Enjoying the big questions

It was a very peculiar place in which to find one of the world’s most distinguished philosophers: the hard-currency bar of the Hotel Europa in Moscow, a basement dive full of cigarette smoke, appalling rock music, and East German women practicing the world’s oldest profession. Still, when someone mentions the great Polish thinker Leszek Kolakowski, that dump is the first place that comes to mind. The second is an encampment of homeless Russians at the edge of Red Square, near the multicolored onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

In October 1990, in company with a half-dozen academics and several colleagues from Washington think-tanks, I spent a week in Moscow in intense discussions with men and women who described themselves as the “democratic opposition” to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev — whom none of them regarded as a democrat. We were fomenting revolution, if of a nonviolent sort, and the days were filled with bad meals, seedy spooks in the hotel lobby, and fascinating arguments about the building-blocks of the free society. On checking into the Europa, it was clear even to amateurs that our rooms were bugged, so we had to find a secure place to meet in the evening, debrief, and plan the next day’s discussions. The hotel’s hard-currency bar (entrance to which required dollars or deutschmarks) was a convenient spot where the decibel-level was so awful that even an artful KGB bug-artist couldn’t figure out what we were discussing.

So there we met, night after night, as the venerable Dr. Kolakowski — author of one of the 20th century’s magisterial works, the three-volume Main Currents of Marxism — dispensed wisdom while sipping cherry brandies and politely batting away aggressive frauleins trying to plant themselves on his lap. As remarkable as those memories are, however, walking with Leszek through the wretched tent-city that homeless Russians from the provinces had erected just outside Red Square gave me a full sense of the human decency of the man: for Kolakowski, who speaks fluent Russian, had a word of sympathy and encouragement for every one of those poor souls who tried to engage us in conversation.
I mention all of this, strangely enough, as an invitation to an antidote — an antidote to the brain numbness that descends on any thoughtful person at this point in an election cycle. The antidote is Leszek Kolakowski’s new book, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers (Basic Books). Tired of mindless sound-bites? Disgusted with political demagoguery? Spend a few hours with Kolakowski, as he explains in plain language how some of the world’s greatest minds wrestled with the Really Big Questions: How can we know anything? What is justice? Why is there evil in the world? What is the source of truth? Is it possible for God not to exist?

On that same visit to Moscow, a friend and I toured the three cathedrals inside the Kremlin; all of them had recently been restored to mark the millennium of Christianity among the eastern Slavs. Our guide was a young man who wanted to practice his English and who’d been hanging around our hotel. He was good company, but a bit baffled when we got to a large restored fresco depicting the Last Supper. “Who are those men and what are they doing?” our guide asked, in complete innocence.

Here was Soviet Man: culturally and spiritually lobotomized, unable to comprehend a great artifact of his own civilization any more than he could comprehend Afghanistan’s Bamyan Buddhas. Leszek Kolakowski, I thought, should be here. A philosopher who had, at great personal cost, broken with Marxism in his native Poland could explain to this youngster the bad ideas — the bad answers to the Really Big Questions — that had deprived him of his cultural heritage. I hope something like that has happened to my young friend since our brief meeting.

In any event, if you’re looking for an antidote to campaign pablum, have a go at Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Then give it to a young friend. Or a presidential candidate. Or Chris Matthews.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.