The Reformation of Romance

If today you invite a stranger to discuss art over a nice cup of tea, it would come as a surprise if you went into any subject besides paintings once you had sat down together.  Go back a couple of millennia to hold that same conversation with a conservative Roman, and you’ll find that a diversion into the more practical topics of carpentry, weaving, or any other kind of trade or profession is not only natural but inevitable.  The difference between the two discussions is the tea…or rather the ‘T’.  A Roman would not have discussed A-R-T but A-R-S, and by that Latin term, he would have referred primarily not to sculpture and pottery (much less to oil on canvas) but to crafts, trades, and skills in general.  Indeed, as the root of the word suggests (ar-, to join), ars has always been about any matter in which people fit old things together in order to create new ones, and in ancient times, this would have been thought of first and foremost from a pragmatic point of view.

So what happened to the word?  Why would a stodgy, grizzled Roman like Cato the Elder have concerned himself with the joining of wood to build wagons in place of the joining of colors to please the eye?  Indeed, there can be no doubt that, had Cato been our converser, we would have begun this imagined dialogue with the driest exposition on how to build a miserly carriage and ended it with the averring of some oddly arrived at conclusion that Carthage must be utterly destroyed!  That sort of discussion would be a far cry from its modern analogue, which would inevitably take on a register much removed from the practical concerns of daily life, since modern idiom has come to assume a certain allowance that our ancestors never made for the inutile.  Aristotle would suggest that this evolution is one of progress, that it is only natural for a society, once having achieved a surplus of whatever is necessary for survival, to begin taking an interest in beauty and truth for their own sakes rather than for some ulterior end (Metaphysics 1.980 ff.).

The Jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman […] brought to every new shore on which he set his foot […] only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset.

—Joyce, Ulysses

We can detect such a progression in the development not only of language but also of ‘myth’, as it were.  I refer to myth as a convention of semiology, however remote the concept might seem from the Postmodern world.  If we put yet another question to that contemporary stranger of ours and ask him what are the foundational myths of our society, he might tell us that the commonest myth he knows of is that a toilet flush will change direction depending on what hemisphere it’s in, when in fact this is not true.  Of course, our philological minds would have hoped for a rather different kind of answer—and in ancient Greece or Rome, those hopes would not have been disappointed.  At least to our assuagement is the knowledge that modern literature may play an analogous role to this dated concept of myth and may show equally well the lexical shift.  Indeed, the very fact that myth has been replaced by literature intimates the progression from practical to impractical.  In place of a craft that is necessary to society, the modern world has an unessential art that is taken up at leisure.

So let us briefly skim through this apparatus, this artistic compendium of myth or literature or whatever you’d like to call it.  We begin with the Greeks and Romans,  whose interest in ars and τέχνη centered around the crafty joining of things for needful purposes.  The joining of materials to create goods and the joining of persons to create persons.  Indeed, the latter kind of joining is spoken of openly in Greco-Roman myth, especially in the form of comedy.  We need look no farther than the character of Circe, a seductive temptress, or of Lysistrata, a masochistic wife, or of Dido, a desperate bedmate—no farther than these to realize that human copulation, in ancient Greece and Rome, was a needful craft, and it was assumed by the society that one could no more abstain from that kind of joining than from the necessary building of miserly carriages.  This was the character of pagan myth, and it wasn’t until Christianity came to the forefront of Western culture that our inveterate myths about love began to revise dramatically.

It follows that Medieval literature regards the art of procreation as a kind of sacred taboo.  Explicit references are replaced by innuendoes, and with the expurgation of so many long-winded discussions of the bedroom, space is made for a whole new kind of discussion: a version of romance that concerns the spirit rather than the body.  Hence, poets of the dolce stil novo are at leisure to praise the spiritual virtues of the beloved rather than being bounded by the “inescapable” drives elicited by the body.  There is now an Art of Courtly Love, rather than a craft.  The basic assumptions about romance have transformed entirely.  Pretty soon it will seem aberrational to suggest that Sex is the tyrannical despot of the human will, and of course, the moment that such a suggestion becomes so anomalous as to shock and appall will be the very same moment that it is opined most forcefully.

But setting aside this apprehension at present, we continue with the Renaissance artists of literature.  Here we still find plenty of vulgar innuendoes, in Shakespearean comedy for example, but nothing more explicit.  In Shakespeare and Spenser there is now a more refined interest in virtue, which has developed out of Medieval philosophy.  Medieval thinkers were the sort of folks that would run around organizing and categorizing every little thing they possibly could.  They would have liked nothing better than to fully index the human soul, and the assumption of this assiduously compiled index is what allowed a poet like Spenser to allude to “The Twelve Virtues”, with everybody pretty much knowing what he meant (thank you Thomas Aquinas).

Moreover, so rational an assumption about human nature—the assumption that it is systematic and organized—is an underlying myth in the Age of Reason as well.  Kantian morality and the concept of Natural Rights would have never been possible had we still been living under the anarchical rule of Sex.  Our understanding of Nature had by now been entirely reformed.  Mother Earth, the reckless, dictatorial, juggernaut, whom primitive man would propitiate for a favorable harvest, had been supplanted by an enlightened Nature, a civil, rational  ideal.

This rational outlook on love and life in general continues to dominate society into the Romantic era.  Of course, our mythology becomes more mystical, and there is now a prevalent belief in the irresistible power of passion, but the latter is always held in tension with an optimistic confidence in man’s aptitude to comport himself with diffidence and decorum even when he is under duress.  By now, Sex has fully abdicated her throne in favor of a Philosopher King, who we might call Reason, Truth, or at least Beauty.  The former tyrant is cloaked deeply in an abstruse garment of circumlocution, and in her place this transcendental other is believed to rule more democratically over nature.

Lest anyone should scoff at this crude generalization, let me be clear that I am referring not to a hard and fast rule about literature, but to a basic assumption inherent in language.  This is where the analogy between myth and literature breaks down.  By myth, I mean the assumptions built into language forming the ideological backbone of society.  These assumptions may be predominate in the literature of the culture, but of course, any person or author is equally at liberty to contradict the presuppositions of an audience for rhetorical effect.  If one should bring up Marquis de Sade as a counter example to the general outlook that I have described, then I respond that the foundational writings of sadism held rhetorical force precisely because they contradicted the foundational myths of society at large.  And so too with the foundational writings of Freudianism.  This is the apprehension that I alluded to earlier.  It is one of the frailties of human nature that, if left to her own devices, she will deconstruct immediately, contradicting whatever is most fundamental to her existence.  If there exists a society—as I argue there does—which has progressed from the tyrannical rule of Biology toward the democratic sovereignty of Beauty, then left to itself, that society will do everything in its power to oppose its own existence as such.  What I mean is that unless we had all been more careful, the onset of the Freudian age was inevitable simply because it wasn’t yet actual.

So what’s it to us if society is reverting to an older form of itself?  I might answer this question by turning once more to the authoritative wisdom of Aristotle—provided that my dear, Postmodern readers will find it in their hearts to forgive me for being so ingenuously classical.  I maintain that the reformation of romance I have described is properly considered progress.  Progress brought about by the onset of Christianity.  Progress bringing about the onset of freedom.  I could hardly imagine a sadder fate for the societies of the Western world than to surrender their own dearly established cultural democracy and allow this neologism of “art” to fall once more into obscurity before it has even fully flourished.  I fear it may be by this impending lexical shift, by which we hope to obliterate the last encumbrance of freedom, that we will instead do away with freedom all together.

In short, I believe that the cultures of the Western world stand at an exciting point in their history.  When the stakes are as high as I have described and we have so much to lose, we have equally as much to gain.  Our modern mythology is more conscious than it has been for several millennia of the greatest Adversary of human reason.  In this way, man’s desperate need for divine grace has never been more blatantly obvious, and our potential to recognize and respond contritely to that need may be enough to elevate art, love, and life generally to a quality which it has never before achieved.  Not a quality of earthly happiness and prosperity, but of austerity and supernatural joy.  We stand then both individually and collectively at a parting of ways.  As human fallibility confronts us head on in this uncertain age, this age in which the integrity of reason itself has been called into question, we may either respond with blissful denial and a naive faith in Human Potential, or we may surrender every last surety and confidence that we held in our own ingenuity to be utterly reformed by the hand of God.

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Star Gazing

Ernest,

Your letter reminded me of a beautiful moment in Dante’s Divine Comedy, when just before entering the dooming gates of hell, Dante, the literary character, addresses Vergil, his guide, who tells him that Beatrice  has advised their journey.  What’s particularly moving about this passage, which I have quoted below, is the hope that Dante displays even in the face of what lies before him.  Just a few short paces off lie the gates of hell itself, with that infamous inscription carved into stone above the top: LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA VOI CH’INTRATE, “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!”

But Dante doesn’t do this, instead he finds all the more hope in what Vergil has told him:

 

“Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse!

e te cortese ch’ubidisti tosto

a le vere parole che ti porse!

Tu m’hai con disiderio il cor disposto

sì al venir con le parole tue,

ch’i’ son tornato nel primo proposto.

Or va, ch’un sol volere è d’ambedue:

tu duca, tu sengore, e tu maestro.”

Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue,

intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro.

 

“O compassionate, she who thus availeth me!

And courteous, thou who hast obeyed so prompt

The truthful words that she hath put to thee!

Thou hast inclined desire in my heart

For venture, with thine words, that I renew

To mee the primal purpose as before.

Now go, for to us both a single will:

Be thou the leader, thou the lord and master!”

And even so I said to him.

When he had moved,

I entered by the journey deep and cruel.

 

Seeing through all the brutal devastation that lies directly in front of him, Dante is able to hope in something glorious that comes long after it.  By God’s grace and love, symbolised in the figure of Beatrice, ‘who availeth’ him, this woeful journey though the land of tears serves, even by its very ugliness, to but highlight the profound beauty and eternal splendour of a salvation yet to come.

Dante says he is moved with disiderio, ‘desire’, which comes from the Latin, desiderare, a word composed of two parts: de, meaning ‘concerning’, and sidera, meaning ‘the stars’ or ‘the heavens’.  So Dante is foreshadowing the last moment of the Inferno, when he and Vergil come forth out of hell—a place of unbearable darkness, where even the stars neglect to shine—to see once more, in the very last line of the book, something truly awe-inspiring:

 

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

We thence went forth to rebehold the stars.

 

This line inspired a moment in my twelfth symphony (2012):

 

 

I think life is a lot like this.  Gratitude for God’s small gifts in the present is a way of desiring; that is, a way of regarding the stars, our ultimate destiny in Christ.  By giving thanks for something like a familiar cup of tea, a good grade on a blog post, or a book consisting of something other than meaningless numbers and names, we are able, by an ironically short sighted act of thanks, to transcend all of our present despairs and adversities, liberated, by God’s grace, to live with an ever present hope in our eternal beatitude, to endure, even through the fiery pains of hell itself, with a perpetual and imminent longing for that ineffable vista of the stars.

 

Your servant,

TWM

Faith, Fear, and Fiction

My honourable Ernest,

By whatever trifles of insight my fastidious, observational nature has profited me over the years, I have come to regard the dealings of nearly all mankind as some composite exercise of no more than three essential virtues or vices, which may server either one’s honour or shame, summarising the human experience as a response to the prospective unknown, an artful compilation of but three elements, namely, of faith, fear, and fiction.  Of these, perhaps only the first strikes us quite evidently as being a virtue, while the latter two seem to be either vices or mere misfortunes, but I find myself convinced that these may follow, just as does faith, directly from the most universally recognised virtue: love, on account of which is it not but a show of prudence to fear on behalf of the beloved, or of grace to envision something better wherever there may be a deficiency?  And yet it seems that love, by which name we are apt, in modern parlance, to call nearly any form of deep affection or attachment, may serve just as well as a virtue or a vice—consider the ‘love’ of Romeo for Juliet, Dido for Aeneas, or perhaps even Adam for Eve.  For many, the handling of such cases is a simple matter of refining one’s definition of the word, ‘love’, whittling it down until it lacks all such splinters and no longer allows for these uncomfortable notions of self-destruction and depravity, but the fact that an ideological carpenter finds himself with so much sanding to be done demonstrates a complicated feature of human nature; there is a fine line, as it turns out, between love, the highest virtue, and hate, its utter opposite, which is the lowest vice.

We are left puzzling over just such a paradox when Milton depicts for us the role of love in losing paradise; I am referring mainly to the drama that unfolds in book nine of the Paradise Lost, the apex of which we might explore at line 896 and following.  Adam has yet to partake of the fruit, when he somehow finds time to unravel an entire speech to consider Eve’s demise and the human condition, doing so—quite miraculously it seems—without Eve hearing so much as a single word.  Our present focus lies in lines 904-8:

… Some cursed fraud

Of enemy hath beguil’d thee, yet unknown,

And mee with thee hath ruin’d, for with thee

Certain my resolution is to Die:

How can I live without thee?

It is difficult to regard Adam’s love for Eve as a virtue, when it seems so distinctly, in this fictitious depiction, to serve as his hamartia.  Adam has invented a fiction, a beautiful, quixotic dream, that perhaps even the fallen Eve is the same woman whom he so loved from the start, perhaps he may yet find all the former beauty and splendour of the divine paradise even among its ruins.  Along with this fiction, which by an uneasy inclination we are tempted to consider a display of grace, he fears, and prudently so, what the future may be apart from Eve.  Ultimately it seems that for better or for worse and by virtue of his connubial duty to Eve, he has no choice but to invest total faith in the judgment of his beloved.  He is like the charismatic man who follows his friends when they all decide to jump off a cliff—for whom we may hold a certain admiration, regarding him, perhaps, as a charming and credulous fool, but more pragmatically, we must also fear for his own safety and well-being.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Milton’s drama is the way it ends.  Paradise is in fact Regained, and in some very bizarre sense, it seems the whole drama of all mankind is ultimately to be so reconciled.  On the other side of death, we know there is a resurrection, where by virtue of Adam’s vice, his absurd and inappropriate faith, he lives once more.  By God’s grace all that has been broken is redeemed to something better still than it once was; as if even the fall of man itself were in His plan.  In this way, it seems that something evil in itself may be used for a good end.  The crunching of an apple echoes throughout all eternity as an object of universal derision, but God has harmonised this disgraceful memory with sweeter tones than we could ever imagine, reworking the whole chorus of angels in heaven so that it may be all the more beautiful yet again.

 

Your servant,

TWM

The Atrocity Fallen

A crag that threatens not the heavens,
Towers atrocious over man, where brutal
The ridge extends as violent glory
Over-stands the conquered.
And he is like a haughty beast
That thunders horrendous the stone—
Still stands,
Firm the wretched peak,
While wandering zephyrs and down falling
The waters rushes; so run off the roughest pass
Hasty angst and idle labours;
Sediment falls like tears from the eyes,
And a precious child weeps alone;
Gradual, aggravate—
The gradient smooth.

What’s Unique about Christianity?

Below you will find an essay of mine on the topic of Christian grace.  Please understand that this piece was originally intended for a different audience and therefore has some discordancies with the usual nature of this blog.  In my opinion, the writing style is rather ugly, but I do believe the inquiry is worthy of consideration, and therefore have concluded on posting the piece anyway.  It’s rather accessible (accessible is a word which here means “easy to read and understand”), which I imagine is a bit of a relief for some readers.

Here it is:

Christian Grace

The story is often told about the casual yet profound comment that C. S. Lewis made during part of some colloquial discourse at a British religions conference (“Did the Writers…”).  Lewis is said to have walked in on a few of his colleagues as they were arguing about what one unique contribution Christianity alone could claim to have added to the massive net of ideologies that make up the religions of the world.  When he heard them arguing, C. S. Lewis is said to have passively and whimsically responded that the answer was grace.

Of course C. S. Lewis didn’t mean that Christianity is altogether the only religion with a concept of grace.  Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any major religion that does not have some concept of grace.  Grace is an essential part of the human mind, and therefore, must also play a very important role in human religion of all traditions.  But what C. S. Lewis may have been getting at, and may have had good reason for so thinking, was that the particular formulation of grace found in Christianity is the most strikingly distinguishing feature that sets Christianity apart from other religions.

In this essay, I will examine the validity of Lewis’ claim from this understanding of what he meant.  I will begin by discussing what is meant by the “Christian doctrine of grace,” and then briefly hold it against a small number of other religious and cultural contexts to begin to discover what, if anything, is truly unique about it.  This will by no means be a sufficiently thorough exploration to merit a definitive answer to the inquiry into the uniqueness of Christian grace, but it will begin to unpack some of the unique principles that distinguish Christian grace from other formulations and indeed Christianity as a whole from other religions.  This essay, then, is a brief inquiry into the identity of Christianity in the context of the larger world.

And so we must begin by asking: what is the Christian understanding of grace?  It seems this should be a rather elementary question that can be answered simply by paging through the Christian Bible, and indeed such a method of exploration should merit the most definitive answer to the question, but the issue has been made foggy by the many interpretations of the text that have been made throughout history.  Much of the Christian theological debate about grace is centred around the complexity of “covenant theology” (Mackinnon 143-145).  Covenant theology is the highly prevalent Christian doctrine that the Bible consists of two covenants: (1) the Old Testament Covenant, or the Covenant of Works and (2) the New Testament Covenant, or the Covenant of Grace.  Throughout history and across different denominations, these two different covenants have been assigned varying levels of importance.

The Covenant of Works, which is found in the Old Testament, is the covenant that God formed with his people by which they could acquire salvation through good deeds and obedience to his laws.  In the Old Testament, we find a God of justice and order, the very epitome of what the ancient Greeks referred to as dikê.  He is a God of rules, and one who punishes disobedience.  This is the basis of the Covenant of works; in many ways it is much more anthropocentric than the Covenant of Grace, in that it is focused on what humans do for their own salvation.

The Covenant of Grace is more theocentric.  This covenant, found primarily in the New Testament, is the promise that salvation is gained through grace.  In the New Testament, we find a God of love and grace.  In this sense of the word, grace means not only propitiousness, but unmerited acts of love towards humanity.  Grace, in the New Testament, is ultimately about the forgiveness and atonement that God grants humanity out of his love.

In Christianity, these two covenants have largely been at odds with each other, and much of the work in Christian theology has been spent in trying to understand how these two dichotic facets of Biblical dogma are to work together, or to what extent one ought to be rejected in favour of the other.  Malcolm H. Mackinnon traces some of the historical development of covenant theology in the first part of his article “The Weber Thesis Reconsidered.”  Mackinnon writes that while Calvin himself initially stressed a doctrine of sola fide, or “faith alone,” and thus rejected the Covenant of Works (considering the new testament a replacement of this), much of Calvinism differed greatly from its founding father, especially concerning this issue.  In general, the Puritans were obsessed with works, and not out of an irrational quest for phycological comfort as Weber had supposed, but as a result of the actual content of their doctrines, which rejected much of Calvin’s theology.  This is how Mackinnon explains the protestant work ethic (Mackinnon 143-145).

However, it should also be noted from Mackinnon that the extreme opposite end of the spectrum can be found in Calvin and, to some extent, in Luther.  Calvin saw the notion that one could earn one’s way to heaven through works as heretical and even blasphemous due to the way it belittles God.  For Calvin, the human will is incapable of doing good because it has been infected with evil since the fall.  God mysteriously foreordains salvation to an elect few, for reasons that humans cannot understand, unrelated to human deeds.  To claim that a human will can practice benevolence—or let alone earn its way to heaven—in spite of its fallen state is to claim that it is capable of divine action (Mackinnon 152-155).

But in between these two extremes was a covenant theology that tempered grace with justice.  Such a theology can perhaps be found in Perkins, who asserted that God requires humanity to work and act righteously, but out of his grace, accepts the very strife for righteousness as righteousness itself (Mackinnon 156).  In this way, human works are still insufficient and require grace, but they are also a necessary part of sanctification.  Indeed even Calvin, in his complete rejection of the Old Testament Covenant did not all together reject the works themselves.  Calvin insisted that works were merely an inseparable part of sola fide justification because anyone who truly wished to be forgiven and saved could not help but naturally do good deeds in response to God’s grace.  However, Perkins furthered this concept in that works were not only the natural response to Gods grace, but also a necessary requisite part of God’s grace in that they were the material which God graciously accepted as perfection, provided they were performed sincerely.

In my opinion, this latter theology seems more becoming of the Bible than the other more extreme views.  Even in the Old Testament, we find many references to God’s love and prophecies of his grace.  The ritual of slaughtering animal sacrifices for the atonement of sin, for example, shows us that even the Old Testament Covenant has some understanding of grace and the insufficiency of human works.  Additionally, we find mention of the importance of works in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s letters to the churches. Indeed, the Bible is filled with examples of the two covenants working together rather than in opposition of each other, and I propose that the unique complementary function of these two covenants is precisely the source of Christianity’s distinct identity.

In Cristiano Grottanelli’s article, “A Comparative study of the stories of Ruth, Charila, Sita,” we are presented with a model of how various religions have successfully made use of both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of grace (or their particular analogue of these covenants).    In the context of the three myths or stories that he presents, Grottanelli makes the interesting claim that “grace” (or mercy) is the same thing as “justice” (Grottanelli 22).  This is because each of the tales is about a kingly figure, who, out of his generosity, solves a crisis that a helpless woman is made to undergo.  Grottanelli contends that because the kingly figures are royal, and “generosity is a duty for him who is master over all” (Grottanelli 21-22), their exercises of generosity, or grace, are also exercises of justice.  Hence we have a primitive framework for the way in which grace and justice can work together found in several different traditions.  However, this framework is merely that—a framework.  While we might suppose that generosity is, at least in the human context, a duty of the able, the postulate gets a little shaky when applied to the divine context.  While a king’s benevolent display of generosity to a person in need may be called “mercy” in a human sense (particularly a royal sense), it is not so in the divine sense that we find in Christianity and many other religions.  The ancient Greeks saw generosity, particularly as it related to hospitality (xenia), as a part of one’s obligation to justices (dikê).  In this sense, the kings’ generosity is not really a gift of something undeserved.  Grace, in the sense of the New Testament Covenant, is about pardoning of debt, and so this model of generosity does not suffice to entirely reconcile grace with justice in the way that Christianity demands.

Another take on reconciling grace and justice can be found in David Kaylor’s article, “The Concept of Grace in the Hymns of Nammalvar.”  In his article, Kaylor examines whether grace is, in the Tiruvaymoli, spontaneous or a response to human devotion and deeds.  Kaylor concludes that grace is primarily spontaneous but submits that there is evidence for both cases found in Hindu literature.  Kaylor maintains, however, that all references to grace as a merited gift (that is grace, not in the Christian sense, but in a sense which excludes the undeserved aspect of it) are doxological rather than exhortative in their essential meaning, and therefore are less applicable as formal doctrine.  In many ways, this entirely spontaneous nature of grace is similar to Calvin’s formulation, where grace, while not entirely spontaneous, is at least mysterious and entirely unrelated to human acts.  However, the most essential element missing from this model is justice.  Obviously there are very formidable dogmas of justice all throughout Hindu traditions, but there is no instance of reconciliation between it and grace.  For this, we must turn to Christianity.

In Jesus Christ we find a means by which God, who is entirely just in nature, pardons sin without infringing on the integrity of his justice.  Because of God’s just nature, man’s sin should result in his metaphysical inability to remain in God’s presence, but this debt is paid through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, by which absolute justice is expressed simultaneously with absolute love.  From this model of reconciliation between justice and love should naturally flow, I think, the Christian reconciliation of covenant theology.  As we begin to understand, to some small degree, the kind of infinite love that God has for us and the sacrifice he makes for us, works follow naturally (as Calvin would have it), but also, as we begin to do better works and imitate Christ’s love, we begin to understand that love better (as the Calvinists would have it).  Hence, the two covenants of covenant theology perpetuate each other.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a twentieth century theologian, wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “only those who believe obey, … and only those who obey believe” (Bonhoeffer 20).

As beautiful and unique as this doctrine is as a whole, it is also important to note that no part of it is found exclusively in Christianity; it is, rather, the manner in which all of the elements are combined that is unique to Christianity.  We need look no further than our own Indo-European language to find the origin of most of the components of the doctrine.  For example, the concept of a saviour who heals a large group of people from an ill brought on by misbehaviour can be linked to the ancient Greek concept of a soter, from which we get the word “saviour” and even the Christian theological word “soteriology.”  The theme of death and resurrection if also a ubiquitous part of world religions, an example being Adonis (on which, see C. S. Lewis, Miracles).  And of course, grace and justice are scattered all across other religions we have already referenced in this essay. But what is unique about Christian grace is that it is the culmination of each of these principles in a way that pieces them all together.  The fact that the component parts of Christianity are so deeply engrained in human thought should come as no surprise to us; indeed, as academics and humanists, we are required to expect human thought to be true, and so the fact that it is filled with the make up of Christianity gives Christianity all the more merit.

Works Cited

  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998. Print.

“Did the Writers of the New Testament Get Their Picture of Jesus Right?”  Did the Writers of the New Testament Get Their Picture of Jesus Right? N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2013.

<http://www.christianity.co.nz/grace-13.htm&gt;.

Grottanelli, Cristiano.  “The King’s Grace and the Helpless Woman: A Comparative Study of the Stories of Ruth, Charila, Sita.”  History of Religions 22.1 (1982): 1-24. Web.  April 17 2013.

Kaylor, David R. “The Concept of Grace in the Hymns of Nammalvar.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44.4 (1976):  Web.  April 17 2013.

Mackinnon, Malcolm H. “Part I: Calvinism and the Infallible Assurance of Grace: The Weber Thesis Reconsidered.”  The British Journal of Sociology 39.2 (1988): 143-177.  Web.  April 17 2013.

The Great Rebellion

Here’s my Christmas post for this year.

When playing a musical instrument in an orchestra, it is not uncommon that the director give you and your fellow musicians one piece of criticism and follow it immediately with a critique that seems directly opposite.  He might, for example, say that he wants the trumpets to play louder, and the very next moment, he’ll be upset with them for overpowering the strings.  In these sorts of situations, it is understood by good ensemble musicians that the director is in the right, and it is almost implied that the trumpets have done something very insensitive even though they were just trying to follow his orders.  What he really wants is not for one particular section to mindlessly play louder or softer throughout the whole piece, but for all the players to balance and blend, which is something much more complicated than a single adjustment in volume.  Instead, good balance requires sensitive musicianship and a profound understanding of the nuances of the piece.

While he is trying to communicate this delicate concept, an orchestra director also has to be mindful of accessibility.  He is usually dealing with an overwhelming sum of people, all of whom come from different backgrounds and have different philosophies of music.  So he is compelled to use the simplest language possible in order to effectively communicate what he wants the group to do.  This is what makes him seem to suffer from multiple personality disorder at times–his task is very difficult.  Indeed, if one is to attempt to explain musicianship to a large group of people in concrete, layman’s terms, he is almost doomed to come very near to contradicting himself.  This is not because the art is incoherent, but because it is complicated.

Now suppose someone were to try to explain the meaning of life to the entire world in a way that would serve as its model for ages to come.  Imagine, if you will, that within a single culture, the very structure of reality was to be explained for all peoples.  I don’t suppose there is a more arduous endeavour that could be dreamt of by the human mind.  And yet, this is the very undertaking that we find being fulfilled in God’s Holy Word.  God Himself is explained to us in simple, universal terms. An infinite fractal of the highest order of infinity is embodied in mere words.

It is no surprise, of course, that we find this text to be very much like the frustrating orchestra conductor.  One part tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, another part tells us to not throw our pearls to the dogs.  In one part, we see the Israelites stoning adulteresses by order of God himself, and in another part, we see Jesus turning the crowd away from such a convict because they themselves are sinners.  For some, this abundance of scriptural inconsistencies can be almost detrimental to the rhetoric of the text.  But as for myself, I find that these seemingly conflicting imperatives make the sacred book all the more powerful and all the more effective.  Life is complicated, and Reality is fractal.  It is utterly unthinkable that a model of Reality could be single dimensional.  As we have discussed elsewhere in this blog, the Omnipotent has a number of necessary qualities: He must be Good because He is categorical, He must be Rational because reason cannot exist by irrational cause, He must be Just because He is Good and Rational, and He must be Loving because He is coherent with His own creation.  However, these qualities present a paradox.  How could God be infinitely Loving and infinitely Just?

The answer is Redemption.  Redemption is a logical necessity to any explanation of Reality, and even people who do not understand the formal proof seem to know this intuitively.  No other religion in the wold besides Christianity has Redemption in it, and yet followers of all religions and anti-religions cannot escape the notion.  They try to sneak it into their doctrines, searching endlessly for a tiny foothold amongst their tightly packed creeds in which they might slide something to fulfil their need for this belief.  However, when the ungrounded rhetoric subsides, it becomes evident that only in Christianity may one find a God of Grace, which is the very thing for which the world so desperately craves.

But how could a single text explain Redemption, this absurd reconciliation of Justice and Love, to the every human being that would ever live?  Well, God does it with a great rebellion.  For ages, He set aside the Israelites as His chosen people, instilling in them a strict system of morals.  He had them kill anyone caught violating one of His rules.  This is how seriously He takes morality.  However, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened.  Soon men and women would not use this rule system as a means to please God, but as a tool to persecute each other and bring themselves power.  So God had to tear down His own temple, and make a mockery of the very system He had instilled (see “The Mockery”).

That’s exactly what He does in the person of Christ.  The powerful Pharisees sat like tyrannical dictators on thrones of self-righteousness, looking down in scorn at the common mass below.  They believed that they were the favoured of God.  They knew His law better than anyone and followed it to the very letter.  But they had entirely missed the point just as the trumpets did when the orchestra director told them to play louder.  God didn’t want robots that simply obeyed rules anymore than the director did.  He wanted human beings with hearts that were filled with His spirit.  So just as the director spurns his players for blindly following orders, so does God his people.  He gave Himself to the world not as a Pharisee of Pharisees, but as a lowly servant–a servant that would overturn all the rules.  He would spit in the ground on the sabbath to heal a blind man, spend his time with unworthy sinners, speak to a Samaritan women at a well, turn over tables in the house of worship, touch a leper, forgive sins, and have the temple curtain torn in half.  When God became man, He undermined His whole hierarchy.  Suddenly, religion wasn’t just for the circumcised Pharisees who sat around contemplating rules, it was for all people.  Jesus was for the dirty prostitutes on the streets–the sinners that had lost all hope of heaven long ago.  He overthrew their sin and overcame the world.

This is how God told us about Grace in a language that all of humanity can understand.  Grace could never have existed without both Justice and Love, because Justice is the very faculty upon which Grace acts, and love the means by which it does so.

Merry Christmas.

What’s Left

I am not a scholar of religions.  I know quite a bit about the way people think and even about the way people in other countries think, but I do not know very much specifically about every one of the millions of religions on the face of the earth.  Therefore, I cannot say I have chosen Christianity as a result of intensive research, but I will say I have done so as a result of much careful consideration, analysis of experience, and collaboration.  In fact, while the first two of these are often the most intellectually satisfying, the third is almost always the most compelling.  If you are a Christian who is having some difficulty believing, I highly recommend talking to an atheist.  Do not, so much, try to argue with them; just talk, ask questions, and go through their thought process with them, and watch as it falls apart all by itself.  Usually, unless they are just genuinely confused people, atheists tend to be very good at arguing, but when it comes to mere philosophical thinking, they run in to natural issues (and please, I do not intend to offend any of my atheist friends, I am just trying to explain what course the debates generally take as a result of the very structure of reality–intellect is irrelevant).  As Christians, we have nothing to hide, there is no intellectual dishonesty that we must cover with word games or what have you.  Instead, the Christian’s duty in an apologetics debate is to stay out-of-the-way of truth and let satins lies expose themselves˚.  All this should be done with the most gracious and loving of attitudes, for it is an attempt to free your opponent’s (whom you would rather call your friend) mind from the lies just as much as it is to free your own.

This post is entitled “what’s left” because I here intend to address what is left of the issue of the Omnipotent; this is the transition post from metaphysics to theology, if we would pretend the argument were so well-organized.  As I have already implied, the primary task that remains for us is to identity which organized religion best suits our derived metaphysical model†. As I said, I am not a scholar of religions; therefore, I will proceed by identifying the necessary qualities of a satisfactory religion and this done, we shall find that the Christian model sticks out dramatically in its principles.  It is for this reason that I hold it to be somewhat superfluous to deal individually with every single religion we can possibly find; though I would by no means discourage the process, for there is likely much wisdom to be gained from such an endeavor.  After all, as C. S. Lewis writes (excuse my failure to bother with exact quotes), while the atheist must hold all talk of anything beyond naturalism as utter nonsense, the Christian is free to believe, and even expect, there to be bits of truth in all religions.

To be clear, concise, and orderly, three things which I almost never am, the sort of religion we should be searching for based on the argument this far posses the following qualities:

  1. It should be centered on an Omnipotent being, a God, that is the cause and definition of all of reality.  This excludes pantheism/polytheism because the quest should be for a root cause, not an inexplicable set of causes–there should be a singular, Omnipotent source of being.  If we instead hold separately the source of each faculty of being, then our argument for reason breaks down and we fall into a cyclical (recursive) insanity.  For our logical scope is dependent on the interdependencies of each of the faculties of being.  That is, if we are sets of unrelated characteristics, then we cannot be “rational thoughts” inside of the Omnipotent’s mind (for rational thoughts must be coherent), and therefore, we cannot explain the cause of logic, and we have left the absolutist scope established earlier through the art of rhetoric. To simplify, there cannot be one god of logic who is not good and one god of goodness who is not logical, as pantheism/polytheism requires, because if that were so, neither would be omnipotent in the sense we have described, the sense that is required in order for a functional scope of logic to exist–logic would no longer be universal, but instead would have a partitioned domain of reality in which to exist.  The alternative is a fractal reality: one that is entirely logical, entirely good, and entirely every other characteristic which the Omnipotent possesses by our model.  This is necessary just as every other part of the argument is necessary: reality must have a root cause, and there we must find also the cause of reason, morality, love, and being-hood.  Pantheism/polytheism are primarily an illusion–usually, they are based around a model that really uses one god from whom others were derived, thus not really being Gods due to their lack of self-sufficiency.˚
  2. Its God should be entirely good, loving, and logical.  As concluded in “The Character of the Omnipotent.”
  3. It should allow for the use of reason.  If any religion does not allow one to contemplate its truth-hood, then there is no reason to suspect it to be true: for even by doing so, you are rejecting its truth-hood.  (Consider the paradoxical sentence: “This statement is false.”)
  4. It should acknowledge us as a part of the Omnipotent’s creation.
  5. It should acknowledge the infinite domain of existence of the Omnipotent as well as of his perfected creation.  It should also allow for the possibility of evil and the natural consequences that arise from morality and immorality as a result of the moral structure of reality. That is, it should allow non-being–the natural consequence of evil due to the fact that all being is good.
  6. It should satisfy the “Art of Thought”–a subject that I will likely touch one in a future post.
Even after this brief list of qualities†, the possible candidate religions are greatly narrowed.  However, there is one piece of the puzzle that is yet missing–a piece whose absence, in all religions that I know of but one, excludes them from the running. That puzzling piece is the reconciliation of natural justice (that non-being stuff) and love.  I know of many religions that simultaneously acknowledge justice and love (usually with a tendency to focus on one or the other), but I am yet to find a religion other than Christianity that allows the two an infinite domain of being.  It goes back to my formally seemingly useless ramblings about pantheism and polytheism.  There are many religions that allow for a partitioned domain in which love may exist and another section in which justice may exist, but only Christianity explains how they may both exist infinitely as they must by our model. It does so with a story:
We have a God who created us perfectly in His own image (like what the pagans call gods).  He loved us infinitely and gave us the capability to love Him and, consequentially, the freedom not to.  We chose not to and the natural consequence should have been death.  Upon our rejection of His love, we were (or would have been–of course time is hardly relevant, and mostly metaphorical) dethroned of our being-hood; however, being a loving God, He chose to give of Himself, thus meeting the definition of a loving God, instead of allowing for the termination of ourselves.  If you have theoretical difficulty with this part, think of Him as thrusting being-hood back into us via the giving of his own being-hood.  Of course, He leaves our salvation ultimately up to us thus leaving the free will intact.  Even after his saving of us, we can still choose to turn away. “Sometimes no matter how much life you give something, it dies anyway.”
Allow me to further relate the story to our model: It is as if our being-hood, our very selves, were a sandcastle built by God, and He gave us the option to enjoy it as it is or knock it down. We chose to knock it down–to knock ourselves down–and so God drew from Himself, a Being of infinite sand, to rebuild it.  Upon rebuilding it, He gave us the choice once more, only this time with us knowing, in the highest sense of the word, what the consequence of destroying it is.  Thus, the result of a redeemed humanity is the exact same thing God created in the fist place only now with a knowledge, or self-awareness, of what that existence is˚.  Hence you have the theme of death and resurrection sprinkled all throughout the universe.
And now my dear friends, that all this messy theorizing and calculating not go to waste, we must move the second faculty of the soul in order that our step up the mountain of purgatory be a complete one†.  That faculty is the will: what are we to do with all this theory?  If our conclusion is correct, then all of our lives here on this earth are but the occurrence of a single event: the decision between eternal live and eternal death.  That’s it.  There is never a moment of meaninglessness, nor a moment of incomparable value.  No amount of pleasure is worth enjoying nor amount of pain worth avoiding if only you may make the right decision about heaven.  “All is vanity under God.”  The only thing that matters at all is God Himself, and therefore the only thing that matters in this life is that precious decision.  Whatever age you are, life is almost over.  Do not let anything get in the way of Heaven, for nothing is worth it.  Choose  very carefully.
________________________________________

˚Like the ‘act of non-action’ for you eastern thinkers

† I apologize for this awkward shift from a Christian perspective to an objective one.  I might rather say: the task remains to explain why our model is best embodied in Christianity.

˚ This is me being clear, concise, and orderly!

† Brief

˚ Of course, with fractal reality, all this story stuff is entirely true and entirely false depending on what you mean by it.  There is indeed a sense in which the redeemed humanity will have never left Heaven because (1) the whole story, even the death, is a part of his paradise, (2) even as a dead man, he was bound for eternal life.  Although he did have a choice in the matter, because he chose life, he may look back at when he was dead and realize that even then he was in paradise because he was on his way to becoming an everlasting splendor, and (3) a finite amount of time spent dead is completely and literally negligible when held next to a timeless eternity of life.

† If you don’t know what I’m talking about, but do care, look up the medieval model of the soul.