Why Ineffably Precious?

Moses Receives the God-written Tablets of the Law
painting by João Zeferino da Costa, 1868

Here are two “fun” quotes that I wish to share today from one of my favorite quotable authors, David Bentley Hart. As I’ve said, his writing celebrates the beauty of words. Reading him makes me re-appreciate again and again the intimate link between the Word and the feast. Those who love God’s Word also love language itself for its luminous capacity to unveil the God-inscribed nature of things. Whether that script be carved into the Book of Nature, in history or on the human face of God, Jesus Christ, deciphering its meaning by engaging the linguistic arts transforms life into a perpetual feast on the Word that falls from the heavens and springs up from the earth anew each day.

There’s a German saying that enriches this view of language as celebration, “Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s Laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s Fire. God gave us Music that we might pray without words.” And if we can say that Liturgy is the highest expression of language, we can understand better the essential role of music in Liturgy (and music’s daughter, joy) in worthily lifting human speech back to the uncreated Fire under the form of adoring beauty.

Related to this, Hart said in his theological masterpiece, The Beauty of the Infinite,

What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of “rational” arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity — and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may “command” assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty.

In my judgment, Hart never separates truth from rhetoric, or thought from beauty. Nor does he, as he engages his opponent’s arguments with ironic jabs and subtle skewers, ever resort to crass vulgarity as he ably engages in what George Weigel aptly calls the the gentlemanly art of the insult. In this he demonstrates what my grandfather taught me many years ago in a letter he sent me when I was a Freshman in college: “Those who resort to profanity in emphasizing their point demonstrate both their lexical poverty and the shallow character of their trivial souls.”

But I digress within my digression.

The Quotes

The first quote is from Atheist Delusions, and makes brief mention of modernity’s  indebtedness to the Christian Gospel for its “unnatural” reverence for the inalienable dignity of the human person, while the second quote, from his bracing article in First Things, Christ and Nothing, makes reference to some consequences that flow from the cultural abandonment of Christianity that is nearing completion in the West. If you want the full argument, I highly recommend both the book and the article — though be warned, they are not quick reads, and will require a Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary by your side. At least it does for me.

Enjoy.

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The ultimate  power and meaning of the Christian movement within the ancient world  cannot be measured simply by the richness of later Christian culture’s art or architecture, the relative humanity or inhumanity of its societies and  laws, the creativity of its economic or scientific institutions, or the perdurability of its religious institutions through the ages. “Christendom” was  only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the  interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit.  The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange,  impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored  lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward  reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few  privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion  of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of  (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within  them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the  eternal.

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Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.

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