Fr. James Schall on Books and Teaching

“Nothing is more disconcerting, it seems to me, than to enter a home or apartment in which there are no books and no place for books, no sign a book had ever been there. It always seems like a kind of desecration to me, even though I am perfectly aware that bookless people can also save their souls and can have much practical wisdom, something Aristotle himself recognized. I know there are libraries about from which we can borrow for a time a book we may not own. We are blessed to live in a time of relatively cheap books. Ultimately, no doubt, the important thing is what is in our head, not what is on a printed page. Nor do we have to replicate the New York City Public Library in our own homes. I have long run out of space in my own room for more books. But we need a basis, at least a couple of hundred books, probably more, that surround us. I am sure that by judicious use of sales and used bookstores, anyone can gather together a very respectable basic library, probably for less than a thousand dollars. When stretched out over time and compared say, to the price of smoking, or a vacation flight to Paris, this price is not really very much.”  ∼ Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., “Books and the Intellectual Life”

“God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, ‘transcends’ knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph. 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul—‘λογικη λατρεία,’ worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom. 12:1).”  ∼ Pope Benedict XVI, “Regensburg Address”

I never had the great privilege of taking a class at Georgetown University with Fr. James Schall, S.J., who passed away this Wednesday at the age of 91. But I had the good fortune to attend some of his lectures and visit with him over a meal. On the eve before the Sacred Triduum, we said goodbye to Fr. Schall, who was a great writer, a dedicated teacher, and a loyal son of St. Ignatius of Loyola to the end. I have learned much from Fr. Schall by reading his works from the time when I was a senior in high school, so it seems fitting that the best way to honor a great teacher and writer is to highlight some of the key lessons I have learned from him while answering the vocation to teach others.

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First, teachers are servants of the truth. Hence, in Fr. Schall’s view, “teachers cannot be paid for what they teach. What they teach, if true, is not theirs. They do not own it. They did not make it or make it to be true.” The mission and vocation of the teacher is to direct the minds of students to what truly is. This is an essential antidote to the metaphysical madness which reigns in light of voluntarism run amok. People deny reality as it truly is in favor of what they want it to be. In his satirical “The ‘Declaration’ of Voluntarism,” Fr. Schall notes this foundational view of voluntarism: “Each human being is what he declares itself to be. No stable ‘human nature’ exists apart from the individual citizen’s definition of what he is.” This continues to be a recipe for disaster in society as we deny the objective order of things.

We need to remind our pupils that reason needs faith (revelation)—ordinary things needs the extraordinary—to make its full assent to the truth. The truth—the Logos—is not a mere abstraction or obscure idea; the Logos is Person. We are called to know and love persons. God is a dynamic relationship of three distinct Persons, who invites all of us to enter into communion with him. The great challenge for teachers is to help guide their pupils towards the Truth using the wings of both faith and reason lest they slip into a cold calculating rationalism or a superstitious, irrational (and, at worst, violent) fideism.

Politics is about ethics and not eschatology. One of the seminal ideas quoted by Fr. Schall comes from Eric Voegelin who lamented the “immanentization of the eschaton.” One of the great challenges we face as a culture is the need to “de-immanentize” the eschaton. Politics cannot be a replacement for theology or metaphysics because it ceases to be politics when it does this. Subsequently, hope becomes displaced by progress and religion is replaced by ceaseless political “discourse.” The human person has a transcendent origin and mission, which has been replaced by the Sisyphean quest to establish a utopia in our image and likeness.

According to C.S. Lewis, “if you have only read a great book once, you have not read it at all.” Finally, teachers must give their students the opportunity to read great works. Anyone who has read Schall over many years knows that this means we must read Samuel Johnson, Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, Josef Pieper, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Plato, Aristotle, Jacques Maritain, E.F. Schumacher, Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, and even Charles Schulz. Great teachers know that we are “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.” Consequently, we must introduce our students to the great works of other thinkers because real learning occurs in our leisure outside of the classroom. The purpose of his writing and his teaching was to introduce his readers and students to a symphony of truth made up of an array of great intellectuals throughout the centuries.

In life and after death, Fr. Schall will continue to teach his readers that we must make it a priority to build up our own libraries. (There is no better place to start other than one of Fr. Schall’s countless lists of books). He challenges us to read widely and critically focused on the pursuit of wisdom, so we might know things as they truly are with the aid of faith and reason. Above all, we are called to know and love the Logos Incarnate in this life into eternity. The lasting legacy of Fr. Schall is that he has consistently demonstrated that Athens needs both Jerusalem and Rome.

Fr. Schall always ended his communiqués with the words “pray for me.” As he enters into the Eternal Easter as a priest forever, we will soon ask him to assist us in the pursuit of Truth, as we say in our own private prayers: Fr. Jim, pray for me.

℘  ℘  ℘ ℘

It is only fitting in honor of Fr. Schall to recommend some of his most notable works, which will inevitably lead his students to a lifetime of learning, reading, play, and prayer:

I. Another Sort of Learning: Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity To Be Found (1988)

II. Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays (1994)

III.  A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning (1997)

IV.  At the Limits of Political Philosophy (1998)

V.  On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing (2001)

VI.  The Order of Things (2007)

VII.  The Regensburg Lecture (2007)

VIII. The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (2008)

IX.  The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking (2008)

X.  Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (2013)

(Photo credit: Austrian National Library; Shutterstock)


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