Sound Thinking

8 Oct

How should we then die?

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/08/21

Stanley Hauerwas asks how the fear of death shapes the practice of medicine

“When I speak before lay audiences — that is, before people who are not directly involved with medicine — I ask them how they want to die. I do so because I think no question better illumines how our attitudes shape the form of medical care we receive. The presumption of many — a presumption, I might add, underwritten by many in medicine, since it underwrites their own self interest — is that medicine is basically a scientifically neutral set of skills at which all well-trained physicians are equally adept. Medicine is seen as a set of means, admittedly a very powerful set of means, that are in themselves value-neutral. The only moral questions that occur concern the use or misuse of those skills. Moral questions about medicine are about what ends those skills should serve.

“When we consider how we want to die, we begin to appreciate how this view of medicine and the moral questions surrounding medicine are far too simple. Medicine reflects who we are, what we want, and what we fear. For example, when I ask people how they want to die, they always say, without fail, ‘painlessly,’ ‘quickly,’ ‘in my sleep,’ and ‘without causing great trouble to those close to me.’ Such desires seem straightforward and rational. They reflect what any of us would want if we thought about it — namely, we rightly want to die without knowing what is happening to us and without causing great pain to ourselves and others, since we do not want to be a ‘burden’ to others.

“Nonetheless, at other times and in other places this understanding of death would have been considered irrational if not immoral. For example, medieval persons most feared a sudden-death, a death that would not allow them to make proper spiritual preparation. Elaine Tierney notes that in the thirteenth century ‘popular preaching instructed parishioners to remember death. Gottfried writes that “preachers advised people to go to sleep every night as if it was their last and as if their beds were their tombs.” Thomas à Kempis wrote of death: “He who is dead to the world, is not in the world, but in God, unto whom he lives, comfortable, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The preparation for death was important. To die without having confessed one’s sins would submit one to eternal damnation. So the emphasis was upon death and from this developed the concept of dying well and the guides that described the “art of dying.”’

“The medieval world preferred those illnesses that gave one a lingering death or at least time to prepare for one’s death. It is interesting to speculate whether cancer would have posed the same threat to that world which it does to ours. For our desire to ‘cure’ cancer springs not only from the large number of people who actually get cancer but also from the fact that cancer challenges our very conceptions of how we would like to die. Our understanding of violent death is based on those same conceptions. The medieval person could look forward to dying in war, since there was time prior to battle to prepare for potential death. We prefer to die in unanticipated automobile accidents.

“Our medicine, moreover, reflects the way we think about death. There are few things on which we as a society agree, but almost everyone agrees that death is a very unfortunate aspect of the human condition which should be avoided at all costs. We have no communal sense of a good death, and as a result death threatens us, since it represents our absolute loneliness.”

— From Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering (Eerdmans, 1990).

1 Oct

Longing for God’s beauty

Category: Sound Thinking
Published: 10/01/21

Dietrich von Hildebrand on the quasi-sacramental function of visible and audible beauty

“The elements upon which beauty of form depends, that is, when and under what circumstances it appears in visible and audible objects, are multiform and mysterious. There is no recipe, nor could anyone make rules to be followed to create something beautiful. Every individual case must have new individual inspiration. One thing, however, we can determine, that the conditions be in the sphere of the visible and audible, like proportion, composition, harmony, rhythm, etc.

“Here there is again revealed the whole mystery of the beauty of form, the transcendence in this sphere. Conditions, which are apparently trifling and external, have a strongly, profoundly, and significantly spiritual effect. It depends on outward conditions, so to speak, when a window opens, but that which we see through the window when it is once open is weighty, significant, and by no means external. Again and again it is necessary to understand the mystery of this beauty of form. It is directly attached to visible and audible things, but the reality about which it speaks qualitatively, the substance, whose quintessence it is, is a spiritual world which towers high above everything corporeal. This must also be brought out distinctly in the answer we give. The metaphysical beauty of a saint awakens in us a desire for closer association with him, for we know that this beauty is a reflection of his personality.

“With beauty of form, on the contrary, it is otherwise. The beauty of Monte Pellegrino in Palermo does not arouse the desire in us to caress it, but, as we behold its beauty, our heart is filled with a desire for loftier regions about which this beauty speaks, and it looks upward with longing. In order to behold this beauty, we need not know God, much less think of Him, for, objectively, there is a reflection of God in these things, not merely in the manner with which all that exists portrays God, but by having something appear in things of a relatively low ontological rank, which in a special manner announces God in its quality. Only when we have understood this quasi-sacramental function of the visible and audible, this mystery that God has entrusted to it, can we do justice to the function of this beauty in the life of the redeemed. It is not true that this beauty distracts us from God and is specifically mundane. On the contrary, it contains a summons; in it there dwells a sursum corda; it awakens awe in us; it elevates us above that which is base; it fills our hearts with a longing for the eternal beauty of God.”

— from Dietrich von Hildebrand, Beauty in the Light of Redemption (Hildebrand Project, 2019)

1 Oct

Beauty and a hermeneutics of creation

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/01/21

David Bentley Hart on the goodness of beauty

“Writing of the theology of Bonaventure, regarding the analogy between the numerical proportions of worldly beauty and the unity of the Trinity, Hans Urs von Balthasar remarks that ‘this tendency of what is created to reveal the divine points back to the power of God the Word to express himself — and so it points back to the pleasure of the creator; and the Word itself points back to the relationship of expression within the Godhead, to the Father’s joy in begetting.’ Creation, as an ‘aesthetic’ expression of trinitarian love, is always already grace in the fullest sense: it is that ‘gracefulness’ that reveals the nature of divine ‘graciousness.’ Indeed, God’s affirmations of the goodness of his creation in the first chapter of Genesis can be taken as indicating first and foremost an aesthetic evaluation rather than a simply moral one; it is only with sin that the goodness of creation must be conceptually separated into solitary transcendental categories, and only with sin that creation is seen to possess a distinct ethical axis. One might almost say that the separable category of the moral is an intrusion upon the aesthetic joy that is the upwelling source of creaturely existence, as is a separate category of truth once the paradisal experience of divine love in the blameless beauty of creation is lost. Thomas Traherne writes, in his Centuries:

““Can you be Holy without accomplishing the end for which you are created? Can you be Divine unless you be Holy? Can you accomplish the end for which you were created, unless you be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours, and you were made to prize them according to their value: which is your office and duty, the end for which you were created, and the means whereby you enjoy. The end for which you were created, is that by prizing all that God hath done, you may enjoy yourself and Him in Blessedness.’ (1:12)


“‘To conceive aright and to enjoy the world, is to conceive the Holy Ghost, and to see his Love: which is the Mind of the Father. And this more pleaseth Him than many Worlds, could we create as fair and great as this. For when you are once acquainted with the world, you will find the goodness and wisdom of God so manifest therein, that it was impossible another, or better should be made. Which being made to be enjoyed, nothing can please or serve Him more, than the Soul that enjoys it. For the Soul doth accomplish the end of His desire in Creating it.’ (1:10)

“Hamann lamented the dire effects of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, in causing humanity to prefer speculative concepts over poetic enjoyment as the principal way of grasping the truth of things; for him, to a degree perhaps unparalleled in Christian thought, the true knowledge of God in creation — the true analogy — lay in a childlike rapture before the concrete and poetic creativity of God, in the task of translating the language of that creativity, and in the rearticulation of that language in poetic invention. In the experience of beauty, even now, we recover, in some measure and at some moments, this paradisal theme. Nicholas of Cusa remarks that eternal wisdom is tasted in everything savored, eternal pleasure felt in all things pleasurable, eternal beauty beheld in all that is beautiful, and eternal desire experienced in everything desired (Idiota de sapientia 1); he even claims that a man who sees a beautiful woman, and is agitated by the sight of her, gives glory thus to God and admires God’s infinite beauty (Excitationes 7). And Augustine says delight is the weight in the soul that causes it to tend toward or away from the love of God, according to how it orders the heart in regard to the beauty of God's creation (De musica 6.10.29). None of this is to say that the soul can gain access to an immediate intuition of the divine form in the fabric of creation, unclouded by sin, untroubled by the misery of earthly life; what is at issue is a hermeneutics of creation, a theological embrace of creation as a divine word precisely in its aesthetic excessiveness, its unforced beauty. Inasmuch as creation is not the overflow of some ungovernable perturbation of the divine substance, or a tenebrous collusion of ideal form and chaotic matter, but purely an expression of the superabundant joy and agape of the Trinity, joy and love are its only grammar and its only ground; one therefore must learn a certain orientation, a certain charity and a certain awe, and even a certain style of delectation to see in what sense creation tells of God and to grasp the nature of creation’s inmost (which is to say, most superficial) truth. Creation is a new emphasis in the divine dialect of triune love, whose full, perfect, and infinitely diverse expression is God’s eternal Word.

“This also means that the things of the senses cannot of themselves distract from God. All the things of earth, in being very good, declare God, and it is only by the mediation of their boundless display that the declaration of God may be heard and seen. In themselves they have no essences apart from the divine delight that crafts them: they are an array of proportions, an ordering or felicitous parataxis of semeia, and so have nothing in themselves by which they might divert attention from the God who gives them, no specific gravity, no weight apart from the weight of glory. Only a corrupt desire that longs to possess the things of the world as inert property, for violent or egoistic ends, so disorders the sensible world as to draw it away from the God that sensible reality properly declares; such a desire has not fallen prey to a lesser or impure beauty, but has rather lost sight of corporeal, material, and temporal beauty as beauty, and so has placed it in bondage.”

— from David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003)

17 Sep

From myth to sacramentality

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/17/21

Craig Berthal on Tolkien’s understanding of what fairy tales are

“In [his 1939 essay] ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ Tolkien takes the ideas he set forth in [his 1931 poem] ‘Mythopoeia,’ and shows how they are realized in one literary genre, the fairy tale. Tolkien wrote few academic essays, yet, when he did write them, they had enormous influence. His essay on Beowulf, ‘The Monsters and the Critics,’ set the criticism of that poem on a new course, in which its artistic merit was considered rather than just its value as a source of historical data. His essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ sets forth Tolkien’s understanding of where fairy tales come from and what they are for. He wants to take the field in a new direction, rejecting contemporary ideas that fairy tales derive from actual persons or events. Rather, he says, they come out of the ‘story soup,’ the narrative inheritance of mankind, whose ingredients have many points of origin.

“Romantic ideas about perception, the imagination, and truth all lie at the foundation of Tolkien’s theory. Like Coleridge and Hopkins, Tolkien believed that the individual mind had a significant part in the ‘creation’ of the world. The simple viewing of any object depends on the point [of view] of the observer, the purpose of the observation, and the memories the observer brings. At nineteen, Hopkins wrote a poem on the problem, imagining many people observing a rainbow in a waterfall from different positions, none of them seeing the same rainbow. Everyone created a slightly different rainbow, making them, in Tolkien's terminology, all sub-creators per force, because perception itself is sub-creative, ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. [Coleridge’s famous declaration in Biographia Literaria].

“Tolkien asserts that reading fairy stories is a way to ‘recover’ the world. To see centaurs and dragons is to see afresh shepherds, sheep, dogs and horses; to see dragons is to see wolves again. Especially for modern man, whose world has long been ‘disenchanted,’ entering Faërie opens the senses to new possibilities, to ‘arresting strangeness.’ ‘Recovery’ entails regaining a clear vision of the world as something different and wondrous. A person open to the possibilities of Faërie is likely to be open to the possibilities of sacramentality — and hence, fairy stories can help us recover the world as sacrament.”

— from Craig Bernthal, Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle Earth (Second Spring, 2014]

17 Sep

Mythopoeic power

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/17/21

Stratford Caldecott on Tolkien’s literary achievement

“Tolkien’s importance as a postwar writer who used fantasy to explore profound moral and spiritual themes was not recognized when The Lord of the Rings was first published in the 1950s. Back in 1936, the subtitle of Tolkien’s academic paper on Beowulf, ‘The Monsters and the Critics,’ had half jokingly implied that the literary critics of the Old English poem which Tolkien loved were adversaries of the hero, perhaps even akin to monsters themselves. And so, when The Lord of the Rings did appear in print, Tolkien knew pretty well what to expect. In fact, it was derided by a number of critics on both sides of the Atlantic, Edmund Wilson famously describing it as ‘juvenile trash.’

“The reason often given for despising the novel was that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were so clearly delineated that the plot was simplistic and childish. But . . . Tolkien was well aware of the complexity and muddle of real life — and yet held his writing to be ‘realistic,’ indeed truer to the inner life than most of the supposedly ‘grown up’ novels the critics had in mind. . . .

Tolkien drew upon a much older tradition of storytelling than the modern novel, with its typically materialistic assumptions. He was retrieving the art of mythological or mythopoeic thinking, which is as old as mankind itself and deeply entwined with our religious sense. The book appeals to universal constants in human nature, constants that are reflected in traditional mythology and folklore the world over. Mythological thinking does not provide an ‘escape’ from reality so much as an ‘intensification’ of it, as another fantasy writer (Alan Garner) once rightly said. It is this that in part explains the novel’s wide appeal — and also the contempt it aroused among those whose world-view and mindset are closed in advance against all such uses of the imagination.

“The Lord of the Rings may be read, therefore, as an exciting story that spectacularly revives an almost-extinct literary genre. But it can also be enjoyed in other ways: as an extended meditation on what it means to be English, or as an imaginative response to the experience of modern warfare, or as a moving evocation of the intimate relationship between love and heroism. . . . [I]t can be read, too, as an exploration of the roots of human language and consciousness. Most strangely of all, perhaps, it can be read as a deliberate experiment in a kind of time travel using dreams and ‘linguistic ghosts’ to overcome the limitations of individual memory and experience.”

— from Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit (Crossroad, 2003 and 2012)