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What Must I Read To Be Saved? On Reading and Salvation | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 4, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com

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"It is this same disciple who attests what has here been written. It is in fact he who wrote it, and we know that his testimony is true. There is much else that Jesus did. If it were all to be recorded in detail, I suppose the whole world could not hold the books that would be written." -- John, 21:24-25.

"For this reason anyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them and thus expose his thought to the envy and criticism of men. What I have said comes, in short, to this: whenever we see a book, whether the laws of a legislator or a composition on any other subject, we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with the fairest of his possessions. And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not the gods, have taken his wits away." -- Plato, The Seventh Letter, 344c.

"Books of travels will be good in proportion to what a man has previously in his mind; his knowing what to observe; his power of contrasting one mode of life with another. As the Spanish proverb says, 'He, who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry this wealth of the Indies with him.' So it is in travelling; a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge." -- Samuel Johnson, Good Friday, April 17, 1778. [1]


We are familiar with the incident in the Gospel of the rich young man who asked Christ what good he must do to be saved. Christ responded to him that he must keep the commandments. This the young man had done from his youth, a fact that Christ recognized in him. Christ added, in words that still force us to distinguish between "obligation" or "duty" and something more and different from it, that, if he wanted to be perfect, what he should do was to sell what he had, give it to the poor, and come follow Him. The Gospel records that the young man did not follow this proposal, rather he "went away sad," for, as it says in striking explanation, the young man "had many riches" (Matthew 19:16-23). We might suggest that this rich young man was, as far as we can tell, one of Christ's conspicuous failures along with, say, Judas, one of the thieves, the scribes, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and several of His hometown relatives.

Notice that Christ did not tell the young man to become an entrepreneur so that he could create wealth to help the poor, though there is nothing wrong with this avenue. Nor did Christ "impose" a more perfect way on him. It was up to what the young man himself "wanted" to do with his life. Yet, even on reading this famous passage, a passage that John Paul II referred to again and again when talking to youth from all countries, we have the distinct impression that the rich young man, and perhaps the world itself, missed out on something because of his refusal.

If "ideas have consequences," so, possibly more so, do choices--even refusals, which are likewise choices. Choices always have objects. There is no such thing as choice for choice's own sake. It's sophistry to maintain it is. We can suspect that the young man's talents, without his riches, or perhaps even with them, were needed elsewhere, perhaps later with Paul or Silas. Indeed, Paul was subjected to pretty much the same process, but he decided the other way, for which we can still be thankful as we read his Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians, to Titus and Timothy. After all, when knocked to the ground on the way to Damascus, he could, after his eyes cleared up, gotten back up and walked away.

This memorable account of the rich young man reminds us that not only is the world less when we do evil, but even when we do less than we are invited to do. It makes us wonder whether the world is founded in justice at all, in only what we are to "render," in what we "ought" to do. Such a world would be rather dull, I think. It would lack the "adventure" we now find in it. While not denying their acknowledged worth, the highest things may be grounded in something quite beyond justice. An utterly "just world" may in fact be a world in which no one would really want to live. Justice is, as I call it, a "terrible" virtue. The fact that God is not defeated by evil or even by a lesser good helps us to realize, with some comfort, I confess, that we do not find only justice at the heart of what is. The great book that teaches this principle, above all, is C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, a book not to be missed.

My remarks obviously play on these words, "What must I do to be saved?" To be provocative, I ask, "What must I read to be saved?" I do not suggest that Christ had his priorities wrong. When I mentioned this question "what must I read to be saved?" to a witty friend of mine, she immediately wanted to know whether any of my own books were included in this category of books "necessary-to-get-to-heaven?" I laughed and assured her that indeed the opera omnia of Schall were essential to salvation!

The irony is not to be missed. We cannot point to any single book, including the Bible, and say that absolutely everyone must actually read it, line by line, before he can be "saved." If this were to be the case, few would be called and even fewer chosen. Heaven would, alas, be very sparsely populated. But I do think that between acting and reading, even in the highest things, there is, in the ordinary course of things, some profound relationship. Acting is not apart from knowing, and knowing usually depends on reading.


Concerning books and getting to heaven, however, let me note in the beginning that, statistically, a good number of the people in the history of mankind who have ever been in fact saved were mostly what we today call "illiterate," or at least not well educated. They were good people who did not know how to read, let alone write books. While Christianity does not at all disdain intelligence--quite the opposite, it thrives on it--still it does not simply identify what it means by "salvation" or "the gaining of eternal life" with education or literacy, in whatever language or discipline. In the long dispute over Socrates' aphorism that virtue is knowledge, Christians have generally sided with Aristotle, that fault and sin are not simply ignorance. Multiple doctorates, honorary or earned, will not necessarily get us to heaven, nor, with any luck, will they prevent us from attaining this same happy goal

Just as there are saints and sinners among the intelligentsia, so there are saints and sinners among those who cannot read and write. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn remarked that Thomas Aquinas was the first saint ever canonized for doing nothing else but thinking. Yet, within the Christian tradition more than a suspicion exists that the more intelligent we are and the more we consider ourselves to be "intellectuals," the more difficult it is to save our souls. The sin of pride, of willfully making ourselves the center of the universe and the definers of right and wrong, is, in all likelihood, less tempting to those who do not read or who do not have doctorates in philosophy or science than it is to those who read learnedly, if not wisely. The fallen Lucifer was of the most intelligent of the angels. His first sin was made possible by the order of his thought. No academic, I think, should forget Lucifer's existence and his sobering story. It is not unrelated to a modern academic scholar. The figure of Lucifer should, in some form, appear on every campus as a reminder.


When we examine the infinitive, "to read," moreover, it becomes clear that a difference is found between being able to read and actually reading things of a certain seriousness, of a certain depth. Not that there is anything wrong with "light" reading. Indeed, the subtitle of one of my books, Idylls and Rambles--though again, need I remind you, it is not a book necessary for salvation!--is precisely "Lighter Christian Essays." The truth of Christianity is not inimical to joy and laughter, but, as I think, it is ultimately a defender and promoter of them, including their literary expressions. I have always considered Peanuts and P. G. Wodehouse to be major theologians. In truth, it is the essential mission of Christian revelation to define what joy means and how it is possible for us to obtain it, that it is indeed not an illusion. The first thing to realize is that joy is not "due" or "owed" to us.

J. R. R. Tolkien, in his famous essay, "On Fairy-Stories," even invented a special word to describe this essence of Christianity. We are not, as it sometimes may seem, necessarily involved in a tragedy or a "catastrophe" but precisely in a "Eucatastrophe." The Greek prefix "eu"--as in Eucharist--means happy or good. In the end, contrary to every expectation, things do turn out all right, as God intended from the beginning. [2] This is why in part the proper worship of God is our first, not our last task, perhaps even in education. In Josef Pieper: An Anthology, a book not to be missed, Pieper remarks further that joy is a by-product; it is the result of doing what we ought, not an object of our primary intention; ultimately, it is a gift.

"Faith," St. Paul told us, "comes from hearing," not evidently from "reading," though this same Paul himself did a fair amount of writing. We presume that he intended for us to read it all. It seems odd to imagine that he wrote those letters to Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, and Ephesians with no expectation of results. When Paul remarked that faith came by "hearing," he probably did not mean to say that it could not come "by reading." We do hear of people who, as they say, "read themselves into the Church." Chesterton, I think, was one of these. In classic theology, it is to be remembered, however, that unless we receive grace--itself not of our own fabrication--we will not have faith either by hearing or by reading or, in modern times, by watching television or internet, themselves perhaps the most difficult ways of all!

Many, no doubt, have heard but have not believed. Paul tells of those, including himself, who, at the stoning of Stephen, put their hands over their ears so they could not hear what he was saying. Alcibiades tells of doing the same thing so that he would not hear the persuasive words of Socrates. Christ said to St. Thomas the Twin, "Blessed are those who have not seen but who have believed." Every time we read this passage, we are conscious that we are among those blessed multitudes who have believed but who have not seen. And even our hearing, say in preaching and in Sunday sermons, usually comes from someone who has previously read, and hopefully read well.

The Apostle John affirms at the end of his Gospel, a document itself full of the word, "Word,"--in the beginning was the "Word," "Word" made flesh--that he in fact wrote the words that we read and that his testimony is true. As Benedict XVI says, "Deus Logos Est." John also intimates, reminiscent of Plato, that many things are not recorded in books, even in all the books in the world. Yet, as the Church teaches us, the things that the Lord taught and did that have in fact been handed down to us are sufficient for us. Sometimes, it is sobering to reflect that the entire corpus of the New Testament covers a mere 243 pages in the English Revised Standard Edition. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be literate do not have to be "speed readers" to finish the New Testament many times over during our lives, even in the course of a few days, if we wish.

Whether all the books ever written in this world are contained in today's libraries, or on the on-line facilities, I doubt. But a tremendous number of them are. One of the main problems with these comments on reading has to do with the sheer amount of books available to read, and yes, to re-read. I am fond of citing C. S. Lewis' famous quip that if you have only read a great book once, you have not read it at all. This pithy remark, of course, brings up the problem of what is a great book and why great books are really "great." Even more, it asks whether "great" books exist that are not officially called great? Ought we to spend all our time, after all, on so-called "great" books? Leo Strauss once remarked that, in the end, the famed great books contradict each other. This fact led many a philosopher and many a student into relativism under the aegis of philosophic greatness. There are, as I think, "great books" that are not considered "great."

The website of the Library of Congress informs us that in 1992, the Library accessioned its 100 millionth item. The Library contains books in about 450 languages. I have friends who can handle fifteen or twenty languages. But I do not know anyone who can handle 450 different languages. No doubt considerable numbers of books have been added since 1992, and I do not mention the books in the British Museum or the Vatican Library, or the great French, German, Spanish, American, and Italian libraries, as well as others throughout the world.

When I was about eighteen in the army at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, I went into the post library, with time on my hands. I looked at all the stacks of books, but I realized that I did not know what to read or where to begin to find out. It was a kind of revelation to me of that famous Socratic dictum of "knowing what I did not know." Yet I knew, that, however logical, one did not go to the first book under the letter "A" to begin to read systematically all the books till one reached "Z." First of all, it could not be done in one lifetime, even in a fairly small library, and secondly it would have promoted a mental hodge-podge.

At the beginning of the Summa, St. Thomas tells the young student that an order of learning and knowledge exists that makes it possible to distinguish the important and the unimportant things. No library, I might add, is constructed on the order of St. Thomas' Summa, which, I suspect, might tell us something about the limits of libraries, however good they might be. Again, we are not well advised to take some encyclopedia and begin with articles under "A" and read to those under "Z." The order of knowing is crucial to us.

A famous quip claims that "any man who says that he has read all the writings of St. Augustine is a liar." Likewise, if we take St. Thomas, remembering that he had no computer and that he had at most twenty-six or twenty-seven years of life during which he could write anything before he died in 1274, we still find it almost impossible to believe that he actually wrote all he did write. What he wrote was clearly dependent on what he also had read.

Part 1 | Part 2


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