Back in November, some friends and I started a book club. We plan to focus on the classics (we first read Oedipus Rex, right after Thanksgiving, to cheer us all up), but we took a detour into “modern” classics this past month with Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I slacked off and didn’t finish the book before the meeting. Consider this my attempt to think through the book on my own.
Since the Enlightenment it seems the Western world has labored under the myth that knowledge will solve our problems. As Stephen Toulmin makes clear, Descartes embarked upon his quest for an objective Method in no intellectual vacuum. Rather, the violence of the religious wars and the perceived failure of theological inquiry to produce agreed upon, workable, universal knowledge drove him to find truth through some purely rational Method. If only we all follow the right logical sequence, he thought, we’ll end up in the right place.
Of course, he was wrong and few today would support such a radically Cartesian agenda. But many of his other, more subtle assumptions, have endured. Among them is the rather dangerous idea that sneaks its way into policy discussions and even Christian circles to this day–the idea that perhaps knowledge can solve our problems.
Given the failure of theology, we’ve handed knowledge-producing off to Science and Reason and, of late, computers and technology. This only makes sense because, if knowledge is our savior, Science and Reason seem to produce the most consistent, reliable results. Curiously, this hand-off hasn’t eradicated religion. We now have a rather different, religiously-charged pursuit of knowledge. As Neil Postman put it:
All experts are invested with the charisma of priestliness. Some of our priest-experts are called psychiatrists, some psychologists, some sociologists, some statisticians. The god they serve does not speak of righteousness or goodness or mercy or grace. Their goes speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. And that is why such concepts as sin and evil disappear…they come from a moral universe that is irrelevant to the theology of expertise. And so the priests…call sin ‘social deviance,’ which is a statistical concept, and they call evil ‘psychopathology,’ which is a medical concept. Sin and evil disappear because they cannot be measured and objectified, and therefore cannot be dealt with by experts. (Technopoly, pg. 90)
Sin and salvation are not concepts we can escape because they refer to the (empirically provable) fact that something is wrong, and the (somewhat less empirically provable) hope that something can be done about it. But when we replace a broken heart with a deficiency of knowledge, our vision of sin and salvation warps and we end up in a different “moral universe” that requires new priests to mediate god and new rites to approach him. For a long time, our priests were our scientists and our sacrifices were (at minimum) the first 18 years of our lives followed by (if we wanted a good job) four more years.
I’m not sure, but it may be that this redefinition of sin is changing in the 21st century. It seems as though arguments over social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are premised less and less, on both sides, on “they are wrong because the science says so,” and more, “they are wrong because they are bad people.”
Regardless, this vision of knowledge can still be detected in the sheer horror with which both conservatives and liberals discuss each other’s positions. There’s a strong sense that it is simply inconceivable that someone–in the 21st century!–could think this way. It is simply inconceivable that someone–given all of history!–could disregard the past so simply. And hiding in those exclamations is the assumption that knowledge should have been enough. Hiding there is astonishment that everyone could have all the same facts and come to radically different conclusions.
Christian apologetics seems peculiarly stuck in this Enlightenment rut. The idea that there could be such a thing as “evidence that demands a verdict,” evidence that speaks for itself outside any frame of reference, seems more Cartesian than Christian. After all, if we take Romans 1 seriously the problem with humanity is definitely not a lack of knowledge but a lack of properly directed love. It isn’t that people need to be educated, they need to be changed.
All of this is important background to understand A Canticle for Leibowitz. The author, Walter Miller, flew planes during WWII and participated in the destruction of the Benedictine monastery in Monte Casino. The Canticle seems like his attempt to exorcise the demons he encountered in WWII. Perhaps, however, it is actually an attempt to exorcise humanity, to understand how the human race, with so much science and knowledge, could slaughter hundreds of millions of people in the course of one short century.
The book is told as a triptych and progresses mostly as a set of foils. Every smaller story presents an abbot that plays an important role, a younger monk or character that plays a role, an outsider to the monastery, and Benjamin (who seems to be Lazarus still wondering the earth after several millennia). These successive characters play off each other and illuminate different aspects of the story.
The story tracks a small monastery founded after the order of Leibowitz (a fictional saint) as it: 1) attempts to preserve knowledge shortly after humanity nearly wipes itself out through nuclear holocaust, 2) guides humanity through a new Renaissance, and, 3) survives as humanity wipes itself out, yet again, through another nuclear holocaust. Saint Leibowitz, the founder of the Order, died preserving the “Memorabilia,” a miscellaneous set of documents that preserved some of the scientific and literary accomplishments of human civilization. The Order takes it upon itself to continue the preservation.
During the first story the monks preserve the knowledge contra mundum, with the outside world hostile to their cloistered lives. The first story, to me, seems primarily set-up for the thematic developments that follow. By the time we reach the new Renaissance, the story slows down and follows a young secular scholar, Thon Thaddeo, who comes to visit the monastery to examine the Memorabilia. The abbot at the time, Dom Paulo, is resolved to welcome outsiders to the knowledge the Order preserved, but to keep this knowledge squarely within a Christian frame. “And this time, thought Dom Paulo, we’ll keep them reminded of who kept the spark burning while the world slept.” (pg. 146)
Thaddeo, however, is hostile to this desire. For him, the Memorabilia represents huge advances in learning that could move civilization forward in leaps and bounds. Paulo’s hesitancy is nonsensical to him: “If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.” (pg. 225) Thaddeo styles himself as a savior, which explains some of his hostility. Thaddeo sees the majority of the world still disease-ridden and poor, laboring in medieval economies and agrarian communities. He wants to move the world forward, and sees knowledge–”wisdom”–as the key to doing this.
Thaddeo’s vision is clarified early on when, looking out a window at a passing peasant, he says:
‘Look at him!’ the scholar persisted. ‘No, but it’s too dark now. You can’t see the syphilis outbreak on his neck, the way the bridge of his nose is being eaten away. Paresis. Be he was undoubtedly a moron to begin with. Illiterate, superstitious, murderous. He diseases his children. For a few coins he would kill them. He will sell them anyway, when they are old enough to be useful. Look at him and tell me if you see the progeny of a once-mighty civilization? What do you see?’
‘The image of Christ,’ grated the monsignor, surprised at his own sudden anger. ‘What did you expect me to see?’ (pg. 129)
But crucially, Thaddeo’s vision is not just pessimistic and degrading. It also prioritizes knowledge:
The scholar huffed impatiently. ‘The incongruity. Men as you can observe them through any window, and men as historians would have us believe men once were. I can’t accept it. How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?’
‘Perhaps,’ said Apollo, ‘by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.’ (pg. 129)
Thaddeo cannot imagine that a civilization with incredible knowledge could have gone wrong. But the Church places knowledge in its proper place, at least some of the time in the story. If one is only great and wise, the Churchman says, one can still be lost. In fact, greatness and wisdom may be dangerous themselves.
In the middle of all this is the rather curious figure of Benjamin. Mistaken for Saint Leibowitz at the beginning of the story, Benjamin is the last Jew on planet earth. He also happens to be Lazarus raised from the dead, but a Lazarus who took Jesus command to rise again not as identifying Jesus as the Messiah, but as commanding Benjamin to wait for the Messiah. And so, Benjamin wandered the earth for millennia and continues to do so throughout the centuries that the book charts.
None of the characters in the book are quite sure what to do with him, and neither am I. He’s enigmatic, but it seems like his primary function is as a foil to the monks of Leibowitz. While the monks wrap themselves up in the politics of the world, attempting to guide the world’s appropriation and development of knowledge, Benjamin sits in the hills and waits for the Messiah, uninterested in the developments of mankind.
In an especially poignant moment he mistakes Thaddeo for the Messiah, only to realize his mistake and slink away. Benjamin floats in and out of the story, reminding the characters that he, at least, is still waiting for a Messiah–reminding them that he, at least, sees no salvation in knowledge.
The third story contains one last set of foils important for this reading. In the last few weeks before the human race annihilates itself again, Miller presents us with one more abbot, Zerchi, and another enigmatic figure, Rachel. Miller doesn’t make entirely clear who (what?) Rachel is, but he does hint that she may be Mary reincarnate. In any case, the specifics are irrelevant to this interpretation.
Zerchi and Rachel both play the same role. Zerchi gives advice to a mother and daughter affected by radiation poisoning after the first nuclear missile launches. The doctor advises the mother to euthanize the child, and Zerchi strongly opposes it (being a member of the Church). The mother still decides to euthanize her daughter and Zerchi drives with them on their way, in a desperate final attempt to dissuade her.
He delivers a sermon, pontificating on the evils of murder. The mother responds: “The baby doesn’t understand your sermon. She can hurt, though. She can hurt, but she can’t understand.” (pg. 316) Zerchi keeps talking, frantically offering every argument he can. Finally, he says:
‘I’m not asking you. As a priest of Christ I am commanding you by the authority of Almighty God not to lay hands on your child, not to offer her life in sacrifice to the false god of expedient mercy. I do not advise you, I adjure and command you in the name of Christ the King. Is that clear?’ (pg. 318)
Zerchi fails. But shortly after, another bomb drops and the monastery caves in on Zerchi. As he is dying, Rachel comes to him. She doesn’t say much, but somehow she gives him the Eucharist, one last time. Zerchi cannot say anything, but Rachel can. She only gives a single command: “Live.” (pg. 336) Both Zerchi and Rachel came to someone at the door of death, but Zerchi provided knowledge, commands, wisdom, and power in the face of death. Rachel showed love. The mother didn’t respond, but Zerchi did:
The image of those cool green eyes lingered with him as long as life. He did not ask why God would choose to raise up a creature of primal innocence from the shoulder of Mrs. Grales, or why God gave to it the preternatural gifts of Eden–those gifts which Man had been trying to seize by brute force again from Heaven since he first lost them. He had seen primal innocence in those eyes, and a promise of resurrection. One glimpse had been a bounty, and he wept in gratitude. Afterwards he lay with his face in the wet dirt and waited. (pg. 336)
The Canticle is an attempt to explain Miller’s experiences. A civilization endowed with unheard of knowledge and power had managed, in the 20th century, to annihilate large segments of itself and step right up to the brink of total self-destruction. The Enlightenment and Renaissance proceeded on the notion that religion created division but knowledge engendered unity. Descartes and his successors believed that with the right knowledge and proper method mankind could save itself, but Miller saw knowledge and method become the instruments of destruction.
Miller’s ultimate critique is simple: he is Benjamin, sitting outside the struggle, positive that knowledge is not the Messiah but certain that someone is. A Canticle for Leibowitz rails against the dangers of knowledge and deconstructs any savior complex knowledge-producers have. Miller will have none of the idea–whether baptized into Christian lingo or not–that education and knowledge will save the world. Christian education does not change lives. Data will not reorient hearts. Books are not enough. Materially great and materially wise people and civilizations have not put up guardrails against self-destruction, they may have actually paved the way for it.
As Miller himself says:
“The answer was near at hand; there was still the serpent whispering: For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened; and you shall be as Gods. The old father of lies was clever at telling half-truths: how shall you ‘know’ good and evil, until you shall have sampled a little? Taste and be as Gods. But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.” (pg. 238)
When the serpent came to Eve he lured her with the promise of knowledge; and the temptation to know, to deify knowledge, remains with us still. To believe that knowledge will fix the world is to believe that our original sin can save us, that we can get back into the garden by being thrown out again.
But knowledge is not our problem. Sin did not primarily deform our heads, it deformed our hearts. Eve thought that the tree of knowledge was desirable, good, beautiful, delicious. Thus, the Christian call cannot be to turn to a different, sanitized tree of knowledge. Ignorance is not our problem. As Miller puts it, we don’t need wisdom and power to return to Eden, we need love.