A Book for Our Age

A few weeks back in this space, I offered a quick look around the baffling activities and inactivities of the principalities and powers in contemporary Europe and America, all of which can only elicit the head-scratching question, “What’s going on?”  In that column, I suggested that Marcello Pera’s book, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, offered some key answers to that question.

Now, Father James Schall of Georgetown University, well known to readers of The Catholic Thing, gives us a learned and highly readable collection of essays on the same essential question, from the perspective of a Catholic priest and thinker on the far side of much reading, thought, and prayer. 

Like Pera, Fr. Schall is a student of philosophy who writes both for scholars and for a broad audience.  His new book, The Modern Age, is based on “one philosophic supposition . . .that the human mind is open to the whole of reality.  It does not allow reason to restrict itself so that it is not open to the whole of what is.” [emphasis original]

Fr. Schall has made a career out of teaching both his students and his wider audience of learners about this reality, the reality of God, His creation, and His plan of salvation for His fallen creatures.  Our departure from the fullest possible examination of this reality is the fatal flaw of the modern age, the age which “has to do with science and technology, with political and economic notions and institutions about how to rule human beings and how to produce things, with ideas and inventions that came to pass after Machiavelli, Newton, the steam engine, and the atom.  It has to do, as its purpose, with improving the world’s ‘estate’ and how to do so.”

Our age is dominated by an intellectual method that excludes revelation as a subject or means of reasonable inquiry.  Reason is confined to what man can sense and measure, to empirical method:

Since, however, as he often likes to think in his modern musings, man is unexplained by the world itself, he takes it on his own shoulders to explain himself.  This explanation is a burden that he allows no one outside himself to bear.  This latter rather arbitrary restriction of “nothing outside of himself” defines the modern age.  The human mind by itself declares itself to be the only “rational” locus in the universe.  We insist on knowing ourselves with no further help but our minds. . . .These are the rules of the game.  But perhaps the world plays by rules other than those we formulate by our own presuppositions.  Reason itself implies more than reason and what it implies is not necessarily “unreasonable.”

But reality is much bigger than what we can sense or think through inside ourselves, much bigger than the material abundance of our day in the West.  The loss of this larger notion of our reason, a notion that came through revelation, is the loss that marks the modern age:

The idea that the individual human being has both an inner-worldly and a transcendent purpose, which are not in principle opposed to each other, is a revelational idea.  The relationship between the two purposes is at the root of what the modern age means. . . .[T]he modern age, at its core, is an effort to redefine the transcendent purposes of man initially outlined in revelation so that man’s happiness is now to be achieved solely by human effort, for the benefit of human beings who still exist on this earth.  The completion of the modern project is proposed as an inner-worldly “city” in which everyone has everything he can want as if his purpose is an on-going existence in this world.

The reality of history is not the cramped faux-reality of the modern age.  “Considering the dimensions of these [modern] proposals and understandings of history. . .the original reasonable and revelational purpose in fact remains the locus of the real nobility and glory of man. . . .[T]he world is a scene in which the ultimate drama is played out in order that the original purpose of creation may be achieved by each human person.”

Fr. Schall is no dry theoretician or esoteric academician.  He is a wonderfully gifted teacher who approaches his readers as students and friends.  Each lively essay begins with a selection of short quotations that frame the discussion that follows.  Never pedantic or obscure, always lucid and approachable, Fr. Schall draws on a remarkable range of sources from our age and ages past.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI appear regularly.  Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, who wrote at the onset of modernity’s roughest attacks on the Catholic faith, offer their insights.  Other philosophers – Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, Thomas Pangle, Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, and of course Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – are invoked.  And for the most profound and difficult points, Linus and Lucy of Peanuts fame provide their usual clarity.

As in earlier works, at the end just before three superb appendices, Fr. Schall gives us a reading list for where to go to continue exploring these questions.  But his books do not really end.  They always point the reader towards the next steps in his own philosophizing, the highest purpose of our life, the search for truth and beauty, for the city of God, for what we are created to find and be found by.  In what is all too often the darkness of our scientific-technological and self-defined age, Fr. Schall reminds us of the light of every age.

That is a great gift at this time of year, and always.

A Note to Our Readers: Over the weekend, the New York Times mentioned in an article about Newt Gingrich’s Catholicism: “Francis J. Beckwith, a professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University (who returned to Catholicism during a career as a prominent evangelical) recently wrote in the blog The Catholic Thing that true absolution of sins requires ‘ongoing conversion,’ which means ‘detaching oneself from those things that may provide an occasion for sin.’”  (You can read the full NYT article here or at our new site, Complete Catholicism.)  We have a high opinion of our readers, and we know that most of you were not wasting your time the past few days with our “paper of record.” For the record, The Catholic Thing is not a blog (just one more inaccuracy in the Times), but a series of carefully thought out and well written columns. We respect what good bloggers do. It’s just not what we do. We try to bring you a solid commentary every morning of the year, something that will inform your heart, mind, and spirit – and that you can read and re-read with profit. Some of our readers have complained that we ask for donations to support “a blog.” We don’t. We ask you to help us make it possible for some of the best Catholic writers in America – figures like Hadley Arkes, Fr. James Schall, Anthony Esolen, and Francis Beckwith – to take the time to produce material that even the New York Times notices. It’s just one sign of their commitment to this work that they perform these labors for quite modest compensation. But the result is magnificent: thirty columns a month, the equivalent of a whole magazine. It’s getting near Christmas and we’d like to reach our fundraising goal so that we can all turn our attention to the reason for the season. Please, make your contribution of $35, $50, $100, or more to the work of The Catholic Thing, today. – Robert Royal

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.