Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living by Charles J. Chaput

(New York: Henry Holt/Macmillan, 2021), 257

Chapter 1: If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem

Summary: Asking ourselves what is worth dying for helps us clarify what is worth living for.

  • "Mouthing lies we know to be lies murders us inwardly." (cf 2021-07-15-"Live Not by Lies", 2021-10-30-Live Not By Lies)
  • Martyrdom: "Those who are faithful to God will in turn have his faithfulness at life's ending, no matter how extreme the test." (16)
  • Asking ourselves what is worth dying for helps us clarify what is worth living for (17)
  • "My thoughts these days often turn to the author and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien. The drama of the Christian story shaped everything Tolkien wrote; the intensity of his Catholic faith grounded his entire life and genius."

Chapter 2: Gentle, Into That Good Night

Summary: How we should think about death and the verdict it passes on the lives we live.

  • We are "subcreators" (cf J.R.R. Tolkien), and what we build shows what we care about (temples and tombs vs skyscrapers)
  • Joseph Ratzinger in 2023-02-27-Introduction to Christianity: "Meaning that is self-made is, in the last analysis, no meaning. Meaning cannot be made but only received." (29)
  • "How a culture deals with death reveals how it thinks about the meaning of life and the nature of the human person...[Death] can sharpen our awareness of beauty and intensify our loves." (31)
  • Ecclesiastes shows us what life looks like without hope in the resurrection
  • The Stoic view of death (cf. Cicero and Silicon Valley today): death is either deliverance from the burdens of the material world or everlasting rest
  • The Christian sees death as so much more of course: an evil to be endured with trust and abandonment, and in faith the beginning of endless joy

Chapter 3: The Waters of Casablanca

Summary: Examines the culture we have now: an ironic one in which we have unlimited options but are left empty.

  • Our country has a "new nihilism" that has been brewing for many decades
  • Notes from his childhood:
  • Roger Scruton: irony and forgiveness are the pillars of the west, and have roots in the biblical tradition
  • Justice vs Mercy: justice is needed for a humane society but can never be fully achieved; therefore we need enough justice, administered with mercy (56)
  • The Enlightenment forms our "secular creation myth", thought its shortcomings pointed out by Yoram Hazony and Brad Gregory
    • "Debunking Enlightenment vanity has bee ndone before and very well—with little effect on its disciples." (60)
    • "The tendency to push toward an abstract and utopian future, ignoring the lessons of the past, is a legacy of Enlightenment overconfidence." (62)
  • The irony of our society is that we have more options than ever but have a deeper thirst that those do not satisfy. Our "biological reductionism" creates a view of human society as competing enemies that we live down to. We ignore the big questions which leads to restlessness, acedia, despair.
  • Aristotle: The Good Life consists in conforming ourselves to our nature, in learning to desire well.

Chapter 4: Firemen at the Burning Bush

Summary: About God and how we evade him, especially in our idolatry.

  • The Hebrew God is not one god among many, but the God: "I am who I am"
  • Christ is the face of God made visible and present to us
  • We all worship something. The recurring temptation is to idolatry, in which we both try to control God, and which in the end always ends up controlling us.
  • Humanism started out as compatible with Christian teaching, but over time in the Enlightenment it removed God, moral absolutes, and therefore the foundations of human dignity, which came to rest on power and domination (cf. The Kingdom of Man by Rémi Brague)

Chapter 5: Dulce et Decorum Est

Summary: Things worth living and dying for: nation

  • The Song of Roland: our loves and loyalties desire public forms, and the things we're willing to die for are those we hold as sacred
  • Sacrifice has sanctifying power, cf. the Gettysburg Address
  • The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle by J. Glenn Gray: our citizenship draws us beyond ourselves in a rightly ordered patriotism
  • This rightly ordered (and skeptical) patriotism is all the more important for Americans because our country is an artificial creation of men, a collection of people who otherwise would easily descend into our individual interests
  • John Paul II in Memory and Identity traces patriotism to the fourth commandment to honor our father and mother

Chapter 6: This Idea's a Killer

Summary: Things worth living and dying for: ideas and ideologies

  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin tells of a Soviet-style "One State" taken to the extreme where people have numbers rather than names. This influenced ~Brave New World, ~1984, and ~Animal Farm
  • This is unfortunately a descendant not of the American Revolution, but of the French Revolution: the former with biblical and common law roots anchored in the pragmatic realism needed to survive in a new land and biblical, while in the latter "instead of simply using the religion of the state for his own political ends (which had been bad enough), he proclaimed his own political ends to be the religion of the state (which was intolerable)." (cf. The Church and Totalitarian Democracy John Courtney Murray)
  • Science and technology: "While the tendency to forget our limits as creatures is not new to human history, the cost of our forgetting has gone up sharply." (127)

Chapter 7: The Ties That Bind

Summary: Things worth living and dying for: family and loved ones

  • He outlines four factors in our society work against healthy families:
  • Democracy: which by it's focus on the individual has a built-in distrust of any "ties that bind" such as family; democracy isolates the individual in the name of liberty (cf. ~Democracy in America)
  • Economics: especially the Globalization that has benefited the rich while leaving many behind (cf. Wendell Berry)
  • Science and technology: video games and reproductive technology
  • Hostility to the idea of a family:
    • Marx saw the family as perpetuating bad historical forces
    • Auguste Comte (founder of Positivism): man is an object of study like any other object and scientific fact is the only true knowledge
    • As a result, social sciences are really a branch of moral philosophy (cf. Neil Postman)
    • Shulamith Firestone (radical feminist) and Wilhelm Reich illustrate Why extreme ideas matter: they "embody the purest logic of an argument and signal it's end result, force the borders of acceptable discourse to extend, and make previously excessive views seem more reasonable" (155)
    • Christopher Lasch in Heaven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged: parental influence has declined in recent decades through the "medicalization of society" imposing on what happens in the home. This hints at a similar skepticism of "professional family experts" as that presented in 2021-11-16-Hunt, Gather, Parent
  • John Paul II in Redemptor Hominis, Familaris Consortio, "Letter to Families", and "Letter to Children" distills some principles for family life:
    • Actions speak louder than words: personal witness shapes the world, and children see everything
    • Freedom is not license: authentic freedom is the ability to know and choose what is right
    • Knowledge is a blessing but requires wisdom: facts divorced from a moral framework become weapons
    • Learn to see clearly and think critically
    • Teach and live the virtues: the Christian faith is an invitation to virtue
    • Revere the sanctity of life
    • Live 1 Cor-13: to renew society we need to renew the family with authentic love (cf. 2013-10-21-The Four Loves)
    • Teach the habit of gratitude: gratitude is the beginning of joy (cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
    • Create silence: "Only he who is able to be silent can speak meaningfully" (cf. Romano Guardini)
    • Pray together

Chapter 8: Ecclesia Sua

Summary: Things worth living and dying for: the Church

  • St. John Vianney: "Holy priests make holy laypeople"
  • St. John Fisher as an example of a holy priest
  • Robert Conquest: "the simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it's controlled by a cabal of its enemies" (193)
  • "Why is History important? Because it helps us see the things that are universal and essential, and the things that aren't" (199)

Chapter 9: The King's Highway

Summary: The four last things of death, judgment, heaven, and hell

  • Pondering our death forces us to consider what matters
  • Judgment in the fiction of C. S. Lewis (2019-06-15-The Great Divorce and Narnia) and purgatory in the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien ("Leaf by Niggle")
  • "The more we've dismissed the existence of hell, the better we've become at building its replicas on earth." (217)
  • "Satan is the greatest tactician and the worst strategist in the history of God's creation" (217)
  • "The joy of the Beatific Vision, an eternity in the overwhelming beauty of God's loving face, would be the essence of what Lewis called an 'acquired taste,' a taste only acquired through God's redemption and grace and a lifetime spent cooperating with both." (222)

Afterword: On Friendship

  • Gilbert Meilaender shows how agape has displaced philia
  • Friendship through the eyes of both Aristotle (~Nicomachean Ethics) and C. S. Lewis (2013-10-21-The Four Loves) is focused, in its highest form, on virtue and truth
  • "All great marriages are first and finally friendships." (232)
  • D. C. Schindler: liberal modernity is "freedom from reality itself" (236-7)
  • Henri de Lubac reminds us though, that despite all our problems, friendship with God is what really matters: "It is not our mission to make truth triumph, but to testify for it." (238)
  • He closes with a story about the back vs the front of the tapestry of the Apocalypse of St. John (Sacred Art): we rarely see the full effects of the good we do in this life, but one day we'll stand on the other side.

Source: Jordan got it from the library and I borrowed it


New Words

  • Cabal: a small group of people who work together secretly (193)

Created: 2021-11-14-Sun
Updated: 2023-02-27-Mon