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On Being “Undisturbed” by Transcendence

In his essay, “What Is Meant by the ‘Christian West’?” (in the collection Tradition as Challenge [1]) Josef Pieper wrote: “Un-Western would be both a religiosity undisturbed by any duty toward the world and a worldly existence undisturbed by any call from beyond the world.” Pieper probably had Islam in mind for the first alternative. The second view is what I want to consider here.

Pieper’s words are precise. The world is busy and productive, absorbed with things. This world once knew transcendence. It displays cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts that everyone still admires. This world heard of these things. But it put them aside. The “call” remains. Souls are now “undisturbed” by it.

What are we to make of this “being undisturbed”? In other contexts, we are told not to let our “hearts be disturbed.” (John 14:1) The world has been overcome. We are to retain a certain inner peace even in the worst calamities. We are to anticipate being hated for no cause.

Pieper distinguishes between what goes on in the world and what comes from outside it. The first can be pretty bad, but it ought not come to us as a total surprise. It is the “call” that comes from “beyond the world” that should unsettle us. God is not “in,” or a part of, the world. The world need not exist at all, but does.

In one of his earlier books, the commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus [2], Pieper talked about the curious nature of our existence in the world. We can be living perfectly settled and happy lives. We think we have everything in control. But suddenly, from out of “nowhere” it seems, something comes into our world that upsets or overturns every assurance or purpose we had set out for ourselves. No one can foresee or control this unexpectedness, however much we want to overcome our contingency.

What happens may be a death, another person, a war, a sickness, even, as in the case of Augustine, a chance reading of a book or a few lines of Scripture. What strikes us is the suddenness with which we are “turned around,” to recall a phrase from Socrates.

The word Pieper used was “call,” a call from “beyond the world.” The “call” is heard. That is, people hear it and know what it means. But it does not “disturb” them. That is, they are not “turned around;” they are not “converted.”

Josef Pieper

Let us examine this situation more closely. We hear talk in Church circles of something called “re-evangelization.” It is not meant for pagans, or Muslims, or Taoists, or Hindus. They need, if possible, “evangelization,” not “re-evangelization.” It is probably true, though, that their own voices, inner and outer, prevent them from hearing any other voice calling to them.

The “call” (the law, the word) goes out from Zion (Isaiah 2:3). What is this “call,” this voice? Here I turn to Benedict XVI, that most insightful of popes. Many will not “listen” to his words that “call” because he is a pope. This is, no doubt, an utterly unworthy reason, unworthy of what human intelligence is.

In Deuteronomy, the other nations will learn by seeing how Yahweh’s word is lived. In Exodus, we are told that the proper name of God is, “I am, who am.” When Paul was roaming the world outside Israel, he was “called” not to India, or Persia, or Egypt, but to Macedonia. “Why was this?,” Benedict asked. It was because Greece was the home of philosophy, of reason.

The import of this “call” cannot be over-estimated. It meant nothing less than that revelation contains within itself a “reason” that can be recognized and built upon by the Jews and Gentiles alike. Revelation is not hostile to reason. Moreover, the “reason” found in the Old Testament is completed in the Logos found in the New Testament.

Augustine tells us, in Confessions, that in Plato he found “the Word,” but not the “Word made flesh.” Plato taught us that the soul was “immortal” because it knew the “word.” But it was Aristotle that told us that we are not just “souls.” It was not surprising, therefore, that the central pillar of revelation was the Resurrection of the Body.

Thus, I take “the call from beyond the world” to mean precisely that revelation and reason are intended for each other. To be “undisturbed” by either of these truths, when thought out, is equivalent to denying our minds to be minds.

By deafness to the “call from beyond the world,” we are left with a “reason” that ceases to be reasonable. Today we call this result, not “the West,” but “post-modernity.” We are left with Islam’s un-concern with the world and Allah’s law. By not hearing the call from beyond the world, we are left with a voluntarism that knows no word, made flesh or otherwise.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.