Sense and Nonsense: The Big Problem

“You cannot act for twenty-four hours without deciding either to hold people responsible or not to hold them responsible. Theology is a product far more practical than chemistry. Some Determinists fancy that Christianity invented a dogma like free will for fun—a mere contradiction. This is absurd. You have the contradiction wherever you are. Determinists tell me, with a degree of truth, that Determinism makes no difference to daily life. That means that although the Determinist knows men have no free will, yet he goes on treating them as if they had.”  ∼ G.K. Chesterton, “Why I Believe in Christianity”

“The Big Question has to be put: What is life for? If for nothing in particular, well and good for the Kinseyan, because that suggests ample scope for self-expression. If, on the other hand, as Christians have always asserted, the purpose of life is to love and serve God, a wholly new set of obligations emerges. The Self shrinks back… unable to have it the Self’s own way. It must be someone else’s way—a Someone with powerful claims on us… Alfred Charles Kinsey devoted himself to a different creed—one of self-expression, lived without the slightest hint of shame. Under that creed, he focused on what people do (or say they do) as opposed to what they should do. Indeed, as Prok saw it, ‘should’ was a word that should mostly be kept out of sight”  ∼ William Murchison, “St. Prok’s Gospel”

Recently, I was at a meeting at Notre Dame. During the event’s banquet, I sat across from a young man—a professor, I think—whose name I did not catch. He had once read my book, Another Sort of Learning. “It changed my life,” he told me. Naturally, I was pleased and hoped it was for the better. Another Sort of Learning was, in part, a book about books to read, books that would change your life if you let them. But it was also a book about certain other books that few tell us about or recommend. It was not about reading the so-called great books but, as I like to say, exploring the books that tell the truth about things.

“How did you happen to read Another Sort of Learning?” I asked the young man. He came across the book in college. One summer, while hiking through Europe, he brought along three of the books I’d listed as mandatory reading: Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Flannery O’Connor’s Habit of Being, and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. He told me that he’d never heard of any of these books before coming across my recommendations. With a certain self-conscious humility, I noted that I myself, while a young man in college, hadn’t heard of them either. (Of course, O’Connor’s book hadn’t yet been written, and Pieper’s work on leisure wasn’t available in English.)

Nor do I recall ever having heard of the great Russian novelist in my early years, though I was in high school during World War II. I do remember having eagerly read at that time a book by Josef Stalin. To have read Stalin but not Dostoevsky might well be called the epitome of an “illiberal education.” Indeed, though I had read several of Dostoevsky’s other books, I didn’t fully read his masterwork, Brothers Karamazov, until I was in my 60s, when a friend gave me a copy of a new translation. It took me two disciplined months to read it, but the effort was rewarded. The book amazed me; it amazes me still.

The final chapter is titled, “Ilyushechka’s Funeral.” Near its end we find words that must continue to overwhelm young men who encounter them while backpacking through Europe, not to mention elderly clerics who read them in their dotage. Listen:

“Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true, as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?” “Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy. “Ah, how good that will be!” burst from Kolya.

That “good” is the good that Christ came to tell us about ourselves and our final meaning. Much of modern thought is designed to prevent us from hearing or holding or even considering possible such a truth as the resurrection of our bodies.

At the homily I heard at the Easter Vigil this year, the young priest cited Paul’s text which says that if Christ did not rise again, “our faith is in vain.” He then proceeded to explain this resurrection as a “spiritual” thing to enable us to “lift” our spirits. But the Christian doctrine about the resurrection of the body is not about lifting our spirits. Given a choice, read Dostoevsky or Paul and leave this “lift your spirits” nonsense behind.

Interestingly enough, around the same time I encountered the remarks about a “spiritual” resurrection, I was in the process of reading a sermon of John Henry Newman, who said in Sermons on the Subjects of the Day:

The one peculiar and characteristic sin of the world is this, that whereas God would have us live for the life to come, the world would make us live for this life. This, I say, is the world’s sin; it lives for this life, not for the next. It takes, as the main scope of human exertion, an end which God forbids; and consequently all that it does becomes evil, because directed to a wrong end.

Such a passage of Newman goes against everything our culture tells us about this world and its primary importance. Indeed, this “life to come” is considered—not least by Stalin and the Marxists—to be the reason why the world is not yet well-off. The split in the souls of the believers between service to this world and the next prevents concentration on either one. This failure is why Christians cannot really be citizens of the world and contributors to its progress.

What we read makes a difference because it’s something that breaks into our world, for better or worse. Salvation doesn’t come by reading alone, though damnation, I sometimes think, might. I am aware that none of the accounts of the Last Judgment in the Gospels leaves us with a book list to be read before we graduate from college or pass into the great beyond.

But the Lord also told us that it is the truth that would make us free, not vice versa. So it is probably a rather good idea to know what the truth is. Truth as multiculturalism or diversity won’t hack it. Christ did not say that freedom would make truth. Freedom is in the service of truth, in a world in which we have made every effort to eliminate any criterion that would demand or even encourage our adherence to it. This is why I cited in the beginning the passage about Alfred Kinsey and his influence. Here was a man who refused to be bound by anything but what he did. He held that whatever we did was the sole definition of what we ought to do. This is nothing but a rehash of what we already find in Machiavelli. Kinsey made his own truth at the expense of the beings on whom he practiced it. He was a man in whom freedom and determinism merged. He was free because he did what he had to do. And he did what he had to do because he was free to do it.

The Big Problem

In a two-paneled Peanuts cartoon, we see little Sally sunk in the oft-used bean-bag chair before the TV. Out of the tube she attentively listens to the following news item: “However, the big problem is an overturned rig at the corner of Third and Mission.” In the second frame, she snaps back to the TV, “No, the big problem is I haven’t done my homework.” I like that remark, though she may not have it exactly right.

The big problem is to realize that we are not determined, that we’re responsible because we’re free. But we aren’t free simply to be free. We’re free in order to acknowledge what is. That is, our minds are not the creators of truth, except in the realm of art (and even here, they’re not the sole creators of the products of art and craft, but presuppose not only the physical world but our minds as well). The modern mind, as Charles N. R. McCoy used to say, is a confusion between the freedom of art and the freedom of prudence. By this he meant that in our own human actions, our freedom does not consist in our doing whatever we want but in doing what’s found in the good of our being what we already are. We are indeed free, and thus responsible, but this freedom asks us to acknowledge that what we are is something given to us, not something for us to create.

Flannery O’Connor, in a letter to William Sessions, wrote of the different presuppositions we must make when we deal with Protestants and Catholics:

When the Protestant hears what he supposes to be the voice of the Lord he follows it regardless of whether it runs counter to his church’s teachings. The Catholic, on the other hand, suspects that the voice may in fact come from the devil, unless it’s in accordance with the teachings of the Church. You are judging the old man as if he should act like a Catholic. The prophets were Jews and old Tarwater is a Protestant and his being a Protestant allows him to follow the voice he hears which speaks a truth held by Catholics. One of the good things about Protestantism is that it contains the seeds of its own reversal. It is open at both ends—at one end to Catholicism, at the other to unbelief.

Here, the big problem returns as the need to contrast our own freely chosen picture of the world—which we create for ourselves by our actions and the thoughts from which they flow in order to explain or justify what we do—over and against that picture of the world that we find in reason and revelation.

The Catholic bets that the picture held in the tradition of the Church about the highest things, about what is, is better for him than anything he might concoct for himself, even if it comes from a “voice” in the wilderness. The Catholic’s wager, to recall Pascal’s famous word, is that his ultimate well-being—including his very physical well-being as reflected in the doctrine of the resurrection of the body—is the true picture of the world in which he is to live. Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, stated the issue succinctly: “For if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Faith in the heart leads to justification; confession on the lips to salvation” (10: 9-10). In these brief words we are asked clearly to state what we believe—that Jesus is Lord and that He rose from the dead. And we are asked to state these things not only to ourselves in private but to confess them to the world; so both words and deeds are expected of us.

Recall Pieper: “Philosophy…is not a loving search of the human being for ‘just any’ wisdom but is oriented toward the wisdom that God has. Aristotle even calls philosophy a ‘divine wisdom’ because it seeks to attain a knowledge such as God alone would be able fully to possess.” Not just any prophecy or wisdom can satisfy us, because not everything that goes by these noble names is true. We always need that vague suspicion, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, that the devil is lurking about even in minds searching for the truth.

And that is the big problem—the twin questions, “What is the truth?” and “Where do you find it?” In the end, we need and have a theory of authority that guarantees that what we believe is actually true, in accordance with reality. Pieper notes that all authority—all belief—depends ultimately on someone seeing what is. This is what makes us free to be human, free to know the truth of our existence.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    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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