Many know him as Father John, his readers as John S. Dunne. To his sister, Carrin, and me, however, and to all our family, our older brother has always been Scribner — his middle name and our paternal grandmother’s maiden name. The name is apt, for it means “writer,” and it is as an author that his lasting influence is assured.
From earliest childhood, Carrin and I saw ourselves doomed to live our lives in the shadow of our big brother. All babies are found exceptional, but our parents and their friends could never let us forget that even at age 2 1/2, little Scribner could hold a roomful of adults spellbound with his hour-long observations on life and the world. At the end of these lectures he would announce, “Mouth tired” and stride from the room.
To the Sisters of Saint Mary at Sacred Heart Academy in Waco, Texas, this brilliant boy, popular with adults and schoolmates alike, was nothing short of divine confirmation of their teaching vocation. As a precocious first-grader, he performed the entire William Tell Overture on the piano to the assembled student body. When he got to the Lone Ranger part, the sisters rose bodily to freeze their young charges with the Gorgon stare of which only nuns in their black-and-white habits are capable, instantly petrifying the cry of “Hi-Yo Silver!” in the kids’ throats.
I remember with exact clarity my first day at Sacred Heart, when Sister Mary Joseph clasped her hands ecstatically and exclaimed, “And to think! You’re Scribner’s little brother!” This in marked contrast to her disgusted observation a few weeks later, in a voice dripping with scorn, “And to think! You’re Scribner’s little brother!”
For as the nuns and our parents were not loath to point out, Carrin and I, alas, had been born ordinary mortals, who soon found the paeans celebrating the triumphs of our big brother — in flaming contrast with our own pedestrian attributes — more than a little tedious.
Scribner himself to this day ascribes his early and lifelong love of learning, his quest for wisdom, to the influence of our maternal grandfather, even though this mentor died when the boy was only 5 years old.
Sherman Vaughan must indeed have been a formidable intellectual influence on all who knew him, judging from the stories about him we heard from family friends and from the transforming impact he had on the life of our father, John Scribner Dunne, Sr.
Daddy had grown up a wild buck, with little interest in life beyond pretty girls and fast cars, well attested by the fact that he entered Waco High School a year ahead of Mama and graduated at the bottom of his class two years after her. But after marrying into the family of Sherman Vaughan — a self-educated eidetiker who dropped out of a too-inadequate third grade, could remember verbatim everything he had ever read, educated himself as a successful lawyer, and became a founding member of the Texas Bar and a gifted mathematician — Daddy did an intellectual about-face. He read the entire Harvard Classics “5-foot shelf of books” and taught himself to become a fine architect and architectural engineer, eventually leaving to us a splendid collection of exquisite architectural renderings.
Pillars of Waco’s Disciples of Christ Church, Sherman and Carrin Vaughan disowned their daughter, Dorothy, when she married this worthless Roman Catholic boy and — as required by the Church in those days when a Protestant wanted to marry a Catholic — converted to Catholicism and took the vow to raise her children Catholic. But they relented when little Scribner was born, and welcomed Mama and Daddy back into favor. And it was only by the grace of God that the little boy was not riding with his doting grandparents, as they had intended and invited him, in their fatal automobile accident.
Our parents, who in a stormy marriage agreed with each other on little else, were united in their ambition for a splendid future career of their gifted first-born. This unanimity vanished upon Scribner’s announcement, in his last year of high school, of his intended vocation to the priesthood.
Perhaps to escape unending parental discord at home, Scribner had left home for Saint Edward’s Military Academy in Austin (now Saint Edward’s University), run by priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the religious community he now elected to join.
Daddy, a committed Catholic and daily communicant, was thrilled. Mama, a reluctant convert at best, knowing only Waco’s unexceptional parish priests, was horrified. For years to come, she would nag and harangue and plead with Scribner to change his mind.
Her argument was essentially that of Mary Crawford in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park — expressed far more vociferously — when Miss Crawford discovers to her dismay that the young man she has fallen in love with is to enter the clergy: “For what is to be done in the Church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines, distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”
To Mama’s credit, however, after she went to Rome for Scribner’s ordination, she returned a changed woman, and from that time embraced wholeheartedly Scribner’s vocation. And it was Mama and Daddy’s good fortune to find him celebrated in Time, see him on the cover of Psychology Today, know him to be invited to lecture at Oxford — where he broke tradition by delivering his inaugural lecture impromptu — and learn that his second book, A Search for God in Time and Memory, was heralded by Newsweek in 1970 as the most important nonfiction book of the year.
I was a little boy when Scribner left home, and only when I was 19 and a sophomore at Notre Dame, the first undergraduate permitted — most reluctantly — to study abroad for credit, did I finally meet and have my first meaningful conversation with my brother. When I telephoned him from Vienna to invite myself to spend the Easter holiday with him in Rome, he said, “Pat, your voice has changed!”
The grandest of grand tours of the Eternal City followed, conducted sunup to sundown by an older brother who had lived there for years, fluent in the language and deeply knowledgeable about the city’s history. Those memorable nine days in 1957 also marked the first of our Great Conversations, an annual event ever since.
The following summer we were both at Notre Dame, I to resume my undergraduate work in philosophy and modern languages, he to begin what would be a distinguished teaching career — classes he expressly forbade me to enroll in.
In 1965, the first of his lifelong annual series of books appeared: The City of the Gods. By then I was head of the English department in a prestigious preparatory school, and I flattered myself that I knew something about writing. I blithely volunteered to proofread the galleys.
Right off, I found his book bloody difficult. After digging laboriously through a couple of chapters, I applied to it a standard reading-level test, one that required entering word-count per sentence, sentence-count per paragraph, and so on, into a calculation that formulates the number of years of education a reader would need: 12 meant a high-school graduate, 16 a college graduate, 19 a Ph.D. This tome scored an ominous 26!
The second thing I realized, reading on, was that this man, my own brother, at the age of 35, had read everything. Everything. Not only that, but he had the daring to meet on their own ground, with something completely original to say, the beacons of Western civilization. No, not just Aristotle and Aquinas, with whom the philosophy department of Notre Dame back then began and ended, but Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Pericles, Pythagoras, Augustine, Dante, Luther, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Freud — everybody! Small wonder this book would enter the recommended reading lists of graduate schools everywhere and serve as a crib for many a student’s “original” term paper thereafter.
At about this time, during his vacations home to Waco, I had occasion to watch him write. He wrote every day. For hours he would pace or go for walks in silence, deep in thought. Then he would sit down with a single sheet of unlined paper and, in his neat, small handwriting, fill the page. So in his early books, before he graduated to word processing, the paragraphs measure almost uniformly three-quarters of a page in length. A paragraph a day, a chapter a month, a book a year. To be fully appreciated, they should be read the same way.
Meanwhile, I grew disgruntled with the Catholic Church, finally breaking with it entirely. I knew too much about it, or so I thought, finding solace instead in Kung-Fu-Tzu and Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, to whom our sister, Carrin, author of Buddha and Jesus, Calming the Storm and Behold Woman, teaching Eastern religions at Rice University, had introduced me. I did not then realize that I was experiencing the process of spiritual growth Scribner describes as “passing over”: departing from an original viewpoint to embrace the opposite side, eventually to return to one’s beginnings with new insight.
The return began this way. In the otherwise solid brick wall I had built against Catholicism in my mind, there was one great crevice I could not seal off. It was that my older brother, the most questioning intellect I had ever encountered, had clearly bitten the Catholic bait. At last, in one of our Great Conversations, I asked him outright how, after Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors had made the Vatican the laughingstock of the scientific world, he could embrace what I saw as an intellectually bankrupt institution, the Roman Catholic Church.
So he told me.
He answered without pausing for thought, as if he had been waiting years for this question. He told me the story of the Church’s battle, in the opening years of the 20th century, with the so-called Modernism Heresy.
The Church, accustomed for centuries to its role as magister, had been steadily losing ground in intellectual stature ever since the condemnation of Galileo. With the ascendancy of Darwin and the rise of biblical exegesis, starting in the mid-19th century with the Tubingen school, a direct result of Martin Luther’s sola scriptura, and the rise of rationalism and scientific method after Descartes, materialistic doubts were cast on miracles and the historicity of biblical narrative. With the worldwide advocacy of separation between church and state — the dismantling of Christendom that Hilaire Belloc has called the collapse of Western Civilization — panic had set in, and the Vatican undertook urgent steps to wipe out what it called Modernism.
The term Modernist first appeared in Pius X’s 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis, which enjoined a compulsory oath against Modernism on all Catholic bishops, clergy and teachers.
At about the same time, the Vatican revived the Inquisition under the euphemism Holy Office, publishing Lamentabili Sane Exitu to condemn 65 Modernist propositions, and sent Inquisitors around the world, organized by Monsignor Umberto Benigni under the name Sodalitium Pianum.
The Inquisitors visited every church, every seminary, every convent and rectory and priory and abbey, all institutions over which the Vatican held sway, to interview every priest, every nun, every religious of whatever stamp. The inquiry: whether they knew any member of their house to advocate any of the “errors” named in the condemnatory encyclicals. Any religious so identified was summarily dismissed, thereby excising from the ranks of the Catholic clergy its most original and inquisitive minds.
In its supreme and ill-conceived effort in the early 20th century to destroy Modernism, Scribner told me — in words I can never forget — the Catholic Church had “committed intellectual suicide.”
He told me then that he had taken as his personal mission to restore, if necessary single-handedly, the Church’s stature in the one intellectual field belonging to it absolutely, the greatest treasure in its true possession and in its gift: spirituality. That is the reason why of all but the first in his lifelong series of books, none bears the imprimatur or the nihil obstat. For they are not works of theology but of spirituality.
Scribner’s objection, he told me, was exclusively to the manner in which Rome had taken on the modernism heresy, excising Catholicism’s best and brightest. As to the ultimate fate of Modernism, the Church eventually bowed to the theory of evolution, the Bible emerged from scientific exegesis stronger than ever, and the separation of church and state gave rise to widespread religious toleration. Pope Paul VI abolished the compulsory oath in 1967.
Spirituality is a personal quest, one that requires whoever would undertake it, in the words of Socrates quoted by Plato in the Apology, to “know thyself.” No teacher, of course, can teach you to know yourself. A teacher can point the way, may even accompany you on your journey, like Rafael accompanying Tobias, but you must undertake the journey yourself. Nevertheless, it is not a lonely or undirected quest. For you always discover that the search to realize the Socratic “examined life” is in fact, in the apt title of Scribner’s second book, _A Search for God in Time and Memory-. In this search, to quote one of Carl Jung’s favorite maxims, vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit: summoned or unsummoned, God is present.
Without doubt, these first two books in the series, The City of the Gods and A Search for God in Time and Memory, essential to an understanding of the whole, are dauntingly difficult to read with anything like full understanding. They demand an almost unprecedented intellectual commitment just to follow the argument — a dedication to task worthy of any Olympic aspirant.
Yet paradoxically the two books are at the same time astonishingly simple, each proposing a single, quite comprehensible thema.
The City of the Gods from the outset and throughout its wide-ranging historical analysis centers on one proposition: “If I must some day die, what can I do to satisfy my desire to live?”
A Search for God in Time and Memory likewise concerns itself with a single deceptively simple proposition: “Will the future be like the past?”
Notice that I choose the word propositions to describe these thematic centers. For although posed grammatically as questions, these are not questions in the ordinary sense of that word — that is, interrogatories in expectation of an answer. They are instead quests, guideposts pointing to a lifetime of inner search: the very “examined life” proposed by Socrates as the only life worth living. Unlike a question, a quest calls not for an answer but for a search.
The examination of history, myth and culture that constitutes the argument of The City of the Gods eventually demonstrates that the search turns out, however unexpectedly at the outset, to be a search for God. And the proposition “Will my future be like my past?” places that search for God squarely in time and memory.
Scribner writes in a genre unfamiliar to most of us: the personal journal. As such, the entire series, beginning with The City of the Gods and A Search for God in Time and Memory, and continuing annually to the present day with The Circle Dance of Time and to some years yet in the future, is in fact a single work in many volumes.
Three questions, however, are essential to the examined life. The third — that speaks of our quest in response to “What can I do?” — is found in Genesis. The Bible, like the I Ching, the Rig-Veda, the Qur’an and the Tao Te Ching, belongs on a remarkably small shelf we call Books of Wisdom. The Wisdom literature differs from other literature as a holograph differs from a photograph. When you cut up a photograph, each piece contains only a part; cut up a holograph, and each piece contains the whole, only in less detail. In the same way, Genesis contains the whole testament.
In college courses I’ve taught we could easily take the Genesis story on the first day. It requires no preparation. Everyone knows it — from the book’s first sentence (“In the beginning God created heaven and earth”) through the Adam and Eve story with its unforgettable details (the creation of woman from Adam’s rib, the insidious serpent, the Forbidden Fruit) to the curious tale of Cain and Abel.
Yet upon rereading the story, usually for the first time in many years, students discover, generally to their dismay, aspects to which they had paid little attention before and far more layers than they had ever considered.
For one thing, the Serpent did not lie. He told Eve they would not die upon eating the Forbidden Fruit, but instead their eyes would be opened and they would become like gods knowing good from evil — a prediction confirmed when God said, “Now . . . the man has become like one of us, knowing good from bad.” Perhaps more shocking, it struck many students that it was God who seemingly did lie when He told Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but as for the tree of knowledge and good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” But Adam didn’t die.
Most people’s memory of the Adam and Eve story ends with the expulsion from the garden, a tragic downer that leads one to ask, “What good is human life?” But the expulsion by no means ends the story of Adam and Eve. They go on to lead long and productive lives.
Nothing enlivens a classroom like argument, and disagreement usually elevated dangerously until it emerged that the salient word in God’s prediction was not die, but shall, or in the traditional English translation, surely. For man alone, of all God’s creatures, knows death as a certainty. As Katherine Anne Porter has said, discussing her short novel Noon Wine, “We are born knowing death.”
Speaking of the expulsion from the garden in The City of the Gods after he poses the question, “If I must die, how shall I live?” Scribner writes: “The oldest solution to the problem of death posed in this form would be the solution that is alluded to in Genesis 3:20 where it is said that Adam, after being excluded from the garden of paradise and the tree of life and thus from the possibility of prolonging his life indefinitely, began to call his wife Eve or Life because she was the mother of all the living, the substitute, we might say, for the inaccessible tree of life.”
As with the Adam and Eve story, just about everybody remembers the dark and violent story of their first children, the ill-fated Cain and Abel. Two things stick in memory: Cain killed his brother Abel, and the most famous question in all of literature: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The story of the enmity of these brothers has its share of oddities — the unexplained fact that God found Abel’s sacrifice pleasing and Cain’s not, the fact that God, though angry with Cain, not only fails to punish him but places a mysterious mark on him to protect him from harm, and almost more levels of meaning than one can count, starting with the ancient feud between shepherd and farmer.
But the answer to the problem arising from the expulsion, “What good is human life?” comes in its first, most general form, in God’s horrified question to Cain after his brother’s murder, “What have you done?” Obviously, from this outburst, human life matters a great deal to God.
Yet the most striking aspect of the story of Cain and Abel forever remains in the question that lies, like the pearl enclosed in the oyster, at the very heart of the mystery, the master key to the story of Adam and Eve. This terrible and famous question, unanswered in the story, becomes one that you alone can answer in your own quest, in our own examined life. Like the holograph fragment, it seems to encapsulate the entire Testament, Old and New, if in less detail, the entire pathway to salvation. It is the crucial manifestation of Christian charity: Jesus’ call to “repent,” which in Aramaic demands an utter change of heart, without which the Kingdom of God cannot truly become “at hand.”
It is the essential third question in the quest that is the examined life. And it foretells, perhaps, the ultimate question we must all answer before the judgment seat of God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
By showing us one way to the examined life, in a lifetime of teaching and writing — illuminating for us as a model his own quest for wisdom, the examined life of an extraordinarily insightful mind — Scribner has made himself his brother’s keeper, has made all of us his brothers and sisters, his companions in the quest to “know thyself.”
As children, Carrin and I felt doomed to live out our lives in the shadow of our older brother. But in this we were mistaken. Scribner did not choose his way of life to adumbrate but to illumine. For it has been the enormous privilege of both Carrin and me — as it has been for his students, colleagues, friends and his readers — to live out our lives in his light.
Patrick Dunne lives and writes in Houston, Texas. After a career teaching literature and writing, he entered law school at age 53 and practiced immigration law until his retirement in 1999.
Photo of the Dunne brothers by Matt Cashore.