Posts Tagged 'Christian'

Misplaced Humility

I am reading through Orthodoxy a second time – and yes, it is even better the second go round – and one of the points that Chesterton makes is that of humility being put in exactly the wrong place.

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.

The chapter title from which I am quoting is aptly named “The Suicide of Thought”. In the preceding chapter Chesterton expresses his dismay at the popular exhortation that “you will do well if you believe in yourself”. Ha! I have always cringed at this exhortation myself. For the life of me, I don’t even know what it means. To believe is to have faith. I know how to have faith in God or even (to a certain extent) faith in others; but I have no idea how to have faith in myself. As Chesterton so wonderfully says,

Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Supermen. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.

It is exactly this conviction in one’s own abilities that Chesterton is referring to when he says that humility is in the wrong place. Instead of being a bit unsure of our own abilities, we are extremely unsure of our own beliefs. We have “opinions” and “points of view”, but never a conviction; and it is here that dogmas cease and religion (not to mention mankind) is weakened at its core. Without conviction the Creed becomes an embarrassment. There is nothing quite so pathetic as “it is my opinion that God became man for us men and for our salvation.” You might as well be honest and say, “it might be true that God became man, I’m really not sure.” To which the candid atheist might reply, “then you admit that you might be delusional.” Chesterton could not put it better when he says,

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern skeptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.

Take that post-modernist scum!

The Lamentable Destruction of Art

03-sculpture-of-laocoon-and-his-sonsThere can be no dispute that the great art of the world has been produced by religion. Think of the great Pagan temples of old and the majestic cathedrals of Christendom, the beautiful sculptures of the Greek gods and the magnificent sculptures of Saints Peter and Paul that grace Rome; all created from the heart of religion. How can it be that the great religious mind of man can also be the one to destroy these great works of art? I can only assume that it is not religion at all, but some awful parody of religion. Certainly, it is not always a bad religion that destroys aesthetics. One can easily think of the French Revolution and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, or even the Babylonian destruction of the simple yet majestic Jewish temple of King Solomon, as examples of irreligion that have also destroyed or repressed the religious aesthetic of man. This I can understand. A notion of man that is narrowed from the sheer grandeur of, let us say, Christianity is bound to also narrow man’s aesthetic instincts, an instinct that reaches for the heavens.

But how can religion itself do this? One thinks of the Muslim invaders who destroyed the temples of Christendom and the iconoclast controversies that shook Christianity in the 8th and 9th centuries, or the less noble forms of Protestantism that stripped the altars of sacred churches in the honorable name of reformation. As with narrow irreligion, I can only assume that it is a narrow religion that is capable of this.

What has spawned these musings? Oddly enough, it is Edward Gibbon. In chapter X of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the always articulate Gibbon describes the Gothic excursions into Greece (c. 250-260 A.D.) and their irreligious and irresponsible destruction of the temple of Diana in Ephesus.

In the general calamities of mankind the death of an individual, however exalted, the ruin of an edifice, however famous, are passed over with careless inattention. Yet we cannot forget that the temple of Diana at Ephesus, after having risen with increasing splendour from seven repeated misfortunes, was finally burnt by the Goths in their third naval invasion. The arts of Greece, and the wealth of Asia, had conspired to erect that sacred and magnificent sculpture. It was supported by an hundred and twenty-seven marble columns of the Ionic order. They were the gifts of devout monarchs, and each was sixty feet high. The altar was adorned with the masterly sculptures of Praxiteles, who had, perhaps, selected from the favourite legends of the place of birth of the divine children of Latona, the concealment of Apollo after the slaughter of Cyclops, and the clemency of Bacchus to the vanquished Amazons. Yet the length of the temple of Ephesus was only four hundred and twenty-five feet, about two-thirds of the measure of the church of St. Peter’s at Rome. In the other dimensions it was still more inferior to that sublime production of modern architecture. The spreading arms of a Christian cross require a much greater breadth than the oblong temples of the Pagans; and the boldest artists of antiquity would have been startled at the proposal of raising in the air a dome the size and proportions of the Pantheon. The temple of Diana was, however, admired as one of the wonders of the world. Successive empires, the Persian, the Macedonian, and the Roman, had revered its sanctity and enriched its splendour. But the rude savages of the Baltic [the Goths] were destitute of a taste for the elegant arts, and they despised the ideal terrors of a foreign superstition.

Destitute of taste indeed.

The picture at the beginning of this post is the Roman sculpture of Laocoon and his sons, a reproduction of an ancient Greek bronze sculpture that the pre-Christian Romans thought was worth preserving in marble. This sculpture now sits in the Vatican museums and is a marvelous example of pagan art.

The painting that adorns the title bar of this blog is a cropped version of a picture I took in the Vatican museums of Raphael’s Disputation of the Blessed Sacrament. This is but one of many brilliant examples of religious art that has issued from the heart of Christianity. Another fine example is the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on the outskirts of Rome, which boasts the famous courtyard containing the downright coolest statue of St. Paul ever, and the beautiful mural of Christ, Saints Peter and Paul, and the Four Evangelists on the facade. See below.




Satan, The Tool (of God)

C. S. Lewis, after speaking of the good that can come from human suffering and pain, has this to say:

Quoted from The Problem of Pain (Harper Collins 2001):

Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil. We may apply this first to the problem of other people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbour’s good and so does ‘God’s will’, consciously co-operating with ‘the simple good’. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. The whole system is, so to speak, calculated for the clash between good men and bad men, and the good fruits of fortitude, patience, pity, and forgiveness for which the cruel man is permitted to be cruel, presuppose that the good man ordinarily continues to seek simple good. I say ‘ordinarily’ because a man is sometimes entitled to hurt (or even, in my opinion, to kill) his fellow, but only where the necessity is urgent and the good to be attained obvious, and usually (though not always) when he who inflicts the pain has a definite authority to do so – a parent’s authority derived from nature, a magistrate’s or soldier’s derived from civil society, or a surgeon’s derived, most often, from the patient. To turn this into a general charter for afflicting humanity ‘because affliction is good for them’ (as Marlowe’s lunatic Tamberlaine boasted himself the ‘scourge of God’) is not  indeed to break the Divine scheme, but to volunteer for the post of Satan within that scheme. If you do his work, you must be prepared for his wages.

History Within Culture – Part II

christopher-dawsonIn Part I of this series, I mentioned Dawson’s view of history centered on culture versus the more prominent view of distinct time periods (ancient, medieval, modern) and the impact it has on how we view history. From what I gather reading Glenn W. Olsen’s essay, this is Dawson’s most enduring contribution to historical studies. In this post I will attempt to elaborate on Dawson’s overall view of history with respect to the way history is generally viewed. As is usual with my posts, I will let the author speak for himself, as I could and do not have anything to add. I should also mention that the author in this case is Glenn W. Olsen, not Christopher Dawson. Although, Olsen will serve as a useful introduction to the thought and enduring legacy of Dawson. That is, after all, the point of this series of posts.

So let’s get right to it. In the following passage, Olsen sets up for us the contrasting views of history (from “Why We Need Christopher Dawson”, Communio, Spring 2008):

One could argue that Dawson’s most memorable books are written in pursuit of the overarching shared vision of life of this or that society as it evolved over time, and then of the subcultures that composed each society, its doctors, warriors, or chiefs. The merit of this approach might be illustrated by comparing it with the outline of history still present, despite the inroads of subjects such as World History, in the curricula of most history departments in the United States. Typically, while denying they are Eurocentric, these divide the history of the world into three epochs derived from the periodization of European history: ancient, medieval, and modern, probably with some residue of the Petrarchan equation of ancient with “Golden Age,” medieval with “decline,” and modern with “return to or progress along the right path.” As a schema this does little more than replicate with a slight Western flavor what Mircea Eliade judged the most basic pattern of mythical thought across the world religions, the loss of a “once upon a time” (Eden) in a sad present (history), but with an Eden of possible recovery shining before us (utopia or, on a slightly less grand scale, a world made safe for democracy)…

This brings us to Dawson’s particular method, centering historical inquiry on the cultures in which the history takes place. Olsen continues:

Dawson consciously decided on “culture” as a better word than “civilization” to speak of his interests. “Civilization” as derived from civitas, had too urban and intellectual an association for him. If he was to talk globally about human communal life, a good deal of which had not centered on cities, the better word was “culture,” for, coming from cultus, this could designate any habit of being or shared pattern of life, urban, rural, nomadic, agricultural, familial, or monastic. It also suggested that life, like religio, is typically tied to the gods, that is, that human communities commonly are part of a larger community of God and man. That is why culture is embodied religion. Only those of us who have inherited the prolonged attempt of recent centuries to undo the ties between religion and culture, to separate God from man, to marginalize religion, cannot see this. Man’s usual situation for most of history has been within a religious community composed of gods and men.

That said, Dawson thought the best way to study any culture was over its life-cycle, from origin to maturity, the latter being the point at which its form was most realized (here he was closest to the Romantics), to decline and afterlife. Few cultures actually die, most pass on something of themselves after their moment of greatest flourishing to successors, and in a sense live to the present. Homer and Sophocles are still read today. Thus it makes little sense to speak of a Roman period simply succeeding a Greek period. Rather, after a kind of fulfillment in the so-called Classical period of the fifth century B.C., Greek culture continued to develop in the Hellenistic period and was central, for instance, to the articulation of Christian theology…

Though Dawson knew a great deal about and wrote about many of the cultures of the world, arguably he most fully illustrated his idea of the formation of culture in his studies on Christian culture. This he saw as foreshadowed by Israel, formed around the figure of Christ, and facilitated by the Roman Empire; then under the influence of Greek philosophy as passing into a kind of intellectual and spiritual maturation in the patristic period, followed by the bringing of entire peoples to Christianity in the middle ages, along with further cultural innovations, such as the chansons de geste, Gothic architecture and scholasticism. This culture, called Christendom by the time of Charlemagne, was divided in the sixteenth century and subsequently laid under siege, especially by modern nationalism, but again, in certain respects continues to the present.

So what difference does it make if we view history through the cultures in which the history is contained, or if we view history as a succession of time periods, ancient (“golden age”), medieval (“decline”), modern (“rebirth”)? Olsen elaborates:

In any case, Dawson propsed that, so far as the history of Christianity is concerned, our basic historical schema should be the stages of the development of Christian culture. This leads to a rethinking of still current assumptions about the relation between Christianity and Western history.

First of all, the so-called middle ages, viewed as a stage of the development of Christian culture, was not just a middle period between two times of high achievement, a period so lacking in distinctive characteristics that it was to be labeled “middle.” Rather, the medieval stage of the formation of Christian culture was to be seen as a time of the first great missionary expansion of Christianity, when, against great odds, whole peoples had been joined to Christendom and the Church had in fair measure communicated a sense of the faith. It was a time when the Christian literary and artistic imagination blossomed.

Moreover, the so-called Renaissance (if ever the characterization of a period has taken the part from the whole, it is in regard to the Renaissance), was not in general a time of de-Christianization, though that might, especially according to geography and social class, have been one’s experience. As such fine historians since Dawson’s time as Augustine Thompson have now shown for the early Italian Renaissance, this was a time when – say in the great cities of Italy – life continued to be lived according to a Christian, liturgical, rhythm.

Finally, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were in important respects attempts to form the most thoroughly Christian society yet, in which, as a stunning book by Brad Gregory on the willingness of early modern Christians to die for their faith has shown, the Christian hold on Europe continued to develop (W. H. Lewis long ago suggested that the seventeenth was the most Christian of centuries). Certainly an argument can be made that the Baroque, Catholic and Protestant, represents the most distinctly Christian and European art form ever conceived, finding the Christian, incarnate, God in all things and seeing the world as a stage on which the Christian drama plays out. And so it goes.

The point, then, is that overly to separate the various stages of Christian development into too-distinct periods obscures the fact that they were all part of a living and continuing entity, Christendom or Christian culture.


Part III

Through a Mother’s Eyes

Here’s a great little poem from the latest edition of Dappled Things (link). The poem is by Amanda Glass, who according to Dappled Things, “graduated in 1999 from Franciscan University in Stuebenville, where she majored in Humanities and Catholic Culture. Her poems have appeared in The Lyric and in Garlands of Grace: An Anthology of Great Christian Poetry. She and her family live in western Maryland, where she is a full-time wife and mother.”


Do you know Slim the Cowboy, the Hero of the West?
He found a rattler by the sofa, bravely beat it up.
He saved his friend the sheriff when the local gang got rough,
Then drank his campfire coffee from his pewter loving-cup.
That’s Slim, in his bandana and fleece vest.

Did you see Slim the Cowboy as he galloped into town?
He left his mustang Star tied in the stable-yard out back
(That stable looks suspiciously like my green baker’s rack),
Then sat down at the bar and had a sliced-banana snack.
That’s Slim, in small snow-boots of blue and brown.

You heard of Slim the Cowboy, the stoic and the sage?
He faced the mighty buffalo that thundered through the plain,
Defeated all the bandits who attacked the wagon train,
Then asked for cookies, got an apple, and did not complain.
That’s Slim, who is much older than his age.

I’ve found with Slim the Cowboy that what he wants, he gets.
He swiped my measuring cups to use for cooking on the fire,
He filched my rolling pin to tame a deadly gun-for-hire,
Then hid out in the hamper when the danger got too dire.
That’s Slim, who raids my kitchen cabinets.

I ponder Slim the Cowboy, my half-pint hero son.
Why does a boy engage in all the blood-combat he can
And surge through unseen struggles until he can hardly stand?
He’s training to fight foes he won’t confront till he’s a man.
That’s Slim, for whom the battle’s just begun

It should go without saying, but a subscription to Dappled Things is something I highly recommend. Check it out.

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