Monday, May 20, 2019

Exploring the Corners with Aquinas

When constructing my second ten-year reading plan fourteen or fifteen years ago, I wanted to finish reading all of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. But I ran into a couple of problems concerning size, including the discovery that about one hundred questions (roughly equivalent to chapters) were missing from the Britannica Great Books set. So I prioritized for my plan. I picked and chose sections here and there simply based on how crucial the titles of the questions sounded, scheduling about 80% of what was left in the volumes I had. I didn’t know: I thought I might end up satisfied at the end of ten years, even though gaps remained in the ToC.

But when the time came to put together my third decade-long legenda (a word that doesn’t appear in any dictionary but should, meaning “things to be read”), I found I wasn’t done with the Dominican “ox” and put all the stray questions into the new plan. Considering my experience over the first three years of this third reading plan, I’d say I did a remarkably good job picking the salient questions for the previous list; all the portions I’ve read since 2017 have covered nitpicky details: just tidying up hidden corners. For instance, several years ago I read Aquinas’s explanation of the Hypostatic Union, the fact that Christ is both God and man: a cornerstone of Christian theology. This year, by comparison, I read sections that deal with the semantics of talking about the Hypostatic Union. We may say that Christ suffered, for instance, but only if we understand that He suffered in his humanity, not his divinity. And in a point that surely must have made more sense in Latin, Aquinas takes pains to assure us that while it is acceptable to call Jesus “Lord,” it just doesn’t work to call him “lordly.” Yep. I’d say I did a pretty good job dividing the important doctrines from the not-so-important.

So reading Aquinas has become a tad bit tedious the last three yeas. But what a beautiful highlight I discovered this month in a section on the properties of the bodies of the Blessed! The titles made me think it would all be about whether people in Heaven will be able to walk through doors and how brightly they will shine. But then Aquinas reaches the problem of why a body of a saved soul in the presence of God would want to move at all. We’ll have no imperfections, no needs. So what lack could we have that would motivate us to move from some celestial here to some celestial there? His two answers brought tears to my eyes. The first reason will be simply that the Blessed demonstrate and celebrate the divine gift of motion. Why have a reason? Just enjoy what God has granted! The second answer was even better in my estimation: "that furthermore their vision may be refreshed by the beauty of the variety of creatures, in which God's wisdom will shine forth with great evidence." Will there be a Grand Canyon in the New Earth? We can visit it, examining every nook and cranny and climbing over every rock without fear of damaging either the landscape or ourselves! Trees appear in Revelation; if there are a billion species in the next life, we’ll all become botanists and study every one with joy! But Aquinas is careful to point out that all this eternal sightseeing won’t constitute an abandonment of the Vision of God: everywhere they explore, the Blessed will always see God, “for He will be everywhere present to them.”

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Scottish and English in George MacDonald

As much as C. S. Lewis professed a debt to George MacDonald, he says (somewhere), “Few of his novels are good and none is very good.” I know that my reading project centers on the “Great Books,” but I also enjoy visiting satellites of those marvelous lights. I have Tom Clancy on my list for this year, after all! So maybe I could be allowed to write today on a nineteenth-century author whose novels aren’t “very good.”

Last year, I didn’t say anything about MacDonald, because I thought the book I read then, Malcolm, didn’t even rise to the level of “not very good.” Part of it had to do with the nearly total lack of the Wise Christian Teacher who so often features in MacDonald’s novels, a void replaced by a soap opera involving a marquis and his brother (who was also the marquis at some point), wives possibly dead and possibly alive (which makes for possible bigamy), the question of which character is whose child, the question whether two of these younger characters with a possibly budding mutual attraction might be siblings (Hello, Luke and Leia!), and the further question whether such children are legitimate – the last point depending on whether a certain wife was dead or alive when . . . . Oh, it’s all too confusing.

It’s not enough that the potboiler’s pot boileth over. Most of the answers to the mysteries of the plot are given by characters speaking in Scottish dialect. Now I’ve read enough MacDonald to have a good familiarity with the language of his rustic Scottish characters, but here we have a character, a piper, with a stranger than usual patois, a linguistic idiom whose origin I can’t explain. This piper might say, “She’ll pe seein’ a’,” when he means, “I see everything.” Among his quirks, he uses she for the first-person singular pronoun, future continuous verb constructions for all tenses, and voiceless consonants for all stopped consonants: p for b, t for d, etc. Add to this confusion the fact that the piper is blind and yet talks about seeing things, and I found myself almost always in the middle of the North Sea when he spoke. So why, oh, why did MacDonald place the solution to the main conundrum of the wives in the mouth of this piper?

Today, on the other hand, I finished reading The Marquis of Lossie, the sequel to Malcolm, and I’m ready to say that the joy I had in the end was worth all the confusion of the first book in the dilogy. (Dilogy? Really?) I got not just one Wise Christian Teacher, but two. I also found a nineteenth-century female character not defined simply by her degree of chastity in relation to men but by her philosophical doubts and struggles. I enjoyed a plot set mostly in London, where Malcolm did his best to speak the Queen’s. And I faced many needed challenges to my complacent Christianity, which is really why I read MacDonald. Just one example: Which is worse, to doubt the existence of God, or, believing He exists, to doubt his importance to every moment in life?

Before I sign off, a word about the 1980s editions of MacDonald novels “retold for modern readers,” complete with new titles and covers that make them look like today’s Christian romances. Of course, I’m reading MacDonald’s original versions, but I don’t look down my nose at these reworkings. I read my first MacDonald novel in a book club that used the updated, abbreviated version, and I’ll always be grateful for that introduction. Editor Michael R. Phillips, knowing his audience, shortened the books and toned down their Scots vocabulary considerably. But by doing so, he introduced a new generation to stories with lessons deeper than any found elsewhere in their section of the Zondervan Christian bookstore, even if MacDonald’s spiritual pupil, Lewis, thought the books weren’t “very good.”