I’ve given short and long versions of this talk over the years, most recently by invitation to a group of Christian scholars at another school in 2013. Perhaps it will not be out of place in this blog.
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In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says that whatever we do, we should do from the heart, “as unto the Lord” and not men, because it is Him whom we are serving.
Whatever you do, Paul says. That includes our scholarship. Scholarship is no more special than anything else we might do that pleases Christ. But whether we prove theorems, sweep floors, write articles, dig wells, design circuits, or lay bricks, we should do it for Him.
What does it mean to practice scholarship "as unto the Lord"? Does it mean just working hard? No, a Christian professor of English literature is something more than a hard working professor of English literature. Nor does scholarship "as unto the Lord" mean merely working with a nicer attitude. An electrical engineering professor who has long office hours and remembers to thank the secretary has not thereby done everything that being a Christian scholar of electrical engineering requires. To be a Christian scholar is to work with a radically different purpose, a radically different orientation, and even a radically different approach to truth. In our time, under the dictatorship of relativism, the very conviction that there is a truth sets us apart from a great many of our colleagues.
Now a mathematician must learn how to prove theorems, and a scholar of history must learn how to scrutinize documentary evidence. So too, there are prerequisites for doing our scholarship in such fashion that it can be offered unto Christ. I count at least four of them.
The first such prerequisite is commitment to Christ’s lordship. We may understand quite well that God wants our friendships, our spouses, our children, our entertainment, and so forth. Do we always understand that He wants our scholarship, that He wants what we do for a living?
The second prerequisite is the practice of the virtues. When you applied for your academic position, probably no one asked about your moral character, but everything depends on it. I’m not just talking about honesty, but about the whole range of virtues. Every unrepented vice requires lies. Eventually, therefore, every unrepented vice metastasizes into the intellect. If I don’t live right, pretty soon I can't think straight. But thinking straight is a scholar's job.
The third prerequisite for scholarship "as unto the Lord" is a Christian view of one’s own discipline. Consider philosophy. Two generations ago, perhaps most American philosophers were atheists; today, most are theists, largely because of the work of Christian thinkers. What would it mean to rethink the other disciplines in a Christian way? How about economics? Political science? Mathematics? Surely not mathematics, you say. Isn’t "Two plus two is four" just as true for atheists as for Christians? Yes, it is, but don't draw from this fact the false conclusion that mathematics has nothing to do with theology. For example, some mathematicians accept the ancient pagan idea that the ultimate ground of all reality is not God, but mathematics itself. This particular idolatry has been around for a long time. One of the books on my shelf includes a Pythagorean prayer to the number ten. Oftentimes such idolatries affect the way we do our work, but in ways that escape our notice. We should make it our business to notice them.
The fourth and final prerequisite of scholarship "as unto the Lord" is discerning that scholarship is one of the ways of life permissible for you. For many of us, perhaps most of us, more than one use of our gifts may be pleasing to God. Yet from the fact that more than one way to use your gifts may please Him, it does not follow that every way of using them will do so. Many of my students enter scholarship just because they like their field, or because the life of a scholar appeals to them, or because some teacher told them they had promise. These things are well and good, but they do not add up to serving God. I should not wish to be misunderstood, for it would be surprising if Christ wanted you to something for which you did not have promise, and something would probably be wrong if you disliked your field. But your feelings are not the final measure of His guidance.
If you have done your best to discern what He wills for you but still cannot tell, then do not be unduly concerned. As John Henry Newman remarks, even our perplexity may serve Him. We must just make sure that our perplexity does not result from not wanting to know His will. In the meantime, we should keep the commandments, and do the work before us as well as we can. When the time comes, what He needs us to know, we will know.
Having spoken of the prerequisites for scholarship “as unto the Lord,” let me now speak of the snares. By my count there are at least five.
One snare is intellectual pride, our tendency to take personal credit for our intellectual gifts. I have never met a scholar who didn't suffer this tendency to some degree. For some reason, scholars are more inclined to pride in their intellectual gifts than plumbers to pride in their technical gifts. Like me, do you find this fact rather terrifying? God gives us our gifts for His kingdom. In the next life, we will not have the pleasure of those gifts which we have refused to offer to His service during this one.
The second snare is intellectual selfishness, the tendency to do the scholarly work we prefer rather than the scholarly work which most pleases God. We may prefer it because we find it easier, because it is more familiar, because it is more interesting, or because it earns the greatest worldly recognition. If it is not work that glorifies Him, none of this matters.
Snare three is intellectual clubbishness, the urge to conform ourselves to the prevailing views of other intellectuals. As the historian Paul Johnson has suggested, intellectuals “are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value.” God does not intend us to stop being social creatures, or to refuse to learn from others, but He does intend us to think outside of the prevailing secular orthodoxies. Clubbishness should have no power over us.
Snare four is intellectual cowardice, the tendency to hold back from speaking our minds even when we do think outside of the prevailing secular orthodoxies, for fear of disapproval and penalty. Of course we have to exercise discernment. There are times not to speak of certain things. But there are certainly times to speak of them, and sometimes to speak of them loudly. In general, the time to speak loudest is just when we are running into the greatest opposition just for being Christians.
The fifth and final snare is intellectual sloth. Sloth is the failure to love the good with the ardor that it deserves. The essence of intellectual sloth, the kind of sloth that tempts us as scholars, is loving the intellectual life more than the intellectual goods which this life is ordained to seek. I mean especially the good of truth. Do we suppose that it is enough to love the truth? It is not enough to love the truth. We must love the truth more than the pursuit of truth. We must also love it more than the pleasures of the scholarly life. If I love truth less than I love the smell of a book in which truth might be written -- if I love it less than the fact that the book belongs to me -- if I love it less than the fact that I wrote the book myself -- then I am no friend of God. If I love truth less than the privilege of controlling my schedule -- less than the pleasure of going to conferences -- less than the petty thrill of being thought smart, or even truthful -- then I am in peril of hell.
If you think Christ has nothing special for you to do with your scholarship, you aren't listening to Him. He does have something for you to do. Listen; He is telling you now. Perhaps it is something that others have done. Then again it may be something that no one has done. It may even be something that no one else can do. You must be willing to be small, because it may be a small thing. It may be a single small insight, a single species of fact. How large it is does not matter. The point is that whatever it is, it is committed to your stewardship. Find the stone. Mortar it carefully into the ramparts of the palace of knowledge, for the glory of God, King and Architect.
I began with a quotation from St. Paul, and I close with another. He urges us in the letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Although this passage is directed to the whole Church, I think it applies in a particular way to Christian scholars. After all, it concerns the formation of the mind. It could serve as our intellectual charter.
So may we be, not Christians who happen to be scholars, but Christian scholars: Servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, who rules not only matter, but the mind.
Last Monday’s post suggested that neutralism and agnosticism are merely poses. Although their proponents claim not to believe anything either way concerning God, actually they suppose that it does not matter and cannot be known whether there is a God. This supposes plenty about God. At the least, it supposes that what Christians believe about Him is false on all points, because they hold that He can be known, He desires to be known, He has provided the means to know Him, and whether we believe in Him matters.
Lately, though, I have been reading some of the works of the early twentieth century Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc. He would have said that neutralism and agnosticism are merely examples of a much broader challenge to faith and sound thinking, which he calls, with some misgivings, the Modern Mind. Here is how he defines the mentality in Survivals and New Arrivals (1929):
“The mark of today's Main Opposition, differentiating it from nearly all the perils of our Christian past, is that it propounds no explicit heresy. Its conflict with the Faith is a conflict of mood; it is a conflict following on a certain mentality, not on any body of propositions. In the case of all the old heresies a definite series of propositions came at the origin of the affair; a conflict of moods followed. An anti-Catholic habit of mind was produced, with all its consequences in a myriad social customs and in all the atmosphere of a society, but at the root lay perfectly clear doctrinal postulates which could be discussed in the abstract and accepted or denied without reference to their possible indirect effects .... With each section of the Main Opposition today it is the other way about. You may by prolonged analysis extract from its moods its ultimate principles, but the moods do not start from those principles. Their victims are not conscious of any such principles. When presented with them, they will often, and honestly, deny them to be held.”
Thus, the marks of this mentality are (1) that it opposes a mood to the faith rather than a proposition or an argument; (2) that it is possible, by analysis, to extract propositions that people possessed by the mood would seem to regard as true; but (3) that those possessed by the mood are not necessarily conscious of holding these propositions, and may even deny doing so.
I would add that such people are usually suspicious of reasoning in general. Even if not, they do not like to have their suppositions brought to light. The chief opponents of Christian faith in our time – in fact, of all sound thinking -- are mood warriors.
This is why it is so difficult to oppose them. Historically, Christianity has answered its opponents by countering their premises with arguments. But mood warriors may not even know they are opponents, are unconscious of their premises, and respond to the unearthing of these premises by taking offense – that is, by taking up yet another mood, the mood of indignation.
I am increasingly persuaded that Belloc is right. A great many shibboleths of the modern mentality follow the pattern he describes. Consider those who rely on the authority of their immaterial minds to announce that only matter is real. Or those who proudly say that they believe in no God, but who merely place other gods before Him. Or who pride themselves on doubting everything, never pausing to reflect that in order to doubt one thing, one must assume something else which is not at the moment in doubt.
It isn’t logic that rules in these attitudes. They are moods.
What gives rise to the dominion of Mood over Mind? A great many causes conspire. One cause is that our society values quick results; people are in too much of a hurry to think carefully. Another is that we are harvesting the bad fruits of a number of intellectual movements sown over the centuries, the common element of which is distrust of the mind’s power to know reality. Very few people could name these theories, but they have left their mark on their mood.
Belloc himself singles out two other culprits. Since both of them tend to be demagogic, they hurt though they ought to be helping. One is corrupted public education, which destroys the healthy common sense of uneducated people without building the good mental qualities of educated people; it turns out half-educated people who think in slogans.
This seems to be true. I have observed that even what passes as the teaching of “critical thinking” in schools today is mostly the teaching of prejudices. For example, the schools teach correctly that the mere fact that most people believe something does not prove that it is true. But in contempt for what most people believe, they go further, insinuating that the beliefs of most people are irrelevant to establishing the truth. This elite prejudice is very often false. For example, what most people believe about whether they have free will is plainly evidential, because they have personal experience of making choices.
Belloc’s other culprit is the popular press, which in our day includes social media. It isn’t that he wants to shut down freedom of debate, but that he thinks these media stupefy discussion rather than informing it, submerging the mind rather than elevating it. Do people dislike thinking? The media minister to that dislike by staging an orgy of sensational pictures, headlines, and now tweets. Do people ascribe a false authority to repetition? The media serve them by reiterating ceaselessly. Whatever our diseases of mind and spirit, they pander to them.
In a day when the most widely read news medium allows just 140 characters for the expression of complex thought, and in which the rulers of the country find this allotment more than ample for their rants, can we doubt it?
Given a few centuries, almost everything passes. The empire of Mood over Mind will strangle itself. The question is whether it will quietly yield the throne to its former inhabitant, or abdicate in favor of an even more dreadful tyrant. The resolution of the question may rest with us.
In another age, a Father of the Church, Gregory Nazianzen, wrote that “to those who are like wild beasts, true and sound discourses are stones.” He meant there is no need to hurl rocks; it is sufficient to fight intellectual challenges to faith and sound thinking by reasoning against them. In our day, though, we must first reestablish the habit of reasoning.
I think we had better get started.
The Liberal state is not neutral about religion, because of some commitment to reason. In fact it is actively opposed to the practice of reason concerning religion.
Consider the public schools. Not teaching divine revelation in them is one thing; even Christianity grants that faith requires more than just reason, because faith is a gratuitous gift of God.
But as the Founders of the republic knew, not even mentioning the truths of natural law and natural theology is quite another thing, because these can be known even by reason. It is unreasonable to disbelieve in a first cause.
Why does the state today oppose the practice of reason concerning the most important things? Because concerning the most important things, the Liberal state does not believe reason can be practiced.
This is not quite the same as skepticism, because it does not want anyone to try, either. If that were encouraged, he might find out.
More is at stake than the schools. We are in the midst of a great social experiment concerning whether a disestablishmentarian state of affairs will continue.
In the early years of the republic, despite a certain hostility to Catholicism, the state did not enforce a particular view of God. However, it privileged certain systems of life and belief. The privileged ones shared a view of God that was creational, monotheistic, moral in a Decalogical sense, and providential, with a high view of the inviolable worth of every human being. Well and good.
Now, while pretending not to privilege any systems of life and belief, the state tacitly favors what might be called practical atheism, and penalizes contrary views. To be sure, no one in public life is criticized – yet – just for believing in God. The point is not so much that there cannot be a God, but that no God is needed and no God can be known.
But woe unto him who thinks believing in God makes a difference. One is not required to be an atheist. One is only expected to impersonate one. Especially in law and the universities.
This masks the fact that Something Else is being elevated to godhood. Secularism is becoming a religion. We are growing an inverted confessional state.
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Next week we will consider how the sham of neutrality is but a special case of a much larger problem with the modern mentality.
I don’t think much of tearing down statues, defacing monuments, or trying to pretend history didn’t happen. I agree with James V. Schall, S.J., about the need for humility and forgiveness, and even in the case of most odious historical figures, I would much rather supply information to place their statues in context. Don’t murder memory. Learn from it, and live in peace.
But if Black Lives Matter protestors expect their complaints about the wickedness of the persons honored by these statues to be taken seriously, shouldn’t they at least be consistent? They say a great deal about the offenses of Robert E. Lee, Woodrow Wilson, and Christopher Columbus – Lee, by the way, was a complex man who deplored slavery as a “moral and political evil” even though he fought for the South -- but they give a pass to the icons of the left, like Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.
Sanger is commonly described as a nurse, a reformer, and an advocate for the poor. One writer calls her “the working-class radical who did more for twentieth-century women than any politician, male or female.” Her bust occupies a prominent place in the Smithsonian Institution’s Struggle for Justice exhibit. Her statue is displayed prominently in Boston’s Old South Meeting House, which is part of the Freedom Trail. It forms part of the Voices of Protest exhibit.
Yes, she could certainly be called a Voice of Protest. She strongly protested the great many people of the planet whom she considered unfit. She was a racist, a vociferous opponent of charity, and an advocate of controlled human breeding.
Since her defenders say these are ungrounded smears, let us take a moment to document the facts. All of the documents are online, so you can check me if you wish.
“The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” -- Woman and the New Race (1920).
“Those least fit to carry on the race are increasing most rapidly.” -- The Pivot of Civilization (1922).
“Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon American society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupid, cruel sentimentalism.” -- The Pivot of Civilization.
“I wonder if it will also become necessary to establish a system of birth permits .... A marriage license shall in itself give husband and wife only the right to a common household and not the right to parenthood .... No woman shall have the legal right to bear a child, and no man shall have the right to become a father, without a permit for parenthood .... No permit for parenthood shall be valid for more than one birth.” – America Needs a Code for Babies (1934).
“Necessarily and inevitably, we are led further and further back, to the point of procreation; beyond that, into the regulation of sexual selection.” -- The Pivot of Civilization.
“A stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation,” in work camps, is necessary for “that grade of population,” including illiterates, “whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” -- “A Plan for Peace,” in The Birth Control Review (April, 1932).
“The reproductive impulse” is “in continual conflict with our economic, political settlements, race adjustments and the like.” -- The Pivot of Civilization.
“Under such circumstances we can hope that the 'melting pot' will refine. We shall see that it will save the precious metals of racial culture, fused into an amalgam of physical perfection, mental strength and spiritual progress.” -- Women and the New Race.
Hmm. What do you suppose the lady meant by “race adjustments,” and by “refining” the melting pot to purify “the precious metals of racial culture”?
Give up? Here are some clues.
Sanger wrote, “The lower down in the scale of human development we go, the less sexual control we find. It is said the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.” -- What Every Girl Should Know (1912-1913).
In 1926, Sanger spoke to the women’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan at Silver Lake, New Jersey, because “always to me any aroused group is a good group.” The event was a great success, and “A dozen invitations to speak to similar groups were proffered. The conversation went on and on.” An Autobiography (1938).
After Lothrop Stoddard proposed in his book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920) that “Just as we isolate bacterial invasions, and starve out the bacteria by limiting the area and amount of their food-supply, so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat,” Sanger invited him to join the Board of Directors of her new American Birth Control League.
If they do ever decide to be consistent, today’s protestors might take a leaf from the book of a group of black pastors in 2015, who stood peacefully in front of the Smithsonian to dramatize their request that Sanger’s bust be removed. In their letter to the Institution, they wrote that “perhaps the Gallery is unaware” that Sanger supported eugenics, racism, and contempt for the feeble minded, or that she spoke at KKK rallies.
Smithsonian director Kim Sajet replied that the statue would stay, but the important thing is the reason that she offered: Not just that Sanger “made a significant impact on American history and culture,” which is true, but that she “fought to achieve civil rights for disenfranchised or marginalized groups.”
That statement is a greater distortion and erasure of history than tearing down the statue would have been.
I guess Black Lives Matter is okay with that.
For those who like to keep up, the following items have been added to the Read Articles page:
“Response to the Natural Law Panelists”: My response, with links to the papers of the other contributors, in a symposium on my work on natural law, published in Catholic Social Science Review 22 (2017).
“Handling Issues of Conscience in the Academy”: The Beatty Memorial Lecture, delivered at McGill University, Montreal, January, 1999, published the same year in The Newman Rambler Journal 3:2. This is an old one, but I am still sometimes asked for copies.
"The Same as to Knowledge." This article first appeared in the blog. The link takes you to Part 1; each part ends with a link to the next one (14 in all). Although a version is scheduled to be published in an anthology, the editors are still collecting the other contributions and the book won’t appear for some time. This is copyrighted, of course.
I want to understand what the sin of acedia is, and what the remedies for it are. I would also welcome any reading suggestions.
Acedia is one of the seven cardinal sins, which means that it is not only a sin, but a cause of other sins. The term acedia is usually translated “sloth,” which makes it seem like laziness. This is a bit misleading, because the disinclination to make any spiritual or moral effort is only a symptom of sloth, not its essence. Its root is an “oppressive sorrow which so weighs upon man’s mind that he wants to do nothing,” a "sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good." For this reason, sloth is also called tristitia, or sadness. This is important: Sadness is not wrong in itself. However, it is wrong to neglect what is good because of sadness, and we have a moral duty not to wallow in such sadness, but to try to resist it.
The problem does not lie not in sorrow which is fitting due to loss, for it is right to grieve sometimes. Nor does the problem lie in that good sorrow which prompts us to change our ways when we have been in error. Nor does it lie in despondency which is beyond our control because there is something wrong with our body chemistry. Rather it lies in a voluntary and habitual tendency to indulge in excessive sadness in a way which withdraws us from good, especially spiritual good.
Thomas Aquinas explains how sloth gives rise to other vices too: “Just as we do many things on account of pleasure, both in order to obtain it, and through being moved to do something under the impulse of pleasure, so again we do many things on account of sorrow, either that we may avoid it, or through being exasperated into doing something under pressure thereof.” For example, I may dissipate myself in all sorts of worthless activity just to avoid doing what I should do.
Even good sorrow becomes bad when we allow it to overpower and master us. I may be so swallowed up in sorrow for my repented and forgiven sins that I am drawn away from doing good. I may be so disappointed by my moral weakness that I stop trusting God. I may be so distraught about the brokenness of the world, or the times, that I abandon myself to despair. It is even possible to be grieved about good itself -- just because it involves doing work. For example, I may turn away from the good of charity, because it requires me to take care of my ailing wife or father.
Reading suggestions? My quotations have been from Thomas Aquinas, who discusses sloth here. However, a number of Thomists have written on the virtues and vices. One of the finest writers on the topic is the great Josef Pieper, whom I highly recommend. If you want to check out my own work, I’ve tried to put sloth in the context of the virtues and vices in my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics. Reading an earlier draft of this post, an acquaintance recommended to me two recent books just about acedia, so you may want to investigate those too: Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil, and R.J. Snell, Acedia and its Discontents.
Remedies? Probably the best remedies for the sin of sloth are work, prayer, and caring for others. By caring for others, I mean both corporal and spiritual acts of mercy.
Although those are the most important, the remedies for ordinary sadness may also be helpful. What these are will come as no surprise. St. Thomas suggests pleasant recreation and playfulness, from which we see that the remedy of work can be overdone: “Man's mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.” He also suggests shedding a few tears, accepting the sympathy of friends, contemplating the great truths of faith, and even having a warm bath and sleeping -- so long as one does not use these things as new excuses to do nothing!
By the way, concerning the contemplation of the truths of faith as a remedy for sloth, one is especially helpful. This is the fact that Christ took the worst of our burdens upon Himself, including loneliness, pain, and death. The meaning of the Cross is not defeat, but victory over these things – victory through submitting to them. And thus, whatever our sufferings, by God’s grace they can join us more closely to Him. By doing the work that He gives us, and not wallowing in sorrows, but accepting them for His sake, we imitate Him.
To this truth of faith, we may add a truth of philosophy – a preamble to faith. This is the fact that even the occasional feeling of meaninglessness is a sign of meaning. For consider: If we were merely evolved mud, we would not suffer such feelings at all. Quite the opposite, because in that case we would be perfectly adapted to a meaningless world. The fact that we do long for more is a sign of the loving God who made us for more. So even our tears are grounds to rejoice.
The two natural purposes of the sexual powers are the procreation of children and the union of the procreative partners.
People tend to get the first purpose wrong. They call it reproduction.
No. Reproduction merely means turning out new humans by one means or another. If the first purpose of the sexual powers were reproduction, there would be no second purpose, because it wouldn’t matter whether the partners were united. It wouldn’t even matter if there were any partners: We could dispense with parents altogether, doing as they do in Huxley’s Brave New World.
Procreation is the loving act by which posterity is generated. It means conceiving children in the embrace of their father and mother; it means not only having the children together but nurturing them together, so that they can become virtuous adults; and it means forming families, thereby forging new links between dimmest antiquity and remotest futurity.
Any guppy can reproduce. We have the privilege of procreating.