Near the beginning of D.C. Schindler’s important and impressive book Love and the Postmodern Predicament: Rediscovering the Real in Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (Cascade Books, 2018), he quotes a prescient passage from G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. Chesterton writes:
Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet believed.
Each day brings us fresh examples that Chesterton’s future is our present. Each day we witness the contemporary rejection of reality and the need for men and women to kindle fires and draw swords to defend the most elemental and obvious truths. This is not simply a rejection of reality but a rejection that reality is intelligible, that we can participate in it, know it, and live in conformity with it—indeed, that living in conformity with it is the way we can be most fully human.
Perhaps the most obvious example is our contemporary confusion regarding the body, sex, and gender. But the examples are legion. Unfortunately, this rejection of reality and its intelligibility touches even the Church. For instance, one prominent Jesuit has asserted that in theology 2+2 can equal 5.
In this slim volume—which is not to say light—Schindler responds to this confusion—this culture of anti-reality—with verve and lucidity. Schindler states that the project of his book “is to recall a pre-modern vision of man as ordered to communion with reality.” But Schindler’s book is hardly a simple regurgitation of classical metaphysics. First, in his ordering of the transcendentals he places goodness before truth and both are preceded by beauty. This allows Schindler “more fundamentally to secure the ultimacy of contemplation that lies at the core of the classical conception of man.” Second, Schindler offers “absolute priority to love.” This is not, as some think, an elevation of the “the will above reason.” Instead, Schindler argues that “love is best understood not merely as an act of the will, in contrast to the act of the intellect, but rather as an ontological unity, within which we properly will and understand.”
Why anti-reality is a problem
Schindler first diagnoses why our modern condition is so poisonous. “[E]ncountering reality is a basic part of the meaning of human existence.” And, moreover, “there is something fundamentally good about this encounter with the world.” “Modern culture,” however, “is largely a conspiracy to protect us from the real.” Our “encounter” with reality, with everyday life, is increasingly mediated by technology, buffered by layers and layers of devices, screens, “social” media, and various other contrivances. Schindler writes that “the energies of the modern world are largely devoted to keeping reality at bay, monitoring any encounter with what is genuinely other than ourselves, and protecting us from possible consequences, intended or otherwise.”
In response to this, Schindler proposes his creative retrieval of the transcendentals. In the transcendentals—beauty, goodness, and truth—man participates in and, in a real sense, “becomes what he knows.” Schindler maintains that rejecting the notion that the cosmos is true, good, and beautiful, “in its very being,” we are actually committing a gravely dehumanizing move. We are cutting ourselves off from the ability to experience reality at its deepest level. This means that the study and understanding of the transcendentals is not some abstraction, disconnected from everyday life. Rather, a proper understanding of the transcendentals allows one the deepest and most concrete access to the real.
And the risk in denying reality is not simply individual. “We as a culture have come to the point that we will explicitly deny the reality that ‘stares us in the face,’ and we will do so, not as socially deviant individuals, but precisely as a society.” The risk is grave. Because “we cannot deny reality in any particular case without in fact denying it in every case, this social policy requires us to take a skeptical distance even from the simplest truths of reality, from the manifest evidence of nature, from the greenness of leaves.” The evidence of this culture-wide denial of reality assaults us daily.
Schindler first tackles the transcendental of beauty. This is contrary to the order most frequently employed by the tradition. There are both philosophical and practical reasons for this, however. With respect to the latter, Schindler notes that if “our primary . . . access to reality comes through the windows or doors of our senses” this means that the “way we interpret beauty bears in a literally foundational way on our relationship to reality simply.”
Schindler rejects the notion that beauty is just in the eye of the beholder, that is has no connection to objective reality. Rather, “beauty is an encounter between the human soul and reality, which takes place in the ‘meeting ground,’ so to speak, of appearance.” And beauty is a privileged ground of encounter because it “involves our spirit and so our sense of transcendence, our sense of being elevated to something beyond ourselves—and at the very same time it appeals to our flesh, and so our most basic, natural instincts and drives.” By placing beauty first, one establishes the proper conditions for the “flourishing” of goodness and truth.
In turning to the good, Schindler meditates on the will and the deep divide between the pre-modern and modern conceptions of the will. In the modern view, the will has no intrinsic relationship to anything outside itself. The good becomes that which I will. Whether or not an act is good really turns on whether or not I like it. Here, the will is akin to how we surf our social media accounts “liking” various status updates and comments. Our will imparts the value to the thing liked.
The pre-modern vision of the will could not be more different. As Schindler writes, “we need always and from the first to view the agent, not as an isolated, sheer power to choose, but as a subject embedded always in concentric circles of relations, that is, as organically connected to the world from the first.” In this classical understanding of the will the “motion of the will . . . does not originate in me, but in fact originates in the actual good in any given situation that attracts me to itself.” As Schindler notes, “[o]ne of the most immediate consequences of this relatively simple point is that it implies already an internal connection between the self and the outside world.” To understand the will in this manner is “to think of it, not primarily as a spontaneous power, but most basically as receptive: the will is our power to be attracted by the good, and to move ourselves inside of this attraction.” This has a subtle but profound implication:
From this perspective, it is not the case that I make contact with the world solely as a result of my choices, a view that would place not only me, but in a certain respect also the world under my control. Instead, the world is always already active in me, shaping me, helping to make me who I properly am, and my will is a means by which I make this movement my own.
Freedom, then, is “an intrinsic participation in the goodness that belongs to reality in its very being. Freedom in this respect is always a kind of involvement in reality.” And this shows that far from being the freedom to like what one wants, the will, in “its very essence[,] is love.” It binds us to the other, to the thing we love.
In discussing the transcendental of truth, Schindler first assesses our contemporary—and flawed—understanding of knowledge. The contemporary understanding of knowledge is that it is simply about learning and manipulating packets of information. “We go about the task of knowledge by gathering data and recording facts, and, if we are sufficiently methodical and thorough in our methods, we believe we can thereby come to know everything that is relevant.” This model of knowledge fails to “recognize truth as a transcendental, which means as a property of being itself, reducing it instead to a quality of knowledge alone, the mere ‘correctness’ of information.” If truth really is a “property of being, our knowing takes the form of a conformity to reality. To know . . . is to make genuine contact with things.” When we come to know something, we come to grasp its form—its basic meaning as a whole—and we “enter into the inmost being of a thing.” We are not simply ascertaining the surface of a thing; we come to know it from the inside-out.
This is a radical regrounding of knowledge and truth. Knowledge is not the obtainment of bits of information but a true “reception of reality, on its own terms.” This is why Schindler can say, “[O]ne needs to think differently if one wants to live differently.” When we live with an understanding that coming to know the truth is a true reception of reality, we will live differently.
The second part of Schindler’s book focuses on love and the transcendentals. It is here that Schindler is at his most creative and interesting. Schindler begins with Josef Pieper’s recognition that love has been trivialized in the modern world. After this trivialization, love “rarely appears as a central theme in the philosophy that has shaped the modern world.”
Schindler offers a unique thesis as to how this “impoverishment of love” began. Schindler argues that we began down this road by “‘relegating’ . . . love to the order of goodness rather than interpreting love principally as related to beauty.” By associating “beauty with love . . . we recognize that this reception of reality’s self-disclosure is a kind of ‘attuning,’ a ‘proportioning’ of the soul to the real.” Understanding things in this way allows us to see that “love represents an order that precedes that of intentionality itself; it sets the fundamental context within which one would come to seek any particular good.” This has subtle but profound implications.
Understanding the connection between love and beauty opens “the central place of reason in love.” The “intellect and its relation to truth becomes essential to love, rather than being at best only a necessary presupposition of that order.” As Schindler notes, the “implications of this point are endless.” In particular, they are devastating for a sort of anti-intellectualism and moralism that infect the world and the Church. Schindler writes that “we tend to think of sin, and therefore redemption, as a matter exclusively of the moral order.” If, however,
we understand sin ultimately to be a failure of love, we will be inclined to recognize more directly that the intellect itself is not innocent, so to speak; or to put the point more precisely, that sinfulness is a failure in both the intellectual and volitional orders at once.
It is not simply about good or bad intentions. Bad thinking has serious implications as well. Also, in recognizing that love “is a matter of order, it follows that the meaning of love extends into the objective sphere: the sphere of the nature of the body, of relationships in their organization, of institutions, of political and economic systems, and of culture more generally.” Our bodies, societal structures, the economy, and so forth are not simply dumb matter upon which our good intentions are overlaid. They have an intrinsic meaning and intelligibility.
God and reality
In his final chapter, Schindler begins by asking, “Does one need to be a philosopher in order to be a good Christian?” The answer is not as obvious as it would seem. On the one hand, in Christianity “God is not a reward reserved to the studious, but a possibility open to everyone.” On the other hand, if we understand philosophy in its deepest sense, as an openness to deeper wisdom and to probe the mysteries of life more deeply, than “the philosopher in fact resembles a child.”
“Genuine intellectual simplicity, being truly poor in spirit, manifests itself not in the a priori rejection of all knowledge or its possibility, but in the recognition that there is always more to know, that one’s knowledge can always grow and deepen.” This is why, with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Schindler can assert that “Christians, more than anyone else, are called to be the ‘guardians of metaphysics’ in our day.”
Indeed, as Schindler notes, “If we deny the importance of philosophy in faith, we cannot but lose our faith in philosophy more generally, which means we lose an intrinsic interest in the intrinsic meaning of things.” Schindler cautions against a tendency—even present in many contemporary debates in the Church—that warns us away from “philosophy, as if to seek insight through the often-ascetical rigors of careful thought is to abandon” the Gospel’s call to simplicity of spirit. Schindler rejects this. It is “possible to learn and to remain simple.” To “reject philosophy, deliberately and explicitly, is no longer to be childlike in the gospel sense; rather, this rejection is more like the intellectual version of a loss of innocence.”
In truth, this sort of rejection is ultimately a rejection of reality, reality’s intelligibility, and the God who created and gives that reality intelligibility precisely because He gives us his being and His nature is intelligible. Rejecting this patient and deep thinking about and through things—this contemplation of reality—is the very sort of “thinking” that leads people to deny that two plus two is four, that grass is green, that men are not women. While such “thinking” is often favored, at times at the highest levels of the Church and the world, it must be rejected with all our strength.
In this profound and timely book, Schindler gives us the tools and the capacity to reject this anti-reality, this anti-thinking, and to engage and encounter reality more fully. Run, don’t walk, to purchase this book.
Love and the Postmodern Predicament: Rediscovering the Real in Beauty, Goodness, and Truth
by D. C. Schindler
Cascade Books, 2018
Paperback, 192 pages
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