It was published when I was three years old and has never been out of print, but only recently have I read A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller. Two or three years ago Bishop Sumner said we all ought to read it if we hadn’t—or at least, in my memory he urged that; I can’t find the actual request (but see https://edod.org/bishops-blog/enough-with-narratives-already/ ). Well, I may be slow, but eventually I try to do what my bishop urges upon me.
Today I wonder, what took me so long? This is a riveting and timeless novel which takes Christian and human truth seriously—with many a surprising twist. If you haven’t read it, do so.
It is widely said that Alisdair MacIntyre found this novel to be an inspiration for the opening conception of his own great book, After Virtue. MacIntyre thinks we live in a post-virtue world, not just in the sense that everything’s a moral mess, but in the sense that we no longer know what moral terms mean. It’s as if our memories have been largely erased, and all we are left with are scattered words and fragments.
In Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, it’s some centuries after a nuclear holocaust, an event so awful that, amongst the survivors, there was a “simplification” in which they destroyed any books or paper (as well as killing off people who cared about books etc.). Some monks have preserved, in memory and in buried writings, as much as they could of the past. They have some fragments that include words like “electron,” although no one knows what those words mean.
There are always tensions in a community. In this post-holocaust world, without electricity or gunpowder, one of the monks labors over trying to understand fragments of (we can tell, he doesn’t know) circuit diagrams. Another monk thinks he is wasting his time: “What was the subject matter of Electronics?”
“That too is written,” he replies: “The subject matter of Electronics was the electron.”
“So it is written, indeed. What, pray, was the ‘electron’?”
“Well, there is one fragmentary source which alludes to it as a ‘Negative Twist of Nothingness.’”
“What! How did they negate a nothingness? Wouldn’t that make it a somethingness?”
“Perhaps the negative applies to ‘twist.’”
And so on. The skeptic brother then says: “How clever they must have been, those ancients—to know how to untwist nothing. Keep at it, and you may learn how. Then we’d have the ‘electron’ in our midst, wouldn’t we? Whatever would we do with it? Put it on the altar in the chapel?”
Nice, no? But it is not hard to imagine a world where words like Jesus, mercy, sacrifice, Good Samaritan, and so on have become unmoored from their context and are just floating around, still used by people perhaps, but used in uncomprehending ways. It’s not a long step from “What, pray, was the ‘electron’?” to “What is truth?”
Out & About. On Sunday, Sept. 15, I am to preach at the Church of the Incarnation at the traditional services: 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m. The subject is those famous words that Jesus never said: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Also on Sept. 15, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Incarnation, the “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will meet to discuss Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. If you read the book, you’re welcome to the conversation.
Not too late to sign up: the Nashotah course, Ethics and Moral Theology. The reading for the first class is chapters 1-4 of Daniel Westberg’s textbook on Anglican moral theology, Renewing Moral Theology. We’ll meet from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Incarnation. Instructions for registration are in last week’s blog—drop me a line if you need more.