Sound Thinking

4 Feb

Becoming a serious and receptive reader

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/04/21

David Lyle Jeffrey offers a thoughtful reading of C. S. Lewis’s account of thoughtful reading

One of the guests on Volume 149 of the Journal was David Lyle Jeffrey, talking about his book Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (BakerAcademic, 2019). An earlier collection of essays by Jeffrey, Houses of the Interpreter: Reading Scripture, Reading Culture (Baylor, 2003), includes a chapter titled “Reading Wisely, Reading Well.” In it, Jeffrey writes that the task of reading well requires “two apparently contradictory virtues — intellectual toughness and imaginative sympathy. To put this paradox another way, the mature or faithful reader (they are the same person) is one who simultaneously employs both disciplines of the analytical mind and generosities of an open heart. That the disciplines should be as rigorous as the generosities amiable is the sine qua non of a fine reader. In lesser readers there is usually a notable imbalance to one side or another.”

The rest of the essay contains Jeffrey’s reflections on what made C. S. Lewis such a good reader, with some insights from Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism (1961) about the act(s) of reading. Jeffrey offers a summary of “Lewis’s account of the two balanced elements in mature reading. He regards both elements as essential. The first is that self-forgetful and submissive abandonment to the authority of the text which one sees in an intelligent child. The second comes later: that disciplined, informed, and discerning questioning of the text which is the work of an educated mind.

“Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism is an attempt to distinguish ‘true’ or ‘literary’ readers from ‘unliterary’ ones in this sense: his ‘true’ or ‘literary’ reader reads ‘every work seriously in the sense that he reads it wholeheartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can,’ since, as Lewis says, ‘the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.’

“‘Bad,’ or ‘unliterary’ readers, by contrast, never get self out of the way. In practice they do not even much like reading — often for pretty much the same reason they do not like listening. They almost never read a book more than once, even a book they have thought better than most. What they prefer to the text is its information (a digest of the ‘main points’) whether in a class or in church. ‘They are,’ says Lewis, ‘like those pupils who want to have everything explained to them and do not much attend to the explanation.’ If such a person turns to the task of reading’s tough intellectual disciplines it is likely to be also at second hand; criticism or exegesis done by others which gives one the illusion of having ‘mastered’ the text, or of having been safely placed beyond its reach. ‘Especially poisonous,’ says Lewis, ‘is that kind of teaching which encourages [us] to approach every literary work with suspicion’ — that is, teaching which encourages a predisposition to aloofness so categorical as to render reading itself next to pointless.

“Among other things, what we learn from Lewis about reading, then, is that it is almost inescapably an ethical as well as an analytical activity. It obliges us to choose between acceptance and denial, trust and suspicion, self-effacement and mere selfishness. In ‘good reading,’ Lewis writes, as in mature love, ‘we escape from our self into one another,’ thus ‘transcending our own competitive particularity.’ The educational parallel is exact: ‘In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are.’ Part of the ethic is to acknowledge that there is an abundant reality which transcends our own ego and that reality is not, after all, merely self-referential.”

•     •     •

If you’re interested in further reflections on the existential and ethical aspects of reading, you should know about On Books and Reading, a MARS HILL AUDIO Anthology. Seven thoughtful individuals with various vocations talk with host Ken Myers about why and how engagement with books changes our lives. The guests are poet and former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, literary critic Sven Birkerts, painter Makoto Fujimura, columnist Maggie Jackson, pastor-theologian Eugene Peterson, preacher and media ecologist Gregory Edward Reynolds, and portrait painter Catherine Prescott. 

David Lyle Jeffrey’s writing is featured in God’s Patient Stet, an article about the poetry of Richard Wilbur, read aloud by Ken Myers as one of our Audio Reprint series.

27 Jan

Why theologians should be on their knees

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/27/21

John Webster on rapture and receptivity in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar 

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)

On Volume 149 of the Journal, Matthew Levering talks about his book The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Introduction to His Theology. In his book’s opening chapter, Levering notes that given the depth and breadth of von Balthasar’s learning and wisdom, attempting to write an introductory book to his work comes perilously close the height of foolishness. (Then again, people write introductory books to the Bible or to the history of the Church.)

As Levering introduces his own introduction, he reflects the three-fold structure of von Balthasar’s trilogy and his own book with this summary: “[T]o a modern world forgetful of God and Christ, von Balthasar wishes to proclaim the beauty of beings, the goodness of history, and the truth of love. He wishes to help us remember that ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8), that God has ‘destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ’ in history (Eph 1:5), and that we must now live ‘according to the measure of Christ’s gift’ (Eph 4:7).”

In an 1983 article titled “Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Paschal Mystery,” John Webster (then Lecturer in Theology at St. John’s College, Durham) offered a helpful glimpse at some of the key themes in von Balthasar’s work. The three-page article includes four subheadings: Beauty; Jesus, the Form of God; Incarnation and Trinity; and The Mystery of Holy Saturday. Since the entire text is both brief and available on-line, I’ll offer here only two very short extracts.

“Von Balthasar’s whole theological enterprise could be not improperly described as an attempt to restate the centrality of the category of beauty for Christian faith and Christian theology. His work is pervaded by a conviction that the self-revelation of God is not only truth to be apprehended by the mind nor only commands to exercise the will, but also a manifestation of the sheer beauty and splendour of the being of God. And so his theology seeks ‘to complement the vision of the true and the good with that of the beautiful’ (The Glory of the Lord, 9). For at the heart of the Christian faith lies the experience of being overwhelmed and mastered by the radiance of God’s glory as he shows himself to the world.

“It would be easy, but ultimately mistaken, to dismiss this unfamiliar theological starting-point as a kind of religious aestheticism. In fact, von Balthasar’s theology of beauty occupies the place which in more familiar accounts of Christian truth is occupied by the doctrine of revelation. That is to say, it is an attempt to identify the self-manifestation of God through which he communicates himself to the world. This self-manifestation is not, however, propositional: God reveals, not a message about himself but rather the splendour of his own being. This splendour is both authoritative and compelling: its claim is absolute, its sheer occurence as the irruption of God’s glory into human history commands by attracting us and taking us beyond ourselves in rapture. And out of such a confrontation with the majesty of God’s being, theology is born. . . .”

“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian's task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”

25 Jan

From enthusiasm to discernment

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/25/21

Hans Urs von Balthasar on the maturing of aesthetic taste

“At first, the science of art may appear to be a material collection of those things that generally pass for beautiful, while the subjective judgment of taste on what is beautiful seems subject to the most extreme variations. The young especially experience this subjective aspect with particular intensity and tend to generalise it. Since they have not yet acquired objective criteria for the evaluation of works of art, and because they have not yet learned to distinguish by seeing and listening, they compensate with the ‘enthusiasm’ proper to their age. They find themselves in or transport themselves to a state of mind, an interior ‘vibration’, which transfigures nature, art, friendship and love in their sight, and which communicates the experience of the beautiful like a drug whose effect, as experience shows, quickly disappears. People who cling to this view of the subjective nature of taste’s judgment have remained immature adolescents. By developing his soul according to the images of the objectively beautiful, the maturing person gradually learns to acquire the art of discrimination, that is, the art of perceiving what is beautiful in itself. In the process of their development, the subjective elements of perception (which, doubtless, include state of mind and fantasy) more and more pass into the service of objective perception. Even in the case of a masterpiece, the mature observer of art can without difficulty give an objective and largely conceptual basis for his judgment.”

— from Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I. Seeing the Form



21 Jan

The scantily clad public square

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

Reinhard Hütter on the necessity of the virtue of religion

I am heartened each time I read a remark from some pundit or other that our society suffers from a failure to take seriously “what it means to be human.” But not infrequently, my sense of encouragement is severely dampened when I see in the prose that follows an all-too slight account of the meaning of our humanity. For, when social or political life is discussed, the characteristics of the human that are typically named are those readily discernible by the social sciences without guidance from theology or philosophy. 

Perhaps I’m alert to such constricted accounts of “what it means to be human” because my own thinking about culture, society, and politics suffered for a long time from the same imposing of boundaries. I used to assume that public life could be well ordered without reference to distinctively theological claims, without deliberate engagement with the One in whom all things hold together. The term that summarized my thinking about a place account of what it means to be human was “our mere humanity,” by which I meant human existence and experience without reference to (among other things) the Trinity, the Resurrection, Pentecost, or the Second Coming. “Human flourishing” (the currently popular term) was, I believed, fully imaginable and achievable within what Charles Taylor has called the “immanent frame.” Rejecting that claim was to put oneself at odds with the ordering principles of virtually every modern institution and practice. Those distinctive, theologically described claims were fine for private life, but not in public life. I was not an advocate for a naked public square, just a scantily clad one.

In case MARS HILL AUDIO listeners haven’t noticed, I’ve changed my mind about this and, for a number of years, the guests I’ve interviewed have often been explicitly critical of what I once believed. Take, for example, Reinhard Hütter, the author of Bound for Beatitude, a guest on volume 149 of the Journal. For those who haven’t yet heard this interview, I summarized in an earlier post Hütter’s argument that “what it means to be human” is to be a creature made for fulfillment in union with the Triune Creator. As he writes, “Humanity is ordained to the gratuitous supernatural final end of union with God.”

That summary claim is from a chapter in his book called “The Preparation for Beatitude—Justice toward God: The Virtue of Religion.” Consider that final phrase “virtue of religion.” Listeners may remember my conversation with historian Peter Harrison (discussing The Territories of Science and Religion on Volume 131) who explained how the concept of “religion” has radically changed its assumed meaning. Where once it described an interior disposition, in the early modern West — concurrent with the rise of modern notions of science — it came to mean a body of propositions and the community united in affirming those beliefs. William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence (discussed on Volume 101) and elsewhere similarly argues that the conventional understanding of “religion” is a modern development, and not a neutral one: as he writes, “the [conventional] concept of religion . . . is a development of the modern liberal state; the religious-secular distinction accompanies the invention of private-public, religion-politics, and church-state dichotomies.” All of which, it should be noted, expands the power of the state over every aspect of life.

Back to Hütter’s discussion of the virtue of religion, which in Aquinas’s view is (in Hütter’s summary) “absolutely central for genuine human flourishing.” The moral virtue of religion is analogous to the cardinal virtue of justice. Where justice predisposes us to render to everyone what he or she is due, the virtue of religion inclines us toward acts of honor and reverence to God. 

Early in his chapter discussing the virtue of religion, Hütter describes the modern assumption that human life can be lived quite happily without religion, in any sense of the word. Hütter insists that, in Aquinas’s view (and his own) this is a dangerous assumption: “Doing without religion constitutes a grave impediment in regard to attaining the ultimate end and places one, therefore, on a margin of human existence.”

He continues: “For the educated elites of the Western Hemisphere, doing without religion is the welcome effect of an ineluctable progress from ignorance and bigotry to enlightenment and tolerance. For them, doing without religion does not constitute at all one of the margins of human existence but, quite on the contrary, the precondition for the ultimate flourishing of the sovereign self.”

Hütter then goes on to discuss five different definitions of religion used in contemporary parlance. The first of these is political liberalism’s use of religion. “This use is so utterly influential because it is part of the conceptual matrix of a normative secularism that frames — primarily by way of the media — the public discussion in virtually all Western societies. The positive contrast of terms to this negative use of religion are ‘secular reason’ and its present instantiation, ‘secular discourse.’ ‘Religion’ stands for sets of beliefs that are presumably more or less arbitrary in nature, beliefs impossible to warrant and adjudicate rationally. Because of its inherently irrational nature — so secularist reasoning goes — ‘religion’ must establish its claims by way of more or less subtle forms of violence, ranging from psychological manipulation to open terror, torture, and religious war. In order to secure peace in the public square, a pure ‘secular’ reason and discourse must dominate the public sphere, while ‘religion’ in all shapes and forms is to be relegated to the private, or at best, social sphere.”

This paragraph continues with some important observations about how this understanding of “religion” guides the interpretation of “religious freedom” in liberal democracies. Hütter’s description deserves serious reflection, especially by those who believe that their “right to religious liberty” offers significant protection from tyrannical overreach by the State:

“While in virtually all Western societies there exists, of course, a constitutional right to religious freedom, the political and judicial powers of current Western liberal democracies interpret this religious freedom not as a constitutional human right antecedent to normative political categories of ‘public’ versus ‘private,’ but merely as a political right within them. Normatively framed in such a way, the right to religious freedom turns into a right of free exercise that pertains first and foremost to the private sphere and, under increasingly restrictive conditions, also to the social sphere. According to this by now quasi hegemonic secularist interpretation of the freedom of religion, the public sphere belongs exclusively to ‘secular’ reason and discourse. Religious belief and practice are constitutionally protected as long as they remain within the parameters of the private and social spheres.”

Later in the chapter, Hütter raises significant objections to the limits of this protection. Just as “it is according to the very nature of the virtue of justice to transcend and to encompass both the public and the private spheres,” so “the virtue of religion, rightly understood and practiced . . . resists submission to the superimposition of a political disciplinary distinction that compromises the essence of the virtue itself. . . . Being directed to the highest good, the summum bonum, reverence of and honor to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the first truth and sovereign good — in short, the triune Lord — this virtue is only practiced authentically according to its nature when it is practiced in the political public such that the political public itself is rightly ordered to the first principles of the creation and government of things.

“Now, to say the least, this is obviously not how contemporary democracies constitute themselves in the spirit of sovereign secularism. Banishing the practice of the virtue of religion from the political public is a constitutive element of their self-understanding. Of course, to force the virtue of religion into the purely private sphere is to force it to turn into its own counterfeit. . . .

“Not only does the virtue of religion suffer from the profoundly alienating imposition of its privatization, but also does the body politic suffer eventually. One of the foremost German legal philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenforde, argued famously — and persistently — that a truly just, and therefore free, democratic society lives from moral sources that transcend its scope, sources that secular liberalism per se cannot provide and replenish on its own terms, but on which a truly free and just society at the same time vitally depends. These sources are fundamentally connected with and accessed by way of the public practice of the virtue of religion. And this practice of religio, according to Böckenforde, will be ideally and preferably Christian because it is nothing but the Christian understanding of the human being that is presupposed in the tenets and the program of genuine liberalism: the human being as created in the image of God and, therefore, endowed with an indelible dignity and an intrinsic orientation toward transcendence, an orientation expressed first and foremost in humanity’s universal desire for knowledge and happiness and consequently in the public practice of the virtue of religion that gives honor and reference to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the triune creator and Lord who is the fount of every good. By privatizing the virtue of religion, late modern secularist democracies cut themselves off from the transpolitical moral and spiritual roots that fund the public ethos of their own citizens. This development leads to the transformation of the citizen into the essentially private consumer of goods, the sovereign self in the order of consumption, for whom the public ‘secular discourse’ is nothing else but the interminable negotiation of the competing interests of consumers, customers, and clients.”

21 Jan

The eclipsing of happiness

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

Reinhard Hütter on the Christian recognition that happiness is only intelligible in light of the end for which we were created

Reinhard Hütter is a guest on Volume 149 of the Journal, talking about his book Bound for Beatitude. Those three words capture the boundless confidence that is the ground for the Christian understanding of human nature. Every human being is created with a desire to be happy. That is given with our nature, but we need to learn what true happiness is. As Hütter writes, “The teaching of Scripture is unequivocal: true and lasting happiness, beatitude, is found only when a person embraces the truth that God reveals, follows the path God thereby opens up to that person, and, through God’s grace, begins to participate in the divine life.” 

The subtitle to Hütter’s book is A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics. Instructed by the work of Thomas Aquinas, Hütter describes why Christian ethics — indeed all Christian theology — must be grounded in the ends for which persons (and all of Creation) were called into being. 

The culture of modernity — in the seas of which we swim — is marked by a rejection of the claim that there are ends (teloi) for which human beings exist and according to which their lives, privately and publicly, should be ordered. By contrast, the work of Aquinas, explicated in Hütter’s book, reflects the fundamental Christian affirmation of “the principle of finality,” the recognition that “every agent acts for an end,” an end (telos) established by the Creator.

Our age is emphatically anti-teleological, insists Hütter: “[O]ne of the characteristics of the modern era is the widespread rejection of the principle of finality. As it plays out in the anthropological realm, this pervasive dismissal of the principle of finality leads to a crisis in terms of the human being’s understanding of himself as a human person. Due to the widespread and erroneous dismissal of the finality of human nature, the human self-image as rational animal, as person and nature in one, collapses into the irresolvable antinomy between two contradictory and agonistically competing self-images, a neo-Gnostic angelism and a naturalistic animalism. The late modern person vacillates between the self-image of an essentially disembodied sovereign will that submits all exteriority, including the body, to its imperious dictates, and the self-image of a super-primate, a highly advanced animal, gifted or cursed with a developed consciousness that is driven by instincts, passions, and desires beyond its control and understanding into patterns of behavior for which an animal can never be held fully accountable.”

If there are no ends for which we were created — no nature that defines us— then the pursuit of happiness has no transcendent guidelines or points of reference. As Hütter observes, “a partial result of the eclipse of what it means to be human [is that] the understanding of and search for happiness has taken a radical experiential turn. The happiness now sought is the emotional state of joy, delight, and especially ecstasy as the apex of an encompassing feeling of well-being that ideally continues, fed by whatever sequence of objects, substances, and events it takes to sustain it. The a-teleological dynamic of consumption — the trademark of consumer capitalism — collapses action and its purpose to the here and now. Any remaining sense of community and conviviality is no longer based on the common good, let alone on the highest good, God, but rather on sensuality, sentiments, and transient coalitions of proximate interests. Nietzsche announced the return of the Dionysian and what has arrived is the obsession with the body and with orgiastic and analogous experiences of sensual and emotional ecstasy. The fun- and event-centered culture — the most characteristic feature of which is the collection of extraordinary, exhilarating, and possibly transgressive experiences of all sorts — is the direct result of the pervasive search for the feelings of joy, delight, and ecstasy that happiness issues in the here and now. . . .

“[G]iven this existentialist understanding of happiness as the result of the instant gratification of some desire and the resulting sensual or emotional elation, a happiness that consists in the attainment of a specific good, even the highest good, is simply meaningless.”