The central irony of our time is that a general confidence about what is the true meaning of life has diminished in direct proportion to our ever-greater certainty about the sheer facts of life. For example, suddenly the human community finds itself able actually to clone the individual human person. But in contrast to this supposed progress scientifically, who would suggest that we have made a single advance in the achievement of virtuous living, or are more successful at inculcating virtue in our children than our great-grandparents were with theirs, in far less comfortable circumstances? We have placed men on the moon; but we have lost in our technical prowess the knack for, as it were, placing the moon within men, that is, in instilling an imaginative sense and love of the mysterious wondrousness of creation and of the interior human pilgrimage unto an understanding of truth, unto wisdom, and unto God.
Christmastide annually reinvites us to such meditations. This month, then, we expand upon our initial consideration in November of the grandeur of the new papal encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, i.e., The Splendor of Truth.” A full exposition of the encyclical’s central thrust is provided by Russell Hittinger, one of the most gifted of the rising generation of scholars-thinkers. He points out that the Church is custodian of the whole of the truth on matters moral without which we human beings may travel to distant stars and yet in doing so only lose our very selves, and come at last to find an existence indifferent to truths of the soul to be an existence devoid of substance. If all the king’s men couldn’t put a fallen Humpty Dumpty back together again, neither may all the scientific manipulations imaginable, nor accommodations of moral teaching to the manias of the moment, improve one iota upon the stature of the human personality. In this thrust, Veritatis Splendor confronts beautifully and boldly the muddled moralizing which has wreaked such havoc in American culture for decades now. In locating the very definitions of right and wrong, the encyclical is a singular guide for our wayward generation, as Crisis Publisher Ralph Mclnerny declares. That the encyclical rings anew the precious ancient notes of the Law from which all right living originally arose is eloquently celebrated by Jacob Neusner, a Jewish rabbi and one of the most widely-respected commentators on our time of troubles in the world today. In his Public Arguments, Michael Novak charitably sketches how those who chafe at the encyclical’s evocation of timeless truths risk being rendered obsolete with the shifting modern fashions they presently embrace.
There are those who seek to assuage the anxiety or even emptiness of heart characteristic of materialistic living merely by the accumulation of things. Thus the temptation of the shopping season now upon us all. But “What Christmas Means” transcends mere things, even as a proper apprehension of the holiday’s meaning bequeaths a peace which passes all understanding—and overcomes any woe, even the world, and even the worst that the world has to offer, as Ronald Lawler reminds us in a luminous meditation on the Birth at Bethlehem. A complementary meditation is to be found in our Idler on “The Lives of Jesus,” this by yours truly.
That once the West generally, and the American South specifically, reflected a more immediate grasp of the eternal verities is indicated in a fascinating review of the life and legacy of the late great Anglican scholar and writer C.S. Lewis, this by Sheldon Vanauken, a living link to the legendary Oxford don and himself one of the unique men of letters of the age.
And, though by no means finally, how the reading of books may sustain a communion with the truths that endure even a frenetic and egoistic generation like our own is explored by a merry camaraderie of contributors. Why, we think their reflections on books to beg, borrow, or buy a sound step towards developing a Crisis list of Catholic classics for every Catholic home. Maybe that certain someone in our life will discover here or among Derek Cross’s deft selection of reviews just the book to leave under the tree, when Advent issues in Incarnation. (Merry Christmas!)