An air of unreality pervades current day discourse. Focus on identity rights, same-sex ‘marriage’, unisex bathrooms, safe spaces, the mendaciously called ‘Safe Schools’ and so on bespeaks not only a divorce from tradition and custom, but more fundamentally a divorce from reality itself. Something unreal persists in political agitation for a panoply of rights not rooted in human nature or the cosmos itself, and which in fact denies the existence of human nature as such.
Such campaigning is based upon the liberal conceit constitutive of modernity that meaning and identity flows from an ever-expanding assertion of the will and not who we are as human beings. On this view, there is no human nature: I choose, therefore I am. This disconnection from reality is not confined to political issues but permeates our technology-saturated culture. Restoring contact with the real is vital for our culture to convey authentic meaning, as well as how we form our children, use technology and even how we worship.
A helpful restorative is offered in the recently published John Senior and the Restoration of Realism, by Benedictine monk Fr Francis Bethel (Thomas More College Press, 2016). Bethel’s subject is the life, and more especially the philosophy and educational approach of relatively little known American professor, John Senior (1923-1999) (Dr Stephen McInerney has previously written of him for The Catholic Weekly).
Senior made his biggest impact at the University of Kansas in the 1970s. There, he and two colleagues founded the Integrated Humanities Program, whose key notion was to expose students to the poetic (conceived broadly) riches of Western civilisation as a way to engage their sensory and imaginative faculties, and so enable them to encounter being.
From this Program came many fruits, including over 200 student conversions to Catholicism (Bethel was one such student convert). Senior did not set out to convert students; they arose from contact with the real embodied in the great Western literary, philosophical and theological tradition. But convert and embrace vocations Senior’s students did. Bishops, religious superiors, seminary directors, judges, lawyers and teachers number among former students.
Two of Senior’s principal published works were Death of Christian Culture (1978) and Restoration of Christian Culture (1983): short and punchy but with philosophical heft, these are transgressive of so many contemporary shibboleths as to be exhilarating. While one need not agree with all of Senior’s positions, it is hoped that Bethel’s work might contribute to greater knowledge and utilisation of his ideas in forming our own children and restoring the culture. The culture we are giving them will, the way things are going, be in much need of restoration.
Arguably Senior’s greatest insight is his premise that the further we are from an unmediated experience of reality, the further we are from God. It is not possible even to think of God philosophically or theologically if one has not first been exposed to the creation that God has put in front of us.
We come to know Being itself through exposure to created being. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” so wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. God, transcendent but immanent to creation, is revealed in the beauty and order of the natural realm perceived in the senses and apprehended in the mind. Key for Senior, and any common-sense realist perception of reality, is the Aristotelian-Thomistic insight that, precisely because we are body-soul beings, truth is known to our minds because it is first known to our senses.
Catholicism is not a gnostic religion or philosophy in which knowledge is mediated directly to the mind apart from ‘evil’ matter. Knowledge of God comes first through sensory perception. It is not for nothing that Christ uses parables and lessons based on everyday contact with the earth: the mustard seed and the big tree it becomes, employment in the vineyard, the lilies of the field, the fig tree, the pearl, the field, and so on. Man’s first home was a Garden. The Prince of the Apostles’ occupation was to fish. The Church’s liturgy and sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, incorporate and elevate basic human and earthly realities: flowing water, bread and wine, oil. Authentic culture arises from liturgical cult fostered on humus, work with the soil that humbles us and can yet be offered to God. Genuine education grows around liturgical cult and is fostered by immersion in the Western canon, whose own roots are in that liturgical culture.
Centuries of rapid technological development, and decades of material wealth and relative peace in the West have inured generations of people to the vicissitudes and hardships that have been the common lot of humanity. Underappreciated perhaps is the negative effect that this material wealth has on the capacity for us to perceive created being and through that God himself. Especially is this acute in the case of the millennial generation, about which much has been written, from issues of housing affordability to its members’ apparent sense of entitlement and ‘flakiness’. How can the Church evangelise a generation of men and women whose contact with nature has often been disfigured by technology and trapped within an urban environment full of traffic, buildings, noise, artificial light and so on? How can they (we) come to knowledge of God if they have a diminished exposure to the nature God created? Nor is this issue limited to those born after 1980 or so: in the 1960s, Senior was struck even then by the failure of his students to recognise reference in classical literature being made to the primordial stuff of human existence.
Ours is a technological age predicated, as Bethel persuasively sets out in the book’s first part, on the Modernist idea that reality itself is to be rejected and replaced with artificial constructions of our own, not simply technological but philosophical and ethical as well. The eclipse of religion, gender ideology, and the deconstruction of marriage and the family in the West are the end result of centuries of philosophical and cultural unrealism.
Senior argued trenchantly and in many respects attractively in Restoration of Christian Culture that culture can only be restored when technology, especially electronic, is eradicated from the home so that human fellowship and imagination can breathe again around hearth and piano. Bethel judiciously queries the limits of Senior’s rhetoric, pointing out that technology provides undoubted benefits and its development is part of the self-actualisation of the human race about which Pope Benedict XVI spoke in Caritas in Veritate.
While it might not be necessary to adopt all of the strictures of Senior’s approach, our use of technology does need to be critiqued. Senior’s point that television screens provide a barrier to the perception of reality, deadening the senses and the imagination, has become even more urgent in its implications. (One wonders what he would think of the ubiquity of computers, including those we carry in our pockets.) Professionals rarely can escape the clutches of email. Many have commented on the stultifying, anti-social nature of smartphone use – those poor children at restaurants and cafes who, instead of being initiated into the rites of communal eating, drinking and conversation, are pacified with screens!
One can only lament the fetishisation of technology in education: integral to reading and writing are the use not only of mind but the senses. Writing is a physical as well as mental act, and writing with pen and paper is more tangible and embodied than typing. And not just sight, but touch, smell and hearing are engaged: I still remember the smell of the copy of The Hobbit given me when I was nine years old.
Senior’s vision finds some resonance with contemporary ‘romantic’ Catholic critiques of the worship of technology and the totalitarian impulses of modernity, from Roman Gaurdini’s Letters from Lake Como, JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. It also relates broadly to Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, a call for Christians to form smaller, counter-cultural and more consciously devout communities animated by Christian principles.
The reference to St Benedict is striking. Senior’s vision of the restoration of Christian culture revolves around the Benedictine monastery. Although this might inappropriately privilege only one of the charisms God has given in the Church’s history as being universally applicable across time, the Benedictine ora et labora has much to tell technocratic culture: the rhythm of life balanced between work and prayer, and prayer through work. St Benedict’s papal namesake, Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to the German Bundestag called for reason to be “open to the language of being” and implored us to fling open the windows again to “see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this”.
A formative thinker for Ratzinger was Josef Pieper, who argued that the human person has an orientation to being, and is fulfilled in union with the God who is the sheer act of the real itself. Ultimately, Senior’s value as a teacher comes from his rediscovery that such an orientation to being needs to be fed on contact with the real given us in creation – the sky and the earth – a contact that will give way to the eternal vision of Reality itself.