PK: Intellectual Passion

“The function which I attribute . . . to scientific passion is that of distinguishing between demonstrable facts which are of scientific interest, and those which are not. Only a tiny fraction of all knowable facts are of interest to scientists, and scientific passion serves also as a guide in the assessment of what is relatively slight. I want to show that this appreciation depends ultimately on a sense of intellectual beauty; that it is an emotional response which can never be dispassionately defined, any more than we dispassionately define the beauty of a work of art or the excellence of a noble action.”

Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 135.

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Quotable: Hans Urs von Balthasar

“Before the dawn of the technical age it was easier to create genuine culture from genuine recollection. Life was more peaceful, man’s surrounding expressed eternal values more directly. . . . How immediately can a landscape absent of men unite us to God, for example high mountains, a large forest, or a freely flowing river! . . . In the cities, however, only man’s handwriting is everywhere visible. . . . Concrete and glass do not speak of God; they only point to man who is practically glorified in them. The cities do not transcend man; hence they do not guide to transcendence. Quickly and greedily they devour the surrounding countries and turn it into a dirty, defiled forecourt of cities. For some years now the Roman Campagna has ceased to exist, the Swiss landscape likewise. The Rhine has long ‘had it.’ Overnight, ‘nature’ will be turned into a reservation, a ‘national park’ within the civilized world; and besides, in national parks–mostly crowded–it is not very easy to pray either.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The God Question and Modern Man, trans. Hild Greaf (New York: Seabury Press, 1967), 57.

A.N. Wilson, "Why I Believe Again"

For a few years, I resisted the admission that my atheist-conversion experience had been a bit of middle-aged madness. I do not find it easy to articulate thoughts about religion. I remain the sort of person who turns off Thought for the Day when it comes on the radio. I am shy to admit that I have followed the advice given all those years ago by a wise archbishop to a bewildered young man: that moments of unbelief “don’t matter”, that if you return to a practice of the faith, faith will return.

When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion – prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue.

I haven’t mentioned morality, but one thing that finally put the tin hat on any aspirations to be an unbeliever was writing a book about the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, and realising how utterly incoherent were Hitler’s neo-Darwinian ravings, and how potent was the opposition, much of it from Christians; paid for, not with clear intellectual victory, but in blood. Read Pastor Bonhoeffer’s book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct. Think of Bonhoeffer’s serenity before he was hanged, even though he was in love and had everything to look forward to.

My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting. So it will always be; but I know I shall never make the same mistake again. Gilbert Ryle, with donnish absurdity, called God “a category mistake”. Yet the real category mistake made by atheists is not about God, but about human beings. Turn to the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Read the first chapter of Genesis without prejudice and you will be convinced at once . . . ‘The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’.” And then Coleridge adds: “‘And man became a living soul.’ Materialism will never explain those last words.”

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Quotable: Balthasar

In a world without beauty—even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it—in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. For this, too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one: Why not investigate Satan’s depths? In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. In other words, syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute. But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone. The very conclusions are no longer conclusive. And if this is how the transcendentals fare because on of them has been banished, what will happen with Being itself? Thomas described Being (das Sein) as a ‘sure light’ for that which exists (das Seiende). Will this light not necessarily die out where the very language of light has been forgotten and the mystery of Being is no longer allowed to express itself? What remains is then a mere lump of existence which, even if it claims for itself the freedom proper to spirits, nevertheless remains totally dark and incomprehensible even to itself. The witness borne by Being becomes untrustworthy for the person who can no longer read the language of beauty.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form

Quotable: C.S. Lewis

What more, you may ask, do we want? […] We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want some­ thing else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into our­ selves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”