Ash Wednesday Gospel Reflection

A Reading from the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

The Gospel reading at hand is best understood when considered in light of the so-called parable of the lamp, which is recorded in the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. The parable is simple. Christ asks His disciples “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?” Presented right after the parable of the seed and the sower, the image of the lamp represents the light of Faith. With a bit of a humor, Christ teaches that Faith is useless unless it is visible.

At first, this parable seems to contradict today’s Gospel directly. If indeed Faith is meant to be visible, why does our Lord call those who publicly perform religious acts “hypocrites”? Further, does not Christ’s instruction to pray in secret correlate to placing the lamp of Faith under our bed?

Deeper analysis, however, will show that these two teachings are inversions of one another and, hence, complementary. In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns against performing religious acts for public attention. This behavior is reprehensible and hypocritical insofar as it transfers the focus of religion from the Divine to the ego and its material affect. This hypocrisy transforms an otherwise pious act to an act of selfishness: rather than serve God, one serves instead his pride, his popularity, his mundanity. As a result, the light of Faith is rendered inscrutable as men turn in on themselves.

Our Lord illustrates this act of “turning in on oneself” in the parable of the lamp, using the image of a lamp under a bushel basket or a bed. Just as the passage from Matthew’s Gospel shows how works are rendered hypocritical when they are ordered toward material gain, this passage shows how faith is rendered hypocritical when it is not expressed in works. For we, who would not have known these things unless our Father in Heaven revealed them to us, must be careful to remember that our Faith is a gift from God. Thus, what is the difference between going out in public in shows of righteousness and hiding the lamp of our Faith deep within us? What is the difference insofar as we are withholding our gift of Faith from God?

Faith is a gift, a talent, which Our Father in secret bestows on us because “There is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to the light.” (cf. Mk 4:22). God did not give us Faith for it to be kept secret; our Faith is meant to change the world, beginning with each human heart in which it is planted. Faith that is not expressed through works of love is stifled and suffocated in the soil of the heart. It is not enough to possess the lamp of Faith, for Faith without works is dead. Rather we must make returns on the talent our Master has entrusted to us: we must go out into the world, proclaiming the Gospel with our lives as He did with His.

Our Lord knows, however, that men tend to become vain and self-centered when faced with the duty of going before the world. This fault manifested itself even among the Apostles, who had to be rebuked for arguing amongst themselves over “who was the greatest.” Consequently, in this beautiful reading from Matthew, our Lord does not advocate the suppression of Faith, but rather the suppression of egotism which obfuscates faith. Look closely at what He is teaching: “do not seek your reward in the affirmation of the people,” He says “for then you are rendering to them what belongs to God.” Rather, always remember that “what you do for the least of these, you are doing for me.”

Render unto the world the things that are of the world. Do not keep your pride or your vanity; render them back unto the darkness from which they came. Let the world keep its affirmation and its riches, for you do not need either; rend your garments in penitence and your heart in contrition. The world will not see these things, but your Father in Heaven, who sees in secret, will see them. The world will not approve of those things for they will all despise you because of Him whose name you bear. But your Father in Heaven, who sees in secret, will approve of them and, on the last day, will claim you as His own.

Render unto God the things that are of God—be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect. And, if you wish to be perfect, pick up your cross daily and follow Christ. The Cross is the ultimate destiny of every Christian. Crucifixion is our ultimate end. The Cross is the ultimate expression of Faith—it can never be mounted for love of self. We must all be willing to die and to share in Christ’s death—to be despised and to be rejected; to tread the raging waters of oppression and hate; to follow so long as our Master beckons us to follow.

Our King wears not robes of silver and gold, but scars, and it is according to these scars that we will be judged. The good shepherd knows His own and His know Him. To those who kept their faith hidden, He will say: “Depart and return to your darkness!” And to those who were pierced for love, He will say: “Well done, my good and Faithful servant, come into your Father’s rest.”


A Century of Disenchantment: Weber’s “Wissenschaft als Beruf” Turns 100

One hundred years ago this past week, on November 7, 1917, the German sociologist Max Weber delivered a speech in the modestly sized lecture hall of a bookstore in Munich. He had been invited by a group of students to address the topic of science, in the broadest sense of scholarly pursuits and the products of academia. Two years later the speech would be published under the now famous title Wissenschaft als Beruf – “Science as a Vocation.”


This speech is arguably Weber’s single most influential work, despite the renown of his inquiry into the Protestant work ethic earlier in his career. At the very least, its words have enjoyed an especially prolific afterlife through the dissemination of the phrase “the disenchantment of the world,” which occurs twice in the published version of the speech and has been appropriated for book titles in subjects as diverse as consumer economics and modern poetry. A century later, however, this very phrase has produced a wide range of confusion, owing at least in part to a fairly imprecise translation. It is the task of this essay to point to how the reception of this speech has contributed to a misunderstanding of Weber’s legacy and spurred a largely misleading diagnosis of the triumph of secularism in the modern West. I hope to accomplish this task through a simple yet intuitive approach: by reading Weber’s own words.

That being said, the confusion surrounding “Science as a Vocation” has its source in the speech itself. Two passages in particular are frequently cited to depict Weber’s alleged hostility toward religion and his prognostication of a decidedly irreligious future. Near the end of the speech, Weber links religiosity to an “Opfer des Intellekts,” which C. Wright Mills translates as “intellectual sacrifice.” This certainly seems to undercut the truth of religions claims, as Weber also typifies the attitude of religious believers with the formulation: “credo non quod, sed quia absurdum est”; that is, I believe because it is absurd.

The second passage follows shortly thereafter with another apparently polemic remark, according to Mills’s translation: “To the person who cannot bear the fate of our times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’ – that is inevitable.” Again, the attribution of “intellectual sacrifice” to religious believers, lacking in manly endurance, seems to level a critique of intellectual dishonesty – a term Weber nearly uses a sentence later – against the religiously inclined. In the same breath, Weber apparently consigns religion to a heap of antiquated institutions receding in a secular tide. The world has been “disenchanted,” after all, which means that science and reason have cast supernatural superstitions into the outer dark.

It is no wonder that this anti-religious attitude has been coupled with Weber’s notion of “disenchantment,” since these two remarks frame the second and most thundering formulation of Weber’s so-called “disenchantment thesis.” In the same paragraph as the previous remark, Weber defines the “fate of our times” as “the disenchantment of the world.” However, the interpretation of this key phrase is precisely where matters go awry.

Weber’s Disenchantment

The problem begins with the common English translation “the disenchantment of the world.” In English, the word “disenchantment” carries significant emotional baggage, bringing connotations of melancholic dissatisfaction and meaninglessness along with it. This has led some theorists to posit that a return to enchantment might be precipitated by flashy public events, like the Olympics or rock concerts, which reassure modern man of the marvels of existence. Weber’s original German, however, has a more abstract, historical force: “die Entzauberung der Welt.” This would more literally translate to “the de-magicalization of the world.” What is at stake, then, is an historical process, one which Weber associates with intellectualization, of which scientific advancement is only a “fraction” or “Bruchteil.”

The phrase first occurs after Weber’s lengthy opening remarks on academia in Germany and the United States, which place the modern university rather than modern religious institutions under scrutiny. When Weber finally announces the “disenchantment of the world”, he does so not with the voice of a prophet but with the measured restraint of an interrogator:

The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives. It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it any any time, that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This signifies the disenchantment of the world. No longer does one need to take recourse to magical means, as the savage did, for whom such mysterious forces existed, in order to master or implore the spirits. Rather, technical means and calculation achieve this. This above all is what intellectualization signifies as such.1

Weber’s disenchantment concerns itself first and foremost with the belief that all things can be quantified and calculated. In the original German, Weber uses the subjunctive tense to indicate that he is reporting about beliefs rather than declaring his own, much less asserting that no incalculable forces exist. Moreover, Weber goes on to explain how this positive belief about technical mastery actually poses problems for scientific enterprises and those who claim that science can account for all facts of existence. Such adherents of what we today call “scientism” are deemed by Weber to be little more than “große Kinder” – “big children.

Weber on Religion

Concerning the dominance of the natural sciences, Weber hardly has a word of optimism to offer in “Science as a Vocation.” But what is his opinion of religion in modern Europe? While the passages quoted above appear to paint Weber as a critic of religious belief, the majority of his remarks on the matter in the speech as a whole reveal a decidedly open-minded if not sympathetic stance. For instance, Weber affirms that the religious believer can practice science “without being disloyal to his faith” and entertains the idea that theology is a science, through he ultimately claims that its pretenses about the meaning of life confine it to its own value sphere. Yet, Weber also mentions that “religiously ‘musical’ people” should not hide from their fate of living in a “god-foreign and prophet-less time.” Is this speech consequently a prediction of religious decline?

In brief, Weber’s position is not quite that simple. Earlier in the speech, he describes the present age as a “religious ‘everyday‘” in which “the many old gods, disenchanted and hence in the form of impersonal powers, rise from their graves” and “resume an eternal struggle with one another.” For Weber, modernity is typified by polytheism, as various values and worldviews contest for dominance. Religion, then, does not have its back to the ropes; rather, Christianity has lost its heavyweight status as the “presumably exclusive orientation” in a ring of conflicting beliefs. Hence, Weber’s diagnosis of a disenchanted world does not entail the gradual demise of religion but its diversification and relativization.

This much is clear in Weber’s second and final formulation of the disenchantment of the world, alluded to above, as he writes that “precisely the last and sublimest of values have retreated from public life, either in the otherworldly realm of mystic life of in the brotherliness of immediate relationships” and that “from one person to another, in pianissimo, something pulsates which corresponds to that which earlier moved through the great congregations as a prophetic pneuma in tempestuous fire and welded them together.” Weber’s language itself abounds with a mystical sense, a sense of fate. As if to emphasize this point, Weber ends his speech by citing the prophet Isaiah and speaking of the “demon” that holds the strands of each of our lives.

Weber’s Legacy

articleweber Reading Weber’s 1917 speech a century later, we would be wise to observe two crucial points. First, interpretations and spin-offs of Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” do not hold true to Weber’s claims when they posit a linear path toward secularity nor, indeed, when they pigeonhole Weber as an enlightened critic of religion. Second, despite the passage of time, Weber’s insights about the shift in religious attitudes and pervasiveness of technical means of control continue to hold their own. Perhaps, though, this speaks more to how the modern West is still haunted by the ghosts or its past in a century that is, on second thought, far less disenchanted than first believed.

1This translation, as well as those that follow, have been altered to better reflect Weber’s original German.

The Art of Fasting

Among our greatest tools of spiritual growth are prayer (of diverse variety), fasting, and almsgiving. Indeed, all three are especially encouraged during Lent. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus warns us about the proper use of these ‘holy weapons’ in the arsenal of the pious soul in training. I am thinking, primarily, of the sequence of warnings Jesus issues in the Sermon on the Mount, as documented in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel.

To wit: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 6:1) And again: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Mt. 6:5) And finally: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Mt. 6:16)

The talk here is of action and reward: the hypocrites perform these three ideally pious acts merely “so that they may be seen by others,” that is, for recognition, even fame. But such actions, Jesus admonishes us, lose their worth—their reward—when they are directed to such self-seeking ends. Everything hangs on the little word “so,” the link between deliberate action and intended result, as I was learned once in a Bible study of this passage. This “so,” Jesus explains in the case of each potentially penitent act, must be aimed always at “your Father who is in secret.” Only in seeking to contact the Lord do prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have their merit… and their reward.

This tension (acting for a higher cause or merely for recognition) is played out with soul-wrenching drama in a short story by the German-Czech daytime office worker and moonlight fiction writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924). This short story, indeed, has surprising topical relevance to thinking about Good Friday (a day of fasting) and Easter Sunday (a day of feasting), as apparent from its title “A Hunger Artist” (Ein Hungerkünstler in the original German). Although the story hardly allows for a purely Christian allegorical reading, the psychological toil of its titular “hunger artist” bears striking similarity to the Gospel’s teaching on fasting. I would go so far as to contend that Kafka deliberately arranged for crossover between his hunger artist’s starvation spectacle and the practice of Christian asceticism. In any case, this bizarre short story illustrates the art of fasting in a way that complements Jesus’s teaching, and it is this illustration which I would like to investigate in turn.

The Hunger for Attention


A Hunger Artist” is a brief story, so brief that it serves as its own summary. But, to be brief, Kafka’s story recounts the once appreciated art of fasting (“Those were different times,” he writes) through the downfall of one particular hunger artist, whose showmanship in “a small barred cage” at first draws crowds of enthusiastic spectators only to wane in popularity until he is eventually replaced. At a low point in his career, the children for whom this hunger artist was once “especially put on display” have to rely on their “family father” (Familienvater) to thoroughly explain to them what a hunger artist even is. Thus, the story tracks a trajectory from fame to irrelevance, confounded at every turn by misunderstanding.

From this summary, one could easily read Kafka’s story as a conflict between a tortured artist and a fickle audience that goes from applauding his efforts to ignoring his continued artistic dedication simply because their interest shifts, and they “preferred to stream to other attractions on display.” “Fame is bee.” – so begins Emily Dickenson in a famously short poem, which concludes, “It has a song— / It has a sting— / Ah, too, it has a wing.” This is a story, allegedly, of art against society, the creation of art for appreciation vs. art for art’s sake.

Yet, such a reading of the story overlooks long, winding passages in which the hunger artist wrestles not with the caprices of his spectators but with his own self-worth. In these passages, we see how the real misunderstanding does not arise between the fans outside the cage and the performer inside the cage, but occurs primarily within the cage itself. The hunger artist is misunderstood because he misunderstands himself: he thinks his unyielding devotion to self-denial through fasting will win him acclaim among the world, whereas the real reward for his vain performances is the cage of a false self, a self which seeks to overcome its own bodily needs only to double-back and become trapped in self-obsession. When the hunger artists fasts only for himself, he ends up a huddled mess in a hay-filled cage. Ironically, this is precisely the situation where he begins, for his motive was same the whole time, only then, in those “different times,” the crowds nourished him with the short-lived recognition he desired.

I don’t want to paint Kafka’s story as a simplistic moralizing narrative against vanity, though. As with many of Kafka’s characters, the hunger artist pivots around various psychological extremes, occasionally deserving our pity, sometimes earning our scorn, but often vacillating in the space between. This ambiguity is important to note not because the story ultimately pardons self-obsession but because it tracks the route to self-obsession as a decidedly circuitous one. In the course of this progression, several twists along the path overlap with the points raised in the Gospel’s provisions on fasting.

The Reward of Fasting for the Self

To better understand the psychological struggle of Kafka’s hunger artist, I should highlight a few more details. First and foremost, in the early days of the hunger artist’s fame, he worries that those watching him, the guards (Wächter, literally “watchers” in German) above all, think that he wants to cheat by breaking his fast while they are not looking. As if to heighten the tension, the guards are “usually butchers, strangely enough” who are selected by the public (one gets the sense that “hunger artists” are a sort of public good at the beginning of the story, like playgrounds of fire hydrants, whom everyone wanted to see “at least once daily”). Hence, his ‘watchers’ have an intimate connection to food, to flesh, the very thing he wishes to reject. (Kafka doesn’t use the normal term for butcher but rather Fleischhauer, “flesh hacker.”) Moreover, though, they suspect that he really would break his fast if given the opportunity, so they sit at a distance to goad him into cheating. Understandably, the hunger artists takes this as an insult, as an abuse:

Nothing was more tortuous to the hunger artist than such guards; they made his soul gloomy; they made his fasting terribly hard; sometimes he overcame his weaknesses and sang during their watch, as long as he could hold out, in order to show the people how unjust their suspicions of him were.”

We might sympathize with this sad soul at such moments, yet notice that he acts, as the hypocrites in the Gospels do, “in order to show the people” some merit about himself. He can fast. He would never cheat. That his spectators have a certain view of him is what cuts him to the bone. On the other hand, he far prefers when the guards pay attention to him and listen to “stories from his life of wandering” as he listens to their “tales in turn.” This sounds nice and cordial, but we immediately learn that he does all of this in order to be able to show them always that he had nothing edible in the cage and that he was fasting, like none among them could.” (emphasis mine)

Just as in the Gospel’s warning, the hunger artist fasts for himself, so that others will esteem his accomplishments. This self-obsession is further emphasized in the next section of the story, as we hear that “fasting could absolutely not be separated from suspicions,” for “no one could know from their own observation whether the fast was really unbroken and without error; only the hunger artist himself could know that, only he, therefore, could be the observer totally satisfied by his fasting.” In this gesture, Kafka dramatically declares that the hunger artist alone could be the one to recognize fully his successful fasting, the only one who could really pat himself on the back for a job well done. Hence, any ultimate recognition to be gained from such his fasting must be given by himself; it would be self-recognition, and that would undermine the point… or perhaps prove the point that the quest for recognition, rather than moving outward, is a quest that isolates the self in its own desires.

Outward, however, is the direction in which fasting and other penitent acts must take us. Sadly for the hunger artist, his fasting leads him to question whether he is emaciated not from his fasting but only “out of dissatisfaction with himself.” Fasting, taken by itself, is easy for him. “It was the easiest thing in the world.” Despite the ease of his great act of penitence, though, “this dissatisfaction always inwardly gnawed on him, and never once, after no period of fasting—one must afford him this witness—had he left the cage on his own volition.” Notice that dissatisfaction, not hunger, is what “gnaws” at him, and that he would stay in the cage as long as he could to try to ward it off. The hunger artist has trapped himself.

The extent of the this famished performer’s vanity comes to the fore in what is quite possibly the most direct reference to the Gospels in the story. The Impresario who promotes his performance sets an upward limit of forty days for the his fast, that is, the famous forty-day-long stretch of Jesus’s fast in the desert (based on the Israelites’ forty years of wandering), after which Lent is patterned. But our less than humble ascetic aesthete (if you will allow me an indulgent play-on-words) would fast longer if he could, he could last “unlimitedly longer.” Why stop at forty days? “Why did they want to rob him of fame,” the narrator asks, “to fast further, to become not only the greatest hunger artist of all time, which he probably was already, but also to cross over into the incomprehensible, for he felt no barriers for his ability to fast.” He could do it. He could best Jesus. But the others simply do not understand.

As soon as the public misunderstanding of the hunger artist’s fasts morphs into a disinterest, though, the hunger artists real limits are brought to light. Somewhat tragically, the entire reason the Impresario limits the hunger artist’s performance to forty days is because after that time people simply lose interest. Once the artist finds himself without a steady audience, he joins a circus and fasts as long as he wants, but no one affords him the attention he thinks he deserves. Even the small sign posted next to him, announcing who he is and how long he has hungered, fall into disrepair, such that “no one counted the days, no one, not even the hunger artist himself, knew how great his accomplishment was, and his heart became heavy.” Still, he continues his work “honestly,” fasting, indeed, with excellence, “but the world cheated him of his reward.”

The Reward of Fasting for God


In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, we learn the most about the two robbers executed on either side of Jesus. One of these men, the so-called “good robber,” responds to the other’s mockery of Jesus by saying “we have indeed been condemned justly, for we are getting our reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Lk. 23:41). The hunger artist thinks he’s being robbed of his reward, his recognition, for his fasting. But truly, his search for self-affirmation earns him his just reward, which is self-entrapment. Nonetheless, a final moment in “A Hunger Artist” provides some hope of redemption, as the “good robber” is provided redemption for acknowledging his own wrongdoings.

It comes by way of reaching out, moving beyond a misunderstanding of the self’s desires.

On a rare occasion of acknowledgment, a single spectator approaches the cage. When the spectator asks at what point the hunger artist will finally end his fast, he responds, seemingly incongruently, with the words: “Forgive me for everything.” Although only this single spectator-turned-listener “understood,” finally, what the hunger artist has said, he responds in the plural: “we forgive you.” In turn, the hunger artist confides in his lone companion that “you all” (again in the plural ihr) should not be astounded by his fasting, for in truth, he would have eaten his share like all of the others, only he could not find food that tasted good to him. Thus, the grandiose displays of the hunger artist collapse into the petty fuss of a picky eater. But at the same time, his struggle escapes the singular, opening outward to other selves.

The Gospel tells us, for its own part, that our attempts at self-acclaim are likewise petty. What really matters is that we direct our acts of penitence outward toward God. The hunger artist finally makes the first steps toward God, away from the entrapped self, in one of the story’s final passages as he confesses the insubstantial grounds of his alleged greatness to an caring observer. But the burden of selfishness is not carried, perhaps, by the hunger artist alone. After his final exchange with the spectator, the artist expires and is buried along with the hay from his cage. In its place, a young panther is put on display with “nourishment that tastes [good] to him,” thereby recalling the source of the hunger artist’s error. The panther “lacks nothing” and becomes a grand attraction of the circus’s public. But the price the animal pays for this exultation is its freedom. It is encaged by spectacle.

If we allow our own efforts of penitence to be directed either at earning the recognition of others or promoting our own achievements, they too will rob us of our freedom, for our actions will be aligned not to our own choice but to the choices we feel we have to make to prove something of ourselves to others. A paradox seems to follow out of the other end of this tension, though. If we align ourselves NOT to a misunderstanding of our own desires, including the desire to be seen by others, which stands at the forefront of Kafka’s short story, BUT to the proper ordering of our desires in God, we come to realize true freedom. By giving in to God’s will for us, we discover that the path to our true happiness is not the path that implodes back into the self, but which elevates the self to God.

In brief, God wants the best for us. But when we blindly seek to advance ourselves in life by making our actions only about ourselves, we get no further than the bars of our self-built cages. This all requires more explanation. But suffice it to say: Kafka’s hunger artist shows us the way with no exit.

The way to start is to make our fasting, and other actions beyond that, not about winning fame, but about pursuing the Good and the Beautiful. Only then will fasting become an actual art and not merely a side-show for selfishness.

Humanae vitae Revisited

A new year dawns, bringing renewed social strife and uncertain presidential promises along with it. With the new year upon us, why not revisit an old yet groundbreaking encyclical in a new light?

The encyclical I have in mind is Pope Paul VI’s Humanae vitae (Of Human Life), delivered to the Church on the feast of St. James the Apostle in 1968. In essence, Humanae vitae clarifies the Church’s teaching on birth control, a topic which was left somewhat unresolved in 1965 at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

Why do I choose this encyclical in particular? In brief, I am of the opinion that this encyclical clarified and defined the tone for the Church’s social agenda, which would reverberate for decades to come and shape the Church into the counter-cultural institution that it is in the Western world today. Of course, the Church has always been counter-cultural in a sense (just look at Pope Pius X and the rejection of “Modernism” in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis—or Jesus’s critiques of the Pharisees, the Jewish cultural authorities of His time), but Humanae vitae took a firm stand against a prevailing, ubiquitous change in Western society: the widespread acceptance of artificial birth control. The encyclical reaffirmed the Church’s counter-cultural status by weighing in on the birth control debate that reached a peak in the 60s, and which has simmered but by no means settled since—see, for instance, the debacle with the HHS birth control mandate.

In this post, I want to explore the claims of Humanae vitae against the backdrop of the birth control controversy, the circumstances of which are depicted with special insight and hilarity in David Lodge’s novel The British Museum Is Falling Down, first published in 1965 shortly before Pope Paul VI’s encyclical. In the novel, an English Catholic graduate student by the name of Adam Appleby bemoans the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception as he tries to manage his growing family. Ultimately, I will conclude that Humanae vitae presents a challenge for ‘modern’ Catholics, trapped as we are in a ‘modern’ conception of sexuality. But the actual grit of that challenge, and the demands it places on Catholics and, indeed, all people, requires further examination.

The Historical Backdrop

According to the British historian Hugh McLeod, Western Christianity underwent a period of foundation-shaking turmoil in years leading up to Humanae vitae: the title of his study The Religious Crisis of the 1960s says as much. In this work, McLeod characterizes the 1960s as a focal point of change in religious belief in the Western countries (Europe, US, Canada, Oceania), involving a near universal decline in church attendance, the proliferation of belief systems outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and major changes within Christianity, not the least of which was the Second Vatican Council.1 It is in this historical context of Christianity’s decline that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical must be understood.

Since Humanae vitae primarily concerns itself with artificial birth control, a short history of Christian views on birth control methods will follow. For centuries, all Christian denominations opposed methods of birth control that prevented conception and, most especially, induced abortion.2 However, this stark rejection of birth control began to change in the 20th century, beginning with a gradual acceptance of contraception by the Church of England. Carlson lays out this progression in article that originally appeared under the title “How Protestants Learned to Love the Pill” in the journal Family Policy.

In effect, the Anglicans relaxed their condemnation of contraceptive methods in particular (or “cautiously accepted” them, as McLeod puts it) during the 1930 meeting of the Lambeth Conference—something like the Anglican equivalent of a synod.3 Just a year later in 1931, Carlson reports, a conference of American Protestants—including Methodists, Presbyterians, the Church of Brethren, and Congregationalists—petitioned for the legalization of contraceptive devices in the US.4 Meanwhile, the Vatican reaffirmed its opposition to contraception in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii (On Chaste Marriage). Yet, the Protestant trend of accepting contraception continued, as the Anglican Church endorsed any means of family planning “mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience,” according to resolution 115 of the 1958 Lambeth Conference. Thereafter, the 1961 North American Conference on Church and Family rocked the boat of standard anti-contraceptive teachings through the call for “a development of a new evangelical sexual ethic, one ‘relevant to our culture,’ sensitive to the overpopulation crisis, and grounded in modern science,” in Carlson’s words. Speakers included Mary Calderone of Planned Parenthood and Wardell Pomeroy of the Kinsey Institute, two bastions of ‘modern’ approaches to sexuality. Finally, the availability of ‘the Pill’ to American women in 1960 and British women in 1961, made contraception an easy, effective, and affordable form of birth control. And, still, the Vatican held firm.

In brief, Protestant conferences through the first half of the 20th century gradually buckled under the pressure of cultural demands for artificial birth control, while the Catholic Church refused to give up ground, with the exception perhaps of Pope Pius XII qualified acceptance of the “rhythm method” in 1951. On these issues, the Church stood on the losing side.

McLeod relays the words of a young British woman from the 1960s, who spoke of howthe magazines that you read at the time very much were saying, go on the pill, the pill, the pill. That was all what it was, young girls were supposed to be doing, taking the pill” (163). A recent article in TIME magazine with the title “The Long, Strange History of Birth Control” (Feb. 2, 2015) corroborates this narrative of contraception’s rise on the other side of the Atlantic as well. According to the article, by 1965 almost 6.5 million American women used the birth control pill. In America in 1973, “70% of married woman between the ages of 15 and 44 were using some form of contraception.”

By the numbers, the tides had already turned against Church Teaching well before Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, even among Catholics. Drawing on research cited in Tentler’s Contraception and Catholics in America, McLeod writes that “a survey in the United States in 1960 found that 38 per cent of married white Catholic women aged 18–39 were using or had used methods of birth control forbidden by the church, including 46 per cent of those in the 35–9 age group” (167). On the one hand, it seemed that Catholics simply expected a change. By 1968, all the other mainline churches had accepted contraception as a norm, so why not the Roman Church? Adam, the protagonist of Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down—to be discussed in depth later—, echoes this expectation of acquiescence, as he muses over the possibility that the ‘progressive’ Belgian Cardinal Suenans might triumph over the ‘conservative’ Italian Cardinal Ottaviani and declare artificial contraception proper for Catholic couples.

Much to the disappointment of these Catholics, however, Humanae vitae offered no such assent to the tailwinds of cultural change.

Pope Paul VI in his own Words

From this historical context provided above, we can frame the encyclical with the following backdrop: by 1968, all mainline Protestant churches has accepted artificial birth control (within marriage), Catholic couples in Western countries had already begun using artificial birth control (including 38 per cent of married white Catholic women in the US), and ‘the Pill’ had an especially strong hold. The scales seemed to be tipping in favor of papal approval of contraception for married people: even a commission first organized in 1963 under John XXIII, the predecessor to Paul VI, weighed in favor of allowing contraceptive measures in marriage, though its exact results were not meant to be public.5


Despite all of this pro-contraceptive momentum, Paul VI affirmed the Church’s Teaching against artificial contraception. Why? Was he just some meddling traditionalist bent on halting progress? Did he fear that a reversal of previous papal condemnation of artificial contraception in Casti Connubii would desecrate Church authority? In the pope’s own words, the matter has more to do with drawing out the implications of Christ’s teaching.

The encyclical begins by very much countenancing the problems that Catholic couples faced at the time. These include “rapid increase in population” and “demands made both in the economic and the education field” that impose hardships on large families—all concerns that Lodge’s fictional protagonist voices. In §3 the pope asks whether, given these contemporary conditions, married couples might be able to observe the moral norms of the Church “only with the gravest difficulty, sometimes only by heroic effort?” This mention of “heroic effort” represents a clear, candid extension of empathy from the pontiff to the married couples in his flock. Indeed, the emotional intelligence of the pope’s reflections comes to the fore in second paragraph of §3, which is worth quoting at length:

Moreover, if one were to apply here the so called principle of totality, could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act? A further question is whether, because people are more conscious today of their responsibilities, the time has not come when the transmission of life should be regulated by their intelligence and will rather than through the specific rhythms of their own bodies.

Without a doubt, Paul VI acknowledges the concerns of Catholic couples of his day and respects their entirely rational need to limit family size and in doing so fulfill the procreative aim of marriage in the totality of marriage, rather than in every sexual act. But the encyclical also warns of “the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature” that lead to a Dr. Frankenstein effect in which “every aspect of [human] life” (§2) comes under human control. Here, we can see signs of hesitancy, even suspicion toward the artificial subversion of human nature.

And, indeed, it is on this boundary between the natural and the artificial that the gavel of papal authority finally falls in Humanae vitae. After addressing the results of the commission mentioned above, which “could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain” due to a lack of “complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed” (§6), Paul VI draws out the implications of God’s loving design for married life. He reasons from the definition of marriage as a “union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives” (§8), that married love is total, faithful and exclusive, and fecund. From this basis of marriage, it follows that married love must seek to bring forth new life if it is to be total and fecund. Perhaps more controversially, though, Paul VI clarifies that, according to Church Teaching, “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” (§11). The question, then, is what it means to retain this procreative element.

Here, the division between natural and artificial means of spacing births enters into the fray. Because conception is the natural result of sexual intercourse, then “an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage” (§13). Hence, the Church excludes methods of birth control which deliberately disable the transmission of life “either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse” (§14). Among the unlawful forms of birth control, then, would be condoms or other barrier methods, drugs that prevent ovulation, such as ‘the Pill,’ or that prevent implantation, as well as forms of sterilization. Yet, Paul VI affirms methods of birth control in accordance with the natural functioning of human reproduction, especially through engaging in intercourse “only during those times that are infertile” (§16). Hence, Humanae vitae does not rule all forms of birth control unlawful. Rather, artificial contraception, as an alteration of human sexuality, is admonished by Church Teaching.

At first, this distinction between artificial and natural methods of birth control may seem arbitrary. What difference does it make if a couple spaces births by having intercourse during infertile periods or by preventing ovulation with ‘the Pill,’ especially if the intention is to avoid pregnancy in both cases? The moral distinction occurs only between the constitution of the method rather than the intention. Paul VI addresses this concern, however. “In reality,” he writes, “these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process.” (§16). Again, Paul VI emphasizes how artificial birth control alters the very nature of human sexuality.

Is Paul VI’s concern for the alteration of sexuality through birth control perhaps overstated? He claims, for example, that widespread use of artificial birth control “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” (§17). Moreover, Paul VI worries that “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, ans, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires” (§17). Finally, the pope directs his attention to governments, asking “Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” (§17).

Considering the ‘modern’ views of sexuality that have developed in the 50 years between Humanae vitae and the present—the legalization of no fault divorce, the preponderance of marital infidelity, especially in western Europe,6 the popularity enjoyed by so-called ‘moral relativism,’ the burgeoning growth of pornography, and the HHS birth control mandate—it is hard to assess Pope Paul VI’s concerns as anything less than prescient. For better of for worse, the transformations he forecasted have come to pass. Whether they have been caused by the availability of artificial birth control is harder to say, but certainly the separation of procreation from sexuality, which such methods wrought, has proliferated, indeed, revolutionized ‘modern’ views of sexuality.

The Game Changer and the Deal Breaker: the Lay and Clerical Catholic Response

For those familiar with the Church’s teaching on sexuality, the ruling against artificial birth control in Humanae vitae should come as no surprise. However, for Catholics of the day, the 1968 encyclical was a game changer and a deal breaker: a game changer because it set in stone, with that infamous papal infallibility, a doctrinal condemnation of artificial birth control for Catholics, and a deal breaker because it dashed the hopes of many married Catholics, who would subsequently break off from the Church.

McLeod offers a broad snapshot of this decidedly negative response to Humanae vitae in its own time. Before the encyclical, a 1967 poll among American Catholics found that 73 per cent want the condemnation of artificial birth control altered (168). Compare this to a 2013 poll from Quinnipiac, which reports that 64 per cent of Catholics in the US, including 51 per cent of weekly churchgoers, think the contraception ban should be relaxed. The irony, of course, is that nowadays Catholics are somehow less resistant to this particular teaching. For Australian Catholics, McLeod cites Anne O’Brien’s book God’s Willing Workers: Woman and Religion in Australia, which claims that Humane vitae marked “the beginning of the end of their association with the Church” (169).

The opposition to the encyclical’s ruling did not limit itself to the laity, though. McLeod cites David Rice’s book Shattered Vows: Priests Who Leave, to detail the sizable clerical opposition to Humanae vitae:

older Catholic priests are said to remember what they were doing when they heard the news of Paul VI’s condemnation of contraception. In a typical story, an American priest driving along a remote country road heard the news on his car radio and uttered the two words, ‘I quit’. (McLeod 193; Rice 41)

And quit they did. Rice’s study of priestly resignations from the 1960s to the 1980s found that “the only doctrinal reason mentioned was papal teaching on birth control” (McLeod 191). Rice himself was a Dominican priest until 1977, when, like Martin Luther, he renounced his vows to marry a woman. Meanwhile, several priests who did not cast off their cassocks campaigned against the Vatican’s ruling. Fr. Louis Janssens of the University of Louvain, for example, approved of oral contraceptives in the Belgian journal Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses in 1964 – again, before the encyclical’s publication, which goes to show the tidal wave against which Humanae vitae asserted itself.

An especially troubling trend that seemed to emerge in the 60s combines this lay and clerical opposition to Humanae vitae. Once the teaching against artificial birth control became doctrine, Catholic couples, many of whom were already using such methods (again, that 38 per cent figure from US Catholics in 1960), feared the admonishment of priests in the sacrament of confession.7 Subsequently, fewer Catholics received absolution in the confessional, and hence could not receive communion with the mortal sin on their hearts. Hence, church attendance declined. Simultaneously, priests opposing Humanae vitae refused to enforce the Church’s Teaching, or like Fr. Rice, vacated their priestly offices. Having fewer priests only exacerbated the problem with the sacraments and introduced an even more heinous problem: the recruitment of inadequate individuals for the priesthood, some of whom would contribute to the sexual abuse crises of the last 20 years, which would drive even more Catholics away from the Church. Though this downward spiral can hardly be attributed to Humanae vitae alone, the ramifications of the Church’s Teachings therein are immense.

Is The Catholic Church Falling Down?


The British Museum, London

My portrayal of cultural response to Humanae vitae up to this point leaves us with a far from rosy picture of Catholic Teaching on birth control. A retreat to comedy, then, might be in order. But I don’t think that the following examination of Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down leaves us only with laughter. Indeed, Lodge’s portrayal captures many of the focal points of the birth control debate described above and, in the way that fiction often does, provides us with insight otherwise overlooked.

Adam Appleby is a simple man. He is a British graduate student in English literature, whose doctoral dissertation focuses on“The Long Sentence” in several literary works. He is also a practicing Catholic. At age 25, he has already sired three children with his loftily wedded wife Barbara and fears that they have conceived another. With this fear, the novel starts its progression—or perhaps digression—through Adam’s day at the library of the British Museum.8

Adam’s stance toward Catholic Teaching on birth control, like that of many of his contemporaries, could described as “less than enthusiastic” or “begrudgingly complaint.” In the first chapter he muses:

How different it must be, he thought, the life of an ordinary, non-Catholic parent, free to decide—actually decide, in calm confidence—whether to have or not to have a child. How different from his own married state, which Adam symbolised as a small, over-populated, low-lying island ringed by a crumbling dyke which he and his wife struggled hopelessly to repair as they kept anxious watch on the surging sea of fertility that surrounded them. (12)

Yet, Barbara and Adam proceed with the Church’s provisions to practice what was then called the “rhythm method.” Lodge pokes fun at the method throughout the book, characterizing it through “sheets of graph paper and little pieces of cardboard with transparent windows of cellophane” “patient graph-plotting” and “exhaustion and renewed suspense.” (14). The notion, essentially, is that all of painstaking measurements of the “rhythm method” are far from natural, that is, if couples intend to have frequent intercourse. For his own part, Adam “wrote to the Catholic Press about Birth Control” (29) and attends a meeting of Catholic dissenters to the Vatican’s at-that-point unestablished Teaching, while Barbara is entreated by their landlady to use ‘the Pill.’

Adam and Barbara’s concerns are of course well-founded. In fact, the main talking points of the birth control debate come to the fore in a bizarre conversation between Adam and their local priest, an Irishman by the name of Fr. Finbar, who amusingly hitches a ride on Adam’s moped. Adam begins:

Do you think the Council will change the Church’s attitude on Birth Control?”

What was that, Mr. Appleby?”

Adam repeated his question at louder volume, and the scooter lurched as his passenger registered its import.

The Church’s teaching never changes, Mr. Appleby,” came the stiff reply. “On that or any other matter.”

Hence, we encounter the issue of doctrine: the Church has established, unchanging teachings. Adam continues:

Well, all right—let’s say “develop”,” Adam went on. “Newman’s theory of doctrinal development—”

Newman?” interjected the priest sharply, “Wasn’t he a Protestant?”

Circumstances have changed, new methods are available—isn’t it time we revised our thinking about these matters?”

Following this humorous jab at Cardinal Henry Newman, who was indeed a Protestant prior to his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845, Adam raises the very same question Paul VI does in Humanae vitae in the discussion of “This new state of things” and “heroic effort.”9 Fr. Finbar, though, eventually answers with the stated foundation of marriage, reiterated in Humanae vitae §§ 8-9.

The true purpose of marriage is to procreate children and bring them up in the fear and love of God!” asserted Father Finbar.

But Adam answers with a plea that echoes “the demands made on both the economic and educational field” (§2) which impose difficulties for families in the industrialized world.

Adam, his scooter locked in traffic, twisted in his saddle. “Look, Father, the average woman marries at twenty-three and is fertile till forty. Is it her duty to procreate seventeen children?”

I was the youngest of eighteen children!” cried the priest triumphantly.

How many survived infancy?” demanded Adam.

Seven,” the priest admitted. “God rest the souls of the others.” He crossed himself.

You see? With modern medical care they might all survive. But how could you house and feed even seven in London today? What are we supposed to do?”

To this query, Fr. Finbar answers with a predicable response:

Practice restraint,” retorted the priest. “I do.”

That’s different—”

Pray, go to daily communion, say the rosary together . . .”

We can’t. We’re too busy—” (35-37)

Ultimately, it seems, the real strain on adherence to the Church’s teaching on birth control comes down to the very conditions of ‘modern’ life: busy-ness that leaves little time for spiritual cultivation such as daily prayer. The societal foundation of dissent to Church Teaching, one that is based in economic progress above all, should not be understated.

Despite all of Adam’s grievances, though, God’s plan ends up panning out for him in the end, though I don’t want give away the fanciful resolution Lodge works into The British Museum Is Falling Down. Let’s just say it involves deflecting temptation with a thermometer—the very tool of the “rhythm method” that Adam laments. There’s a great line in that scene, though, that is worth mentioning. The questions arises: “You mean you believe all that nonsense about birth control?” “I’m not sure I believe it,” Adam replies, “but I practise{sic} it.” (123).

A Voice in the Wilderness

Belief and practice, indeed, mutually reinforce each other. They are inherently interwoven. In the ‘modern’ West, though, the two are often divided. Though the Church officially espouses the belief that artificial birth control is unlawful, the majority of its congregants do not practice what the Church preaches. Today in the US, a widely cited statistic announces that 98 per cent of Catholic women have used artificial birth control at some point in their lives. In Britain, a 2008 survey from Tablet magazine reports that 54.5% of Catholic women who regularly attend mass in England and Wales were on ‘the Pill.’ Half thought the teaching against artificial contraception should be revised.

Clearly, opposition to the Church Teaching on artificial birth control is widespread and popular, both inside the Church and outside of it. Moreover, artificial birth control, especially ‘the Pill’ and condoms, have become ubiquitous in the West. A BBC article reports that 2 million women in England and Wales have prescriptions for the pill, and 70% of women across Britain report having use the pill as a particular form of birth control at some point in their lives.10 In countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and France, condom advertisements are sanctioned by the government. More recently in the US, the Affordable Care Act has mandated that insurance plans cover all kinds of birth control, including sterilization.

This embrace of artificial birth control has not been without its consequences, though. Indeed, it lies at the heart of ‘modern’ views of sexuality, which boil down to this: sex is not chiefly about procreation. It is about enjoyment, self-discovery, entertainment and even ‘having fun.’ The ‘modern’ West agrees: one need only look to the proliferation of pornography, the ubiquity of sexual references and portrayals in popular media, “hook-up” apps like Grindr and Tinder, the increase in cohabitation before marriage, the decline in number of marriages, the increase in average number of sexual partners, the decline in age of first sexual encounter, and a polyphony of other factors. The sexual revolution has changed Western society, not only in what Westerners belief, but also in what they practice.

It is precisely because such ‘modern’ views of sexuality are commonplace that the Church cannot yield to their pressures. In any society, there must be voices of opposition. In regards to matters of ‘modern’ sexuality, the Church is, most definitively, that voice. This position places orthodox Church Teaching on the margin for sure. Humanae vitae solidified that reality. Yet, there may still be room for Catholic couples to abide by these difficult doctrines in a way that requires less than “heroic effort.”

In a sort of epilogue to Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down, the perspective shifts from a third-person narration of Adam’s day to the interior monologue of his wife Barbara. Those with a background in modern literature, particularly Irish literature, will immediately recognize this move as a play on the final section of James Joyce’s landmark work of Modernist fiction Ulysses, which ends with the barely punctuated interior monologue of the protagonist’s wife, Molly Bloom. In Ulysses Mrs. Bloom has committed infidelity. In Lodge’s novel, though, Barbara ponders the Church’s views on birth control. She speaks of the ‘Safe Method’ as “too mechanical, you’re always watching the calendar, it’s like launching a rocket—five four three two one, and by the time it’s zero you’re too tensed up to” (169). She refers to it jokingly as “Vatican Roulette” (172), yet she also acknowledges that even this method was once discouraged: “mum told me when she was young even the safe method was frowned on and you were only supposed to use it if you were starving or going to die from another pregnancy” (173). And though she, like her husband, struggles with Church Teaching on birth control, she also admits that there’s “something a bit offputting about contraceptives even non-Catholics would prefer not to” (174).

Surely, the birth control debate gives us much to think about. The final word of The British Museum Is Falling Down reflects this general need for further consideration. Joyce ends his monologue with the affirmative “Yes”; but Lodge, coyly and with literary allusion in mind, ends his with the hypothetical “Maybe.”

Maybe the possibility that still stands for Catholic couples, especially those struggling with Church Teaching, consists in the formation of strong communities with programs in marriage counseling, workshops on various Natural Family Planning (NFP) methods, and strong pastoral care for growing families. Maybe, too, it consists in rejecting the prevalent sexualization of popular media and cultivating the values of modesty, self-respect, and that oft-mocked fulcrum—chastity, which does not seek silence on sexual matters, but rather a mature and thoughtful handling of them.

As for a shift in Catholic doctrine away from the precedents set in Humanae vitae? That is a possibility only in fiction.

1This process of “de-Christianization,” of course, traces back to a epoch long before the 1960s; Brad Gregory, for instance, argues in The Unintended Reformation that the modern decline of Western Christianity has its roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Other scholars, such as the Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce, stress the importance of the Enlightenment in Christianity’s decline. Charles Taylor, meanwhile, traces the roots of modern secularism back to the so-called Axial Age all the way back in the 6th century B.C., in which societies became structured more in terms of the individual rather than the collective.

2This opposition to birth control has Biblical precedent in the story of Onan in Gen 38, in which Judah’s son Onan, tasked with continuing his genetical line of his brother Er, “spilled his semen on the ground” (Gen 38:9) since he knew the children would not be his – hence, the method of “pulling-out” is referred to as Onanism, as is masturbation. The divine decree to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) in the Priestly creation story is also cited in the birth control debate. However, Catholic Teaching on birth control grounds itself more in a holistic understanding of human sexuality and the natural ordering of sexual intercourse toward procreation.

3The modesty of the language in the Lambeth Conference’s resolution allowing “other methods” of birth control, one resolution 15, should be noted. Only in cases with a “clearly felt moral obligation to limit parenthood” did the conference approve of contraception, whereas the conference condemned cases with “motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.” Yet even this narrow gap allowed a sort of Pandora’s box to be opened. A commentator in the June 30, 1930, edition of the London Times went so far as to say that the conference would alter the “social and moral life” of humanity, and not without merit. In light of this, the Church’s hesitancy to approve of any artificial means of birth control is understandable.

4They would have to wait for the 1964 Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut to have their pleas for nationwide contraception met, at least for married couples. The 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird would extend contraceptive rights for non-married couples eight years later. This follows a general narrative in US courts toward sexual liberation (see, for example, Roe v. Wade in 1973, Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, and of course the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling of 2015).

5Documents leaked to the press in 1967 show that 9 committee members voted in favor of artificial birth control, including Cardinal Suenens mentioned above, 3 abstained, and 3 opposed, including Cardinal Ottaviani, also mentioned above. See, Janet E. Smith, Humanae vitae: A Generation Later (Catholic University of America Press, 1991).

6According to my research of recent polls, reported rates of infidelity in any romantic relationship in western Europe stand at around 40 per cent (my information comes from 2014 poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion, and a similar poll from the Italian equivalent of Ashley Madison, a website that facilitates marital infidelity). This compares to around 20 per cent in the US, according to a YouGov poll in 2015. However, rates of marital infidelity seem to be more or less the same between western Europe and the US, with around 3 per cent of spouses reportedly having an extra-marital sexual partner in the last year, according to surveys in France and the US from 2004, cited by Druckerman.

7One survey shows a decline from 38 percent attending confession monthly in 1968 to 17 percent in 1974 (Greeley, The Catholic Revolution, 49).

8Adam is clearly an autobiographical character: Lodge, also an English Catholic, worked on a PhD in literature while providing for a burgeoning family.

9This new state of things gives rise to new questions. Granted the conditions of life today and taking into account the relevance of married love to the harmony and mutual fidelity of husband and wife, would it not be right to review the moral norms in force till now, especially when it is gelt that these can be observed only with the gravest difficulty, sometimes only be heroic effort?” (Humanae vitae §3)

10Rebecca Cafe, “How the contraceptive pill changed Britain” (4 Dec. 2011), BBC News.

Theology and Literature: Isaac Watts and the “Event”

I’ve been entirely remiss about including a final installment of this “Theology and Literature” series. The simple routine of life’s proceedings — going to the library, mailing a postcard, eating a bagel — has gotten me off track, or, rather, kept me on track. But that track, in its rigidity, has not been wholly conducive to writing something reflective. I’ve been trapped in a flow of events that somehow has managed to be fairly uneventful.

This idea of eventfulness brings me back to a enduring memory from my nine-month-long stint of studying in Britain, from which I have only recently returned. Back in March, I took part in a ten-day, cross-country pilgrimage that stretched from Oxford, England to Walsingham in East Anglia. It was cross-country in a double sense: our group of two dozen pilgrims carried a nine-foot-long crucifix in three person, three minute shifts 20 to 30 miles per day. We crossed through fields populated by sheep and fat pale hogs and passed by Norman churches with slanted roofs and skewed tombstones in their uneven churchyards. Our first or second evening, we stopped in a church in Bicester for mass. Near the end of the service, we sung a hymn that struck me to the core. I can’t quite explain why. I had actually studied the hymn in an literature class, though I only realized that a few minutes later. Tiredly reading the bare words in preparation for class discussion, however, had not impacted me quite as much as singing them among a chorus of pilgrims and parishioners.

The hymn was “When I survey the wondrous cross”, one of many written by the 18th century English hymn-writer Isaac Watts. A contemporary of his, a certain Charles Wesley, allegedly claimed that he would have traded all the hymns he wrote (and he wrote some 6000) to have written just this one. The verse that really caught my attention in the church that evening was the following:

His dying crimson, like a robe,

Spreads o’er His body on the tree;

Then I am dead to all the globe,

And all the globe is dead to me.

These four lines capture the “Event” of Christ’s death on the cross with such vivid precision — the robe-like curtain of death spreading over him — yet, the most striking feature of this verse for me lies in the spectator’s reaction to the “Event.” The last two verses describe the death the spectator suffers as Jesus himself dies, and the subsequent death of the world in the darkness of his Savior’s passing. Usually, artistic renderings of the Crucifixion focus on Christ’s death, yet here attention is redirected to the death of the spectator and the world that follow from surveying that wondrous cross. Watts masterfully reflects this in the form of hymn itself, which employs chiasmus, the inverted mirroring of words in a pair of lines, to represent the cross: “dead” and “all the globe” switch places from the third line to fourth line, forming an X structure (Chiasmus comes from the Greek letter for X, Chi). What’s more, the subject “I” transforms into the indirect object “me,” as the spectator fades into the background, dying as Christ dies. The loss is made personal, which, I suppose, explains why the hymn struck me as it did.

In a subjective sense, the “Event”-ness of an “Event” resides in the response of the perceiver rather than in the physical constitution of the perceived alone. Occurrences are memorable not just because they are bright or loud or enormous, but because they strike the individual in just the right spot of his or her circumstances, tear a hole in the fabric of the everyday, and settle into his or her memory. Most Events are Events only in the minds of a few individuals primed to receive them. Doubtless, few of my fellow pilgrims would recount that hymnal moment in the church as I did. Though some Events certainly resonate with large group of people, often appealing to a national consciousness, such as in the inauguration of a president or the end of a war, even these occurrences are tinged and colored by an individual’s experience before they solidify into an “Event.”

The Gospels do portray the Crucifixion as an “Event,” one that has been internalized and assigned significance by individuals, rather than a banal historical occurrence lacking deeper meaning, however grand it might seem. In John’s Gospel, we hear how Mary stood near the cross as John, the beloved disciple of Christ, said to her, “Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26). John experiences his own “Event”, as Christ responds to the disciple, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27), which happens to be an important moment for mariology, as Christ identifies Mary’s role as a spiritual mother to others. In the Synoptic Gospels, the centurion and the good thief comprehend the import of Christ’s death in their own way. Watts captures this personal angle tremendously well in his literary of this occurrence turned “Event,” so well, indeed, that the hymn produced an “Event” in my own life.

When reading becomes eventful, when you can point to a passage and say, “these words induced this or that lasting emotional resonance in me that I can recreate (or at least reproduce a scent of) by re-reading” — that’s when you know you’re reading the right stuff.

Literature and Theology: David Foster Wallace and Christianity from Without

In my last post on Faulkner and Biblical Interpretation, I examined the idea that theology should be understood more like literature (seen as a network of symbols and themes conveyed through a master narrative), and that literature should be read more for its theology (how it speaks to the heart, as the Bible does for Faulkner’s Isaac, rather than to the analytic mind).

In this post, I intend to reflect on a passage from another work which, again, does not deal chiefly with theology—a scene in the short story “Mister Squishy”, the first in the 2004 collection Oblivion: Stories by David Foster Wallace. I featured this passage in its 2-page, single-sentence entirety in a past post, but this time I want to isolate and explicate several theological details.

The scene takes place as Terry Schmidt, a middle-aged marketing analyst, directs a focus group on a new line of Mister Squishy brand confections while simultaneously directing his own internal monologue plagued by fears of inadequacy and mental isolation.

Without further ado:

“Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknown and –knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was probably only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he’d watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg’s cap’s public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under the left arm or the way any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other’s arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine. . .

“Or maybe that even the mere possibility of expressing any of this childish heartbreak to someone else seemed impossible except in the context  of the mystery of true marriage, meaning not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls, and Schmidt now lately felt he was coming to understand why the Church all through his childhood catechism and pre-Con referred to it as the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, for it seemed every bit as miraculous and trans-rational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life as the crucifixion and resurrection and transubstantiation did, which is to say it appeared not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star, as in in the sky, something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful in the sort of distant way that reminded you always of how ordinary and unbeautiful and incapable of miracles you your own self were” (31-2)

Two particular features animate this passage: first, it articulates a nuanced view of the theological layer of reality, especially from a writer who approaches Christianity and theology as an outsider. Though Wallace tried out various churches, (once entering Catholic RCIA and marrying a Catholic convert, according to D. T. Max’s biography) he never seemed to adhere to a specific religious creed, as D. T. Max speculated in an interview with The Atlantic: “I don’t think the Judeo-Christian God ever satisfied him. I think he found it hard to put his skepticism away and feel faith.” Second, it delves into the mind of a character, granting the reader immediate and intimate access to his crippling fears and lofty speculations.

Theological Idea(l)s as Immaterial Ideals

Overtly, this passage discusses marriage theologically as “not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls” in which husband and wife are fully known by one another in what the “Church” calls “the Holy Sacrament of Marriage.” While worthy of discussion, marriage will not be the focus of the analysis. Rather, the implications that Schmidt draws out from the sacramental nature of marriage interest me for their insight into the higher-level reality of theological concepts.

Along with the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, Schmidt regards sacramental marriage as “miraculous and trans-rational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life,” meaning that they appear “not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star,” which reminds one of one’s own limitations.

Wallace does well to describe theological ideas as guiding principles, as ideals that layer over reality. Though the Crucifixion and Resurrection are much more grounded in history than other transcendent notions, such as Original Sin and human dignity, it is important to realize that theology does not concern itself merely with hard-data and events, but with the meaning of those phenomena, hence becoming multi-dimensional. The Crucifixion, for example, is both the Roman execution of Jesus of Nazareth on a wooden cross in first century Palestine and the fulcrum of Salvation History, an act of pure sacrifice that mirrors and redeems Adam’s Fall through the fruit of a tree as the incarnate God suffers the death of mortal man, which serves as a guiding principle of Christian devotion and love.

Some aren’t willing to see these immaterial dimensions. A skeptic might respond that a man’s death on a cross has nothing to do with the sins of others, that no measurable redemption occurs (remember, though, that we are also told that the Crucifixion is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” [1 Cor 1:23]). This materialist skepticism is the same sort of attitude espoused by Steven Pinker as he dismisses belief in the human ‘soul’ in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.[1] But Wallace gestures at the higher realities of these concepts, concepts which spiritually guide our lives rather than physically describe them. C. S. Lewis (metaphorically) describes Christianity in a similar way, not as some identifiable feature of the world, but like the light of the sun that allows him to see the world at all.[2]

C. S. Lewis, Light, and Looking Along

And to C. S. Lewis I turn to explain the second feature of this passage from “Mister Squishy”; the way in which Wallace allows us to inhabit the character of Terry Schmidt, to look along with him rather than at him.

In an essay titled “Meditations in a Toolshed,” Lewis distinguishes between looking at a ray of light—a thin stream of photons projecting through the hole of a toolshed roof—and looking along that same ray—a, quite literally, enlightening experience by which the sky and treetops beyond the toolshed are illuminated. While ‘looking at’ limits the viewer to analytics and data, ‘looking along’ immerses the viewer in a view-altering experience.  This is the difference between measuring the pulse and temperature of someone who is in love, boiling the experience down to hormones and neurology, and actually being in love oneself.  Pinker’s nonphysical human soul substance vs. the sensation of being a soulful human.

Wallace succeeds twofold in looking along. Not only does he embody the experience of a corporate employee paralyzed by the “thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine” and invite the reader to do the same; he also views Christian doctrine as a non-Christian not by scrutinizing as an outsider looking in but by adopting the Christian perspective as an outsider looking along.

Conclusions: Literature as View to the Soul?

Wallace’s engagement with Christianity and theology in general takes a similarly empathetic approach. In a section of The Pale King, an IRS agent reflects on how he belittled a Christian for her ‘coming-to-faith’ experience only to realize in the wake of his own vocational epiphany that “enormous, sudden, drastic, unexpected, life-changing experiences are not translatable or explainable to anyone else , and this is because they really are unique and particular” (206). His short story “Good People” (which would become part of The Pale King) inhabits the mind of a Christian dealing with his unexpectedly pregnant girlfriend, quoting esoteric Bible verses and grappling with Christian conceptions of sexuality and moral responsibility. Even more hidden away, a passage in Infinite Jest describes God’s presence in the world as the flow of water that two fish fail to recognize despite its pervasiveness.

“Mister Squishy,” along with nearly all of Wallace’s Oblivion: Stories focus on the interiority of human characters, spinning minute verbal details into brilliant literary expressions of self. From the literary bits emerge a narrative guiding by thematic ideals and a glimpse into human lives, albeit fictitious ones, that ordinary discourse rarely permits. Yet, we do not take these stories as just words, nor people as mere particles arranging into a complex chemical chimera of personhood. Literature enkindles a narrative, a holistic structure, a soul. For the world, theology endeavors to do the same.


[1] Pinker reasons that because human bodies consist of only biological parts just as machines consist of mechanical parts, we have no more reason to believe that the merely material apparatus of the human gives rise to a soul than we have reason to believe that your laptop’s metallic assembly (or, to be more fair, a Star Trek android) gives rise to one. To start, this is a poor comparison. Machines and organisms exhibit markedly different behaviors which lead us to believe that there is something about organisms that is simply categorically different from inorganic matter—there is a certain “livingness” that differentiates what Peter van Inwagen calls “composites” (any living being) from mechanical replicas. Perhaps we can pin down this “livingness” as consciousness. Moreover, Pinker’s analogy wholly misses the point of what is meant by a ‘soul.’ In the book, Pinker defines a soul as an immortal entity “made of some nonphysical; substance, which can part company with the body” (10). The question is, what would a nonphysical substance look like? How could Pinker’s view be falsified? Do we need some kind of invisible petroleum jelly to constitute the soul? I find this approach rather foolish. If one could quantify or observe a nonphysical substance through physical means, it would necessarily be physical. When we talk about nonphysical, immaterial things, we are invariably talking about ideas that ‘map on’ to reality—essences, ideals, “something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful” to quote Wallace. We should think of the soul as a reality, but not a material reality. Rather, it is a reality that is endowed into and hence emerges from the material arrangement of the human body. Recall that Paul talks about resurrection as involving bodies, too: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44). I would go so far as to say that if there is organized organic matter, there is spirit in some sense (as consciousness, essence, perhaps?), even if not in the immortal, subject-to-judgment reality of the human soul. The body-soul relationship certainly demands some heavier, more rigorous thinking on my part.

[2] “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see  everything else” – C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”

Literature and Theology: Faulkner on Biblical Interpretation

Hey, there. I’ve been meaning to write this post for over a month now. At any rate, I have quite a load of theological thoughts to unload.

My plan (we plan. God laughs) is to write one brief post each remaining Sunday up until Easter (which is not all that far away) regarding the relationship of theology and literature. The two, in word and deed, relate quite closely.  To this end, I intend to analyze one terse but powerful snippet of prose in each post.

Many theological texts, not the least which are books of the Old Testament, constitute a kind of literature, where literature, broadly speaking, is an intensified form of language, one that moves beyond everyday usage through devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allegory. Theology, as a discussion of deeper transcendent realities, often relies on literary devices to construct meaning. As Peter Hodgson writes in a book on theology in the fiction of nineteenth-century English novelist George Eliot:

“Theology and art are both ‘fiction’ –  a term deriving from the Latin verb fingere, ‘to form,’ ‘imagine,’ or ‘invent’ – in the sense that they entail a shaping, construing, configuring of the real in imaginative as opposed to empirical-descriptive modalities.”[1]

Whereas scientific, empirical study provides us with useful data about the composition and workings of natural systems, literature—and really art at large—constantly insists that objects, sensations, and experience possess meaning beyond the immediacy of their material composition. For example, a bird flying across the expanse of blue sky is not just a bird, but a manifestation of loneliness. If scientific analyses provide us with material descriptions, the arts provide us with a narrative of meaning.

Theology often draws from literature in this way, and literature, I contend, also draws from theology, even when a work does not explicitly deal in theological terms.

Faulkner, “The Bear”, and the Bible

This week, I want to look at a section imbedded deep in the forested terrain of William Faulkner’s short story “The Bear,” which tracks the growth of Isaac, a young Mississippian boy, in the annual hunt of a bear as old and thick-skinned as the trees that hide his fierce ursine form.

The section below, however, appears in the fourth part of the story in which the young boy has aged into a young man. When he debates with his cousin McCaslin, the text takes a theological turn:

 ‘There are some things He said in the Book, and some things reported of Him that He did not say. And I know what you will say now: That if truth is one thing to me and another thing to you, how will we choose which is truth? You don’t need to choose. The heart already knows. He didn’t have His Book written to be read by what must elect and choose, but by the heart, not by the wise of the earth because maybe they don’t need it or maybe the wise no longer have any heart, but by the doomed and lowly of the earth who have nothing else to read with but the heart. Because the men who wrote his Book for Him were writing truth and there is only one truth and it covers all things that touch the heart.’ And McCaslin

‘So these men who transcribed His Book for Him were sometimes liars.’ and he

‘Yes. Because they were human men. They were trying to write down the heart’s truth out of the driving complexity, for all the complex and troubled hearts which would beat after them. What they were trying to tell, what He wanted said, was too simple. Those for whom they transcribed His words could not have believed them. It had to be expounded in the everyday terms which they were familiar with and could comprehend, not only those who listened but those who told it too, because if they who were that near to Him as to have been elected from among all who breathed and spoke language to transcribe and relay His words, could comprehend truth only through the complexity of passion and lust and hate and fear which drive the heart, what distance back to truth must they traverse whom truth could only reach by word-of-mouth?’ (Faulkner, “The Bear” pt. 4)

Now read that through once more.

Powerful prose, no?

Two main theological points surface here: the Truth of the Bible, and the Bible as Revelation, an inspired text, humanly written and divinely mediated.

Isaac’s basic Biblical hermeneutics, that is, his means of interpreting scripture, are the following: the Bible is not a text that appeals only to the brain; rather, it is a text that resonates with the human heart, yet in a way that is clear and universal to “the doomed and lowly of the earth who have nothing else to read with but the heart.” Since the Bible speaks to the heart, it must speak in terms that the heart understands, that is, “everyday terms which they were familiar with and could comprehend.” These terms require the divine Word to be processed through the human heart, such that it not only speaks to the heart but also from the heart, “through the complexity of passion and lust and hate and fear which drive the heart.” This translation from divine knowledge to the human heart transforms and expands the simple perfection of God’s simple message by passing it through the filter of human language, yet this filter must be passed through for the message to be registered universally and clearly by the human heart.

Narrative as the Language of the Heart

Philosopher Peter van Inwagen raises a similar point about Revelation in an essay on Genesis: sure, God could have revealed the exact scientific details about the age and formation of the earth to ancient Hebrew scribes, but such descriptions, first of all, would evade understanding, “for the result would be inaccessible to most people at most places and times.”[2]

Second and more importantly, such a description, with the listing of epochs and the tracking of atmospheric oxygenation, would not communicate the higher level Truth, the narrative of meaning that Genesis provides. For narrative truth, one requires (sensibly enough) a narrative, as van Inwagen writes:

“These truths, I believe, truths related to sin and knowledge of good and evil, can only be shown by telling a very concrete story. . . . something which could not have been conveyed by a story about trees and a serpent but which certainly had to be conveyed parabolically—that is, by means of some story about the actions of concrete, picturable beings.” (141)

Sure, one could define concepts such as sin and salvation, but these definitions would not go too far, floating in the realm of the mind as abstractions. To reify these concepts, one must speak the language of the heart, not simply defining but demonstrating through narrative. The Bible, indeed, frequently speaks in narrative terms, from Adam’s Fall to Jesus’ parables, for the sake of explaining truths that don’t have the same heartfelt effect when merely stated. Love thy neighbor. Ok. But show me how.

By linking together details in linear format, narrative passes on information in the same way that we experience it through the run of daily life. Toni Morrison said as much in her banquet speech after receiving the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature: “I believe that one of the principle ways in which we acquire, hold, and digest information is via narrative.” However, she did not merely say so, but went on to weave her own narrative to explain how literature combats oppression and gives voice to the voiceless.

A Narrative to Convey the Concept of Narrative

Perhaps to make sense of the abstract concept of narratives speaking better to the heart than mere statements of fact, I should tell a narrative myself. Better yet, I’ll let Scripture, the heart-speaking narrative in question, do it for me.

In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan confronts David about his adultery. While he could simple accuse David of stealing Bathsheba and condemning her husband to death, such a direct accusation of the monarch would be both uncouth and ineffective, so Nathan narrates thus:

“There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herd. But the poor man had nothing except for a little lamb he had acquired. He raised it, and it grew up alongside him and his children. It used to ear his food, drink from his cup, and sleep in his arms. It was just like a daughter to him. When a traveler arrived at the rich man’s home, he did not want to use one of his own sheep or cattle to feed the traveler who had come to visit him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and cooked it for the man who had come to visit him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

Upon hearing the story, David becomes enrages and decrees that the traveler deserves to die, only to be told “You are that man!” Taken on its own, Nathan’s narrative convinces David of his guilt by speaking to his heart. Taken as a narrative within the narrative of scripture, the story testifies to the potency of narratives to communicate what plain statements cannot.

Conclusions: Reading with the Heart

I suggest, then, that we understand theology more like we understand a Faulkner short story than a logical proof, reading theme and higher level meaning conveyed by narrative. This isn’t to say, however, that theology does not have factual content to add as well—just look at the Gospels, where historical foundations and theological themes develop in the same narrative. The language of the heart and the language of the mind operate together in the same text.

Similarly, we cannot hope to fully understand literature by observing it through an analytic magnifying glass, dissecting metaphors and piecing together meaning. Literature, too, is something experienced with the heart, something that emotes and bleeds. Perhaps Susan Sontag is on to something when she demands an erotics of art in place of hermeneutics in “Against Interpretation.” For now, I’ll try to unify emotions and analytics by keeping Isaac’s Biblical hermeneutics in mind while taking them to heart.

More to come in a week’s time.

Cum caritate



[1] Peter C. Hodgson, Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot (London: SCM, 2001); 149.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, God, Knowledge, and Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); 140.

What It Means to Be a Serious Man: The Book of Job and the Coen Brothers’ Retelling of the Jewish Scripture’s Chief Account of Personal Suffering

Some months ago I took a train to the north of Chicago to visit an old writer at his home. I had written an article about him for my university’s paper and had become rather enamored on his writing in the process. The essay of his that I had found most enrapturing concerned his wife’s advanced dementia and the death of his parents, ending on the line, “All any of us can do is show our love for each other – while we yet have the time.”

Yet, the man I met that day was nothing like the man I had expected to meet. He lacked the grandfatherly sentimentality of his essays. He was a man like many men. He spoke ordinary words. There was a coarseness to him, roughness from decades of life. It ran through the wrinkles of his skin, yes, but also through his speech, through what he said and how he said it. He said most of the great essayists he admired were dead. He said matter-of-factly, without any particular inflection, that his wife’s condition was only going to get worse. It struck me, while on the train ride back, that this wise writer was a serious man.

Who and what a serious man is, exactly, eludes quick definition. Somehow, though, I can recognize when I have met one, often after hours and in some cases years of retrospection. My father, for example, is a serious man, though the aspects of his seriousness I have only come to grasp in the course of my own maturation. Yet, what I mean by a serious man is not characterized by humorlessness or stolidity or even masculinity itself. There assuredly are women who fit the ‘serious man’ motif. Being a serious man is certainly a disposition rather than a singular emotional state, defined by essence as well as conduct. This disposition involves facing up to suffering and one’s own relative smallness with both courageous acceptance and un-enfeebled hope. It is a disposition that reminds me, most immediately, of the book of Job.

In an attempt to answer the question “What does it mean to be a serious man?” I want to explore this ancient Hebrew account of one man’s response to immense suffering as well as the relevantly-titled film A Serious Man, produced by the Coen Brothers as an oblique re-telling of the book of Job set in an American Jewish community in the 1960s. Through this exploration, I hope to uncover some of the defining aspects of the ‘serious man’ motif and grapple with the problem of suffering, which seems to go hand in hand with the story of any serious man.

The Man Behind the Book: Job

The book of Job belongs to the wisdom literature of Hebrew scripture and presents the account of a man who suffers greatly despite his righteousness. The book of Job, part folk tale and part dramatic poem, essentially aims to answer the theologically mind-bending question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, which can be thought of as a reformulation of the problem of evil. Thus, Job’s narrative constitutes a theodicy, an explanation of how God and evil can coexist.

Yet, the book is no theological treatise, for Job’s tale is a personal and moving one. The book is, after all, Job’s book, and it rightly begins with a description of who he is as a man: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (1:1)[1]. Job’s life is prosperous: he has land and many heads of livestock and children for whom he makes cautionary offerings to God, reasoning that “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts” (1:5). However, Job lives in land in which Satan goes to and fro, and when this satanic figure challenges Job’s righteousness by claiming that Job serves God only because he has been blessed with possessions and health, Job’s servitude and confidence in God are put to the test. In a rapid sequence of grave misfortunes—some natural and some perpetrated by other humans[2]—Job is deprived of his land, his horticultural welfare, his progeny, and his bodily health (in 2:7). What is Job’s response to this cataclysmic personal suffering?

“Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshipped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (1:20-21)

Despite horrendous suffering, Job surrenders himself to the will of God, recognizing that what he has lost was not his inherently, but rather gifts of God’s benevolence, possessions which he would lose in death at any rate. Thus begins the discussion of what it means to be a serious man.

Though Job acknowledges God’s sovereignty, he struggles to cope with his anxiety at an existential level. In the remaining forty or so chapters, Job continues to lament his suffering and seeks an explanation through a series of speeches delivered by him and his three friends. We are reminded by the narrator that Job “did not sin or charge God with any wrong” (1:22), which confounds the theological sense of the group, which understands suffering as a punishment for sin. Thus, the trio of friends challenge Job’s claim to innocence and righteousness, for God punishes only the sinful.

Throughout the discourse, several thoughts are voiced that shed light on Job’s seriousness. First, Job does not ignore the weight of his suffering or refuse to confront the sorrow of his condition, which would amount to quietism; that is, doing nothing in the face of life’s struggles. Like most people, he demands answers. However, his refusal to content himself with simplistic solutions sets him apart. Though his friends repeat conventional wisdom about God’s retributive justice against sinners, Job desires “to speak to the Almighty and to argue [his] case with God” (13:3). Though the statement can be seen as hubristic and brash, Job’s desire for an audience with God seems to have more to do with his longing for definite answers than it does with his insistence on being mistreating before God. For Job, his friends’ threadbare answers are insubstantial compared to the eternal decrees of the Almighty, as Job describes:  “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay” (13:12). These strongly ephemeral terms of “ashes” and “clay” evoke a major thematic push of the book as a whole: the lives of humans are fleeting and insignificant before the grandeur of God. Job grapples with this unsettling notion directly rather than talking around the issue, saying, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope. . . . As the cloud vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.” (7:6, 9). Very much in the vein of the book of Ecclesiastes, Job laments the ephemerality of life and the final separation from the world in death. Perhaps Job’s ability to face up to his relative powerlessness allows him to comprehend a world in which God’s rule—not his own—is supreme. And yet, a final aspect of Job’s seriousness causes him to extend his suffering beyond himself. Rather, than localizing his suffering, Job is concerned with a universal injustice, as he questions, “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (21:8). This universal worry is only assuaged by a universal answer. First in the voice of Elihu, a younger man who has joined the discussion, and later in the voice of the Lord Himself, God’s divine knowledge and supremacy are adduced  to explain God’s ability to adjudicate on matters of justice hidden to humans. In the words of Elihu: “If it were His intention and he withdrew His spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to dust” (34:14-15).

After accepting God’s supremacy, Job is vindicated, thereby demonstrating God’s ultimately just treatment of the righteous man; his prosperity is restored twofold and  he dies “old and full of days” (42:17).

Job’s seriousness, then, is built upon his encounter with suffering, to which he responds in a committed, forthright, and humble manner. Though he cannot expect to avoid suffering, he can make sense of it by framing suffering under the direction of an all-knowing God. This same message—that righteousness does not free one from suffering (but, perhaps, prepares one for it)—surfaces poignantly in a scene from Terrance Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, which portrays the American campaign against the Japanese in the battle of Guadalcanal during the Second World War. In the scene, the disembodied voice of a dead Japanese soldier speaks to his transfixed American enemy:

Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was. Do you imagine that your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness? Truth?

No. It would seem that righteousness does not disengage one from worldly suffering. Seriousness, though, may equip one to combat it.

A Serious Man

With these basic criteria for the ‘serious man’ motif, I’d like now to turn to A Serious Man. The film centers on a small-town, Jewish professor of physics named Larry Gopnik, whose life is suddenly upended by a series of tragedies mirroring those of Job: his family is taken from him as his wife demands a get (Jewish divorce) and his unassuming brother is accused of gambling and sodomy; his livelihood is threatened by the uncertainty of receiving tenure and a student’s attempt to bribe him; his land is threatened by a domineering neighbor; and, he begins to question where Hashem (God) is and what He wants from him. The movie unfolds masterfully, cycling between Larry’s familial rupture exacerbated by the intrusion of his wife’s lover, Sy Ableman, his work life confused by financial worries, his search for spiritual guidance from three Rabbis (à la Job’s three friends) and his son Danny’s preparation for his bar mitzvah. Not only does the movie build off of the book of Job, it also engages with other compelling Jewish archetypes, including the relationship of father and son (seen especially when Danny, newly bar-miztvahed, walks into the office of the elder Rabbi Marshak, from which his father has been excluded, and passes a conspicuous painting of the Binding of Isaac), the temptation of King David (seen when Larry, standing on his roof top to fix the ever-problematic TV antenna, glances at his neighbor’s wife sunbathing naked), and Jewish chosen-ness (expressed by Rabbi Nachtner in his frequent references to non-Jews as goys). What it means to be a serious man, however, remains a primary focus of the film.

Interesting to note is that Larry, the presumed eponymous “Serious Man,” is not once referred to as such. His refrain, much like Job’s, is “I haven’t done anything.” He does stumble to say, “I’ve, I’ve tried to be a serious man.” However, only Sy Ableman is referred to as a serious man by both himself and Rabbi Nachtner, likely on account of his commanding presence. Yet, he employs circumlocution to avoid talking directly about the extent of his involvement with Larry’s wife—very much in contrast to Job’s forthright engagement with suffering.

The only other character who describes himself as a serious man is the Yiddish husband from the enigmatic opening to the movie, which involves a Jewish couple welcoming a traveler into their home. Here, the man’s declaration of himself as serious stands in contrast to the superstition of his wife, who suspects that the visitor is a dybbuk (a sort of malevolent spirit). Does this mean that a serious man is a rational man, a man who reasons toward truth? A later scene in the movie suggests that the man intent on rationalizing everything, oddly enough, is the one most likely to be perplexed by the world and be too incapacitated by uncertainty to face the world seriously. As Larry stands before a board chalked with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, he announces, oxymoronically, that what we know is that everything is uncertain—we can never really know what’s going on. The spectral Sy Ableman, though, retorts “one can see it’s subtle, clever, but is it convincing?”

While reason may resolve logical dilemmas, Larry, like Job, needs something more existentially convincing to conquer[3] suffering.

While the movie deals with serious tragedy, it is not without humor, which seems to show that a serious man need not be humorless. Rather than a means of brushing away questions, the movie’s humor tends to illuminate seriousness. For example, when Larry consults the ebullient junior rabbi with his concerns about losing track of God, he is told to look at the world through a fresh set of eyes, that even a parking lot can evoke the wonder of God if considered with the perspective of “someone who isn’t familiar with these autos and such.”

The scene recalls the superficial responses of Job’s friends, though it is not without truth—God is present everywhere. The problem, really, is in the presentation, which is decidedly unserious.

Two further details add some clarity to the Coen’s take on suffering and seriousness. First, an epigram appears on screen before the prologue, an old Jewish saying: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” What is this? An injunction against over-interpretation? A command to bear through suffering without giving it much thought? Maybe it’s simpler than that.

Second, the movie ends on a brilliantly-executed dual cliffhanger: Larry’s doctor, whom he has seen at the film’s opening, requests an in-person meeting to discuess some foreboding X-rays; meanwhile, Danny stands before a gargantuan, grey tornado, as dark and obscure as his father’s potential prognosis. With an understanding of Job, the scene carries prominent theological meaning: first, Job’s children are killed by “a mighty wind,” and the storm threatens to do the same to Larry’s son. Second, in the Hebrew scripture, God speaks to Job from the tempest, reminding him of his uncertain human knowledge. Thus, the torrent in the film might stand both for destruction and divine knowledge. And what message emanates from the storm? The words of the film’s title song by Jefferson Airplane, listened to by Danny throughout the film and uttered by the rabbinically wise Marshak as Danny enters the office: “You gotta find somebody to love.”

A simple message, indeed.

Simple conclusions

In the foreword to a collection of short stories titled Slow Learner, the postmodern writer Thomas Pynchon asserts that a serious man is one who writes about serious issues, namely death and suffering. It seems, though, that what one writes about does not suffice. Rather, how one writes is what matters, for humor that resorts to escapism and simplistic remarks that seep with sentimentality cannot do justice to the problem of suffering, which is perhaps the central problem of human life. Similarly, a serious man is not defined merely by what one does but how one does it, for what a serious man does is clear—he bears through suffering. What makes him a serious man is how he does so—with the understanding that his suffering is not somehow special, but rather a part of a universal scheme, to put the matter a bit crudely.

But, the film’s ending reminds us that more is called of the serious man: he is called, simply, to love. Though the command may seem simple, its truth lies in its presentation. A love that is humble, committed, and selfless. A love that is serious. Like that of Jesus, who, through his selflessness and example as suffering servant, is undoubtedly a serious man. So, I am reminded of the words of another serious man I met not too long ago: “All any of us can do is show our love for each other – while we yet have the time.”

Cum Caritate (With Love),

–Contagious Caritas


[1] All quotations are from The New Revised Version of the Bible.

[2] I make this distinction to demonstrate that both natural and manmade evils befall Job, meaning that no single agent acting maliciously against Job; rather, the entire system of the world has, for the moment, conspired against his material well-being.

[3] To convince, deriving from the Latin vincere “to conquer”

Contagious Caritas Reboot

Hey there:

Are you looking forward to reading more theologically enriching content on CC? If so, that’s good, since we have more articles on the way. It not, I have a few paragraphs to convince you that having a quick read will be well worth your time.

New enterprises are underfoot here at CC. Charlie is looking to write a new film review / biblical exegesis (it’s been in the works for a while now) on the Book of Job in the same spirit as his article on Ecclesiastes and in light of the whole scriptural canon. Noah may be well on his way to writing about his Re-version experience (update to come). And a number of articles will be getting a theological/philosophical reboot in the wake of recent conversations, see especially ‘A Quick Look at Faith and Evidence’ and the lengthy ‘On Free Will, or Did I Have a Choice to Write this Article?’ The latter will be getting a major theological and philosophical facelift after Charlie gets through The Oxford Handbook of Freewill and David Foster Wallace’s senior thesis on fatalism, published by Columbia University Press in Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. That’ll take a while, so don’t expect that update until around Christmas time (an Advent surprise).

But, what’s more, we are excited to announce that we are looking for more contributors!!! A rigorous and rich understanding of theology is recommended but not required. Actually, in light of our mission to ‘spread the light from one heart to another,’ we are looking for contributors of diverse and charitable theological backgrounds.

Cum caritate,


William James Was Something of an Intellectual Genius When it Came to Religion

Bill James–Great Man

The 19th century American psychologist and thinker William James was, in short, the Victorian version of ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World.’ He attended elementary school in Paris and Geneva, aspired to be a painter in Rhode Island, embarked on a journey through the Amazon Rain Forest, was admitted to Harvard Medical School, trekked across Europe, and read philosophy at Berlin University. And this was all before his real academic life had even begun.

As an instructor of physiology, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard, James rebranded the term ‘religious experience,’ exploring the high-brow, cerebral (literally) concepts of consciousness and mind long before modern brain scans and neuro-physics. This was only several decades after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, a time before modern scientific advancements and global warfare–James (1848-1910) would not live to hear about the first shots fired across the trenches of World War I.

Yet, James lived in an age in which faith, that is, religious faith, came into serious doubt. Even before James earned his M.D. and got down to business redefining our understanding of religion, the British poet Matthew Arnold wrote in his 1867 poem “Dover Beach”:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

1867 and already people are claiming that “The Sea of Faith” is waning? Someone call Sam Harris in here! He has to see this.

Doubt is nothing new for humanity. Neither doubt of faith nor doubt of God has burst forth from out of nowhere. The difference nowadays is how ubiquitous the doubt is, but, moreover how much it is taken for granted. This, for James, was the problem—the demand that we must doubt until we have “sufficient evidence.” James did not understand religion to be rationally self-evident like that. For James, as much as for St. Augustine, Jesus, and just about every saint and thinker in the history of the Catholic Church (not to mention the great thinkers of other faith traditions–from Siddhartha to Mohammed), religion was and is primarily about faith.

This point James makes clear in a lecture he gave at Harvard, later published in the 1897 collection The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. If only it was still a popular read today.

In the first few sentences, James describes his own lecture as “an essay in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James sets out to explain why it makes sense, why it is justified to believe religiously.

First, James discusses the options we have in our lives, that which we decide ‘to believe or not to believe.’ He categorizes the options in these opposing pairs: living or dead, i.e., relevant or irrelevant; forced or avoidable, that is, one in which we are either forced to choose one thing or another, or one we can simply dismiss, e.g., “either accept my theory or go on without it” gives us no choice (we choose either way, by deciding to accept or, as the only alternative, going on without, regardless of whether we reject it or just decline to answer) vs. “either call my theory true or call it false”; and momentous or trivial, i.e., there’s a lot riding on the choice or there’s not.

As James limns, the decision either to accept God or go on without God is a (a) living, (b) forced, and (c) momentous option. Such an option is, as James classifies it, a genuine one.

However, James says we encounter a common problem when attempting to engage with this genuine option: many people seem to think that any religious belief, belief that doesn’t have “sufficient evidence” is a belief we should avoid at all costs.

Putting aside the question of what would constitute “sufficient evidence,” James observes plainly that very little of what we actually do is motivated by the purely logical side of our thinking: “Evidently, then, our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. . . the state of things is evidently far from simple; and pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that really do produce our creeds.” (emphasis mine)

James goes on to explain that we are absolutist by instinct, individuals who “dogmatize like infallible popes.” We always think we’re right. In spite of this, James urges us to allow our beliefs to be flexible, for “there is but one indefectibly certain truth, and that is the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists.” This is the foundational truth that the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes expressed in the Latin phrase cogito ergo sum, I am thinking, therefore I exist. This consciousness, this absolute given that I (we) think at all, that I (we) believe anything, is the infrangible certainty. Beyond that, we must have faith of some variety, for there is no other belief out there that some person doesn’t think (without contradicting himself) is downright baloney.

Amidst this uncertainty, James concludes that we have to allow ourselves to believe religiously that is, without “sufficient evidence,” since gauging what “sufficient evidence” actually is requires some sort of “sufficient evidence” in and of itself. There is no bell that goes off in our heads when we know we’ve broken through that precious space between evidence that is sufficient and that which is inadequate. As James eloquently writes:

“To preach skepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in the presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . This command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait—acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true—till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough—this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave. . . if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell.” (emphasis mine)

To believe religiously, in something, in anything, is an option thrust upon us in the trials and uncertainties of life. It is a genuine option we cannot walk away from, because walking away is itself a choice, when the option is presented to us as “Believe religiously or go on without it.” But this isn’t just philosophical trickery. Our lives demand it. James ends his speech with a quotation from Fitz-James Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity  which I would like to end on, too:

“In all important transactions in life, we must take a deep leap into the dark”

Cum Caritate,