When it comes to considering reality, it seems that the very word makes us uncomfortable. “You have your reality and I have mine,” people say. It does indeed seem that we see reality in hopelessly divergent ways. Part of what makes us uncomfortable is that if someone else starts talking, in our hearing, about what’s real, it starts to feel like a power move. So we resist, in the name of freedom or self-preservation.
But then when we do examine ourselves, it’s as if we don’t “have my reality” at all. Many people feel that reality is something “we can’t know.” We can’t know what is there. So reality is what we construct it to be, perhaps—or “curate.” But “actual reality”—whatever it is—is something we fear like the other shoe dropping. We feel disconnected from the real but also threatened by it. Reality is both unknowable and dangerous. Rampant anxiety typifies our era, with its deleterious effect on our bodies. Anxiety is a bodily indicator that something is amiss.
By “reality” or “the real” I’m simply referring to whatever is out there beyond one’s head. Many people feel that reality is just impersonal, indifferent, meaningless material, only grist for society’s pragmatic utility and scaling of power and mastery. It’s the stuff we consume, the stuff I can do whatever I want with. And if we are religious, we can devalue the world as irreligious, spiritually inferior, or only a temptation to idolatry. We can see the world as blocking the real.
These common perceptions about reality reveal our disconnection and distrust. Philosopher D.C. Schindler writes of the evident crisis in contemporary existence—a crisis that “can be described in simple terms as a loss of a sense of reality, which inevitably entails as its counterpart a dissolution of the self.” Since supposedly we ourselves are real, in the process we have also lost ourselves.
On the other hand, it would seem that involvement with reality is just what we human persons were meant for. Involvement with the real is just what we undertake throughout our work, play, and worship. How can we hold such suspicion and anxiety about what ought to be our delight and vocation? And if we do, doesn’t that massively, adversely affect our lives and work—not to mention the world?
How can reality seem so alien? Whence this deep conflict and distrust? How can we recover a love of the real?
In my recent book, Doorway to Artistry, I pose that these implicit beliefs about reality are the legacy of modernism, our culture’s defining outlook. Their adverse impact is life-wide, but they especially wreak havoc for the artful and thwart creative efforts. We need to attune our philosophy to recover our love of the real. This philosophical attunement will enhance our creativity.
I believe that philosophical healing is close at hand. And especially in our artful making, if we have been philosophically attuned, we can and do return to love the real.
Modernity’s Distrust of the Real
Modernism originated in the 1700s and continues to define our age philosophically, giving us implicit answers to questions about what reality is and how we relate to it. Living in modernity, we inherit its defective philosophical views, often without even realizing it.
My own philosophical odyssey evidences the impact of modernism. To me, the matter of the real, and if and how we are involved with it, has been the most important thing to figure out. How can you even draw breath apart from it? As a thirteen-year-old, I found myself with two urgent questions: Though a Christian believer, I was asking, how do I know that God exists? And even more upsetting: How do I know that there actually is a world beyond my mind? I presumed that I was certain of the contents of my mind but that these very contents blocked the real. I had no proof of what mattered most.
How do I know that God exists? And even more upsetting: How do I know that there actually is a world beyond my mind?
What was this? Whence my childhood skepticism? Skepticism, by the way, is a form of distrust of the real. Nobody had suggested or addressed these questions in my hearing. I inhaled them in the air of modernity. And even though my suspicion seemed quirky, I came to see that almost everybody in modernity is marked by something like it. Everybody shares some version of my distrust of the real. Mine is a telltale story of the modern age.
Tomes have been composed, and remain to be composed, about modernism. The claims of great thinkers over the centuries always form our way of seeing the world. But I feel it important to pay attention to philosophy “in the streets”—to how those great ideas have come to be held by people in everyday life.
The modern age holds implicitly that the real is impersonal, consumable, material stuff, reducible to its tiniest components (this is the meaning of reductionism), to the end of actionable utility. Knowledge is power. Man’s goal is mastery over nature. I don’t mean to denigrate men but rather to say that modernism tends to associate mastery over nature with being male. Our job in knowing it is to amass information—explicit, impersonal, transferable, commodifiable, scalable.
The project of modernity, philosopher Robert Spaemann writes, is “the progressive mastery of nature through the despotic objectification of nature.” Scientific reductionism, fragmentation, and instrumentalization characterize modernity’s ethos. And mastery of nature entails mastery of the other, of humans, and of oneself. If one is setting out to use or abuse an other, it is likely that one first begins by vilifying the other, reducing its reality. Modernity has denatured nature.
But now, according to Spaemann, “the impending ecological crisis is rendering the feasibility of the project of modernity questionable in itself. A fundamental challenge to the consciousness of the age must be proposed.” Spaemann goes on: “We need to rethink the concept of mastery, and moreover, to attribute something like selfhood to other entities simply as partners able to dialogue with Homo Sapiens at various levels.”
In exalting utility, modernity has disavowed philosophy itself. Modernism is an anti-philosophical philosophy—a demonstrative contradiction. Along with philosophy, modernism has actually discredited reality, knowing, personhood, beauty, and artistry. All this obviously engenders the widely expressed distrust of the real, along with the consequent self-dissolution. Modernity’s disconnection from reality consigns our artful efforts to being merely ventures of private, subjective taste, imagination, and construction.
But in ringing defiance to modernity, D.C. Schindler defines “philosophy” as “an all-encompassing love of the real, a love that is only deepened by Christian faith.” How may we recover reality? How may we return “to attribute something like selfhood to other entities?” And where do we start a philosophical reattunement?
Our Natural “Metaphysics of Childhood”
Doorway to Artistry “attunes your philosophy to enhance your creativity.” Far from being distant, denuded, depersonalized, and doubtable, I pose in this book that the lively real hospitably welcomes us into an unfolding friendship. Humans are meant for this intimate encounter and convivial communion with the real. Artistry and other human ventures consist of our reciprocating the real’s welcome, following the lead of our host to plumb the real’s inexhaustive depths and unfold its vistas. The book itself enacts an event of hospitable welcome—to my home.
It goes without saying that it can take some effort to embrace this breathtaking way of seeing the world and our ongoing involvement with it. But I maintain that this is the way that the very young child sees and relates to the world. That means that our restoration from modernism’s reality disconnect involves returning to the natural and near; it is well within range. I dub it “a metaphysics of childhood”—a baby philosophy of the real.
It used to be that when I related my modernist philosophical story, I called myself a baby skeptic—a baby Cartesian. With chagrin I confess that only in writing this recent book have I recognized that I wasn’t a baby skeptic! I was an “adolescent-onset” skeptic! I was thirteen. Only with this realization have I begun to recall that there was nothing wrong with the exuberant metaphysics of my childhood. The problem was that I had stepped away from it. I now see this as the adverse impact, not of maturing to adulthood, but of succumbing to modernity’s skewed philosophy.
I started to recall my rapturous babyhood loves and their proper philosophical import. I had (still have) a 1949 children’s book called Tuttle, about a little truck in the city of Philadelphia, where I grew up. The simple line drawings depict all the buildings leaning over and calling, “Hello!” to the little truck as he speeds happily over the cobblestones. Indeed my “friends,” as I called them, included oil tanks and street sweepers, the “El” and “Billy Penn” atop city hall—also featured in Tuttle. My loves included the ocean, and particularly the sand that I excitedly watched for to appear alongside the roads as we sped from the city across New Jersey to the shore. Indeed, the back of my head is actually flat, for from infancy I would not be denied seeing. I insisted on being laid on my back.
In Doorway to Artistry, I recommend that we return to our natural metaphysics of childhood. There is an approach to the real that is ours naturally by virtue of our birth, and operative evidently in our early months and years. (Much, grievously, can go wrong to thwart a child’s or any person’s experience of this. But this underscores the point: something unnatural is going on.) In our lives, our metaphysics of childhood predates the modernist outlook that we seem to acquire quite possibly with our formal education. It remains logically prior, necessary to ground everything we say and do. Even if we grow up to deny it, we rely on it even in our denial. In our plight of modernist blindness, I pose that we must return to the natural way we saw things as a very small child.
G.K. Chesterton seconds this sort of strategy. “But when fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candour and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence.” And, “we must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there.”
I include in a metaphysics of childhood three interrelated things: the highly interpersoned and philosophically formative delight of the mother in her young child; a fundamental orientation of affirmation and joy toward the real; and the primacy of things. Here is what I have in mind.
Twentieth-century theologian and philosopher Hans Urs von Balthasar writes that “the child awakens to consciousness in the loving gaze of its mother.” To the gifting of the mother’s present, delighted face of love, the child responds in rapture and delight. Mother is a being like me, with me, but other than me. In that beauty-filled, love-brimming face, a face that was looking for us before we were looking for her, is the gift of an intimate welcome home to belong in this world. As Balthasar expresses it, an entire ontological (that is, a philosophy of the real) paradise opens before the child, an incomprehensible miracle. The child’s first experience of life is highly sophisticated interpersoned encounter. This shapes the child’s whole being and involvement with the real.
The child is born into a fundamental relation to the real that is, as Balthasar ringingly expresses it, “affirmation and joy in being.” This is our natural, childlike orientation toward the real. Everyone has and lives out an implicit fundamental orientation to the world. This can be either a yes of affirmation and consent, or a no of rejection. The latter, according to philosopher Josef Pieper, is what is meant by the sin of acedia: a refusal to consent to being (that is, to the real). The modernist outlook is arguably acedic: a refusal to consent to the real. A metaphysics of childhood poses that the yes is original with the child.
Things: The Everyday Jewels of the Real
A metaphysics of childhood affirms the primacy of things. Mother is also a child’s first thing, we might say, and the child’s definitive introduction to things. Our early life is our mother and family and near things—siblings, the dog, my teddy bear, other objects appearing around me. The real, within the metaphysics of childhood, has a personal and welcoming face.
What is a thing? Though not a commonly voiced question, in fact all our endeavours presume things fundamentally. A thing is a simple unity, coherent and meaningful, logically prior, even if not prior in time, and irreducible to its components. This simple coherence overflows with astonishing depths and vistas. Things are somethings, in lively intrinsic relation with other things. Things are what I call everyday jewels of the real.
For example, a tree is a thing. Even to talk about it, even to say that it is made up of certain chemicals and processes, you have to presuppose the thing, the whole, if you are to identify these as parts. A tree abounds with wonderfully mysterious depths and possibilities; you can’t ever “get to the bottom of” a tree. Yours can be a lively relationship with a lively thing, a deep knowing, as Schindler describes it.
Things are somethings, in lively intrinsic relation with other things. Things are what I call everyday jewels of the real.
In his book No God, No Science? Theology, Cosmology, Biology, philosopher Michael Hanby poses that the primacy of things is distinctively at home in the classical Christian vision. Ancient Greek philosophy, though well meant, lacked a sophisticated enough account of the real. It lacked the understanding of creation that Christianity revealed—a created real both dependent on a radically transcendent Creator and also gifted away generously by him to stand freely in its particular “ownness.” In grim contrast even to ancient philosophy, modernist reductivism simply rejects things and their primacy, in favour of their “bits” and their utility.
According to philosopher Norris Clarke, Thomas Aquinas, in tune with the Christian doctrine of creation, innovatively re-laid the accent in the traditional account of real things, shifting it from their essential features to their actual existence. And existence is no mere check in the box. It is not so much an item as an event. It is a gifting or bestowal. The most remarkable thing about a thing is that it is here!
Everything that is, is things—lively things, astonishing first for their actual existence. According to Balthasar, by virtue of their existence, things “self-show, self-give, and self-say”—distinctively, to us. Beauty, goodness, and truth, these characteristic marks of things (commonly termed transcendentals), are like jewel facets scattering light. Balthasar pronounces: “There is no such thing as a passive object!”
Beauty: The Welcome of the Real
Following Balthasar and Schindler, I pose that beauty is the real’s self-showing. Beauty is an epiphany, and event of encounter. Beauty is the real saying “Here I am!” I render beauty as the real’s hospitable “Welcome!”—extended personally to its recipient. Beauty itself is the welcome and the beckoning doorway to artistry.
Even my halting reflection on this classical Christian philosophical vision restores to things their stunning, jewel-like glory. Things need no add-ons to be meaningful, dynamic, self-communicative, generously excessive, wonder-filled, standing in their noble freedom. As Episcopal priest and cook Robert Farrar Capon insists, “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams of the world.”
Although, ironically, it is difficult to express these profound philosophical matters about the everyday things surrounding us, I believe that this account describes how the real actually comes to the very small child. Proper astonishment at things comes naturally to a child. You only have to be with a small child to recognize this.
Distinctively in modernity, we acedically reject and lose sight of real things, in all their winsome glimmering. Things become to us objects of our boredom and indifference, of only pragmatic value as we break them down to their smallest components. Things become subject to our imperious manipulation and privatization. To affirm the astonishing primacy of things is to break the deadening reductivist stranglehold of modernism and restore dignity to the other.
In his justly famous book Orthodoxy, Chesterton argues for his “ethics of elfland”: “The fairy tales founded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness.”
His fairy tale philosophy, Chesterton found, contradicted modernism but seemed more rational; only later did he associate it with the Christian religion. “All this I felt and the age gave me no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought of Christianity.”
For Chesterton, fairy tales get at “the sense of the miracle of humanity itself.” Fairy book terms—charm, spell, enchantment—aptly “express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.” He represents his strongest emotion: “that life was as precious as it is puzzling.” Indeed, “Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?” Existence is a surprise, but it is a pleasant surprise, he writes. Existence is “itself so very eccentric a legacy that it roundly qualifies the supposed arbitrariness of any ethical rule.”
My metaphysics of childhood dovetails with Chesterton’s ethics of elfland. In slight divergence, I anchor my claim not in the literature of childhood but in the event of birth. I would say that, later on, the nursery tales express and confirm the child’s primal welcome and natural exuberant intimacy with the real. Chesterton himself more than hints that something philosophical precedes the experience of nursery literature: something about babyhood, and something about the world itself:
Chesterton’s whimsical wisdom converges with a metaphysic forged in the mother’s rapturous welcome, a welcoming real that is already elvish, an astonishing homeland. Let’s call this a metaphysics of elfland. Returning to our natural metaphysics of childhood restores us to an orientation of yes to the world. It restores the other as person-like, welcoming, enchanted. It restores the irreducibility of things, the everyday jewels of the real. It reinstates our love of the real.
Our Artful Knowing
I have hinted that, once reattuned to the real, artistry itself enacts this healing philosophical orientation. For if the real is astonishing things welcoming us in the encounter of beauty, our creative process hospitably reciprocates the real’s welcome. Noble courtesy in artistry rightly honours the real, accepting its invitation to a new place of belonging, entering into convivial communion with it, exploring its excess of depths and possibilities, together bringing, as Makoto Fujimura says, the New.
Returning to our natural metaphysics of childhood restores us to an orientation of yes to the world. It restores the other as person-like, welcoming, enchanted. It restores the irreducibility of things, the everyday jewels of the real. It reinstates our love of the real.
Adolescent modernist that I have been, in my first books I have been preoccupied with knowing; only recently, with my trust in the real restored, have I been free to reflect on the real itself. But I can now see how the account of knowing that I have developed over the years pointed the way to this healing. In my twenties I discovered and appropriated Michael Polanyi’s account of knowing. A premier scientific discoverer turned philosopher, Polanyi argued that if knowledge is as modernism describes it, no scientific discovery could ever happen. But it does. (He himself was expert at it.) Instead, we should see that knowing is discovery: moving toward the not-yet-known. In all knowing, we rely on clues that we bodily indwell and attend from to undergo the spontaneous integrative leap to a coherent pattern. Polanyi called this “subsidiary focal integration.” The act of insight, the aha! epiphany, just is the integrative breakthrough, which transforms the clues on which we were relying in pursuing the still hidden pattern. Polanyi the discoverer repeated that we know that we have made contact with reality because we sense an inexhaustive abundance of future possibilities. All knowing is from-to, and beyond. You are gazing down at a leafy woodland path. A puzzling pattern starts to emerge. Suddenly you are seeing a copperhead. That integrative pattern transforms what you were gazing at and your life in the bargain. It issues in a range of “copperhead possibilities.”
For me, this account made profound and healing sense of knowing in all corners of life. To this day, I find that showing someone that this is what we are actually doing when we know is the philosophical therapy that alone defeats and actually dispels the skewed presumptions of modernity we have inhaled. In my book Loving to Know, I augmented Polanyi’s account to forge my covenant epistemology: the knower-yet-to-be-known relationship is like a marriage: a covenantally constituted, unfolding encounter and relationship.
In retrospect, I saw the match between beauty as the real’s self-showing and Polanyi’s account of knowing. Polanyi cast knowing as epiphanic encounter. As per the transcendentals, the glinting facets of the everyday jewels of the real, truth is the real’s self-saying.
Discovery is fundamentally akin to the creative act. Artistry is not opposed to knowing. Instead, knowing itself is intrinsically artful. Just as seeing knowing as encounter formed me in a healing orientation toward the world, so also the creative process, if allowed to shape us philosophically, shows the way to recovering our love of the real.
Artistry itself enacts and expresses love of things—things near and far. Near: artistry is “liquid” love of materials. Here I always see in my mind Nihonga artist Makoto Fujimura among jars of the pulverized minerals with which he paints, acting like a child in a candy shop. Far: artistry is the loving pursuit of a beckoning vision, the committed, creative struggle to actualize fresh vistas of the real.
Every day of our lives we wake to ventures that we undertake. Some may be mundane; others border on the heroic. These ventures are always creative. We create in order to live. Even “making do” is making.
Human persons are involved with the real. We are meant to be involved with the real. The real, and we, come to be what we are most fully in lively encounter and communion with each other. My garden, just like yours, is one such communion. So is your painting, your composition, your omelette.
With philosophical attunement, we can recover our love of the real. We can enact in our artistry (throughout our lives) the communion with the real for which we human persons were intended. In turn this will bring healing to all things, and to our very selves.