A recent article by Stratford Caldecott on The Imaginative Conservative blog got me intrigued about this book: a work published by CS Lewis' within hiA recent article by Stratford Caldecott on The Imaginative Conservative blog got me intrigued about this book: a work published by CS Lewis' within his academic specialty of medieval and renaissance literature. I was aware this book existed, but recent forays into classical educational models sparked an interest in being able to approach literary works of the past with a good sense of the "mental furniture" that ordinary members of past audiences possessed. While I was more or less familiar with the basic concept of a geocentric universe surrounded by spheres of increasing ontological importance, I've nowhere else encountered such an interesting and succinct exposition of the pre-enlightenment worldview. Part of what makes this so interesting is that it is a sympathetic exposition. Certainly, Lewis does not advocate returning to these perspectives as an alternative to contemporary astrophysics, but he does offer reasons for why letting the same spirit of wonder and enchantment inform us now is a good idea. Furthermore, he also does a very convincing job of dispelling the nation that "The medievals thought to universe to be like that, but we know it to be like this". Contemporary mathematical descriptions of the universe present a very different sort of "explanation" than the medieval worldview did, as Lewis explains in the following passage from the Epilogue:
"The nineteenth century still held the belief that by inferences from our sense-experience (improved by instruments) we could 'know' the ultimate physical reality more or less as, by maps, pictures, and travel-books, a man can 'know' a country he has not visited; and that in both cases the 'truth' would be a sort of mental replica of the thing itself. Philosophers might have disquieting comments to make on this conception; but scientists and plain men did not much attend to them. Already, to be sure, mathematics were the idiom in which many of the sciences spoke. But I do not think it was doubted that there was a concrete reality about which the mathematics held good; distinguishable from the mathematics as a heap of apples is from the process of counting them. We knew indeed that it was in some respects not adequately imaginable; quantities and distances if either very small or very great could not be visualized. But, apart from that, we hope that ordinary imagination and conception could grasp it. We should then have through mathematics a knowledge not merely mathematical. We should be like the man coming to know about a foreign country without visiting it. He learns about the mountains from carefully studying the contour lines on a map. But his knowledge is not a knowledge of contour lines. The real knowledge is achieved when these enable him to say 'That would be an easy ascent', 'This is a dangerous precipice', 'A would not be visible from B', 'These woods and waters must make a pleasant valley'. In going beyond the contour lines to such conclusions he is (if he knows how to read a map) getting nearer to the reality. It would be very different if someone said to him (and was believed) 'But it is the contour lines themselves that are the fullest reality you can get. In turning away from them to these other statements you are getting further from the reality, not nearer. All those ideas about "real" rocks and slopes and views are merely a metaphor or a parable, permissible as a concession to the weakness of those who can't understand contour lines, but misleading if they are taken literally'. And this, if I understand the situation, is just what has now happened as regards the physical sciences. The mathematics are now the nearest to the reality we can get. Anything imaginable, even anything that can be manipulated by ordinary (that is, non-mathematical) conceptions, far from being a further truth to which mathematics were the avenue, is mere analogy, a concession to our weakness. Without a parable modern physics speaks not to the multitudes. Even among themselves, when they attempt to verbalize their findings, the scientists begin to speak of this as making 'models'. But these 'models' are not, like model ships, small-scale replicas of the reality, Sometimes they illustrate this or that aspect of it by an analogy. Sometimes, they do not illustrate but merely suggest, like the sayings of the mystics. An expression such as 'the curvature of space' is strictly comparable to the old definition of God as 'a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere'. Both succeed in suggesting; each does so by offering what is, on the level of our ordinary thinking, nonsense."
It is just this sort of writing, the vivid analogies that shed so much light, Lewis' delightful style and insight, that make this book such a worthwhile endeavor.
Nowhere else is this more clear than in his description of the understanding of angels that prior ages possessed. Beginning with the Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius, Lewis traces the connection between the choirs of angels and the heavenly spheres (viz. the orbit of each of the planets)--"Each sphere, or something resident in each sphere, is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by 'intellectual love' of God". This concept is played out in literary form in Lewis Space Trilogy, particularly in Perelandra where the "spirit" of Venus and Mars are present on the crowning of the First Parents of Perelandra. If you have ever had an interest in understanding how angels were understood prior to the chubby babies of the Romantic era, Lewis would provide you with an excellent starting point.
Despite the immense erudition of this scholarly introduction, I can't help but be most thankful for the passages where Lewis sets aside the academic tone and shifts into the imaginative. He describes what it was like for a medieval person to walk outside at night and look up at the stars, equipped with a highly developed and extremely delightful set of concepts that are both far more different and far more similar to ours than I ever understood before. It is this ability to not just dissect his subject but rather sympathetically enter into the perspective of another age that makes this work so worthwhile, and such an excellent example of Lewis' genius. Imagine what it would have been like to be his student!
A largely under-appreciated work. Do yourself a favor, and take a nighttime stroll with the good professor....more
I was somewhat skeptical that this book would be worthwhile, having been through the confessions a number of times and having Augustine's life story pI was somewhat skeptical that this book would be worthwhile, having been through the confessions a number of times and having Augustine's life story pretty much together in my own head. I thought an Augustine biography would be redundant, having already read the one written by the saint himself. For some reason, the stupidity of this attitude did not make itself aware immediately; fortunately, it only took the first few pages of Brown's book to disabuse me of my philistinism. Brown's research is meticulous; he sculpts broad, arcing narratives within each section of Augustine's life, peppering the plot with abundant references to the man's letters and sermons, situating them within the rich context of provincial, African Christianity. The persistent and simultaneous tug of contemplative inclinations against pastoral, practical controversies within the flock is standard stuff of ancient ecclesiastical biographies, but Brown was able to get out of the way with enough tact to let the details of Augustine's personal story stand up in clear but ornate relief against the backdrop of 5th century Hippo, Carthage, and Rome. The two great controversies of Augustine's life--over Donatism and Pelagianism--stand like pillars on either side of his episcopal ministry, and I realized that prior to this biography I hadn't understood what was at stake in either of them, having approached them through an exclusively theological lens. Brown bestows a measure of flesh and blood on the controversialists, for which I am quite grateful. Learning of Augustine's own development, from an intense, almost rigorist neophyte to a venerable man of affairs deeply acquainted with the mysterious nature of human sin, softened the portrait of this brilliant and devoted Christian without diminishing any of his greatness. The melancholy of the crumbling late Roman empire overrun by invasion after invasion struck me with consistent force, and gave me a sense of the tragic feeling of futility that must have gnawed at those with responsibility to preserve and hand on civilization. Augustine's literary executor, Possidius, said upon his death that "I think those who gained most from him were those who had been able actually to see and hear him as he spoke in Church, and, most of all, those who had some contact with the quality of his life among men." Having read this biography does little to ameliorate our lack of experience of him, but does inspire a deep desire to be faithful to the graces of one's own life, no matter where they lead, in confidence that the contribution one single person can make in all this madness is worthwhile, no matter how small....more
In an effort to renew the relationship between philosophy and theology, John Caputo traces the relationship between these rivals back to the source ofIn an effort to renew the relationship between philosophy and theology, John Caputo traces the relationship between these rivals back to the source of the conflict between them. In the present day, philosophy and theology are commonly understood as different perspectives on the same set of questions. Philosophy is understood as driven exclusively by reason from its principles to conclusions, without reference to any external authority and universally accessible (at least in principle). Theology, on the other hand, makes use of rationality, but derives its foundational content from revelation, and is conducted by people already invested in the community defined by its belief. Attitudes about philosophy and theology are largely determined by whether they are seen as two modes of thinking that are mutually complementary and capable of coexisting “in the same head” or as defining two entirely different types of worldviews that are fundamentally at odds with one another. The latter view being the more common, Caputo takes up the history of the conflict to discover its contours. In the Middle Ages, figures such as St. Anselm and St. Thomas exemplified harmony between reason and faith. Anselm proposed his ontological argument not so much as a proof for God but a way of “clarifying something intuitively obvious to all those who experience God in their daily lives.” Thomas was disposed to seek God more in outward, tangible manifestation. Under both accounts, faith sought understanding by way of the gift of reason. However, in this synthesis reason was subordinate to faith, and the rise of modern science in some sense proceeded as a backlash against faith’s supremacy. According to Caputo, the development of modern thought allowed natural science to displace philosophy and enthrone itself in the cathedra once occupied by theology. Descartes severed the link between faith and reason with his foundationalist approach, building all knowledge on the certainty of the dubito and undermining the longstanding authority of theology to arbitrate valid insight. Reason was thereby elevated to unprecedented levels of independence and universality. Kant took this a step further by regarding philosophy as a mere “second order reflective science” that contributed nothing to the enterprise of reason; theology was to abandon historically mediated dogma and be constrained to the limits of reason alone. Finally, the atheist critiques of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche pushed theology into a romanticized interiority based primarily on feeling. Caputo values the tutelage modernity offered to human reason, seeing the period as a traumatic transition to maturity (as Kant did). Nonetheless, he takes up Kierkegaard’s insistence that the overreaching scope of reason which sought to construct a totalizing system was faulty. Postmodernity emerged out of skepticism toward the Enlightenment project that arose from a recognition of the historically conditioned presuppositions of all reasoning. The paradigms of human knowledge, postmodernists insist, are not purely objective, but demand that facts be incorporated within plausible yet necessarily provisional accounts of reality. The effect of this awareness is to engender skepticism towards all-encompassing narratives. The transition to postmodernity weakened the barriers behind which modernity had walled up philosophy and theology, giving them the chance to once again “assert their rights.” Wittgenstein saw each rational discipline as carried out according to its own proper rules that cannot be simply translated into some supreme way of knowing. Theology is just such a discipline, and the postmodern turn has given theology a credible voice again. The relationship theology has to philosophy is no longer one of hierarchy, with one exercising authority over the other, but of commonality, such that knowing and believing look more similar than ever before. For reasoning involves a reliance upon a kind of faith in the presuppositions of all thinking—such as the reigning paradigms of knowledge—while faith permits one to assume the pivotal interpretive “as” that bestows a perspective and a vocabulary with which to carry out the pursuit of insight. Philosophy and theology’s relationship isn’t so much “reason versus faith” as “philosophical faith along with confessional faith.” The point is driven home with the example of Jacques Derrida. A confessional autobiographer in the style of Augustine who nonetheless “quite rightly passes for an atheist,” he refused to lay to rest the play between confident reason and inquiring faith. Caputo sees in this painful straddle a source of vital tension that nourishes a more vigorous and satisfying existence where philosophy and theology go hand in hand, as “fellow travelers” who “are not opponents but companions on dangerous seas, attempting to make their way through life’s riddles.” ...more
Another class where the primary text is by the author. I can honestly say, however, that while Father Oakes himself is a fascinating study in himself,Another class where the primary text is by the author. I can honestly say, however, that while Father Oakes himself is a fascinating study in himself, the book stands on its own as a valuable piece of scholarship. To comprehend the whole scheme of Balthasar's work is the project of a lifetime, and it leads into so many nooks and crannies of history and thought that one could easily curl up in one of them and spend the rest of one's life just exploring this or that tendril of the whole giant tree. It definitely starts out on a difficult subject: the concept of the analogy of being, which stands at the very center of Balthasar's theology. Comprehension of this subject will pay dividends in other apparently unrelated areas, and Oakes is right to place it first. The first chapter is a fine exposition of the issue through the lens of Balthasar's mentor Erich Prszywara (sp?), one which stands on its own as a valuable contribution to my own philosophical and theological understanding. He then proceeds through a short intellectual biography of Balthasar, and then marches "chronologically" through the trilogy, part by part, picking up many of Balthasar's other less seminal works along the way. It's been said before that merely to read Balthasar requires erudition of a scale not achievable by many, but Oakes makes this massive corpus digestible--even palatable. His tendency to footnote copiously is annoying, since what he relegates to the notes is often helpful and seems like it should be incorporated into the text itself, especially given the introductory nature of the book. Having read Pattern of Redemption, I now feel more comfortable with the idea of one day tackling the trilogy piece by piece with a reasonable level of confidence that if I get lost, I can always find my way back to where I can make headway again....more