Book Review: C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength – The Real of Religion

that-hideous-strengthThat Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis opens with a grumbling wife and goes onto weave in realities of marriage, science, the supernatural, morality, magic, politics, violence and animals, all under the auspices of exploring, through story, what a well-lived life looks like. The answer it settles on is surprisingly warm and domestic.

This was the first of the Space Trilogy (which began with Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra), which grabbed me from the beginning and pulled me right through the pages; it is far more character-driven and less allegorical than the others, while equally thoughtful. It is one of those life books that encompasses so many experiences, states in life and realities that it is grand and revelatory such that every page seems to reveal more to me of own soul. Another book I have read like this was The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which was my book of the year for 2015. I loved it so much I couldn’t decide what to write about it, so I never wrote anything, a tragedy.

Anyway, the themes addressed in That Hideous Strength were manifold, though very pointed and specific, such that I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers did not connect with this book because it does feel located in a very concrete time and place, with very precise philosophical concerns–those of C.S. Lewis–a small university in a quiet, English town and the rising onslaught of scientific materialism. While I find the academic setting relatable and generalizable, not all readers might agree.

Here is a short list of themes worth noting; their breadth is the pleasure of the novel: Continue reading


Freelance Repost: Mrs. Clinton’s Religion Problem

I wrote this article before the election but never posted it here:

This is why I am truly glad that Mrs. Clinton did not win. However, it is hard to be happy about a Trump win, and there are so many other causes for concern with his behavior. People keep reassuring me that he won’t actually do any of the things he proposes, but that’s a different topic.

Leaders of black churches have questioned Mrs. Clinton specifically about concerns for their own religious liberty. In an open letter signed by twenty-six pastors and leaders of African-American churches, including Jacqueline Rivers of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies in Boston, they called attention to the CAGC comments by John Podesta;

“Key players on your staff have sought to subvert Catholic teaching on sexuality by planting externally funded groups in the church to advance a politically correct agenda,” they noted. “What would you do as president to guarantee that religious freedoms are balanced against civil rights rather than being trumped by them?”

They show respect for their fellow faith communities and go on to explain the central role their religious beliefs play in their ministry, particularly in poor communities, where the church is only institution well-placed to access the population, both spiritually and materially. In Christianity, beliefs are not meant as cudgels with which to bludgeon opponents; beliefs are guides to goodness, to recognizing the inherent dignity of our fellows, of striving to live well both today and forever, individually and as a society.

While Christians can and do fall short of our ideals, we seek freedom of conscience for the sake of authenticity, not hatred. Religion, despite its present unpopularity in elite circles, was once an uncontroversially protected category of conscience and identity. The drafters of the Bill of Rights thought as much.

Full article here:


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:

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

Published in Soul Gardening Journal: My Home is My Monastery

[Editorial Note: Now that this essay has come out in the Summer 2015 edition of Soul Gardening Journal, I am republishing it here]

“Removed from temporal concerns.” That is how life goes for monks and nuns of religious houses. I’ve always been attracted to that, perhaps romanticizing their lives at times. As a mom, I sometimes lament that this quiet calling is not mine. Even before I became a Catholic, I admired monks and nuns in their picturesque cloisters praying and working gently with a devotion to last a life time. There is something compelling in their ascetic life of reading, gardening, praying, working and other past times that deeply resonates with human nature and makes it appear (and actually be) so fulfilling.

Now, of course, like all ideals, I’m sure the reality is much more fraught and difficult than the pastoral picture in my head of monasticism. Still, when I visited Ireland and the stone, beehive shaped huts of the monks on the Skellig Isles, their radical commitment to holiness and simplicity struck me and continues to inspire me.

Sometimes I wonder about the possibility of truly attaining holiness in my relatively comfortable, middle-class, American life. Somewhere inside, I harbor the fallacy that the religious life is better or holier than the life of a layman. I’ve even written about wanting my house to be like a monastery: a place of peace where people grow in love of the Lord and His goodness. I envied the reprieve that religious men and women have from worldly concerns.

Well, here’s a revelation that struck me today: my home is not like a monastery. It IS my monastery.

And just like the messy reality in the lives of actual monks, my life is pretty messy.

But my home IS the place where I pray and work (ora et labora, the central tenets of the Benedictine Rule). It is the place where I serve my family and where I aim to raise up children of God.

And while I envied the “reprieve” from worldly concerns, it turns out that I have that too—in an unexpected way.

You see, one day I was complaining to my darling husband about my annoyance when my little sister said to me “you’re such a mom,” because the implication was that moms are “messy, pudgy and uncool,” a trifecta I invented myself (how flattering, right?).

Of course, many moms are beautiful, fit, put-together and chic, but I am not. In my uncharitable self-analysis, I reasoned that I am messy because I have toddlers and babies sloshing food and pulling my hair out of ponytails all day; I am pudgy because I’ve carried two humans in my abdomen (on separate occasions) and have not quite recovered yet; I am uncool because I have little free time to spend consuming pop-culture.

Grilling my kind-hearted husband, I asked him “How do you see moms? Messy, pudgy and uncool?” He thoughtfully responded with a phrase that held more meaning than I first understood: “No,” he said, “In moms, I see women who are removed from temporal concerns.”

Wow. “Removed from temporal concerns.” He did not mean that I don’t have to worry about food preparation, dirty diapers or crumb-covered floors. Those are very temporal. (At least I hope they won’t be in heaven). What he meant was that moms are removed from that deadly worldly striving of constantly trying to get ahead, get noticed, and “make it” in secular terms of success.

Instead, moms embrace sacrifice. We give of ourselves for the sake of those in our charge. And in my case, I spend so much time chasing my little boy, cuddling my infant girl and cleaning up in between it all, that when I get free time, it is a precious tiny moment that I typically do not use to say, browse Youtube or catch up on the latest movie releases, TV shows or hit songs. So more and more, I am starting to miss pop culture references that my younger siblings or single friends make.

But this is what my husband meant when he said I was removed from temporal concerns. Those negative attributes I associated with my “mom-ness” (messy, pudgy and uncool) come about precisely because I am living a life without substantial concern for outward appearance. Consider the adjective “messy.” Now, this isn’t meant to excuse laziness or to say that looking nice is bad or inappropriate. Rather, the point is to make an analogy between the sometimes unkempt clothing of a mother and the religious habit. Both are humble forms of dress that send the message that the wearers primary concern is elsewhere and that his or her clothing is a tool for work, not an instrument to impress others. (Again, mothers have many occasions to get dressed up—even for the return of the husband from work. This is just meant to say that in reality, I do not dress as stylishly as I did before I had children and that there is a valid reason behind it).

And “pudgy” because even a mother’s body is put into the demanding service of others. The last adjective is “uncool.” Like monks and nuns, a mother’s time is spent so fully in service that trendy entertainment and “cool stuff” tends to get squeezed out of the schedule. While sometimes I wish to see the latest superhero movie in theaters, generally, I’m OK not knowing the top 40 billboard list.

And this, I think, is the biggest reason that my home is my monastery. As I care for my babies, husband, friends and the home itself, all the noise from the outside world slowly filters out. Like the monks, I remain in my abbey. I perform works of service and small works of love. I am reprieved from worldly concerns: we are in the world but not of it (for this season, at least, of having young children).

I can’t say I know as much about religious life as I ought to, but I’m starting to think that my family’s little suburban homestead is not so different from the serene convent.