Arts and Culture

Worlds of Meaning

Second in a series

In trying to promote the reading of Catholic novels in this series of columns on the importance of reading good literature, I am going to use a concept that I use in some philosophy courses at St. John’s University. It is the concept of “world,” and by that concept I wish to indicate the set of meanings – or network of meanings – that are real to a person.

Each of us lives in several worlds. For example, I live in the world of Catholicism, the world of philosophy, the world of St. John’s University, the world of priests, the masculine world, the world of the United States, the world of mass media, the world of athletics and other worlds.

Several times I have asked teachers of mathematics to explain calculus to me. When they try, I have no idea what they are saying means. Calculus is not part of my world. If I tried to explain metaphysics to them, they might not understand what I am saying.

Each of us is in constant dialogue with his or her worlds. As we change, our worlds change, and as our worlds change, we change. We like to think that all changes are for the better, that our worlds are deepening and broadening and we are constantly growing into better persons. That is not necessarily the truth. It is possible that our worlds are becoming more narrow and shallow and we might be declining instead of growing. What is happening depends a great deal on our freedom and our choices.

The philosophy of secular humanism pervades the contemporary United States, especially the media, film, television, literature, newspapers and many educational institutions. The philosophy embraced by many of the most creative people in society is the philosophy of secular humanism.

The following are some of the basic views held by most secular humanists: There is nothing but matter. There is no such reality as spirit or the supernatural. Nature is all there is. Human beings are the chance product of evolution. There is no God creating us or waiting for us at the end of our lives. There is no such reality as original sin. Nature is not against us or for us. All dualisms should be rejected.

Examples of such dualisms are: matter and spirit, body and soul, earth and heaven, nature and grace, nature and supernatural, reason and faith, state and church. Half of each of these dualisms should be dropped because they do not express reality. There is just matter, body, earth, nature and there should be only just reason and the state.

Is there such a reality as sin for the secular humanist? If by sin we mean an offense against God, then of course there is no sin, because there is no God. If by sin we mean an offense against another person, there are many sins. There is no mystery of evil or devil. Most evils are due to human beings.

Education is incredibly important and the secular humanist sees education as the great opportunity to solve almost all of the world’s problems. Whatever contributes to personal growth is moral. The goal of human living is the development of human persons and love contributes greatly to human growth.

I am not suggesting that Catholic novels will produce religious faith or be the only antidote to an atmosphere permeated by the philosophy of secular humanism. But I do suggest that Catholic novels deal with and dramatize the depths of reality.

The plots and problems vary in Catholic novels but a constant is the relationship between God and human persons: an adulterous love affair in which God seems to be present, an aristocratic British Catholic family each of whose members has a radically different relationship with God, a Vatican bureaucrat who is confronted with his own mortality, a contemporary character who literally lives like St. Francis, a suicide perhaps committed by a saint.

Occasionally I ask friends what they are reading. I confess that I am upset if their reply is something like “Just junk.” I certainly don’t think everyone should be reading Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare every evening. Light reading can be enjoyable. I just wish the treasure that Catholic novels are ceased to be a treasure hidden in a field.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his 24-part lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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