29 July 2019

Fr. Schall, “What Is,” and Book Clubs

An appreciation of Fr James Vincent Schall, SJ (January 20, 1928 – April 17, 2019 R+I+P), one of the last good Jesuits.

From The Imaginative Conservative 

By Carl Olson 

how do i send you a review copy of a book? J
That was the last e-mail I received from Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., sent on March 18th, a month before he died on April 17th. The great Schall, already into his nineties, had nearly died in January but made a remarkable comeback—not altogether surprising, considering that he was not only the epitome of an “old school” Jesuit but a lover of sports, which are so often defined by comebacks.
Fr. Schall, as most readers here surely know, was a prolific author and a beloved professor of political philosophy, whose writings engaged with a wide range of current and timeless topics: theology, philosophy, history, controversies within the Church, controversies outside the Church, and sports.
Always sports! Once he learned, many years ago, that I was a fellow sports “nut”—he seemed to relish college football and basketball the most, while I prefer tennis and professional basketball—nearly every e-mail had a remark or question about this team, that player, the upcoming season, an approaching bowl game, and so forth.
I should, however, rewind a bit, and start at the beginning. Over two decades ago, not long after entering the Catholic Church, I read my first book by Schall, titled Another Sort of Learning (Ignatius Press, 1988). As with quite a few of Schall’s numerous books, it consists of a number of essays; in this case, they revolve around the theme of learning and education, with titles in Part 1 such as “Why Read?”, “What a Student Owes His Teacher,” and “On Teaching the Important Things,” while essays in Parts II and III focus on the supernatural destiny of man, ideology, the permanent things, devotion, and prayer.
Schall is a master teacher and a masterful essayist. But the book’s uniqueness is best seen in its disarming quirkiness and often surprising juxtapositions. For instance, the Preface begins with a quote from Mad magazine about how history might be “reported in elementary school history books 100 years from now,” which then leads into a quote by Eric Voegelin. That is, I’m certain, a first. The quote is found in Voegelin’s Confessions, which states that “the quest for the ground”—that is, the foundational truth about reality—“is a constant in all civilizations,” and can be summarized in two principal questions: “Why is there something; why not nothing?” and “Why is that something as it is, and not different?”
Schall then states, in a most Schall-ian passage, the following:

Such are questions behind which we cannot go, of course. That is to say, they constitute the ultimate questions concerning what is, about which we must ask. Yet, we are not regularly allowed to ask ourselves such questions.
What is. That was, in fact, the heart of Schall’s many books, essays, and lectures, especially because he knew and proclaimed, unceasingly, that what is is really and ultimately a matter of Who Is: I Am Who Am, the Logos, the Alpha and Omega, the Lord of History, the Triune God.
In 2004, I was hired by Ignatius Press to be the editor of Ignatius Insight, an online magazine featuring book excerpts, interviews, and original articles. Shortly thereafter, Fr. Schall sent along an essay, the first of dozens that I would edit and post over the next fifteen years. The following year, I conducted a lengthy, three-part interview with Schall about teaching, education, reading, and related matters.
By reading or teaching, he said in that interview,

we are at best brought to the banks of the river of intellect as it flows on. But we already have a mind that, as mind, is ours, not of our own making. This mind is not given to us to think whatever we wish, but to think whatever is true. If what we wish is not true, it is no virtue to stick to our wishes. Tests of truth exist. We should know them.
Such commonsense is now counter-cultural; it is certainly heretical in the hollowed-out halls of progressive orthodoxy. Schall’s insistence that we recognize “what is” goes directly counter to the prevailing foolishness of this current age, which insists, first, “Why not?” and then, “Don’t resist!” So, for example, the push to eliminate pronouns such as “he” and “she” are crude and direct assaults on reality, for the destruction of words that rightly distinguish between the sexes is ultimately an assault on Logos—that is, “both reason and word—a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason,” as Benedict XVI stated in his brilliant (but oft-maligned and little read) September 12, 2006 lecture at Regensburg.
Many progressives and Islamists believe that unity and oneness is achieved by the elimination of differences and a coercive flattening of the ontological landscape. At the heart of these two pathologies is the primacy given to sheer will and the conviction that since truth cannot be known through reason, it must be imparted (or even created, so to speak) out of relativistic cloth. This is especially true in Western secularism, as Schall noted in a 2006 essay on the Regensburg address: “The modern mind doubts that there is reason, and doubts that can both know and believe. It doubts that faith and reason belong to the same sphere…”
Christianity and the Western tradition, on the other hand, insist that true unity is rooted in complimentarity, self-gift, and ordered relationship. Trinitarian love is creative, but not coercive; it is a mystery, but it is not irrational; it is personal, but it is not subjective. These are essential truths that Schall returned to again and again in his essays, and I never tired of receiving them and reading them.
Schall wrote books for over fifty years, which is undeniably impressive—but it also means that his first book—Redeeming the Time, published by Sheed & Ward in 1968—wasn’t published until he was forty years old. (Schall did co-author and co-edit some volumes prior to that book.) I’ve sometimes mentioned this to friends or acquaintances who have lamented not yet writing a book. On the other hand, I don’t think Schall ever wrote a book or essay to impress anyone or to get ahead in the halls of academia. His writing—whether a book or an e-mail—was always at the service of conversation and relationship. By “conversation” I mean first and foremost the communication of the permanent things, of what is, and it is communication across time, cultures, and epochs. In his chapter titled “Why Read?”, Schall echoed Leo Strauss’s observation that we are lucky to know or meet one or two great minds, in person, in our own lives. Rather, we meet and converse with such great minds primarily through books. “For all practical purposes,” wrote Strauss, we have access to “the greatest minds, only through the great books.”
It is true, notes Schall, that there “are people who know what is without ever having read a book.” But in the normal course of life, it is through reading—and then thinking, pondering, and judging what has been read—that we go more deeply into the quiddity of reality. And, as I’ve learned over the past fifteen years, it is a great joy to do so with others possessing the same desire. In 2004, the same year I first corresponded with Fr. Schall, I co-founded a men’s reading group. The idea came from a close friend who, while working to finish his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, concluded it would do him good to meet monthly with like-minded men to discuss books, and do so free from the ideological airs and soul-sucking nonsense so prevalent in a state university.
There were about a dozen men at our first meeting, and we discussed Jean Daniélou’s God and the Ways of Knowing. Some hundred books followed, including works by Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Chesterton, Ratzinger, C.S. Lewis, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Leclercq, Shakespeare, Belloc, and many, many others. The discussions have been lively and robust; the occasional debate has been charitable and honest; the interest has been constant. When we met last month to discuss our second Schall book, we had fifteen men present. As we settled in to talk about Another Sort of Learning, a longtime member turned to me and said with a smile, “We are going to learn a bit about what is, aren’t we?”
Yes, indeed. Thank you, Fr. Schall. May God grant you eternal peace!

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