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The Order of Love | Lucy Beckett | From the Introduction to In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition

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This book is about value, specifically the value to us now, in the twenty-first century, of some great texts written in relation to the truth of orthodox Christianity, or, in the case of pre-Christian texts, understood in the light of that truth. These texts, many of which have long found places in familiar versions of the Western canon, belong or are in various ways close to the Catholic, specifically the Augustinian Catholic, tradition, and it is the thesis of this book that their value--that is to say, their truthfulness, beauty and goodness--rests in their relation to the absolute truth, beauty and goodness that are one in God and that are definitively revealed to the world in Christ.

That the value of these texts is real, and that it is relative--but not relative to nothing--are both now highly contentious and in some academic circles even ridiculous statements. In the intellectual climate of the liberal West in our time, the very words "truth", "beauty" and "goodness" cannot be used without embarrassment except in relation not to God but to the individual, who, a biological accident in a random universe, chooses what seems, for the moment, to be true or good or beautiful to himself. That individual may defend such choices, but on personal, subjective grounds only; the one remaining moral imperative commanding general assent is that the choices of others must have equal status to one's own and should not be regarded as bad unless they do harm to others, measurable in a utilitarian fashion. Anyone may try to persuade others that his view, his perspective, is "better" than theirs, but this effort will be no more than a game, a power game, played in emptiness. Nietzsche, who presides over the contemporary academy, toward the end of the nineteenth century called "perspective" the basic condition of all life and the "will to power" the basic drive of the human world. "Truth", Richard Rorty, a strong philosophical voice on both sides of the Atlantic, has said, "is what your contemporaries will let you get away with." [1] In what the English philosopher Simon Blackburn has called "the après-truth salon", [2] temporary persuasion of more people than someone else can persuade is, while it counts, all that counts. The only intellectual consensus is that there is no consensus.

That there would one day be agreement on, for example, the rational basis for morality or the rational basis for aesthetic judgement--truth upon which judgements of the good or the beautiful might be founded-was the hope of the Enlightenment. It rested on the assumptions that reason is universal and that its proofs are bound to be accepted by everyone sufficiently educated to follow its arguments. It was assumed, in other words, that there is a common, neutral ground from which all traditions, all claims to truth, including the Christian, can be rationally assessed. As time went by, the ground shrank, eventually leaving only facts, only what is empirically verifiable, as that upon which we may properly stand, while "all those large dreams by which men long live well" [3] evaporated into mere personal opinion. The hope of the Enlightenment turned out to be forlorn, its assumptions baseless. In an acute analysis of the resulting disappointment, and the resulting consensus that there is no consensus, Alasdair Maclntyre in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? wrote:
The most cogent reasons that we have for believing that the hope of a tradition-independent rational universality is an illusion derive from the history of that project. For in the course of that history liberalism, which began as an appeal to alleged principles of shared rationality against what was felt to be the tyranny of tradition, has itself been transformed into a tradition whose continuities are partly defined by the interminability of the debate over such principles. [4]
He goes on to concede that the failure of liberalism to "provide a neutral tradition-independent ground" does not prove that there is no such ground. However:
Liberalism is by far the strongest claimant to provide such a ground which has so far appeared in human history or which is likely to appear in the foreseeable future. That liberalism fails in this respect, therefore provides the strongest reason that we can actually have for asserting that there is no such neutral ground. [5]
If there is no such ground, we are left with two possible ways in which to think of ourselves and our lives. One is to trust nothing but empirically verifiable facts. These, because they work, all of us trust every day, though few of us have ourselves been through the process of verification. We believe that the earth goes around the sun although it still looks to us as if the sun goes around the earth; we believe those who tell us of the dangers of bacteria or radiation that we cannot see. The very effectiveness of science and technology, the ever- increasing power of the human race over nature which is the result of the discovery and use of verifiable facts, incline us, however, to trust nothing else beyond the personal mix of objectives that we arrange as we choose to achieve a (self-) fulfilled life. In a neat formulation by the philosopher John Rawls, which MacIntyre quotes twice, "Human good is heterogeneous because the aims of the self are heterogeneous. Although to subordinate all our aims to one end does not strictly speaking violate the principles of rational choice, ... it still strikes us as irrational, or more likely as mad."[6] And so, beyond our selection of various aims and our confidence in science done by other people, we are educated to remain, in the words with which Pascal at the dawn of the Enlightenment described the sceptics of the 1650s, "neutral, indifferent, suspending judgment on everything, not excepting ourselves". [7]

But there is an alternative, a different choice, as Maclntyre convincingly argues. The alternative is to choose to trust a tradition in which to think, to judge, to live, because we discover that a tradition does exist, a collaborative achievement of coherent intellectual effort with a long history still accessible, that confirms our own experience of what we have found--using, quietly, words we cannot do without--to be good, beautiful and true. What we may then discover is that the tradition we have come upon makes more and more sense to us, makes more and more sense of our own lives, which begin to take on the very unity the liberal consensus regards as "irrational, or more likely as mad", a unity that turns out to be real and full of infinitely explorable meaning. If we choose a Christian tradition--Maclntyre distinguishes the Augustinian from the Thomist--we will discover that this unity is in God.

It is the contention of this book that for someone who is drawn to texts written in relation to Christian truth-who already loves at least some of them for the nourishment of the soul that they provide an encounter with the central, the Augustinian, Catholic tradition, broader and less philosophically exacting than the Thomist, may turn out to be what Maclntyre calls "an occasion for self-recognition and self-knowledge .... This is not only, so such a person may say, what I now take to be true but in some measure what I have always taken to be true." [8]

The educated person who experiences such an encounter, unless he is already an adult Christian who is also open-minded and brave, is likely to find that his discovery brings with it feelings of isolation, exposure, confusion and perhaps even panic, made worse by other people's association of Christianity with the abandonment of the intelligence, with sentimental nostalgia for the past or with various kinds of oppression--and probably with all three. But as Henri de Lubac wrote fifty years ago, "To reject God because man has corrupted the idea of God, and religion because of the abuse of it, is the effect of a sort of clear-sightedness which is yet blind."[9] His friend Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most widely learned Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, was never unaware of the difficulties bound to be met by the modern person who believes Christianity to be true. In The Moment of Christian Witness, a little book written in 1966 in the theological melee that followed the Second Vatican Council, he described these difficulties succinctly. The temptation, he says (and many Christians have given in to it), is
to pay the tribute demanded by the rise of the secular spirit .... There is the purely practical problem of how [the Christian] as a man with a message, is to speak to and find common ground with his fellow man, who is already dyed in the wool of the [secular] system. Then there is the more serious problem of how far he should go in the course of solidarity with his fellow man in adopting the perspectives of the system. The most serious problem of all is one that concerns his conscience. As a "modern" man, how can he be a Christian? Or should he refuse to be modern and up to date, for the sake of Christ? If he does the latter, he runs the risk of being ignored by everyone and falling prey to a kind of schizophrenia by trying to live in two different centuries at once. [10]
What, in other words, he will quickly discover is that the statement at the heart of Christian belief, that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that those who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life", not being empirically verifiable, is regarded by most educated people as no more than what is now called a "truth-claim", and a particularly bizarre one at that. Such claims, thrown by one group or another, one person or another, into the void, are relegated to a past well left behind in the childhood of the human race. Christianity's "truth-claim" is commonly abandoned to the simplistic naïveté of fundamentalists whose minds are closed to the complexities of the world of Western thought. This is now a world in which stories compete--the grand narratives of science, and a plethora of "little stories" in Lyotard's phrase, told in pursuit of power of various kinds. The grand narrative of Christianity has become no more than one among many stories purporting falsely, or at best in fictive terms, to give a true account of how things are, what things mean. A Christian would be less than intelligent not to agree that there is much in this world of thought that is both interesting and fruitful. In the area of written texts, for example, the area with which this book is concerned, it is clearly the case that any text, even a great masterpiece, is partial and patchy, is relative to the whole truth, because it was written by a fallible human being approaching in story; argument and image the reality that lies beyond all stories, arguments and images. But for the Christian, that reality exists. And for a Christian, the gap between the words, the languages, the narratives of fallen humanity and the truth that is in God was closed, once, in Christ.

Among Western intellectuals, however--there are, of course, exceptions, but not many--God has been dead for at least two centuries, or pushed so far from mankind and its concerns that he has vanished into vacuity. It took some time for the consequences of this disappearance to become evident. Here are a few. If God is dead, he can never, by definition, have been alive. To console ourselves in a universe without meaning, we invented him and all the stories about him, including the story that he sent his Son as a man to rescue human life from the consequences of disobedience to him. There is no connexion between even the noblest of lives, the best and most beautiful human achievements and any transcendent reality, because there is no transcendent reality. All self-sacrifice, unless helpful to other people in a measurable utilitarian sense, becomes pointless: the countless victims of tyranny who in the twentieth century died anonymous deaths because they would not yield to lies imposed on them by force would have done better to save their skins, since their skins were all they had. With the disappearance of God, the soul, what there is in us that the grace of God may touch, must also disappear. So must our confidence in the kind of truth that is for all of us closest to home, the truth in which we trust when we are entirely alone with our conscience, and the truth of our own lives, the story that each of us is, from birth to death, fitful in our own memory, unreliably judged by ourselves, largely unknown to anyone else. For to believe in the reality of one's own story--or the reality of the story of the human race as whole and true and as containing much evil and ugliness as well as much goodness and beauty, and to know both that one does not know more than patches and parts of it and that the final judgement of it is not one's own, is to believe in God. Czeslaw Milosz asks in a poem: "Where is the truth of unremembered things?" [11] The root meaning of aletheia, the Greek word for "truth", is "the unforgotten", or, as Balthasar put it in his most philosophical work, "Truth is the unconcealment of being, while ... the someone to whom being is unconcealed is God."[12] Without belief in God, without belief that the truth is real, is in him, all our attempts to "tell the truth" become no more than stories told for human purposes--to persuade, to comfort. to stake claims, to build power--but none of them means anything, or, more accurately, means anything else. Behind the images and metaphors of paintings and poems, behind the patterns, broken and mended, of music and verse, behind the imagined characters of plays and novels, there is no mysterious depth of meaning, there is nothing. Yet a child of four knows what a lie is and knows what a story is and knows that they are not the same.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, which was late in the day, Nietzsche understood with clarity, and with a charged mixture of exhilaration and terror, the inevitable consequences of the death of God. For him, as he wrote more and more feverishly before the final loss of his mind in 1889, the solitary existence, unanchored in any meaning guaranteed by transcendence, of the individual in a world of savage competition where the only motive is the will to power, was both to be celebrated as liberation from the delusions of the past and to be greatly feared. He saw that, in the jungle of every man for himself, "human, all-too-human" notions of goodness and beauty have nothing to do with truth and that the pretence that, in the absence of God, they have a connexion either with each other or with truth is intellectually incoherent. In a desperate note, he wrote: "For a philosopher to say, 'the good and the beautiful are one' is infamy; if he goes on to add, 'also the true', one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly." To save something he loved from the wreckage of the past, he added, "We possess art lest we perish of the truth." [13] Art, in his view, was the enlivening expression of joy in the face of despair. This expression gives pleasure; that is to say, it is aesthetic. But the aesthetic is now necessarily severed both from the ethical and from the ugly and frightening truth.
The greatest suspicion of a "truth" should arise when feelings of pleasure enter the discussion of the question "What is true?" The proof of "pleasure" is a proof of "pleasure"-nothing else: how in all the world could it be established that true judgements should give greater delight than false ones? [14]

Read Part Two of "The Order of Love"


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