"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Friday, March 06, 2009

My Secret Catholic Shelf

I was sitting with a friend the other night, talking about a friend we both knew and speculating if he was on his way to converting to Roman Catholicism. My friend then said, “Well, I'd be less bothered by it than you would.” The statement took me by surprise. I merely replied, “better Catholic than liberal, I guess,” echoing J.I. Packer in a similar situation.

My attitude towards Catholicism is one of ambivalence. Speaking theologically, I see Catholicism as in error, out of accord with the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” [see my “Why I can not be a Roman Catholic series”] Yet, I also have read and profited from several Catholic writers. A few days later, I looked over my Catholic books and decided I would write an appreciation of Catholic writers that have profited me, and where they have done so. So here are a few Catholic writers I have on my Catholic shelf:


James V. Schall – Schall holds the award for having a book with my favorite title: “On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing.” I came across Schall when pursuing an undergrad degree in History Education. Most education writers had swallowed whole much of John Dewey (*cue Darth Vader music*). But I found a few, like James Schall and Jacques Barzun, that had a different, less utilitarian, less subjective view of education. Schall opens the book with a quote from Samuel Johnson, mourning the lack of “seriousness” with which the Ancient Greeks treated their gods. James V. Schall viewed knowledge and philosophy as one of the best and most delightful parts of being alive. So, if “serious” means sternly dower, and joyless, then the best parts of human existence are “unserious.” And the most useless thing about humans (philosophy and theology - the least utilitarian subjects) are the best things about us. [Good books: On The Unseriousness of Human Affairs, Another Sort of Learning, A Student's Guide to the Liberal Arts]

Jacques Maritain – Schall led me to Maritain. Maritain was a French Thomist who wrote on classical education. But better than his perspectives on education was his treatment of Art. Maritain was able to introduce me to an approach to Art that was serious, but not mathematical. Ultimately, Burke said it best: “Art is Man's Nature.” The best thing about humanity is not his reason, but his affection and creativeness expressed in art. [good books - Art and Scholasticism, Challenges and Renewals]

Etiene Gilson – A fellow Thomist to Maritain, Gilson introduced me to the concept of “Theologism.” Gilson critiqued some Augustinian and Reformed theologians for reasoning that whatever gives God the most Glory, is what He does. Gilson showed this could be used to defend Deism, as a God who created a world without need for supernatural interference would be most glorious. Indeed, the critique is overstated, and then is used in annoying ways by people like Norman Geisler to beat Calvinists over the head whenever they mention the glory of God. Even so, Gilson helped me nuance my thoughts and see how an appeal to the Glory of God can be heard by non-Reformed. [good books -The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine, The Arts of the Beautiful, God and Philosophy, The Unity of Philosophical Experience]

Christopher Dawson – In studying History, I soon discovered that an important question was : What is the telos (end) of History? This is not asking how the world will end, necessarily, but what is History moving towards. Marx says that History is moving towards a Socialist Utopia, where the means of production will no longer be alienated from the workers. Some say history is headed no where. There is no point or progress. But I finally came across Dawson, a Harvard professor, that told History as the story of the church on earth, History as an expansion of the kingdom of God on earth. This, a modified “City of God” approach, was the first exposure I would have to a Christian view of History. Eventually I would find Augustine himself to be preferred, but Dawson was helpful in getting there. Also, Dawson had a strange respect for Calvin. Dawson disagreed with Calvin, but respected his thought and found it the best alternative to his approach in a Christian view of History. [good books - Dynamics of World History, Christianity and European Culture]


Richard John Neuhaus – Neuhaus was a former Lutheran who converted to Catholicism. A man who died recently and helped me think constructively about death. Death on a Friday Afternoon is a wonderful reflection on time, the church calendar and death as a weekly reflection of the life of Christ. As I Lay Dying, was written as Neuhaus thought he was dying of cancer. Neuhaus recovered and collected these thoughts to describe his comfort in Christ and the beauty of a life that ends ("a life born towards dying"). [good books - Death on a Friday Afternoon, As I Lay Dying]

Peter Kreeft – Kreeft is a wonderful philosopher who engages with modern thought in a helpful way. Peterkreeft.com includes many interesting and challenging talks. But Kreeft's book “The God Who Loves You” convinced me that there were good evangelical Catholics out there. But good evangelical Catholics are often bad Catholics, and Kreeft can probably be accused of such by many hardline Catholics with what Kreeft says in appreciation of Luther in that book. Kreeft is also indebted to Pascal for his worldview, and I think he has some wonderful Jansenist tendencies (which Kreeft would deny). [good books - Christianity for Modern Pagans, The God Who Loves You, Portable Professor: “What Would Socrates Do?”]

G.K. Chesterton – In high school, I read “Orthodoxy.” This was at the same time I read “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. The two books together started me on a journey that eventually led me to seminary. “Mere Christianity” was the more weighty theologically, but Orthodoxy made Christianity read like a Beethoven Symphony. Reason goes insane because it tries to cross the infinite sea, but poetry is sane because it floats on that sea. Chesterton's Christianity was baptized 19th Century Romanticism. But when I read it in high school, I loved it. I'm a Romantic at heart, and Chesterton helped me see the Romance of and in Christianity. But even better, Chesterton, in "The Everlasting Man," told the story of History as the story of Christ. Of all the authors, I must thank Chesterton for pointing me, not to the church like Dawson, but to Christ as the central fact of history, as unfolding in the church. Of all authors, Chesterton is my favorite of this list. [Good books – Orthodoxy, What's Wrong with the World, Heretics, The Ball and the Cross, The Man who was Thursday, The Everlasting Man]

But still, even with Chesterton, I am ambivalent towards my Catholic shelf. Chesterton once wrote as a slight against Lutheranism, what I found to be the beauty of Reformation Christianity. Chesterton wrote of his dislike for the view of Lutheranism that:

“Man could say nothing to God, nothing from God, nothing about God, except an inarticulate cry for mercy and for the supernatural help of Christ, in a world where all natural things were useless. Reason was useless. Will was useless. Man could not move himself an inch any more than a stone. Man could not trust what was in his head any more than a turnip. Nothing remained in earth or heaven, but the name of Christ lifted in that lonely imprecation; awful as the cry of a beast in pain.” [-Chesterton, from St. Thomas Aquinas, Ch 8]

My heart actually races at what Chesterton finds repugnant. For all the benefit I gain from Catholics, especially in philosophy and education, I part company from as many of them see Chesterton's "insult" here as a problem, rather than a testament to the sovereign grace of God. Alas, if only Catholics could see the beauty in the grace they find distasteful.

5 comments:

Matthew Lush said...

Thank you for the post Jared.

It is a fine line looking at the practice of men and their theology; I have to admit growing up in the traditions I did it was so easy to have such some very negative opinions towards Catholicism.

Even though many of the reformers (16 through 18th century) would strongly disagree with your or my opinion, I have been benefiting from some Catholic writers over the past two years, and this will likely continue.

Andrew said...

"and then is used in annoying ways by people like Norman Geisler to beat Calvinists over the head whenever they mention the glory of God" - I laughed at that alot.

It was a good post but I think you were unfair to Kreeft, he's been Catholic since '59 and I haven't heard anyone complain. Bouyer is much more friendly to Luther/Reformation (in my opinion). I think it's all about the language one uses, and he uses evangelical language.

As to that Chesterton quote, I guess I am a Catholic because I agree with Chesterton, I don't think it's beautiful at all.

I'll have to check out some of the other guys I haven't heard of.

Jared Nelson said...

Pascal was accused of being a Jensenist, I was just having fun with Kreeft liking him. Kreeft comes from a Dutch Reformed background (or at least he went to Calvin College) and I think it shows in his very Augustinian/Thomistic approach. As a Calvinist, Thomists and Augustinians are my favorite Catholics.

Matthew Lush said...

It would be interesting if more Thomists and Augustinians arose within the church almost for an internal reformation back to an older catholic faith.

Andrew said...

An Augustinian Thomist revival would be amazing... Then everyone would be like Pope Benedict XVI (he's both)