An Excerpt by Donald Davidson

From “A Mirror for Artists”, one of the essays in I’ll Take My Stand.

Davidson seems incredibly prescient.  This essay was published in 1930, and although the underlying technology was already developed by that time, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that television arrived in the American household.  Yet he accurately predicts both television and the Suzuki violin school.

It is common knowledge that, wherever it can be said to exist at all, the kind of leisure provided by industrialism is a dubious benefit.  It helps nobody but merchants and manufacturers, who have taught us to use it in industriously consuming the products they make in great excess over the demand.  Moreover, it is spoiled, as leisure, by the kind of work that industrialism compels.  The furious pace of our working hours is carried over into our leisure hours, which are feverish and energetic.  We live by the clock.  Our days are a muddle of “activities,” strenuously pursued.  We do not have the free mind and easy temper that should characterize true leisure.  Nor does the separation of our lives into two distinct parts, of which one is all labor — too often mechanical and deadening — and the other all play, undertaken as a nervous relief, seem to be conducive to a harmonious life.  The arts will not easily survive a condition under which we work and play at cross-purposes.  We cannot separate our being into contradictory halves without a certain amount of spiritual damage.  The leisure thus offered is really no leisure at all; either it is pure sloth, under which the arts take on the character of mere entertainment, purchased in boredom and enjoyed in utter passivity, or it is another kind of labor, taken up out of a sense of duty, pursued as a kind of fashionable enterprise for which one’s courage must be continually whipped up by reminders of one’s obligation to culture.

God’s Grandeur

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.  Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And, for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastwards, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

A Few C.S. Lewis Quotes: “On The Reading of Old Books”

Edit: You can read the whole thing here.

These quotes by C. S. Lewis were from the book reviewed below, but I thought they deserved their own post.  Referring to the question of whether to read primary or secondary sources:

The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face.  He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him.  But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. … It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

And on the importance of reading the “old” books and being cautious of contemporary works:

Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books.

[…]

People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. [However, they did not, generally speaking, make] the same mistakes [we make today:]  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.  Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

[…]

A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.  It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. … The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.  Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.

C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 200-207.

Christopher Hall: Reading Scripture with The Fathers

Amazon link

Christopher Hall is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Eastern College, Pennsylvania, and associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.  In this book, he provides an introduction to studying the writings of the men we know as the “Church Fathers”.  He is particularly focused on their methods of exegesis and scriptural interpretation.  As such, the book is probably designed for use in a historical theology class, but I found it a useful introduction to the lay reader.

Following a few introductory chapters, Hall gives brief biographies of four fathers from the East (Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom) and four from the West (Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great), with a few snippets of the writings of each.  Following that, he has a few chapters on the interpretive differences that are represented by the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools (allegory vs. a more limited typography).  Finally, he offers some practical suggestions for entering the world of the Fathers.

This is a book that gets stronger as it goes.  The biographical chapters left me feeling a bit unsatisfied, as I wanted to hear some more direct quotes from the Fathers themselves, and I started getting their biographical details mixed up.  Things got much better with the chapters on allegorical vs. “literal” interpretation.  (I have put “literal” in quotes, because it is still a good deal more allegorical than many rationalist modern readers may be comfortable with.)  The closing chapters, with practical advice on approaching the Fathers, were by far the most helpful.  Here are a few quotes from the last chapter:

People bred by their culture to expect a text to address and immediately answer problems, questions or issues that by their intrinsic nature demand a slower, borader and deeper response will often find themselves frustrated by patristic writers.  The quest for immediate spiritual or intellectual gratification is rarely successful; short-term solutions to long-term problems ultimately break down.  The fathers are insistent that spiritual, theological and biblical insight does not appear overnight.  Instead, they adamantly insist that the Bible opens itself to those who have immersed themselves in its riches and pondered it deeply within the context of prayer, worship and communal reflection.

Unlike most modern people, including too many Christians, the fathers are in no rush.  You will not find them providing ten easy steps for spiritual fulfillment, nor evincing great sympathy for those who might find their writings difficult to grasp for the first time.  The problems and realities Scripture addresses and elucidates — sin, evil, death, life, incarnation, redemption, creation, recreation — demand the attention of a mind and heart that has learned to be patient, to listen, to be silent, to study “with the mind in the heart.”

And, on the idea of picking one Father to study in depth as a starting point:

As I immersed myself in the life and work of Chrysostom in preparing my doctoral dissertation, I realized that my teachers had been right.  But it was only through coming to know Chrysostom himself, through reading biographies of him, through reading his sermons and treatises, through seeing his responses to the deep suffering and trials he encountered through much of his life, that the world of the fathers opened up to me.  I realized Chrysostom was calling me to listen to both his words and his life.  In him I saw the integrity too often missing in my own Christian experience.  His words and life dramatically fit together.

My encounter with Chrysostom led to a deeper exposure to other fathers.  As the days and months passed, a world that had once appeared foreboding, alien and intimidating began to feel more like home.  But the first step in this process, what I see as the formation of new and lasting friendships, was the choice to study one father in some detail.

I haven’t read enough to compare this book to others on the same subject, but I can certainly say that it has been helpful for me.  I’m thinking I might start with Clement of Alexandria, if I decide to follow the above advice.