Volume 85 (CD Edition)
Guests on Volume 85: C. John Sommerville, on how higher education, divorced from higher realities, has become socially irrelevant; Catherine Albanese, on American “metaphysical religion,” varieties of gnosticism, and the quest for spiritual energy; Christopher Shannon, on how social scientists encouraged the rise of autonomous individualism in twentieth-century America; Michael G. Lawler, on the development of the idea of marriage as covenant in Roman Catholic thought; Gilbert Meilaender, on lessons from Augustine in defining proper expectations for the Christian life; Matthew Dickerson, on J. R. R. Tolkien’s vision of stewardship of the earth: the glory of trees and the shepherdhood of ents.
“Faith belongs in the academy in ways that would still be surprising to people.”
—C. John Sommerville
Professor C. John Sommerville describes the increasingly marginal influence of universities in our society, and why they seem to be of no substantive relevance to people outside the school, with the exception perhaps of sports teams. He argues that this is because they are secular, while clarifying that he does not think religious schools are the only ones with a right to exist. Enlightenment thinking distrusted religious authority, but Sommerville argues in his book The Decline of the Secular University that universities will continue to be irrelevant as long as they insist on avoiding sustained reflection on what it means to be human. He sees in the academy the beginnings of a criticism of Enlightenment ideals, which he hopes may soon lead them to rediscover the relevance of religion.
“Our human world is a small-scale model of that larger reality.”
Early American history was suffused with a variety of fervent religious experimentations, from alchemy and astrology to the Transcendentalists’ intuitive knowledge. Catherine Albenese is professor and chair of the department of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, and has written A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. She describes this “metaphysical religion” as progressive and democratic, unlike the often overused term “gnosticism” which in its ancient sense was too elitist to fit the American way. Stemming from experimentation in such things as magic and numerology, this metaphysical awareness lives on today in many forms, including aura healing, acupuncture, and the quest for spiritual energy.
“There is a greater sense that what it means to be an American is to be someone who is master of [his] own destiny.”
Professor Christopher Shannon is author of Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought. He discusses how early twentieth-century social scientists encouraged the American idea that individual identity works against communal membership. Newcomers to America sought the best of old and new worlds by not giving up culture and tradition, but seeking economic success. In the end, however, their traditions were abandoned for a sense of individual fulfillment. As Shannon puts it, “the official acceptance of diversity is a first step toward a more insidious assimilation.” Detachment becomes a way of life as the individual asserts power over his traditional culture in order to recreate himself.
“If marriage is indeed a symbol of the great covenant, then perhaps we could talk about marriage itself as a covenant.”
—Michael G. Lawler
In the 1930’s, theologians began to complain that the Catholic Church’s language concerning marriage was too juridical, “like buying a car.” As Michael G. Lawler points out in his book Covenant Marriage in Comparative Perspective, the covenant between Israel and God is of the same type as that between man and woman, and the latter should employ similar oaths. The Vatican council’s conclusion in the 1960’s altered the language to emphasize the intimacy and fidelity appropriate to a covenantal understanding. Lawler discusses the difference between contract and covenant, the implications to the parties involved, and the seriousness with which it should be entered into.
“What’s terrible about hell is that you’ve lost God.”
Discussions of ethics tend to insist on decisive answers. Yet the most important questions persist and cannot be quickly answered. Gilbert Meilaender’s discussion of lessons learned from Augustine begins with the insight that thought must be shaped over time, and books should be savored and revisited. In The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life, Meilaender maintains that in order to follow God we must be prepared not to be happy. This is central to Augustine’s concern with how we understand ourselves in relation to God. God himself, and his presence, is our delight; if we keep in mind that he is not merely an instrument we use for our happiness, we will understand why relief of suffering is not the highest good.
“For Tolkien it was a very holistic thing: you consider the meaning and purpose of the earth in the same breath that you consider how you live on it and how you interact with it.”
Author Matthew Dickerson discusses how the resonance of the ideas of Wendell Berry and others with the holistic vision of Tolkien’s works inspired his book Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien. Dickerson argues that Tolkien’s treatment of wilderness is very much at odds with our modern way of talking about nature. Even the term “natural resource” is a value judgement, seeing the earth merely as a tool to be used up. Dickerson sees the Creation story behind The Lord of the Rings—The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s lifelong and greatest project—as an example of the purposefulness he sees in creation; an indisputable reason to keep away from the abuse of it. The Silmarils’ beauty is a metaphor for nature itself, and Dickerson discusses the connectedness between every area of our lives and every piece of creation, and the necessity for sustainability in our stewardship of the environment.
“He saw the beauty and the value of the physical, created world . . . the earth itself is important. It is the creation of a good creator.”
In this bonus track, Matthew Dickerson discusses how Tolkien was strongly anti-Gnostic in his care for nature. Tolkien implies in The Lord of the Rings that the cutting down of trees can fall into two levels of evil: utilitarian destruction, and, even worse, purposeless destruction. Such evil destruction is not merely unpleasant to some, nor inconvenient to many, but is morally judged. Meditation on beautiful architecture also provides a legitimate type of drawing closer to God, but Tolkien was especially taken with the Psalms that give moral weight to trees. He clearly saw how these elements of nature (trees, water) draw us through the Psalmist to our creator.