When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

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Article Round Up I

Well, Happy Thanksgiving! And welcome to a round of articles that I have found thoughtful and worthwhile over the past few months. It’s really things that I want to save for potential future use or citation.  (Note–unlike re-posts of my freelance work, these are not by me).

On Voting’s Significance (I know the time frame is sort of done on this one)

“I don’t plan to tell you how to vote, but I do want to establish a few basic principles:

  1. No well-formed Catholic should feel comfortable with Trump or Clinton;
  2. Thus, voters face a difficult decision this fall;
  3. The Church gives some guidance on this, but this guidance is limited;
  4. You, as a potential voter, have the final decision to make as to who to vote and who to support;  and
  5. Your salvation could well hang in the balance.”

http://shamelesspopery.com/worth-more-than-your-vote/

Why We Can’t Just Get Along— a disagreement, often unseen, on first principles, renders modern/faithful disagreement unsolvable

In Paradise Lost,

“Satan and Adam begin alike from a point of ignorance—they know nothing prior to (the precise word is “before”) the perspective they currently occupy; and the direction each then takes from this acknowledged limitation follows with equal logic or illogic. Adam reasons, since I don’t remember how I got here, I must have been made by someone. Satan reasons, since I don’t know how I got here, I must have made myself, or as we might say today, I must have just emerged from the primeval slime.

In neither case does the conclusion follow necessarily from the observed fact of imperfect knowledge. In both cases something is missing, a first premise, and in both cases reasoning can’t get started until a first premise is put in place. What’s more, since the first premise is what is missing, it cannot be derived from anything in the visible scene; it is what must be imported—on no evidentiary basis whatsoever—so that the visible scene, the things of this world, can acquire the meaning and significance they will now have. There is no opposition here between knowledge by reason and knowledge by faith because Satan and Adam are committed to both simultaneously. Each performs an act of faith—the one in God and the other in materialism—and then each begins to reason in ways dictated by the content of his faith.”

https://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/02/001-why-we-cant-all-just-get-along?utm_source=First+Things+Subscribers&utm_campaign=639cc6d14a-Sunday_Spotlight_Two_Essays_on_Gifts&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28bf775c26-639cc6d14a-180480817

David Brooks on Modern Toughness

“In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos.” (a Greek word meaning “end ” or  “purpose” in moral philosophy).

 

The End of Identity Liberalism

A good diagnosis I think of what went wrong for progressives in the election:

“In recent years, American liberalism has slipped into a type of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

So, that’s it, readers. Enjoy and as always, feel free to send any thoughts!

 

The Good of Doubt

When I was in college, I felt compelled to find an answer to moral relativism and nihilism, a search which led me to Catholic faith and the moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and Alasdair MacIntyre. (With some over-zealous missteps thrown in too).

Later, another paradox imposed itself on my consciousness: I believe the Catholic faith is true. I also believe that my faith calls me to love all persons. Not everyone is a Catholic. How do I love and respect those who disagree?

After some soul searching and reading, the answer appears that we love a person precisely by respecting his or her autonomy and ability to reason and seek truth. We propose, but leave conversion to the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t mean we approve of all actions; it does mean that we love a person despite disapproving of some of his or her behavior. After all, all of us have areas of repeated error.

This process of questioning and reconciling two seemingly disparate truths goes on through out our entire lives, I think. At least it applies to the part of our lives where we think about things, which I hope will be most of my life.

Many if not most believers will go through a period (or periods) doubt throughout their life in the faith.

It isn’t bad or weird or wrong. It is an invitation to further study, to the potential deepening of faith. I believe that every person has his or her own set of essential questions: existential quandries that make or break the possibility of belief.

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Recalling my first Ash Wednesday, an uncomfortable day

[This essay first ran on Ethika Politika. Full article available there]

My first Lent, I wandered around campus wondering if anyone would notice the smudge on my forehead. I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and had recently stumbled across the Catholic Church, her teachings, and her seemingly outrageous claims to truth. Encountering both the man who would become my husband and then the Church Fathers had led me to the troubling realization that maybe everything was not relative: that perhaps man’s darkness was real and that there was a real salvation, that perhaps God did exist and that truth, goodness, and beauty were more than romantic ideals.

A disinterested rationalism ruled the day on campus, the idea that all traditions and practices are something the educated person stands apart from, that she observes from a distance and perhaps with curiosity. This was well-known to any “critical thinker” and to the newly, ardently atheistic coeds in my residence hall. Actually to take part in a tradition, to claim it for oneself, is the only modern-day heresy there is.

Though intellectual commitments are often frowned upon by universities, they are inescapably human. All of us are born into complex networks of family, national, ethnic, religious, political, and other relationships that modern man tends to dismiss, viewing humans only as atomized, disconnected units. It turns out that claiming a tradition is not so radical after all.

Full Article Here:

https://ethikapolitika.org/2016/02/09/lents-bodily-exposure/

What was your most memorable Ash Wednesday experience? Or even just a time that you saw someone wearing ashes. I’d love to hear from you!

Book Review: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

18131What a book! This was my second time reading it; I read it once in 6th grade and I enjoyed it far more this time. What struck me the most is how many incredibly complex thoughts and ideas flow so naturally in what appears to be an adventure story for children. And I love that it is an adventure that involves an entire family.

Meg, her little brother Charles, and her new friend Calvin, journey with three intriguing, teleporting ladies across space and time in an effort to save Meg’s & Charles’s father, who disappeared during research on the fifth dimension.

In the beginning, we see the beauty of the sweet relationships between Meg, Charles, their two other brothers and their Mother. The mother is an active scientist who has a lab in an outer room of the house. I simply loved the mother’s role in this story as wise, guiding, loving and very active on her own.

“Over a Bunsen burner bubbled a big earthenware dish of stew. ‘Don’t tell Sandy and Dennys I’m cooking out here,’ she said. ‘They’re always suspicious that a few chemicals may get in with the meat, but I had an experiment I wanted to stay with” (39).

In this alone, we see both a strong commitment to her family and also to her craft. It’s nothing short of inspiring.

Then there is the number of philosophical and emotional concepts packed into the story. Here’s one regarding the structure of our lives and the responsibility that we must take:

“You have a form of poetry called the sonnet….It is a very strict form of poetry….There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter….But within this strict freedom, the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants”

“You mean you are comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form but freedom within it?” (198-199)

This is meant to describe how life works. There are boundaries, but within those, there is total freedom to do well or badly, and how very insightful this is! Boundaries I can think of include our physical capacity, the existence of others, the commitments we make in life and even moral laws. But in the example of the sonnet, L’Engle shows how beautiful the the boundaries can be. Freedom flourishes within bonds of love instead of turning into overweening destruction of neighbor.

And also, even though boundaries do exist, the measure of our freedom and responsibility is still enormous. We have a sonnet to write. Or a symphony perhaps, within a certain key. No one will write it but us.

Objection 2: Does God Exist?

The second in a series on common objections to the Faith, originally published on The Truth and Charity Forum.

Here, of course, is the most fundamental question of Faith. As I said in the introduction, I am a convert to Catholicism rather than to theism in general, but I would still like to address this most basic point.

I was raised in a Protestant family, but in late high school and early college, I became enamored with the what seemed like the humanitarian strength of liberalism and considered myself an agnostic. But I never reached full-fledged atheism. Why? In my personal musings, there were three factors that I could not get around: 1) free will and 2) a strong resistance to nihilism and 3) an unquenchable longing for something more.

Free Will

There are some philosophers who deny that humans have free will, but they are not the good ones. Each of us in our daily life experience free will; every morning when we awake there are options before us: some big, some small, almost all influenced by others, environmental factors, etc. Yet the choices remain; we can take one or the other or a third way or forth and those choices will bring consequences, which is precisely why we worry over the bigger choices (and sometimes the smaller ones) so very much. The reality of these choices and the freedom of the will to decide between them are fundamental parts of our human experience.

Early on, I concluded that if materialism—the idea that only matter, atoms, chemicals, or physical things are real—is true that there would be no room for free will. Our actions would be illusions, decided not by us but by the random firings, actions and interactions of chemical agents in our brain. This view is known as Determinism.

This does not fit my experience of reality, which I believe with Aristotle is ultimately the standard of philosophy. There may be no purely logical refutation of determinism or solipicism, the stifling idea that only our singular consciousness exists and the world is an illusion, for that matter—but a square punch in the face will end its logical rule over our functioning; reality is real, after all. That is to say there may be no way to “prove” without experience that other creatures exist outside our own isolated consciousness, but that is no way to function as a human person. Likewise with determinism, to live meaning fully, we must take seriously the standard of our own lived experience, which includes free will.

So I embraced the idea of free will, and to affirm the existence of the will, there must be something—some spiritual, non-measurable, non-physical—component to reality, to human life. Only a spiritual or non-physical realm could provide the existential space necessary for free will without falling into strict material determinism. At the very least, then, I always remained open to the affirmation of a spiritual reality. Atheism is not per se ruled out by this, but the most dogmatic forms of materialism and empiricism are.

Second: An aversion to nihilism

I also believed firmly in morality even while I professed relativism. I believed ultimately that life was meaningful even if I did not know why. I followed that up with a consideration of stark atheism, which, granted may not be how all atheists understand themselves or the universe. Nonetheless, I imagined a universe with nothing eternal where human death resulted in total annihilation of the self. On a broader scale, the earth itself would one day be annihilated as well. So any meaning placed in humans or the planet would ultimately evaporate, disappear, and destruct with no meaningful trace beyond perhaps atoms.

Then, my thought process continued, if all meaning was ultimately to come to naught, why would it matter how soon the meaning ended in naught? If a man’s life ended and meant nothing after 80 years, the same end result—obliteration—was achieved if he died after 20 years on this rock instead. So why not kill one another or oneself if the end result was always death and destruction anyway?

To avoid this ultimate devolution of meaning, I reasoned that there must be something eternal.

Many atheists today do not act like nihilists; they earnestly see good in human life and value in the transient present, which is a very good thing! I’m glad they think that way; it is why we can agree on so many important things, despite our differences. Yet as good as it is to find meaning despite human transience, the question of ultimate or final meaning remains. In my mind, without an ultimate destiny or truth or measure of some kind, there is no objective reason not to arrive at nihilism.

Third: A longing for something beyond

The last factor that held me back from full atheism was a deep-seated, strong desire I had felt my whole life, especially as a child, for a world beyond this one. I adored fantasy books and movies, magic and science fiction. All those worlds seemed so promising, so full, so rich and so much better than the hum drum of my daily life and routine. Now some of that, I realize now, was just a youthful boredom with the mundane. But some of it was real, a longing for a higher, nobler, purer reality in which humans could do more and be more, even if that consisted of super powers or jetpacks to my younger self.

About this desire, C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” This thought sums it up. I found myself, even as I grew older, longing for a goodness, for a truth that seemed impossible, unknowable, a truth that would bring order to this discordant world. How could I have such a longing? To what was it directed?

Now I consider that answer to be rather obvious: God. But back before my conversion, this longing alone, kept me always open to the possibility or hope for God to really exist and to really be everything that the best spiritual people said he could be.

So an affinity for free will, meaning and a higher longing kept me open to the idea of God. And when I stumbled across the idea of the Uncaused Cause, the picture appeared complete: physically speaking, every event has a cause; it is a reaction to something else. The chain of events must lead ever back then, and it could not be infinite for it would have nothing to set it in motion to begin with. So something (or someone) out there accounts for the action in the universe. This, classically speaking as St. Thomas Aquinas put it in the opening of his Summa Theologica, is what we call God.

I know that some philosophers object to this, but to me it seems remarkably sound and I find it convincing. Starting here in theism with, as I mentioned, a conviction that morality mattered, my conversion began. And when I found this idea in a Catholic saint and theologian, I had all the more reason to take Catholicism seriously.

Today, when I go through rough spots, I still reflect on these basics. But mostly, I am more floored by God’s simultaneous immanence and transcendence—the Thomistic idea that God is both deeply present in all parts of the world, holding it in being and also radically separate from all physical reality.

As I look around now at nature, at my children, at human love and fortitude, I see a world shot through with God’s presence; it is like Fr. Zosima’s estastic realization in the Brothers Karamozov: “there was such a glory of God all about me: birds, trees, meadows, sky; only I lived in shame and dishonoured it all and did not notice the beauty and glory.

‘You take too many sins on yourself,’ mother used to say, weeping.

‘Mother, darling, it’s for joy, not for grief I am crying. Though I can’t explain it to you, I like to humble myself before them, for I don’t know how to love them enough.’ “

God’s glory is all around us and His redemption is as well.

Read original article here: http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/does-god-exist-objection-series-2/

This is my personal journey. How has your journey been going?

MacIntyre Post #4: Know the universe, know God

Aquinas’s claim is not just that theology and philosophy must be consistent…but also that failure to understand the universe of finite created beings inevitably issues in a defective knowledge of God. Why so?      We understand God as creator in part through a study of the natural order of things and of the human place within that order. Errors about that order and about the human place within that order give rise to errors about God himself and our relationship to him(75).

This is why the problematic philosophy of science today gives so many people wrong ideas about God and his existence. Science is not a belief system, but a method of investigation. Observing natural phenomena needn’t exclude the philosophical claim or possibility that God exists.

We ignore philosophy, pretend that it doesn’t matter, when what that really means is that we unwittingly accept certain philosophical premises. One of the most popular is that the method of natural science–which is to just observe nature–somehow provides metaphysical grounding for all human meaning. By establishing a type of empiricism, it cuts out all possibility of spiritual matters simply by default. But examined closely, there is of course no empirical reason to be a strict empiricist. It is helpful for explaining natural events, but there is no reason to extend empiricism into an epistomology or metaphysics or anything else. Yet this is what we tend to do nowadays.

Thus a philosophically and theologically consistent view of the natural sciences could view nature with just as much accuracy but instead come away with an awe and reverence for the Creator.

Most importantly though, what I want to take from this quotation is the idea that an unquestioned philosophy can become a theology (or lack of theology) that isn’t based on anything.

In what ways do you see our understanding of the natural world affect our understanding of God?

MacIntyre Post #3: Emergence of the University

It was because the thirteenth-century European universities, developing out of conjunctions of the academic ambitions of masters, the desire for increased power by rulers, and the striving for upwards mobility by students, became scenes of intellectual conflict, places where the fundamental issues that divided and defined the age were articulated, that their history provides the setting for the emergence of the Catholic philosophical tradition (65).

Interesting. MacIntyre posits that this set of factors made philosophy important and laid the groundwork for arguments to happen about the nature of things. He lists student ambitions, professor ambitions and the ambitions of the rulers as the contributing factors because they intersected and conflicted.

This shows at least one thing that I hadn’t thought about before I read it: that universities were never pure palaces devoted to learning simply as a good in itself. It always involved ambitions of the players comprising the system, but still, I think there is a difference today.

Looking at the university nowadays, we still find that the students have ambitions (to get jobs), that professors often seek academic glory or at least prestige, and certainly the rulers seek to use universities to provide qualified candidates for jobs and generally to fix society. Legislators tend to think that if we can just get enough kids through college, all societal ills will evaporate.

Somehow, I don’t think these particular ambitions converge today to make the university a setting for philosophical conflict. Rather, students and rulers see it as a tool.

MacIntyre doesn’t think universities today deal with philosophy adequately either. What do you think? What factors would make the university a philosophically challenging place? Are they the same factors that did this in the Middle Ages?

Augustine: Does Happiness Require Truth? (God, Phil., Univ. Post #2)

The late-classical skeptics (just as their Greek predecessors) had denied that the possibility that anyone could know anything certainly. Augustine, then, poses this question to the skeptics, says MacIntyre:

in his Contra Academicos he posed the question of whether it is possible to attain happiness while still only a searcher for truth rather than as one who has achieved it. (25)

Augustine believed that true happiness could not be had while still uncertain of our actual goal in life or what true happiness consisted in.

Today, many people claim to believe that “everything is relative” or that we can’t really know truth. I think Augustine’s question applies well: What does it mean to be happy if we don’t know what goodness or happiness really are? Because if we can’t know truth or anything beyond relativism, how can we really know what those two concepts really mean?

Augustine responds further that somethings can be known certainly, even if the amount of certain knowledge is limited.

 “ ‘if I am deceived, I am.’ ….I am deceived neither in believing that I know nor in believing that I love. What I love may not be what I take it to be, but that I love it, whatever it is, is certain” (26).

Thus, there are always two things we can know: that we exist and that there is something outside of ourselves that our loves (or desires) are directed at.

Lastly, Augustine unsurprisingly posits that we need knowledge of God to truly be happy and know truth and this knowledge only comes through grace.

Interestingly, he notes the biggest obstacle to receiving this grace is our own capacity to distract ourselves.

“What deprives us of the knowledge of God also deprives us of self-knowledge: an indefinite capacity for distraction by external trivialities and a craving for self-justification, so that we either do not attend to what is within or, if we do, disguise from ourselves our thoughts and motives. And in areas where our sexuality exerts its power, we lose our capacity for self-examination” (28). (referenced Conf. 10.35-37)

How true is this? I can’t help but think of the internet and the myriad ways we distract ourselves nowadays from thinking about things that truly matter. And I’m sure I do it just as much as anyone else.

And without knowing God, he says, we cannot truly know ourselves.

To connect to the first post, I think distraction is a big reason we avoid philosophy and tell ourselves that it is irrelevant anyway.

God, Philosophy Universities: Why Philosophy Matters

I recently read, “God, Philosophy, Universities” by Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame. In it, he examines the development of the Catholic philosophical tradition and calls for a renewal of philosophy that addresses real, human questions and which reigns in the university ideology-run-astray that all disciplines have nothing to say to each other and that philosophy is generally irrelevant.

This post is the first in a series in which I will present quotations from the book with a few thoughts. So, here goes:

“The warring partisans on the great issues that engage our culture and politics presuppose, even when they do not recognize it, the truth of some philosophical theses and the falsity of others. If we are to evaluate their claims, we had better know something about philosophy and, if we are Catholic Christians by faith and commitment, something about Catholic philosophy.” (Intro. P. 1)

“Plain persons in our society think of philosophers as very different from themselves—and about the professional teachers of philosophy in contemporary universities they are manifestly right. Yet the obvious differences between the two…should not be allowed to obscure the relationship between questions asked by philosophers and some of the questions asked by plain persons. All human beings, whatever their culture, find themselves confronted by questions about the nature and significance of their lives: What is our place in the order of things?…How should we respond to the facts of suffering and death? What is it to live a human life well?” (9).

Basically, philosophy really does undergird everything from political positions, to arguments, ideologies and ideas for how to structure society and our relationships with others, ourselves and of course, with God.

Yet, MacIntyre says (and I agree), we tend not to recognize this. Instead, we think of philosophy as something that doesn’t matter. The tragedy of this is that such an attitude makes us incapable of understanding, analyzing, criticizing and consciously choosing from the plethora of philosophical opinions out there today in the public square. Ie, what is Republicanism really based on? or Democracy? or secularism? or charity? or liberty? Are these ideas right? Are they completely right?

Additionally, a failure to examine these ideas and understand them critically makes us unable to see beyond the rigid and small categories that they create. Ie, could there be something besides Republican or Democrat? Is there a way of viewing society that is neither capitalist nor socialist?

These are examples drawn from public affairs, but I think they suffice to illustrate the point.

Our debate and dialogue is impoverished because as a culture we tend to reject the tools required to really take ideas apart and understand them–that is, philosophy.