Some Books of Insight: 12/28/01
George Stapleton, Friend of the Institute

Note: George was a distinguished participant in a seminar that Tom Morris directed for many summers under the sponsorship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is a great teacher and man of letters. This is his first contribution to the Philosophers' Corner.

Truth: A History and A Guide for the Perplexed,

by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (St. Martin's Press, 1997)

"Truth is the same thing to the understanding as music to the ear or beauty to the eye." With this quotation from G.N. Clark, Fernandez-Armesto, a member of the Modern History faculty at Oxford University, begins his vastly ambitious and extraordinarily fascinating history of truth. Although his highly praised Millennium covered 1000 years of civilization on six continents in over 300,000 words, this little book (only 255 pages) seems even more monumental in its achievement.

"Truth? There is no such thing," the author was frequently admonished while this work was in progress. Well, Professor Fernandez-Armesto not only believes in truth, he is in love with it. He begins truth's history with so-called "primitive" conceptions of it and then follows its development through different ages and civilizations. Four categories of truth (or truth-finding techniques) are identified and traced - the truth one feels, the truth one is told, the truth discovered by reason, and the truth presented by one's senses. The reader is caught up in this captivating narrative not only because of the innate fascination of the topic, the vitality of the author's prose and the immensity of his learning, but also because of the attraction of his goal (ever-present throughout the book but most explicit in the last two chapters): to explain how faith in truth has come to be lost in modern and postmodern times and how that faith can be restored. The cynicism in Pilate's infamous "What is truth?" has become even more pronounced today in both academia and popular culture. It is well-captured in a piece of dialogue the author quotes from Radical American Comic: "'Hey God, what is Truth? Eh?' 'No idea,' replies God. 'Get lost.'"

Does Fernandez-Armesto succeed in his goal? Each reader will have to answer for herself, but I am happy to answer with a vigorous YES! Caught at times in the agnostic fog that seems to permeate this postmodern age, I found my faith in truth and my commitment to its pursuit restored. That pursuit will only be partially successful in this life, but it is will worth every effort. The other quotation with which the author begins this book is appropriate here: "If God held all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand the persistent striving for the truth...and should say, 'Choose!' I should humbly bow before his left hand and say, 'Father, give me striving. For pure truth is for thee alone.'" (Gotthold Lessing)

Van Gogh and God, by Cliff Edwards (Loyola University Press, 1989)

I recently found this more than a decade old book cited in Philip Yancey's Reaching for the Invisible God, as he quoted a fascinating observation from a letter Vincent wrote to his brother Theo:

"I feel more and more that we must not judge of God from this world, it's just a study that didn't come off. What can you do with a study that has gone wrong? - if you are fond of the artist, you do not find much to criticize - you hold your tongue. But you have a right to ask for something better.... The study is ruined in so many ways. It is only a master who can make such a blunder, and perhaps that is the best consolation we can have out of it, since in that case we have a right to hope that we'll see the same creative hand get even with itself."

That passage, which might well fit into a process theologian's view of God, so intrigued me that I read Edwards' book. He insists that neither art critics nor religious scholars give enough attention to van Gogh's spiritual quest and pilgrimage, causing the former to overlook it as "a key to the paradoxes in his life and work" and the latter, caught up primarily in "God as Word," to ignore the artist's passion for "God as Image." Edwards' purpose in this enlightening book is to explore "the creative spiritual quest of Vincent van Gogh that he expressed in both word and image."

I was caught up in van Gogh's pilgrimage - from art clerk to artist, from a man of one book (the Bible) to one who found God also in contemporary literature, from a failed evangelist to a revealer of the wonder and beauty of God in nature, and from a western artist to one who broadened his Christian faith through the study and practice of Japanese art. I experienced a sense of liberation as Edwards exposed the narrowness and limitations of a "reductionist psychological" approach to the interpretation of van Gogh's works. Most of all, I was so captured by Vincent's letters, which Edwards quotes liberally, that I plan to explore them further.

Diagnosis, by Alan Lightman (Pantheon Books, 2000)

Not having read physicist/novelist Alan Lightman's highly praised Einstein's Dreams, I came to his new novel, Diagnosis, unburdened by an urge to frequently compare the two works. I believe this enabled me to appreciate this novel for what it is, not for what it is not. A Booklist review summarizes the story most succinctly: "Lightman perfectly captures the frenzy of our electronic era in this breakneck tale of one man's short-circuiting under the relentless pace and pressure of life in the age of information overload."

The protagonist, Bill Chalmers, who works in Boston for a company that processes and sells information (what kind is never made clear), temporarily loses his memory on the way to work one day, an occurrence which sets in motion a nightmarish descent that leaves him with a mysterious progressive paralysis which doctors are unable to diagnose. The story seems to be primarily a vehicle for diagnosing our glutted (with information and consumer products) yet empty society. Chalmers' job is essentially meaningless and spiritually destructive. His family relationships lack substance: the love that exists between Chalmers and his wife and son is real, but she still carries on an e-mail love affair with a stranger and most of the communication, even at home, between father and son is via e-mail. E-mail! From superiors, colleagues, clients, and doctors, as well as family - the book teems with it (and its frequent misspellings) and Chalmers is drowning in it.

Lightman mixes another story in this tale - a fictionalized account of a crisis in the life of Anytus, the chief prosecutor of Socrates. The latter is awaiting the carrying out of his death sentence while the former worries whether he should revoke that sentence. This story-within-a-story has left some readers - including me - puzzled as to its exact relationship to Chalmers' story. I gained some enlightenment by rereading a portion of I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates that examines at length the relationship between Anytus and Socrates, which involved not just politics but the anger Anytus felt because of his own son's devotion to Socrates and the values he espoused. Chalmers, in his world, ends up struggling to keep his son from being seduced by the false values which, until being cursed (blessed?) by his mysterious disease, had been his values.

Although nothing is ever fully resolved in the story, Chalmers becomes more and more sensitive mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as his physical body becomes less and less so. This metamorphosis is, I believe, the heart of this novel. While it may be a flawed work, I found it an enlightening read. There is one scene near the end that really hit home. Chalmers is in a mall - in a wheelchair - with his son. He becomes so overwhelmed by the frenzied consumerism which surrounds him that he shocks both his son and mall shoppers with an angry jeremiad against the materialism and meaninglessness of what often passes for progress and fulfillment in our society. Having worked in a mall bookstore for several years since retiring from teaching, I identified immediately with his distress. While Bill Chalmers' mysterious disease never receives an accurate diagnosis, Lightman gives us in his story an extremely accurate diagnosis of some of the most spiritually destructive malaises of our time.


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