Over a year ago I sat down with Matt Whitman at the Lander Bar and we filmed a conversation. He’s a protestant, recently a pastor, and I’m a Catholic theologian, and I just let him grill me about Catholicism. I have intense conversations pretty much every day, so I had that one and then went on with the week. Didn’t give it much more thought.
But I keep seeing nice comments from people who say how helpful the series has been to them. I am honestly surprised! I didn’t prepare or pre-think the interview, I didn’t see the questions ahead of time, and I got tired as the afternoon went on, so it must be the Holy Spirit bringing a treasure out of an earthen vessel.
Matt finally dropped the last two episodes just recently, so here is the whole series:
It has been a while now since my book came out: Cur Deus Verba: Why the Word Became Words. It culminates twenty years of thinking about what exactly Scripture is, getting past the various partial viewpoints and straining for that view from the mountaintop where you can see the whole landscape. That vision was a burden: I felt that I was with child, so to speak, and the only way forward to peace was to bring it forth to the world. The day it was accepted for publication by Ignatius Press I felt a weight drop from my shoulders.
Maritain expresses some suspicion about the term “fine arts”. It is hard to say what the fine arts are all about except to say that they make beautiful things, and yet Maritain maintains that beauty is not the end of the fine arts. It is the “end beyond the end,” he says—and in the same passage, he admits that he struggles to find words for what he has in mind.
This past year, I thought a lot about what he meant and how he should have said it, because I was asked to teach a course that covers the history of art from ancient Greece to the Gothic cathedral. The course presented a puzzle in its construction: during the entire period it covers, there was no word or category for “art” in the sense that defines the course, meaning more or less “the kinds of things that go in collections and museums”. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, “artists” were simply artisans, and “art” was the ability to make things of all kinds, including both paintings and plows. Today we distinguish the useful arts from the fine arts. How should we approach a course on fine arts that covers only those times in which no such distinction was made? How do the useful arts and the fine arts in fact relate to one another?
Over the past two years I have studied Maritain’s aesthetics with great enjoyment. I even taught an art history course and used it as a chance to find out whether Maritain’s theory can help students in a practical way. (The answer was, “Yes!”) When I turn to others who have written on aesthetics, like Gilson, they seem clumsy in comparison. Unfortunately, many interpreters of Maritain also seem clumsy to me, so it might be helpful to others if I set out what I took away at least from Maritain’s major work, Creative Intuition.
What follows is not only a summary but also an interpretation of Creative Intuition. I aim to set down what he meant, but I spell out some ideas that he left implicit and others that may have remained implicit in his own understanding. Maritain had in mind a theory with many parts that make up a system, but he never wrote a summary chapter to bring all the parts into explicit relation, and as a result I think he never asked himself some questions that inevitably occur to the reader. Here is an outline, according to me.
A question from a man up late one night wondering:
It seems that if one can know something he can also from that, arrive at its opposite – what it is not. If we can not know Heaven, can we know Hell? Divine Revelation gives a nice lot of imagery: Fire, darkness, etc. and if the greatest joy of Heaven is of the soul in the Beatific Vision, the primary suffering in Hell would be the deprivation of It. But we don’t know what ‘It’ is.
Why I am wondering what Hell is like, I do not know. It is known that if I knew the smallest bit, I would wish that I didn’t, and also I am left confused about the fact that people do indeed choose to be there.
On a somewhat smaller scale, I have chosen against good sense, to be up far past a relatively decent hour. Similar problem, smaller matter?
Questions from a man in the trenches, with answers from yours truly:
When we read a biblical passage, what is the criteria for determining when the biblical author is making an assertion; and when the author is expressing his opinion, or making an assumption? The same question would relate to the Church Fathers scientific and historical knowledge of their day, compared with the scientific and historical knowledge of our day.
The initial problem here is that most of us are unaware of the intricacies of our own speech. We think there is a simple on/off between assertion and non-assertion, and we think it is fairly clear which is which, so we want to know what are the two or three criteria one would need to detect the on/off in Scripture. Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is helpful for beginning to explore how many subtle distinctions there are within our own experience of thinking and claiming. Add in the further complications of multiple genres of text and distance in time and culture, and you can imagine that a list of criteria for determining when Scripture is or is not asserting could go on more or less indefinitely. How many ways are there for a human being to signal his intent linguistically? It would be like trying to make an exhaustive list of criteria for determining whether an individual from any given contemporary culture is serious or telling a joke.
[Tune: BESANÇON. The leader sings the italicized lines, and everyone sings the non-italicized lines. The leader joins everyone in the last line of each verse.]
In the beginning was the Word, God’s own Word, as yet unheard. And the Word was with God the Father, Radiance of eternal splendor. And the Word was our God on high, God from God and light from light.
Through the Word all was made that is; All creation’s splendor his. Nothing without the Word existed, Only in him the world persisted. He was before all things with God, Everlasting, changing not.
In him was life, the light of men; Dark can never enter him. In the dark shines the light engendered, Radiance of the Father’s splendor. Darkness can never overcome Light from light, God’s only Son.
The Word was made flesh and dwelt on earth, Of a virgin taking birth. We have beheld his glory gleaming, Radiance from the Father streaming, Glory as of the Son most high, God from God and light from light.
Last night I gave a lecture to interested students about why we should obey authorities. As I have listened to people and watched the Internet over the years, I have had the impression that most people in fact do not believe we have any obligation to obey authorities, so decided to enrich our local conversation with another viewpoint. Download here or listen here:
The lecture was followed by a lively Q&A. Download here or listen here:
Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a country not far from here, there lived a sculptor. By making statues, he supported himself and his wife comfortably. He had very few problems with his neighbors, a small community of people whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers had eaten at the same tables; and the town was nice, located in the deepest part of a valley with large, noble mountains on all sides.
If you have ever been to a traditional Latin Mass, you no doubt noticed that the altar servers make a big ceremony out of carrying the big book to the left side of the altar before the priest reads the Gospel. Is there some kind of symbolism going on with left and right? Are we supposed to think of those who stand at our Lord’s left and right at the judgment?
It turns out that the ceremony has nothing to do with left and right.  According to the rubrics, the priest reads the Gospel toward the north. In fact, what we usually see at a Low Mass or High Mass is a compressed version of the full ceremony of a Solemn Mass, where the subdeacon chants the Epistle on the right side and the deacon, after a procession with candles, chants the Gospel on the left side of the Church, facing directly toward the north. We’re all aware that churches are traditionally oriented toward the east, and east is important because the rising sun symbolizes Christ coming. But in liturgical terms, north is also important because, by a long tradition, the north represents the dark realm where the light of the gospel has not yet shone. We read the Gospel toward the north to represent the Church’s mission to the unevangelized.
In fact, after the Council of Trent permission was given for churches to be oriented not just toward the east but in other directions, if needed for some reason—any direction, in fact, except to the north. No church shall point in the direction of evil.