First Things will host Fr. Thomas Joseph White for a reception and discussion of The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism tomorrow evening, October 11, at 6:00 p.m. The remarks below were delivered at the Catholic Information Center on October 2.
Unlike many people, I didn’t learn how to play chess as a child. Instead, I took up the game with enthusiasm around age twenty, thanks to some friends in college who were aficionados. As part of this late exercise in autodidactism, they suggested that I read various books—some of which were subsequently acquired—by formidable chess grandmasters including Nimzowitsch and Alekhine and others who left permanent stamps on the game.
But there was one book in particular to which I returned over and over, because it repeatedly imparted more than the others combined. This was a simple-looking object. It was not very long. It even had pictures. The title of this indispensable volume was Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.
Now Bobby Fischer, as we know, was one of the greatest chess virtuosos of all time. And though I didn’t manage more than a pitiful fraction of what he had to teach, that offbeat educational outing did convey a lifelong lesson: There are times when the simplest of ideas are best explained—indeed, most effectively explained—by the most extraordinary of minds.
That truth has re-surfaced often during the past weeks in the course of reading, and re-reading, Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s new book. Like Bobby Fischer’s guide for novices, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism is a deceptively accessible, seemingly effortless volume. Also like the grandmaster’s primer, this book covers an impossible amount of ground in barely 300 pages—in this case, the most fundamental teachings of a two-thousand-year-old faith, written to address intellectuals and non-intellectuals, fellow believers and unbelievers alike. In the hands of others, this project could have amounted to a catastrophic exercise in chutzpah. Instead, it has produced the Catholic go-to book for your next years of gift-giving.
The Light of Christ neither condescends to its audience by talking down, nor loses readers by pitching too high. The pox of pedantry is absent from its pages. So is the smoke of sophistry. The Light of Christ is a most unusual combination of literary humility and splendid erudition.
The result is that even the most secular of readers will not feel hectored by these pages, and even the most scholarly will learn from them. As the author notes in the beginning, this volume is not intended as a homily, but rather as a companion; and like a trusted companion, it does not simply conduct a one-sided soliloquy over history and texts, but behaves dynamically: telling stories, empathizing with human frailty, and anticipating questions.
Chapter Six, on the “Social Doctrine of the Church,” covers in 34 pages some of the most misunderstood and controversial teachings with exemplary clarity and humanity. It opens on exactly the right note, rarely sounded today, even from many pulpits: Christian moral teachings have always been controversial, in every field of history where Christianity ever took root—from ancient Rome to the French Revolution to the Soviet Union and other Communist bloc nations, on through to campuses, progressive Twitter feeds, and other circuits of secular righteousness today.
This perennial pushback against certain Christian teachings, the author explains, is attributable to various historical causes. We might zero in on the last one he mentions: “the fear of submission to a transcendent moral law.”
At this moment in the Western world, an increasingly aggressive secularism makes broader claims than ever before, at least in the United States—including moral claims that woo well-meaning, if ill-informed, converts to its side. Those claims are false. This new secularism plants its flag on the so-called right side of history—exactly as if historicism itself hadn’t been discredited from philosopher Karl Popper onward. It declares itself a liberator of humanity—exactly as if enslavement to sensualism, materialism, convenience, and other modern addictions weren’t commonplaces.
Ours is, above all, an age in which the dominant anxiety would seem to be what Fr. Thomas Joseph calls “the fear of submission to a transcendent moral law.” Such is one of many phrases in the book that might—just might—deliver a shock of self-knowledge to curious readers, who might then want to know more.
The Light of Christ should be in the library of every Catholic. At the same time, there are three groups of prospective readers who might benefit most from its pages.
The first is Catholic-friendly non-Catholics, who will be especially engaged by its modesty. Fr. Thomas Joseph does not pretend to have all the answers—at least, not in this book. He does what is almost never done in real diplomacy, which is to engage others in a constructive conversation without alienating those who think differently. The next time your Protestant or Jewish or Mormon or other friends ask about the Catholic Church—or even if they don’t—you might give them this book.
The second group is made up of those whose view of religion ranges from indifference to outright belligerence. If any current book delivering a sweeping account of the Church stands a chance of reaching them, this one could be it, and for the same reason: civility. It could not be farther from the ad hominem tropes of the new atheism, say. In laymen’s terms, this book doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. Give it to people who hate mean. Give it to Pajama Boy.
The third group among whom this book deserves the widest possible dispersion is young adults, cradle, converted, or just looking around, who are turning to the Church for its seriousness in a world where frivolity and idolatry are destroying so many. The Light of Christ is one of a trio that may appeal exceptionally to such readers. Like two other albeit very different books—Michael Novak’s Tell Me Why and George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic—this one opens a conversation that more and more people will want to have, given the world they’ve grown up in and the unbidden desire of so many to know a different one.
It’s a standing offer to leave a blasted landscape and to seek shelter in a welcoming home already full of family and friends. Let’s hope many people take our Dominican friend up on his transparently sincere, morally engraved invitation.
Mary Eberstadt is senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.
Photo by Justin Brendel.