David Bentley Hart on the loss of a recognition of inherent meaning in the natural world
“For the philosophers and scientists of premodern times, stretching back to the beginning of philosophical and scientific thought in the West, no absolute division could be drawn between physical and metaphysical explanations of the cosmos, or at least between material and ‘spiritual’ causes. The universe was shaped and sustained by an intricate interweaving of immanent and transcendent agencies and powers. It was the effect of an inseparable union of what Daniel Dennett likes to call ‘cranes’ and ‘sky-hooks’: that is, both causes that rise up from below, so to speak, and causes that descend from above. The principal way in which late antique and medieval thinkers understood the order of nature was in terms of Aristotle’s four categories of causation: the material, formal, efficient, and final. The first of these is simply the underlying matter from which any given thing is formed — say, the marble upon which a sculptor works or the glass from which a bottle is made — the lowest and most ubiquitous level of which is ‘prime matter,’ the substrate of all physical things, so absolutely indeterminate as to be nothing in itself but pure potentiality, with no actuality independent of the forms that give it substance and shape. The formal cause is what makes a particular substance the kind of thing it is — say, a statue or bottle — along with all the attributes proper to that kind of substance, such as cold, static solidity, and representational form, or such as fragility, translucency, and fluid capacity. The efficient cause is the fashioning or prompting agency that brings form and matter together in a single substance — say, the sculptor or glass blower, along with the instruments of his craft. And the final cause is the ultimate aim or purpose or effect of the thing, the use for which it is intended or the good that it serves or the consequence to which it is innately (even if unconsciously) directed, which in a sense draws efficient causality toward itself — say, commemoration of a great event or evocation of aesthetic delight, or the storage and transport of wine or whisky. Perhaps, however, I ought not to choose only human artifacts for my example, since in the classical view all finite things are produced by the workings of these four kinds of causality: elephants, mountains, and stars no less than statues or bottles. And then, beyond all these four, at least in the Christian period, there was another kind of causality, not always explicitly delineated from the others as it should have been but far more exorbitantly different from them than they were from one another. This we might call the ‘ontological’ cause, which alone has the power not only to make, but to create from nothing: that infinite source of being which donates existence to every contingent thing, and to the universe as a whole, without which nothing — not even the barest possibilities of things — could exist.
“We are not much in the habit today, of course, of thinking of ‘form’ or ‘finality’ as causes at all, especially not outside the realm of human fabrication. As a rule, we think of physical realities as caused exclusively by other physical realities, operating as prior and external forces and simply transferring energy from themselves to their effects. We may grant that, where a rational agent is involved, purposes and plans also may act as causes in an analogous or metaphorical sense; but nature we tend to see as a mindless physical process, matter in motion, from which form and purpose emerge accidentally, as consequences rather than causes. This is in large part because the intellectual world in which we have been reared is one whose master discourses — its sciences, philosophies, and ideologies — evolved in the aftermath of the displacement of the ‘Aristotelian’ world by the ‘mechanical philosophy,’ as well as by the more inductive and empirical scientific method that began to take shape in late scholastic thought and that achieved a kind of coherent synthesis in the early modern period. . . .
“It is not true, strictly speaking, that the rapid and constant progress of scientific understanding and achievement in the modern age has been the result solely of simple unadorned empirical research, but very little of it would have come about apart from the revision of scientific thinking that the new empirical approach demanded. This makes it all the more poignantly sad that, as was probably inevitable, the new anti-metaphysical method soon hypertrophied into a metaphysics of its own. Over the course of a very short time, relatively speaking (a few generations at most), the heuristic metaphor of a purely mechanical cosmos became a kind of ontology, a picture of reality as such. The reasons for this were many — scientific, social, ideological, even theological — but the result was fairly uniform: Western persons quickly acquired the habit of seeing the universe not simply as something that can be investigated according to a mechanistic paradigm, but as in fact a machine. They came to see nature not as a reality guided and unified from within by higher or more spiritual causes like formality and finality, but as something merely factitiously assembled and arranged from without by some combination of efficient forces, and perhaps by one supreme external efficient cause — a divine designer and maker, a demiurge, the God of the machine, whom even many pious Christians began to think of as God.”
— from David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013). Hart discussed this book on Volume 122 of the Journal. Another excerpt from his book is here.
Victor Lee Austin: “All authority comes from God and no thing, no being, no realm is outside his dominion.”
In chapter 2 of his 2010 book, Up with Authority, Victor Lee Austin offers a description of this misunderstood (and largely abandoned) concept.
“In English, the word has an obvious root: ‘author.’ We should understand this authorship as at once active and passive. An authority, who is able to ‘authorize’ the actions of others, is at the same time one whose own actions are authorized. So does etymology place us at once within a world of interconnections. Authorities are not lone rangers or loose cannons; they are not disconnected and unaccountable. To be an authority is to be authorized by someone or something beyond oneself. Thus the centurion who has appealed to Jesus to heal his servant asked Jesus not to come to his house: ‘only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.’ This itself is an expression of faith in Jesus, that he is able to heal at a distance, simply by speaking. But the centurion’s insight goes further:. ‘I also am a man under authority,’ he says, ‘with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes.’ The centurion has authority because he is under authority. It is striking that he doesn’t say to Jesus, ‘You and I are both authorities in our various realms; I am able to command and others do what I say; you too can command spirits and elements and they do what you say.’ Rather, he says first, ‘I also am a man under authority.’ His faith is that he sees Jesus as ‘a man under authority,’ implicitly, the authority of the father.
“The Greek is exousia. Is it fanciful to see embedded here the word for ‘being,’ ousia, and thus a rooting of authority in our nature? Authority, exousia, is formed from exesti, a verb that exists only in the impersonal third person and has for its earliest meaning ‘it is allowed, it is in one’s power, is possible.’ And exousia in ordinary Greek means the ‘ability to perform an action,’ early extended to a right of action or a right to disposal, particularly as that right was given from above. Nonetheless, we can note that this word that comes to mean power in the sense of authority is compounded from ek and ousia. That etymology gives us ‘out of being’ or ‘from being,’ suggesting for the philosophical mind that human authority comes out of human being, that it is deeply in accord with our being as humans that we have authority.
“The word becomes important in the Christian Scriptures. Gerhard Kittel, in his masterful Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, writes that exousia ‘is the power displayed in the fact that a command is obeyed.’ From the beginning, authority is related to obedience; authority is not coercive (for the obedience extracted under, for example, torture is hardly true obedience), yet neither is authority constituted by obedience. We might picture authority as a ‘downward’ governance that is ‘displayed,’ but not caused, by an ‘upward’ obedience. According to Kittel’s study, in the New Testament exousia is ‘the power which decides’ but which functions only ‘in a legally ordered whole’ as a power given ultimately by God. Authority is a species of power, namely, a decisive power; nonetheless, the power of authority is never isolated from a divinely authorizing context. Kittel also emphasizes that exousia is active, a performative concept, ‘operative in ordered relationships’ and ‘cannot be separated from its continuous exercise.’ In the Christian community it ‘denote[s] the freedom’ that comes from the community’s divine authorization. But strictly speaking the word means ‘the absolute possibility of action which is proper to God.’ God’s authority, his ‘absolute possibility of action,’ can be seen in many places, including nature and, interestingly, even in God’s tolerance of Satan’s rule, ‘the power of evil . . . [that is] yet encompassed by the divine overruling.’ Christ has divine exousia, his ‘divinely given power and authority to act,’ which is identical with his own freedom, his ‘own rule in free agreement with the Father.’ And exousia is given to the Church as its authority and freedom as the community given ‘existence and nature [by] Christ.’
“What is impressive is the cosmic unity that runs throughout this New Testament concept of authority. All authority comes from God and no thing, no being, no realm is outside his dominion. God’s authority bestows power and freedom and is found preeminently in Christ and, after Christ, in the community that is in him.
“Thus the Christian Scriptures give theological depth to our prior intuitions, sparked by the English and Greek etymologies: that authority has to do with a web of authorizations, and that that has to do with the power or capacity to achieve fullness as a human being.”
— from Victor Lee Austin, Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings (T & T Clark, 2010). Austin was interviewed on Volume 107 of the Journal.
Writing in the mid-1990s, Alan Ehrenhalt reflects on the relationship between authority and community
“Most of us in America believe a few simple propositions that seem so clear and self-evident they scarcely need to be said.
“Choice is a good thing in life, and the more of it we have, the happier we are. Authority is inherently suspect; nobody should have the right to tell others what to think or how to behave. Sin isn’t personal, it’s social; individual human beings are creatures of the society they live in.
“Those ideas could stand as the manifesto of an entire generation in America, the generation born in the baby-boom years and now in its thirties and forties. They are powerful ideas. They all have the ring of truth. But in the past quarter-century, taken to excess, they have caused a great deal of trouble.
“The worship of choice has brought us a world of restless dissatisfaction, in which nothing we choose seems good enough to be permanent and we are unable to resist the endless pursuit of new selections — in work, in marriage, in front of the television set. The suspicion of authority has meant the erosion of standards of conduct and civility, visible most clearly in schools where teachers who dare to discipline pupils risk a profane response. The repudiation of sin has given us a collection of wrongdoers who insist that they are not responsible for their actions because they have been dealt bad cards in life. When we declare that there are no sinners, we are a step away from deciding that there is no such thing as right and wrong.
“We have grown fond of saying that there is no free lunch, but we forget that it applies to moral as well as economic terms. Stable relationships, civil classrooms, safe streets — the ingredients of what we call community — come at a price. The price is limits on the choices we can make as individuals, rules and authorities who can enforce them, and a willingness to accept the fact that there are bad people in the world and that sin exists in even the best of us. The price is not low, but the life it makes possible is no small achievement. . . .
“In the past generation, we have moved whole areas of life, large and small, out of the realm of permanence and authority and into the realm of change and choice. . . .
“Most of us continue to celebrate the explosion of choice and personal freedom in our time. There are few among us who would be willing to say it is a bad bargain, or who mourn for the rigidities and constrictions of American life in the 1950s.
“A remarkable number of us, however, do seem to mourn for something about that time. We talk nostalgically of the loyalties and lasting relationships that characterized those days: of the old neighborhoods with mom-and-pop-storekeepers who knew us by name; of not having to lock the house at night because no one would think of entering it; of knowing that there would be a neighbor home, whatever the time of day or night, to help us out or take us in if we happened to be in trouble.
“There is a longing, among millions of Americans now reaching middle age, for a sense of community that they believe existed during their childhoods and does not exist now. That is why there is a modern movement called communitarianism that has attracted many adherents and much attention. . . .
“The very word community has found a place, however fuzzy and imprecise, all over the ideological spectrum of the present decade. On the far left it is a code word for a more egalitarian society in which the oppressed of all colors are included and made the beneficiaries of a more generous social welfare system that commits far more than the current amount to education, public health, and the eradication of poverty. On the far right it signifies an emphasis on individual self-discipline that would replace the welfare state with a private rebirth of personal responsibility. In the middle it seems to reflect a much simpler yearning for safety, stability, and a network of reliable relationships. Despite these differing perceptions, though, the general idea of community has been all over the pages of popular journalism and political discourse in the first half of the 1990s.
“Authority is something else again. It evokes no similar feelings of nostalgia. Few would dispute that it has eroded over the last generation. . . .
“Authority and community have in fact unraveled together, but few mourn the passing of authority. To most Americans in the baby-boom generation, it will always be a word with sinister connotations, calling forth a rush of uncomfortable memories about the schools, churches, and families in which they grew up. Rebellion against those memories constituted the defining event of their generational lives. Wherever on the political spectrum this generation has landed, it has brought its suspicion of authority with it. ‘Authority,’ says P. J. O’Rourke, speaking for his baby-boom cohort loud and clear, ‘has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race.’
“The suspicion of authority and the enshrinement of personal choice are everywhere in the American society of the 1990s. . . .
“There has . . . been a discussion about authority among political philosophers in the past two decades, and its tone tells us something. It has been a debate in which scholars who profess to find at least some value in the concept have struggled to defend themselves against libertarian critics who question whether there is any such thing as legitimate authority at all, even for duly constituted democratic governments. ‘All authority is equally illegitimate,’ the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff wrote in a landmark 1970 book, In Defense of Anarchy. ‘The primary obligation of man,’ Wolff argued, ‘is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled.’ It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the record of debate on this subject since 1970 has consisted largely of responses to Wolff, most of them rather tentative and halfhearted. . . .
“If there were an intellectual movement of authoritarians to match the communitarians, they would be the modern equivalent of a subversive group. The elites of the country, left and right alike, would regard them as highly dangerous. The America of the 1990s may be a welter of confused values, but on one point we speak with unmistakable clarity: we have become emancipated from social authority as we used to know it.
“We don’t want the 1950s back. What we want is to edit them. We want to keep the safe streets, the friendly grocers, and the milk and cookies, while blotting out the political bosses, the tyrannical headmasters, the inflexible rules, and the lectures on 100 percent Americanism and the sinfulness of dissent. But there is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved. Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a pipe dream in the end. . . .
“To worship choice and community together is to misunderstand what community is all about. Community means not subjecting every action in life to the burden of choice, but rather accepting the familiar and reaping the psychological benefits of having one less calculation to make in the course of the day.”
— from Alan Ehrenhalt, The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s (Basic Books, 1995).
Novelist Larry Woiwode on the unbreakable bond between specificity and universality
“When a writer crosses the line of impropriety and talks about the act of writing itself, he or she’d better speak about it from the inside, as a person in a suit of armor might describe an itch starting to crawl up an arm, not as a scholar focusing on the makeup of a medieval gorget of mail. The itch in this instance is the relevance of place, or locale, to contemporary fiction.
“The French novelist George Bernanos says about his native Provence in Essais et écrits de combat I, after being absent from it for thirty years,
“Whether here or there, why should I be nostalgic about what actually belongs to me, is mine, and which I cannot betray? Why should I invoke the black puddles of the beaten-down path, or the hedge resounding under the melancholy beating of the rain since I am myself both the hedge and the black puddles?
“Here is a heartfelt response to homeplace, in which details of a particular place become one with the writer. Some critics might view Bernanos’s response as regional. When canonmeisters label a writer ’regional,’ they suggest that the writer isn’t in quite the same league as the big boys, equating regionalism with parochialism — an attitude that honors certain areas of the United States (or the world, for that matter) as right and proper, preferable to others — while the rest is regional. Every traveler knows that the vast tracts of continent from New Jersey to California contain varieties of typography, and isn’t quite healed until the Pacific coast. The area is called the Midwest, although it contains areas of the East and Northwest and West.
“In our anxious modern tendency to categorize — a reflex that suggests fear and has its apotheosis in computer circuits, as if fear dictates even the patterns of organization in the machines we invent to think for us — we seem to have forgotten the unpronounceable county in Mississippi, whose creator said it was the size of a postage stamp, or the locale of the Odyssey of our latter-day Ulysses, Dublin, or the best-selling prophet who never strayed far from his birthplace, Bethlehem.
“Let me say, then, that the properties of a particular place are important, yes, but the human beings are more important than locale. And the inner state of a character is of far greater importance than any external estate containing him or her, no matter how extraordinary its geophysical distinctions. Of even greater import is the character’s need to relate events that have had an emotional effect on his or her character to a friend or neighbor, the auditor of fiction.
“These elements make up what is known as narrative, and they can be transferred to any landscape on the planet, or to any vehicle in orbit around it. In one of the most limited poems, William Blake gives voice to a clod of clay and a pebble in a brook. It’s difficult to narrow your vision more than that, though Theodore Roethke does in his greenhouse poems. In the ‘The Clod and the Pebble,' Blake dramatizes self centered and selfless love, and by implication suggests that selfless love renders living in the world bearable, if it isn’t the foundation on which redeeming life in the world is built. It might help to have a Christian perspective to arrive at this last, larger inference (the clay as God-man trod down) but the poem is one that anybody from any culture at any given period can pick up and resonate to, as with Bernanos. Both speak to an unequivocal nature in every human being.
“So it's time to shed one obvious misapprehension about writing — that the physical locus of a piece of fiction limits the way in which meaning may widen from it, as rings of water widen around a cattail that a blackbird abandons. I can indeed reverse the premise and say that to the degree writing is true to indigenous detail, to that degree it resonates with wider meaning — or universality, as some might say. Think of the young man from rural Stratford who never forgot the local flora or any Bottom or Dogberry or resident of Arden, or the poetic, power-stricken Richards who aspired to be kings of one kind or another.”
— from Larry Woiwode, “Someplace, Heaven or Hell? On the Order of Existence,” in Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture (Crossway, 2011). Larry Woiwode offered further thoughts about reading and writing on Volume 111 of the Journal.
Ralph C. Wood on the theological threads in the work of P. D. James
Ralph C. Wood has been a welcome repeat guest on the Journal. His first outing with us was in 1993, when he consented to talk about the backslidden comedy of then-recently deceased novelist Peter De Vries. In subsequent visits, he shared insights about Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and G. K. Chesterton. In 2002, we talked about the fiction of P. D. James (1920-2014), about whom Wood had written an article entitled “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide: An Essay on P. D. James’s The Children of Men.” Several years later, we recorded a reading of that article as one of our Audio Reprints. An excerpt from “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide” follows:
“The key to P. D. James’s fiction, especially her later work, is her Christianity. She regards our cultural malaise as having theological no less than ethical cause. The murder in A Taste for Death occurs in a church, for instance, and the murderer is not only a sadist but also a nihilist who revels in the god-like power inherent in the threat of death. He kills in order to prove that the cosmos is empty of divinity. Like Dostoevsky, James is determined to ask whether, if there be no God, all goodness is vacated and all evils unleashed. As a Christian, James knows that the answer is yes. But as a novelist, she has sought to make her faith implicit rather than overt. In interviews following televised versions of her work, James has pointed out that Adam Dalgliesh, her chief detective, is a confirmed skeptic. She does not want to confine her hero within her own convictions, nor to impose them on her readers. James is an artist whose moral instruction is conveyed indirectly through aesthetic appeal, not a prophet who seeks our conversion by directly declaring the divine Word.
“The artistic indirectness of James’s Christian vision is made most evident in Innocent Blood, the novel whose manner and matter most clearly resemble The Children of Men. Strictly speaking, neither novel is a detective story. There being no crime to solve, James focuses her earlier novel on a much deeper concern: the enormous subtlety of evil. Innocent Blood contains not one protagonist but three, and each of them surprises us in the capacity to do both wicked and generous things. No sooner have we begun to regard the novel's central characters as despicable people than James reveals their own secret pathos — a suffering so deep that, though it does not excuse their sins and crimes, it makes us understand and even pity them.
“Though patient with evil, James is impatient with those who deny its moral and spiritual complexity. The profoundest human horrors do not admit of ready resolution — as if, James once declared in an interview, Parliament could pass a law abolishing original sin. Innocent Blood features a sociologist named Maurice Palfrey who believes, in fact, that evil can be purged by governmental measures. Since we are creatures of our environment, he holds, we need only to improve environmental conditions in order to prevent crime and other social problems. It follows that Palfrey regards Christianity — with its stress on ingrained sin and transcendent redemption — as the great deceit.
“Palfrey offers a veritable litany of what he considers to be the major Christian offenses: the monstrous notion that there is a God who created us in the divine image (when it seems obvious that we have made God in our own likeness), the pathetic injustice of blaming people for inborn sin when they have no choice in the matter, and the laughable contradiction between the doctrine of the Virgin Birth and the sacramental view of sex as being so holy it must be confined to marriage. Most egregious of all is the doctrine of atonement, with its barbaric idea that the Son must ‘propitiate His Father’s desire for vengeance.’ Had enlightened folks like himself been present at the crucifixion, says Palfrey, they would have intervened to prevent such a grotesque injustice. ‘But the God of Love was apparently content,’ Palfrey laments, ‘to let it happen — indeed, willed it to happen — and to His only son. You can’t ask us to believe in a God of Love who behaves less compassionately than would the least of his creatures.’
“James’s wrath against such secular smugness is exceeded only by her impatience at the complacency and cowardice of her fellow Christians. Palfrey makes his assault on Christianity during a television debate with an Anglican bishop. Instead of replying that the sociologist has been appropriately scandalized by the offense of the gospel—by the good news that God transforms the worst human evil into the highest divine redemption — the bishop blinks. He is too benignly disposed, too timid and vacillating about his own Christian faith, to offer an untrammeled affirmation of it. And so James has a confessed murderess denounce the weakling prelate as he deserves: ‘Poor bishop! He could only win by saying things that he'd be too embarrassed to utter and which neither the BBC nor the viewers—especially the Christians—would in the least wish to hear.’”
In addition to our Audio Reprint of “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide” — a Theology Today article from which the above paragraphs are excerpted — Ralph C. Wood’s insights are also evident in two of our Conversations: Hillbilly Thomist: Flannery O'Connor & the Truth of Things and Maker of Middle-Earth, in which Wood is joined by Tom Shippey and Joseph Pearce to talk about J. R. R. Tolkien.