, mere grunts of approval or disapproval, or no more than ‘pseudo-properties,’ masking our own personal desires and preferences. Later on, with the rise of postmodernism, even truth became suspect, and was downgraded to no more than a honorific label that a given culture chooses to bestow on its favored assertions. But is very striking how the popularity of these subjectivist creeds has faded in more recent times. Relativistic views of truth turned out to be self-defeating; while in ethics, subjectivism ran into a host of logical difficulties and is now on the wane, eclipsed by a growing number of neo-objectivist theories. To everyone’s surprise, the growing consensus among philosophers is that some kind of objectivism of truth and of value is correct. 

For the theist, Cottingham argues, the gerundive force and objective properties of truth, beauty, and goodness are best explained as having their source in God:

If God himself is in his essential nature merciful, compassionate, just, and loving, then when we humans act in the ways just mentioned we are drawn closer to God, the source of our being, and the source of all that is good. Such acts command our allegiance in the strongest way, since they bring us nearer to the ‘home’ where our true peace and fulfillment lie; and, conversely, in setting our face against them, we are cutting ourselves off from our true destiny, from the ultimate basis of joy and meaningfulness in our lives. If, on the other hand, there is no God, if God is ‘dead,’ then there might (as Nietzsche frighteningly suggested) be conclusive reasons to steel ourselves against impulses of love and mercy, to harden our hearts against compassion and forgiveness, since such sentiments might get in the way of our will to power, or our passion for self-realization, or some other grand project we happen to have. Only if those features we call good-making properties point us toward the true goal of our existence will we be able to make sense of their having, in addition to their observable aspects, a normative force which commands our allegiance whether we like it or not, independently of our own contingent inclinations. Only if the universe has a moral teleology behind it will moral goodness or righteousness really exist – as something we have conclusive reason to choose – rather than merely dissolving away into features that are suitable for furthering whatever projects we may happen to have adopted, or whatever purposes we may happen to have set ourselves.

How reality presents itself to us

9781441143051For my current leisure reading, I am taking a break from literature. My diet needs philosophy. Enter John Cottingham, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading and an Honorary Fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford. He is President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, and Editor of the journal Ratio. He recently authored two companion books – Why Believe? (2009) and How to Believe (2016) – that have earned acclaim. I am starting with the first title after reading the endorsement from Sir Anthony Kenny:

In this book, John Cottingham seek to show that every human being possesses impulses and aspirations for which religious belief offer a home, and which only religious belief can adequately satisfy. The text is mercifully free from the hectoring and browbeating that disfigures much contemporary writing, both theist and atheist. Instead, Cottingham offers gentle and courteous persuasion, whether philosophical, historical, or literary. Lucid and accessible, the book is a pleasure to read.

Here is a description of the book:

Religious belief, or its lack, is something that touches our integrity very deeply. It goes to the heart of who we are, what we take ourselves to be doing with our lives, and how we locate ourselves in relation to others. Much philosophy tackles belief in God as if it depended entirely on abstract intellectual argument, but John Cottingham’s carefully reasoned yet impassioned account shows how the religious outlook connects with our deepest human longings, how it links up with our moral and aesthetic experience, how it is integrally involved in the quest for self-understanding, and how it is not after all in conflict with a scientific understanding of the world. Rigorously argued yet maximally accessible, this book cuts through the sterility of much modern debate and offers a new and exciting perspective on the conflict between secularism and spirituality.

I am already absorbed by the book. Here is a sample of Cottingham’s “gentle and courteous persuasion” from the first chapter, “Belief and Its Benefits”:

If we examine the phenomenology of ordinary experience among the vast majority of people of ordinary sensibilities (where these have not been blunted or distorted by deprivation or abuse or serious illness, or lack of proper nurturing in their early years), then I suggest that we will find a powerful and undeniable disposition to respond to the beauties of the natural world in (for want of a better term) a ‘Wordsworthian’ way: with joy and wonder and gratitude; and to respond to the demands of morality (to care for those in need, to respect justice, to avoid taking advantage of others) as imperatives which they cannot ignore or override, however much for selfish reasons, they might from time to time wish to. Reality, in short, presents itself to us, in the course of our own vivid human experience of the world, not as a meaningless concatenation of events, but as imbued with value and meaning – and, what is more, as a series of demands, which require a response from us in terms of how we live our lives. It may of course be possible to explain these things in a purely secular way. But however it is explained, the reality disclosed in the types of experience we are describing seems the very opposite of the ‘disenchanted’ world that is supposed to be the one we officially live in, according to the dominant secular culture. It is the very opposite of the random collection of rubble and debris that is supposed to have produced our world, along with us and our sensitivities, as an accidental by-product. It seems, instead, something remarkably close to the reality that is represented in the traditional theistic religions, a reality to which we respond with awe, as something wonderfully resonant with harmony and significance, and yet mysterious, elusive, bearing the stamp of the numinous. 

So there is a kind of dissonance, I would suggest, between the ‘official’ secular naturalism which is the default position for self-respecting intellectuals in the Western world, and the character of the responses which, if we honestly interrogate ourselves, we find welling up within us. And it follows that although we may want to approach the question ‘Why believe?’ from a detached and neutral standpoint that soberly assesses the evidence for various religious doctrines, or the standard arguments for or against the existence of God, this program for cold intellectual assessment arrives on the scene too late, as it were: we already, in a deep part of ourselves, either believe in something ‘not ourselves that makes for righteousness,’* or at least experience the world in many respects as if we did so believe. 

* Matthew Arnold, Literature and Dogma [1873].