Sense and Nonsense: Not the End of the World

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When it seemed like a long way into the future, I saw a spectacular film called 2001. The beginning focused attention on a mysterious monolith. This monolith was somehow connected with the meaning of the universe, although my memories of this are vague. The film was not explicitly Christian because for us, the center of the universe is a human-divine Person, the incarnate Word. A monolith won’t hack it, no matter how mysterious.

After the excitement of the Jubilee Year 2000, the year 2001 comes as a relief, if not an anticlimax. The world did not end as the movie by that name implied it would. Both good and evil still abound. We do not know the times and moments of the Father, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us. Neither can we have a jubilee every year. We need to let time “march on,” not that we can stop it. We are sobered in the realization that not more than a handful of persons who were born before 1901 could still be alive in 2001. The human race replaces itself completely in a century, even sooner. We are beings with ancestors. To be at all, we must begin at some particular time and place.

The centuries roll on. How could we not notice when one millennium passes to another? We ask ourselves: Why are we? Why are we not, knowing that we are? Surely we need not be. In Plato’s Timaeus, we read: “Why did he who framed this whole universe of becoming frame it? Let us state the reason why: He was good, and one who is good can never become jealous of anything. And so, being free of jealousy, he wanted everything to become as much like himself as was possible.” Give or take a distinction or two, this is pretty much what we Christians hold. Cretion is still good. God did not act out of jealousy but out of His abundance. We need not exist, yet we are. At each thing that God created, we read in Genesis, He looked and saw that it was good.

In 1901, Hilaire Belloc took his famous walk from Toul in France to Rome, vowing to be there for the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul without ever once resorting to vehicular assistance. Actually, as he tells us, he kept the letter of the law in good Christian fashion. The few times that he did have to hitch a ride on a cart so as not to break the vow, he dragged his feet on the ground. “The essence of a vow is its literal meaning,” Belloc tells us. “The spirit and intention are for the major morality, and concern Natural Religion, but when upon a point of ritual or of dedication or special worship a man talks to you of the Spirit and Intention and complains of the dryness of the Word, look at him askance. He is not far removed from Heresy.” We come closest to heresy not by things of the flesh but by things of the spirit. The man who abandons “definition” in favor of “intention” will soon be plunged back “into the horrible mazes of Conscience and Natural Religion.” The 20th century, it seems to me, did end precisely here, within the “horrible mazes of Conscience and Natural Religion,” because it did abandon definition and doctrine.

 

As he walked from French into German lands, Belloc bought a fine cigar for a penny in the village of Undervelier. He wondered about belief, as he often did. By its nature, he thought, it tended to breed “a reaction and an indifference.” There is always an honest poignancy in Belloc. “Those who believe nothing but only think and judge cannot understand this [indifference].” Those who only think and judge live in a narrow world. In what must be an autobiographical reference, Belloc tells us that when we are young, we reject faith in favor of natural things. But as time passes, we look back to see our true home. “What is it, do you think, that causes the return?,” Belloc asks. “I think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution. That solution is provided by the memory of the great schema which at last we remember.”

Every day, every experience of evil demands a solution. Evil is the lack of a good where it ought to be. The solution of everyday evil is in what is good the great schema. The good is not jealous. Natural things, conscience, those things for which we abandon our faith, defy the definitions of what is. It is not enough to intend the good. We must be good. The good is not something vague. Recall the definitions. Happy year 2001!

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (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 including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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