Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism. By Fr. James V. Schall, Ignatius Press, 2013.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. is a well-respected essayist and academic, specializing in Catholic issues and political philosophy. His essays can be regularly found in Gilbert Magazine. He has published dozens of books, and Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism is his latest work.
There are many false stereotypes about Catholicism, and one particularly prevalent one is that religious people are joyless, tending to ignore all of the early pleasures in the hopes of attaining heavenly pleasures after death. Running parallel to these assertions are various modernist worldviews that contend that the world is a dark and meaningless place, and that there is no permanence to happiness. Fr. Schall points out that Christianity is full of innocent joys and that there is no harm in enjoying the simple sources of happiness in life.
“The title of this book, Reasonable Pleasures, comes, in spirit at least, from Aristotle, though not without a hint of pleasures and reasons from more specific sources than he knew. Aristotle, no doubt, did most to teach us that knowing itself is a unique pleasure, unlike any others. If we do not experience it, he thought, we likely shall seek other pleasures, usually less noble, to substitute for it. But mainly he guided us to the pleasures of thinking, which includes thinking what is true, the thinking about all that is.”
As evidenced by his longtime presence in Gilbert Magazine, Fr. Schall is a great admirer of G.K. Chesterton, who was known for filling his work with humor and good will. Many critics of Chesterton argue that a man cannot be serious if he is funny. Chesterton argues that often the only way to make a serious point is through humor. Fr. Schall’s writing style reflects this attitude, for though many books on spiritual topics have reputations for being dense and intense, Reasonable Pleasures takes a light yet intelligent tone, explaining how living a virtuous and thoughtful life does not entail living in a state of pallor and misery.
“The subtitle of this book, The Strange Coherences of Catholicism, does not come from anybody in particular, but its overtones are Chestertonian. Chesterton was the great mind who delighted in spelling out all the erroneous, vicious, confused, and silly views about Christianity and Catholicism that he came across in his time in the daily press or culture. Not surprisingly, such odd views, when sorted out, reflected the things that were always wrong whenever or wherever they appeared. He enjoyed this endeavor because he could see both why the view was proposed and why it was not complete or valid. Humor was also found in the effort. Though laughter may not be the final definition of happiness, surely it includes it. We laugh when we see the point. That too is what this book is about.
Humor arises because we are rational beings who can and do delight in the things that we know, in the things of the mind. We are amused in the comparisons we make, either in speech or in reality, between what we expect and what is said or what happens. The correction of mind by mind is one of the greatest of human enterprises. We do not want, as Plato said, a lie in our souls about the things that are. In things of the intellect too, a brother is helped by a brother. Indeed, this correction is one of the great divine enterprises. God, in revelation, undertook to do so Himself.
We live in an era of relativism and skepticism, I know. But we need not accept them as if they were true. We remain free to delight in the fact that the arguments for these and other “isms” never quite cohere, though we need to make the effort to see just why. We are glad to escape the dismal world that follows in the wake of their supposed truth, a wake that Chesterton delighted in following. Ideologies and other deviations from what is are seldom amusing, except when we compare them to the truth.”
Fr. Schall had personal reasons for writing Reasonable Pleasures. Recently, Fr. Schall was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw, and this book was written during his recovery period. His illness helped him to appreciate life’s little joys more profoundly, and this was the driving force for writing the book, which is meant to teach readers how to live better. Pain is inescapable, but pleasures can be avoided if one does not make an effort to find the simple joys, such as reading a good book, conversing with friends, or watching a sports game. Certain actions– the “unreasonable” pleasures, are sins, but these are limited in number. To paraphrase Chesterton, the Ten Commandments provide a limited number of “Thou shalt nots,” but the number of “Thou mayest” is infinite. People need to use their own good judgment when they choose their actions. Happiness, Fr. Schall stresses, does not come from doing whatever one wants, whenever one wants.
“Chesterton understood that such a realization was a strange experience. He knew that truth is one in all its expressions. Even error points to truth if we would but see it. Whenever a strong case was made disproving this coherence, it turned out, on examination, that the case was at some point flawed and could be seen as such. The argument of the heretics, or whatever kind, always has a point. This is why they are worth studying. Bur the same point can always be made in a more logical and clear way without the error. To see this, we have minds.”
The exercise of free will can be one of the greatest pleasures of all, and to make intelligent choices is to act wisely in one’s own best interests. The oft-cited gulf between “faith” and “reason” is a mere canard. Fr. Schall stresses the “reason” in “reasonable pleasures,” for reason is the means by which we find the difference between right and wrong. Catholicism, Fr. Schall argues, is not about merely feeling, it is an intellectual religion that requires the use of God-given mental gifts.
“Chesterton then adds something quite profound. It is a theme that shall recur in my thoughts in this book. It is that we human beings are more than pure minds, though we have minds. We are beings plunged through our bodies into nature and history, into a world, into time. To believe in Christianity is not primarily a conclusion from a syllogism, though Catholics who read Aristotle are very fond of syllogisms and rightly so. Syllogisms are not to be neglected. But Chesterton said that he is a Christian because of the “enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts.” If the “secularist” blames Christians, he says that their evidence is “miscellaneous,” more like a scrapbook collection than an organized argument. To this powerful objection, Chesterton simply agrees while noting that the secularist himself does the same thing.”
One of my favorite metaphors from Fr. Schall’s book is the comparison of the ordinary Christian to Charlie Brown from the Peanuts comic strip. The term “loser” is, in common parlance, meant to refer to someone who is unsuccessful in attaining his objectives. Fr. Schall observes that Charlie Brown is in most respects the consummate loser, often through no fault of his own. Simultaneously, Charlie Brown is the ultimate everyman, because he endures public and private humiliations constantly and yet he still keeps going. Most people dream of being unqualified winners, but the vast majority of people wind up as losers to some extent. In any national sports competition, dozens of teams start the season dreaming of victory, but only one of those many teams comes out the champion.
As Fr. Schall pointedly observes, the universe itself will eventually be a “loser,” since even the entire cosmos cannot last forever. The entire material world is ephemeral. Nonetheless, that does not mean that life is pointless– quite the opposite, in fact. Time is a valuable commodity, and a good life can mean living well and virtuously, while embracing the ordinary joys that can be found in life.
For an interview with Fr. Schall about Reasonable Pleasures, see http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/abbott/131029.