On Reading

In his wonderful book, The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges suggests that thinkers—which includes pastors, and all kinds of people, even those who don’t think of themselves as thinkers[1]—benefit from thinking carefully about what and how we read, and why.

Undergirding his approach is the need to read selectively: ‘Choose your books. Do not trust interested advertising and catchy titles…Associate only with first-rate thinkers.’[2] This advice might prove alarming for much contemporary Christian publishing, but it would surely do the Church a world of good. Rather than relying on advertising, publishers’ blurbs, social media posts, Sertillanges advises having trustworthy, knowledgeable people to whom we can turn for advice on what to read and what can safely be ignored.

But more than choosing books, he also advises us to choose in books. Reading cover to cover is sometimes beneficial, but as a habit it is lazy. Many books repay a rather more selective approach, where we choose carefully what we need, and feel free to leave many pages unopened. However, Sertillanges cautions us against turning this advice into a proud judgementalism toward books and their authors. Even as we are selective, we should approach humbly as a ‘brother in truth, a friend’.

In order to help us choose what and how to read, Sertillanges describes four different types of reading.[3]

Reading for Formation

The first, and most important category is fundamental reading. This is reading for formation, and the key disposition here is docility. Sertillanges recommends having intellectual fathers—three or four trusted guides—and, following Aristotle and Aquinas, he advises us, ‘believe your master’. For, while no one is infallible, ‘the pupil is less so than the master; and if he refuses to listen, for once that he is right he will miss the truth a dozen times and will fall a victim to appearances’.[4]

As I left Twitter, the final tweet I saw, thanks to a DM from an unkind friend, was perhaps the apotheosis of the genre: ‘Thomas Aquinas is not all that’. Now, Thomas got some important things wrong, and Twitter encourages us to be fatuous, but the only appropriate response to that is an eyeroll, a belly laugh, and, probably, in true playground style: ‘Well if he’s not, then what are you?’ And what am I?

The issue here is a right assessment of the range and depth of our ignorance. We are all of us, at best, islands of knowledge in a sea of ignorance; but in the earlier stages we are more like coracles, bobbing precariously on the waves. And so Sertillanges warns us:

A provisional attitude of respect, confidence, faith, as long as one does not possess all elements of judgment, is so evident a necessity that only the conceited and the presumptuous refuse to accept it.[5]

Wise choice of masters is obviously important. And I hope it goes without saying that when it comes to reading the only supreme master, the only sufficient and infallible guide, is Holy Scripture. But we are all such clumsy readers of Scripture, prone to err and stray and, in our reading, to follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts rather than the true meaning of the sacred page. So in his goodness, God has given us teachers.

In the doctrines of God and of creation, Christology, and moral theology, Thomas would make a very fine master indeed. But for Protestants there are more obvious first ports of call. First and foremost among these should be the catholic creeds, and whichever of the Protestant confessions governs our own tradition: for Anglicans, the BCP, Articles, Ordinal and Homilies; for Baptists, the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, or an equivalent; for Lutherans, the Book of Concord; for Presbyterians, the Westminster Standards. More recent, and more minimalist, evangelical statements of faith have their uses, but for these purposes they are too short and too thin to be of any real value.

Careful attention to a range of Protestant confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries is healthy, but we should give most concerted attention to our own particular confessional standards. They should frequently be in our hands; we should read them, know them, study them, consult them; they ought not to be mere background administrative matters that can be laid aside once we have signed up to them. They are not Scripture; they are not infallible. But it would be a strange Presbyterian who thought himself less likely to err than that great assembly of divines gathered in Westminster in the 1640s; a strange Anglican who thought himself more competent to order his church’s worship than Thomas Cranmer translating, channeling, refining and reforming the historic liturgies of the Church.

But beyond our confessional standards, we would do well to select particular theologians as our trusty counsellors. I have been immensely blessed to have been apprenticed to John Webster for the past few years: my thinking has been deepened, and my doctrinal, exegetical and pastoral instincts have been refined. Oliver O’Donovan could, and to some degree has, played a similar role for me. But mostly I think there’s wisdom in looking further back. I doubt that many of our near contemporaries would make such reliable intellectual fathers, and I’m not even sure we will be in a position to judge with any certainty for a couple of hundred years. But we have such riches readily available to us from previous centuries: Luther, Bullinger, Calvin, Ursinus, Vermigli, van Mastricht, Bavinck. Picking one or two of these thinkers to be your companion and guide for the next twenty or thirty years would be guaranteed blessing.

Or, imagine what would happen if you read 20 pages of Augustine every day with this attitude. In two months, you could read The City of God. Within a year you could have read The City of GodConfessionsOn the TrinityExpositions of the Psalms; Homilies on John; and On Christian Teaching. What would happen if you read any one of these five or ten or fifteen times? You would grow with Augustine, and you would find that the book had grown with you. Your praying, your knowledge of Scripture, of yourself and of God, would be clarified and enriched in remarkable ways. You would be a deeper person. If you are a minister, your ministry—your preaching, praying, leading of worship, pastoring, apologetics, evangelism, your understanding of people and place and culture—would be a deeper and more enduring ministry.

Sertillanges also recommends finding these kinds of masters every time we turn to a new area of study. But now I’ve got all that off my chest, we can move more quickly through the next three types of reading.

Reading for Information

The second type of reading is what Sertillanges calls accidental reading. Here, we are not seeking to be formed by what we read, but we turn to our reading matter looking for information, and so our attitude of mind is very different. We are no longer studying in the same receptive way we do when reading for formation; that would be a waste of time. Now we consult a book, we do not study it. We come already formed; we come as masters to a servant, asking for information. Rather than diving into the water and swimming, we stand on the riverbank and pull out what we need. And although an element of docility, of teachable receptivity, is still necessary, this is now directed towards the truth the book contains, rather than the author and the book per se.

Reading for Inspiration

The third type of reading is stimulating or edifying reading: ‘your favourite authors, your inspiriting pages’. Keep watch for them, and keep them close at hand, so that in times of listlessness or intellectual or spiritual depression, you know where the remedies are stored.

By definition, I have no idea what will do this for you. But I can share a few of the places that reliably do it for me: the opening sections of Calvin’s treatment of prayer in the Institutes; the final chapters of Anselm’s Proslogion; Petrus van Mastricht on the divine attributes of goodness and beatitude; many of John Webster’s late essays; bits of George Herbert and Les Murray; large chunks of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets; Sertillanges himself; and almost anything in Augustine’s Confessions, but perhaps especially this:

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.[6]

Reading to Relax

The final type of reading is reading for relaxation. Here, Sertillanges’s advice is a bit fussy, but his main point is right: choice is much less important; there are no hard and fast rules. Read whatever stimulates and relaxes you: detective stories, science fiction, drama, poetry, history, biography. Just have fun.

But having said that, we should give at least a moment’s thought to a final piece of advice that sounds as quaint as it is desperately needed: ‘As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable’.[7] Bonhoeffer wrote something similar from prison, when he called for a recovery of quality, rather than quantity:

a return from the newspaper and the radio to the book, from feverish activity to unhurried leisure, from dispersion to concentration, from sensationalism to reflection, from virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation. Quantities are competitive, qualities are complementary.[8]

Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943; Sertillanges in 1920. We need not wonder for long whether, in 2022, either would join us in mainlining social media as we huddle with wild and manic eyes around the 24-hour rolling news bonfire.

For, in the end, reading is not the thing. What matters is how we think, and how we live, and why. Reading is ordered towards loving contemplation of God and all things in relation to God, and to loving action in God’s world. So Sertillanges advises, ‘never read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence’.[9]

[1] See Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020). To be simultaneously inspired by what might be, saddened and ashamed of what is no longer, and humbled by the poverty of our own interests and ambitions, see Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (3rd edition; London: Yale University Press, 2021).

[2] A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 150.

[3] Intellectual Life, 152-57.

[4] Intellectual Life, 153.

[5] Intellectual Life, 153.

[6] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: OUP, 1991), X.xxvii (38).

[7] Intellectual Life, 148-49.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943’, in Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM, 1971), 13.

[9] Intellectual Life, 149.