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Formative literature 1

Fr. Will Brown recently tagged me into one of these viral threads on Facebook, and I’ve been eager to weigh in. I do so here!

The topic: books that changed our lives (or some such). I think we were meant to mention six or eight. I have thirteen and will take them in autobiographical rather than chronological order. They tilt heavily toward the modern and contemporary and, partly for that reason, are not “great books” tout court. But God, in the form of truth, meets us through our loves and fears. He finds us where we are, having arrived himself in advance. This is important. Woe betide our resistance of creatureliness.

“LORD, you have searched me out and known me…. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways” (Ps. 139: 1-2). God is the master of time, which means that, as long as it persists, there is no golden age. “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2).

Here are the first three.

1. We were handed the Dillenberger volume of Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (1962) in our course on the history of Western thought. I had surrendered to a Higher Power of some sort the summer before, accepting the illusiveness of righteous control, and felt ready for an inarticulate, deistical love. I sensed the vanity of sustained social justice campaigns that would wring order out of human acts. How to round up all the convicts, and who should escape sentencing?

Something like forgiveness seemed more promising. And Luther’s Christian mechanism appeared: ingeniously free of cliché, charmingly credulous.

Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all.  (Freedom of a Christian, pp. 60-61)

Luther’s joy and existential release at the arrival of God as a man — the person of Jesus Christ — are palpable and attractive, as a practical way out of the human morass. Here is an appealing “freedom,” which I took to be a good idea, a proposal worth pondering. Good for the Christians, I thought. And note the trinitarian dividend.

2. Hot on its heels was Pascal’s Pensées (Penguin edition, 1966), which provided a further word of gracious realism. What might seem “negative” in Pascal struck me as a fresh breeze of truth, little discussed and generally buried: stop acting like everything is progressing niftily.“I’m sorry, Cartesians, were you hoping to solve problems for good and secure genuine advances to the end of a universal uplift?”

I’ll see your earnest ambition and raise you a descriptive account of failure, inadequacy, and unfulfilled longing.

What amazes me most is to see that everyone is not amazed at his own weakness. We behave seriously, and everyone follows his calling, not because it is really a good thing to do so, in accordance with fashion, but as if everyone knew for certain where reason and justice lie. We are constantly disappointed and an absurd humility makes us blame ourselves and not the skill we always boast of having. But it is a good thing for the reputation of scepticism that there are so many people about who are not sceptics, to show that man is quite capable of the most extravagant opinions, since he is capable of believing that he is not naturally and inevitably weak, but is, on the contrary, naturally wise.

Nothing strengthens the case for scepticism more than the fact that there are people who are not sceptics. If they all were, they would be wrong. (n. 33)

Scepticism, that is, in the face of scientific confidence. To resign, therefore, is to stop running, to rest. “First part: Nature is corrupt, proved by nature itself. Second part: There is a Redeemer, proved by Scripture” (n. 6).

Here Pascal appears as a postliberal, Karl Barth avant la lettre. I hadn’t thought that reason could seem defensively propagandistic in the face of truth. But:

[w]e desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness. We have been left with this desire as much as a punishment as to make us feel how far we have fallen. (n. 401)

The devices and desires of progressive Manicheanism would reduce the world to its rudiments, but we do not understand our own actions. “For I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15; cf. 3:10).

3. Crime and Punishment (trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky) came as the coup de grace.

Raskolnikov walked out of the shed and right to the bank, sat down on some logs piled near the shed, and began looking at the wide, desolate river. From the high bank a wide view of the surrounding countryside opened out. A barely audible song came from the far bank opposite. There, on the boundless, sun-bathed steppe, nomadic yurts could be seen, like barely visible black specks. There was freedom, there a different people lived, quite unlike those here[;] there time itself seemed to stop, as if the centuries of Abraham and his flocks had not passed. Raskolnikov sat and stared fixedly, not tearing his eyes away; his thought turned to reverie, to contemplation; he was not thinking of anything, but some anguish troubled and tormented him. (pp. 548-49)

I recall finishing in the wee hours, gently closing the cover, and acquiescing to “resurrected love.”

Everything, even his crime, even his sentence and exile, seemed… now, in the first impulse, to be some strange, external fact, as if it had not even happened…. However, that evening he could not think long or continuously of anything, could not concentrate his mind on anything; besides, he would have been unable to resolve anything consciously just then; he could only feel. Instead of dialectics, there was life, and something completely different had to work itself out in his consciousness.

Under his pillow lay the Gospels. He took the book out mechanically. (p. 550)


The image above is “Warm books (16:9)” by Flickr user mendhak and is a shot of the Stourhead house library in Wiltshire, England. The image is licensed under Creative Commons.


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