15 October, 2008

Goal and Guides: How Christians Think

1. How Catholics Think.

A few months ago my wife, returning from the States, offered me a family heirloom. It is a 1945 catechism textbook from a Catholic high-school: Our Goal and Our Guides: Our Quest for Happiness. Most people who learn about the history of a subject will read the most significant, revolutionary or influential works on that subject: they will read Anselm and Aquinas, John Newman and Karl Barth. But if you want to understand a subject properly, it is important also to read the standard works, those that regurgitate material in simple and accessible form for the masses, so as to know the baseline against which the great works innovate. Our Goal is just such a work.

The book is full of marvelous diagrams in a vaguely moderne style, three of which I reproduce here. Catholic thought is essentially a diagrammatic thought: it is ordered in analogies and hierarchies, which lend themselves well to spatial representation. Before woodcuts and printing, which made actual diagrams easy to reproduce, Christian texts were full of verbal diagrams: elaborate correspondences between real and metaphysical objects, architecturally-structured theological summae, even the meditation-wheels of a Ramon Llull.

And with modern technology, these guys are unstoppable. Just look at that, above: that, truly, is wonderful. I don't think it bears much analysis. A few elements are doubtful. I can't identify the man and woman either side of Christ: I had thought of Mary and Joseph, since his attribute is a carpenter's square, but they are wearing monastic robes. I do not know the symbol at Christ's feet; nor the martyr-bishop with the book beside Agnes and Peter at the top right, if indeed he is anyone in particular. You have to admire that classic Catholic horror vacui: every spare cranny is crammed with symbol and ornament. The Church, like its late mentor Aristotle, has always occupied a plenum.

Here, on the tree of sin or death, superstition is on the second tier up, on the left, next to indifference. Superstition fascinates me, as nobody can agree on what it is. Our Goal never defines it; the closest it comes is to say, 'Other sins against religion are those which pay homage to a false god or which give false worship to the true God. Idolatry, divination, magic, and superstition are such sins.' On witchcraft, Our Goal has the audacity to suggest: 'Perhaps someone remembers the trouble this superstition caused in American history.' The book is not referring to the superstition that witches exist: it is referring to witchcraft itself (which 'endeavors to inflict harm with the aid of the devil') as a superstition.

On the next branch up, we find irreligion and presumption. At the top, apostasy, and despair. At the bottom are the rhizomatic deadly sins, symbolised by cute critters. It is all so charming!

Faith, says the Church, is necessary to salvation: it is one of the three Catholic virtues, along with Hope and Charity. The text of Our Goal distinguishes only between unconscious or 'habitual faith', infused into the soul at Baptism, and 'actual faith', consciously practiced by those with the power of reason: 'they are obliged to make acts of faith by which the infused capacity to believe is actually developed and strengthened'. The other divisions represented above are explained in Wilhelm's 1906 Manual of Catholic Theology:
A distinction is sometimes drawn between Explicit and Implicit Faith, founded upon the degree of distinctness with which the act of Faith apprehends its subject-matter; also between Formal Faith, which supposes an explicit knowledge of the motive and an express act of the will, and Virtual Faith, which is a habit infused or resulting from repeated acts of Formal Faith, and produces acts of Faith as it were instinctively without distinct consciousness of Formal Faith.
These three dichotomies (habitual / actual, formal / virtual, explicit / implicit) delineate much the same territories: but Our Goal is so committed to its rigorous hierarchies that it must order them sequentially. Theology is all the richer for it.

Cleverly, the Church stipulates that you must believe all articles of faith, even those you do not know. As an example, Our Goal offers Vatican I, 'man can come to a knowledge of the existence of God through the use of reason alone'. (The actual phrasing is: 'The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, / can be known / by the natural power of human reason.') In other words, we are to accept on faith the idea that faith is not necessary for the knowledge of God. A few pages later, Our Goal offers the reader a list of the catastrophic results that follow from faithlessness: the second is 'rationalism':
Many persons reject faith as a guide in religion and accept only what they can understand. This sin is called rationalism, a term which implies excessive reliance on reason. A person who believes only what he can understand is called a rationalist.
Compare Vatican I on the Reformation:
Thereupon there came into being and spread far and wide throughout the world that doctrine of rationalism or naturalism. . . Thus they would establish what they call the rule of simple reason or nature. The abandonment and rejection of the Christian religion, and the denial of God and his Christ, has plunged the minds of many into the abyss of pantheism, materialism and atheism, and the consequence is that they strive to destroy rational nature itself, to deny any criterion of what is right and just, and to overthrow the very foundations of human society.
This sort of nonsense was being refuted—or 'schooled', as I believe one has it on the interweb—back in the eighteenth century by Anthony Collins and Matthew Tindal, both chums of John Trenchard. But what interests me is the line that rationalists 'strive to destroy rational nature', presumably because it is irrational to be unfaithful towards Church tradition. You have to admire how Catholics could once get tangled up in these knots with a straight face.

2. How Protestants Think.

What I didn't tell you is that Mrs. Roth's granddaddy, the Reverend Bailey, who owned Our Goal and Our Guides, was no Catholic but a Southern Baptist, and a minister at that. Unshockingly, he weren't too keen on the book, and back in his day, if you weren't keen on a book, you didn't tell Amazon, you told the book. Which suits me. His views are manifest from the title-page onward:

Here the hands writing and the hand annotating are so at odds with each other that they cannot even agree on the grounds of theological dispute. And so the volume comes to serve as a scintillary document of religious worlds refusing to meet and interact. When Our Goal reaches the subject of Protestantism—the last of the heresies—Bailey is content to underline, whether amused or outraged:

Catholics should pray for the poor old Protestants? We should prove the truth of the Catholic faith 'by our lives as well as by our words'? The epistemological difficulties are great, as they are throughout the book. How are lives and words to demonstrate any proof to another? They can only demonstrate to those who believe already, those already primed to interpret those lives and those words as they must be interpreted. I would love to ask the authors of Our Goal what it would have taken to persuade them of the truth of Protestantism. Elsewhere, Luther gets lumped in with a Roman pagan and a Deist: a sorry lot!

Of course, at the heart of the dispute between Catholics and Protestants is the value accorded to institutional tradition. It was already the same with the Sadducees and Pharisees; and philosophical epigones still contest the significance of oral, esoteric or unpublished teachings, from Plato to Nietzsche. The Protestant Bailey is always asking: Who says? How do you know that? Does Scripture—the sole criterion of truth and falsehood—contain that doctrine? The Catholic, in turn, observes that it is no simple matter to read the Bible: the text is corrupt, the languages alien and idiomatic, and the sense frequently allegorical, obscure or ambiguous. And so we need to rely on a consensus, a tradition, as a guide to interpreting it. But Bailey will ask: Why your tradition? Why your guide? What criterion is to check and ground your assertions? The one wants liberty; the other assurance from without.

Of course neither side can convince the other; the two voices are locked in eternal battle, stilled and captured on the page, the one in printed Roman serifs and elegant diagrams, the other in oblique, exclamatory manuscript, the commentary pointed up by rough lines of the pen. Bailey is not fond of diagrams, of hierarchies, of systems—'This is a wicked system'. He attacks that distance in his very decision to annotate, uncowed by the serifs. It is a dangerous aggression, destined to pervert the young mind at the very moment it needs strength and discipline. Faith is a fragile shoot. So, too, is reason. It is a noble aggression, destined to liberate the young mind at the very moment it is in danger of submitting forever to a corrupt authority.


Peony said...

I read abut your Lily's grandfather with great relief. You see, my grandmother also writes in books. To be honest, I have always thought something wrong with her.

Why write in books? And such angry, unladylike explicatives which surely would have shocked the good Reverend Bailey too!

What blood is running through my veins, I have long wondered with not a bit of anxiety.

For this reason, I was happy to learn of Lily's grandfather. You're right, of course. Before the Internet, what could one do really? Brilliant post as always...

languagehat said...

Why write in books?

I have never understood this attitude. Why not write in books? To write is to carry on a dialog, to respond to the author's thoughts with one's own. Years later one can revisit the annotated book and perhaps be surprised by one's own earlier responses, and stimulated to produce new ones. To be appalled at writing in books is to fetishize something that is, after all, only a mass-produced artifact.

John Cowan said...

My feeling (and it is a feeling; I admit in full the rational force of LH's arguments) is as follows: write in books to correct printing errors; that is, to restore the author's intent, but leave that intent alone. The notion of writing a factual correction or, worse yet, a contrary opinion in a book just makes me shudder.

And yet my parents, who were academics, wrote in books all the time, and I greatly value many of their annotations in their books that I now own. I suspect I incorporated this feeling when my parents told me not to scribble in books, since I was reading from such a young age that I no longer remember not reading, much less not being able to read.

John Cowan said...

Does anyone else find it strange to find curiosity on the tree of death? After all, a church with such a distinguished record of support for science (despite some lapses) cannot consistently oppose curiosity. Or is this some special Catholic use of the term, vaguely akin to scrupulosity?

Michael Drake said...

Now you can annotate your books and fetishize them too -- all with the new Kindle! (If they could only give e-books that marvelous aroma of vanillin or camphor....)

languagehat said...

Ah, another book-sniffer! I remember my relief when I ran across a fellow practitioner after years of being mocked for my harmless habit. Now I know that we are legion!

Peony said...

Yes, languagehat-- my mistake. I underline and write in books all the time. What I don' do, or have never had the inclination to do is write explicatives or angry words in books... As an editor feel free to fix my comment--however, I really thought it was rather clear

"Why use fighting words when you write in books?" Better?

In any event, not all my books are mass market items and even if they were an object's value has less to do with any objectively measurable manufactured number of printings (or manufacturing costs) but rather is based on the subjective experience of the experiencing subject. So that, if Moby Dick changed my life-- well then mass market or not that book will have value to me and I will approach it with respect. My father actually always washed his hands before he picked up a book-- is that a fetish? or is it just an orientation or cultural practice?

Finally while I do write in books, it is always with a pencil and what I write is never addressed to the author either. That is what I meant, of course.

And, I think we are all book sniffers around here...

Michael Drake said...

"a fellow practitioner"

More of a dabbler, really.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Personally, I don't write in books. I respond to books in Word documents instead. But I have no objection to others writing in margins, so long as it is interesting--whether intrinsically or historically.

languagehat said...

Finally while I do write in books, it is always with a pencil and what I write is never addressed to the author either.

Same here (I can't swear my notes are never addressed to the author, but it's certainly rare; I may note that an idea is stupid, but I wouldn't write "You stupidhead!"), and I resent people who make notes in pen when I'm looking at used books they've made it impossible for me to buy. Penciled notes can be erased. Thanks for clarifying!

Conrad H. Roth said...

For more on writing in books, ancient and modern, see this.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Incidentally, John, it doesn't at all surprise me that 'curiosity' should be on the hit list. Compare this. The Church has always been hostile to curiosity, from laymen reading the Bible to scientists looking through telescopes.

Peony said...

Hi languagehat,

"You stupidhead" is charming compared to the stuff my Grandmother writes in books! She was born in Calabria-- so maybe the Southern Italian blood??

Enjoy your weekend.

Nijma said...

I would never write in a book, not even on the inside cover. If I want to keep notes, like a list of frequently consulted pages, I write it on a folded piece of paper and slip it inside the cover.

My childhood Bible however is full of underlining and notes in a careful third grade hand. I suppose it's interesting in a way to see what interested me about religion as a third grader, (and to see how my penmanship has degraded since), but if I want to consult a Bible now I don't use that one, I use an unmarked one or go online.

I can't remember if I wrote in that Bible because I was encouraged to do so or if I thought of that on my own, but it is a contrast to how I saw a Koran being handled in the Middle East. We got into some sort of religious discussion and wanted to consult the Koran, so my host's brother got a Koran from its hiding place in another room then touched it to his forehead before opening it. I have also seen this gesture to the forehead when someone agrees to obey. The phrase spoken with it is "ala rasi" or "on my head". I don't think there is any question that these guys would not write in a Koran.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for your comment, Nijma. I can only assume that writing in a Koran would be a lesser evil than doodling in it.

Nijma said...

If you're really curious I can find out, but it may take time. I am an infrequent visitor in a Koran class and the big Eid potluck was last week (yes!). If I show up too often they're either going to think I want to convert or that I can't cook.


Pretzel Bender said...

Thanks for this.

Underground Dude said...

Fine post. For some reason the discussion about writing in books reminded me of this quote, by a writer whom I have not read, and do not intend to read:

"I use a pencil to ill-treat the book, to scribble, to underline, to draw arrows... My sons don't want to use my books, they prefer to buy their own copies because they see the traces of my violence, the pencil stabs, exclamation marks, arrows, underlinings."
-- Derrida

I never wrote in books myself, though sometimes I'm tempted to, when I read a bad book. But considering that some books I found, like a very old German hymnbook in Gothic, are very frail, I prefer to spare the vintage pages of my insolent scribbles. And I wouldn't dare to scribble on the margins of a book I respect. Marginalia can be an interesting form of literature, though. Poe, in particular, wrote some interesting marginalia.

In fact, since you quoted Schopenhauer, here is something you might find interesting.

Conrad H. Roth said...

U. D.: thank you, that Schopenhauer is a nice find. I might have to look that one up.

Crown, A.J.P. said...

Poor old Schopenhauer having to put up with Hegel. It's good material for a novel -- or perhaps there is one about them already?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Throw in Marx and Nietzsche and there's 600 rip-roaring pages there, done.

Underground Dude said...

Maybe Irvin Yalom is working on it at this moment.

AJP Crown said...

... a riveting blend of fact and fiction, a drama of love, fate, and will, played out against the intellectual ferment of nineteenth century Vienna on the eve of the birth of psychoanalysis. Friedrich Nietzsche, Europe's greatest philosopher...a young medical intern named Sigmund Freud: these are the elements that combine to create the unforgettable saga of ...

Simon Holloway said...

I also have a problem with writing in books, I must say, and tend to get irritated when (after having purchased a second-hand book online) I find it filled with the marginalia of those I do not know.

Nonetheless, were I to inherit a book already replete with scribblings then that might be something else entirely... I always looked upon the Talmud as reflecting that degree of trans-generational commentary and, had I a book with my grandfather's notes, I might be tempted to scrawl my own notes on his.

And, on another "note":
Michael, Languagehat: I always sniff books. Eisenbrauns print the best for my nose! I also have some very old and rather dusty tomes of Talmud and Zohar and they are an olfactory feast. So pleased to know that I am not the only one.

John Cowan said...

(I returned, and saw under the sun, that the last word is to him who waits six months.)

Conrad, the whole point of that Augustine quotation you linked is that the condemnation of curiosity is either in accord with some special circumstances (as in Augustine's case, evidently) or else is Homer nodding (perhaps also Augustine's case, who knows). If curiosity as such were condemned, there wouldn't be so many good scientists (I speak un-ironically) who are also good Jesuits (literally).

I can't fathom why, in speaking of my parents' books, I omitted all mention of my father's two copies of the Wake, heavily annotated. Some day I should perhaps publish those annotations.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, this time I am better armed to your original question. The problem is discussed at length in Richard Newhauser, 'Towards a History of Human Curiosity: A Prolegomenon to its Medieval Phase', Deutsche Vierteljahrs Schrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 6 (1982), 559-575. Newhauser cites, e.g., Gregory the Great: "grave namque curiositatis est vitium".

Further quotations:

"Not just a means of dealing with man's right to free speculation, the moral discussion of this vice also came to include a preoccupation with such this-worldly matters as rhetorical flourishes or elaborate dress. Not just the criticism of a too-great or evilly-intended interest in the affairs of another, vitium curiositatis was also used to describe a perceived secularization of theological studies, an intrusion of the ilberal arts, especially the trivium ... into theological education." (561)

"Whether they criticized a mental predisposition for knowing obscure, useless or forbidden things, or accused as sinners those who believed in the truth-value of sensory perception, their analysis was a reminder to Christians that true wisdom was only to be had through faith and the dogma of the Church." (562)

As for the Wake, yes, let's have a look at your father's annotations!

Anonymous said...

One commentator is surprised that curiosity is found among the fruits of the tree of evil. St. Thomas Aquinas constrasts the vice of curiosity with the virtue of studiosity.