Book Reviews FAITH MAGAZINE September - October 2015
NOT AS THE WORLD GIVES
Not as the World Gives, The Way of Created Justice by Stratford Caldecott, Angelico Press, 271pp, £10.95.
Stratford Caldecott, who died in July 2014, was a prolific writer and wide-ranging thinker. His final book, Not As the World Gives, will remind his many readers, friends and admirers of how much they have lost. His ability to combine a breadth of enthusiasm and a depth of faith with gentle good humour is irreplaceable.
Not as the World Gives is built out of a collection of essays written over several years. They are loosely tied together by the theme of Catholic Social teaching – what it is, how to apply it and how it fits it with the new evangelisation of the last three Popes. Along with nine chapters of the book proper there are six essays presented as an appendix, accounting for about a quarter of the text. By the end reader may feel there is more diversity than unity. The experience reminded me of a fascinating conversation over a long dinner with an especially imaginative friend.
The book is the final instalment of Caldecott’s longstanding quest to show that Christian truth and beauty should permeate everything in creation, a conviction which left him saddened by the ugliness and baseness of the modern world. “Modernity entails, ultimately, an injustice … not only the image of God in man, but God himself.” The sure and ultimate answer to what Benedict XVI called a “materialist vision of human events” is Christianity.
As that quote suggests, Caldecott was profoundly critical of much in the modern world, but he was far more interested in the Christian cure than in describing the history and extent of the liberal-Enlightenment disease. His Christian vision took him in many directions. He was infinitely excited by the harmonies of the universe, and passionate about distributivist economics, numerology and chivalry. Traces of those fascinations appear throughout this book (although there is no mention of his enthusiasm for the modern literary knighthood of superheroes and science fiction films).
For me, his unusual and profound ecumenism is especially appealing. He was both self-consciously and instinctively orthodox in his Catholicism but also believed that Christianity needs to take advantage of the incomplete truths of other religions to overcome fully the damage done to the faith by the modern denigration of the transcendent and the beautiful. “In time we will rediscover prayer as the invisible centre and foundation of culture…and from that centre will be born a new civilization…a Christendom, but distinguished from the old Christendom not least by the fact that it will be shaped by many religious traditions.”
Caldecott was closely connected with the American edition of Communio, a journal founded after the Second Vatican Council by Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. Both of those writers come up often in the text, and this book provides a good glancing introduction to some of the basic ideas of the Communio school: the priority of gift over being, the Trinitarian nature of all experience, the nuptial nature of all love, the ineradicable and cosmic meaning of sexual difference and the identification of the fundamental modern error as the widening separation of nature from grace.
The Caldecott plan to narrow this “jagged crack” is throughout the book, most distinctly in the chapter “A Theology of Freedom”. It is almost impossible to summarise, as it moves apparently seamlessly in seventeen pages from the history of natural law to the development of conscience, the Evangelical Counsels and what he calls “creative justice”.
In Caldecott’s vision of natural law, reasoning about the universal truths of human nature should be supplemented or even replace by a different universality: the “human experience of religious hunger and mystical insight” (p.118). This “eye of the heart” sees freedom in a quite different way from the typical liberal idea of unfettered choice. Freedom is the “liberation from sin”. It does not choose “between possibilities”; it “makes possibilities”.
This true liberation is expressed – and the numerical symmetry is a signature Caldecott touch – in a two triplets, each modelled on the Trinity. Faith, hope and love are matched with poverty, chastity and obedience, and then mixed together in the fiat of Mary and in her marriage with Joseph. The result is a justice which far surpasses the rights and equilibrium of traditional natural law. His conclusion is surprising in the way that deep spiritual insight so often is:
“Asceticism and the living of the Counsels, at least in spirit, is the indispensable foundation of justice – the slaying of self-will. Justice thrives in an atmosphere of prayer. That is perhaps why, in the end, justice melts away, or melts away into mercy. Welling up within the desire for justice, for what the Bible also calls “righteousness,” we find the desire to treat all beings as they deserve, and thus to lavish on them nothing less than the love that moves the creator to bestow existence upon them.” (p.132)
The last appendix, an essay written with his wife Léonie on “Slow Evangelisation”, is particularly fine. They like the “Slow Movement”, which criticises the rush of the modern world. The Caldecotts argue that the New Evangelisation suffers from a typically modern desire for a fast revival of popular Christianity. Instead, they say, we need to think “for the long haul”.
Those who wish to spread the faith must start with the slow process of deep personal conversion. “The key to evangelisation, and the reason that it is failing, is that it cannot work without spiritual transformation.” Without the deepest truth of Christianity – the truth which Stratford Caldecott explored so deeply and presented so well – the “mysticism, spirituality, whatever you want to call – even gnosis perhaps (not in the heretical but in the Christian sense)” – without that, all the “serious business of intellectual argument and social action” is “doomed to fail”. With it, though, we will never forget that “all of human experience is a waltz with the divine”.
EVERYTHING HAS MEANING
Reasonable Pleasures - The Strange Coherences of Catholicism by James Schall, Ignatius Press, 218pp, available through Gracewing, £12.99.
The prolific Jesuit scholar, Fr James Schall, now in his eighties, has given us this book about the pleasure of knowing the truth of things, in particular the delight of discovering coherence from reflecting upon diverse aspects of existence, of realising that all sorts of “scraps of evidence” point to the fact that only Christianity provides an adequate account of our existence.
The main inspiration here is Aristotle’s understanding that “knowing itself is a unique pleasure” (p.12) and that every activity normal to us has its own proper pleasure (which is its perfection). Meanwhile the “scrapbook” approach to the pleasure of rational coherence comes primarily from Chesterton, who said that he was a Christian because of “an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts” and that “a man may be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend.” Accordingly, Schall turns his attention to a diverse range of subjects. Drawing on and quoting extensively from a number of favourite thinkers, his exploration of these topics points in each case to the truth of the Catholic faith.
In the first chapter, he reclaims the word dogma from its popular pejorative meaning, defining it as an accurate statement of what is true, and setting out the relation between philosophy and theology that frames the rest of the book. Against rationalism, philosophy is inherently open and aware of its own limitations. When we examine dogmatic truths (which have their own inner logic and consistency) “they seem to be addressed to enigmas that philosophical truths and arguments do not in fact fully answer, though they approach them and want to know about them.” What is incomplete is brought to the whole that it seeks. This delightful coherence is what Schall shows to be the case in the topics considered in the remaining chapters of the book.
First up is an emphatic endorsement of humour. The pleasure of delightful laughter is accounted for as a reflection of “the abundance of joy in which we were created” (p.68), without being the full enjoyment of heaven which is still longed for. Thus humour, with its instructive incongruities, connected with sadness and loss and redolent of our finitude, corresponds to our condition of being human and fallen and redeemed.
Next, in a fascinating chapter on sport, Schall draws an analogy between the fundamental human experience of being wrapped up in watching a good game of sport, and contemplation of the Godhead. “Some experiences,” he says, “teach us about other experiences, almost as if that is what they were intended to do” (p.81).
In the following chapter the fact that things happen to us as well as us doing things, that chance and accidents are an essential part of human experience, leads to recognition of the fundamentally limited, dependent and receptive nature of our being.
Next up is hell, the existence of which is presented as a rational, naturally discernible truth. Building on the Platonic understanding of hell as the place where unpunished violations of justice are requited, Schall argues it is the consequence of our free will (“the other side of human dignity”) and of the significance of human action, opening up trains of thought in the direction of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body - and finding this all pleasurable, “even amusing” (p.121) in terms of logic and reason.
The following chapter concerns the interpenetration of the earthly city and the eternal cities, (i.e. heaven or hell). The primary significance of our passing, limited but necessary civic societies is the fact that they are the place where “our ultimate choices are played out”, where something higher than politics takes place. Next, looking back to the introduction of contemplation in the sport chapter, worship is understood as flowing from a response to the reality that is, and the Mass is seen as fulfilling the human search (evident in the history of religious rites) for the right way to worship. Everything else in life is to be related to this “perfect praise of God…to be heard in all places and at all times” (p.156 ) such that we “are engaged in the worship of God in all we do” (p.158).
Finally, Schall addresses the fact that we are made for eternal life, making sense of the unsettlement we feel regarding the insufficiency of finite things and explaining the way in which modern rejections of heaven tend to seek to build the happiness of heaven on earth.
Schall’s starting point is always (with Gilson) “there are things and we know them.” His approach is consistently and emphatically concrete. A wit who points out the amusing incongruities of human life “does not make them up. They are really there.” (p.56) “We do not ‘make’ the world. We live in one already there, not of our own making.” (p.49) His understanding of receptivity unfolds in a thorough going use of the category of gift. Our existence and the supernatural fulfilment of our existence is received as gift, not something owed or due to us, but out of abundance. How we live, given the gifts of life and salvation – that is the drama of our existence.
This is a serious philosophy book, but not an inaccessible one; Schall has a light touch, a conversational tone and plenty of examples and anecdotes. Quirky and perhaps at times a little meandering, it is as though we have joined him in his sitting room and, as he thinks out loud, generously sharing a lifetime of penetrating, logical reflection, he illustrates what he has to say by gesturing to books on the table, pictures on the wall, activities going on outside the window.
None of the significance of life passes him by; everything has meaning. Nothing should escape rational investigation – this is what we are meant to do and doing what we are meant to do brings pleasure - even if, after 200 pages in the realms of “rational pleasure”, we may want to find stronger words to describe what the amazing coherence of Catholicism inspires.
This is a compelling read, immersing us in thorough, consistently logical thought and inspiring us with profoundly perceptive insights. There is no doubt about it. It’s an instructive pleasure to read.