religion & philosophythat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Why Catholic novelists are so good

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I don’t know if many Americans these days are familiar with Charles Péguy. He was one of those strange figures that seemed more common around the turn of the last century, a time of considerable intellectual and social turmoil. Looking back, the ideas being debated at the time — anarchism, neo-scholasticism, spiritualism, among many others — seem less interesting than how idiosyncratically they were regarded by those debating them.

Péguy was both a socialist and a nationalist. He was an also ardent Dreyfusard. He died shortly after World War I broke out, in September 1914, shot in the head the day before the Battle of the Marne started.

He was also devoutly Catholic, though in a distinctly odd manner. He believed, but did not practice — though he did manage to revive the custom of making pilgrimages to shrines on foot.

Perhaps it was the oddness that gave him his provocative insights. “The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity,” Péguy said. “Nobody is so competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. Nobody, except the saint.”

This is profoundly Catholic, and in a profoundly Catholic way, though you are unlikely to hear it preached from a pulpit anytime soon.

Most people, you see, do not amount to much as sinners. They may break one or another of the Ten Commandments from time to time, or even habitually, but they do so unreflectingly. Not good, but not exactly sin, either. To commit a sin you have to know what you’re doing, that while it may be proscribed, you’re doing it anyway. And though you freely choose to do it, you nevertheless agree that it is wrong to do.

Another Catholic, the composer Francis Poulenc, born around the time Péguy was flourishing (in 1899) practically embodied the tension implicit in this outlook: “You know that I am as sincere in my faith, without any messianic screamings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality.”

You will note that, in its proper form, this is far removed from Puritanism. It is more nearly a kind of connoisseurship (the term connoisseur derives from a Middle French word that has to do with being acquainted with something).

I think that is why Catholic novelists — Graham Greene, say, or Muriel Spark, or François Mauriac — have proved so good at limning the inner space of character. They do not see the person as a product of causation, but as one who acts out of deliberate motives, who risks the consequences of transgression, and for whom the search for God is the search for a judge who can free them from their self-condemnation.

I suspect that most Catholics, especially nowadays, do not read or think about their professed faith enough to be much affected by this. I, however, find it bracing and always have. But then, I am of an earlier generation and have thought and read quite a lot about it. It’s probably why — I think it was right after I left college — that I once saw Ingmar Bergman’s so-called theological trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) three times in one week.

These films are usually described as dark, but I found them exhilarating. They were about people for whom life was a high-stakes drama, not a launching pad for a career.

The crucial question for most people, I suppose, is whether any of this outlook is true. But the very raising of the question implies a particular idea of what is true and what isn’t. If you think that science is where you go to get at the truth of things, then such an outlook will not impress you. It may even appall you.

But I would argue that this is to misunderstand science, which is about getting at the facts. Those facts may then be used to arrive at truth, but facts and truth are not the same thing. Indeed, the fact that there are more and better novels derived from the religious perspective than from the perspective of naturalism may be evidence of the former’s truth. Such novels, it seems to me, offer better hypotheses for explaining life as it is lived than any novel that I know of grounded in naturalism.

Bear in mind that experience is always true to some extent. The viewpoint I have described has shaped the way I experience the world and life. Even were naturalism right, and the reason I feel this way is because a chain of causation reaching all the way back to the Big Bang makes me feel that way, the feeling would still be there, the necessary effect of that causation. I thought to add “for whatever reason,” but there is no need for reasons in a naturalistic world. Things just happen because they are caused to happen by whatever happened before in the chain of causation that is what we really happen to be.

Richard Dawkins gets all bent out of shape because so many people — to couch it in terms he might recognize — are religious chains of causation. Of course, if he’s right, he can’t help himself. That’s just the way he’s been caused to be.

I suppose one principal objection I have to Dawkins’s viewpoint is aesthetic: Not only does the religious perspective make for better fiction, it also makes for a more interesting way of life. Of course, — again, if Dawkins is right — I can’t help thinking the way I do anymore than he can help thinking as he does. Luckily for me, the way I think leads me to presume I can actually make up my own mind.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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3 Responses to “Why Catholic novelists are so good”

  1. Excellent piece, Frank!

    I quarrel, however, with one point: “The crucial question for most people, I suppose, is whether any of this outlook is true.”

    What’s most puzzling to me is that I find that most people today don’t think at all about whether something is true or not, but only whether it suits them. “It’s true if you think it is…” etc. That’s how “truth” acquired a plural, “truths.”

  2. Yes, Cynthia, I suppose that is true. I didn’t think of it because my thinking is so old-fashioned I still think there is truth, not truths, or truthiness. These latter-day viewpoints, interesting enough, have come about through the politicization of things that ought not top be politicized. Science, for instance, where some would have us believe that consensus plays some part in the verification of scientific theorems. Anyone familiar with the history of science knows, however, that the track record for scientific consensus is not at all good. Does anyone remember the Tychonic System?

  3. Fascinating article. As to whether people think about truth (comment above), I think many people proceed blithely until a certain point when they find they need more than just what suits them – or they find that they are no longer able to fathom what does exactly suit them. Of course, often in such situations they now go to the doctor, who tells them they are depressed and that science says that’s just a matter of balancing various chemicals

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