Sunday, June 24, 2007

On Reading

I would like to, as a preface to this post, offer a disclaimer. I am against reading for the artsy, nose-in-the-air reason found in the misnamed, now defunct "Common Reader" catalog: "Only We, of the pure and beautiful class, can understand the joys of reading." Far better to be a non-reading, beer drinking attendee of hockey games than such a reader as the "Common Reader" tried to cultivate.

Having issued that disclaimer, let me hasten to add I do not believe a true integral education can be acquired without the voluminous reading of an enthusiast. No one can get an education from the minuscule amount of reading required by a university "education."

What follows is a discussion of some of the authors that have had a major impact, for good or ill, on me over the years.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dostoyevsky was the passion of my young manhood, as he has been the passion of so many young men since he first penned his Notes from the Underground and the five magnificent novels that followed. The great thing about Dostoyevsky is that he clears away all the rot and leaves one with a clear choice: Christ or the abyss. Konstantin Mochulsky captured the essence of Dostoyevsky's work when he said that Jesus Christ was the one great love of Dostoyevsky's life.

In Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky hurls his defiance at optimistic, Christless liberalism. He asserts man's free will against the 2+2=4 world of the rationalists. Better to live in a subterranean cellar of nihilism and despair than to adopt the soulless optimism of the new world order.

But Dostoyevsky does not leave us in the cellar. In Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, A Raw Youth, and especially The Brothers Karamazov, we go through an arduous pilgrimage that ends at the foot of the cross. And the Christ we see at the end of our journey is a European Christ. Father Zosima's Christianity has nothing to do with Russian Orthodoxy. When Dostoyevsky turned to Christ while in prison, it was not to the Christ of his Orthodox childhood that he turned but to the simple suffering servant of the Gospels. The love of the God-Man was burned into his soul.

Much has been made of Dostoyevsky's anti-Catholicism, but there is no antithesis between Dostoyevsky's Christ and the Christ of Christendom. Dostoyevsky's quarrel with Roman Catholicism was with its rationalism; it was against the smug Grand Inquisitors of scholasticism which he revolted, not the Christian faith itself.

Although I recently read The Brothers Karamazov to my children, I must confess that I seldom read Dostoyevsky any more. And that is not because I find him flawed, but because having come to a belief in the God-Man, I need more than a Dostoyevskian vision to sustain my belief in Him. Dostoyevsky spends too much time in the dark, subterranean cellars of nihilism and despair. One needs to take the subterranean cellars into one's account of existence, but too much time therein can make one forget about the other world of light. Dostoyevsky realizes this of course, but has only one hand on the windowsill of religious affirmation, while the rest of his body lives in the dark cellar. All of life cannot be a film noir where one infers the light because there must be an opposite of darkness. We need something more; we need to win before we lose. Amidst the tragedy of existence, there must be white moments when one climbs over the windowsill and sees the wonders of His love.

Dostoyevsky's work is not devoid of white moments. He would have understood what C. S. Lewis meant by the term, "surprised by joy." But I need more glimpses of what is beyond the windowsill than Dostoyevsky provides, which is why, in middle age, I read more Walter Scott than Dostoyevsky. Yet, I honor the great Russian and owe him a great debt. He is one of the giants of Christendom.

Miguel de Unamuno
Unamuno has much in common with Dostoyevsky. He also makes the choice clear: Christ or the abyss. But with Unamuno one gets less of a sense of a firm hand on the windowsill of religious faith; he has only one finger on it.

Yet his critique of scholasticism is invaluable, and his "tragic sense of life" must be the starting point for religious faith.

So far as I am concerned, I will never willingly yield myself, nor entrust my confidence, to any popular leader who is not penetrated with the feeling that he who orders men, men of flesh and bone, men who are born, suffer, and, although they do not wish to die, die; men who are ends in themselves, not merely means; men who must be themselves and not others; men, in fine, who seek that which we call happiness. It is inhuman, for example, to sacrifice one generation of men to the generation which follows, without having any feeling for the destiny of those who are sacrificed, without having any regard, not for their memory, not for their names, but for them themselves.

All this talk of a man surviving in his children, or in his works, or in the universal consciousness, is but vague verbiage which satisfies only those who suffer from affective stupidity, and who, for the rest, may be persons of a certain cerebral distinction. For it is possible to possess great talent, or what we call great talent, and yet to be stupid as regards the feelings and even morally imbecile. There have been instances.

These clever-witted, affectively stupid persons are wont to say that it is useless to seek to delve in the unknowable or to kick against the pricks. It is as if one should say to a man whose leg has had to be amputated that it does not help him at all to think about it. And we all lack something; only some of us feel the lack and others do not. Or they pretend not to feel the lack, and then they are hypocrites.

A pedant who beheld Solon weeping for the death of a son said to him, "Why do you weep thus, if weeping avails nothing?" And the sage answered him, "Precisely for that reason—because it does not avail." It is manifest that weeping avails something, even if only the alleviation of distress; but the deep sense of Solon's reply to the impertinent questioner is plainly seen. And I am convinced that we should solve many things if we all went out into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief, and joined together in beweeping them and crying aloud to the heavens and calling upon God. And this, even though God should hear us not; but He would hear us. The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men go to weep in common. A miserere sung in common by a multitude tormented by destiny has as much value as a philosophy. It is not enough to cure the plague: we must learn to weep for it. Yes, we must learn to weep! Perhaps that is the supreme wisdom. Why? Ask Solon.

--from The Tragic Sense of Life
Nicholas Berdyaev
I no longer read Berdyaev's works, but in my early twenties I was his devotee. His great virtue was his emphasis on God-Manhood. This sounds like a rather simple formulation, but Berdyaev emphasized that Christ was the only solution to the riddle of man. Scholasticism, Berdyaev asserted, almost made Christ unnecessary. For since we only intuit God because of our own humanity, it is not possible, Berdyaev maintained, to understand or know God except through Christ:

God is not an absolute monarch: God is a God Who suffers with the world and with man. He is crucified Love; He is the Liberator. The Liberator appears not as a power but as a Crucifixion. The Redeemer is the Liberator, and that not as settling accounts with God for crimes that have been committed. God reveals Himself as Humanity. Humanity is indeed the chief property of God, not almightiness, not omniscience and the rest, but humanity, freedom, love, sacrifice.

--from Slavery and Freedom
Berdyaev also refuted the whole modern European notion of objectivity. All metaphysical truth was subjective, Berdyaev claimed -- subjective in the sense that it was not rational as 2+2=4 is rational.

The spirit is always subjectivity and in this subjectivity transcension takes place. The objectivizing direction of consciousness leads into another sphere. Objectivization is an apparent attainment of the transcendent. It is precisely the objectivized transcendent which remains in the immanence of consciousness. The objectivizing consciousness remains in a closed circle of immanence, however much it affirms the objectivity of the transcendent, and precisely for this reason that it does affirm that objectivity of the transcendent. This is the clearest confirmation of the paradox that the objective is subjective and the subjective objective, if we make use of that out-of-date terminology.

The conception of the Absolute is the extreme limit of the objectivizing of abstract thought. In the Absolute there are not signs whatever of existence, no signs of life. The Absolute belongs not so much to religious revelation as to religious philosophy and theology. It is a product of thought. The abstract being which is in no way distinguished from non-being. You cannot pray to the Absolute. No dramatic meeting with it is possible. We call that the Absolute which has no relation to an other and has no need of an other. The Absolute is not a being, is not a personality, which always presupposes a going out from itself and a meeting with an other. The God of revelation, the God of the Bible is not the Absolute. In Him there is a dramatic life and movement, there is a relation to an other, to man, to the world. By the precepts of Aristotelian philosophy they have changed the God of the Bible into pure act, and excluded from Him all inward motion and every tragic principle. The Absolute cannot issue from itself and create the world.

-- Slavery and Freedom
I broke with Berdyaev over his contention, in which he differed with Dostoyevsky, that before the Fall, man was androgynous and would again return to androgyny. That interpretation of the Fall was offensive enough for me to leave Berdyaev behind, but I still respect his work. And I must admit that he and the other Russians, such as Vladimir Solovyov and Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn,have served me better than the "Roman Catholic authors."

A Lutheran pastor once confided to me that he was a Christian because of William Shakespeare. He was an old man at the time, and I was a young man, and I soon lost touch with him. But if I could speak to him today, I would tell him that I too am a Christian because of William Shakespeare. And please consider your letters of complaint already written and read, those of you who want to tell me that Christians are made by the grace of God and not by any human agency. I would not deny that all grace comes from God, nor would that Lutheran pastor, but are there not human conduits of God's grace?

Do you recall what Philip said to Nathaniel after he, Philip, had seen Jesus? He said, "We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." And of course Nathaniel was underwhelmed, as we all would have been: "Can there be any good thing come out of Nazareth?"

Philip replied, "Come and see."

Philip was a wise man. He didn't try to dazzle Nathaniel with a long recitation of Biblical prophecies pertaining to the Messiah; he simply brought Nathaniel into Christ's presence. And that is what Shakespeare does. By playing Philip to our Nathaniel, he brings us into Christ's presence. He presents us with a most compelling portrait of the heart of Our Lord. Many fail to appreciate this portrait because they are holding on to only a partial faith.

What was the meaning of the Incarnation? Did Our Lord take flesh, dwell among us, suffer, die on the cross, and then rise from the dead, only to reveal to us a philosophical system? Why not simply come to one prophet in a vision? Or why not reveal, through signs and wonders, His recommended system, to a select band of sages who could then teach and disseminate the information to all God's people? Or better yet, why not just send everyone on earth a registered letter with everything spelled out?

No, none of those options could work. The key words, joined, are God-Manhood. To reveal only the divine elements of an esoteric system would not have revealed God's full nature. Nor would it have revealed to us our true natures. For in revealing to us that His divinity is linked to His humanity, He also reveals to us that our humanity, which we share with Him, is also connected to His divine life. We know now, after the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, that He "wilt not leave us in the dust"; we are not made to die.

From the moment the veil of the Temple was rent, all philosophical systems were forever subject to Him. Speculative thought must be channeled through hearts connected to His Sacred Heart, or it becomes mere bagatelle at best and satanic revolt at its worst. In this decadent period of post-Christian history, we find churchmen of every stamp and laity from every walk of life who hold on to an intellectual version of Christianity alone. "Study that catechism, read the Church documents, learn, learn, learn; get the facts about your faith," we hear from all corners. In stark contrast to the get-the-facts men is Gerard Manly Hopkins who grasped the essence of Christianity better than anyone, when he replied to the question, "How can I know God?" with the simple words, "Give alms."

That quite simple answer, "give alms," is the key to so much. It is an excess of humanity, a charitable overflowing of the heart, which brings us closest to Our Lord. The formalists in both the Protestant and the Catholic camps are always trying to get us to shun humanity in favor of philosophical systems, with a Christian flavor to be sure, but without Christ's humanity or our own.

Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice (which I choose here to represent his works as a whole) presents quite explicitly a vision of Our Lord that does full justice to His humanity without denying His divinity. Indeed, divine humanity is divine not because it is something other than human, but because it is more human.

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,--
It is enthroned in the hearts of Kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
Yes, God is not something completely alien to us, who can only be conjured up by great magicians and wise men. We are separated from Him, not by our humanity, but by our lack of humanity. Shylock is legally in the right if the Incarnation never took place, but he is terribly wrong if it did. Because if the Incarnation really happened, we are assured that to be in full union with Christ we must be more passionate, more humane, more merciful, and more charitable. Shylock's scale, no matter how mathematically precise, will never be correct.

I find it quite heartening to see that Shakespeare still survives and has a certain popularity. And I'm not referring to his inclusion on college syllabi; his plays are not living, breathing things to academics. No, I'm talking about a survival among readers and theatergoers who still have some spark of soul left in them. It is amazing in this Gnostic age that one still sees audiences that can be moved by the Gentle Bard.

And whereas it is quite true that we can all get to heaven without reading Shakespeare, it is also equally true that we cannot get to heaven without going there through, with, and in, Our Lord, Jesus Christ, whose inner life has been so carefully drawn for us by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare provides the proofs. He does not, like Dante, build the reader a cathedral; but he supplies the passion that gives one the desire to enter a cathedral. His vision is deeper than the theologians and the theological poets.

There is an old folk tale with many variations that best depicts the Shakespearean vision. A beggar appears at the cottage of an old man. Though close to starving himself, the old man invites the beggar to share a humble meal. During the course of the meal, the old man feels as if he is on fire, not with a fire that singes, but with a fire that gives him joy and contentment. The beggar finishes his meal and departs. The old man ponders and wonders about the beggar. That night as he kneels to pray, he realizes why he felt himself to be on fire: the beggar was Our Lord. Through humanity comes the Triune God.

I do not overstate the extent of the spiritual crisis we face. Few people believe we even face a spiritual crisis, and the ones who do, recommend more study and more Gnosticism as the solution. Let me suggest a different response.

When I was a schoolboy, my class once took a trip to a local museum. In this museum was a huge man-made heart through which you could walk and observe all the heart's inner workings. Neither I nor my classmates really cared to know about the inner workings of the heart, but we were very interested in the adventure of talking a walk through a mysterious cave. And if you ignored all the left ventricle and right ventricle nonsense, you could believe that you were going through a mysterious cave.

Well, let's turn that artificial heart into a real human heart. And let's allow the Gnostic to wander with Virgil off into outer space. We shall take Shakespeare's hand as he leads us through this giant human heart. We will go through numerous passages, down deep staircases, and finally, after a journey worthy of Jules Verne's imagination, we will arrive at the heart's center. And, lo and behold! At the center of this human heart we will find another heart. This heart has a wound in it, and it is surrounded by thorns, surmounted by a flame consuming a cross. +


The magic of Shakespeare is that the words he penned four hundred years ago still send tingles and shivers through the spine, so that even in translation they thrill people in countries that were unheard of in the England of his time. Though any more searching literary appraisal than this would be beyond the essentially historical approach of this book, the biggest disservice anyone can do to Shakespeare is to be so dazzled by his works as to argue that they could not have been written by anyone so ordinary as a Stratford-upon-Avon-born actor. The very essence of Shakespeare was his humanity: that he was neither a blue-blooded nobleman nor a university trained academic, but a humbly born player who wanted to give his calling the sort of material that could really make it soar, to reach every level of society. Where he was different from his contemporaries is that he felt with and for others in all their faults and frailties. In Julius Caesar Shakespeare has Julius say of Cassius, 'He is a great observer, and he looks quite through the deeds of men', and he could hardly have coined a more appropriate description of himself.

-- Ian Wilson in Shakespeare: The Evidence

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