The Order of Love | Lucy Beckett | From the Introduction to "In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition" 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]
The answer to this question, as Nietzsche knew well, is "only in God". Meanwhile, what we have made, fabricated or invented may give us pleasure, but all of it is no more than the result of human ingenuity, of the games we play in the dark:
All the beauty and sublimity we have lent to both real and imaginary things, I claim on man's behalf as his property and manufacture. This is his finest apologia. For man is a poet, a thinker, a god, love, power! 0 the kingly generosity by which he has endowed all things, so that he himself feels poor and wretched! This was hitherto his greatest self-forgetfulness: he wondered and worshipped, concealing from himself the fact that he had created the very object of his wonder. [15]
Little read in his lifetime, Nietzsche became for later generations the most powerful intellectual influence of all. Both before and after Nietzsche there have been some who, one way or another, have tried to show that, in the absence of God, "poetry can save us." Later in this book the brave attempts of Matthew Arnold, F. K. Leavis and George Steiner will be examined. Nietzsche himself nursed no such illusion.

Nor did he suppose as many, without thinking clearly, have hoped--that Christian morality, which Nietzsche despised as "slave-morality", is sustainable without Christian belief. In a diatribe against English Victorian moralists, in particular George Eliot, he wrote:
When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point clear again and again, in spite of English shallowpates. Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one's hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know what is good for him and what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows. Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendental; ... it possesses truth only if God is truth--it stands or falls with the belief in God. [16]
It is "absolutely not self-evident", for example, that all human beings are of equal value, a moral principle claimed in the twentieth century as an achievement of the Enlightenment, but a notion that runs counter to every rational perception and judgement of the value of other people. Only in the sight of God are all human beings of equal value; most certainly in the sight of Nietzsche they were not. He, who aspired, for himself and very few others, to the self-induced "transcendence" over everyone else of the Ubermensch, would have had only contempt for what has been described by Balthasar as "Christianity's constant outpouring of light into the world, where it is renamed and regarded as humanism." [17]

"The importance of Nietzsche", as Erich Heller's perceptive book on him is called, is that Nietzsche never underestimated the scale of the consequences of the loss of belief in God. Fear and celebration at an equally high pitch ringingly clash in his most famous passage on the death of God:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!"--As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated?--thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. "Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him--you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? ... Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is more and more night not coming on all the time? ... Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed--and whoever shall be born after us, for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto. [18]
If God does not exist, if the transcendent has been wiped away, there is no longer a vertical axis for the human soul, but only a horizontal, that is, a historical, axis for the human mind. More particularly, the vertical never crossed the horizontal in the Incarnation. Toward the end, Nietzsche with good reason called himself "the Antichrist". And it is not surprising that Nietzsche's perception of the probable consequences of the death of God was shared most fully by Christians, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, in his accurate prophecy of the Russian future in The Devils, and in particular by Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century who had watched Nietzsche's direst premonitions become reality. "Must we not ourselves become gods?" as Stalin and Hitler, crushing underfoot what was Christian in the past and present of their people, became. Writers such as de Lubac and Balthasar understood exactly why the most highly organized and most dreadful cruelties of "might is right" in the whole of history had been perpetrated in what had for many centuries been Christendom, where, in Balthasar's words, "the vertical axis (insofar as it is revelation from above) [was] claimed by Christianity as its own." Once the claim is rejected,
man's openness to the upper realm becomes a purely anthropological fact that belongs henceforth to the immanence of horizontal world history. When this happens, in short, man's "upward" openness, which is the organ of ultimate meaning, is obliged to look for meaning at the horizontal level; hence people's tendency to attribute absolute significance to relative fragments of meaning in history and to commit themselves utterly to such constructions. Thus, in the post-Christian period, we find the development of various philosophies of history--"ideologies" in the strict sense. In this way, certain finite (and hence only partially true) ideas are foisted onto man's spirit, which has an inherent yearning for the absolute .... However, none of the passing moments of the world of time can encapsulate that desired absolute meaning--not even that moment, projected into an ever-receding future, when "positive humanism" will have been attained. [19]
Balthasar, already an old man (he was born in 1905 and died in 1988), wrote this in 1980, before the collapse of Soviet Communism. What he said in this passage is plainly true of the totalitarian ideologies of Marxism and Nazism. That it is no less true of optimistic liberalism, and also no less true of global domination by capitalist America, is concealed from many by the cloaking of both with a patchwork Christian morality and of the second also with the appropriation of God's approval. They belong equally, however, to "the passing moments of the world of time" wrongly taken to "encapsulate ... absolute meaning", even if liberalism takes "absolute meaning" as its absolute absence, and even if capitalist democracy affords its citizens freedoms denied to the citizens of totalitarian states. It should be added here that the long history of the Church has been scarred by her own failure at various periods to distinguish "absolute significance" from "relative fragments of meaning in history". The corruption of the Church as a human institution by her triumphalist assumption of worldly power was perhaps the worst of such failures. In 1965 Balthasar wrote of the old perils of the Church in relation to power and of her new peril in relation to the secular utopianism of human omnicompetence:
This anxious flight of the Church and of Christians from the Cross was always, and is once again today, the flight into ideologies of world domination: the Constantinian, Carolingian, Ottoman, Hapsburg, Bourbon, and Napoleonic domination of the world in the past; and today, since the external forms of power are no longer within reach [of the Church], the flight into intellectual forms of familiarity, of the desire to be there, too, when the world is worldly, when the world is rising upward, when the world is taking possession of itse1f, as if it were possible to bestow Christian sweetness on the whole affair by tossing a saccharin tablet into this raging ocean. [20]
But the truth of God disclosed in Christ is itself and not another thing.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Quoted in Simon Blackburn, "Richard Rorty", Prospect, April 2003, p. 58.
[2] Ibid.
[3] William Empson, "This Last Pain", line 21.
[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (London, 1988), p. 335.
[5] Ibid., p. 346.
[6] Ibid., pp. 165, 337.
[7] Blaise Pascal, Pensée 438; numbered according to Oeuvres complètes, ed. Jacques Chevalier, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 34 (Paris, 1954), p. 1206; my translation.
[8] MacIntyre, Whose Justice? p. 394.
[9] Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God, trans. Alexander Dru (Edinburgh, 1996), p. 154. Originally published as Sur les chemins de Dieu (1956).
[10] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Moment of Christian Witness, trans. Richard Beckley (Sari Francisco, 1994), pp. 73-74. Originally published as Cordula oder der Ernsfall (1966).
[11] Czeslaw Milosz, "The Separate Notebooks", New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 (London, 2001), p. 383.
[12] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic, vol. 1, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco, 2000), p. 12.
[13] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, quoted by Erich Heller, In the Age of Prose (Cambridge, 1984), p. 45.
[14] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 50, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (London, 1971), pp. 631-32.
[15] Nietzsche, Will to Power, quoted by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 4, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, 1994), p. 158.
[16] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London, 1968), pp. 69-70.
[17] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, trans. Graham Harrison, vol. 4 (San Francisco, 1994), p. 467.
[18] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 125, in A Nietzsche Reader, ed. and trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London, 1977), pp. 202-3.
[19] Balthasar, Theo-Drama 4:72-73.
[20] Hans Urs von Balthasar, "Tragedy and Christian Faith", in Creator Spirit, trans. Brian McNeil, Explorations in Theology, vol. 3 (San Francisco, 1993), pp. 409-10.



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British author Lucy Beckett lives in Yorkshire. She as educated at Cambridge University and taught English, Latin and history at Ampleforth Abbey and College for twenty years. She has published books on Wallace Stevens, Wagner's Parsifal, York Minster and the Cistercian Abbeys of North Yorkshire, as well as a novel, The Time Before You Die, on the Reformation, and a collection of poems. She is married, with four children.



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