Previous month:
February 2006
Next month:
April 2006

March 2006

Sunday Night Journal — March 26, 2006

St. Edith Stein 4

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Lent (“Laetare Sunday,” which has a bad way of turning in my mind into “Laertes Sunday”). I haven’t read nearly as much of my saint as I had planned, which is not surprising. But in my defense I can say that the amount of reflection provoked by what I have read has been disproportionately large. I finished “Ways to Know God” but I’m not sure that I will read anything else. There is so much to think about here that I want to re-read a good deal of it rather than move on to something else.

I’ve been reflecting on this passage:

Insofar as faith confers the possession of truth, it merits the name “knowledge,” but it is dark knowledge insofar as the conviction that it brings is not founded upon insight into the truth accepted on faith.

I’m not entirely sure what “insight into the truth,” as distinct from “knowledge,” means here, but I take it to be an understanding of, so to speak, the inner workings of the truth involved. Hence the statement would apply to the most central truths of the Faith: the Trinity and the Incarnation: when we accept these doctrines on faith, we acquire knowledge, but we do not understand its details. We did not follow, and are not shown, a process of reasoning toward the doctrines in which each step is visible. Therefore, and more importantly for what I’m interested in at the moment, we can’t demonstrate the truth of the doctrines to anyone else.

Is this “dark knowledge” then the same sort of thing as the critical judgment I was talking about last week, knowledge of which we can be certain though we cannot prove it, as when I assert as an objective fact that Shakespeare is better than Harold Robbins? And what do we make of the equally certain fact that there are people who will not admit that Shakespeare is superior?

There are two sorts of people who might make that last claim: those who simply like Robbins better, and those who maintain as the outcome of a philosophical decision that no writer may be adjudged superior to any other. The latter we can say are reasoning badly (and perhaps not in good faith, but that’s another matter): they have let the idea of equality run amuck in their thinking, or they have chosen a nihilistic rejection of standards. It might be possible to change their minds by returning to some logically prior principle and convincing them that they were mistaken there. But what to say to the latter?

Let me take a less frivolous comparison than Shakespeare and Robbins—say, Twelfth Night vs. an episode of The Simpsons. Both are comedies, and most people of our time would laugh harder at The Simpsons—which could reasonably be taken as evidence that The Simpsons is superior. But it isn’t. Most of us don’t find a Shakespeare comedy as elementally funny as the humor of our own time, in part because too much of Shakespeare’s humor has to be explained. And I admit The Simpsons can be very funny indeed.

Yet we should be able to see that the Shakespeare play is a creation of a higher order: it represents a higher level of craftsmanship at the most fundamental level, and it presents a richer and fuller vision of human life. I don’t wish, and I don’t feel obliged, to make this case at length, but I will say that at both these levels (craft and vision) there is a meanness, in both senses of the word “mean,” about The Simpsons: its characters are distorted both physically and mentally in a way that conveys a deep and perhaps nihilistic contempt for the human race. A certain amount of contempt is well-deserved, of course, and you can see it on display in Swift, but with Swift at his most savage there is always a sense that there is a standard that we ought to look to, while The Simpsons seems to be all Yahoos and no Houyhnhnms (with the possible exception of Lisa—but that’s enough about The Simpsons, of which I’ve seen only a fairly small sample).

What is operative in the person who sincerely cannot see that Shakespeare is, on some scale of absolute and objective value, superior? Is it a defect of reason or fundamental good sense? Does it have any moral component?

This has implications for the culpability of the person who refuses faith, and leaves me thinking of one of the most disturbing sayings of Our Lord:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. (Matthew 25:29)

If faith is a gift, why is it not given to everyone? Or if it is, why do so many fail to receive it? I would be surprised if there is not an answer of some sort to this question in Catholic theology, perhaps in the Summa, and equally surprised if it were very satisfying. Dark knowledge, indeed.

Sunday Night Journal — March 19, 2006

St. Edith Stein 3

…we form words for the purpose of setting an image graphically before our eyes and doing it in such a way that it points beyond itself to what the words are meant to express mediately and what the images are meant to represent.
(This and other quotations are from “Ways to Know God”)

Every sentence is a poem.

Every word is a poem.

The collapse of belief in objective aesthetic standards is one of the pure disasters of our time; by “pure” I mean that there is nothing good about it; it has no direct positive aspect; any good effect it might produce would have to be indirect, by reaction, as when a disaster brings people together. Its practical effects on life and especially on culture are obvious and undeniable. It is connected causally as well as conceptually to decline in ethical behavior, particularly regarding sex. And both are connected with the decline of faith, and all three are characterized by a refusal to acknowledge truth that cannot be proved.

I detected the stink of this decay when I was studying literature some thirty years ago. It was soon everywhere. I have often puzzled over the difficulty of proving what I am quite certain is true, that there is an objective difference in quality between, for instance, a Shakespeare play and a Harold Robbins novel, that to say Shakespeare is superior is to assert a fact, not an opinion, a fact which we can know with certainty and yet be unable to prove.

I think this is applicable to faith. Faith operates in a similar way but toward a different object, an object which commends itself to our intuitive sense of what is best and most true just as the preference for Shakespeare over Robbins does.

Edith Stein’s conception of natural theology begins similarly with intuition and has applicability to art, indeed is very capable of admitting art as a helper. And if we see art in that light we begin to understand the reason for our intuition about good and bad (or better and worse) art: it is—not only, but among other things—that the relationship of the work to truth is part of aesthetic judgment.

She uses the term “natural theology” a little differently from its usual meaning, which she formulates as “doctrine about God gained from natural experience through our natural reason.” She is referring to something prior to that sort of abstract conceptual thinking, the immediate intuition of things that precedes careful reasoning about them:

…the fullness of the world we perceive with our senses holds more than what we can understand through the methods of natural science…..This world with all it discloses and all it conceals, it is just this world that also points beyond itself as a whole to him who “mysteriously reveals himself” through it. It is this world, with its referrings that lead us out beyond itself, that forms the intuitive basis for the arguments of natural theology.

It is by means of images which become symbols that this theology is constructed and communicated:

…God is the Primal Theologian. His “symbolic theology” is all of creation.

The world is a poem.

Theologians in the Areopagite’s sense, the sacred writers, are those who have an original appreciation of this “natural revelation.” To them it is given to understand God’s image-language and translate it into our human language in order to lead others to God along this path….The whole point of their mission…assumes that others, too, can find God along this path….Their only task is to bring people who hear their words to the point where they are learning to see through nature.

This is the vocation of the artist as well. I’ve always felt that my vocation lay somewhere along these lines, but have never been sufficiently convinced, confident, and resolute enough to lay my hand to the plow and not look back.

Let us for now merely try to grasp where “symbolic theology” would lead us through the familiar images from the world of our experience. It is a great diversity that we might most aptly call the Kingdom of God.

As with the actions of characters in a novel, everything we do is saturated with symbolic meaning.

Sunday Night Journal — March 12, 2006

St. Edith Stein 2

Because Lent is a time for reflection, events naturally seem to line up so as to prevent one from doing much reflecting. This past week I made no more than a start at reading Edith Stein’s “Ways to Know God,” a somewhat lengthy essay in explication of the teachings of Dionysius the Areopagite (or Pseudo-Dionysius, if you prefer—not being a scholar I don’t feel obliged or even entitled to have any opinions about the identity of the writer). And not having read him I’m mainly interested in what he may provoke Edith Stein to say, mindful that it may not be clear what is her thought and what is his.

I haven’t gotten very far, and have made only a few notes, but the effort has already been fruitful. Dionysius views the world as a hierarchy having the task of “lead[ing] all creation back to the Creator.”

For although not everything can receive divine enlightenment…nevertheless even the lowest creatures, those lacking reason and even life, are fit to serve as tools and being-images [Seinsbild] of spiritual and divine being and acting.

I had a few years of German long ago, and retain just enough to have a feel for the sense of Seinsbild. “Being-images” is adequate but has, as is naturally the case when there is no equivalent term, an unfortunately vague quality. I’m struck here by the applicability of the idea to human art: I’ve always liked Tolkien’s idea of art as a sub-creation, or perhaps I should say sub-Creation. And the sub-Creation is itself composed of Seinsbilder: being-images which are so designed and ordered as to comprise a single Seinsbild by means of which we can speak (if we’re the artist) or hear (if we’re not) some truth about the sub-creator, the greater Creation, and the Creator. Tools, in short.

And, looking at it from the other side, we could say that the entire Creation is a work of art of which the purpose is (as the now scoffed-at but in fact very accurate old formula put it) to delight and instruct.

Knowing and witnessing go together.

This is now an aphorism that will stay with me. Maybe what I have seen in stray bits of Edith Stein’s work is not so much mystical theology as mystical poetry. At any rate I always seem to head straight for the possibility of bringing her insights to bear on the question of art, and in particular the question of the relationship between art and religion. That last sentence could serve—could serve me as a theology of art, or at least the foundation of one. I spoke last week about my incomprehension of the idea of art as “self-expression.” When one sees—knows—the splendor of being, and at the same time has the impulse to make, the result is a need to make something which communicates the splendor—to witness.

Since the Catholic faith is the most truthful account of being in its foundations, art which is informed by the Catholic faith (and this may be at several removes, as in, for instance, the English novel of the Protestant centuries) is at an advantage in bearing witness to the truth, which is to say, the splendor. Art is not religion, and breaks down when it is treated as one, as it often has been over the past hundred years or so. But it is another form, a way, of witnessing.

Sunday Night Journal — March 5, 2006

Edith Stein 1

For some time now I’ve been wanting to study the writings of St. Edith Stein, or, as she is formally known, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. I prefer to think of her as Edith Stein; it makes her seem no less holy, and closer to our earthly life, and, specifically, closer to the culture and events of the 20th century which eventually took her life (of which you can read a brief outline here).

I keep running into snippets of her work (for instance in the daily meditations of the invaluable devotional magazine Magnificat). And I’m drawn to them in an odd way—it’s not just that I find them insightful or well expressed, it’s that they seem like promising indicators or clues of some kind, as if they’re saying to me “There is something for you here—follow the trail.” So I’ve made it part of my Lenten discipline this year to make some kind of serious start. I decided it wasn’t practical to make her work my only reading for six weeks, but she’ll be my emphasis, and I won’t start any other large or demanding reading projects. That’s why this is titled “Edith Stein 1”—it’s the first of as many comments on Edith Stein as there are Sundays from now through Easter.

I know at the outset that a large part of her work is technical philosophy that is well over my head. I have no more than a nodding acquaintance with philosophy of any sort, and none at all with that of her philosophical mentor, Edmund Husserl. So I’ll be dabbling. I have several of her books, and am starting my dabbling with a fairly brief essay in Knowledge and Faith, “Knowledge, Truth, and Being.” I have glanced at this essay before, and it seems to move in the direction of some vague ideas about faith which I’ve toyed with for some time but never really articulated; I’m hoping she can help me.

It’s really the mystical in her and not the philosophical that interests me, and now that I’ve written that I think maybe part of what has attracted me to her is a sense of the philosophical reaching its limits and continuing beyond them into mysticism. Mysticism is probably the wrong word: contemplative worship is a better term. I plan at least to sample her final work, The Science of the Cross, which she had barely completed when the Nazis took her away.

So far I’ve encountered this striking formulation: “being = being-known-by-God,” which reminds me of Julian of Norwich’s well-known “It is, because God loveth it.” I have no doubt that both are true. And both serve as a sort of justification or explanation for my own most fundamental intuition: a pleasure in sheer existence which is, at least where sight is concerned, almost independent of the specific thing being seen, although it (somewhat paradoxically) cannot be had without a simultaneous awareness of the individuality of the thing itself.

This is also, to me, the foundational function and power of art: to bring home to the beholder somehow (and new means are always possible and necessary) this intuition of the splendor of being. Most art of course does more than this. Literature, for instance, inevitably deals with moral questions, but without this power it’s only a textbook. The desire and attempt to effect this have always been at the bottom of my own desultory literary work. I’ve never quite understood, or felt any connection with, the idea that art is “self-expression.” I experience something incoherent within me which I need to bring into definite existence, but it’s not me. It feels like something separate, something given. Joseph Conrad’s words have always seemed my own: “above all, to make you see.” And what I want to make you see is not me, but the splendor of being as I have seen it living in some specific thing. It only involves me because I don’t have the power of imagination required to get much beyond the basic material of my own life.