Sense and Nonsense: Redemption

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My brother Jack in Reno has a television set with about 26 channels on it. After switching to all 26 channels in rapid succession a couple of times one evening, I just about decided that when it comes to what is worth watching on TV, 26 times zero still equalled zero. Indeed, my dear mother claims that the only thing I watch besides football on TV, are nature films about nesting birds and odd shaped fishes. I wonder what Aristotle would think if I maintained that a human watching a TV movie on killer ants, which I did see at my mother’s, is performing a more rational act than watching twenty-five other shows about humans? No doubt he would not call the act of mine god-like, though if he saw the other channels on Athens TV, he might give me the benefit of the doubt about rationality.

But after I shut the machine off that night and went to bed, I kept recalling two brief snippets which somehow had continued to bother me. The first scene showed the Taj Mahal in India, surely one of the world’s most lovely buildings. Evidently, the glimpse of this most famous of Indian buildings was part of the introduction to a TV documentary by Ved Medha about his poor uncle. What I remembered, however, was the opening scene of the camera passing the Taj Mahal, which I had once actually seen myself in India. While the viewers saw the splendor, Medha recalled something from Gandhi, who once remarked that every time he saw this shrine, he thought of India’s poor.

Well, when I heard this bit of what I have come to call typical propaganda — which, for reasons I will explain in a moment, I cannot stand — I switched to another channel which had a program by the Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer entitled “War.” This program began with a kind of end of the world scene over which some naturally haunted intellectual told us that anything was better than this madness, or something to that effect. Well, I quickly axed this stuff and went to bed.

If I were to reduce to principle what annoyed me about these two scenes, why I think they are essentially wrong in their presuppositions, I would summarize it in these two propositions:

(1) The poverty of India is caused by some insensitive rich man who once wasted his country’s money, better spent on the poor, on this beautiful building (hence Gandhi’s reflection). Beauty and economic growth are opposed to each other.

(2) Nothing is worth fighting for if it results in the destruction of the world. Or, to put it in its Hobbesian formulation, the fear of violent death makes insignificant any philosophical or religious truth that holds that something higher than life itself might exist.

Let me make a couple of brief comments on each of these propositions. In the first place, a building like the Taj Mahal is one of the great attractions of the world. In terms of sheer income, probably no other single enterprise in the history of India has brought in, proportionately to its cost, more wealth than this structure. What is even more important, however, men do not live by bread alone, not even, I might especially say, the Indians. Gandhi’s statement, so easily recalled by Medha, implied that India’s poverty had something to do with this beautiful building.

The fact is, India’s poverty has nothing to do with this edifice. India’s poverty has to do with the slowness with which its intellectual and political leaders understood the limits of the state, along with certain aspects of its dominant philosophies with regard to free will, reward, and the nature of the physical world. Indians outside of India, like the Chinese outside of China, seem to prosper. Indeed, certain signs recently seem to suggest that India itself may be slowly recognizing that the causes of wealth are known, can be imitated and adapted. The existence of wealth need not imply that because something worthwhile is done, someone else must be deprived. The creation of wealth, in other words, is not at the expense of others. This was the aspect of Medha’s citation from Gandhi that annoyed me.

Whenever I hear the now familiar thesis that nothing is worth war — the Dyer thesis — I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s remark that this position is itself the end of any possible civilization, that it means life at any cost. It means capitulation before anyone evil enough to threaten life on a massive scale, and it calls this virtue. The thesis, thus, is presented under the veneer of liberality, but behind it there is the ruthlessness of a world with no hope, no power or will to resist evil, not even the power of death which it deprives of any dignity. This position represents the intellectual disarmament of the civilization to which we belong, the universal civilization.

What was it Pascal said? “No other religion than ours has taught that man is born in sin, no sect of philosophers has said so, hence no one has told us the truth.” And ours does not say this much anymore either. Does no one, then, tell us the truth?

Some Catholic pundit wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle (June 26), pointing out that Kurt Waldheim should visit the Pope, but should do so on Holy Thursday, when the Pope hears confessions in St. Peter’s. That is to say, in this jibe, the Catholic writer implied that (a) Waldheim has not yet made his peace, if he needed to; (b) all sin must be forgiven publicly (otherwise, how would we be sure what Waldheim said?); and (c) the inner soul of a man is by right public property. For even if Waldheim were “forgiven,” foro interno, what he did, supposedly, can have no forgiveness because no act of this sort is forgivable. It is only punishable. Even if Waldheim did go to St. Peter’s on Holy Thursday, he would still be “guilty.” That is, it would seem, Catholics no longer know what Catholicism is since in practice no theory of forgiveness exists in the world.

The Taj Mahal reminds even the poor of beauty; to stay alive at any cost is the destruction of anything but bare life; no philosopher can explain why we choose to do evil; no Catholic, on his own, can forgive it once there. A friend in Rome wrote, “the Dutch are so well-adjusted to religious-social-moral disaster in their land that they do not have healthy reactions to it. They acquiesce comfortably to what no healthy person could ever accept as human.”

Are we all Dutchmen now? Must there be no private confession, only public trials? Allan Bloom writes, “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.” The most closed minds are those most open to everything because they can no longer distinguish anything. No sect of philosophers has said that man is born in sin. Why is it, then, that we all blame one another? Is it because we instinctively look for a Redeemer and choose not to consider Him who came?


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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