Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Intellectual Life, #6

Following immediately after the previous quote that gives a warning, Sertillanges provide the positive image of what the writer should be:

Seated at your writing table and in the solitude in which God speaks to the heart, you should listen as a child listens and write as a child speaks. The child is simple and detached because he has yet no self-will, no pre-established positions, no artificial desires, no passions. His naïve confidence and direct speech have an immense interest for us. A mature man, enriched by experience, who should yet preserve this simplicity of the child would be an admirable repository of truth, and his voice would reecho in the souls of his fellow men.

If you are suspicious of Sertillanges' statements about the nature of the child, try to put aside as a "given" those self-centered attributes that all men possess by virtue of the Fall, and think only of the child's natural proclivities on the basis of his very limited knowledge and very open curiosity. The child does not ask or speak out on the basis of calculation of how it will affect his self-image or reputation. The child doesn't offer observations in order to garner support for an ideology. The child doesn't offer his own opinion in order to please others so as to be accepted in their company. He has no acquired tastes for which all of his words and actions are bent toward serving. It will not take a child long to learn each of these vices, but in his natural capacity they are harder for him to come by than the mature human soul. Therefore, the more the mature human soul can seek to recapture the relative innocence of the child's ability to speak from his plain and shameless ignorance, the more the mature human soul will be able to avoid the shamelessness of serving his refined, self-centered pretensions.

The Intellectual Life, #5

The following advice from Sertillanges is good for all, but especially good for the self-conscious rhetorician:

This perverse world loves, at bottom, only saints; this cowardly world dreams of heroes; Roger Bontemps [An easy-living, happy-go-lucky person] grows grave when he sees an ascetic. In such a world you must not yield to public opinion and write as if humanity were looking over your shoulder. You must shake yourself free of other people, as well as yourself. In the intellectual domain as in every other, to rise above man is to prepare wondrous things, for it is opening the way to the Spirit.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Intellectual Life, #4

In an age where "critical thinking" is valorized with little or no distinction, the following words are a breath of fresh air:

An essential condition for profiting by our reading, whether of ordinary books or those of  writers of genius, is to tend always to reconcile our authors instead of setting one against another. The critical spirit has its place; we may have to disentangle opinions and classify men; the method of contrast is then admissible and needs only not to be forced. But when the aim is formation of the mind, personal profit, or even a teacher's exposition, it is quite a different matter. In these cases it is not the thoughts, but the truths, that interest us; not men's disputes, but their work and what is lasting in it. It is futile to linger endlessly over differences; the fruitful research is to look for points of contact.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Intellectual Life, #3

Even when reading "hostile" works, one must be willing to seek out the Truth that comes unbidden from them:

Truth will not give itself to us unless we are first rid of self and resolved that it shall suffice us. The intelligence which does not submit is in a state of skepticism, and the skeptic is ill-prepared for truth. Discovery is the result of sympathy; and sympathy is the gift of self.

The Intellectual Life, #2

I mentioned in my last post, that I am working slowly through A.G. Sertillanges' book, The Intellectual Life. Here is another gem:

Our soul does not age; it is always growing; in regard to truth it is always a child; we who have charge of its permanent education must not, as far as possible, leave any of the problems arising in the course of our work unresolved, or any of our investigations without an appropriate conclusion. Let the man of study then be perpetually listening for the truth.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Intellectual Life, #1

I'm slowly making my way through a book by a French Dominican friar, A.G. Sertillanges: The Intellectual Life. The book is chocked full of good quotations. I'll be posting some periodically. Here is one:
"Do what you ought and must; if your human perfection requires it, the different demands it makes will find their own balance. The good is the brother of the true: it will help its brother. To be where we ought to be, to do what we ought to do, disposes us for contemplation, and feeds it; it is leaving God for God, according to the saying of St. Bernard."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Biblical Theology Writing Assignment

The following is a writing assignment I gave to my eighth grade theology class. We are studying Biblical Theology, and have been looking at the Fall of Man. The Fall of Man impact all of the fundamental relationships of man: toward God, toward Creation, toward Man. Instead of showing gratitude toward God, sin causes man to be thankless and independent toward God. Instead of working the Creation to bring it to fullness, sin causes man to be lazy and self-serving in his labor. Instead of showing honor toward men, serving the good of the other before oneself, sin causes man to envy the good of his neighbor and seek to magnify his own good at the expense of others. Given the reality of sin, how does the Christian prepare for victory against the enemies of the Flesh, the Accuser, and the World? The following assignment aims at finding answers to that question.

Identifying the Enemy and Strategizing for Victory

  1. Write as many ways as you can imagine that a child is tempted to turn away from God in the three fundamental relationships of man:
    1. Gratitude toward God
    2. Work to Creation
    3.  Honor to Man 
  2. Begin writing the ways one could go about defeating each temptation (what thoughts, what prayer, what actions, etc.)
  3. Complete three temptations and three tactics of response at a time.

  1. As a teacher I am tempted toward ingratitude toward God by complaining about how little time I have to complete my job.
  2. As a teacher I am tempted toward laziness toward Creation, by choosing to read for pleasure rather than grade student papers.
  3. As a teacher I am tempted toward impatience with my students by not reviewing material they have not learned well.

Tactics of Response:
  1. To defeat ingratitude about how little time I have, I can remember that all circumstances are from God, who promises the power to obey in all my responsibilities without having to control all the outcomes myself. I can offer a prayer thanking God for the promise of help and asking Him to help my to be wise with the time I am given. I can then consider what are the priorities of the work I have, and make a plan to complete each priority in order of importance.
  2.  To defeat laziness in grading I can remind myself that the pleasures of leisure are made sweeter by the labors of work, and I can “go to the ant” and "consider the field of the fool" so that I see the destruction that laziness brings. I can offer a prayer thanking God for the chance to help my students grow in knowledge and wisdom and their skill in writing. I can then plan to work for thirty minutes of uninterrupted grading before taking any sort of rest, then take a five-minute rest of stretching & drinking water, and then work for an additional thirty minutes, and so on until I am finished grading.
  3.  To defeat impatience toward my students’ ignorance I can remind myself of God’s long-suffering toward my own ignorance in the many things He has said to me in His Word, but which I have not yet learned. I can also remind myself that learning truth is an everlasting activity that is worth every moment of effort. I can offer a prayer thanking God for revealing truth to man that brings life, joy, and communion with God and man. I can then assess what barriers may be causing my students ignorance, and strategize ways of helping them discover the truth that they are missing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Trinitarian Greeting

The opening of Peter's first epistle has a wonderful Trinitarian greeting:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.

The odd (odd to Gentile ears like mine, anyway) phrase "for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ" is likely a reference to the sealing of the New Covenant, the Old Covenant being sealed with blood by Moses at Sinai (Exodus 24:8):

And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, "This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words."

Elected by the Father.

Sanctified by the Spirit.

Sprinkled into the Covenant by the Son.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Measure of Man

The pursuit of human excellence is the original and loftiest pursuit ever undertaken by man. It drove Adam to rebel, Achilles to fight, Plato to contemplate the verities, and the Son of God to take up human flesh.

There have been a multitude of pathways toward perfection pursued by men. They are as so many facets of a diamond, splintering light into an array of colors, now dazzling, now captivating, now titillating the spirited part of the human soul to renew its own efforts to exceed its capacities and become, well, Divine.

In Greece, men became gods by physical and mental prowess, exhibited through fearless acts of courage in battle, ingenuity in labor, craftiness in speech, shrewdness in policy, wit in the company of friends and ecstasy in the embrace of a lover. Rome was an homage to Greece, which was itself a variation on a theme by the cultures of the Ancient Near East, with their exhibitions of violence and sexual manipulation of the gods.

The measure of man was manifest in his power to accomplish whatsoever he willed, and to will nothing less than what excelled the capacities of all other men. This spirit endures today in every corner of Western Culture. Man wants to show his worth through the domination of every undertaking. Is it any wonder that video games captivate the imaginations of youth, who lack the means to ascend, but are overflowing with the passion to do so? Video games allow one to taste the superhuman qualities by means of simulation, at once satisfying the passion, but at the same time stultifying power to ascend in the natural world. So too many of the musical and theatrical choices available play into the same passion, and resort to the same means of simulation to achieve the temporary fix. Music that highlights ecstatic and erotic love, wealth and fame beyond measure, domination through expressions of anger, domination, or control are available at a hand's random snatch from the shelves. Movies portray sex that evokes cries of ecstasy, or limitless cognitive prowess available upon instantaneous conjuring, or physical capacities to endure pain or overcome obstacles that are by implication superhuman, or even explicitly so. Even outside the acknowledged realms of simulation, where "reality" is supposed to take place, a simulacra of superhuman images predominates. The television personality with the perfect complexion, quickest wit, or most incisive analysis must also appear as natural and unscripted as possible. Celebrities from all areas of life, whether sports, business, entertainment, religion, what have you are portrayed in glorious perfection until a relatively minor and all-too-human flaw or mistake becomes the fodder for pretenders to the throne to devour in all the splendor of unmitigated envy.

Protagoras is credited with saying that of all things the measure is man. From one vantage point, the empirical one at least, this is true. Man does measure all things--evaluating them scrupulously or unscrupulously. The other things in the world do not measure. But taken in another way, Protagoras' claim is patently false. Man is not the standard by which man measures. If this were so, perfection, superhuman qualities, the qualities of divinity, would not be that by which man measures--for they are not what man is, at least not by the same empirical test that acknowledges man as that thing that measures all things. No, man measures himself against his idea of God, and insofar as man's position toward the One True God is rebellious, he cannot accept the One True God as the One by which to measure himself. Rather, he must judge by the false image, the idol, the supplanter god who serves as the placeholder for the Triune God. No Christian who has a modicum of Biblical knowledge could deny the pervasiveness of idolatry, nor fail to acknowledge it as an exchange of Truth for Lies.

And yet.

And yet Christians more often than not measure by the measurements of pagan and infidel idolaters. Christians measure one another by the topics of the classical encomium:

What is the greatness of your race?
What is the greatness of your country?
What is the greatness of your ancestors?
What is the greatness of your parents?
What is the greatness of your intellectual education?
What is the greatness of your training in skills?
What is the greatness of your cultural knowledge?
What is the greatness of your mind?
What is the greatness of your body?
What is the greatness of your fortune?
How do you compare to the greatness of others?

One can craft the pretense that such measurements are simply instrumental--one is not judging anyone's "true worth" by such standards, after all. But I remain skeptical. I don't see alternative measurements very often, unless it is something like, "judge not, lest you be judged," which sounds more like a defense against one's own failings being declared than it does a plea for an alternative measure of excellence.

If not these things, then, what is the measure of man?

When one considers the life of Christ, by what measure will His life be discovered as the most excellent of all, the one that displays humanity at its most excellent? He was not from a great race, country, ancestors, or parents. Though few would argue against his capacity for knowledge, skill, and cultural awareness, no one could seriously maintain that he exhibit any of those to the highest degree during his lifetime. Nor did his mind, body, or fortunes seem altogether more excellent than all other men. He does not compare well, and even the long train of unfaithful admirers of Jesus cherry pick ideas of his that could have and may have originated before him or gained more potent expression after him.

With what measure, then? Consider the negative. At what point did Christ endure, undergo, take up what no man before, or after him, could? It is not hard to conceive that another man might be wounded more grievously than Christ, and remain courageous and stalwart. It is not hard to conceive that another man might be scorned more than Christ was, and come through undaunted. It is not hard to conceive that another man might be more honored than Christ was in his life, and remain remarkably humble.

What then? What did Christ undergo than no man could before him, or after? The just penalty for the sins of the world. Consider what it must have taken for a man to endure the unmitigated wrath of God poured out for every offense, and to do so without guilt or cause for condemnation. The ultimate humiliation, the ultimate denial of one's human excellence. Surely this was something Christ endure that no man before or after him could.

Even so, the negative construction beckons the question: if it was by enduring the wrath of God that Christ exceeded all other men, what was it that enabled Him to endure, the positive quality that was able to overcome? If wrath is an outpouring of hatred, the rejection of worth or value or excellence; then would not love be that which would need to be greater in order to endure? This seems most fitting. Only the man who was most beloved by God (the Being excelling all others in Love) could endure the greatest measure of wrath. Christ, the Son of God, was so loved by God that He could not only endure the shame and injustice of the world, but also willingly take upon Himself their due penalty for their transgressions, the wrath of God.

The most astounding aspect of it all is that in being the man most beloved by God, Christ was also the man most capable of loving, and so poured out his love upon men, that they too could become the most beloved of God--the very means by which human excellence reached its apex; the very means by which the human is made partaker of Divinity, of Divine Love.

The measure of a man's greatness is in how much he is loved. Those who are beloved of God are the men who are the greatest, who are granted participation in the divine nature. Those who pour out the greatest love toward others reveal themselves to be those who partake most fully in the divine nature, for their capacity to love is proportionate to the measure of love they receive from the Father. No greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends.