Book Break: Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

CatCoCI don’t remember exactly when I picked up Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures — or why — but it was on my nightstand, unread, for many months until Brendan came home from UMary and mentioned it was one of the good books he read in his Catholic Studies classes this year. Essentially a lecture delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) circa 2005, the book highlights the ways in which Europe’s widespread Christianity served as a foundation for many of the great advances of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which have paradoxically led to a severing of the Christian roots that made them possible and a grave imbalance between technology and morality, between what we can do and what we should.  Yet even as we stand on the brink of cultural collapse, Cardinal Ratzinger proposes an approach that could restore the moral foundations of Western societies and lead people back to God.

It is a short (115 pages of well-spaced text), but heady, read — unflinching yet hopeful in its outlook, recalling that all things are possible through Christ. Two major ideas touched on in the book stand out to me this morning, each of which I will paraphrase and tackle in somewhat of my own way so as not to spoil the lecture itself.

The first is that we live each day by faith, which is never blind but always rooted in authority of those who have firsthand knowledge of the subject at hand. An example a friend of mine shared some months ago: how many of us know our birth mother? How do we know? None of us can possibly recall the moment of our birth, and few if any of us have incontrovertible photographic evidence of that moment, with faces in focus and the umbilical tether uncut. We could have been adopted or inadvertently switched. But we have faith based on authority: the signed documents, the witness of family members and friends, and in most cases the presence and loving care of our mothers themselves.

Most of us aren’t engineers, yet we trust another’s deep understanding of engineering to get us to and from work safely each day and to perform our work functions. Most of us no longer raise the majority of our food, yet we trust that it is safe to eat. In the same way, while many of us do not claim to have firsthand knowledge of God in person, our faith is based on the authority of those who did (or do): signed documents, the witness of family members and friends, and the loving care of the Creator Himself.

Indeed, without this foundation of so-called irrational faith — this fundamental belief and trust in things outside our own personal experience — everything else, including the science and technology we cling to as “rational,” breaks down.

The second idea worth highlighting is that, as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it, “It is an obvious fact that the rational character of the universe cannot be explained rationally on the basis of something irrational!” If the origins of the universe, the world, and humanity are random, how then can we rely on them to unfold in a rational way and be understandable? If our brains are merely chemicals and electrical impulses particularly suited to our survival, what are reason and choice, and why do they matter?

Cardinal Ratzinger puts forth a compelling picture of the modern culture and offers advice for believers and non-believers alike to rebuild the crumbling foundations of Europe and the West. Brendan found this little book worthwhile, and so did I.

Book Break: Old House of Fear

While back home in Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend, I had the pleasure of browsing the Mecosta Book Gallery and coming home with my first Gothic fiction work of local literary hero and celebrated thinker and writer Russell Kirk, an unjacketed, former library edition of Old House of Fear.

Too few people, perhaps, know of Russell Kirk today. Even growing up a few miles from the tall brick house where he dwelt and wrote, and with his four daughters not far from me in age, all I knew growing up was that a eccentric writer supposedly lived in that big house. Such knowledge was wasted on my teenage self; had I known he was one of the foremost conservative political thinkers of the last century and a novelist to boot, I may have postponed Yale for a year and ultimately saved myself the trouble and the expense.

But I didn’t — and now I’m playing catchup.

I would describe Old House of Fear as a Gothic men’s adventure story: equal parts ghostly yarn, murder mystery, and manful romance. Our protagonist is sent by his employer, a Scottish-American industrialist intent on buying his family’s ancestral home on the remote Scottish island of Carnglass. The requisite castle has an ominous name — the House of Fear — though in its ancestral Gaelic it would be spelled fir or fhir and means “man.” What begins as a challenging business transaction with a strange old widow becomes a treacherous tale of intimidation, terrorism, and murder, involving Communists and occultists, as well as more run-of-the-mill ruffians, a beautiful red-headed niece who may also be a witch, and the ever-present shadow of a legend: a grostesque, three-eyed goat-man said to haunt the island from time immemorial.

It is a quick and satisfactory read, if a bit tidier than I expected at the end. I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend it wholeheartedly…if you can find it! If not, I may be convinced to loan it to you!

Book Break: Manalive

“Madness does not come by breaking out, but by giving in; by settling down in some dirty, little, self-repeating circle of ideas; by being tamed.” – G.K. Chesterton

I’ve quit believing in coincidence. When seemingly random events culminate in a meaningful way, providence is my line now. Such was the case when I was searching the Great River Regional Library website for an audiobook to accompany me to and from Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend. I searched for several titles by name, and several topics by keyword, to little avail. Then I stumbled across an audio version of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, narrated by athiest-turned-Catholic and Theater of the Word founder and actor Kevin O’Brien.

I didn’t know what the story was about. That it was Chesterton told me it should be good — but as I’ve said before, Chesterton can be too clever by half at times, and I’d never tried his fiction before. I put in a request for this book and for Mark Twain’s biography of St. Joan of Arc, and Manalive arrived first.

I hesitate to say too much. It is the story of an apparent madman or idiot who invades a British boarding house and turns the humdrum lives of the inhabitants upside down. Ultimately, he is accused of insanity, theft, polygamy, and murder  but how can a man as wicked as that make others feel so alive for the first time in years?

On the other hand, why would such a joyful simpleton  a holy fool  carry a revolver among his holiday luggage and playthings? Our protagonist has a mission, which sounds ominous and, indeed, mad: “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him – only to bring him to life.”

Like Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, which I reread over Holy Week, the book portrays a man who had dedicated himself to a worldview that the world has little use for and who pursues it at whatever cost. As a result, he makes us think about our own worldview and priorities. Manalive is chock full of great Chesterton quotes and paradoxes and memorable characters made moreso by O’Brien’s theatrical reading, voicing each of the characters as clearly as if he were several people himself.
By way of criticism: The work does wax poetic at times – particularly the introductory chapter – and at all times Chesterton’s presence is felt in the thoughts, wit, and turn of phrase of the characters. I would also be remiss in not pointing out Chesterton’s use of racial and ethnic stereotypes and language, particularly in drawing the character of  Moses Gould. In the context of this story, it was unsettling, but it struck me more as a product of his time than of strong personal animus. As to his actual views of minorities, I need to read more.
By way of endorsement: I listened to it start to finish on the way to Michigan, again on the way home from Michigan, and yet again on the trip back from Florida with Rose and Trev. It has climbed to the upper heights of my list of favorite stories — and if you want a fictitious explanation for why I’m leaving a good job at the church for a nebulous next step involving writing, this is it. I could not have stumbled across a better novel to bolster and encourage me in this time of transition.
That, friends, is providence.

Memento Mori, or Don’t Get Comfortable!

Last week I shared a humorous post about my general lack of physical fitness, in which I declaimed, “I am weary from too much rest—so comfortable it hurts.” At the time, I meant this merely in the physical sense, but this morning the spiritual meaning resonates.

We are creatures of will and intellect, but inertia is mindless. An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and so, too, a man who behaves like an object. When we rest, we often “veg,” which is to say we give up our human and even our animal nature in exchange for potting ourselves, mindlessly, in the sun. Bloom where you’re planted is a mantra today, but we are not flowers or fruit trees. It feels good to soak the golden rays, but, lacking chlorophyll, we are not fed in this way—not for long! We are planted only at the end, and then under a stone.

Also last week, I mentioned that our family is pursuing Marian consecration. Thus far Fr. Gaitley’s book has focused on three saints who, in their separate but similar ways, gave themselves completely​ to Christ through Mary: St. Louis de Montfort, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Mother Teresa. What struck me this morning was the sense of urgency each of these saints has:

  • St. Louis de Montfort advocated Marian consecration as “the surest, easiest, shortest, and most perfect means” to become a saint.
  • St. Maximilian Kolbe formed his Marian “army,” the Militia Immaculata, with the express goal of bringing the entire world to God through Christ under the generalship of Mary, and to do so as quickly as possible.
  • St. Teresa of Calcutta sought to satisfy the thirst of Jesus for souls and love, and to do this in the best possible way.
Notice that none of these three were satisfied with merely doing a job, or even doing it well.They sought to hear God’s call, to answer it daily, and to act with urgency, in the best way possible to bring about His will. They were not sedentary, physically or spiritually. They did not bloom where they were planted, because they never permitted themselves to be planted. They acted, each moment, as Mary would—as Christ would!—with great love, and with their eyes fixed upon eternity and the fate of the souls they encountered.
Too long have I acted as though good enough is good enough, as though I have time to spend (or not) as I please. If sainthood is the goal, let us pursue it with vigor. God willing, we’ll have eternity to rest!

Book Break: Small Is Beautiful: Economic As If People Mattered

One of my regrets from my college days is not taking any courses in economics. I received a relatively unstructured liberal arts education: aside from a few specific prerequisite courses for my undergraduate degree, all class were divided into four groups, and we had to take a certain number from each group. Math and physical sciences were grouped together, so the classes and labs I took in chemistry meant I didn’t have to take math. I heard only complaints from my friends in economics classes, and since I had so many other interesting classes in the social sciences to choose from, I skipped it.

This teenage shortsightedness bothers me still today, since our news and politics revolve around the economy. E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered recognized this utter domination of economics over all, warned against it, and proposed specific antidotes. Written in 1973—a year before I was born—and recommended to me by a former boss, it strikes me as a book that was likely read, loved, and then neglected by many in the last 40 years as they were swept along by currents too strong to swim against.

With no economic background of my own with which to offer a proper review or critique, I will instead offer a couple of objections and a few ideas I loved from the book.

The most obvious grounds for dismissal of Schumacher’s book for many will be that the alarms he sounded in 1973 were, in retrospect, too shrill—the gloom and doom he predicted, especially in terms of natural resource shortfalls and environmental crises, have not yet come to pass. For some readers, this alone will “prove” that the author obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. Schumacher himself, a Rhodes Scholar and economic advisor with the British Control Commission and the British National Coal Board, warned against trying to predict the future. Common sense told him that finite resources can’t last forever, and exploratory calculations suggested that, at the rates of consumption and growth he was seeing in the 1970s, we were living on borrowed time. He acknowledged it was possible that we would find new sources of fossil fuels and other rapidly consumed resources—his point was, to what end? Unless we change our habits, eventually we will suffer.

The second objection was, for me, the more difficult: at this point in his career, Schumacher had strong opinions about what was wrong in the world and what needed to be done about it, and his blunt negative assessments of markets, economists, and motivations in his day leave little room for compromise or evangelization. I found myself nodding in agreement with three-quarters of his writing, only to run against passages about which I thought, surely not everyone in capitalist society is solely motivated by relentless profit-taking?

On the other hand, Schumacher does an excellent job of drawing our attention to the underlying problems with an economic approach to everything. Early in the book  he quotes his fellow British economist (and an early benefactor of sorts) John Maynard Keynes from 1930: “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

Is this not contrary to the Christian ideal and common sense? Can fallen man use sin to achieve virtue? Of course not—but he can use his fellow man to achieve personal prosperity.

Schumacher goes on to write, “This was written forty years ago and since then, of course, things have speeded up considerably. Maybe we do not even have to wait for another sixty years until universal plenty will be attained. In any case, the Keynesian message is clear enough: Beware! Ethical considerations are not merely irrelevant, they are an actual hindrance, ‘for foul is useful and fair is not.’ The time for fairness is not yet. The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions.”

Lest you think of Schumacher as a naïve idealist imagining utopia, consider that two simple, practical ideas he advocated in his writings were the continuation of coal development and reducing energy consumption. He recognized that mankind is notorious for developing new problem-solving technologies that create new problems; that turning one’s back on an entire energy source on the belief that we could replace it entirely with oil or nuclear energy and meet rapidly growing worldwide demand, was foolish, even if it turned out to be true; and that wasting resources we cannot, ourselves, replace never makes sense.

This, to me, is (at least in part) what conservatism ought to be: maintaining the tried and true even as we explore new possibilities and conserving, even when a crisis is not looming, because it’s the sensible and moral thing to do.

Am I good at it? Not very—but getting better.

His biggest idea, however, was the concept of intermediate technologies for developing countries. Schumacher traveled the world and saw that most economic development supported by wealthy nations not only replicated the patterns of economic dysfunction he was in the developed world, but deepened the economic problems in the developing country for all but a fortunate few.

One example he uses (which I will paraphrase and expand on) is that of a large earthwork project that needs to be done in a developing country. You have a range of options you may employ for accomplishing this work, from people using their hands to scrabble and scrape away at the earth to the most modern and powerful earth-moving machinery. The former approach would cost almost nothing and “employ” a lot of people for a long time at menial and nearly impossible work; the latter would employ relatively few people for a relatively short time, unless the expensive equipment broke down and needed repairs—in which case there would be no parts or expertise locally to fix it. In the middle, however, are a range of intermediate technologies, however, that could put people to work, providing income for their families, value for their time, and dignity for themselves. For example, equipping a hundred men with well-built shovels and wheelbarrows would put those men to work—plus many more making and repairing shovels and wheelbarrows using local materials. The money earned by all those people (instead of just a few heavy-equipment operators) could be used to support other local industries—because what good is producing food or consumer goods if no one has any money to buy them?

There is much to love in this book, including Schumacher’s very Catholic views on the dignity of work and the human person. He speaks against an all-pervasive economic approach to efficiency, which quantifies and assigns value to the incalculable and invaluable. When everything is assigned a value, the sacred (such as human life) is diminished and no longer sacred. He speaks against an approach to labor and productivity that reduces work to individually pointless tasks without freedom or creativity and fails to employ large segments of society that, because they see no value in their time and effort, quickly devalue themselves. And he speaks against the underlying assumption that one who works less and consumes more is better off than one who works more and consumes less.
It is a thought-provoking read, and I highly recommend it.