Friday, January 31, 2014

C.S. Lewis and politics

Micah Watson, in an essay about C.S. Lewis and politics, reminds us that he wasn't particularly obsessed with current political events and, indeed, thought there were far more important things on which to concentrate:
Lewis was known to avoid and indeed disdain newspapers. He turned down an honorary recognition from Winston Churchill so as to avoid encouraging those who would dismiss him as politically partisan. He did not keep up with the latest political news, and I suspect he would find our twenty-four-hour news cycle and social media conglomerate a particularly modern abomination. ....

In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis reminds us that human beings have an eternal destiny, whether of unimaginable joy or abject horror and misery. In contrast, the lives of governments, businesses, cultures and even taxes have the lifespan of gnats. Governments are temporary, people are eternal. ....
Nevertheless, in that essay "The Political and Apolitical C.S. Lewis," Watson identifies "four lessons that remain salient for contemporary Christian thinking about politics." I like what Watson did here and—as almost always with lessons derived from CSL—I agree. I have excerpted and added emphasis:
The first lesson is that politics is not everything, nor is it nothing. Lewis noted that the people who did the most for this world are those who had their minds most on the next. This world has a built-in purpose; history has a direction to it that leads to God and a coming reality that frames everything we do in this already-but-not-yet phase of life. .... Politics is one of these second things, as it is a practice necessary to protect and promote the good earthly gifts God has provided. ....

Men and women are made in God’s image, and destined to a future existence that dwarfs this earthly sojourn. At the same time, human beings are fallen. These bedrock truths about the human condition limit the scope of government.

Lewis supported democracy, he wrote in his essay “Equality,” because he believed in the Fall. ...Lewis wrote that human beings are so fallen that they cannot be trusted with untrammeled power, and democracy, for all its faults, better checks this dynamic than other systems. ....

Lewis believed that while God revealed political ends, or goals, in the Bible, He did not usually prescribe the specific means to achieve these ends. God tells us to feed the hungry but leaves it up to us to learn how to cook. ....

The best Christian political thought and action will be accomplished, then, not by clergy per se but by Christians engaged in the practice of politics...

In an essay titled “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” Lewis considers the dangers of conflating Christian involvement in politics with a formal Christian party.... The problem is that politics is, in part, about means to achieve ends, and Christians can and do disagree in good faith about the best means. ....

Lewis did not think retreating from the public square was an option. “The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society...but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish.” .... (more)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The sadness of a romantic

.... Some churches today assert that a pastor should be an enthusiastic, extroverted purveyor of hilarity, therapy, success, or optimistic activism. These pastors are supposed to be casual, invested with “big dreams” to do “big things for God,” handy at enabling a good time during congregational worship, “innovative” with outreach (i.e. the kids find the pastor sufficiently hip), and—perhaps most important of all—adept in the vocabulary of self-help and therapy. ....
Gingerich offers another—more authentic—approach, described by George Herbert (1593-1633) in The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life:
.... According to Herbert, parsons should expect to see and experience much misery because sin is real and people are in need. These are the two realities that cause sadness. Of course, this sort of knowledge regarding the congregation only comes by a certain level of pastoral intimacy—of presence in a parishioner’s life that sees beyond the image that people often project to the state of their soul. If a priest is sad, it should be the sadness of one who knows things should be right and are not. It is the sadness of a romantic. ....

.... Churches with a ringmaster for a pastor need to look at what they are grounded in—all too often, it is good times and pleasant sensibilities. One wonders if that is enough for a human life in common with others, much less a Christian life in the Body of Christ. The grave parson will instead be much less open to ecclesiastical jinks and more concentrated on helping his congregation to conform more fully to the image of Christ. Of course, because dying to self can become a brutal endeavor, Herbert explicitly warns against “perpetual severity,” a phenomenon one can find in Christians who unhealthily dwell on their sin, forgetting that a Christian’s new primary identity is “saint,” not “sinner.” Christians should not delight in crying at their sinfulness; it indicates that they take themselves too seriously! Herbert tells pastors to embrace genuine joviality and joy. This is why he thinks a parson should “refresh” himself and condescend “to humane frailties both in himselfe and others; and intermingles some mirth in his discourses occasionally, according to the pulse of the hearer.” .... [more]

Monday, January 27, 2014

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why is there not nothing?

In the current National Review Nicholas Frankovich responds to a letter from an atheist critical of something Frankovich had written earlier:
...[Y]ou can’t refute theism unless you understand it first, and to understand it, you have to start at the logical beginning, with the so-called God of the philosophers. Clear your mind of preconceptions. No, the most fundamental theological precept is not that “there exists God, creator of the universe.” It’s that the mystery of being is irreducible, absolutely immune to attempts at demystification. Now stop right there. Dwell on that thought for a moment. Think slowly. The closest thing that the question “Why is there not nothing?” has to an answer is the wonder that it elicits in you when you ponder it. Then stop again. This is what theists mean by theism. Many avowed atheists accept it too, except when it comes with the label “God” attached to it. That’s all. Granted, if you’re anhedonic in these matters, you won’t experience that wonder. You’ll shrug where others marvel. That does not, however, prevent you from grasping classical theism at least intellectually. Unless it does.
National Review, February 10, 2014, p. 2.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Good people and bad people

The governor of New York State last week on Republican candidates in his state:
Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.
Governor Cuomo was soon walking back the statement but his intolerance sounds familiar to many of us who live in a liberal environment. Jonathan Haidt's research may be helpful in understanding liberal lack of empathy for those with whom they disagree:
.... One other point that I find really interesting and important about Haidt’s work is his findings on the ability of different groups to empathize across these ideological divides. So in his book (p. 287) Haidt reports on the following experiment: after determining whether someone is liberal or conservative, he then has each person answer the standard battery of questions as if he were the opposite ideology. So, he would ask a liberal to answer the questions as if he were a “typical conservative” and vice-versa. What he finds is quite striking: “The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who describe themselves as ‘very liberal.’ The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives.” In other words, moderates and conservatives can understand the liberal worldview and liberals are unable to relate to the conservative worldview, especially when it comes to questions of care and fairness.

In short, Haidt’s research suggests that many liberals really do believe that conservatives are heartless bastards–or as a friend of mine once remarked, “Conservatives think that liberals are good people with bad ideas, whereas liberals think conservatives are bad people”—and very liberal people think that especially strongly. Haidt suggests that there is some truth to this. .... [more]
Of course these are generalizations and I know quite a few liberals who behave as though they don't think I'm evil.

Jonathan Haidt on Psychology and Politics | The Volokh ConspiracyThe Volokh Conspiracy

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Civil religion

Some Christians who are also great admirers of the American founding generation are also tempted to fashion the Founding Fathers as exemplary saints, too. This is even more problematic, not only because the Founders weren't all perfect Christians (and, in some cases, weren't Christians at all), but it can turn them into heroes of a quasi-Christian patriotic faith. American civil religion is dangerous and something Christians should avoid, no matter how much they admire the founding generation's accomplishments. Admitting that someone like George Washington was imperfect (he owned slaves and refused to take communion at church, for example) is not only honest, but it helps us remember that all humans, no matter how noble, are flawed by sin and the limits of our culture. ....

...[I]t is sobering to remember that, one day, America will cease to exist, while the Kingdom of God will go on forever. In heaven, my identity as an American will likely have very little significance at all, as the great throng composed of people from every "tribe, tongue, and nation" will set aside their ethnic, racial, and historical differences. .... [more]

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Pooh and Piglet

“'We'll be Friends Forever, won't we, Pooh?' asked Piglet. Even longer,' Pooh answered.”

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.”

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”

Monday, January 20, 2014

"The time is always right to do right"

On Martin Luther King Day "On Milwaukee" remembers Dr. King's Jan. 27, 1964 speech:
.... At the Auditorium Dr. King spoke to 6,300 Milwaukeeans for about 40 minutes. Here are some of the highlights:
  • "It may be true that you cannot legislate morality but behavior can be regulated."
  • "Law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless."
  • "Time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively ... We must help time and we must realize that the time is always right to do right." ....

On replying to replies

Collin Garbarino is reading Saint Augustine and is surprised that something written in the fifth century could be so relevant to blog commenting today. From City of God:
And yet, will we ever come to an end of discussion and talk if we think we must always reply to replies? For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentious that they refuse to give in even if they do understand.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bread is good for (most of) you

"Michael Pollan explains what’s wrong with the paleo diet" and part of what he thinks wrong is its hostility to the staff of life:
Humans can live on bread alone. Paleo obsessives might shun bread, but bread, as it has been traditionally made, is a healthy way to access a wide array of nutrients from grains.

In Cooked, Pollan describes how bread might have been first created: Thousands of years ago, someone probably in ancient Egypt discovered a bubbling mash of grains and water, the microbes busily fermenting what would become dough. And unbeknownst to those ancient Egyptians, the fluffy, delicious new substance had been transformed by those microbes. Suddenly the grains provided even more bang for the bite.

As UC-Davis food chemist Bruce German told Pollan in an interview, “You could not survive on wheat flour. But you can survive on bread.” Microbes start to digest the grains, breaking them down in ways that free up more of the healthful parts. If bread is compared to another method of cooking flour — basically making it into porridge — “bread is dramatically more nutritious,” says Pollan.

Still, common bread made from white flour and commercial yeast doesn’t have the same nutritional content as the slowly fermented and healthier sourdough bread you might find at a local baker. Overall, though, bread can certainly be part of a nutritious diet. (At least, for those who don’t suffer from celiac disease.) .... [more]

Friday, January 17, 2014

Stories with resurrections

Even before I could read Dad would take me to the college library which was also the village library and had a children's section. We lived right across the street and soon I was there on my own reading my way through the children's books. When I had read and re-read those I ventured into adult fiction. After my parents discovered that they instructed the librarian not to check out adult books to me whereupon I just read them sitting at a table in the library. They soon gave up. No doubt they were trying to protect me. Adults naturally wish to protect their children. It is possible to be too protective. N.D. Wilson on "The Dark-Tinted, Truth-Filled Reading List We Owe Our Kids":
...Shelter your children. Yes. Absolutely. But use a picnic shelter, not a lightless bomb bunker, and not virtual reality goggles looping bubblegum clouds. Feast with them on fiction in safety, laugh with them through terrible adventures seething with real weather. They should feel the wind and fear the lightning and witness the fools and heroes—and yet stay protected.

Faithful artists should provide sabbaths, not escapes. We should be crafting periods of rest and inspiration that will feed, fuel, and empower readers to engage more deeply in reality as faithful men and women. To step out of the shelter when the time comes. ....

Childhood is the time for truth, and adulthood is the time for a deeper understanding of the same. To seed courage, we must show fear. To reveal triumph, we must build enemies. To tell the truth about what it means to be heroic, we must spin a fiction full of danger.

Wisdom from G. K. Chesterton: "If the characters are not wicked, the book is." We must tell stories the way God does, stories in which a sister must float her little brother on a river with nothing but a basket between him and the crocodiles. Stories in which a king is a coward, and a shepherd boy steps forward to face the giant. Stories with fiery serpents and leviathans and sermons in whirlwinds. Stories in which murderers are blinded on donkeys and become heroes. Stories with dens of lions and fiery furnaces and lone prophets laughing at kings and priests and demons. Stories with heads on platters. Stories with courage and crosses and redemption. Stories with resurrections. And resurrections require deaths.

We do no one any favors when we pretend away darkness in the world. We've only neutered the need for grace. And we've neutered the glorious triumph on the other side of darkness. .... [more]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Reading biographies

.... Hagiography and exposé are rarely worth the time. Fine biographies hardly ever give me a simple model for emulation, but they nevertheless instruct. For starters, searching biographies always remind me that all human beings are more complex than they seem at first glance. That’s a good thing to keep in mind for colleagues, neighbors, and even family members as well as historical subjects. I find encountering other human beings in all of their complexity encourages me to be humble. Also, I find it instructive to remember how differently Christians have conceptualized Jesus, structured their religious lives, and addressed a whole host of perennial human tasks (from childrearing to being with loved ones on their deathbeds). Biographies always remind me of just how limited my approach to nearly everything is by my own time and place. ....

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Important, but not of foremost importance

Tim Challies offers what he calls "A Theological Toolbox," the ways he uses most often to approach the questions "What is of primary importance?" and "How can I know God's will?" His responses to the first question are informed by Mohler's "theological triage" summarized here:
First-level doctrines are those that are those that are most central and essential to the Christian faith. They are doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. These are the doctrines that demanded councils and creeds. These are the doctrines that if you deny, you will soon deny the Christian faith altogether.

Second-level doctrines are significant issues, but ones for which there is still disagreement among gospel-believing Christians. We can still affirm the faith of those who believe the opposite of what we believe, but we may not be able to enjoy denominational or local-church fellowship with them. These are issues such as the meaning and mode of baptism, and whether or not women are permitted to serve as pastors.

Third-level doctrines are those for which Christians may disagree, even while maintaining the closest kind of fellowship. You and I may believe different things here, but it will not diminish our fellowship and we can easily participate in the same local church. Eschatology is an example of this kind of doctrine, where as long as we affirm the bodily and victorious return of Jesus Christ, we may disagree on exactly what sequence of events will lead to it.

Theological triage sorts doctrines into one of these three categories and helps us see which issues are the most urgent and important and which issues ought to receive the most thorough and vigorous defense. This is a tool I find myself pulling out of my toolbox again and again. ....
My denomination affirms a belief about the Sabbath that differs from that of most Christians. We are convinced that it remains, and should be celebrated, on the seventh day of the week rather than on Sunday. But that conviction is not what Mohler (and Challies) would categorize as a "first-level doctrine." It is rather "second level." I have found this way of thinking about doctrine very helpful.

Challies' response to the second question is equally helpful

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Pursue truth, not originality

I recently acquired the newest Walter Hooper collection of C.S. Lewis essays, Image and Imagination (available for Kindle or in paperback). Some of the material, including the title essay, had never been published. Other essays were written as reviews for periodicals. This is from a review published today in the Washington Free Beacon:
.... The collection has 40 book reviews, as well as five major essays. The most anticipated essay is “Image and Imagination,” also the publisher’s title, a never-before-printed analysis of art and truth, rescued from a fire in the Lewis family home.

That Lewis paid the same attention to his critical works as his examinations of faith is no shock to his followers. His critiques are rich with insight and a sense of history, and his love of language is apparent throughout. ....

As in his other work, Lewis holds to his lifelong credo that pursuing truth leads to originality, not the other way around. His commentary addresses the nuances and balance of biblical translation, the unmentionable elements of Eros in the literature of his contemporaries, the trajectory of French politics, the transcendence of Milton, and a defense of a well-rounded liberal arts education that applies to our century. .... [more]
Among the essays are several reviewing books by other Inklings, including CSL's review of The Hobbit and of each of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.

Fortified | Washington Free Beacon

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Taste and see

Via the "Stand to Reason Blog": good advice about how to teach morality to children from Daniel Coupland's NRO article:
...[C]an’t we just explain virtuous behavior? Guroian says no.
Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture its virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the cognitive and affective dimensions of human nature.
Guroian then makes a compelling case for cultivating the moral imagination through children’s literature.
The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong, or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds.
The best way to begin the cultivation of moral character is to immerse children in great stories where virtues are rendered attractive — not in a sticky-sweet or preachy sort of way, but in a way that captures and feeds their imagination. .... [more]
And "Stand to Reason" summarizes:
Teaching children what moral virtues are isn’t enough. You need to let them taste those virtues so they can see they’re desirable. ....
It Takes a Pirate to Raise a Child, Cultivate the Moral Imagination to Develop Character - Stand to Reason Blog

Friday, January 10, 2014

Just War theory

When I taught a class called "International Relations & National Security Issues" I always included some discussion of the theory of "Just War" in Christian theology. The current National Review includes an interesting review of In Defence of War by Nigel Biggar. From that review:
This book, which is hands-down the most ambitious and consequential defense of the Christian just-war tradition we’ve seen in decades, is, first of all, an argument “against the virus of wishful thinking.”

What wishful thinking? That Jesus was a pacifist; that Paul was a pacifist; that the Christian tradition, when it is true to itself, is pacifist. That Nigel Biggar would call such views — widely espoused by Christian theologians today — “wishful thinking” is but the second sign (the first is the title) that here we have a Christian ethicist of no mean courage. His thought is careful and exact — he really does mean, for instance, that Christian pacifism is “wishful thinking” for the precise reason that it is not grounded in realism and imports into its Biblical exegesis unwarranted assumptions.

Like a contemporary Thomas Aquinas, Biggar begins by laying out the views he disagrees with. He sets forth the pacifist arguments of Stanley Hauerwas (once called by Time magazine “America’s best theologian”) with care, citing, as it were, chapter and verse for each step. He does the same for John Howard Yoder and for Richard Hays; more than anything else, Hays’s influential work has cemented the notion that the New Testament itself eschews violence. (And all this is just the first chapter.) ....

If we admit that the New Testament does not forbid all violence, we also must admit that it calls for everything to be done in love. So, Biggar asks, is it possible to see war as an expression of love?

Start with the Biblical call to forgiveness. The problem is obvious to almost every person: So-and-so has harmed me, perhaps grievously; I know I’m supposed to forgive him; but how do I do that? Biggar sees forgiveness as a process comprising distinguishable moments. Initially, the victim should offer her enemy the forgiveness of compassion. This is unconditional, and amounts to a recognition of fellow humanity. Forgiveness-as-compassion forswears vengeance and intends conciliation. But then the victim offers “proportionate expression of resentment and retribution.” She does this to prevent the wrongdoer from harming others (and thus shows love for others). But it is also to communicate to the wrongdoer himself the wrongness of his actions. And this is done to show love for the wrongdoer, with hope that it will enable reconciliation. Then, should the hope find fulfillment, the wrongdoer repents. And once he has, the victim offers forgiveness-as-absolution. This latter aspect of forgiveness is conditional on the actual repentance of the wrongdoer, and leads to their reconciliation. .... [the review, probably behind a subscription wall]
Related: Was Britain Right To Go To War In 1914? | Standpoint

Peace and Principle | National Review Online

“When all the mud has been flung..."

In an exchange with the evolutionary biologist and Marxist J.B.S. Haldane, C.S. Lewis found his motivations under assault. Lewis offered this marvelous reply:
The Professor has his own explanation…he thinks that I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I “stand to lose by social change.” And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would likewise be easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits. I decline the motive game and resume the discussion.
...[I]n the context Lewis is describing–public debates over public matters–he’s quite right. Impugning the motivations of those whom we disagree with should be kept to a minimum. For one thing, it’s hard enough to honestly assess our own motivations, let alone those of others. Every human heart is divided against itself, tainted to one degree or another. Altruism and pride, selflessness and selfishness, mix like salt and water in the ocean. They are nearly impossible to separate out.

In addition, the tendency to focus on motivations can be a sign of intellectual laziness. It’s just much easier to attack other people’s motivations than it is to answer their arguments (especially when the arguments are difficult to refute). .... [more]

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The old man in the corner

Books out of copyright are in the public domain and are increasingly available for e-readers like Kindle. All but ten of the Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories are in that category as are most other books published in the US before the 1920s. I just came across a collection of detection stories by Baroness Orczy, also author of the Scarlet Pimpernel books. The "Old Man in the Corner" is her detective. Howard Haycraft, in Murder for Pleasure (1939), considered these stories a minor—but pleasant—contribution:
The nameless "Old Man in the Corner," who solves crimes as he sits at a corner table of a London ABC tea shop, tying and unraveling complicated knots in a piece of string as he talks, made his appearance in a book of the same title in 1909.... A danger inherent in the arm-chair" method, and frequently illustrated by the "Old Man" stories, is the tendency of the plots to become static; too often, also, they mistake intuition for deduction. .... Her (Orczy's) contribution to the detective story has been neither large nor significant, but it is essentially pleasant and entertaining. (pp. 71-72)
The Old Man in the Corner is available here, free, in every e-book format and also here at Gutenberg.

The first story begins:
The man in the corner pushed aside his glass, and leant across the table.

"Mysteries!" he commented. "There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation."

Very much astonished Polly Burton looked over the top of her newspaper, and fixed a pair of very severe, coldly inquiring brown eyes upon him.

She had disapproved of the man from the instant when he shuffled across the shop and sat down opposite to her, at the same marble-topped table which already held her large coffee (3d.), her roll and butter (2d.), and plate of tongue (6d.). ....

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

One eternal day

J.C. Ryle, via Jared Wilson:
The day is coming when there shall be a congregation that shall never break up, and a Sabbath that shall never end, a song of praise that shall never cease, and an assembly that shall never be dispersed.

Here we often worship God with a deep sense of weakness, corruption, and infirmity. There, at last, we shall be able, with a renewed body, to serve Him without weariness, and to attend on Him without distraction. Here, at our very best, we see through a glass darkly, and know the Lord Jesus Christ most imperfectly. It is our grief that we do not know Him better and love Him more. There, freed from all the dross and defilement of indwelling sin, we shall see Jesus as we have been seen, and know as we have been known.

Here we have often found it hard to worship God joyfully, by reason of the sorrows and cares of this world. Tears over the graves of those we loved have often made it hard to sing praise. Crushed hopes and family sorrows have sometimes made us hang our harps on the willows. There every tear shall be dried, every saint who has fallen asleep in Christ shall meet us once more, and every hard thing in our life-journey shall be made clear and plain as the sun at noon-day.

Monday, January 6, 2014

"Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?"

The Journey of the Magi
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot
From "Poem for Epiphany" by Dwight Longenecker:
This was one of the first of Eliot’s poems I encountered, and I have loved it since. I especially like the way he uses various imagery from the gospels to load the poem with a mysterious level of meaning–pointing us to a contemplation of the deeper meanings–meanings that have yet to be revealed.

“Feet kicking empty wineskins”, “Six hands dicing for pieces of silver”, “three trees on a low sky” then my favorite image, “an old white horse galloped away in the meadow” ....

The “old white horse galloped away in the meadow” does not represent the Old Testament dispensation or the former lives of the three kings or the departure of purity or youthful power. Instead it is meant to evoke an emotional response in the reader which is beyond words. In other words, how do you feel when you hear those words? I feel strangely nostalgic and thrilled. I feel a poignancy and longing at the words. This is how Eliot’s poetry is supposed to work, and those who keep trying to find specific symbolic or allegorical meanings are missing the point.

What interests how Eliot’s use of evocative imagery that connects to the Biblical imagery is similar to the way Tolkien uses imagery in Lord of the Rings. The characters speak and act in a world that constantly echoes the world of the Church and the Scriptures, and yet never descends to the one on one correlation of allegory or to the specific allusion of a reference or quote. ....
"Poem for Epiphany" by Dwight Longenecker

Sunday, January 5, 2014

False Armageddons

Philip Jenkins, in "From Angels to Armageddon," introduces his newest book (due in May), The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. I just pre-ordered it (hardcover this time — many illustrations). Part of the religious disillusion that we think characteristic of the 20th century may well have been due to the shattered hopes associated with "the war to end all wars." Jenkins:
...I have been working on a book about the religious aspects of the First World War, to be published in this centennial year of 2014. ....

My core thesis is that, without appreciating its religious and spiritual aspects, we cannot understand the First World War. More important, the world’s modern religious history makes no sense except in the context of that terrible conflict. The war created our reality. ....

The outcome of the war cannot be understood without the constant diet of apocalyptic dreams and visions that reached a height in 1917. Among other things, this would be essential to Jewish history, in justifying the Balfour Declaration and the return to Zion. 1917-18 involved such seemingly cosmic events as the Christian reconquest of Jerusalem, the Russian Revolution, and a quite literal battle of Armageddon – the British victory at Megiddo. Apocalyptic fears and expectations reached fever pitch. ....

.... The only thing worse than losing an ultimate cosmic war is winning it, yet finding the world is still a dangerous and nasty place. (emphasis added) These disappointed hopes and moral compromises shaped the politics, culture and religion of the rest of the century. .... [more]

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A liberal education

G.K. Chesterton, on one benefit of a liberal education:
.... The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards, by which he can judge material and fugitive conditions. If the citizen is to be a reformer, he must start with some ideal which he does not obtain merely by gazing reverently at the unreformed institutions. And if any one asks, as so many are asking: ‘What is the use of my son learning all about ancient Athens and remote China and medieval guilds and monasteries, and all sorts of dead or distant things, when he is going to be a superior scientific plumber in Pimlico?’ the answer is obvious enough. ‘The use of it is that he may have some power of comparison, which will not only prevent him from supposing that Pimlico covers the whole planet, but also enable him, while doing full credit to the beauties and virtues of Pimlico, to point out that, here and there, as revealed by alternative experiments, even Pimlico may conceal somewhere a defect. ....
And Heather Mac Donald, while deploring what has happened to the study of the humanities in American universities, reaffirms their value:
...[T]he only true justification for the humanities is that they provide the thing that Faust sold his soul for: knowledge. It is knowledge of a particular kind, concerning what men have done and created over the ages.

The American Founders drew on an astonishingly wide range of historical sources and an appropriately jaundiced view of human nature to craft the world's most stable and free republic. They invoked lessons learned from the Greek city-states, the Carolingian Dynasty and the Ottoman Empire in the Constitution's defense. And they assumed that the new nation's citizens would themselves be versed in history and political philosophy.

But humanistic learning is also an end in itself. It is simply better to have escaped one's narrow, petty self and entered minds far more subtle and vast than one's own than never to have done so. .... One could add: A man lives as many different lives as are embraced by his encounters with literature, music and all the humanities and arts. These forms of expression allow us to see and feel things that we would otherwise never experience—society on a 19th-century Russian feudal estate, for example, or the perfect crystalline brooks and mossy shades of pastoral poetry, or the exquisite languor of a Chopin nocturne.

....[A]s politics grow ever more unmoored from reality, humanist wisdom provides us with some consolation: There is no greater lesson from the past than the intractability of human folly.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Riddles in the dark

On the anniversary of Tolkien's birth, especially for those who need a reality check after seeing the Hobbit movies. Professor Tolkien reads:

Via Brandywine Books


The "Neoconservative" label has become almost meaningless as paleo-conservatives, libertarians, liberals, and those further left, almost universally use it as a term of abuse, giving it meanings far removed from its origins. Anti-Semites use it as code word for alleged nefarious Jewish influence. Some liberals identify it with supposed Machiavellian plots by the disciples of Leo Strauss. Almost all journalistic use of the term refers to a school of thought about foreign policy. My first encounter with the term came with Irving Kristol's essay collection, On the Democratic Idea In America (1972), and my impression then was that there was little "neo" about it — that it was perfectly compatible with the tradition Russell Kirk had described in The Conservative Mind and elsewhere. Kristol and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, are identified with the origin of the term—which originated rather earlier than I had realized. From a very interesting account of their intellectual journey toward conservatism, "The Brooklyn Burkeans" by Jonathan Bronitsky:
[Kristol:] "[I]f I were to say what neo-conservatism is as an intellectual impulse, I'd say it's an effort to link these two conservative traditions represented on the one hand by Edmund Burke, on the other by Adam Smith." .... "In their own day, despite their markedly different casts of mind, Burke and Smith were united in affirming the two major propositions of the original Whig synthesis: (1) liberty is the most precious of political goods, and (2) civilization is the result of human action but not of human design." ....

"After 1789, politics ceased to be considered as the prudent management of men and circumstances, in order to become the 'realization of ideas,'" Kristol lamented in the Yale Review in 1958. "Political thinking became irredeemably ideological: an imposition of ideas on political life rather than an emergence of policy from living experience." ....

In the April 1944 issue of Enquiry...Kristol praised E.M. Forster's "moral realism" as a safeguard against the left's zealous faith in its own capacity to resolve society's ills. "Though dissatisfied, of course, with the ways of men," Kristol coolly noted, "it foresees no new virtues, but, at best, a healthier distribution of the old. It is non-eschatological, skeptical of proposed revisions of man's nature, interested in human beings as it finds them, content with the possibilities and limitations that are always with us." Forster's philosophy could, Kristol continued, temper the "facile moralism" of the "liberal state of mind...whose basis is snobbery, self-satisfaction, unimaginativeness." ....

In Commentary...he declared that Lincoln Steffens's infamous 1919 appraisal of the Soviet Union — "I have seen the Future and it works" — could also effectively function as the "epitaph...on the tombstone of 20th-century liberalism." ....

As a devotee of Edmund Burke, Kristol was aware that liberal democracy, like nearly every other political, cultural, and social tradition, was precisely that — a tradition. Consequently, liberal democracy had to be viewed as a unique, context-dependent manifestation of generations of trials and tribulations, and not as a good that could be easily exported. Kristol...objected to Western Cold War initiatives, from foreign aid to military intervention, which sought to transplant liberal ideals, institutions, and economics to corners of the world that had demonstrated little or no interest in them. "Most Europeans and Asians think that America is too narrowly-minded 'realistic' in its approach to foreign affairs," he told Oxford historian Heinz Koeppler in 1955. "I would argue the reverse proposition, saying that we are not realistic at all." Forty years later, Kristol confirmed: "I regarded the ideal of a 'world without war' as utopian, and 'making the world safe for democracy' a futile enterprise." ....

"The major intellectual effort of neo-conservatism," Kristol stated in 1977, "is to de-utopianize political thinking." It was an effort that, for him and for his wife, had begun in reaction to the fantastical promises of radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, continued in response to the ascent of rationalism and "value-free" social science in the 1950s, and deepened in the wake of the technocratic surfeit of the Great Society in the 1960s. .... (more)

Theology is practical

Mere C.S. Lewis is a site the regularly posts quotations from the works of that man. Today, this, from Mere Christianity:
.... I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, ‘I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!’

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach,  and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America. ....

You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on-—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work: like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

In other words, Theology is practical: especially now…. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected. To believe in the popular religion of modern England is retrogression—like believing the earth is flat. [more]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Worship junkies

Skye Jethani, on "When Worship is Wrong," via Jared Wilson, who characterizes what Jethani is describing as "worship experience porn." Jethani:
.... Moses’ mountaintop experience was genuine, glorious, and full of God’s presence—but it did not bring lasting transformation.

.... Many of us ascend this mountain every Sunday morning wanting to have an experience with God, and many of us leave with a degree of genuine transformation. We feel “pumped up,” “fed,” or “on fire for the Lord.”

No doubt many, like Moses, have an authentic encounter with God through these events. But new research indicates another explanation for our spiritual highs. A University of Washington study has found that megachurch worship experiences actually trigger an “oxytocin cocktail” in the brain that can become chemically addictive. The same has been found at large sporting events and concerts, but attenders to these gatherings don’t usually attribute the “high” to God. ....

This pursuit of transformation by consuming external experiences creates worship junkies who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that will not fade. As one church member interviewed for the University of Washington study said, “God’s love becomes…such a drug that you can’t wait to come get your next hit. …You can’t wait to get involved to get the high from God.” ....

The problem, of course, is not our gatherings, but what we expect from them. If we have an ongoing, internal communion with Christ, then our gatherings will be where we reveal the continual worship that marks our lives. However, if we have no real communion with Christ through his Spirit, we will come to worship seeking a transient dose of glory to carry us along, and we will demand these external events to permanently transform us—something God never intended them to do. ....